Friday, July 27, 2012

The Top 7 Beatles Albums (Part 1)

For me to sit here in my comfy chair and write on a MacBook Pro, painstakingly well-written reviews for each of the 13 official studio releases of the Beatles, would be the most pretentious and exhausting thing I could ever think of to do for you, the kind audience. Rather than spending an unthinkable amount of time dictating the finer and faultier points of all 13 albums, when really we all know that nearly all of them are classics anyway, I instead invite you to take a walk through my psyche as I write you a list of what I believe are the 7 best albums the world’s greatest rock band had to offer to the universe, and descriptions as to why.

But why only seven, you ask? Why can’t you arrange all 13 into a list? Aren’t they all outstanding in their own individual ways? Well, yes and no. While some of their best works rank among my personal favorite albums of all time, the rest perhaps (and bear with me here) may just be slightly above average. Call me crazy, but one person’s treasured underdog Beatle album may be my overrated indulgence Beatle album. And as much as love the Beatles, I am not well versed on every single song they ever released on these 13 official studio releases. For instance, if you were to randomly ask me in passing what album has the song, “You’re Going to Lose That Girl,” the best I would have to offer is a haphazard guess and probably get it wrong anyway (it’s Help!, by the way). Also, guessing which of the seven I’ve chosen as the best is a mystery in of itself. I’ve also chosen seven to demonstrate the better half of what the Beatles were capable of. So, with all of those explanations aside, let’s come together over me…

The 13 Official Beatles Releases Eligible for This List
Please Please Me (1963)
With the Beatles (1963)
A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
Beatles for Sale (1964)
Help! (1965)
Rubber Soul (1965)
Revolver (1966)
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
The Beatles (1968)
Yellow Submarine (1969)
Abbey Road (1969)
Let it Be (1970)

7. Magical Mystery Tour

Despite the prominent display of the band members looking excited in polyester animal costumes, as well as bright and cheerful looking primary colors on the cover, this album’s origins were much more depressing. At the tail end of the summer of love and less than two months after the release of Sgt. Pepper, the behind-the-scenes man, who, as Paul McCartney once claimed, “If anybody was the fifth Beatle, it was [Brian Epstein].” And that couldn’t be closer to the truth. Epstein is credited for having discovered the Beatles when they were playing in dingy watering holes, wearing leather jackets, and had greasy, flammable hair back in the dawning of the 60’s. Considering his tight-knit relationship with the Beatles, as well as his role of managing the business affairs so the boys could focus on playing, his death has been known to be the instigator of the long downward spiral the Beatles would suffer in the late 60’s. Out of all the misery his death caused, Paul had the idea to gather the band and do what the Beatles did best all along: make music.

This attempt to bring the Beatles out of their emotional slump was certainly admirable, but it wasn’t without its strings. Out of all the films the Beatles made in their career, perhaps Magical Mystery Tour is by far their most nonsensical and lazy, but when the album itself is played on a turntable, you could tell they were headed for something bigger and more ambitious than their best-selling predecessor. Given that this is essentially Paul’s brainchild, it comes as no surprise that this is probably their wackiest, whimsical, most colorful, and weirdest release they have. Lennon’s, “I am the Walrus” is certainly the best example of that description (even long-time producer, George Martin, upon hearing the demo said, “What the hell am I supposed to do with that?”). Perhaps an even better example is Harrison’s “Blue Jay Way,” a darkly trippy ode. But among the other tracks on this album, the more famous, and best cuts, would be “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “All You Need is Love,” and “Hello Goodbye.” And it certainly was a goodbye for their high times, as the next couple over years would precipitate their break-up.

6. Please Please Me

I’ve never paid much attention to the Beatles earlier works because that was back when they were just as guilty of ripping off black artists from their original works as Elvis was. This was also released at the time of the phenomena known as “Beatlemania,” where teenaged girls the world over created mass chaos and destruction. Where the Beatles went, this army of madly obsessive adolescents followed but not without leaving a trail of wreckage behind. It’s much like today with Bieber fever, only the Beatles (and maybe even Elvis) caused this sort of phenomenon to happen first. Bob Dylan said that even back when the Beatles were first starting out, their chords were outrageous. I put on Please Please Me expecting nothing more than a traditional rock n’ roll album. For the most part, I got what I wanted, but I wasn’t expecting this one to give me more.

Upon first listen, I was amused by how simple and short these songs were. But more than anything, as the album kept going, so did my attention span. You see, the only era I’ve ever known is the modern one where everything cool-sounding has already been done, we all gaze into phones that are almost conscious entities, we have small Starbucks buildings on damn near every corner, and the highlight of our days is usually when we check our Facebook to find that someone has liked or commented on our 10-word psychological peanuts that people happen to find clever. As I listened, I tried to envision early 1963, where everything seemed to be old fashioned, plain, simple, content, and relatively quiet. Then these four guys from Liverpool come along and fuck all of that up. For 1963, these were indeed outrageously played chords. While Elvis had riled up people all over the world with his voice, gyrating hips, and hillbilly alley-cat persona, the Beatles had the aesthetic power of rock n’ roll on their side. And it paid off in spades. Even though only 8 of the 14 songs are credited to “McCartney-Lennon,” every song on the album became theirs, whether it was their original compositions or not. For songs so short (14 tracks in 32 minutes), they waste no time getting right to the point and sounding fantastic in the process. Tracks like “Misery,” “Anna (Go to Him),” “Chains,” and “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” are great examples of their fresh talents. Given that the whole record was made in one grueling 12-hour session, the energy amazingly never wavered, even though Lennon, on that particular day, was obviously suffering from a nasty cold. But that’s why his voice on “Twist and Shout” is so potent: Lennon purposely blows out what little was left of his voice for this staggering finale track, that for 1963, was revolutionary. We wouldn’t hear screaming like that until the white album. But little did the world know, they would be putting out albums much better than this for several years to come.

5. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Besides potentially receiving numerous angry comments, this list without Sgt. Pepper’s, would only be a mockery of what I hope to share with you all. It is considered to be the granddaddy masterpiece of the Beatles’ roughly 10 year career, as it was a hot seller back when it was released, and these days has sales figures running up in the 30 million range (32, to be exact). It also had the edge in critic reviews, except for maybe one or two critics calling it overblown, but they were probably followed by die-hard Beatles fans, and randomly pelted with rotting vegetables on the streets. To say that its impact was far-reaching doesn’t come close to describing its true influence.

And speaking of which, likewise with any great rock album, it was influenced by two important factors: the need to escape the staggering pressures of ubiquitous fame, and pot. According to Paul, the rest of the Beatles were extremely high, mostly on marijuana through all its production, and what a way to act as an endorsement for drugs (from what I’ve read in Bob Spitz’s biography, cocaine was present too). Actually I lied, there is a third factor: a mission to top the production quality of Brain Wilson and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, just like Brian was inspired to top the Beatles when they released Rubber Soul.

Lennon may swear to “God, Mao, whomever you like, I had no idea [“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”] spelled L-S-D,” but also admitted years later that in the 60’s, he tripped acid at least a thousand times. Even though Paul wasn’t completely sold on acid, he tripped on a few occasions, mainly during this period. However, Harrison was experimenting more with Indian culture and practicing his sitar, just in time to make his epic, “Within You or Without You.” Lennon also finds peaks of his own with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and “A Day in the Life.” McCartney brilliantly fills in the rest with: the title opener and reprise, “With a Little Help From My Friends” (where a nervous and exhausted Ringo delivered his trademark quirky voice with the support of his fellow Beatles), and even his Lennon-deemed “granny music,” “When I’m Sixty-Four.”

I’ll stop here because we already know why it is regarded so highly; that it is the album that's universally accepted as the greatest album of all time, and never fails to earn the top grade of every critic. But where I differ is just that: why is it their ‘best?’ The next four, to me, deserve that accolade just as much as this album does. 

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