When it comes to debates over the most influential rock or pop artist ever, the issue has largely been settled. It’s The Beatles, of course.
Where there’s still plenty of discussion to be had is over the fab four’s preeminent moments. Which is the group’s best album? Or, to distil things down even further, which is the best Beatles song?
It’s the latter hotly contested subject we’re going to attempt to tackle here. Below we’ve listed what we believe to be the best Beatles songs, which in itself is an impossibly tough task, and may well have involved some ‘eeny, meeny, miny, moe’ techniques on our part.
Your job, dear Shortlist reader, is to determine which of these impeccable slices of pop-rock perfection is the absolute pinnacle of the format. Get voting.
UPDATE: The last song of The Beatles has been revealed and it's all thanks to director Peter Jackson, whose FX team managed to use AI to extract and isolate John Lennon's vocals on the song now called Now and Then, which were originally deemed not good enough in audio quality. The vocals are from part of a 70s demo tape titled For Paul, a demo tape that also had Free As a Bird and Real Love, which have already been re-recorded and released. Now And Then uses the vocal of John Lennon, guitar recorded by George Harrison in 1995 and new arrangements from Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. It also includes a new string arrangement by Ben Foster, McCartney and Giles Martin.
The best Beatles songs
1. A Day in the LifeListen now at Amazon
Perhaps the ultimate manifestation of the legendary ‘Lennon-McCartney’ joint songwriting tag, A Day in the Life splices together Lennon’s wistful verses with an incongruously jaunty McCartney middle section. The only vague link between the two is their quotidian lyrical concerns, but it’s somehow all tied together with a pair of ascending orchestral squalls.
2. SomethingListen now at Amazon
If any Beatles song supported the claim George Harrison deserved equal songwriting billing to his two more established bandmates, it’s the dreamy ballad Something. In an oft-repeated story, when pressed on his favourite Lennon-McCartney composition, Frank Sinatra named this track, apparently unaware that it was written by the junior Beatle.
3. While My Guitar Gently WeepsListen now at Amazon
While My Guitar Gently Weeps is a stand out song within the Beatles catalogue for several reasons, including the fact it featured a unique guest lead guitar performance from Eric Clapton. The axe legend added a suitably plaintive note to one of George Harrison’s finest band contributions, with lyrics inspired by an I Ching randomness exercise.
4. Strawberry Fields ForeverListen now at Amazon
John Lennon’s ode to the neighbourhood of his youth was such a bold creative step forward for the band, it motivated Paul McCartney to respond in kind with the thematically linked Penny Lane. Strawberry Fields Forever became a key text in the emerging psychedelic music scene of the late ’60s. Wanton nostalgia has rarely sounded this progressive.
5. Let it BeListen now at Amazon
Let It Be epitomised the deeply tumultuous late period of The Beatles. Not only did it lend its title to the group’s contentiously produced final album release, but its gospel-tinged lyrics spoke to bandleader Paul McCartney’s deep disquiet and desire for reconciliation. That desire went unfulfilled, of course, but at least it yielded one of the band’s most gorgeous songs.
6. YesterdayListen now at Amazon
Within the Beatles catalogue, this 1965 track marked a newfound maturity in the band’s songwriting, and a move away from their fluffier pop hits towards something more ambitious. One surefire sign of Yesterday’s enduring brilliance is that even John Lennon, during his most bitter post-Beatles period, doffed his cap to McCartney for producing this song.
7. Here Comes the SunListen now at Amazon
George Harrison’s most soaring, thrillingly positive song, and a real breath of fresh air to kick off the second side of the Abbey Road album – especially coming directly after the sludgey I Want You (She’s So Heavy). Much more than a mere palate cleanser, however, Here Comes the Sun confirmed the youngest Beatle had caught up with his illustrious elders for sheer songwriting chops.
8. Hey JudeListen now at Amazon
Inspired by John Lennon’s oldest son Julian, who was caught in the crossfire of the Beatle’s separation with first wife Cynthia, Paul McCartney penned this soulful show of support. ‘Hey Jules’ eventually became Hey Jude, and one of the group’s most famous piano ballads, complete with extended sing-along outro, was born.
9. Eleanor RigbyListen now at Amazon
The Beatles’s seventh album, Revolver, saw the band really stretching its creative legs after retiring from touring. Alongside Tomorrow Never Knows, Eleanor Rigby was the album’s experimental centrepiece, doing away with traditional rock instrumentation and lyrical concerns altogether. In their place were dramatically stabbing violins and a series of vignettes centring on the theme of loneliness.
10. I Want to Hold Your HandListen now at Amazon
I Want to Hold Your Hand launched Beatlemania in the US, and as such is synonymous with the band’s early peak years. It’s the soundtrack to black and white footage of thousands of screaming girls, and four young lads from Liverpool waving from aeroplane steps. It’s also a signature slice of mid–60s pop, with endearingly coy lyrics and that breathless guitar intro.
11. Penny LaneListen now at Amazon
Paul McCartney’s Penny Lane might lack the freewheeling psychedelic experimentalism of Strawberry Fields, the single’s Lennon-penned flip-side, but it’s no less ingenious for it. Like Strawberry Fields, Penny Lane deals in pure nostalgia, but this time it’s of the classic warm and fuzzy variety, with traditional orchestration and an irresistible melody.
12. Day TripperListen now at Amazon
The Beatles library is hardly short of memorable guitar riffs, but is there any as clean or insistent as that of Day Tripper? Elsewhere the track is a brilliant example of the band’s willingness to indulge in risqué themes and double meanings, as well as to veer away from love song clichés.
13. All You Need is LoveListen now at Amazon
As the song created for the first ever live global TV broadcast, All You Need is Love had inclusivity and good will baked into its very core. With a simple chorus that even the most tone-deaf of us can sing along to, idealistic lyrics, and a rich orchestrally-embellished backing, it’s a real warm hug of a track.
14. Norwegian WoodListen now at Amazon
1965’s Rubber Soul saw The Beatles indulging new interests, including a major Dylan obsession, consuming vast quantities of marijuana, and a burgeoning fascination with Indian instrumentation. Norwegian Wood combines and distils those fresh points of inspiration in thrillingly melodic fashion, with a pronounced folkie lilt and an early appearance within a pop setting for the sitar.
15. She Loves YouListen now at Amazon
As the best-selling single of all time in The Beatles’s native UK, She Loves You holds a special place in the band’s history. It’s another moment of mid-’60s pop perfection, and one that the band itself would choose to reference in All You Need is Love several years later.
16. I Saw Her Standing ThereListen now at Amazon
I Saw Her Standing There represents the start of The Beatles as we know them, as evidence by its positioning as the first track from the band’s debut albums on both sides of the Atlantic. Thankfully, the song is more than worthy of that responsibility, deftly referencing ’50s rock and roll with an added rough and ready exuberance that would become the band’s early signature.
17. Tomorrow Never KnowsListen now at Amazon
The Beatles influenced all manner of future music throughout their relatively brief but impossibly dense career, but it’s Tomorrow Never Knows that was the most forward-looking track of them all. Comprised of ethereal mantras, repetitive rhythms, and psychedelic tape loops, its influence on modern dance music cannot be overstated.
18. Nowhere ManListen now at Amazon
Featuring a goosebump-inducing three-part harmony, a chiming joint guitar solo from Harrison and Lennon, and one of McCartney’s most restlessly inventive bass lines, Nowhere Man saw at least three of the four Beatles operating at close to their very best. Lyrically, it was another sign the band was no longer content to sing the basic love songs of the previous generation.
19. Helter SkelterListen now at Amazon
Helter Skelter is a dense, paranoid rocker with chugging riffs and thumping drum fills. It’s a track many have claimed is key to the invention of heavy metal, and which inadvertently helped end the summer of love through its links to the Manson murders. And to think, it was all driven along by the two cute and cuddly Beatles. Poor old Ringo and his blisters.
20. With A Little Help From My FriendsListen now at Amazon
Lennon and McCartney often gave their throw-away tracks to Ringo to sing, but in With A Little Help From My Friends they served him up a real doozy. The track is shot through with a hangdog soppiness in keeping with the drummer’s persona (not to mention his limited voice), but a heart-bursting melody and impossibly wholesome lyrics trample any trace of snark or irony come karaoke time.
- These are the best rock songs of all time
All image credits: Apple Corps