Friday marks half a century since the Beatles first touched down in New York City.
Children have become grandparents in that time, but they can likely still recall seeing four sharp-dressed men turn the Ed Sullivan Theater into the navel of the world for one indelible evening. It’s one of our few moments of shared national glee, as opposed to the many tragedies visited since, and that grainy black-and-white broadcast still stands as one of the pinnacles of pop culture.
What came next was an artistic explosion that lasted a mere six years, but gifted the world with a collection of songs that almost serves as a universal kit on how to be alive. If you can feel it, The Beatles have you covered: you can fall in love and back out again, get dark, weird, and ineffably sad, get high and get low, whether alone with your headphones or hearing it from a subway busker singing in Spanish.
To try and rank their catalog in any definitive way is folly. Everyone’s experience of discovering and living with these songs is far too personal to ever be put down in stone, so what follows is simply one writer’s subjective take on fifty of their best.
1) A Day in the Life
Everything that made the union of John Lennon and Paul McCartney so unspeakably amazing can be found right here in this staggering epic. From John’s existential sadness, to George Martin’s obliterating orchestral rave-up, to Paul’s perfectly formed domestic interlude that fades back into the cosmic storm and on and on and on to the crashing piano finale, this is the be-all of the Beatles.
As Beatlemania careened into a fever pitch, the men in the middle were feeling the effects. The title track to their second film puts John’s struggles with himself on full display, and the chorus remains one of the purest pleas in pop history.
3) I Saw Her Standing There
One-two-three-FAW! With that electrifying count-off, this early hit captured the smoky, lamplit energy of the Cavern Club days when the Beatles were raw, unadulterated rock ‘n’ roll.
McCartney claims to have woken up one morning with one of the most perfect melodies ever created simply tumbling out of his head. Life is unfair that way.
5) Here Comes the Sun
Composed amid the chaotic dealings of the Beatles empire circa “Abbey Road,” George Harrison’s simple song is a ray of brightness that showed him to be an elite songwriter that drew strength from his gentle spirit.
6) Can’t Buy Me Love
With a release perfectly timed to ride the burgeoning swell of Beatlemania in the States, this straightforward, uptempo number with a sappy sentiment captures the carefree spirit of the young group.
7) A Hard Day’s Night
With its lean, propulsive sound, all rollicking rhythms and brightly toned guitar, the title track to their first film explodes with the busyness of life from its first blaring notes.
8) Come Together
Originally meant to accompany Timothy Leary’s political campaign, this dark, brooding “Abbey Road” number rides a tautly restrained groove.
9) While My Guitar Gently Weeps
George’s finest hour features friend Eric Clapton on the superlative solo.
10) Here, There and Everywhere
An uncomplicated declaration of love from McCartney that shows his unmatchable gift for simply placing the correct notes in order. It’s a rare song that both Paul and John remarked was one of their favorites.
11) You’re Going To Lose That Girl
A refined tune that could have just as easily come out of the corridors of Motown, this cut from “Help!” shows increasing complexity and adds a slyness to the Beatles’ romantic roots.
12) Strawberry Fields Forever
A psychedelic blast of nostalgia drawn from John’s childhood memories, “Strawberry Fields Forever” came as the Beatles and their contemporaries were making forays into unchartered artistic territory.
13) Tomorrow Never Knows
It’s hard to square the same lads who sang “Love Me Do” with this mind-blowing beast, a tape-looped parade of backwards drum beats and Tibetan spirituality.
14) Ticket to Ride
Moving on from the predictability of their early work, this fuller-sounding cut has a stuttering, syncopated rhythm and unexpected outro that is among the group’s most memorable.
15) I Want to Hold Your Hand
A song this crazily original must have sounded like a rocket from a strange planet in 1963. Chaste displays of affection never had it so good.
16) Hey Jude
A monumental classic that showcases Paul as a peerless balladeer and incomparable rock voice in the span of seven-plus minutes, building to a never-ending singalong that floods your brain and compels you to take it up.
17) Eleanor Rigby
A sublimely compact story of sadness, with strings.
18) Abbey Road Medley
If there is a better way to say good-bye than “The End,” followed by the ribald ditty “Her Majesty,” it has yet to be recorded.
19) Don’t Let Me Down
Somewhat of a sleeper in the grand canon, this bluesy groove is John on his own, tearing down the walls and saying it plain.
20) Paperback Writer
Marked by its pounding drum pattern and over-driven bass (a new model for McCartney), this high-energy take on the publishing process doesn’t make much sense, but it doesn’t really have to.
The rest of the best:
22) Let It Be
23) Get Back
24) Eight Days a Week
25) She Loves You
26) Oh! Darling
27) Dear Prudence
28) All My Loving
30) I Feel Fine
31) Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
33) In My Life
35) Penny Lane
36) I Want You (She’s So Heavy)
37) The Night Before
38) For No One
39) You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away
40) The Ballad of John and Yoko
41) I’ve Just Seen a Face
42) If I Fell
43) I Am the Walrus
44) Happiness Is a Warm Gun
45) And I Love Her
46) Twist and Shout
47) Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds
48) She’s Leaving Home
49) With a Little Help From My Friends
50) All You Need Is Love