Picking even 50 tracks to ponder and revisit out of a body work as complete as The Beatles amassed during their unrivalled career is no straightforward task. Like a kid in a sweet-shop trying to decide which sugary delights their hard-earned pocket money should go on, they all seem as tantalising and attention grabbing as each other. Countless worthy options are finally left behind for those that, at least this time, have made the final cut.
Here, we’ve taken a look at some of the Fab Four’s most celebrated songs, as well as a fair smattering of relatively lesser known gems, for you to take a read through and revisit for yourself. From early b-sides to their final, glorious 15-minute swansong, the latest addition to our Essentials Series presents a half-century of songs blessed with unparalleled success and influence.
Are you mortally offended by what is or isn’t on this list? Got a clearly superior view which you need to share with the world? Leave a comment below by all means.
50: Nowhere Man
One of the first Beatles songs not centred around the familiar theme of love, Lennon adopted the autobiographical role of the Nowhere Man as his journey of introspection began to evolve in the mid-Sixties.
49: I’m So Tired
…And by 1968 Lennon was laying his soul bare to the world, pleading, “I’d give you everything I’ve got for a little peace of mind”, as he sat awake at night in India after long daytime meditation sessions pondering a blossoming, adulterous relationship with Yoko Ono.
48: I’ve Got a Feeling
‘I’ve Got a Feeling’ kept the flame of John and Paul’s songwriting partnership flickering right to the final throes as the former’s titular composition and the latter’s ‘Everybody Had A Hard Year’ came together in a rough, bare bones recording which perhaps best displays the original as-live dream of ‘Let It Be’.
47: And I Love Her
As with much of Paul’s early output, ‘And I Love Her’ was likely inspired by his relationship with Jane Asher. This display of gentle, acoustic songwriting is an early departure from the Beatles sound which until then hadn’t deviated far from their Fifties rock n roll heroes.
46: Eight Days A Week
A US number one for The Beatles and presenting to the world the concept of a ‘fade-in’, the title’s inspiration is generally attributed to another of Ringo’s malapropisms, though Paul did also credit a conversation with a chauffer as giving him the original idea.
45: Two Of Us
Captured in the shelved Let It Be documentary, one of McCartney’s instantly memorable melodies was written as the two of us – Paul and Linda – went on a journey whose sole intention was to get lost, miles from everyone and everywhere.
44: Getting Better
An obvious example of McCartney and Lennon’s differing personalities, where Paul exalts the world around him which is ‘”getting better all the time” while John, a violent youth who was ‘cruel to his woman’, is merely found striving hard to achieve the same.
Side A of ‘Help!’ is one of the best things produced during the first period of The Beatles’ recording career, and while its flipside struggles to keep up the same pace, ‘Tell Me What You See’ is a strong, heartfelt and – especially in its infancy – vastly under-appreciated addition to the band’s canon.
42: With A Little Help From My Friends
Every album needed its Ringo song, usually simple and poppy, always with a core sing-a-long quality and, despite the boundaries being pushed in the studio, ‘Sgt. Pepper’s was no different. A true Lennon and McCartney collaboration, started by the pair from scratch, which delivers the most memorable of Ringo’s tunes.
41: A Hard Day’s Night
The film’s opening sequence, showing the Fab Four being chased down streets and back-alleys by an army of rabid fans, remains one of the defining images of Beatlemania. The title-track, right from the iconic opening chord strike, is itself packed with all the frenzied energy of that life-changing period.
40: If I Needed Someone
The heavily Byrds-influenced track loops around a universal chord sequence as George, constantly growing as a songwriter, fights hard for commitment as ‘now he’s too much in love’. A 1966 airing in Japan, just a couple of months before the group bowed out of touring at Candlestick Park, shows exactly how tired he was with live performing by then.
The influence of Bob Dylan on The Beatles was starting to take hold by the time their ‘Help!’ album began to emerge – in particular giving John the belief to explore a more intense, personal angle to his lyrics. There have been many interpretations and rumours surrounding their inspiration – some more controversial than others.
38: The Fool On The Hill
The personal drive on the part of Paul to take The Beatles’ sound as far as the studio would allow transformed songs from the ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ era into complete compositions of depth, texture and hidden treasures. ‘The Fool On The Hill’ – eventually released on the ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ EP and soundtrack LP, and later a part of the flawless Blue Album – is just one of many ’67 tracks to effortlessly show off his genius.
37: I’ll Get You
The lyrics obviously foreshadow what would become John’s most celebrated song, but ‘I’ll Get You’ is also notable as a shining example of The Beatles’ game-changing antics as not just the long players and lead singles, but their b-sides too became attentive, authentic must-haves in their own right.
36: I’m Down
Like A Hard Day’s Night, the super-charged version of this Little Richard doo-wop recorded while The Beatles were busy inventing stadium rock at Shea is another defining moment of Beatlemania. Suddenly they’re just four close friends onstage, messing around, losing themselves in the primal thrill of playing live to such unprecedented numbers. Squint and you can see the ghosts of the leather-clad rock n roll troupe which had wowed the Cavern Club a few years earlier.
35: Dear Prudence
The plodding, building atmospheric tone – a sign-post to Lennon’s early solo work – holds court as John implores with Prudence (Farrow), on the same Indian trip as The Beatles, to ‘come out to play’ as she became increasingly reclusive, locked away in her room for hours at a time.
34: Baby’s In Black
The Beatles waltz. For a group with such an unrivalled back catalogue, it’s no surprise that some tracks can get left behind, and despite being a staple of their short live set for a good few years, ‘Baby’s In Black’ nevertheless doesn’t quite get the attention its swaying nonchalance craves.
33: And Your Bird Can Sing
Although Lennon later dismissed the track in trademark acerbic fashion, ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ is one of the prime standards of the classic, yet slightly more sophisticated and psychedelic leaning pop music which pack out ‘Revolver’ and go a long way in making it one of the greatest records of all time.
32: Ticket To Ride
The trademark riff and simple but prominent drums inform one of The Beatles’ most memorable singles, and point once again to the ongoing evolution of John and Paul’s songwriting. It also offers an alluring glimpse into a brave new world which jumpsuit wearing upstarts would soon begin to discover.
31: I’m Looking Through You
As already discussed, Paul’s passionate relationship with Jane Asher inspired many of his early love songs, but by 1965 the tone, like the relationship, was changing. As Jane began to follow a career and life of her own, McCartney is hardly understanding, instead almost bitter; ‘You don’t look different, but you have changed’.
‘Paperback Writer’s b-side – with its stretched out, trippy vibe and innovative use of backward vocals – shows how The Beatles’ sound was rapidly being transformed both chemically, and through the exploitation of embryonic studio technology inside the four walls of Abbey Road.
One of pop music’s most recognisable bass lines introduces ‘Revolver’, and trades off George’s ire as he launches an incendiary attack on the British establishment as the Labour government’s tax policy put the Fab Four’s new found wealth at the mercy of Harold Wilson.
28: Please Please Me
A big improvement on debut single ‘Love Me Do’, George Martin’s input into the final edition of ‘Please Please Me’ would show The Beatles just how important a role their producer was to play in the group’s career. An early Mendips composition, the track was conceived by Lennon with Roy Orbison in mind, who coincidentally invited them to join him on a UK tour shortly after its release.
27: Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
The bombastic chorus is widely seen as one of The Beatles’ most obvious cryptic drug references. Any conscious link to LSD was always rejected by the band however, and at a time when they were more open than most about their drug use, it would seem out of character for them to dismiss the veracity of that story. Instead, a picture brought home by John’s son Julian which, when asked, was said to be called Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds was the altogether more innocent true story purported.
26: Eleanor Rigby
The marriage of music and lyrics, where the sound and the story compliment each other perfectly, is no easy task. Another enviable talent of The Beatles was the ability to deliver this magic formula time and time again. ‘Eleanor Rigby’ is one such example, where the move into specific storytelling and social commentary is matched expertly with dejected, tear-stained strings that all on their own are enough to give the track every ounce of the empathy it requires.
25: Hey Jude
What can be said about ‘Hey Jude’ that hasn’t been said a million times over? Probably the greatest sing-a-long ever conceived, and the 20th century’s most famous pop song which has sparked euphoria in countless stadiums across the globe over the years, had by contrast a humble, melancholic origin as Paul began to hum the chorus on his way to visit Lennon’s son Julian, at a time when mother and child were suffering with the final breakdown of a relationship, and John’s infatuation with Yoko Ono.
24: Fixing A Hole
More evidence of the celebration of the mundane which fired much of ‘Sgt. Pepper’, as Paul twists the renovation of a recently bought Scottish manor into a sun-drenched tale of personal reappraisal and of turning one’s life on its head.
23: I’m Only Sleeping
An archetypal ‘Revolver’-era Beatles classic, again packed with innovative studio brush strokes and light touches of brilliance which never serve to overbear a track that demands space and air to truly work. Another song often incorrectly attributed to drugs, its inspiration is as straightforward as the title suggests, in which John celebrates one of his favourite past-times.
22: Get Back
‘Get Back’ is straight-forward rock n roll, one of their last great, stand-alone tunes. Coming full circle, and aiming to present everything in all its one-take, naked glory, Paul revels in the back to basics approach which he hoped would similarly reignite the band as a whole, but instead only proved to emphasise the tensions which were slowly driving them apart.
21: We Can Work It Out
The synchronicity of John and Paul, forged through long teenage nights hushed up in childhood homes and even longer nights learning their trade in Hamburg bars, is again in full view. As ever, Lennon is world-weary, exasperated in the middle eight at life being too short for fussing and fighting, while McCartney, glass perpetually half-full, insists it can all be worked out in the end.
1968 witnessed the previous year’s peace and love revolution slowly morph into an ideology exclusively spun around the former, as the raging Vietnam War gripped a United States struggling to come to terms with the human and moral cost of a battle few could reason with. Soon, Lennon would become the movement’s most vocal follower, but right now, his standpoint is still yet to be decided. Out or in? He’s not sure, but he’s definitely listening.
A watershed moment commercially for Harrison, ‘Something’ was his first Beatles A-side and has become one of the group’s most covered tracks. Delving into a world which often gets buried in overblown sentimentality, George keeps the mood achingly simple, giving the signature guitar lick and passionately delivered words all the room they need to grow into one of the very best love songs of all time.
18: Paperback Writer
While The Beatles might not have ‘invented’ hard rock – The Kinks and their revolutionary paradigm ‘You Really Got Me’ probably best deserves that title – like ‘Ticket To Ride’ of around a year earlier, its basic ingredients helped to popularise the recipe by which the following decade’s bands would concoct their own radical new sound.
17: Hello, Goodbye
Proof that, even a few months on from the game changing ‘Sgt. Pepper’s LP, The Beatles were still able to churn out instant, no frills pop classics. The promotional video continues the Peppers theme beyond the summer of love, and also marks the last time the Fab Four were seen in their famous Mersey grey suits.
16: Mother Nature’s Son
Like most of The White Album, Paul’s blissful reflection on the harmony between man and nature was inspired after a Maharishi lecture on the intangible theorem during the group’s long stay in India. John was also moved sufficiently to write a song on the subject; never recorded by The Beatles, it would appear with a whole new outlook as one of his best loved solo tracks – ‘Jealous Guy’.
15: I Feel Fine
Built around a relatively marauding riff, the happy accident which occurred at Abbey Road in October 1964 nevertheless helped to make ‘I Feel Fine’ one of the era’s most important rock songs. The opening twang, arrived at thanks to a Gibson leaning against an amplifier, introduces the idea of feedback to recorded music and is a protype of The Beatles’ forgetive approach in the studio.
14: Lovely Rita
Seduction, sexuality and sleaze emanate from more normality and throwaway conversational inspiration. Full of the joys of summer, Paul provocatively takes us through the life of Rita; wined, dined and charmed into flaunting the boundaries of her job as a ‘meter maid’.
13: Tomorrow Never Knows
A quantum leap forward, where every burgeoning idea and mixing desk tweak was thrown into a melting pot of loops, druggy haze and out-of-the-world lyrics. Truly, nothing like this had ever been heard before. Countless have tried since, but the vision and experimentation of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ has never been better realised, or come close to being equalled.
12: Here Comes The Sun
The tribute to hope, rebirth and new beginnings mirrors the writer’s state-of-mind at the time of its creation. Retreating from the inner turmoil which surrounded The Beatles and their doomed Apple venture, Harrison once again found refuge with his friend Eric Clapton, chasing solace from business deals and contract disputes on a walk round Clapton’s estate, armed with nothing but a borrowed acoustic guitar and a desire to explore his own dream of a fresh start.
11: Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
George’s introduction of the signature sitar riff to ‘Norwegian Wood’ marks another first for The Beatles. Is Lennon, the married Beatle, detailing an extra-marital affair, where he quickly admits to being taken under the wing of a forbidden lover, or is it merely a fond look-back at Gambier Terrace memories of wood burning fires and guests in the bath?
10: Strawberry Fields Forever
The evolution of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ from the stripped-back acoustic lament first laid down by Lennon into the hallucinogenic mirage which eventually combined with ‘Penny Lane’ to create the outstanding single ever prefigures the imminent ‘Sgt. Pepper’s blueprint perfectly. Like its A-side compatriot, one of Lennon’s most illustrious accomplishments wraps a local landmark in the memories of a misspent youth that at once becomes identifiable with the listening world.
The world of classical music is explored by Paul on another of The White Album’s many and varied delights. With a gentle, acoustic guitar line inspired by J.S. Bach, ‘Blackbird’s calm, soothing exterior belies a carefully camouflaged theme which many believe was not derived from the nature’s chorus which would greet McCartney every morning in India, but by the far more contentious racial struggles being played out in America during ’68, and which occupied the writer’s thoughts as he chipped away at his latest masterpiece in Scotland.
8: She Said She Said
Inside the Pickwick Club, one night in 1965, John and George had become the first Beatles to (unwittingly) sample the mind-altering qualities of LSD, the original victims of the wicked dentist. Ringo and finally Paul would also soon fall under the new drug’s spell, and for a year or so many writing sessions and shared nocturnal experiences were embarked upon under its influence. ‘She Said She Said’ is the quintessential Lennon track to emerge from this period – still melodic, yet hard-edged; a rough-cut diamond borne out of an acid trip with Peter Fonda and The Byrds.
7: In My Life
Underpinning everything which the next decade and more was to bring John Lennon is that basic, natural grasp of pitch, tone, measure and emotion. ‘In My Life’ is remarkable in its uncluttered, trouble free way, spared the tricks and treats which dominated The Beatles’ work from there on in, instead crystal clear in its wonderment as simply the greatest songwriter that’s ever lived gives us a pained window into his soul.
6: While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Now a fully formed songwriter in his own right, George used the principal of I Ching to plant the seeds of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’. Despite his own talents reaching their zenith, Harrison struggled to command the fullest attention from his illustrious comrades. Exacerbated with the song’s progress, he turned to Eric Clapton for lead guitar duties, and emerged with yet another composition more than capable of holding its own amongst the best of the Lennon/McCartney output.
5: I Am The Walrus
The three different Lennon drafts which amalgamate into ‘I Am The Walrus’ lend themselves to all the chaos and confusion packed into this sublime b-side. It’s ordered chaos, where dozens of sharp turns and unexpected obstacles all somehow stay glued together by the compelling gravitational pull of Lennon’s huge talent.
4: Helter Skelter
So Paul only writes soft acoustic ballads eh? The heaviest, most raucous Beatles track by some considerable distance is the result of McCartney’s desire to show what true, wild rock n roll should really sound like. The aura of a highly charged, marathon recording session is preserved forever in the final seconds as an exhausted Ringo finally snaps, throwing his drumsticks across the room with the pained cry of, ‘I’ve got blisters on my fingers!’.
3: Penny Lane
On ‘Penny Lane’, McCartney turns a simple Liverpool thoroughfare into an enchanted symbol of a carefree Fifties childhood. Few, if any, songwriters have enjoyed the ability to capture a moment, a personal memory, so cohesively in song and thus share it so adroitly with an audience – the barber shops, bankers, nurses and firemen are now as familiar to every Beatles fan as they once were to the young Paul.
2: A Day In The Life
‘A Day In The Life’ is the indubitable beacon for everything which helped to make The Beatles the most influential pop group of all time. There’s John’s piercing eye and sharp tongue on 1967’s contemporary, tomorrow’s chip paper news items, and Paul’s bouncy, chirpy addition providing an extra dimension to the piece. But it’s the instrument of Abbey Road, marshalled by the quiet, unassuming expertise of George Martin, which brings it all together. Stitching those parts into one is an extravagant 40-piece orchestral crescendo, just about drowning out Mal Evans’ faithful timekeeping.
1: Abbey Road Medley
OK, a bit of a cheat to end with, but the majority of ‘Abbey Road’s second side was presented as a whole and we’re not about to start breaking up this masterpiece now. The perfect collision of ideas from what were by then three very separate songwriters is a truly remarkable thing. But for an engineer’s mishap, The Beatles would have signed off for the very last time with the poignant, famous final words, ‘And in the end, the love you take, is equal to love the you make’. As it was, a flippant off-cut from the studio floor found its way on to the end of the master-tape, and meant John, Paul, George and Ringo waved goodbye with nothing more than an after thought. And, perhaps, that’s how it was always meant to be.