Back in early September, right around the much anticipated date of 9/9/09, the LA Times' head pop critic Ann Powers wrote a series of posts for the paper's music blog about what songs she considered the best on each of the Beatles' canon albums. As is usual with Powers, her commentary was informed, perceptive, and sharply written. To my mind, she is the foremost American music critic. In light of this admiration, it's puzzling why I only drew attention to one of those posts. For reasons unknown, I guess. My task now is to rectify that negligence in one fell swoop. I've already touched on her choice for the highlight of Please Please Me; here are the rest....
Album: With the Beatles
Selection: The album's iconic cover photograph taken by Robert Freeman.
My thoughts: An early evasion on Ann's part, but it would be ill-considered to deny the rich artistry of that image. At the end of the post, Ann does relent on her rule-breaking and goes with "It Won't Be Long," which is undoubtedly my favorite off the album. The song is a controlled explosion, exhilarating but precisely targeted.
Album: A Hard Day's Night
Selection: "When I Get Home"
My thoughts: It's fun to encounter John being so mischievously vague about his feelings for a lover, as he is on "When I Get Home." For me, "If I Fell" is too disarmingly gorgeous to not stand as the highlight of the album.
Album: Beatles for Sale
Selection: "I'll Follow the Sun"
My thoughts: Once again, I'll politely disagree with Ann. No question, "No Reply." Fueled by the surges of John's jealous ire, the song plays out on dangerously unstable ground. It's charged, even if simplistic drama.
My thoughts: Right away Ann goes on the defensive about this pick: "I know that sophisticates scorn 'Yesterday' for its greeting card rhyme scheme and after-dinner mint melody." Too true. But in the process, she also fashions some very expressive and knowing words of praise for the song: "It outlines the vast gray area where wrecked or unrealized dreams go, and never quite die." She almost made a convert out of me. But as I've written before on the blog, I'm an utter fool for "I've Just Seen a Face," and achingly close to that Macca stunner is John's downbeat folk masterpiece, "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." (P.S. Isn't it mesmerizing how the latter seems to sway as it unfolds?)
Album: Rubber Soul
Selection: "Norwegian Wood"
My thoughts: As Ann notes, this exercise can produce some really nagging frustration because, plainly, the Beatles' albums are often an embarrassment of riches. As the band's game-changer, Rubber Soul might be the prime example. Ann elevates "Norwegian Wood" to the top, and I couldn't possibly hazard a discouraging word about the choice. But that would also apply to "In My Life" and "Girl" had she been tempted in either of those directions. If pressed, I'd have to side with "In My Life." It's the Beatles' most powerfully emotive song, and George Martin's Baroque-style piano solo lays me low far more easily than it should.
Money quote: In my insistent opinion, "Rubber Soul" and its immediate successor, "Revolver," show the Beatles at their absolute peak. The songs on these midperiod works are experimental but never too somber or overworked. They take on major themes but don't buckle under the weight of heavy messages; they dip into dirty rock, sugar pop and schoolboy joking, but they add whole new levels of structure and meaning to those Beatle building blocks.
Selection: "Tomorrow Never Knows"
My thoughts: "This song is mind expansion in its leanest, cleanest and most powerful form." Well put. It's not easy to craft a genuinely weird song without sacrificing a lot of pop appeal. The Beatles accomplished this feat with indelible results on "Tomorrow Never Knows." It's a trip. Even so, I've never been able to shake the woozy, narcotic spell of John's "I'm Only Sleeping." Few songs have ever matched story and sound so fittingly and brilliantly.
Album: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Selection: "A Day in the Life"
My thoughts: Finally, an agreement. It's the Beatles at their most accomplished and enduring.
Money quote: At each turn in the band's career, its two main songwriters challenged and taught and snuck around each other, each taking pop into new corners in the process of arguing for his own approach. One-upsmanship has rarely paid off so astoundingly. Occasionally, John and Paul seem to address each other in a song -- "I've Got a Feeling," from "Let It Be," is one such case, in which John's mind games and Paul's heart palpitations form a powerful dialogue.
Album: Magical Mystery Tour
Selection: "I Am the Walrus"
My thoughts: Another agreement. I'll let Ann provide the explanation (below).
Money quote: What a sound this silliness created. Layer upon layer of Beatles, orchestra, background singers and sound effects, all adding up to something actually catchy. So much art rock tends toward bloat; this song pushes at its own seams, but stays catchy.
Album: The Beatles
Selection: "Helter Skelter"
My thoughts: As you can see, Ann arrived at this decision after much gnashing-of-teeth. And for good reason: she's considering the double-headed monster that is the White Album. To be honest, though, I was a bit disappointed by the conventional nature of her choice. Over the years, "Helter Skelter" has become perhaps the signature track of the four-sided LP (though that's a very debatable claim). It's a primal, fire-starting rush, and it has a lurid history to boot. But I expected Ann to pass on the orthodox pick and go with one of the many quaint sideshows and curios that the album boasts, something seemingly tucked away, something like John's comically desperate plea for sanity, "I'm So Tired." That would be my selection. John's vocal, which ranges from casual to contemplative to caustic, is one of his most memorable.
Album: Yellow Submarine
Selection: "It's All Too Much" and "All Together Now"
My thoughts: I don't have strong opinions about Yellow Submarine because, as Ann writes, it's "hardly a Beatles album at all." Because both the title track and "All You Need Is Love" were originally used on other albums, I consider them disqualified from the competition. "Hey Bulldog" makes for a rollicking time, and "It's All Too Much" is worth some revisits now and again. So... "All Together Now" it is.
Album: Abbey Road
My thoughts: I'll bend the rules somewhat and submit the Side Two song cycle as the highlight of Abbey Road. I find that hard to dispute. Other thoughts of mine concerning this perhaps greatest of all albums can be found here.
Money quote: "It's possibly the vaguest love song ever written," wrote the English journalist Paul Du Noyer about the song, and that's exactly what's good about it. In this most insistent declaration of non-committal adoration, Harrison used the same qualities that sometimes prevented his songs from hitting hard -- his reticent artistic personality, his guitarist's non-way with words, the appreciation of ambiguity he'd developed through meditation -- to really capture the lived experience of love, its ebb and flow, the lover's desire to be unconditional despite a constant undercurrent of uncertainty: "I don't know, I don't know."
Album: Let It Be
Selection: "Get Back"
My thoughts: Without hesitation, "Two of Us." It's a dreamy and wistful slice of folk-pop perfection, full of simple beauty. Hearing John and Paul join their rarefied voices, even amidst such bitter feuding, to sing phrases like "Two of us" and "You and me" makes for an incredibly poignant experience. The song has both nothing and everything to do with their broken partnership, and for that reason it's unmissable. Lastly, the line, "Two of us wearing raincoats/Standing so low/In the sun," fills me with a warm, even welcome kind of heartache.