1. A Hard Day’s Night (1964, A Hard Day’s Night)
Forty-five years after this single hit the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s still nearly impossible to get any two people to agree on what chord that famous opening clang!actually is. But with one majestic, mysterious Rickenbacker distress call, the Beatles as we first met them on The Ed Sullivan Show four months earlier were gone. They’d grown up. The lads had become unwitting passengers on a manic locomotive they’d never be able to disembark from, and the song’s title hints at that weariness. It’s right there in the opening scene of the 1964 film that bears the same name, as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr are chased by a mob of screaming, ravenous fans. This isn’t just a pop song, it’s a cathartic cry for Help!
2. A Day in the Life (1967, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band)
The Beatles’ chief songsmiths were on increasingly divergent creative paths, a fact driven home by their collaboration on the grand finale of their most ambitious project. Both men are singing about the most average of daily activities — reading the morning paper, catching a bus — yet these rituals are full of existential pain in John’s verses, while Paul’s bridge is a whimsical daydream. In less expert hands, the contrast might have felt clumsy. Instead, it’s the perfect lead-up to that wild crescendo and last piano chord: a studio trick that echoes in the listener’s ears long after the song has ended.
3. Yesterday (1965, Help!)
How does a two-minute acoustic ditty (with the working title ”Scrambled Eggs,” no less) transcend mere songdom to become something more permanent and iconic, a sort of Mount Rushmore of pop? Perhaps it’s the universal theme of love lost contained in this heartbreakingly bereft ballad, the melody of which supposedly came to Paul in a dream. The rest of the band initially resisted releasing it; even today, some find it mawkish. But the song’s exquisite anguish remains strikingly undiminished with the passage of time.
4. Strawberry Fields Forever (1967, Magical Mystery Tour)
Everything about John’s mesmerizing psychedelic gem was intoxicatingly odd: the chirping mellotron-flute intro, serene and synthetic; the bipolar chorus, part downer, part anthem; the dense pileup of guitars, sitars, strings, horns, and assorted randomness, including John’s mumbled ”cranberry sauce,” famously mistaken for ”Paul is dead.” The slightly slurred slo-mo lyrics seem dreamy, yet connect deeply: ”No one I think is in my tree/I mean it must be high or low” speaks for anyone who has felt misunderstood — or just really stoned. Released as a single whose flip side ain’t too shabby either. (See No. 12.)
5. Something (1969, Abbey Road)
Initially released as a double single with ”Come Together,” this swooning love letter was the band’s first George Harrison-penned A side, and proved to be one of his greatest successes, both commercially and critically. Elvis Presley, James Brown, and Smokey Robinson all covered it; Frank Sinatra once called it the greatest love song of the last 50 years. It’s certainly high up there.
6. She Loves You (1963, Past Masters)
Pure joy: about being in love, about being embraced as the most-loved band of 1963. ”Yeah, yeah, yeah!” was the irresistible chorus. In its clever construction, ”she” represented the band’s growing female fan base, and ”you” were the Beatles themselves. The song was a tumultuous way of celebrating their ever-increasing triumph over the pop world. With a love like that, you know you should be glad.
7. Let It Be (1970, Let It Be)
The recording of the Let It Be album was a contentious process, to put it mildly. John once described the sessions as ”the most miserable…that ever existed.” Yet they produced one of pop’s most touching and beautiful ballads. The title was also apt: They broke up shortly after releasing it as a single. (The song is actually a heartbreaker of a tribute to Paul’s late mother, Mary.)
8. Tomorrow Never Knows (1966, Revolver)
Inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead and swathed in layers upon layers of double-tracked guitars, compressed drum effects, and vibrating vocals, John instructs us to ”turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream.” The final track on Revolver was the Beatles’ trippiest song. John originally wanted to be suspended by ropes and twirled as he sang in the recording studio before conceding that engineering trickery was probably a much safer bet. The path of sonic experimentation that soon led to the mind-expanding grandeur of Sgt. Pepper begins here.
9. Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) (1965, Rubber Soul)
Legend has it John was writing about an affair. He didn’t want his then wife Cynthia to know, the story goes, so he kept the lyrics elusive — and no doubt changed details. (Does anyone believe he really slept in a woman’s bathtub?) Anyway, it’s a gorgeous, hypnotic song, thanks to John’s weary descending vocal and George’s buzzing sitar. John later took full credit for the tune, but Paul sings on some pretty, minor-key moments and — from the sound of it — almost certainly suggested a melody or two. ”Norwegian Wood” was arguably the first Beatles song ”deep” enough to suggest where they’d go as songwriters: anywhere they wanted.
10. Across the Universe (1969, Let It Be)
”Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup…” So begins one of John’s most confounding, compelling, and utterly lovely compositions. The undulating, tactile phrases — the verbs alone! — are perhaps some of the band’s greatest invitations ever to a higher consciousness. In the end, though, it’s just a sweetly strummed fragment of John’s mind, thrown out into the cosmos.
11. Eleanor Rigby (1966, Revolver)
Paul’s gloomy villagers, Ms. Rigby and Father McKenzie, feel as real as anyone you’ve ever met. And oh, those strings!
12. Penny Lane (1967, Magical Mystery Tour)
To a melody so jaunty it’s sublime, Paul tips his cap to a barber, a nurse, and the people who come and go — a celebration of the joyful everyday.
13. Help! (1965, Help!)
John bares his demons in a desperate plea disguised as the catchy theme song to the Fab Four’s latest big-screen romp.
14. Hey Jude (1968, Past Masters)
Written by Paul to comfort John’s son Julian during his parents’ divorce, it offered more universal sustenance. Who doesn’t get a jolt out of that crescendoing ”bettah, bettah, bettah”?
15. In My Life (1965, Rubber Soul)
A baroque-piano-laced remembrance of things past that lovingly evokes the power of memory and nostalgia.
16. While My Guitar Gently Weeps (1968, White Album)
Moody George rock ballad plus some wicked lead from his pal Eric Clapton equals double the guitar-god payoff.
17. You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away (1965, Help!)
It made people compare John to Dylan, but — hey! — this waltz of lovelorn melancholy has a pity-me transcendence all its own.
18. Blackbird (1968, White Album)
This nod to the civil rights movement captures both yearning and quiet triumph in a deceptively simple lullaby.
19. Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End (1969, Abbey Road)
The last album the Beatles recorded closes with…well, with a silly bonus track. But first comes this exquisitely conflicted medley. Tender ”Golden Slumbers” melts into the raucous holler of ”Carry That Weight” and the guitar-duel thrill of ”The End.” Then comes that famous sigh: ”And, in the end, the love you take/Is equal to the love you make.” A hopeful thought, given how much love the Beatles had given the world.
20. Can’t Buy Me Love (1964, A Hard Day’s Night)
Paul’s dismissal of moola remains untarnished by the fact that its creator is now worth a fortune.
21. Revolution (1968, Past Masters)
The single version’s riff was pretty heavy; its message was the band’s most political to that point. And its hook? Just a stellar rock & roll melody.
22. If I Fell (1964, A Hard Day’s Night)
John beseeches you to love him tender. Paul sings harmony, his voice giving out on one high note — which makes the ballad all the more raw and real.
23. We Can Work It Out (1965, Past Masters)
The message is insistent (”Try to see it my way”), with some of the most intense tambourine-shaking in rock. Past Masters
24. I’m Only Sleeping (1966, Revolver)
Jangly chords, gently whooshing harmonies, and a cool backward solo: It’s enough to tempt even the earliest risers to snooze a while longer.
25. I’m a Loser (1964, Beatles for Sale)
One of the jolliest — and saddest — cries for help ever.
26. Paperback Writer (1966, Past Masters)
If the sketch of a pulp novelist’s ambition doesn’t get you, then the ingeniously arranged harmonies surely will.
27. Happiness Is a Warm Gun (1968, White Album)
It takes a genius like John to stick three disparate, unfinished songs together and make a classic.
28. Rain (1966, Past Masters)
Reversed vocals and a sunny melody vividly convey gray days.
29. I Saw Her Standing There (1963, Please Please Me)
The rollicking first song on the Beatles’ first album will sweep you off your feet in less than three minutes. Subtlety and sophistication would come soon enough. For now, these rookies simply nailed the energy that made listeners wonder how they could ever dance with another band.
30. I Want You (She’s So Heavy) (1969, Abbey Road)
John’s evocation of his desire for Yoko is as musically ambitious as it is lyrically uncomplicated (the title contains almost half of all the words used during its eight minutes).
31. All My Loving (1963, With the Beatles)
The delicious alternation of major and minor chords makes this track as wistful as it is jubilant.
32. I Am the Walrus (1967, Magical Mystery Tour)
Who knows what it all means? Just let the bizarre imagery rush over your ears and you’ll be goo-goo-g’joobing like a regular eggman in no time.
33. I Should Have Known Better (1964, A Hard Day’s Night)
Its crystal-clear guitar strums and rousing harmonica help turn this early John love song into an ecstatic wall of sound.
34. I’ve Got a Feeling (1970, Let It Be)
Even at the end, John and Paul could still make magic together.
35. Nowhere Man (1965, Rubber Soul)
”Doesn’t have a point of view”? Not this self-lacerating John ballad, further evidence that pop music can do more than produce silly love songs. (Sorry, Paul.)
36. Dear Prudence (1968, White Album)
John’s plea to ”come out to play” was addressed to Mia Farrow’s younger sister during their star-studded sojourn with the Maharishi in Rishikesh. Great backstory, even better song.
37. She Said She Said (1966, Revolver)
Inspired by Peter Fonda’s LSD-fueled boast that he knew what it was like to be dead, it remains the catchiest bad-trip song ever.
38. You Won’t See Me (1965, Rubber Soul)
Bridges the early Beatles with the harmonically multilayered grown-ups they were becoming.
39. Taxman (1966, Revolver)
George’s acerbic gem features one of the funkiest riffs ever created for a song about governmental revenue collection.
40. With a Little Help From My Friends (1967, Sgt. Pepper)
He didn’t write it, but his touching vocal still makes this the ultimate Ringo song, a lovely tribute to those friends people need to get by — including the chemical ones.
41. Day Tripper (1965, Past Masters)
Their label demanded that the Beatles churn out a single for the 1965 holiday season. Thank you, greed.
42. I’m Down (1965, Past Masters)
The band’s hilariously exuberant performance of the rocker amid the mayhem of their 1965 Shea Stadium show is a riveting snapshot of fame.
43. I Want to Hold Your Hand (1963, Past Masters)
The song that brought Beatlemania to America bristles with an energy that’s anything but innocent.
44. Come Together (1969, Abbey Road)
This chugging blues gumbo about old flattop and his joo joo eyeballs is fantastic nonsense.
45. Lovely Rita (1967, Sgt. Pepper)
Because it’s about Paul being in love with a cute meter maid. And because it’s irresistible. But mostly the meter-maid thing.
46. Ticket to Ride (1965, Help!)
They’d get louder (see next entry), but thunderous drums and fiery guitar riffs made this the heaviest song they’d then recorded.
47. Helter Skelter (1963, White Album)
Distortion-drenched (and, arguably, heavy-metal-inventing) proof that Paul could rock as hard as John.
48. Here Comes the Sun (1969, Abbey Road)
Three blissful minutes of pure sonic warmth.
49. I’m So Tired (1968, White Album)
One of John’s most emotional tracks.
50. All You Need Is Love (1967, Magical Mystery Tour)
Everything the Beatles stood for, summed up in those five simple words…