With The Beatles’ catalog coming to streaming sites for the first time earlier this year, and all three of the Beatles Anthologies streaming as of this past month, Deadshirt decided to rank all of the core Beatles albums. Really, the only way the Deadshirt music staff knows how to rank things is by pitting them against each other one-by-one, March Madness bracket-style, so that’s what we’re gonna do. Resident Beatle-heads Dylan Roth, Sam Paxton, and David Lebovitz will be debating the merits of each album and comparing them with each other album over and over again until finally one is declared the winner.
ROUND ONE, MATCH ONE
Please Please Me vs. Let it Be
Julian: The first match finds The Beatles’ very first album, Please Please Me, up against their very last (released) album, Let it Be. It’s young, R&B-inspired, early 60’s pop vs. more mature, thoughtful, late 60’s rock. We’ll see which one our panel likes more; Sam, take it away.
Sam: It might be blasphemy to say, but I’ve never been a big fan of Please Please Me. Sure, it’s a fascinating cultural relic, with a couple great cuts (particularly “I Saw Her Standing There” and the title track), but compared to every other Beatles album, it’s pretty tepid. Almost half of the songs are early R&B covers, and “Love Me Do”, a song with no chorus or dynamism, and variations on only six(!!!) unique phrases, is possibly the most boring and overrated track in the band’s entire catalog.
On the other hand, there’s a lot to love on Let It Be – the rubbery blues riff of “Dig A Pony,” the cosmic wonder of “Across The Universe,” the cathartic release of “I’ve Got A Feeling,” the confident swagger of “Get Back.” Many of the tracks are steeped in coded wistfulness, from Paul and John remembering the early days together on “Two Of Us” to the sweeping majesty of “The Long And Winding Road” (though I personally prefer the stripped-down Anthology version lacking Phil Spector’s heavy-handed and saccharine orchestration). Though the band was rife with tension and infighting during the sessions, the album paints them as the goofy, lovable Liverpool lads the world fell in love with through its interpolation of studio chatter and impromptu jams. Let It Be may be, on the heels of the brilliant Abbey Road, a somewhat underwhelming finale for the band, but is easily the better of the two bookends of the Beatles’ career.
David: If you met someone who had never heard the Beatles before – most likely a small child, or an alien from the Cartwheel Galaxy who travelled here via warp speed and missed all of the radio broadcasts -“Love Me Do” is what you’d play to them if you wanted to convince them that the Beatles were boring. I can’t think of too many seminal pieces of work from any artist that have aged so poorly – though there’s worse ways to make things look obsolete than to constantly one-up yourself. Let It Be is a pretty solid album, proving that even at their most dysfunctional the Beatles could still make pleasant, listenable music. The title track alone makes me feel relaxed whenever I hear it. (I much prefer the Naked version, because as brilliant as Phil Spector is he handled this album with the subtlety of Maxwell’s Silver [Sledge]Hammer, but we’re not here to vote on that.) As if it didn’t already have an edge, the fact that it produced one of the most awkward documentaries of all time gives it a few bonus points. Let It Be walks away with this.
Dylan: Sam and David hit the nail on the head and I won’t waste your time repeating it. I’ll only add that “Please Please Me” the song, being the codifier of the Power Pop Beat, is a masterpiece. If only the rest of the album measured up.
The Most Fab: Let It Be
ROUND ONE, MATCH TWO
Beatles For Sale vs. Rubber Soul
Julian: The next contenders are chronologically closer together than the last pair – only separated by one year (and one other album). On Beatles For Sale we see the first seeds of Bob Dylan’s folk-songwriter influence start to take root; while on Rubber Soul that influence starts to bear fruit. Which one will the panelists pick? Dylan?
Dylan: Beatles For Sale represents an important turning point for our boys. By this point, they were the uncontested biggest band in the world, but John Lennon was still developing an inferiority complex when comparing himself to “songwriter’s songwriters” like Bob Dylan. Whether you agree with him or not, Lennon saw injecting more of a folk flavor into the band’s sound to be the best way to be taken seriously. But ironically enough, it was Paul who wrote the best folk-inspired song on the record with the tear-jerking “I’ll Follow the Sun.”
Beatles for Sale represents the beginning of this transformation, but Rubber Soul is The Beatles fully formed. Beatles For Sale still uses a lot of covers to pad out the record, since the band was expected to keep churning out these LPs whether they were ready or not. With Rubber Soul, The Beatles asserted themselves as artists, not just reliable, top-notch entertainers. The record was done when it was done—all killer, no filler. It’s more folky AND it rocks a lot harder, right from the opening drum hits of “Drive My Car.”
Sam: This one is a tough match-up for me. Beatles For Sale is probably my favorite of the early-era Beatles records, because I listened to it a lot as a kid, and for its mature songwriting and surprisingly morose lyrical content. The first three tracks (”No Reply,” “I’m A Loser,” and “Baby’s In Black”) paint the portrait of a band whose ambitions are growing beyond writing trite love songs, and “I’ll Follow The Sun” and “Eight Days A Week” have always been two of my favorite Beatles tracks. Rubber Soul is an album that, having not heard it until much later in life, does not hold much nostalgic value for me. I can still appreciate its inventiveness, as well as how it heralds the groundbreaking things to come, but it sometimes leans a little too hard into proto-psych folk for my tastes. Unlike the later records of the Beatles’ psychedelic period, Rubber Soul suffers most from a lack of singular direction; torn between the established pop formula and experimentation, it lands with mixed results somewhere in the middle. For that reason, I have to give the edge to Beatles For Sale.
David: Both these albums represent underrated turning points for the Beatles. Beatles For Sale had the Fab Four showing off a deeper side, and Rubber Soul changed, well, everything.
I don’t have many strong feelings about Beatles For Sale as an album. I’ll admit it’s secretly one of the band’s more clever albums, and was one of the first reveals of their dark side, but not much about it stands out to me. I suspect it’s because half the songs on the album are covers, in an era where the Beatles should have been past that. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ringo’s take on “Honey Don’t” but it feels like they weren’t aiming high enough as a whole. The album works as a whole but still feels like a collection of singles to me.
There’s a reason it’s often difficult to find full albums from early rock groups on CD – it’s because many groups hadn’t realized that you could make an album without filler. You could fit everything important on to a Greatest Hits record. Rubber Soul changed that, and I’d argue it was the most revolutionary album in their discography. Even the crazy songs are well constructed – yeah, “Run For Your Life” is probably the creepiest song they ever made, but it’s one of Lennon’s best vocal performances. With my tie-breaking vote – boy that feels cool to say – Rubber Soul coasts to victory for me.
The Most Fab: Rubber Soul
ROUND ONE, MATCH THREE
With the Beatles vs. Magical Mystery Tour
Julian: The third match is another early period vs. later period Beatles. Both of these albums live somewhat in the shadow of the albums which came before them; With the Beatles was a quick follow-up to Please Please Me, and again features roughly half originals and half covers. Magical Mystery Tour was the follow-up to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, half the album is the soundtrack to the eponymous television movie starring the Fab Four. What do our guys think of these two? David, start us off.
David: As far as play-in rounds go, this one seems like the Florida Gulf Coast vs. Fairleigh Dickinson of the Beatles bracket – fine on their own, but we’re just determining who’s gonna get crushed the next round. Here we go, regardless.
With The Beatles is a standout of its era, but only some of it has aged well. It features some of the best covers the Beatles have ever done, but their originals feel tame. “Hold Me Tight,” “I Wanna Be Your Man,” “It Won’t Be Long”—all of these are fine songs, but don’t feel all that spectacular. Meanwhile, Magical Mystery Tour is accurately described as spectacular – style, without much substance. MMT has always felt to me like psychedelia for the sake of psychedelia rather than for any artistic purpose. I love many of the songs on MMT, but it doesn’t feel like an album with any sense of direction. Even though With The Beatles is a bit of a lightweight, it feels more coherent, so With The Beatles gets a slight edge from me.
Dylan: I’d count Magical Mystery Tour as the most overlooked album in the Beatles canon, but I can see how it got to be that way. For one, it was originally released as the soundtrack to a really weird TV movie that puzzles critics to this day, to say nothing of the far more conservative press of the mid-60s. For another, the version we think of today isn’t even the album that was originally conceived—”Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” were originally released as a double-A single and got tacked onto MMT for the US release. (MMT is the only Beatles album for which the US version is “canon” rather than the UK.) The record as is stands is a weird little bastard, so it rarely gets its due.
I began writing this with the intention to turn this around and explain why I’m actually voting for With The Beatles, but I’ve just talked myself out of it. ROLL UP FOR THE MYSTERY TOUR!
Sam: In my opinion, it feels almost like cheating to include Magical Mystery Tour in this bracket, considering that the B-side is made up of what essentially amounts to a bunch of ringers. While the front half of the record is comprised of new songs, ranging in quality from great (“I Am The Walrus”) to mediocre-at-best (“Blue Jay Way,” “The Fool On The Hill”), written for the film of the same name, the back half is a bunch of excellent singles from the same era, showcasing the Beatles at the height of their collaborative brilliance. In all fairness to With The Beatles, “All My Loving” is hard to beat, but it’s the only track I find myself going back for. I’ll put “Penny Lane,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” or “Hello Goodbye” by themselves up against the entirety of With The Beatles any day of the week.
The Most Fab: Magical Mystery Tour
ROUND ONE, MATCH FOUR
Help! vs. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Julian: The final match of this group is Help! vs Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Help! is another soundtrack to a Beatles-starring film of the same name, while Sgt. Pepper’s is more of a concept album (a pretty terrible film was made a decade later but it is more of a tribute to the album and none of the Beatles were involved). Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is on many all-time top albums and best selling albums lists; Help! usually isn’t, so it might have a tough time in this match-up. Let’s see how it goes, Sam.
Sam: What else can possibly be said about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that hasn’t already been said a million times over? It’s catchy, emotional, surprising, witty, weird. In its time, it pushed the limits of music both technologically and intellectually. Its title is shorthand for a high-water mark in popular music. Along with maybe Pet Sounds, it killed and buried the idea of “album-as-collection” and replaced it with “album-as art.” My parents gave me a copy of Sgt. Pepper’s on CD when I was maybe 11 or 12, and it blew my fucking mind. Help!, as great as it is, should only be mentioned in the same breath as Sgt. Pepper’s if you’re saying “Help! I should be listening to more Sgt. Pepper’s!”
Dylan: I’m sure I am in the extreme minority among Beatles die-hards, but I don’t love Sgt. Pepper’s. I agree with Sam’s assessment of Pepper’s as a revolutionary “Album-As-Art,” but I would also say that if “Within You And Without You” and “Lovely Rita” vanished from the Earth I would miss them not a smidge. Sgt. Pepper’s runs 39 minutes long but feels like a fucking eternity. But it closes with “A Day in the Life,” arguably the greatest piece of music ever recorded, so, I get why it’s worshipped as much as it is. Help!, on the other hand, is criminally overlooked, a tight collection of songs by a band that was finally living up to its full songwriting potential. “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” is a ten times better song than “Fixing a Hole.” I know I’m going to get outvoted here, and I probably deserve to be, but you asked for my opinion is here it is. My vote is for Help!
David: Dylan, you’re remarkably brave for admitting you aren’t a fan of Sgt. Pepper ‘s to Beatle fans online. We thank you for your service and will make sure the ice floe you’re sent out on has a record player. Help! is a fun album for a fun-if-monumentally-dumb movie. “Yesterday” is the most covered song in the history of rock for a reason and “Ticket to Ride” has solid but subtle musicianship. Let’s put the obvious tracks aside and dig deep -try to listen to Ringo sing “Act Naturally” and not smile. “I Need You” may be one of George’s best. That said… c’mon. It’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. (No, I will not use the movie against it this round.)Maybe only a couple individual tracks stand out as the Beatles’ best, but nobody had heard anything like it before, and it’s simultaneously experimental and fully realized. Sgt. Pepper’s moves ahead.
The Most Fab: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Next Week: Round Two