An Alternative Beatles Top 10

beatles

The world may be in chaos right now, but as long as the Beatles Channel on SiriusXM continues to air its annual listener-voted countdown of the Top 100 Beatles songs of all-time, we know all is not lost.

I tuned in to the end of this Memorial Weekend tradition while at a barbecue Monday—you can listen the whole thing for free now, on demand, at siriusxm.com—and was stunned to find that for the first time since the poll began, “A Day in the Life” was dethroned from its No. 1 position. This year, it went to Paul McCartney’s most nostalgic and winsome paean to better times, “Yesterday.” In the midst of a pandemic, embracing this masterwork anew seems inevitable. “Yesterday / All my troubles seemed so far away / Now it looks as though they’re here to stay.” Aren’t they indeed.

But to listen to, or even to look at, the entire list is to marvel at the Sophie’s-style choices of selecting even 100 songs from an oeuvre this impossibly impressive. “Drive My Car,” a pop song that would be another artist’s crowning glory, was only number ninety-three, for Pete’s sake. Yet here I am, foolishly presenting my own Top 10, with my restriction being that I cannot include anything in the Beatles Channel’s Top 10 in my own. Because, surely, y’all don’t need me to wax poetic about “Hey Jude” or “Let it Be.” So without further ado…

10. “Baby You’re a Rich Man”

This was the B-side to the “All You Need is Love” single, but I’ll take it over the barroom schmaltz of the A-side any day. This song featured a prominent clavioline, an antecedent of the synthesizer, revealing that proto-electronic music was one of many genres the Beatles had a hand in hatching. Mick Jagger sings background on this one, and it indeed has the soulful stomp of a vintage Stones song.

9. “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”

This is a time-bending wail of lust of the highest order. “I Want You” is one of the Beatles’ simplest songs lyrically—surely among their later years—and it’s also among their most patient and sludgy, mastering a form of slow-burning, jam-band blues-rock in a way that’s unrivaled in their catalog.

8. “Revolution 9”

Yes, seriously. The Beatles’ most “unlistenable” composition will never make SiriusXM’s top 100, but their most adventurous and magisterially alienating song deserves a spot in mine. Nothing was an affront to the band’s former teenybopper audience like this 8-minute experiment in musique concrete that, in the right conditions and a great set of headphones, can be as transportive in its own way as “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

7. “Only a Northern Song”

Recovered from the cutting-room floor of Sgt. Pepper’s and recast almost as an afterthought for the “Yellow Submarine movie,” this George Harrison miniature opus is one of the band’s unfettered psychedelic joys. I’m particularly fond of the self-referential wit in Harrison’s lyrics: “If you’re listening to this song / You may think the chords are going wrong / But they’re not / He just wrote it like that.”

6. “Helter Skelter”

The Beatles song most likely to generate noise-pollution complaints from my neighbors, the churning heaviness of “Helter Skelter” is widely seen as the forerunner to heavy metal, and it still lands with all of its searing intensity—and its inherent irony, given that such an intense number was, in fact, written about a roller coaster. That’s all it’s about, Mr. Manson. A roller coaster.

5. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”

This is the tune that, for me, most encapsulates the singular weirdness of Sgt. Pepper’s, painting a vivid picture of a mad circus master, and amplified by proto-video game sounds and a druggy, loping rhythm. Hearing Paul resurrect this one live a few years ago was one of that concert’s most endearing surprises.

4. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”

Despite its clocking in at a respectable No. 23 on this year’s official list, this one’s gotten a lot of flak over the years for being a mindless ditty with a gibberish chorus. I can’t advocate for its profound artistic merit, but when I want to feel better in life, I turn to this McCartney bopper before any others; it’s especially effective when jogging—something we’ve been doing a lot of lately—for a cheery adrenaline boost.

3. “Tomorrow Never Knows”

Informed by co-author Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience, this slippery merger of western rock forms with eastern spiritualism is like a dry run for John Lennon’s more commercial examples of chemical enhancement—“Lucy in the Sky,” “Strawberry Fields,” etc. It sounds wild sober, but close to visionary under said influence.

2. “I’m Looking Through You”

An archetypal example of the folky foundations of Rubber Soul. I love the subdued, clopping percussion and the shards of spunky electric guitar adding punctuation to Paul’s sinewy bass lines. One of this great album’s most underrated tracks, it still found a spot on SiriusXM’s countdown, at No. 56.

1. “Nowhere Man”

Which leads into my favorite Beatles song. Given my love for a certain brand of acoustic folk music, it’s telling that Bob Dylan once cited “Nowhere Man” as his favorite Beatles song too. It’s also the Fab Four tune that I’m most comfortable crooning at karaoke. How this rustic, Byrds-style masterpiece was left off the American press of Rubber Soul is one of the industry’s most harebrained omissions.


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