The following was originally published on November 14, 2020.
The Definitive Beatles Discography Power Rankings
This year marked fifty years since Yoko Ono, uncontrollable egos, mismanagement, and repressed anger from George Harrison led to the demise of the Beatles and the most successful songwriting duo in the history of everything. Sure, we could have a very long discussion about how Yoko Ono is constantly blamed as the leading cause of the breakup, or how George Harrison had enough songs catalogued to release All Things Must Pass about six months after the official Beatles breakup, or how John wrote a certified diss track about Paul, or how Ringo’s real name is Richard Starkey (which did not contribute to the breakup but is still shocking every time I see it), but let’s focus on the good and get right to the music.
There are literally hundreds of books, documentaries, websites, magazine articles, podcasts, and conversations with yours truly to give you a fuller history of the Beatles, and I don’t want to take any more of your time than I should, but here is a brief timeline. The Beatles formed under that name in 1960 after first being the Quarrymen, the Beats, and the Silver Beetles. John, Paul, and George were there from the beginning, but Ringo came along in 1962 when the band began cutting records. Eight years of unprecedented success followed, which incorporated drug use, complicated interpersonal exchanges, a variety of facial hair, and exactly one song about an octopus. In 1970, following many factors that will be debated by music historians (if those exist?) for the next ten thousand years, the Beatles broke up, never to be fully reunited.
The Beatles released thirteen “official” albums that are traditionally included in their core discography, and here they are ranked, with commentary, below. Last thing before we get to the rankings: I am admittedly an enormous Beatles fan and believe that even the “worst” album is still stupendous by any other measure. For example, I don’t think the Beatles ever actually put out a bad album, where as the Rolling Stones, the Who, and most other legendary rock bands each put out at least one bad album. Without any further ado:
13. Yellow Submarine (1969)
Yellow Submarine is really only half an album. Side one included the title track as well as touchy-feely “All You Need is Love” (which first appeared on Magical Mystery Tour) and the super underrated George track “It’s All Too Much”, but Side Two is nothing but orchestral scores from the Yellow Submarine movie. The songs are fairly mundane, and as much as I love the Beatles, I’ve never been going 80 down I-35 blasting “Pepperland Laid Waste” at full volume.
12. Please Please Me (1963)
The inaugural Beatles album will always hold a special place in my heart because it is the platform from which three and a half (sorry, Ringo) amazing careers were launched. That said, if I take a step back and look at it objectively, it’s a fairly average album. The title track is good, and “Love Me Do” is still a radio favorite, but of the fourteen songs on the album, only eight were written by the boys in the band. If you listen closely, you can actually hear Paul’s frustration at having to record someone else’s music on the vocals of “A Taste of Honey.”
11. Help! (1965)
Help! is a soundtrack album that is a combination of iconic Beatles originals (“Help!,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “Ticket to Ride,” “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” “Yesterday”) and forgettable performances (“The Night Before,” “It’s Only Love,” “You Like Me Too Much,” “Tell Me What You See”). Ringo gets a good match with Johnny Russell’s “Act Naturally,” but overall this feels like an album that was written with the movie in mind, which is exactly what it was.
10. Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
Okay, here’s where the other Beatles people flip out on me. Look, I get it. I get that it was a psychedelic expression of everything good and bad about psychedelics. I get the irony of “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” being deeply personal songs written and performed by two very different people but credited to both of them. I get the weird nostalgia of “Your Mother Should Know” and the hippie-dippy, capitalism-is-the-antithesis-of-love vibe of “All You Need is Love,” but overall it’s the second best of the Beatle’s two fully psychedelic albums, and the second most overhyped album behind
9. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
I love this album. I really do. It’s banger after banger. Sometimes I put on “When I’m Sixty-Four” and do the soft-shoe around my kitchen when my wife’s not home. I love harmonizing with that unreachable high note in “She’s Leaving Home.” I say “lovely Rita, meter maid” every time I pass a parking meter in downtown Dallas. But as much as I love this album, I can admit that it’s not the group’s best work. When you stack it up against the pre- and post-psychedelic stuff, it just falls short.
8. With the Beatles (1963)
Six of the fourteen songs on this album are covers, but they’re each done beautifully. Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” is one of George Harrison’s breakthrough vocal performances. “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” and “Please Mr. Postman” are classic Motown songs that were respectfully covered by some pale dudes from northern England. Even the early rocker “Money (That’s What I Want)” sounds as soulful as the British can be. Add those to the above-average originals (“It Won’t Be Long,” “All My Loving,” “I Wanna Be Your Man”), and you have a great album…that is in the middle of this list of great albums.
7. Beatles for Sale (1964)
Beatles for Sale is the final Beatles album to contain a high number of covers. Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins (twice!), Roy Lee Johnson, and Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller (of “Hound Dog” fame) all get writing credits on this album, and each cover is done brilliantly. The earnest originals, including “No Reply,” “I’m a Loser,” “I’ll Follow the Sun,” and “Eight Days a Week” make this album great from top to bottom. The mood of each song is right, there aren’t any songs that don’t fit stylistically with the rest of the album, and Ringo and George each have memorable performances, each taking one of the Carl Perkins songs. A solid album through and through, and a great segue into the top half of the countdown.
6. Revolver (1966)
Revolver is almost a continuation of Rubber Soul, but there is a certain je ne sais quoi about it that doesn’t quite hit as hard. Sure, every song individually is great (even the droning psychedelic “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which, thanks to the fine folks at AMC, always makes me picture Don Draper turning the song off and walking out of his conversation pit in disgust), but there’s a certain disconnectedness to the album. There aren’t any recurring themes, there aren’t any fun harmonies. There are three George songs, which is lovely, but then there’s the childish duo of “Yellow Submarine” and “Good Day Sunshine,” each of which make an otherwise introspective album seem a bit silly.
5. Let It Be (1970)
This was the penultimate album recorded, but the final album released. The recording sessions were notoriously fraught with strife, arguments, uninvited studio guests (cough, cough, Yoko Ono, cough, cough), all of which was caught on camera for a documentary that has not been commercially available since the early 1980s. The Let It Be…Naked is a better album, but is not part of the official discography. Like Revolver, there are many disconnected songs that feel like they were written and recorded separately and Frankensteined together, which they were. That, combined with Phil Specter’s famous “Wall of Sound” production style led to an album that, while full of quality songs, feels artificial.
4. A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
This is the earliest album to rank this high. But there is a good reason for that. This early album, when measured against all other early albums, is clearly the best. Every single song, all of which were written by John and Paul, contains clever lyrics, interesting chord progressions, and a perfect mood. I truly believe this is the most cohesive album the group ever made. That said, no one song is a standout other than the title track and “Can’t Buy Me Love.” Most of the songs individually can be forgettable, but together they make something the Beatles accomplished a few other times: an outstanding musical experience.
3. The Beatles (aka The White Album) (1968)
A bigger album for a bigger year. The Beatles was the group’s only true double-LP and includes the widest variety of musical genres. There are folk songs (“The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” “Rocky Raccoon”), psychedelic songs (“Glass Onion,” “Revolution 9”), hard rock songs (“Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Yer Blues,” “Helter Skelter”), female protagonist songs (“Dear Prudence,” “Martha My Dear,” “Julia,” “Sexy Sadie”), and animal songs (“Martha My Dear” (which was actually about a dog), “Blackbird,” “Piggies,” “Rocky Raccoon,” “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey”). There are also sitars, an orchestra, and a pointedly raw feel that is a direct contrast to the complex psychedelics of their previous few albums. This is a great album for any situation, from a workout to cleaning the house to a road trip in any weather.
2. Rubber Soul (1965)
Like A Hard Day’s Night, this is an incredibly cohesive album. The difference is that Rubber Soul also has many, many memorable songs that are excellent on their own. “Drive My Car,” “Norwegian Wood,” “Nowhere Man,” “Michelle,” “Girl,” “In My Life,” and “Run For Your Life” are all classics that generally end up ranked high in graded Beatles’ song lists. It is a great album where everyone was clearly dialed into their craft. It may have helped that the Beatles decided on the tour for this album that they would not tour anymore. They knew they had made a great album, and they were upset that teenage girls at their concerts were screaming so loud the music couldn’t be heard. There’s something very Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, tortured-artisty about that, but it made for a great album.
1. Abbey Road (1969)
This was the final album recorded and the penultimate album released. Really it is a tale of two albums. The first album is tracks one through seven, which are each individually amazing and include well known hits like “Come Together,” “Something,” and “Here Comes the Sun.” The second album is tracks eight through seventeen, which are essentially a sixteen-minute medley of partially written songs that work beautifully to create a celebration of all the things that made the Beatles so successful. Memorable medleys, complex chord progressions, wonderful lyrics, and a million little details that make the songs seem crisp and earnest without sounding overproduced. If you listen to the albums in the chronological order of their recordings, this would be the final album you’d listen to, which concludes with a Vesuvian explosion of the best attributes of the whole Beatles and the sum of its individual parts.