How do you whittle down the esteem of The Beatles and their enormous back catalogue of startlingly good songs to just 25? With great difficulty, it turns out. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr transformed pop culture as we know it when they broke out of the confines of The Cavern Club and let rip with a reem of pop tunes capable not only of making toes tap and hips shimmy but changing popular culture as we know it.
The Fab Four were active during the entirety of the 1960s and much of what we owe to the decade as culturally significant can be traced back to the glorious mop tops of our aforementioned fabulous foursome. The band transformed the musical landscape, first as a chart-topping, hysteria-inducing boyband and then as one of the most advantageous and experimental pop groups the world has ever known. Their image, their message and their impact are still revered to this day but underneath the iconography is one thing: the music.
That’s what is so often undermined by the group’s mass appeal. The band may well have become icons of their age, they may still be received as such too, but they delivered a reem of songs that fill the entirety of the rock and roll spectrum. They had some ditties, gentle pop tunes that got toes tapping and Lennon and McCartney referred to as “pot boilers”, owing to their rhythmic bubble, but they also had weird and wonderful pieces of avant-garde performance art.
It makes for a heady concoction that few have been able to resist since their inception six decades ago. Of course, as with every popular figure, the band have been torn down on plenty of occasions. And, as the years pass by, a steady stream of young and virile naysayers litter the halls of college dormitories and after-party kitchens proclaiming the lack of relevancy the band have to their lives. Only to return, a year later, having discovered that one Beatles number that turns it all around and makes them fans forevermore.
No matter how hard you try to fight it, the swell of musicianship will eventually swallow you up and you too will be fighting the good fight for the Fab Four. If you ever find yourself in such a hypothetical musical scrap, then lean on these 25 songs as the very best of The Beatles and perfect weaponry in your crusade.
25 greatest songs by The Beatles:
25. ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’
Chances are, if you start singing this anywhere in the world, you will get at least one call back. When The Beatles achieved the incredible feat of holding the top five positions of the US chart in 1964, this song was right up there.
Despite many people’s attempts to suggest that McCartney wrote the song about a sex worker, knowing Macca the chances of that being true are very slim. Instead, it tackles the idea of love and the transactional way people approach it.
24. ‘I Am The Walrus’
John Lennon was quick to lean heavily on his inspirations when writing songs and the words for ‘I Am The Walrus’ leapt right up from the page. The song was directly inspired by the work of Lewis Carroll and sees Lennon use an allegory to create a mystifying point.
“Walrus is just saying a dream,” recalled John in his infamous 1980 interview with Playboy. Like many dreams, the song is actually a composite of a few different themes. The basic rhythmic pattern came from one song about inner-city police which Lennon had based on a police siren. The other two threads were dreamed up when Lennon was high on acid, with one being written as if he was on a cornflake. It makes for some of the group’s most expansive and experimental songwriting.
23. ‘Nowhere Man’
One of The Beatles’ stand-out albums, Rubber Soul is often thought of as the first time the Fab Four really stepped out of their comfort zones. The group, especially John Lennon and Paul McCartney, were keen to take their music away from the pop charts and radio-friendly hits about ‘boy meets girl’.
One song, in particular, will always go down as one of the band’s landmark moments. A signature tune that suggested that they knew the path laid out ahead of them, the band were destined to expand the idea of pop music beyond all recognition. The track, ‘Nowhere Man’, was written by Lennon and birthed out of frustration: “I’d spent five hours that morning trying to write a song that was meaningful and good, and I finally gave up and lay down,” Lennon once said in an interview with Playboy.
22. ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’
Let’s clear one thing up immediately, just because we think this is one of The Beatles best ever song, doesn’t mean we think The Beatles were the best to ever sing it. That accolade must go to Joe Cocker. But, there can be no denying the sheer quality of the track at hand.
Penned for Ringo Starr to take lead vocals on, the track was a truly collaborative piece and shares the band unbridled optimism with a hint of universal connection. It’s a song that will undoubtedly outlive us all.
21. ‘Eleanor Rigby’
“It just came. When I started doing the melody I developed the lyric. It all came from the first line. I wonder if there are girls called Eleanor Rigby?” We imagine there certainly are now! The luscious trace is beautifully mirrored in the lyrics which depict the story of a lonely old woman.
One of many great McCartney tracks from Revolver—arguably his best showing on record for the band—the song is a continuation of Macca’s fascination with the unloved and forgotten. As well as shining a light on those lost stories, McCartney always puts a mirror to our actions and asks if we’ve done enough.
20. ‘I Saw Her Standing There’
A Cavern Club classic, ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ is arguably one of The Beatles breakthrough tunes. It set girls hearts alight and made the Fab Four the talk of every town. Macca’s count-in may be famous but it was the stinking riff that followed which told every music fan around, this was no boyband.
In 2007, Macca recalled of the song’s creation: “Those early days were really cool, just sussing each other out, and realising that we were good. You just realise from what he was feeding back. Often it was your song or his song, it didn’t always just start from nothing. Someone would always have a little germ of an idea.” It’s a piece of pop history that should be adored forever.
19. ‘She Loves You’
In the early days of The Beatles, the band could do no wrong. They churned out a succession of hits that not only got teens on the dancefloor but also sent them to their local record stores (or perhaps even the electricians) to pick up the latest singles. One such bopping tune that would help their success was ‘She Loves You’.
About as classic a Beatles song as someone can find, the track is pure adolescent joy. Flitting with flirtations and never truly standing still, the song is a piece of pop perfection, distilled from the excitement of every Lennon-McCartney composition, from the best to ever do it.
One of Paul McCartney’s most political songs sees the Beatle sit down to write ‘Blackbird’ after seeing countless stories of civil rights suppression in 1968. It’s not only one of his simplest songs (using only his vocals, his acoustic guitar and a metronome tap) but also most powerful.
Macca said of the song in 2008: “We were totally immersed in the whole saga which was unfolding. So I got the idea of using a blackbird as a symbol for a black person. It wasn’t necessarily a black ‘bird’, but it works that way, as much as then you called girls ‘birds’; the Everlys had had ‘Bird Dog,’ so the word ‘bird’ was around. ‘Take these broken wings’ was very much in my mind, but it wasn’t exactly an ornithological ditty; it was purposely symbolic.”
17. ‘Don’t Let Me Down’
Perhaps one of Lennon’s most passionate deliveries came on the band’s Let It Be track, ‘Don’t Let Me Down’. The song certainly isn’t the most complex piece of music you’ll ever hear, but Lennon’s inner-rocker comes out in full force on this track. It ranks high as one of The Beatles most precious numbers. It’s certainly one of the most impassioned.
The song was composed about Yoko and saw Lennon take his lyrics into the territory of pleading with Yoko to stay with him, prove him right and live out their love together. It was a plea that all the extra worries and troubles he was now dealing with were worth it.
Endlessly covered and possibly overplayed it can be easy to overlook the songwriting genius that goes into a song like ‘Yesterday’. In the same way we all take sliced bread for granted, forgetting when it was the best thing, one can sometimes forget how beautiful this track truly is.
McCartney even picked it as one of his favourites: “Well, it’s difficult to choose the favourite. It (‘Here, There and Everywhere’) is one of my favourites. You look at your songs and kinda look to see which of the ones you think are maybe the best constructed and stuff,” says McCartney. “I think ‘Yesterday’—if it wasn’t so successful—might be my favourite.” It’s a sentiment we share too.
The issue with ‘Yesterday’ is that we’ve all heard it about 20 times more often than any other Beatles number. For that reason alone, it has lost a degree of power.
15. ‘In My Life’
If there is one song that signifies John Lennon’s jump into a brand new style of songwriting then it is the brilliant ‘In My Life’.
Lennon claimed it was the first song he wrote “consciously” about his own life, telling Sheff in 1980: “Before, we were just writing songs a la Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly— pop songs with no more thought to them than that. The words were almost irrelevant.”
Having struggled with the lyrics, first using a bus trip he had frequently mad in Liverpool as the base of the song the track eventually arrived at him: “But then I laid back and these lyrics started coming to me about the places I remember.”
14. ‘Please. Please Me’
The formula to success is trial and error and the song ‘Please, Please Me’ proves that. The zenith of fame the band reached makes it difficult to believe that they too had their “struggling days”. But in the early 1960s, when the band was in the beginner phase of their esteemed career, the task of expanding their circle proved to be quite challenging. But the band managed to crack through the armour of the industry with this gem.
Though the album credits state the song to be a Lennon-McCartney composition, it was in fact all Lennon: “’Please Please Me’ is my song completely. It was my attempt at writing a Roy Orbison song, would you believe it? I wrote it in the bedroom in my house at Menlove Avenue, which was my auntie’s place.”
It may have topped almost all the UK charts when released on January 11th 1963, but it was a hard pitch to the US record producers. After facing rejection from many record companies including the Atlantic, the local Chicago company Vee-Jay agreed to sign the song and released it on 7th February 1963. However, their US debut didn’t take off on the first try. The song’s 1964 reissue finally created a buzz that spread like wildfire.
13. ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’
Though not musically extremely gifted, Lennon knew a hook when he saw one and when he glanced over at a magazine and saw the NRA advert with the tagline: ‘Happiness is a warm gun’ he knew he had something that would transcend culture for decades to come.
Of course, McCartney certainly had a hand in the track, the complex time signatures should tell you that, but the motif and the sentiment of the track feel straight out of the Lennon playbook. As one of the tougher moments of the band’s 1968 White Album Lennon does a great job of adding in a potent dose of acid-rock amid the swirling blues and doo-wop crescendo. It’s a joyful track.
12. ‘Across the Universe’
“One of my best songs,” said Lennon of the Let It Be track, ‘Across The Universe’. The song seemingly came out of nowhere for Lennon after an argument with his first wife Cynthia, “I kept hearing these words over and over, flowing like an endless stream. I went downstairs, and it turned into sort of a cosmic song rather than an irritated song… it drove me out of bed. I didn’t want to write it, but I was slightly irritable, and I went downstairs, and I couldn’t get to sleep until I’d put it on paper.”
Despite the seemingly prickly beginnings, the track has taken on a new persona with revision and is now seen as a resplendent moment on the record, a moment where it’s easy to let the music flow through you. For Lennon, the composition was very similar, “It’s like being possessed,” he said of writing the iconic track.
11. ‘Penny Lane’
‘Penny Lane’ is right up there as one of The Beatles most widely-known songs. Written for the Magical Mystery Tour in 1967, the song was composed while Macca sat at a bus stop on Penny Lane waiting for Lennon to arrive.
Noting down what he saw he conjured up a colloquial look at Liverpool and the British society which had spawned it. It was pure chart fodder for the American audiences, beguiled by the tweeness of Macca’s nursery rhyme childhood.
Not necessarily Macca’s most daring number, it’s on the list because it welcomed in a new era for the band and saw in 1967 with aplomb. Its uniqueness, only dampened by ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ is just how easily McCartney can make something so personal feel so universal.
10. ‘Hey Jude’
“That’s his best song,” claimed John Lennon when speaking about McCartney’s famous song. “It started off as a song about my son Julian because Paul was going to see him. Then he turned it into ‘Hey Jude’. I always thought it was about me and Yoko but he said it was about him and his.”
During his famous 1980 Playboy interview, Lennon also offered another theory to the song’s inception: “He said it was written about Julian. He knew I was splitting with Cyn and leaving Julian then. He was driving to see Julian to say hello. He had been like an uncle. And he came up with ‘Hey Jude.’ But I always heard it as a song to me.”
The direct target of McCartney’s anthemic and downright astounding song is likely to be a combination of both of these sentiments. The truth is that the song, like any great song does, can be moved and repositioned to fit whatever the audience may need at the time. It is a song bristling with emotion, care, comfort, and love. It’s a track like no other. It’s a letter to a friend.
9. ‘Norwegian Wood’
The Rubber Soul track is often considered Lennon’s first real acid-rock tune, but the truth is a little way off. Instead, this track is the first time he establishes that sound as part of his own musical vocabulary. Of course, he needed help for the sitar part of the song; luckily, he had Harrison on hand to deliver a killer intro with his sitar.
The real story behind the song is one a little more scandalous. He disclosed: “I was trying to write about an affair without letting my wife know I was having one. I was sort of writing from my experiences – girl’s flats, things like that. I was very careful and paranoid because I didn’t want my wife, Cyn, to know that there really was something going on outside of the household.
Lennon then honestly stated: “I’d always had some kind of affairs going on, so I was trying to be sophisticated in writing about an affair, but in such a smoke-screen way that you couldn’t tell. But I can’t remember any specific woman it had to do with.”
8. ‘Let It Be’
Possibly one of the most notorious song compositions of all time, Macca came up with the song after the image of his passed mother appeared to him in a dream and told him to ‘Let It Be’. Perhaps because of this origin story or more likely because of the song’s choral undertones but there’s something definitively spiritual about this song.
There’s no doubt it’s one of the most widely-known Beatles songs of all time and that can often have a dramatic effect on Fab Four purists picking it as their favourite, after all, there’s thousands of cover of the track. But we’d argue there’s a good reason for it, it’s one of Macca’s best songs and one of the Fab Four’s crowning moments.
If The Beatles are not concerned with popularity contests or appearing ‘cool’ then there’s good cause to have this anthem feature far higher on our list.
When artists such as Frank Sinatra pick out your work and label it as “the greatest love song of the past 50 years,” you know you’re doing something right. ‘Something’ will forever remain a special track for George Harrison.
Not only was it the first song he was able to releases with The Beatles as a fully-fledged single, but it was also the first song for The Beatles to reach number one that wasn’t suffixed with “written by Lennon-McCartney.”
For that reason alone, the Abbey Road number became a moment of utter pride for the guitarist who had struggled to impose his songwriting will on the Fab Four. But the song also worked as a clear indicator of Harrison’s bright solo future away from the band and his chaotic life at the time of writing.
6. ‘Here, There and Everywhere’
The Revolver anthem ‘Here There and Everywhere’ is a song that has ubiquitous appeal even for the cantankerous John Lennon, who said of the song: “This was a great one of his,” before adding: “That’s Paul’s song completely, I believe. And one of my favourite songs of the Beatles.”
McCartney himself later remarked that it “was the only song that John ever complimented me on.” And he deserved the compliment too. Inspired by ‘God Only Knows’, McCartney’s favourite song of all time, the song is achingly beautiful.
“It’s actually just the introduction that’s influenced,” recalled McCartney. “John and I used to be interested in what the old fashioned writers used to call the verse, which we nowadays would call the intro – this whole preamble to a song, and I wanted to have one of those on the front of ‘Here, There and Everywhere.’ John and I were quite into those from the old-fashioned songs that used to have them, and in putting that [sings ‘To lead a better life’] on the front of ‘Here, There and Everywhere,’ we were doing harmonies, and the inspiration for that was the Beach Boys.”
5. ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’
Featuring on the band’s 1967 album Magical Mystery Tour, Lennon drew on his life in Liverpool to add a certain sentimentality to this otherwise trippy number, “Strawberry Fields is a real place. After I stopped living at Penny Lane, I moved in with my auntie who lived in the suburbs in a nice semi-detached place with a small garden and doctors and lawyers and that ilk living around… not the poor slummy kind of image that was projected in all the Beatles stories.”
For Lennon, the time spent around those houses and fields, losing marbles and having fun was all the symbolism he ever really cared for: “We always had fun at Strawberry Fields. So that’s where I got the name. But I used it as an image. Strawberry Fields forever.”
While ‘Penny Lane’ is a similar song in tone and sentiment, Lennon takes this track into a brand new realm. Rather than reminiscing about his home as an unattainable place, Lennon pictures it as his own personal heaven, his safe place.
4. ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’
Recorded in 1968 as part of the White Album sessions, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ was written as an exercise in ‘randomness’ where George Harrison consulted the Chinese Book of Changes. “The Eastern concept is that whatever happens is all meant to be,” Harrison once commented. “Every little item that’s going down has a purpose. ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ was a simple study based on that theory… I picked up a book at random, opened it, saw ‘gently weeps’, then laid the book down again and started the song.”
Instead of looking to the help of his bandmates Paul McCartney and John Lennon to finish the track, Harrison instead turned to Eric Clapton once more. “Nobody ever plays on the Beatles’ records,” Clapton is thought to have said to Harrison with a moment of trepidation. “So what?” Harrison replied. “It’s my song.”
Clapton would deliver a killer solo at the end of the song that would not only finish the track with a flourish but become perhaps one of the finest guitar solos ever put down on tape.
A classic pop number, ‘Help!’ isn’t as nearly as well-regarded as it should be. For us, it represents the crux of what made Lennon one of the greatest songwriters of all time—on ‘Help!’ he makes pop personal.
“We think it’s one of the best we’ve written,” said John Lennon in 1965 as he contemplated on the band’s recent single, a commissioned track for their new film Help!, taking notes from the film’s title. But behind all the fast games, quick cash and unstoppable fandom, John Lennon was already beginning to long for a time before The Beatles ever happened and took over his life. He was crying out for help. On this track, he goes into his “fat Elvis period” and yet still manages to create one of the band’s most cherished songs—and one of Lennon’s favourites.
The singer and guitarist replied to a Rolling Stone question about why he loved the song so much and he replied, “Because I meant it, it’s real. The lyric is as good now as it was then, it’s no different, you know. It makes me feel secure to know that I was that sensible or whatever- well, not sensible, but aware of myself. That’s with no acid, no nothing… well pot or whatever.” Lennon clarifies his point, “It was just me singing “help” and I meant it, you know.” It would be a sentiment Lennon would take into all his recordings from hereon, and it makes ‘Help!’ the start of something beautiful.
2. ‘A Day In The Life’
One track that may not necessarily be entirely descended from an acid trip like some of the band’s songs but is certainly dripping with psychedelia is ‘A Day In The Life’. A track imbued with the same mysticism as the best of Beatles work, the song is a fragmented retelling of the day’s papers and sees Lennon and McCartney at their magpie best, picking and choosing their inspirations on the fly.
Despite what many say after the first listening, lyrically it doesn’t necessarily imbue you with the sense of ‘what-the-fuckery’ as some of the band’s other pieces, but musically, the track is one of the band’s most expansive. Beginning as a simple acoustic guitar and piano piece, the sonics continue to move up and up before a swirling climax finally explodes.
It is rightly regarded as one of The Beatles’ finest moments on tape and is a perfect example of just how well the two principal songwriters of the group could patch their styles and motifs together so effortlessly. The beauty in the recording of the trace is just how involved every member of the band is. Okay, so it’s not necessarily the Beatles number you want on the radio for a sing-a-long but it best describes the band they became.
1. ‘Here Comes The Sun’
Of course, it is wholly impossible to pick an all-time “best” song by The Beatles, such is the majesty that almost everybody will have a different list of 25. However, there can be no denying the beautiful moments of ‘Here Comes The Sun’. Arguably the most famous of George Harrison’s compositions, ‘Here Comes The Sun’ is one of the most beautiful songs The Beatles ever produced. Recorded as part of Abbey Road, the song is a transcendent moment for anyone who hears those first iconic notes.
The track was written alongside Eric Clapton during a difficult moment for Harrison: “‘Here Comes the Sun’ was written at the time when Apple was getting like school, where we had to go and be businessmen: ‘Sign this’ and ‘sign that.’ Anyway, it seems as if winter in England goes on forever, by the time spring comes you really deserve it.
“So one day I decided I was going to sag off Apple and I went over to Eric Clapton’s house,” he continued. “The relief of not having to go see all those dopey accountants was wonderful, and I walked around the garden with one of Eric’s acoustic guitars and wrote ‘Here Comes the Sun’.”
Not bad for a casual jaunt around the garden, to come up with one of the most widely adored songs of all time. We’ll bet that if you played his song at any cafe, restaurant or park, upon hearing Harrison’s first sunshining notes, you will see a sea of smiles. And really, that’s what music and The Beatles are all about.