By David Browne
Updated December 11, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST
Beatles: Bettman/Corbis

Although they earned many a British pound in their day, the Beatles were never all about the Benjamins; witness their ill fated attempt at a communistic arts company, Apple. So it’s ironic that 1 — a new collection that represents the first time they’ve been anthologized on a single career spanning disc — owes its existence to a mix of greed and ego. Capitol wants ”1” to be the best selling album of all time and best the Eagles and Michael Jackson, whose ”Their Greatest Hits 1971 – 1975” and ”Thriller” (respectively) have been duking it out for the No. 1 slot. It’s a silly goal: Do we really need sales figures to prove the Beatles were a greater cultural force?

The concept behind the album — to collect every chart topping Fab Four single — is also flawed. The idea might work for Mariah Carey, but limiting the Beatles to No. 1 hits means we get the cheery frivolity of ”All You Need Is Love” and ”Hello, Goodbye” in lieu of ”In My Life,” ”Revolution,” and ”You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” to name just a few. For that alone, dock ”1” a notch.

That said, ”1” is still hard to deny. I haven’t played my old Beatle LPs or CDs in a dozen years, more out of overfamiliarity than dislike, and the remastered tracks on ”1” wipe away all mustiness. ”Get Back” never sounded so raw and rollicking, ”Ticket to Ride” so densely joyful, the 2 minutes and 14 seconds of ”We Can Work It Out” so perfect. After hearing ”Hey Jude” and ”The Long and Winding Road” (Phil Spector’s strings and choir on the latter have never been as appropriately elegiac as an album finale), you’ll cry not only over the songs’ majesty, but over all that Paul didn’t accomplish on his own.

It’s astonishing to be reminded that these four young men made the leaps they did in about five fast years; only Beck’s stylistic shifts come to mind, but a Fab vamp like ”Lady Madonna” still sounds more organic than all of ”Midnite Vultures.” Based on its huge initial response (more than a million copies sold in two weeks), ”1” may make Glenn Frey break out in a sweat. But once more, art transcends commerce, as it always did with these guys.