It has been almost twenty years since I first got into these albums, but I still love and admire how each of them is very different from the others. Many have written about what these albums mean to them. This is what they mean to me.
Rubber Soul: In my view, this is when the Beatles were just on the verge of getting interesting, and it is not as creative as their later albums. However there are some really good, catchy pop songs on here, such as ‘Drive My Car’, ‘You Won’t See Me’, ‘Think For Yourself’, ‘The Word’, and ‘If I Needed Someone’. Then it also has the less poppy, but compositionally interesting John Lennon tracks – ‘Norwegian Wood’ with the sitar, ‘Girl’ with the pot smoking, and ‘In My Life’. Overall, ‘Rubber Soul’ kind of marked the Beatles’ transition from pop/R&B-combo to artists, and that puts it up with the top Beatles albums for me.
Revolver: Now, and for some time, my favourite Beatles album. There is not a weak track on it, and a huge array of styles. George Harrison’s ‘Taxman’ kicks things off right with an infectious bassline and guitar. ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ is a beautiful piece of psychedelic pop. Paul McCartney’s ‘Here, There, And Everywhere’ is just a beautiful song full stop. ‘Yellow Submarine’ is fun and I love the effects and how the Beatles sound half-drunk when singing the final chorus in unison. Lennon’s ‘She Said She Said’ and ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ are great pop-rock tracks packed into two minutes each. ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ is an excursion into soul that works. And ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is one of my two favourite Beatles tracks ever. Ringo’s drums are humungous, and John’s voice does sound like he is calling from the end of a tunnel. Also, not one of the backwards guitars, unlike many other psychedelic tracks, sounds the least bit out of place.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: The first Beatles album I ever bought, but perhaps in part because I listened to it a lot when I didn’t own many CDs I don’t listen to it much nowadays. It has only three standout tracks to me: the opening title track backed with ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, and the amazing closer ‘A Day In The Life’, which is my other favourite Beatles track. But a lot of the other tracks are good stuff as well, such as ‘Lovely Rita’ and ‘Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite’. This album just doesn’t seem to flow as naturally as ‘Revolver’ and ‘Abbey Road’ do though. I still have a fondness for it, particularly the album cover.
The Beatles (White Album): I remember listening to both discs all the way through for the first time on a Sunday afternoon, and being somewhat pleasantly confounded by them. The Beatles seemed harder on this album than any of their others, which indeed they were. On tracks like ‘Back In The USSR’, ‘Helter Skelter’, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’, and ‘Birthday’ the Beatles have a raw rock sound that they don’t really have on any other album – parts of ‘Abbey Road’ and ‘Let It Be’ excepted. John Lennon wrote his greatest batch of songs for this album, apart from ‘Happiness …’ there was also ‘I’m So Tired’, ‘Dear Prudence’, ‘Cry Baby Cry’, ‘Revolution No. 1’, and others. Most of Paul’s tracks are pretty good as well, and George contributed two classics of his own. And count me as one person who actually quite likes listening to ‘Revolution No. 9’.
Abbey Road: Having played together for a decade the Beatles never sounded as effortless as they did on this album. When I first heard the medley I was surprised to hear the album end when I thought it was only up to track 10. Now the medley is the highlight for me – possibly Paul’s finest ever fifteen minutes – along with George’s great songs ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes The Sun’. They sound like they are taking the piss half the time on this album, or can barely be bothered, but they still have enough love and commitment for the tunes to make it work.
And those are the big five. Can any band come close to matching that for peak output? A few may be close: the Stones’ big four albums in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s, Bowie’s ‘70s albums if you excise ‘Pinups’ and ‘Diamond Dogs’, Radiohead’s output from ‘The Bends’ to ‘In Rainbows’ skipping over ‘Amnesiac’ … But a lot of those albums sounded similar even if they are fantastic, whereas the Beatles’ ‘big five’ albums have so much variety on them. Even twenty years after I first heard them there’s still, for me, nothing quite like them.