Cousins Debate Best of Beatles

Fenster writes:

Say this about the virus: it has had some positive effects.  Of course, opinions differ. In many instances whether an effect is positive or not will be in the eye of the beholder.  Some, but not all, might savor the possibility that higher education will be in for a pretty serious comeuppance by the time things settle down.

But some effects of the virus are inarguably positive, and this includes the many ways that it has brought people together.  Families are at home sharing meals.  People are more prone to take walks with one another, observing simple pleasures together.  When strangers pass one another on trailside walks while the appropriate distances are observed one notices more conversation in passing than in the past, in the manner of how community is more readily formed by expats finding themselves alone in a different country.

In my case the positive effects also involve the use of digital means to connect with extended family, including relatives that do not regularly assemble in person.  My wife’s side of the family recently met by Zoom in a way that came close to the kind of in-person get togethers we have on Thanksgivings and over summer vacations.  And my own side of the family, separated by years and distances and without much recent history of large get-togethers, have been conversing via long and tangled email exchanges that touch on everything from what the kids are doing to Swedish family history.

While the “kids” in the group are younger, relatively speaking, the older cousins running the show are mostly Boomers.  And so it was perhaps inevitable that one of the tangled threads in the email discussion would be on the Beatles.

The Boston Globe had just run an article on the process of selecting the Beatles’ best: just the kind of thing–list making–that is well suited to our current shut-in state.  And why not share opinions about the Beatles?  It is one of the few topics that resists the politicization that is ruining the country, and that might fracture the cousins’ group spirit.

The author of the Globe piece found that when only a few people were asked for their opinions on the Beatles’ best the results appeared too idiosyncratic–at least to his tastes.  Why should I’m Only Sleeping show up near the top of the list?  So he opted for a more elaborate process in which he asked–yes, it is–64 people for their opinions.

No surprise the choices then converged on the consensus picks–the big ones, the anthemic ones.  You know, like Hey Jude, PBOH not that there’s anything wrong with that.

To me–meh.  The choices done this way are as uninteresting as they are unsurprising.  Give me idiosyncrasy any old day.  What is lost in consensus is more than made up for in the joys of the particular.  In that sense one can appreciate the process of appreciation itself, with the Beatles music itself being a vehicle for that.

One of those in the exchange, K—-, ventured his own characteristically smart and idiosyncratic take that emphasized Beatles singles, especially the “double A” sided singles like Help!/I’m Down, Day Tripper/We Can Work it Out, and Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane.  I am pretty much with him.

That said, here is my take on the matter:


My choice of best has varied as my tastes have changed over these many years.

Back in the day it was simpler.  The Beatles were uncanny in how they both captured the quickly changing mood and stayed a step ahead of it, and so for quite a while the best was whatever they had most recently put out.  But they haven’t really done any new music as a group for fifty years, and that gives you a lot of time to stew about what’s best.  I am, admittedly, sick of much of it but it’s amazing to me that I can listen fairly consistently over such a long period and not be sick of all of it.  And there is a lot that holds up, and may even be getting better.

I like how different people bring their own idiosyncrasies to this kind of thing.  And K—-,  you did not disappoint.  I like your focus on the double-sided single, a lost art if there ever was one.  We barely remember 45s nowadays in the first place.  But for sure that was a thing.  I had Help!/I’m Down and at the time liked the B side better.  It seems it was even the A side in the UK.


There are lots of ways of thinking of the progression of the Beatles music.  But for sure there was a break between releasing collections of singles on an album and releasing an album as a stand-alone entity.  The singles nature of the Beatles through 1965 is apparent above, too–I’m Down never even made it onto an American album.

But the break between a singles orientation and an album orientation also evidenced another relatively dramatic shift: the move from a pop-oriented guitar band to other things.  Between 1963 and 1965 the band put out music that consisted almost exclusively of two electric guitars, bass, drums and vocals.  Starting with Rubber Soul that changed.  There you had the introduction of a wider range of instruments and different styles of music.

Albums released in the UK were never quite the same as the later American releases.  But it was in this period–1965–when the confusion got most pronounced.

Over a few months in 1965 the Beatles recorded songs that had both the old guitar band sound as well as the emerging new sound.  Even though the recordings overlapped and even though they were jumbled in the UK releases by the time the music made it to American releases things straightened out.  There was a recognition that two kinds of music were being made, and that the newer type needed its own space.

Help!, came out first, and had the guitar band sound.  Then Rubber Soul, which was released in the UK with some guitar band stuff on it but which was released in the US as the first of what you might consider “statement” albums–it was meant to be thought of as a whole.  That’s how it was considered and that’s actually how I remember it when it came out.  It was a new “idea”, not just new music.

The remaining guitar tracks left over from this recording period were released later in the US as Yesterday . . .  and Today.  That’s the odd album that did not quite fit, did not hang together as an album in the manner of the recently released Rubber Soul, and which was famous mostly for the butcher cover that was quickly covered up, then removed altogether, and which now fetches a good price on EBay.


Yesterday . . .  and Today was out of phase.  It sits between the first “complete” album, Rubber Soul, and the next of that kind, Revolver.  And Revolver in turn presaged Pepper.  So as a collection of leftover guitar pieces it is often overlooked.

But the other way of thinking of the album is as the culmination of their work as a guitar band.  I like the early Beatles as much as the next fan I suppose but the band made a huge amount of progress in the two short years between Meet the Beatles and this 1965 period.  They were getting better and better as a guitar band.  So I tend to think of Yesterday . . .  and Today as including some of their best work in that vein.

As a listener I have tended to gravitate back toward the guitar sound as a general matter.  I like so-called power pop, which flowed directly from the Beatles music from the period 1963-1965: simple, straightforward, jangly guitars, vocal harmonies. And so I am partial to the music that at least in my mind represents the culmination of the Beatles power pop sound.

I have listened a lot in the recent past (say, the last 20 years) to Yesterday . . . .  and Today:  And Your Bird Can Sing, Drive My Car, Doctor Robert and Day Tripper: bright, sharp-edged guitar anthems with strong melodic interest, big sounding but two minutes over and done. All these plus I’m Only Sleeping, Nowhere Man and We Can Work it Out. Sheesh.  What a great bunch of songs.

But what about all those great albums that followed? I am not about to disparage Rubber Soul, Revolver and Pepper for sure. But when they got off the power pop train they ditched genre for non-genre. They decided they would try their hand at everything.

That ambition proved fruitful but at a cost. The rap against genre is that it is confining. But you can polish genre songs forever if you want, and if you are gifted they can approach perfection.  It is tempting to think of the release from genre as liberating but with no genre for grounding it is easy to wander, and to find yourself in reliance on art at end points that would not be present with a heavier dose of craft.

You could tell over the course of the next few albums that they were driving themselves, and were being driven by their fans, to some kind of ultimate statement, some synthesis, some conception that would represent truth and art. And so for me that final chord at the end of A Day in the Life meant: well, that’s over. Where do you go from here?

They soldiered on, of course. Magical Mystery Tour was anything but Magical. The White Album represented a return to form in some ways but for me it never captured the energy and enthusiasm of the early work–it was still too “knowing” and self-conscious. And too many fillers. Let it Be, recorded next but released last, was to my ears more of the same. A few wonderful cuts, including my favorite McCartney operatic offering, the Top Tenworthy Long and Winding Road.  But overall not up to the mark.

That leaves Abbey Road. And for me this is where they came back triumphantly.  A lot of the guitar band sound, even in the dense and layered I Want You (She’s So Heavy).  And then the fabled second side.

Yes, the second side has some of the ambitions and pretensions of “art”, what with the stringing together of the small snippets to make some sort of whole. But when you get down to it those snippets work best as short power pop snippets, and capture the brilliance of the early work.

And as for the guitar sound: the album essentially ends with that wonderful alternation of short licks in which John, Paul and George trade off comments to each other, and their listeners, in the form of little guitar statements.

OK, power pop lacks ambition. It does not try to be art. It is not compelled to make larger and larger statements. But in return it can seek a kind of perfection within the confines of the genre.

And so if I am to choose Beatles’ best it would be found in that cluster–the 1965 era guitar oriented double-A sided Rain/Paperback Writer 45 and the songs included on Help! and Yesterday . . . and Today. And I would include the second side of Abbey Road as a kind of tribute to their earlier sound, and as a valedictory to it.


About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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2 Responses to Cousins Debate Best of Beatles

  1. peterike says:

    Annoyingly, Spotify goes with the British LPs, so you can’t get “Yesterday… and Today” as such. Or “The Beatles Second Album” or any other American album mish-mash (I always did like the “Hey Jude” album).

    Well, I think “Let It Be” has stood up the best among Beatles albums, but maybe because I overplayed “Abbey Road” as a youngster.

    BTW, another good family time waster is doing March Madness music brackets. Like the basketball tournament but with bands. Here is an example of one that covers rock, pop, country and R&B/hip hop.

    There are lots of these out there and it’s fun to play. Even though everything seems to inevitably come down to The Beatles in the finals! Like in the actual NCAA tournament, the early rounds are more fun and more subject to upsets.


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