Sunday, September 6, 2009

Entertainment Weekly Puts Head on Chopping Block, Names 50 Best Beatles Songs

Entertainment Weekly is one of my favorite magazines. It tells me which TV shows, movies, and bands are hot this week so that I don't have to spend time and money actually following them myself. I keep one toe in the jacuzzi of popular culture, but I don't get all wet and pruny worrying about who's getting voted off "American Idol" this week. I consider this a valuable public service and well worth the price of the subscription I've carried for the better part of the last 20 years.

So this week EW has hopped on the Beatles bandwagon. With both "The Beatles: Rock Band" and the remastered CD catalog being released on September 9, the latest issue is stuffed with Beatles-related content. Which means that I'm not learning much this week. I love reading about the Beatles, but in the same way that I love watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail, even though I know every line by heart. I sit at no one's feet when it comes to the Fab Four. I am that tiresome person who knows how the album version of "Let It Be" differs from the single version, and why John Lennon's solo hit "Instant Karma" is credited to Lennon-McCartney even though it's not a Beatles song. Because I really and truly believe these things are important, dammit. This is the Beatles, after all. In case you haven't heard, they're bigger than Jesus.

In that same irksome, know-it-all spirit, I approached EW's take on "The 50 Best Songs." First of all, this kind of list has appeared in dozens, probably hundreds of forms since 1970. Every last one is no more or less than somebody's opinion. My educated guess is that you won't find "Revolution 9" on the top of anybody's best-of list. Beyond that, it's a free-for-all. EW admits that its list was compiled by committee, which guarantees that there were all kinds of arguments over personal favorites and little discussion of what might objectively make the individual songs great. Which is exactly how such a list should be compiled. The Beatles' official output numbered somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 songs; any 50 of those songs chosen at random are likely to be superior to the same number of songs by just about any other group in rock history. A Beatles best-of list, no matter who puts it together, is by definition something of an academic exercise - Which of these awesome songs is the awesomest? It depends on where you're coming from.

I thought EW's list had some glaring omissions. No "Please Please Me." No "Hello Goodbye." Five songs from Revolver, but not "For No One" or "Got to Get You Into My Life." "Lovely Rita," a virtual novelty number from Sgt. Pepper, made the cut, but not "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"? Sacrilege.

I could make a case for chunking the entire list in the trash because it doesn't include "Twist and Shout." Just because the band didn't write it doesn't mean it's not one of their greatest recordings. In fact, there are no covers on EW's list from a band that did some amazing versions of other people's tunes. Paul McCartney's vocals on "Long Tall Sally" give Little Richard a run for his money. I daresay that more people know Ringo Starr's lovably goofy version of "Act Naturally" than have ever heard the Buck Owens original. And how could any credible list exclude the band's cover of "Besame Mucho"? (OK, just kidding on that last one - sometimes even a personal favorite can't be justified as a great record.)

Then there are my nitpicks with some of the songs that did make the list. "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" is a lovely song with cool Dylan-influenced lyrics by John Lennon. But I think that "I've Just Seen a Face" is a much better track from Help! (even though I grew up knowing it as the opening song on the US version of Rubber Soul). And speaking of Rubber Soul, I'd swap out EW's choice of "You Won't See Me" from that album in favor of "I'm Looking Through You."

The White Album presents an entire set of challenges. Personally, I might be inclined to dump every track onto my best-of list, then pad out the remaining slots with songs from other albums. OK, except for "Revolution 9." The White Album happens to be my favorite album of all time, by any artist, period. There's a dash of bias there. So I'll limit my critique to the slots on the list that EW gave it. "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" is a great song, but I'd replace it with "Glass Onion." "Dear Prudence" just might make the cut, but the album contains so many other wonderful ballads, too, including "I Will," "Julia," and "Long Long Long." I completely agree with "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "Helter Skelter," by the way. Naming "Don't Pass Me By" as one of the Beatles' five worst songs, however? I've mentioned "Revolution 9" twice in this post, EW - get a clue.

Finally, let's talk Number One. EW chose "A Hard Day's Night." Love the song, adore the movie. But it's not the Beatles' best song. So what is? I don't know. It's up to you to decide. That's not copping out, that's a conciliatory gesture to those who might otherwise tear me apart for daring to name the "best" Beatles tune. They may do so anyway, because that's what people do on the Internet. But let the record show that I threw out the conciliatory gesture.

OK. Best Beatles' song. For aural impact, I'd say "A Day in the Life." For inventiveness, "Strawberry Fields Forever" is as great a lesson in recording technology as it is a composition. For harmonies and poignancy, "Nowhere Man" does it for me. For rocking out, it's a tie between "Twist and Shout" and "Helter Skelter." And for being timeless, ageless, and endlessly recordable, I could choose from "If I Fell," "And I Love Her," "Something," and "Let It Be."

You see, it depends on where you're coming from. But you can't go wrong by spending five minutes or an hour or a weekend listening to any of them. Oh, and if you don't have a frame of reference for a Beatles best-of list because you don't know all the songs, do what I did this morning with Precocious Daughter: Listen to them. Listen to them all. And sing along, of course.

1 comment:

  1. How could you forget to mention "You Know My Name, Look Up The Number?" Geez! (But you get points for "Besame Mucho.")

    My picks would be side two of The White Album, and all of Rubber Soul: All of the songs, in no particular order.


You're thinking it, you may as well type it. The only comments you'll regret are the ones you don't leave. Also, replies to threads make puppies grow big and strong.