In a new series on my blog, I'm putting my favourite album tracks forward for applause. Where better to start than with The Beatles?
1. ASK ME WHY (From PLEASE PLEASE ME)
Who are those kids on the front cover? Sharing the same front cover as the 1962-1966 compilation, Please Please Me's sleeve is a stark contrast to a similar picture taken in 1969, when the Fab Four became all beards and hippy hair. The other big contrast is the music. Please Please Me keeps it simple, and for those more interested in The Beatles' later stuff, maybe it's a bit TOO simple. But there's no arguing with tracks like Ask Me Why, which is all sunny, laidback optimism and catchy harmonies.
2. I WANNA BE YOUR MAN (From WITH THE BEATLES)
The Rolling Stones made it to the charts with their version, but this frenzied original featuring Ringo on lead vocals (make the most of this, he won't be singing any more of these entries – I'm warning you with peace) remains the definitive one. It's got zip, pace, and if you've seen the Hard Day's Night movie, it's also got Ringo dancing along to his own vocals while throwing some bizarre boxing square hand moves.
3. MONEY (THAT'S WHAT I WANT) (From WITH THE BEATLES)
Originally recorded by Barrett Strong in 1959, The Beatles' version makes for an explosive ending to their second album. It features a blistering vocal turn from John, who practically tears his throat in two on the final chorus refrain. Bet he needed a few throat soother sweets after those recording sessions.
4. IF I FELL (From A HARD DAY'S NIGHT)
What I like about If I Fell is the way it starts out as one thing and then ends up as another. The song starts in a completely different key, with quietly strummed guitars as the lyrics muse on a possible new relationship (while making an ex jealous). Then Ringo's drums kick in, and it's into a new key that, like the potential new lurve adventure, has a subtle tune of cautious optimism.
Quick shout-out to the accompanying Hard Day's Night film sequence in which the quartet start goofing around in the TV studio – to the chagrin of Victor Spinetti's flustered production chap.
5. I'M HAPPY JUST TO DANCE WITH YOU (From A HARD DAY'S NIGHT)
I won't apologise for featuring three tracks from A Hard Day's Night. It's easily one of my favourites of The Beatles' catalogue on account of its sunny optimism and breezy pop tunes. Many of the gems can be found on Side One, including this underrated classic from George, who came up with many more moments of genius than he was given credit for. If you've never heard this track before, once you listen to it, it'll lodge in your brain for hours on end afterwards.
6. TELL ME WHY (From A HARD DAY'S NIGHT)
Uh oh. John's not happy. His fictional missus has been lying to him. She's been caught out, she's crying, and he's hanging his head in despair and moaning. How can such relationship hardship sound so happy? It's a toss-up between this and I Should Have Known Better for the hat-trick of Hard Day's Night tunes, but the relentless joy of the Tell Me Why tune nudges the penultimate track on Side One just that bit ahead.
7. EIGHT DAYS A WEEK (From BEATLES FOR SALE)
In less than two years, The Beatles had released four... count 'em... FOUR albums. That's a prolific workload that wouldn't be conceivably possible today.
Much as it's an impressive workaholic feat, Beatles For Sale does show the strain of this massive recording studio output. A batch of weak cover versions (for some reason relying heavily on the Carl Perkins back catalogue) jostle for attention with some notably downbeat brooding. The opening salvo features songs called No Reply, I'm A Loser and Baby's In Black. Break out the party hats.
The Beatles still had the knack though – especially with Eight Days A Week that slowly fades up the second side with an infectious jangly guitar riff, rhythmic clapping (can they teach this to the out of time goons in the Strictly audience?) and the feeling that this should have been released as a single that 1964 Christmas. As it was, I Feel Fine took that honour, but I'm sure that Eight Days A Week would have been a comfortable chart topper.
8. DRIVE MY CAR (From RUBBER SOUL)
It's little wonder that the 1962-1966 LP handpicked so many of the Rubber Soul tracks, as it's an album that's so nearly perfect (the ill-advised creepiness of Run For Your Life not included). The opening guitar riff of Drive My Car sets the scene well, stepping up the gears with some unusual but effective vocal harmonies from Paul and John. Like so many of the tracks in this selection, Drive My Car is a song that could well have raced to the top of the charts. It's two and a bit minutes of perfect pop, capped off with a “Beep Beep Beep Beep, Yeah!” cherry on the cake.
9. IN MY LIFE (From RUBBER SOUL)
Rubber Soul sees the Fab Four at a crossroads. While it's hanging on by a thread to the straight-ahead rock 'n' roll pop from the early days, it's dabbling with new instruments such as the sitar and new sound techniques. In My Life is one such example that uses a speeded up piano to sound like a harpsichord. Well, it had me fooled.
The other element of In My Life that marks it out from the early days is its introspective nature, John looking back wistfully on his childhood days. Lennon would revisit the past again in many more future songs, both with Beatles and alone, but In My Life is the classiest example.
BTW, if you're a Doctor Who fan (you may have come here because of the odd review or three), it's worth seeking out the Sergeant Benton version of In My Life, which is... uh, there are no words...
10. IF I NEEDED SOMEONE (From RUBBER SOUL)
Maybe they should have concluded Rubber Soul with this Harrison masterpiece, a Byrds-style, three-harmony ode to his then-missus, Pattie Boyd (well, so Harrison said, any road). The arrangements, both vocal and instrumental, are immaculate, and show how far Harrison had progressed as a songwriter.
11. FOR NO ONE (From REVOLVER)
Revolver saw The Beatles on a creative roll, and many have preferred this as the greatest of the combo's albums (those Guinness Top 1000 Albums from the '90s put this one at the top of the pile). Trying to find the best album tracks from Revolver is tough, since there are so many.
But let's try For No One for starters, a maudlin dissection of a relationship coming to an end (“A love that should have lasted years”). It wins out in its sparse arrangement – with only Paul and Ringo in attendance, as well as Alan Civil adding to the sombre atmosphere with a memorable French Horn solo.
12. GOT TO GET YOU INTO MY LIFE (From REVOLVER)
From the sad to the joyous. Revolver is one of those albums that actually gets better and better the more you listen to it. It saves two of the best till last, and the exuberant soul of Got To Get You Into My Life works like a charm.
Others have tried with varying results. The Cliff Bennett cover got this one into the charts, but sounded too much like a generic carbon copy of the original. The Earth Wind And Fire version on the other hand did its own thing with the song, and produced an absolute triumph of a cover. Shame it didn't do so well in the 1978 charts.
13. TOMORROW NEVER KNOWS (From REVOLVER)
Where do I begin with this? Perhaps the main reason that Tomorrow Never Knows makes it on to this list is because there wasn't anything like it. Not just in The Beatles' catalogue, but in any band's repertoire. Ringo's pounding drums form a solid backdrop to this trippy maelstrom of out-there sound effects (Paul's voice is treated to sound like a wailing ghost) and John's distorted vocals which make him sound like an ancient wise man delivering his philosophies from a very far away, high up hill. On the subject of cover versions again, actually, Phil Collins made a pretty good stab at this with his concluding interpretation on the Face Value album in 1981.
14. BEING FOR THE BENEFIT OF MR KITE! (From SERGEANT PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND)
Sergeant Pepper is the apex of The Beatles' psychedelic era, taking the trappings of quaint old English life and putting a 1967 spin on them with much style. One of the most effective accomplishments of this aim isn't one that trips readily off the tongue when talking about this seminal LP. Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite takes you to the circus with its real-life characters of the eponymous William Kite and the Hendersons. But listening to it as a kid, with its weird, treated fairground sound effects of calliope and organs, it's the sort of circus where the fear factor overpowers and creepy clowns loom large.
Magically atmospheric, but in a sinister kind of way.
15. A DAY IN THE LIFE (From SERGEANT PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND)
The Beatles' magnum opus from an LP that I have fond memories of listening to as a kid. I think there was something about the eye-catching cover art and the unusual sounds within got me hooked on vinyl records.
The best is saved until last with this sprawling epic that takes an ordinary, plaintive tale of reading the news today, oh boy, and then adding some inspired music techniques to make it sound like the end of the world is just around the corner. That manic crescendo of orchestra not only effectively bridges John's and Paul's segments of the song, they also create one of the finest endings ever committed to vinyl. Once the orchestration has reached peak frenzy, it stops before a great big thudding piano chord slowly fades the song and album into the ether (although what's that strange looped noise all about on the read-out label?).
16. HAPPINESS IS A WARM GUN (From THE BEATLES)
Shoot me down in flames, but The White Album would never be sliced up into a single LP. It's all over the shop, yes, but its eclectic choice of styles see The Beatles demonstrating their songwriting and musical prowess to the limit. It's a Now That's What I Call Music album, Beatles-style. Happiness Is A Warm Gun sums up the variety in a nutshell, taking cryptic lyrics on a three-minute musical tour of lonely ballad, edgy, nervy rock, trippy melodrama, and finally, a melodic bit of doo-wop that rounds off the thing in style.
17. BIRTHDAY (From THE BEATLES)
Again, I'm not going to win any popularity votes with Birthday, but I love its unfussy, unpretentious celebratory feel. Macca gets to rip his voicebox in two this time (see Money), as the tune mixes in stomping Ringo drums, that unusual treated piano sound for the instrumental bit and ghostly backing vocals from Yoko Ono and Pattie Boyd.
I'd prefer this to be sung to me on my birthday than that dreary old Happy Birthday dirge.
18. YER BLUES (From THE BEATLES)
You couldn't get a bigger contrast between songs than Birthday and this depressing blues pastiche. It's the musical arrangement that wins the day on this, with some excellent guitar playing and drumming. Ringo really comes into his own on this track and Helter Skelter (which just narrowly misses out on the list). It's not the sunniest of Beatles tracks, but as an homage to the Blues, it's a resounding yer from me.
19. HERE COMES THE SUN (From ABBEY ROAD)
Abbey Road is one of my favourite Beatles albums, but in terms of top album tracks, the pickings are slimmer. The opening salvo of Come Together and Something were released as a double A-side in Autumn 1969. Maxwell's Silver Hammer is a silly throwaway bit of nonsense about a psycho. Octopuses Garden is Ringo back in twee kiddie song mode (see also Yellow Submarine and With A Little Help). I Want You (She's So Heavy) goes on for the length of a Bible. Most of the cuts on Side Two are fragments rather than actual songs in their own right.
Which luckily leaves two classics at the start of the flip side (sorry Oh! Darling). Here Comes The Sun is a sunny pop ditty that proved that when they felt like it, The Beatles could still put on a smile in those gloomy last days. It's the sort of track that comes in handy on a freezing November day like today when the rain's pouring and papers like the Express are going overdrive in their doomy weather warnings.
20. BECAUSE (From ABBEY ROAD)
Or that song from the close of American Beauty. The vocal arrangements in the cover aren't a patch on the close harmonies of the original. In a sense, The Beatles come full circle with a simple song that uses just the power of the Fab Four's vocals and a very 1969-sounding keyboard. Yet, it's a song that remains timeless with its own ethereal power. Outstanding.