“Love is a great thing to write a song about.” — Paul McCartney, The Beatles.
If you’re looking up record-breaking musicians, there is usually a quick trick to help you uncover the titleholder a little quicker; just go straight to The Beatles. The band were the first true pop music heroes, and they capitalised on the widespread Beatlemania that ensued when the chart-topping hits began to roll in. In fact, the band have an imposing array of said chart-toppers, with a whopping 20 singles reaching the number one spot on the Billboard 100. It’s a feat that no other artist has managed in the six decades since.
Considering that The Beatles were one of the first bands to truly popularise the album as a single piece of art, they pulled out some perplexingly brilliant singles. 20 number one hits don’t happen by accident, and it is a testament to the band’s songwriting power that they achieved the feat. However, not every song can be as good as another, and so, for a little giggle, we’ve ranked all of The Beatles number one hits in order of greatness.
There’s a difficulty with these lists in that trying to place how a singular piece of art has affected—and continues to affect—the world around it. What’s more, how important it can be to both the band and their audience can be wildly different on a mass scale, let alone on an individual listener basis. So while we think the below list is airtight, we’re certain most people will have a giant skewer at the ready to punch a few holes in it — but we encourage that anyway.
The reality is, to call any number one record a bad one is pretty misaligned. By sheer definition, our list of ranking The Beatles number ones will have some seriously difficult decisions woven throughout, but that doesn’t mean we can’t all have a little fun creating our own lists.
Feel free to drop yours in the comments and let us know how wrong we got it.
Ranking The Beatles number ones from worst to best:
20. ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’
Undoubtedly one of the Fab Four’s most cherished songs, it was the announcement of the band as a force to be reckoned with. “The big story about ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’,” recalled McCartney when speaking to Billboard.
“I’d said to Brian [Epstein, the band’s manager], ‘We don’t want to go to America until we have a number on record.’ A lot of British artists went there and came back with the audience having been slightly underwhelmed by them. I said, ‘We don’t want to be like that. If we go, we want to go on top’.” Surrounded by the band’s canon, it is easy to regard this track as part of their churning pop machine.
19. ‘Hello Goodbye’
Written by McCartney, Lennon was said to have been particularly unhappy when it was decided that ‘Hello, Goodbye’ was chosen to be the A-side to the Beatles’ experimental song ‘I Am the Walrus’.
“It wasn’t a great piece,” Lennon said in a 1980 interview with Playboy, adding that it was: “Three minutes of contradictions and meaningless juxtapositions. The best bit was the end, which we all ad-libbed in the studio, where I played the piano.” Despite this, the song still finds a special place in most fans’ hearts and can certainly be regarded as one of the best.
18. ‘The Long And Winding Road/For You Blue’
One of the band’s sadder releases, The Beatles, enjoyed a brief reprieve of songwriting prowess before their eventual split in 1970. Though it was a double A-side, the real takeaway from the release was the mournful ‘Long and Winding Road’, which seemed to say goodbye to the band.
“I was a bit flipped out and tripped out at that time,” remembered McCartney. “It’s a sad song because it’s all about the unattainable, the door you never quite reach. This is the road that you never get to the end of.”
17. ‘I Feel Fine’
Released in November 1964, the song is an unusual song for a few reasons. Not only was it a classic piece of their pop sound, utilising their effortless harmonies to a tee, but it also had some of the band’s foundational guitar moments too. “George and I play the same bit on guitar together,” recalled John Lennon. “That’s the bit that’ll set your feet a-tapping, as the reviews say. I suppose it has a bit of a country and western feel about it, but then so have a lot of our songs. The middle eight is the most tuneful part, to me, because it’s a typical Beatles bit.”
“The song itself was more John’s than mine,” admitted McCartney about the track. “We sat down and co-wrote it with John’s original idea. John sang it, I’m on harmonies, and the drumming is basically what we used to think of as ‘What’d I Say’ drumming. There was a style of drumming on ‘What’d I Say’, which is a sort of Latin R&B that Ray Charles’s drummer Milt Turner played on the original record, and we used to love it. One of the big clinching factors about Ringo as the drummer in the band was that he could really play that so well.”
16. ‘Love Me Do’
Few songs land as sweetly as ‘Love Me Do’ a bonafide head-bopper; the track is a shining example of the band’s pop pomp. It’s a song that was actually born before The Beatles: “Paul wrote the main structure of this when he was 16, or earlier. I think I had something to do with the middle,” Lennon told David Sheff in 1980. The track is positively bristling with youthful exuberance too.
“‘Love Me Do’ was completely co-written,” recalled Macca of the song, despite Lennon’s best intentions. “It might have been my original idea, but some of them really were 50-50s, and I think that one was. It was just Lennon and McCartney sitting down without either of us having a particularly original idea.
“We loved doing it; it was a very interesting thing to try and learn to do, to become songwriters. I think why we eventually got so strong was we wrote so much through our formative period. ‘Love Me Do’ was our first hit.”
15. ‘A Hard Day’s Night’
The song was an archetypal early Beatles pre-Rubber Soul effort, back when The Fab Four were as clean-cut as you got and were the quintessential boys next door, whose only issues were that they were working too damn hard. According to the drummer, the title of the track was born out of a flippant comment by Ringo Starr: “We went to do a job, and we’d worked all day, and we happened to work all night. I came up still thinking it was day, I suppose, and I said, ‘It’s been a hard day…’ and I looked around and saw it was dark, so I said, ‘…night!’ So we came to ‘A Hard Day’s Night’.”
Lennon later confirmed this in 1980, noting: “I was going home in the car, and Dick Lester suggested the title Hard Day’s Night from something Ringo’d said. I had used it in In His Own Write, but it was an off-the-cuff remark by Ringo. You know, one of those malapropisms.
“A Ringoism, where he said it not to be funny, just said it. So Dick Lester said we are going to use that title, and the next morning I brought in the song. ‘Cause there was a little competition between Paul and I as to who got the A side, who got the hit singles.”
The song shot to number one and only added more credence to their claim as the biggest band on the planet.
14. ‘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.
McCartney said of the landmark pop cracker: “‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ is my attempt to write a bluesy mode. The idea behind it was that all these material possessions are all very well, but they won’t buy me what I really want. It was a very hooky song. Ella Fitzgerald later did a version of it which I was very honoured by.”
13. ‘We Can Work it Out’
For a while, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were speed demons. As with a lot of The Beatles’ early output, ‘We Can Work It Out’ was written quickly and with the knowledge that it was likely destined for the top of the charts.
The Fab Four had become a behemoth, and by 1965, during the making of Rubber Soul, they were keen to keep the good times rolling in.
That means that despite many interpretations suggesting the band wrote the song to oppose the US being involved in the Vietnam War, it’s far more likely written as a cash-in single. Still, it’s one of the best pop ballads you’ll ever hear, so there’s it certainly has that going for it.
12. ‘She Loves You’
One of the first songs to include a third-person narrative, adding “she” to the usual “me” and “you” that all pop songs resided on at the time, ‘She Loves You’ is one song that refuses to die down. Still, as potent and popular as ever, there’s not a single foot that won’t be stomping by the time of the second chord.
“It was again a she, you, me, I, personal preposition song,” recalled McCartney. “I suppose the most interesting thing about it was that it was a message song; it was someone bringing a message. It wasn’t us any more; it was moving off the ‘I love you, girl’ or ‘Love me do’; it was a third person, which was a shift away. ‘I saw her, and she said to me, to tell you, that she loves you, so there’s a little distance we managed to put in it which was quite interesting.”
It’s still a charming number and one that will always get your heart beating a little harder.
11. ‘Get Back’
What was set to be the titular track of the band’s 1970 album Let It Be was imbued with the kind of energy and power the group had hoped to bring back to their recording sessions. The song suggests Macca was looking to America for his inspiration as this radio-ready rocker feels candidly more Americanised.
While the recorded may have been scrapped, this song still reminds us that The Beatles left the band while they were all on top. It’s a remarkable song that most people would see as their crowning achievement and is riddled with the rock attitude that McCartney was about to employ in his new work.
Though the song was somewhat marred in racial controversy, with an early version containing the lyric “Don’t dig no Pakistanis taking all the people’s jobs”, to which McCartney later replied: “When we were doing Let It Be, there were a couple of verses to ‘Get Back’ which were actually not racist at all – they were anti-racist. There were a lot of stories in the newspapers then about Pakistanis crowding out flats – you know, living 16 to a room or whatever. So in one of the verses of ‘Get Back’, which we were making up on the set of Let It Be, one of the outtakes has something about ‘too many Pakistanis living in a council flat’ – that’s the line. Which, to me, was actually talking out against overcrowding for Pakistanis… If there was any group that was not racist, it was the Beatles.”
10. ‘Eight Days a Week’
“When people review my shows, they say, ‘He opened with a Beatles classic, ‘Eight Days a Week’,” recalled McCartney when speaking to Billboard about the number one it. “I wouldn’t put it as a ‘classic.’ Is it the cleverest song we’ve ever written? No. Has it got a certain joie de vivre that The Beatles embodied? Yes. The best thing about it was the title, really.”
Inspired by Ringo Starr and one of his ‘Ringoisms’, the song is still widely regarded as one of The Beatles most adored songs and can still send a room full of fans into a delirious mess of foot-stomping good fun. That is really the crux of the song; it is irreverent and stress-relieving, fun and frivolous, which, ultimately, is all you really need from a chart-topping number one.
A classic, no matter what Macca says.
9. ‘Paperback Writer’
One song which is credited to the Lennon-McCartney partnership was ‘Paperback Writer’. Lennon would later admit that, bar a few words and some inspiration, that the song was entirely McCartney’s idea. “I think I might have helped with some of the lyrics. Yes, I did. But it was mainly Paul’s tune,” Lennon told Hit Parade in 1972, later confirming with Playboy that “‘Paperback Writer’ is son of ‘Day Tripper’, but it is Paul’s song.”
While that is certainly true, we’d say a fair chunk of credit should also go to Macca’s Auntie Lil.
“The idea’s a bit different,” McCartney recalled. “Years ago, my Auntie Lil said to me, ‘Why do you always write songs about love all the time? Can’t you ever write about a horse or the summit conference or something interesting?’ So, I thought, ‘All right, Auntie Lil.’ And recently, we’ve not been writing all our songs about love.” One such song was ‘Paperback Writer’.
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.
“But, you know, you get that thing when something is just so successful… people often don’t want to do ‘the big one’ that everyone wants them to do. They kind of shy away from it,” continued McCartney. “‘Here, There and Everywhere’ with ‘Yesterday’ as a close second.”
7. ‘Penny Lane’
Recently marred in controversy, ‘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.
It was not necessarily Macca’s most daring number. It was one of the later incidents of the band achieving a number one hit, this time with slightly more meaning, harnessing their childhood in Liverpool, no matter how far away that now felt.
6. ‘All You Need is Love’
If there’s one thing we should all be concerned about leaving behind in our ‘legacy’ is that the world needs a little more love. Always. It’s one that Lennon could be proud of as his song, ‘All You Need Is Love’ continues to work as an anthemic call for peace, kindness and understanding. Written as the starring piece of the Magical Mystery Tour, Lennon saw it as a continuation of the sentiments he had set out on the earlier track, ‘The Word’.
“I think if you get down to basics, whatever the problem is, it’s usually to do with love,” Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1971. “So I think ‘All You Need is Love’ is a true statement. I’m not saying, ‘All you have to do is…’ because ‘All You Need’ came out in the Flower Power Generation time. It doesn’t mean that all you have to do is put on a phoney smile or wear a flower dress, and it’s gonna be alright.”
“Love is not just something that you stick on posters or stick on the back of your car, or on the back of your jacket or on a badge,” the singer continued. “I’m talking about real love, so I still believe that. Love is appreciation of other people and allowing them to be. Love is allowing somebody to be themselves, and that’s what we do need.”
5. ‘Ticket to Ride’
The Beatles started their sessions for the iconic ‘Ticket to Ride’ on the 15th of February in 1965. It wasn’t only this method of recording that made the song revolutionary. “Ticket To Ride’ was slightly a new sound at the time. It was pretty fucking heavy for then, if you go and look in the charts for what other music people were making,” Lennon remarked. He even went so far as to say that it was “one of the earliest heavy-metal records made.” Many would regard their 1968 song, ‘Helter Skelter as the first heavy-metal track — Lennon said otherwise.
It is important to realise when considering this bold claim that heavy metal as a genre didn’t exist in 1965. Lennon was getting at how the song was structured; the instrumentation on it was remarkably different from the rest of the rock scene. Lennon’s point is that it was the heaviest thing at the time.
For that reason, it deserves its place near the top of our list. Whether it was the ultimate heavy metal number or a cheeky reference to free-loving, the song is an absolute classic and deserves another listen.
4. ‘Let it Be’
Possibly one of the most iconic 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, there’s something definitively spiritual about this song.
“One night during this tense time, I had a dream I saw my mum,” recalled McCartney. “Who’d been dead 10 years or so. And it was so great to see her because that’s a wonderful thing about dreams: you actually are reunited with that person for a second; there they are, and you appear to both be physically together again. It was so wonderful for me, and she was very reassuring. In the dream, she said, ‘It’ll be all right.’ I’m not sure if she used the words ‘Let it be’, but that was the gist of her advice; it was, ‘Don’t worry too much, it will turn out OK.’ It was such a sweet dream. I woke up thinking, Oh, it was really great to visit with her again. I felt very blessed to have that dream.”
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 and a Beatles classic.
3. ‘Come Together’
Initially written as a campaign song for Timothy Leary as the pro-drugs activist ran for office in California, Lennon recognised the song’s potential and, as soon as Leary’s race was cut short, made sure to include it as part of their canon. By the time Abbey Road rolled around, this track had begun to be a big signifier of things to come.
At this point in the band’s journey, Lennon operated almost as a solo artist and comprised this track largely away from the rest of the band. But the song did get changed during the session, “We said, ‘Let’s slow it down. Let’s do this to it, let’s do that to it,’ and it ends up however it comes out,” remembered Lennon at the time. “I just said, ‘Look, I’ve got no arrangement for you, but you know how I want it.’ I think that’s partly because we’ve played together for a long time. So I said, ‘Give me something funky and set up a beat, maybe.’ And they all just joined in.”
The song was somewhat similar to a Chuck Berry song and saw Lennon pay off the rock ‘n’ roller in an out of court settlement. When speaking to David Sheff about the track, Lennon said, “It’s funky, it’s bluesy, and I’m singing it pretty well. I like the sound of the record. You can dance to it. I’ll buy it.”
A classic pop number, the track 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 and The Beatles the best band around—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. I don’t like the recording that much, the song I like. We did it too fast to try and be commercial.”
It’s a notion that Lennon later expanded on during his now-iconic interview with David Sheff of Playboy in 1980. “The whole Beatle thing was just beyond comprehension,” recalls Lennon as flashes of the mobs of fans and press flash across his brain, “When ‘Help’ came out, I was actually crying out for help. Most people think it’s just a fast rock ‘n roll song. I didn’t realise it at the time; I just wrote the song because I was commissioned to write it for the movie. But later, I knew I really was crying out for help.” It was a moment when Lennon’s old personality, his old way of being, was beginning to lose out to the pop star the band had created.
So he did whatever he could to expel those demons and put them down in a song. It was the moment the icon John Lennon was born.
1. ‘Hey Jude’
Thanks to its anthemic nature, it’s hard to consider any song better than ‘Hey Jude’. Lennon once said of the McCartney penned song: “That’s his best 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.
“Now I’m sounding like one of those fans reading things into it… Think about it: Yoko had just come into the picture. He is saying. ‘Hey, Jude’—’Hey, John.’ Subconsciously, he was saying, ‘Go ahead, leave me.’ On a conscious level, he didn’t want me to go ahead. The angel in him was saying, ‘Bless you.’ The devil in him didn’t like it at all, because he didn’t want to lose his partner.”
The direct target of McCartney’s anthemic and downright astounding song is likely to be a combination of both of these sentiments. Whether it was for Julian as a moment of friendship, a hand on the shoulder of his friend’s son and a knowing, guiding smile to what life could be like. Or indeed whether it was a letter to John to try and connect with him as they had done before.
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 song like no other. It’s a letter to a friend.