The best things in life may or may not be free, but certainly the best things in life resist classification, hyper-categorization, obsessive ranking, and bickering about whether “X” is somehow innately, objectively better than “Y. I say that because there is something tongue-in-cheek about what I’m endeavoring to do in this piece, based off the knowledge that most rank lists are subjective and sporadic phenomena that have become popular since we’ve become more interested, as a culture, in reading numbers and bullet points than we have in pages and paragraphs. For more reading about the random, subjective nature of rank lists (albeit in a Star Wars context) you can peruse this cool blog post by the Imperial Talker. Beyond his insight, I would add that if most of our thinking and speaking is a product of a uniquely Western metaphysical way of understanding and perceiving that we’re hardly aware of, then certainly the competitive, linear, numerical notion of a rank list both reflects and reinforces such tacit thought structures (In other words, the compulsion to rank is, I think, far from what anthropologists would call a human universal, or a cross-cultural constant across time and place—although I suppose this statement could be arguable). If ranking works of art isn’t a natural human impulse or something that has inherent meaning or validity, then rank lists are also a bit hackneyed in some analytical pop-culture contexts. So that’s the qualification I’ll write about what I’m doing, here.
My argument, though, is that rather than abandon the rank list in its entirety and relegate it to the realm of that which once was but is no more, why not embrace the complete randomness, the delightful incompleteness of many rank lists? Why not admit, as Jeff does in the Imperial Talker, that it’s an ever-shifting cluster of individual preferences that holds little to no weight most of the time? That’s my justification for making this rank list of Beatles songs—an endeavor which seems, initially, even more ridiculous than are most rank-list endeavors. Who among us, after all, can mentally sift through the thick compendium of Beatles works that were produced over a period of years and with some level of clarity and certainty, pinpoint those works that were somehow “best?” Perhaps the opinion of a Beatles expert or a music expert might hold more weight than some (and I am certainly not a Beatles expert nor a music expert) but by and large it’s a difficult aim to take seriously. So my framing for the conception of this list becomes an imaginary scenario. I’m at, say, a party, trying to make idle chatter with strangers so I’m not the girl standing alone at the snack table hoarding the hors d ’oeuvres (which is quite likely the case anyway). Because people can only talk about the weather for so long, someone starts talking about music, and soon we’re all spontaneously riffing off the names of our favorite Beatles songs. That’s the spirit of this list; it’s a fast and furious accumulation of my memories, preferences, and general admiration for a band whose music defies ranking and classification. At some points, I may even move into parodying or satirizing what one might call “rank list logic” – although I’m not sure yet, because I haven’t written the piece. Anyway, you get the gist of what I’m trying to do here. Need I say more?
Probably not, but I will. Michael and I saw the Beatle’s tribute band Rain at Erie’s Warner Theater a couple weeks ago, and I was pretty jazzed up when it was over. Perhaps because the Beatles were, among other things, legendary writers and thinkers, they inspired me to do a little (easy, mundane) writing of my own—that I started the night we saw the band, but that I’m finishing now. My top ten list of favorite Beatles songs was a simple way to write a blog post, and a fun one, at that. But this list, because rank lists are so shifting and arbitrary, will probably be largely influenced by what I’ve heard most recently, what songs I know/remember best, what memories I associate with certain songs, and what themes or tropes I like best in music. Certainly, it’s not the product of carefully listening to every song on every Beatles album. And it’s definitely not a product of my musical knowledge, because when it comes to an understanding of notes and octaves and instrumentals, I have very little.
To underscore how much I hesitate to stand by this list, I’ll admit here that when I read my list to Michael’s mom, Patty, and his Aunt Judy, they laughed out loud at me. “Well, I like Hey Jude…” Aunt Judy said, and Patty said, “Here comes the sun. I agree with that one.” Then they laughed at me for another considerable chunk of time. Then Patty said, “We love you yeah yeah yeah,” to which Aunt Judy added, “yes, we wanna hold your hand,” to which Michael then added, “Go easy on her; it’s been a hard day’s night.” Finally, Patty said “Let us know what your dad’s rankings are and get back to us.” And so my selections were mocked by those who consider themselves Beatles experts, simply because they were alive when the music was actually coming out. Pfffft. (Sidebar: My parents liked my list when I read it to them, so there!)
In any case, here’s my rank list of favorite Beatles songs, from 10th place to first place:
10.) Nowhere man (Rubber Soul, 1965) – I think this song is pretty, first of all, so it makes the list because I enjoy the melody and the song “moves” me. I’m starting to think of that phrase—“moves me”—as a concept with music, at least as I’ll use it in this piece. One might appreciate a variety of music, but what works really “touch” or “move” a person, and then why? You know that feeling you get when you hear a favorite song, a song that “touches” you? To me it’s indescribable—or if it isn’t, describing the affective phenomena of such an experience moves beyond the scope of this piece. Now, a lot of Beatles songs “move” me, but not all of them do. This list, I think, contains only songs that move me now or have moved me at some point in my life.
“Nowhere Man” didn’t always “move” me, but when I watched Rain perform it the other night, I realized that I like the slow tempo, and I like how that slow tempo seems to manifest the listlessness of the so-called nowhere man, who remains ambiguous, identity-wise, even if his character construction in the song comes across as a social critique. It is critique, of course, “he’s as blind as he can be/just see’s what he wants to see,” but it’s one that merges specific with general traits and becomes applicable to everyone (“isn’t he a bit like you and me?”) and no one (“doesn’t have no point of view” – maybe it’s just the historical moment I’m in, but I don’t think that’s true of any sentient person on this planet, and especially right now). We could, and perhaps are, quick to apply the lyrics to the amorphous masses, who are sometimes depicted negatively in a lot of cultural art, media, and general discourse, or the image of the zombified crowds crossing the bridge in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland (to that end, the song becomes a very modernist-era critique in a post-modern context) or his title character in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock but I think those connections oversimplify the song’s lyrics a bit. I mean, if he is a nowhere man in a nowhere land, does he exist at all, or is he a cultural construct created by words and pictures that doesn’t exist in the essential sense of the word? Indeed, this is a more thought-provoking song than I initially gave it credit for.
9.) Strawberry Fields (Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane, 1967) – “Living is easy with eyes closed/misunderstanding all you see. It’s getting hard to be someone but it all works out/it doesn’t matter much to me.” There are a lot of things I love about this song—first, that Strawberry Fields is really a place, although I didn’t know that the first time the song “moved me,” second, the way the notes fluctuate up and down during unexpected segments of lyrics (pardon me, I don’t know musical terms well), and then lastly, again, the pondering in the song.
The line I opened the last paragraph with was very meaningful to me when I first started listening to the Beatle’s later music, the type of quotable fodder for the then-popular AIM away message. The fact that we could all be living seeing only partial truth, or complete non-truth, or not really “seeing” what we’re purportedly seeing, always made sense to me on an intuitive level. I think as I get older though, knowing now, as I do, that my mind can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality all the time, the blurry boundary between reality and fantasy that the song teases out fascinates me even more. On a theological level, the line I’ve quoted already (“misunderstanding all you see…”) has additional layers of meaning to me because I think perhaps I lived this way once, and to some degree, on a smaller level, “misunderstanding all you see” may be part of the human condition. We live in a box of space and time. No matter how selfless we are, none of us can completely uncenter ourselves from the myopic tendency to see the world, events, and people, from a perspective molded from our own accumulated experiences. That’s why in his book on Toltec wisdom, The Four Agreements, Miguel Ruiz says that we’re all living “in our own dream” (and so it’s erroneous to take anything personally). How interesting, and paradoxical—much philosophy says we are all connected, and indeed this seems true to me, but on the other hand, we are all sort of living in our own dream—and Strawberry Fields conveys such wisdom perfectly. What a fascinating contradiction this seems right now!
8.) Lovely Rita (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967) – I guess for this song, I’ll start by saying I love the Sargent Pepper album. I was probably in high school the first time I heard my dad play this album from start to finish, and to describe my reaction to it, I now have a meme in my head of John Travolta on his knees wearing all black and screaming “it’s electrifying” the way he does in one of the last songs in the movie Grease. (Isn’t it interesting how memes can convey reactions in a way the mere words cannot? Anyway…)
To say the music “moved” me—despite the fact that I’m treating that word as a music-specific feeling and concept in this piece—still seems insufficient. Without deriving any particular meaning from the album, the stories and images and ideas it put in my head, all accompanied by diverse, amazing musical scores, was almost life changing to me. I’ve thought about “referential albums” before: albums that were defining to me and changed my life. Of course (and I think I’m non-unique here) this album was one of my “referential albums.” It is as alive to me, today, as I am, and I love every part of it.
That said, “Lovely Rita” was one of my favorite songs on the album, so it made the top ten list. I have distinct memories of my dad (who still enjoys a good Beatles song) tapping his hands rhythmically on the car dashboard to the chorus of the song, an action that actually made me appreciate the beats behind “lovey-Rita, meter-maid, nothing can come between us” even more than I otherwise would have. On top of that, it’s such a fun, original song. It doesn’t deal with deep concepts, but it seems to celebrate the beauty of the ordinary, to me (he falls in love with a meter maid) and it’s also a kind of celebration of human attraction and then modern-day “courting.” In some sense, I guess, it’s a damn good story. I mean, don’t you want to know when Rita’s free to take some tea with the speaker of the song?
7.) While My Guitar Gently Weeps (The White Album, 1968)—I always wanted to make a poster out of this song; I don’t know why. It would be a wide poster with a wavy, almost surreal gray guitar on it and at the top, in letters waving up and down, would be the lyrics “still my guitar gently weeps.” (It’s a strange place for my mind to go; I don’t typically think of what music poster I’d make out of a song, but I always thought this one would be cool). The song also makes me think of Picasso’s painting, “The Old Guitarist,” and the Counting Crows lyrics, “if I knew Picasso, I would find myself a gray guitar and play.” All of this information might seem ancillary—neither here nor there, so to speak—except that mental images and associations have, I imagine, a great deal of influence on the songs we do or don’t like, the songs that “move” us, and all of those associations are part of the reason this song moves me.
The line that I remember liking most from the song growing up is “with every mistake/we will surely be learning/still my guitar gently weeps.” In old(er) age, I’d prefer to back up a line or two and quote the line, “I look at the world/and I see that it is turning/still my guitar gently weeps.” The crying guitar, on a very basic level, seems to represent the speaker’s own sadness, or his ability to translate his sadness into artistic expression, and this song, to that end, either 1.) reminds us that the world continues to turn (time and life happens) even when we’re personally sad, or, 2.) encourages us to move through hardships by letting our “guitars gently weep” (by translating intense, often negative emotion into our own particular art form as the world is turning, so that we contribute even as we suffer). Either way, the message seems spot on to me. It also reminds me of a line from one of my favorite poems, a rather famous poem called Wild Geese by Mary Oliver, when she says: “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you why/meanwhile the world goes on” which sounds like harsh out of context but is really a beautiful observation in a comforting poem about the inherent promise and meaning in life. But, back to the Beatles.
6.) A Day in the Life Of (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967) – There was a time in my life when this was my number one favorite Beatle’s Song. Maybe old(er) age has made me soft, because now it ranks at number six. I will admit, I have trouble really offering an interpretation to the song (and I haven’t looked it up to see if the Beatles had their own interpretation) but it definitely seems like a song interested in the tragedies that surround us on a macro level, before moving into the bridge, where the singing switches from Lennon to McCartney and McCartney is literally describing “a day in the life of” someone on a micro-level—a rather ordinary morning, at that—before “somebody spoke and I went into a dream,” at which point Lennon sings again.
A lot of Beatles songs, for their complex brilliance, are filled with, as this piece might demonstrate, simple, understandable little aphorisms. This song is not the case. When I fell in love with it, I think I liked its slow tempo and its situation as a sort of surprise encore after the second rendition of the Sargent pepper song plays. The transition from the sort of sad introduction in the song to the more upbeat bridge was also attractive, as was the fact that the structure of the song was unlike any I’d ever heard. Now I can add that I like the psychedelic sounds that take us from the bridge to the final verse, letting us slip into a little dream….ostensibly about 4000 potholes on the roads of Blackburn Lancashire, if a quick internet search is to be trusted. Finally, how can you not love the line, “But I just had to look/having read the book?” It’s so catchy.
5.)In My Life (Rubber Soul, 1965) – This is a song I started loving later in life, even though I don’t really agree with the lyrics. I’ve always liked it, but I think as time goes on and I’ve experienced the feeling of love more often, toward a lot of different people in a lot of different ways, this description of love, flawed though it seems at some points, intrigues me. There are lines in the song, I guess, that really resonate with me, and lines that don’t. Remembering different people and saying, “in my life, I’ve loved them all,” makes perfect sense to me, and in that way, the song seems like a better, more subtle, nuanced reflection on love than their actual song “All You Need is Love” is—which is really cute when it appears in the movie Love Actually but which I don’t like enough to include on my top ten list.
What always gets me about this song, though, is that this sense of earth-shattering love they describe actually sucks the meaning out of the speaker’s memories, because I don’t think love should do that. “But of all these friends and lovers/there is no one compares with you/and these memories lose their meanings/when I think of love, as something new/though I know I’ll never lose affection, for people and things, that went before/I know I’ll often stop and think about them, in my life, I love you more.” It’s so beautiful, but it makes no sense to me, and maybe that’s because they were young when they wrote the song. They start using “affection” to describe their other loving relationships after mentioning that they now think of love as something new, kind of implying that you can only love one person. I love so many people. And then, saying that memories lose their meaning?! I think the most beautiful relationships I have in my life illuminate the often-subtle meaning in different elements of my life, past and present, and make the ordinary world burn brighter. Frankly, I don’t want a relationship that makes my days and relationships before it seem meaningless. But there I go, evaluating the song from my own myopic perspective.
End rant. I adore this song, and the piano solo is so amazingly gorgeous. I always imagine people doing a beautiful waltz to it; I also think a pretty ballet dance could be made to go along with the song. And, back to the trope of “moving”—something about the combined elements of this song just moves me, has always moved me, and moves me even more, the older I get.
4.) Hey Jude (Hey Jude, 1970) – I may try to start writing smaller explanations, because I didn’t plan on writing 5+ pages about the Beatles tonight when I sat down to write what I thought would be a listicle. On the other hand, writing less as I get closer to number one may happen naturally, because I think it’s actually easier to write less as I go down the list. For me, that’s because the songs closer to number one move me so much that no analytical elements really need to factor into why I love them. They have a certain “wow” factor, so that I find them just beautiful without knowing why. Hey Jude, then, is one of those songs.
Of course, I love the “na, na, na, na na na na” refrain at the end of the song, and I was super excited when Rain played this as an encore. There are beautiful lines like, “any time you feel the pain/hey Jude refrain/don’t carry the world upon your shoulder,” and so on and so forth, and I like the message of not “playing it cool” so as not to make the world “a little colder” (I think there’s a lot of brilliance and wisdom in that line). But really, in general? This song just moves me. I could probably tire of listening to it, but that would be difficult and would take a lot of repetition.
3.) Here, There and Everywhere (Revolver, 1966)—This is another song that’s remarkably simple (at least lyrically), but in my opinion, remarkably beautiful. I don’t even think I knew of this song until I got older. One year, Michael and I played Beatles albums whenever we drove around in his car—in chronological order—and that may be the first time I heard this song, or if not the first time, at least the first time in a long time. Then, one night, I happened upon a soothing, large, rather eclectic Spotify playlist centered around the song “Vincent” by Don McClean, because I was really into that song at the time, and “Here There and Everywhere” was on it. It was a listless summer night when I recall listening to it; I think I was working at Torrid at the time, and I’d taken a week off work to stay with my friend in Indiana. As I drifted off to sleep on her comfy couch, I listened to this song, and realized how much I loved it.
2.) Here Comes the Sun (Abbey Road, 1969) – Again, this song is incredibly simple, lyrically, but it’s not just beautiful; it’s uplifting. I like a lot of the concise but effective metaphors and images used to convey the transition from some generalized adversity (and possible chaos) to a calmer, more peaceful, hopeful state (a transition that also reminds me of the shift in my own life, from my early/mid-20’s vs. my late 20’s and beyond). “The smile’s returning to their faces,” “the ice is slowly melting,”—those are two of my favorite lines, both voiced to the same general string of musical notes, and something about the combination of the musical notes and the lyrics makes those two lines sound like two of the most optimistic, hopeful lines the Beatles have to offer. There is nothing ambiguous here, although certainly if I had time I could analyze the lyrics more closely. The song may have been referring to a specific event, but in my opinion it doesn’t matter; it’s a highly relatable song that soothes and encourages, even as it acknowledges life’s difficulty (best conveyed, I think, as the “long cold lonely winter”). The “little darling” is a nice touch too, making the speaker sound affectionate and invested in the person they’re addressing.
1.) Let it Be (Let it Be, 1970)—Another song that, lyrically, seems rather simple, but that is so remarkably beautiful. After much thinking (but honestly not too much thinking), Let it Be is my favorite Beatles song. I think, along with “Here Comes the Sun” it’s a song that acknowledges our collective pain, as humans on this earth, and tries to encourage the listener, either through optimism (hey, it’s not that bad, here comes the sun) or strategy (sometimes you just have to let it be, let go of trying to control or change the unchangeable, to survive.) I also find this song incredibly wise. One of the foundations of my entire program of D&A recovery (ahem, AA) is based on “letting go” – which I think of now not as living a life of indifference (far from it), but of loosening my metaphorical grip on everything (avoiding the need to control things outside my scope of control, and, from a Buddhist perspective, avoiding attachment, specifically of people, places, and things, though for me avoiding attachment is largely impossible). We have very much control over some things, I suppose, but very little control of other things, and sometimes acceptance, often the act of letting it be, is the best way to find peace (while, of course, working to improve or change that which can be improved or changed).
I’ll conclude by saying that I’ve found, over time, that the best things in life may or may not be free, but sometimes the best messages in life are clear messages, and there is tremendous clarity in these last two songs. I could probably riff of ten more Beatles songs I love, all of which were strong contenders for this list, so I’ll name some honorable mentions before I head off to bed. Thanks for reading, if you made it this far!
-I Am the Walrus
-A Little Help from my Friends
-Run for your Life
-Across the Universe
2 thoughts on ““Take a sad song, and make it better:” My totally sporadic, barely thought-out, unapologetically random top ten Beatles songs list. ”
I love this so much! I was thinking about doing my own piece on favorite Beatles songs…but I don’t know. It seems intimidating! Only time will tell. But I loved reading this.
Also, how can “All You Need Is Love” not make your list?!!? Gah!
Sorry, I couldn’t resist XD. What’s a rank list piece without someone chastising you for something you left off at the bottom ;D.
I was not expecting my “Rank Lists Awaken” post to get so much attention today, but I am happy it served as a jumping off point for this piece. Rank lists are so silly and subjective, but why not embrace the silly and go for it if the proverbial ranking spirit moves you?
That all said, your Beatles song list is 100% wrong (because it is not how I would rank the Beatles) and also 100% amazing (because it is totally your list, and my opinion doesn’t matter).