With all of the Beatles catalog becoming available to streaming sites for the first time earlier this year, and all three of the Beatles Anthologies coming to streaming just this past month, we here at Deadshirt decided to rank all of the core Beatles albums. Really, the only way we here at the Deadshirt music staff know how to rank things is to pit 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 deliberating the merits of each album and comparing them with each other over and over again until finally one is declared the winner. It’s a grueling process for them, but greatly entertaining for us. Print out your own brackets, start an office pool, and enjoy the show.
ROUND THREE, MATCH ONE
A Hard Day’s Night vs. Abbey Road
Julian: Here we are at the Final Four; at this point, it’s a given that all these albums are classics – now we’re in the home stretch to determine which one is the best. This first match is the ultimate early Beatles vs. late Beatles showdown: A Hard Day’s Night vs. Abbey Road. Both the albums entered the tournament in round 2, after a first round bye, and won. Abbey Road was the unanimous winner, while A Hard Day’s Night was a bit contested. Does this mean that Abbey Road will be the unanimous choice again this round? I’ll let Dylan open up the debate:
Dylan: This match-up is a real challenge because both of these albums are practically perfect. A Hard Day’s Night is a collection of thirteen good-to-great original songs. It was the band’s first album to feature no covers, and one of only two albums on which Ringo does not perform any lead vocals. (Let It Be is the other.) It’s got a lot going for it. “I Should Have Known Better,” “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and the title track all number among The Beatles’ most fun pop songs. “If I Fell” is one of their best love songs, highlighting their famous three-part harmonies. Song for song, A Hard Day’s Night can match up against just about any other band’s best.
But Abbey Road is more than a collection of songs. Abbey Road’s legendary Side Two medley is a gorgeous sixteen-minute opus that features a little bit of everything that makes The Beatles great: memorable hooks, sweet harmonies, understated musical virtuosity. A Hard Day’s Night is unlikely to make you cry; Abbey Road is a damn guarantee. I wish I could vote for both, but this is a competition, and Abbey Road wins.
Sam: Comparing these two albums is like apples and oranges in most regards—they sound so different, they may as well have been recorded in different galaxies instead of a mere five years apart. What I do know is this: A Hard Day’s Night makes me feel great from front to back. It’s a sunny, bouncy, feel-good collection of expertly-penned pop tunes. Abbey Road, on the other hand, makes me feel a lot of things; sorrow, nostalgia, joy. It’s a masterclass in songwriting, production, and emotional manipulation. After spending so much of my life in awe of this album, I still giggle at the goofiness of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” still revel in the naked vulnerability of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” still get misty remembering my mother singing “Golden Slumbers” to me as a lullaby. I’ll take that kind of complexity any day.
David: I’m not as conflicted as Dylan is here; it’s an easy choice for me. A Hard Day’s Night is a fine album, but it plays like a solid collection of singles. Abbey Road has great singles and is a perfectly constructed album. Granted, the album style of the era was “collection of good singles,” so I shouldn’t penalize it too much, but that’s how good Abbey Road is—it makes me overlook the rules I set for myself. It is, from beginning to end, an honest-to-the-god-of-your-choice album. I also posit that there’s nothing on A Hard Day’s Night that’s better than “Here Comes The Sun,” nor most of the first side of Abbey Road. Nothing on A Hard Day’s Night, not even the album as a whole, compare to Abbey Road’s Side Two.
I don’t want to sound like I’m diminishing A Hard Day’s Night. I’m not. I like the album plenty. It’s full of nice songs that make me happy. It’s just up against a juggernaut. I’m still trying to save up things to say for the final. Abbey Road coasts to victory for me.
The Most Fab: Abbey Road
ROUND THREE, MATCH TWO
Revolver vs. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Julian: Match two of the final four round pits two classics of mid-period Beatles up against each other. Revolver triumphed over a somewhat weaker Magical Mystery Tour last round, while Sgt. Pepper’s soared to victory in the first round, then won as an underdog in round 2 against the hugely popular The Beatles (“The White Album”). From a strictly sales perspective, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has the edge (it’s sold more than twice as well as Revolver has), but both of these albums represent The Beatles at their most creative, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this one is pretty close. What do you think, David?
David: As I noted last week, I’m a bit of a contrarian on Revolver. It’s a solid album, for sure, and deserves to be recognized as one of their best, but it lacks a certain subtlety present in their other work. The famous “edge” to the album feels gratuitous at times, and can be a bit of a rough listen. In retrospect, part of that was them hashing out what would become Sgt. Pepper’s. The overapplication of sitar and Indian influence in Revolver made way for the more even and integrated versions of it on Sgt. Pepper’s. The angry edge has been smoothed out. It feels fully realized rather than just bubbling over.
There’s certainly an argument to be made—and I know Dylan will make it—that individually, the songs on Revolver are better than the songs on Sgt. Pepper’s. I can respect that argument. But for me, this is a vote for best album, not best songs on an album, and while I’m more likely to pick out certain songs from Revolver, I’m also more likely to listen to Sgt. Pepper’s in one sitting. Sgt. Pepper’s, you have my vote.
Dylan: I know I’m out-voted. You’ve heard me talk about this for the past two weeks. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a hugely important album, an essential moment in pop and rock history. But “Taxman” is a better song than “Sgt. Pepper’s.” “Eleanor Rigby” is a better song than “With a Little Help…” “I’m Only Sleeping” is a better song than “Lucy in the Sky.” You can do this with practically any two songs from the two records. Of course an album is more than the sum of its parts, and that is certainly the case for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. But the parts still matter, and Revolver is made out of the best components of any album ever made.
Apart from “A Day in the Life,” can you honestly say any one song on Sgt. Pepper’s is the equal of “Here, There, & Everywhere”? How about “And Your Bird Can Sing”? Or “Tomorrow Never Knows”? Sgt. Pepper’s is a brilliantly constructed whole created from songs that are just okay, and in the end, it just doesn’t stack up next to Revolver.
Sam: Look, Dylan isn’t wrong—song for song, Revolver is probably a stronger record than Sgt. Pepper’s, give or take a few duds (I’m looking at you, “Doctor Robert”). Ultimately, though, judging an album on its individual parts is missing the forest for the trees. Revolver is best when taken at face-value; any of its tracks stand on their own devoid of context, but I’d argue that grouping them together in this particular collection and sequence doesn’t elevate them in any meaningful way. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a collection of scenes that, when regarded as a whole, paint a cohesive and vivid picture.
The Beatles’ mastery of studio trickery and sonic and lyrical expression was never used to better effect than on Sgt. Pepper’s. Every track is the musical equivalent of a beautiful, intricate diorama. You can practically smell the sawdust among the calliope madness of “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!,” feel yourself lazing on a serene river with “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” or getting swept up in the world-weariness of “A Day In The Life.” When experienced in album form, each song functions like a scene in a play; little vignettes that tell a simple, resonant story and advance the emotional narrative. If we were here to judge the best collection of songs, I’d be more inclined to give the nod to Revolver, but I’ve always valued the album as a capital “E” Experience, so it’s Sgt. Pepper’s with a bullet.
The Most Fab: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band