1. A Hard Day’s Night (1964, A Hard Day’s Night)
Forty-five years after this single hit the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s still nearly impossible to get any two people to agree on what chord that famous opening clang! actually is. But with one majestic, mysterious Rickenbacker distress call, the Beatles as we first met them on The Ed Sullivan Show four months earlier were gone. They’d grown up. The lads had become unwitting passengers on a manic locomotive they’d never be able to disembark from, and the song’s title hints at that weariness. It’s right there in the opening scene of the 1964 film that bears the same name, as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr are chased by a mob of screaming, ravenous fans. This isn’t just a pop song, it’s a cathartic cry for Help!
2. A Day in the Life (1967, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band)
The Beatles’ chief songsmiths were on increasingly divergent creative paths, a fact driven home by their collaboration on the grand finale of their most ambitious project. Both men are singing about the most average of daily activities — reading the morning paper, catching a bus — yet these rituals are full of existential pain in John’s verses, while Paul’s bridge is a whimsical daydream. In less expert hands, the contrast might have felt clumsy. Instead, it’s the perfect lead-up to that wild crescendo and last piano chord: a studio trick that echoes in the listener’s ears long after the song has ended.
3. Yesterday (1965, Help!)
How does a two-minute acoustic ditty (with the working title ”Scrambled Eggs,” no less) transcend mere songdom to become something more permanent and iconic, a sort of Mount Rushmore of pop? Perhaps it’s the universal theme of love lost contained in this heartbreakingly bereft ballad, the melody of which supposedly came to Paul in a dream. The rest of the band initially resisted releasing it; even today, some find it mawkish. But the song’s exquisite anguish remains strikingly undiminished with the passage of time.
4. Strawberry Fields Forever (1967, Magical Mystery Tour)
Everything about John’s mesmerizing psychedelic gem was intoxicatingly odd: the chirping mellotron-flute intro, serene and synthetic; the bipolar chorus, part downer, part anthem; the dense pileup of guitars, sitars, strings, horns, and assorted randomness, including John’s mumbled ”cranberry sauce,” famously mistaken for ”Paul is dead.” The slightly slurred slo-mo lyrics seem dreamy, yet connect deeply: ”No one I think is in my tree/I mean it must be high or low” speaks for anyone who has felt misunderstood — or just really stoned. Released as a single whose flip side ain’t too shabby either. (See No. 12.)
5. Something (1969, Abbey Road)
Initially released as a double single with ”Come Together,” this swooning love letter was the band’s first George Harrison-penned A side, and proved to be one of his greatest successes, both commercially and critically. Elvis Presley, James Brown, and Smokey Robinson all covered it; Frank Sinatra once called it the greatest love song of the last 50 years. It’s certainly high up there.
6. She Loves You (1963, Past Masters)
Pure joy: about being in love, about being embraced as the most-loved band of 1963. ”Yeah, yeah, yeah!” was the irresistible chorus. In its clever construction, ”she” represented the band’s growing female fan base, and ”you” were the Beatles themselves. The song was a tumultuous way of celebrating their ever-increasing triumph over the pop world. With a love like that, you know you should be glad.
7. Let It Be (1970, Let It Be)
The recording of the Let It Be album was a contentious process, to put it mildly. John once described the sessions as ”the most miserable…that ever existed.” Yet they produced one of pop’s most touching and beautiful ballads. The title was also apt: They broke up shortly after releasing it as a single. (The song is actually a heartbreaker of a tribute to Paul’s late mother, Mary.)
8. Tomorrow Never Knows (1966, Revolver)
Inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead and swathed in layers upon layers of double-tracked guitars, compressed drum effects, and vibrating vocals, John instructs us to ”turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream.” The final track on Revolver was the Beatles’ trippiest song. John originally wanted to be suspended by ropes and twirled as he sang in the recording studio before conceding that engineering trickery was probably a much safer bet. The path of sonic experimentation that soon led to the mind-expanding grandeur of Sgt. Pepper begins here.