How do you pick, let alone rank, the 12 best tracks recorded by the most beloved and influential pop band of all time? The premise is ridiculous, the task impossible. But just for fun (and with apologies to inevitable dissenters), Elysa Gardneroffers USA TODAY's purely subjective list of Beatles favorites.
1) Ticket to Ride
No single better reflects the mix of ambition, tension and pure pop genius that made The Beatles unique than Ticket to Ride. John Lennon and Paul McCartney have disputed the authorship of this chart-topping, spine-tingling hit from 1965's Help!Lennon maintained that McCartney's contribution was essentially Ringo Starr's propulsive drum part, a key element in the production, which prefigures a heavier, more muscular rock sound.
The bridge is just as brilliant: The band suddenly, frantically picks up the pace, and the tune becomes precociously groovy even as it reflects the nervous desperation lurking beneath that soaring melody and majestic arrangement. The first Beatles song that ran over three minutes long, Ticket to Ride is perfection all the way through.
2) I Want to Hold Your Hand
There are few things as blissful, or as hard to pull off, as a happy pop song, free of sentimentality or snark. No rock group is responsible for more such treasures than The Beatles; a number of them are on this list, none more effervescent than 1963's I Want to Hold Your Hand, the band's first No.1 hit in the USA.
Fittingly, the song that allowed The Beatles to conquer America was a joint effort between Lennon and McCartney, who wrote it sitting together in the basement of McCartney's then-girlfriend Jane Asher's parents. I Want to Hold Your Hand's joyful simplicity is deceptive; there are tricky chord shifts and syncopated (hand-clapped) rhythms within rhythms. But the effect is unfussy exuberance — just try listening to it without grinning.
3) A Day in the Life
Had The Beatles split up after the 1967 release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, this closing track would have been the ideal coda to an amazing career. Instead, A Day in the Life was at once a summation of the band's distinctive strengths — Lennon and McCartney's songcraft, at another collaborative peak; the intuition and invention that enabled the four musicians and their studio colleagues to push the experimental envelope — and a sign that The Beatles' creative juices were still flowing in full force.
The gorgeous apocalyptic meltdown that concludes Sgt. Pepper's psychedelic trip begins through Lennon's eyes and voice. He adapted the creepy opening scenarios from real-life incidents. McCartney conceived the middle section that interrupts the disturbing dream and introduces classical elements — preparing the listener, almost, for the teeming buildup that ends with the longest, starkest piano chord in pop history.
4) Eleanor Rigby
With this single from 1966's Revolver, The Beatles secured their place in the pantheon of great musical storytellers — and Lennon and McCartney (particularly the latter, Rigby's primary writer) proved a flair for the theatrical pop song rare among their contemporaries, even those who drew deftly on the narrative traditions of folk and blues. It's hard to imagine a more chillingly, thrillingly dramatic evocation of loneliness than poor Ms. Rigby's tale.
Of course, a good chunk of credit is due producer George Martin, who had a double string quartet replace band members for the piercing instrumentals. McCartney's lead vocal is hauntingly matter-of-fact, heightening the impact when he's joined by Lennon and George Harrison in their bracing lamentations of all the lonely people.
5) Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
An extramarital affair — engaged in by Lennon, Norwegian Wood's principal writer — inspired this exquisite acoustic ballad from 1965's Rubber Soul. The seemingly straightforward arrangement features Harrison on sitar, his first use of that instrument on a Beatles recording, and evidence of the growing interest in Eastern music and culture that would have an influence on the band inside and outside the recording studio.
The lyrics, about a close but brief encounter with an independent and cosmopolitan woman, are pure Lennon: witty, a tad rueful and finally poignant without stooping to sentiment. The simple but sumptuous melody follows the song's journey from wry jocularity to wistful resignation.
6) Penny Lane
McCartney crafted the shiny gem that is Penny Lane in homage to the Liverpool where he and Lennon grew up. (The title refers to a part of Lennon's old neighborhood.) There is certainly a childlike innocence and ebullience to this No. 1 hit from 1967's Magical Mystery Tour. But once again, those qualities belie a marked sophistication, and some sweat: Behind his breezy vocal, you can hear McCartney multitasking on several instruments — he plays three separate parts on the piano alone.
One signature feature of the arrangement was added after the basic track had been recorded: Upon hearing a British chamber orchestra broadcast of Bach'sBrandenburg Concerto No. 2, McCartney arranged for David Mason, a classical musician who performed in the orchestra, to play the whimsical piccolo trumpet solo.
7) Hey Jude
Few back stories are better known than the one behind Hey Jude, the rousing seven-minute epic that gave The Beatles their lengthiest No. 1 hit, in more than one respect: It spent nine weeks in that position in 1968. After Lennon split with his first wife, Cynthia, McCartney was inspired by thoughts of the couple's young son, Julian. The song was conceived, famously, as Hey Jules.
Granted, the resulting plea to "take a sad song and make it better" seems more like advice to a lovesick pal. It has been speculated that the increasingly strained relationships in McCartney's band also could have been a factor. But no matter: Like its final, wordless refrain, Jude's pull — at once comforting and energizing — requires no literal translation.
8) Strawberry Fields Forever
Recorded early in the Sgt. Pepper sessions, Strawberry Fields Forever instead wound up a 1967 single, on the opposite side of Penny Lane — try topping that double bill — and later on Magical Mystery Tour. Fields also nodded to Lennon and McCartney's youth, this time from the former's perspective, but ultimately, it was more a fantasy than a recollection. "Strawberry Fields is just anywhere you want to go," Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1968.
And what a glorious, freaky destination the song is, its swirling textures and tuneful dissonance steeped in the psychedelia that The Beatles were popularizing. Little wonder those rumors arose that the song announces McCartney's death; Lennon's hallucination is as eerie as it is exhilarating.
9) While My Guitar Gently Weeps
George Harrison crafted several Beatles favorites, none more robust than this 1968 classic, featured on The Beatles (aka The White Album). Inspired by Harrison's increasing interest in Eastern philosophy, Guitar has a gentle, piano-dominated intro. As the arrangement acquires muscle and steam, a compelling tension creeps into the vocals, highlighting the lyrics' mix of frustrated idealism and knowing sadness.
Harrison famously recruited Eric Clapton to contribute the keening, doleful solo that embodies the song's title.
10) The Fool on the Hill
1967's The Fool on the Hill is as evocative a character study as Eleanor Rigby, though the character here is drawn with a lighter hand and heart.
McCartney, the main writer, has said he was inspired by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and the lyrics finally convey more admiration than pity. But the melody — one of McCartney's most sublime — has a gently plaintive quality that's reinforced by the breezy but bittersweet arrangement, with its flourishes of flute and penny whistle.
Little wonder that The Fool on the Hill, featured on Magical Mystery Tour (and in the film), has been covered by artists ranging from Sergio Mendes to Aretha Franklin to Bjork.
11) Abbey Road medley
Released in the fall of 1969, Abbey Road was the last album recorded by The Beatles, and it climaxes with a 16-minute series of short songs blended by McCartney and producer George Martin. Veering in mood from anguished to impish, from frantic to exultant, it's a final, furious rush of creative energy and irresistible melodrama.
The medley segues from McCartney's You Never Give Me Your Money (a nod to the group's music business woes) to Lennon's dreamy Sun King and quirky Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam. She Came in Through the Bathroom Window, Golden Slumbers and Carry That Weight are vintage McCartney, rocking hard and sweetly. And in The End: "The love you take is equal to the love you make."
Is there a great pop song more ineffably melancholy than Girl? A sort of bluer companion piece to Norwegian Wood — Girl was also written chiefly by Lennon and included on Rubber Soul as well — this lean, haunting ballad explores a dilemma that has plagued moony young men since time began. But in addressing the problem of women — can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em — Lennon manages to seem at once more profound and less self-pitying than most.
He apparently still had some learning to do, though. In a Rolling Stone interview shortly before he was murdered, Lennon referenced Girl in describing Woman, an equally awestruck but more appreciative song on his 1980 album, Double Fantasy. "This is the grown-up version of Girl," Lennon said.