Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Beatles Album (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Revolver (1966, Parlophone)                                                              

A +

Easily the band’s most experimental and least commercial album yet, it’s ironic that this album works as well as it does because all the band members are on completely different wavelengths. Harrison has begun delving into Indian music at this point, while Paul was running the other direction and making himself identifiable as the most pop-minded member of the group. Lennon was in full-on psychedelic mode and not even trying to write commercial material, while Ringo was just … well, good old Ringo. There’s very little overlap in styles, so the album should seem considerably schizophrenic, and yet it’s strangely and inexplicably their most cohesive artistic statement up to this point. Chalk it up to partially to the brilliant sequencing (every last song is placed in the exact right spot) and partially to the first-rate quality of the songwriting. Though Lennon’s material here really isn’t the stuff of singles, it’s still melodically memorable, be it the deliriously catchy, if completely nonsensical, jangle rock of “And Your Bird Can Sing,” the downbeat “I’m Only Sleeping,” or the swirling studio experiments of “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Harrison and Starr each get a classic of their own with the fiery “Taxman” and the playful “Yellow Submarine,” respectively. And McCartney?  Well, Paul manages to produce his single greatest set of songs yet.  The spine-tingling brass-laden soulful stomp of “Got to Get You into My Life” would become a Top Ten hit twice in the late ‘70s, first as a belated single release of the Beatles’ version, then in the form of a cover by Earth, Wind & Fire. “Good Day Sunshine” would become a classic-rock radio staple, while the baroque pop of “For No One” was one of Sir Paul’s most lyrically and musically sophisticated songs yet. The symphonic “Eleanor Rigby” would, of course, become an instant McCartney classic, while Paul also contributes what might very well be the prettiest ballad he’s ever written, the gentle “Here, There, and Everywhere.” [The American version unfortunately excludes “I’m Only Sleeping” and “And Your Bird Can Sing,” which were instead released in the U.S. via the notorious odds-and-ends package Yesterday … and Today.]  

 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967, Parlophone)             

A +

Whether or not this is truly the best Beatles album is a fair debate, but this is every bit as groundbreaking and well-crafted of an album piece as Revolver, and the band actually sounds more unified here than they did the last time out.  Harrison’s lone contribution this time (“Within You Without You”) is an even deeper excursion into full-blown Indian music than Revolver’s “Love You To,” but Lennon’s noticeably retreated a bit from the psychedelia of his Revolver material and is writing slightly more commercial stuff this time out, so his material doesn’t clash with Paul’s quite as much as it did on the last album, and the two men interact on several cuts to fantastic effect.  There were technically no singles issued from this album, but there’s no shortage of catchy songs here, and you’ll surely recognize many, if not most, of the songs on here from the radio. The most famous song here, ironically, is sung by Ringo (“With a Little Help from My Friends”), and he does a surprisingly great job. (Between Ringo’s high note at the end and the song-ending harmonies, the closing bars will give you goosebumps.)  Lennon’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” successfully fuses plodding psychedelic verses to a vaguely-soulful uptempo chorus, while the more aggressive “Good Morning, Good Morning” is John at his most biting. The lovely “She’s Leaving Home” is Paul’s most lyrically chilling ballad yet and the unusual harpsichord-driven pop of “Fixing a Hole” his most effectively eerie melody to date, though he fares even better with the fun rocker “Getting Better” and the rollicking piano pop of “Lovely Rita” (one of the more playful and criminally overlooked songs in the band’s catalog, peaking with a barrelhouse-style piano solo and an eerie coda that is one of the band’s more hypnotic moments.) Even the title track’s reprise is a winner, thanks to the amazingly ingenious opening note (you have to first listen to the animal noises at the end of “Good Morning, Good Morning” to understand its brilliance) and Ringo’s powerful drumming at the start of the track. The album also boasts the most stunning closing cut to be found on any Beatles album, Lennon’s haunting epic “A Day in the Life,” which closes with an extended orchestral passage that just keeps building intensity with each bar until the track ends on one final thunderous note that brings the album to a perfect close. [Note: Neither is present on original American vinyl copies of the album, but the closing seconds of the British vinyl copies hilariously contain a high-frequency tone only dogs can hear, and a portion of studio chatter was included in the run-off groove as well. Both were retained for the CD reissue of the album.]

Magical Mystery Tour (1967, Capitol)                                               

A  

Sure, Capitol’s repackaging of the Beatles’ albums for the American market too often bordered on the crass, but there were two instances where they truly nailed it: Meet the Beatles was a clear improvement on With the Beatles, and Magical Mystery Tour was the other. In its original British form, Mystery Tour was nothing more than a six-song double-EP. In America, where EPs rarely sold in big numbers, Capitol made the smart move to put all six songs on one side of an LP and compile five non-LP singles onto the second side. Thankfully, the American version was the one that was adopted when the Beatles finally released their catalog on CD. Obviously, it wasn’t intended to be presented as an album piece, but it actually does work surprisingly well as a full-length, and the songwriting throughout is excellent. Of the official soundtrack cuts, the most famous and influential is the symphonic psychedelia pastiche of Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus,” though McCartney delivers a fine and charming set of songs in the driving title track, the music hall pop of “Your Mother Should Know,” and the swirling ballad “The Fool on the Hill.” The second side is even better, including the Lennon classics “All You Need Is Love” (the first of many iconic Lennon anthems that would define the era) and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” as well as McCartney’s endearingly charming pop singles “Hello Goodbye” and “Penny Lane,” and the quite-underrated co-write “Baby, You’re a Rich Man,” which hearkens back to the winning formula of the duo’s “We Can Work It Out.” 

The Beatles (The White Album) (1968, Apple)                                

A  

There’s no denying that this double album has got its share of filler (the eight-minute sound collage of “Revolution 9” being the most obvious), but this outing (their first to be released on their own label, Apple) is still one of the most iconic double albums of all time, and it’s so fascinating in its sprawl and mess that it wouldn’t be nearly so interesting an album piece had they just whittled it down to one disc. It’s certainly not the band’s most consistent album by any stretch of the imagination when taken on a song-by-song basis, but it’s strangely captivating throughout and is one of their most distinctive artistic statements. Harrison has abandoned the ragas of the last two albums and is back to writing traditional rock songs again and delivers a real masterpiece in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” featuring Eric Clapton on lead guitar. Lennon’s material here is less commercial than it was on either of the last two discs, but it’s still quite good, especially the hypnotic “Dear Prudence,” the funky “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey,” the folky “Cry, Baby, Cry,” and the oddly compelling fragmented pop of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” The most memorable melodies here come from McCartney, whose highlights include the Beach Boys pastiche “Back in the USSR,” the playful reggae of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” the energetic rocker “Birthday,” the easygoing pop of “Martha My Dear” and “I Will,” the downright metallic “Helter Skelter,” the country pastiche “Rocky Raccoon,” and most famously of all, the acoustic ballad “Blackbird.” It might have helped the album’s fourth and weakest side considerably from a musical standpoint had they dropped “Revolution 9” and “Revolution 1” and replaced them, respectively, with the iconic non-LP cuts “Hey Jude” and “Revolution” (which were released as a double-sided single just three months earlier), but the tracks they did ultimately choose for the last side certainly add character to the album, anyway, even if there’s nothing really single-worthy there.    

Yellow Submarine (1968, Apple)                                                       

C

Easily the least essential of all the original Beatles albums, it’s not that this soundtrack to the movie of the same name is a bad album so much as it just seems like a blatant cash grab. For starters, the entire second side consists of nothing but George Martin-composed instrumentals from the movie’s score, which are perfectly fine but nothing that your average Beatles fan will get terribly excited about. For another, of the Beatles songs included on Side One, two of them (the title cut and “All You Need Is Love”) are repeated from prior studio albums. That means there are only four actual new Beatles songs here. The best tracks here are Lennon’s playful rocker “Hey, Bulldog” and the George Harrison freak-out “It’s All Too Much,” but they’re not exactly essential Beatles songs, either, so there’s little need to pick this one up unless you just want to complete your collection.

Abbey Road (1969, Apple)                                                                

A +

The last album the Beatles would ever record together, they went out in grand fashion, cutting an absolute masterpiece, one that may stand as their best album. The album’s first side is a dazzling array of styles, from the appealing blues-rock of Lennon’s “Come Together” to the lovely and timeless George Harrison ballad “Something” to the playful and catchy pop of McCartney’s “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and the Fats Domino-esque “Oh, Darling!” (one of McCartney’s most underrated songs) to the minimalist and metallic crunch of Lennon’s prog-blues experiment “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” which ends mid-song to very dramatic effect. Side Two is even better, nearly all of the songs linked together into one giant suite. Harrison’s side-opening “Here Comes the Sun” is one of the most charming and catchy songs he’s ever penned, while Lennon’s “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam” are surprisingly addictive for being minute-long songs. McCartney’s “You Never Give Me Your Money” is lovely, while his “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” was strong enough to become a Top 40 hit for Joe Cocker the following year. The album ends with the perfect trifecta of “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight,” and “The End,” the last of which is highlighted by a rare drum solo from Starr and a three-way guitar duel between McCartney, Lennon, and Harrison, before McCartney ends the song with a dazzling and profound lyrical couplet that serves as a nice coda to the band’s career. (Technically, there is a hidden twenty-three-second cut called “Her Majesty” that plays shortly afterwards, but it was originally slated as part of the side-long medley between “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam,” hence the odd chord at its beginning – actually the intended final chord of “Mustard” – and its abrupt ending.)

Let It Be (1970, Apple)                                                                      

B

Recorded before Abbey Road but not released until after the band broken up, Let It Be had the potential to be a much better album, but it’s undone by several things. To begin with, this is the sound of a band that is clearly having its internal problems. The band sounds exhausted, for starters, while Lennon just seems to zone out entirely while handling the bass on “The Long and Winding Road.” Keyboardist/organist Billy Preston lends his skills to great effect on several cuts (namely “Get Back”), but the band keeps trotting him out on cuts that really don’t require his presence, which just leaves you with the feeling that they were keeping him around primarily just to defuse the tension. Secondly, for some inexplicable reason, there are two absolutely cringe-inducing song snippets (“Dig It” and “Maggie Mae”) included here that never should have seen the light of day, particularly after the brilliance of Abbey Road. Lastly, iconic producer Phil Spector was brought in to remix this record, and he proceeded to suffocate all of the album’s three best songs (all ballads, interestingly) with excessive choral and orchestral overdubs, making the songs almost unbearably schmaltzy or maudlin. It’s tragic, really, ‘cause the songwriting here is still mostly up to the band’s usual high standards.  McCartney contributes two beautiful and timeless ballads in the title track and the even better “The Long and Winding Road,” while Lennon turns in a knockout ballad of his own in “Across the Universe,” though a superior version of it (originally released via a charity compilation) can be found on the second volume of Past Masters. “Get Back” is also here, as is the incredibly charming overlooked gem “Two of Us,” which features John and Paul harmonizing throughout a la their earliest records, which unfortunately sound much more vibrant than most of this rather lifeless album.