Listener's Guide to The Beatles
I can only wonder how helpful this would be since I'm sure many people have already listened to the Beatles extensively, but I hope this guide will allow people to get the most out of the Beatles' expansive discography and enjoy their studio albums as cohesive works as well as enjoying their hugely popular singles.
Like my last guide and retrospective on Radiohead, The Beatles feature a long history of songwriting, stylistic progression, and interpersonal relationships that is particularly crucial to their wide success, the evolution of their sound, and their eventual falling out and disbanding. Once in a while I'll inject a bit of their history into this retrospective, but it's always helpful to research some of this more closely if you get curious; context tends to vastly change the way we see things and in my case it really helped me appreciate the Beatles and their music as a whole.
So, here's a little context!
Their studio albums in chronological order are as follows:
- Please Please Me
- With the Beatles
- A Hard Day's Night
- Beatles For Sale
- Rubber Soul
- Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
- Magical Mystery Tour
- The Beatles [White Album]
- Yellow Submarine
- Abbey Road
- Let It Be
Luckily, compared to Radiohead, the Beatles went through a more straightforward, linear progression in terms of how their music changed over time. They began their career as the typical rock and roll bands of their time playing popular pop standards, oozing a certain charm about them that contributed to their rise in popularity. They later starred in films, A Hard Day's Night and Help!, the soundtracks themselves being very formidable as by then they were beginning to exclusively write their own music instead of mostly covering and performing other songs. It was around Rubber Soul that their music began to go through a creative turning point, with its folk and soul influences apparent in their songs' composition. By Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band the Beatles had gone headfirst into the psychedelic and never came back until around the White Album, which was more of a mixed bag than anything specific due to tensions rising in the band; and Abbey Road and Let It Be, where they went for more traditional pop, folk, and rock influences over their last couple albums.
Well then, where do I start?
That really depends on what you're into, though I'd say that no matter what there's usually something for everyone in every studio album. That being said, there are certainly albums that are much more accessible than others. So I'll break them down like this:
- The first five albums in their discography are all pretty straightforward pop/rock albums with the occasional folky acoustic track here and there, with Please Please Me, With the Beatles, and Beatles For Sale all featuring some famous pop standards. So if you love songs like "I Want to Hold Your Hand" then these albums are probably a good place to start.
- As I said earlier, Rubber Soul is a major turning point to their career where they had a little bit more experimentation as to what sort of influences to draw from, and it was also the first album to come out of continuous sessions of recording. Still, it's probably one of the more accessible albums that influenced many pop classics such as The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds.
- As their career winded down, The Beatles released Abbey Road and Let It Be, which are both mostly more straightforward folk and pop/rock albums with many Beatles classics.
- On Let It Be in particular, Phil Spector's production work on the album had orchestral arrangements on "The Long and Winding Road" and "Across the Universe". Let It Be...Naked is a more recent version of the album released for those who want to hear a rawer sound, lacking Spector's arrangements and featuring a reordering of the tracks and a rendition of "Don't Let Me Down", one of The Beatles' most popular singles.
- Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Magical Mystery Tour are The Beatles' most psychedelic studio albums at the forefront of psychedelic music's large rise in popularity with many influences throughout, particularly The Beatles' fascination with Indian culture. Many of The Beatles' most famous songs can be found here.
- The Beatles, or "The White Album" as many call it by its white minimalist cover, is The Beatles' most inaccessible and experimental record due to its runtime as a double LP and its wide assortment of songs with varying moods, styles and dabbles into avant-garde (see "Revolution 9") as a result as the Beatles' downward spiral towards their disbanding. That being said, The White Album's my favorite Beatles album because of all of those things, so who knows, maybe it's your cup of tea.
As for Beatles singles, some notable songs that aren't on studio albums include the following in their original vinyl releases (otherwise they can be found in various CD compilations):
- "She Loves You/I'll Get You"
- "I Want to Hold Your Hand/This Boy"
- "I Feel Fine/She's a Woman"
- "We Can Work It Out/Day Tripper"
- "Paperback Writer/Rain"
- "Hey Jude/Revolution"
- "Get Back/Don't Let Me Down"
The Beatles' Solo Albums
Along with the Beatles' studio albums, I think it's pretty important to look into some of their solo works as some of them are particularly great. If I were to write about each of the Beatles' solo careers we'd be here all day (especially if we're talking about Mccartney, he's still making albums to this day), so here are some notable examples:
John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band
One of my favorite albums, John Lennon's first solo album is a deeply personal work, every track infused with his experiences and tinged with melancholy. Plastic Ono Band is raw and expressive; with relatively minimal composition driven by his powerful vocals, screaming, and yelling. A largely low-key work meshed with some harsher tones, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is incredibly relatable and emotionally resonant, worthy of every Beatles fan's attention.
Credited to both Paul and Linda McCartney, Ram is Paul McCartney's charming and catchy record made with his late wife before his band, Wings. Ram is heavily rooted in folk and and has some indie sensibilities about it, like its lo-fi production and simplistic composition. One of the most fascinating aspects of the album is that it reflects John Lennon and Paul McCartney's deteriorating relationship at the time, as some of Ram's tracks such as "Too Many People" are somewhat obscured jabs at Lennon, who replied with "How Do You Sleep?" on his Imagine album; that said, even Lennon admitted to quite enjoying one of Ram's singles "Eat at Home". The album is rather silly and lighthearted, but that's part of its charm, and the music itself is pretty much what I'd expect from McCartney at the time, infectiously catchy.
All Things Must Pass
George Harrison's colossal triple album All Things Must Pass, is a real pain to get through in one sitting, but it contains some of his most popular songs like "My Sweet Lord" and "Isn't It a Pity?", as well as many of his rejected Beatles material during the Get Back sessions. It reflects his life and career post-Beatles in a way that's rather detached compared to his fellow bandmates Lennon and McCartney, who were engaged in a lyrical feud with Ram and Imagine. It highlights his emphasis on spirituality and his signature slide guitar which was only becoming apparent later in his guitar work as a Beatle. In addition to a large host of renewed and original content, All Things Must Pass' last disc is a jam session aptly called Apple Jam, rounding out an ultimately expansive work and determined debut to his solo career.
What's Your Favorite Beatles Album?
- Listener's Guide to Radiohead
A compact guide to listening to the discography of one of the biggest bands in the world.