The 20 Best Songs By The Beatles
Picking the best Beatles songs is like picking the best piece of cake, no matter what you bite into it's going to be sweet. Maybe that's not the best analogy but you get what we're saying, The Beatles wrote a mind-boggling amount of good songs and on any given day the top 20 is going to change a little.
That being said we've done our best to put together a definitive list of the 20 best songs recorded by John, Paul, George, and Ringo, the Lads from Liverpool who changed music forever and essentially wrote the book on pop music and rock n roll that artists are still cribbing from today.
Have a different top 20? Let us know. You really can't go wrong with anything by The Fab Four.
A Day In The life
Coming in at the end of Sgt. Pepper, "A Day in the Life" is the sound of the Beatles establishing themselves as pop geniuses to be reckoned with. Following their performance in San Francisco on August 29th, 1966, the band essentially retired from live performances, exhausted by the constant thrum of the press cycle.
Rather than break up they became a collective that primarily worked in the studio, and with Sgt. Pepper created an album full of psychedelic pop perfection that ends with Lennon singing about the mundanity of death set to a grand orchestration that's still unmatched today. While speaking about the song in 1992, producer George Martin said that Lennon's voice on this song "sends shivers down the spine."
Listen: A Day In The Life
In My Life
"In My Life" may have cracked a songwriting problem for John Lennon. While speaking with Rolling Stone in 1964 the singer was asked why he never wrote about his personal life. He answered:
I had a sort of professional songwriter’s attitude to writing pop songs. I would write [books like] In His Own Write, to express my personal emotions. I’d have a separate songwriting John Lennon who wrote songs for the meat market. I didn’t consider them to have any depth at all. They were just a joke.
After the interview, Lennon sat down to write a poem about his past, including people and landmarks from Liverpool. Lennon was initially bored by the idea but the song flowed out quickly after that, but then things got messy. Depending on who you believe the song was already finished save for the melody and the middle eight when Lennon presented it to McCartney, but according to the bassist, he and Lennon rewrote the entire thing from scratch to make them more universal. Either way, the song is a masterpiece.
Listen: In My Life
I Want To Hold Your Hand
This may not be the best Beatles song but it's definitely the most important. When the up-tempo jangle of "I Want To Hold Your Hand" hit America it created a shockwave that we're still feeling today. The Lads from Liverpool had a few songs played in the U.S. before, but this was their first Number One record. According to Lennon, he knew it was something special from the moment he and Paul were writing it:
I remember when we got the chord that made the song. We had, ‘Oh, you-u-u/Got that something,’ and Paul hits this chord, and I turn to him and say, ‘That’s it! Do that again!’ In those days, we really used to write like that — both playing into each other’s noses.
Listen: I Want To Hold Your Hand
There are love songs, and then there's George Harrison's love song to Patty Boyd, "Something." Written by George Harrison in 1968 and demoed at EMI studios on his 26th birthday, the song is a gorgeous ballad to the then love of his life that he almost didn't show the rest of the band because he didn't think it was good enough for the Beatles. Harrison later said:
I just put it on ice for six months because I thought, ‘That’s too easy!'In my mind I heard Ray Charles singing ‘Something.'
This plaintive acoustic tune is the sound of a young man taking up space in a much older man's head as he looks back on the ease of his earlier life. It's a song that only gets better with age, but it was almost never released. McCartney, wry as ever, explained the origins of the most covered song in history:
It fell out of bed. I had a piano by my bedside, and I must have dreamed it, because I tumbled out of bed and put my hands on the piano keys and I had a tune in my head. It was just all there, a complete thing. I couldn’t believe it. It came too easy.
Months after writing the song, McCartney finally brought the song to the band, who must have held him upside down and chastised him for not playing the song for them sooner.
For many bands, a song like "Day Tripper" would be their apex. The perfect jangly mod rock song about people dipping in and out of the psychedelic scene, but for the Beatles, it's just one of many absolutely smashing tunes that defined a genre. In 1970, Lennon broke the song down for Rolling Stone Magazine:
'Day Tripper' was a drug song. I’ve always needed a drug to survive. The [other Beatles], too, but I always had more, I always took more pills and more of everything, ’cause I’m more crazy. Day trippers are people who go on a day trip, right? Usually on a ferryboat or something. But [the song] was kind of ‘you’re just a weekend hippie.'
Listen: Day Tripper
This rollicking satirical tune about the anti-immigration sentiment in England in the 1960s got its start with much more vicious lyrics before McCartney toned it down to something that could actually be released as a single. Featuring a grooving Billy Preston keyboard line, the song remains vital today, even if much of its venom has been removed. Making the song even more special is the fact that it was the last song the band played during their final gig on top of the Apple Records building.
Listen: Get Back
Drive My Car
Written by McCartney and Lennon at the height of their powers as a duo, "Drive My Car" started out as a melody with the basic lyrics mirroring the diamond ring story from "Can't Buy Me Love." Rather than forge ahead with a song the band had technically already written, Lennon suggested turning the whole thing into a sexual metaphor, hence "drive my car."
Unfortunately for American audiences, the most soulful tune on Rubber Soul was removed by Capitol Records in favor of an acoustic track in order to please the folk hungry masses. The sensational song wouldn't make it across the pond until the release of Yesterday and Today.
Listen: Drive My Car
Happiness Is a Warm Gun
This rock n roll mini-suite showcases the innate ability of the Beatles to be both extravagant and pop-oriented at the same time. "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" runs through a series of changes over the course of its 2:44 run-time, and whoo boy is this a soulful, erotic barnburner.
In 1970 Lennon told Rolling Stone:
Oh, I love it. I think it’s a beautiful song. I like all the different things that are happening in it. It seemed to run through all the different kinds of rock music... I thought it was a fantastic, insane thing to say.
Listen: Happiness Is A Warm Gun
And Your Bird Can Sing
In just two minutes the Beatles created a template for power pop that's still followed today. "And Your Bird Can Sing" is a classic McCartney kiss-off song that sees him thumbing his nose at an imagined paramour who wants him but can't have him. It's a perfect pop song that feels effortless. If someone has never heard of the Beatles this is a spectacular entry point.
Listen: And Your Bird Can Sing
Can’t Buy Me Love
With "Can't Buy Me Love" the Beatles cemented their status as the most famous band of the 20th century. Selling 3 million copies before it was even released, the single helped the band take over all five top spots in the Billboard singles chart, and a week later they held 14 Top 100 U.S. singles, a massive record.
According to McCartney, he was essentially just trying to write a blues song with "Can't Buy Me Love," but Harrison's countryfied guitar solo took the song to an entirely different level.
Listen: Can't Buy Me Love
Strawberry Fields Forever
Written in Spain in 1966, John Lennon was without the Beatles for the first time in his career. At the time he was thinking about Liverpool and a children's home named Strawberry Field near his aunt's home where he used to play as a child.
In 1980, Lennon explained the catalyst behind easily one of the most beloved songs of the Beatles:
I was hip in kindergarten. I was different all my life. The second verse goes, ‘No one I think is in my tree.’ Well, I was too shy and self-doubting. Nobody seems to be as hip as me is what I was saying. Therefore, I must be crazy or a genius — ‘I mean it must be high or low,’ the next line. There was something wrong with me, I thought, because I seemed to see things other people didn’t see.”
Listen: Strawberry Fields Forever
Inspired by Julian Lennon, the oft-forgotten son of John and Cynthia, "Hey Jude" is Paul McCartney's attempt to help the five-year-old boy come to terms with his parent's divorce. McCartney later said:
I was going out in my car, just vaguely singing this song, and it was like, ‘Hey, Jules. . . .’ And then I just thought a better name was Jude. A bit more country & western for me. [The opening lines were] a hopeful message for Julian: ‘Come on, man, your parents got divorced. I know you’re not happy, but you’ll be OK.'
Listen: Hey Jude
With its mysterious lyrics and deep groove, "Come Together" is a return to the band's rock n roll roots just in time for the Beatles to break up. Initially, the song was much faster and similar to Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me," but the band slowed things down to differentiate the song from its musical inspiration, and a classic was born.
Chuck Berry wasn't the only inspiration for "Come Together," according to John Lennon he initially wrote the song to be a campaign song for psychonaut Timothy Leary.
Lennon told Rolling Stone:
The Learys wanted me to write them a campaign song and their slogan was ‘Come together.' I never got around to it, and I ended up writing ‘Come Together’ instead.
Listen: Come Together
A Hard Day’s Night
Out of all the early Beatles songs that make us twist and shout "A Hard Day's Night" is the track that remains as fresh as the moment we first heard it. Lyrically, the song harkens back to the band's days in Germany but it works the same for anyone working like a dog to make their dreams come true.
It's not just the killer melody that makes this song an absolute banger, it's the absolutely wild chord strummed out from a Rickenbacker 12-string at the opening of the song.
Producer George Martin later said:
In those days, the beginnings and endings of songs were things I tended to organize. We needed something striking, to be a sudden jerk into the song. It was by chance that he struck the right one. We knew it when we heard it.
Listen: A Hard Day's Night
The Beatles were primed and ready to record a protest anthem when they hit the studio for The White Album. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the destruction of the Vietnam War the Fab Four had a lot on their minds. "Revolution" was the first track that the band recorded for the album, and the band wanted to make sure that their fans knew exactly how they felt. Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970:
I wanted to put out what I felt about revolution. I thought it was time we spoke about it. The same as we stopped not answering about the Vietnamese War [when we were] on tour with Brian [Epstein]. We had to tell him, ‘We’re going to talk about the war this time, and we’re not going to just waffle.'
Tomorrow Never Knows
It's insane that the Beatles invented electronica with the band's final track on Revolver. The song, with its killer breakbeat and wild tape loops, is a perfect collection of sounds that makes the listener feel like they're in the middle of a psychedelic trip.
Showing up less than a year after Rubber Soul, Revolver is the beginning of the group's musical experimentation, and "Tomorrow Never Knows" shows that the group is ready to jump headfirst into the world of psychedelia.
Listen: Tomorrow Never Knows
Is there a real Eleanor Rigby? The question stayed on the lips of Beatles fans from the moment the song was released, what with all of its pensive orchestration and lyrics of a gray life lived alone. It's not really important if the song is about a real person. What's more important is how the song hits the listener - and this track hits hard.
The weirdest thing about this song is that, in the 1980s, someone found a headstone belonging to a woman named Eleanor Rigby in the churchyard of St. Peter's in Woolton, a suburb of Liverpool, only a few feet away from where McCartney and Lennon first met in 1957. McCartney said, "It was either complete coincidence or in my subconscious."
Listen: Eleanor Rigby
Across the Universe
John Lennon never liked the recording of "Across The Universe" that was meant to appear on The White Album. Not only did the song not sound the way he wanted in his head, but it didn't capture the cosmic awareness that he says was beamed into his head when the words came to him. After the song's release he told Rolling Stone:
It’s one of the best lyrics I’ve written. In fact, it could be the best. It’s good poetry, or whatever you call it, without chewin’ it.
The version that was finally released on Let It Be features production work by Phil Spector, someone so removed from the whole Beatles vibe that he was able to pull sounds out of Lennon's head. What the audience has now is a truly spectacular piece of art that always pays out.
Listen: Across the Universe
Back in the USSR
The cheeky opening track to the White Album is a riff on the sound of the Beach Boys and Chuck Berry, the two most important American acts to the Beatles while sounding perfectly like the Fab Four. Featuring Beach Boys vocals Mike Love on the "California Girls" section, you'd never know that the band was in the middle of breaking up while working on the song.
Starr bailed on the band after McCartney criticized his drumming so the final version of this fantastic track is actually the sound of Harrison, Lennon, and McCartney trying to hold themselves together.
Listen: Back in the USSR