The Beatles influenced the course of popular music history, inspired countless rock and pop artists, and stole the hearts and minds of music fans all over the world. The majority of titles on this Top Ten Beatles Songs list are pre-‘Sgt. Pepper’ when they were a tight-knit live band, prior to the fragmentation of their ‘studio years’.
10 ‘I Feel Fine’ – Release date: 27 November, 1964
‘I Feel Fine’ is a track which captures the Beatles’ trademark ‘live’ sound and yet manages to include much more besides. A distinctive guitar riff introduces the song and remains prominent throughout. Though much-copied later, this was not a mainstream feature of pop songwriting at the time. Similarly, the creative use of guitar feedback at the very start was an early example of the band’s willingness to experiment with sonorities. The expansive minor chords and lush harmonies which characterise the middle eight section add weight, depth and contrast to the song.
9 ‘Please Please Me’ – Release date: 11 January, 1963
The title track of their first album, ‘Please Please Me’ is a good example of the unmistakeable Beatles sound in raw form. The descending opening riff features John Lennon’s harmonica (rarely used in their ‘mature’ work), and the lead guitar, supported by drums and bass, throws in short, repetitive and low-pitched patterns between the vocal phrases during the verses. Vocal harmonies feature throughout and, though these are mostly predictable, the opening phrase, where one descending voice gently clashes with the others, hints at the innovation to come in later songs.
8 ‘Eleanor Rigby’ – Release date: 5 August, 1966
‘Eleanor Rigby’, a song from early in the band’s studio era, features a bleak and sombre string accompaniment which highlights the isolation and loneliness detailed by the lyrics. Though they sang the vocal, this was the first-ever song featuring no instrumental input from The Beatles. The musical arrangement was clearly a new departure for the band and a sign of things to come. Nonetheless, the Beatles still sing with all the energy of their live-band days which suggests this track captures a significant transitional moment in their musical development.
7 ‘We Can Work It Out’ – Release date: 3 December, 1965
‘We Can Work It Out’ features The Beatles in inventive mode with its changes of tempo and time signature, and clever use of background percussion. As with the majority of their output, co-writers Lennon and McCartney contributed ideas individually. This fragmentation is particularly apparent (and appropriate) in this song where McCartney contributes the bright and bouncy ‘we can work it out’ opening, whilst Lennon’s gloomy ‘life is very short’, delivered in a minor key, produces rapid mood shifts. The inspired arrangement uses strong musical contrasts to characterise each section.
6 ‘Something’ – Release date: 31 October, 1969
This is a mature Beatles’ ballad featuring the often-overlooked George Harrison and his elegant songwriting. In this arrangement which requires a blend of rock and orchestral instruments, the daring experimentation of the band’s early years has entirely disappeared, and has been replaced by a sophisticated musical craftsmanship. However, echoes of the Beatles’ heartfelt sentiment of earlier days remain in the expressive and gently soaring vocal which weaves its atmospheric magic supported by a serene, understated musical accompaniment. These elements combine beautifully to produce an enchanting love song to rival the best this genre can offer.
5 ‘In My Life’ (From the ‘Rubber Soul’ album) – Release date: 3 December, 1965
‘In My Life’ is a wistful elegiac song, full of autobiographical sentiment, written by John Lennon. The mellow, autumnal mood of this piece about ‘people and things that went before’ is a remarkable artistic achievement for a 25-year-old rock musician and helped establish Lennon as an individual creative force. Inspired by ideas from one of his earlier poems, Lennon’s song uses a soft, restrained arrangement and delicate musical touches to share his innermost feelings, allowing listeners the space to ‘stop and think about them’ too.
4 ‘From Me To You’ – Release date: 11 April, 1963
This early song, The Beatles’ first British No. 1, jogs along in what would later be regarded as typical ‘Merseybeat’ style. Many ‘Beatles’ ingredients were already in place – if a little unpolished. John Lennon and Paul McCartney shared lead vocals and fully collaborated on the songwriting, producing a song using plenty of light and shade and a broader chordal harmony than most pop songs of the era, which built towards an exciting musical climax before neatly ending with the harmonica phrase first heard in the opening bars.
3 ‘She Loves You’ – Release date: 23 August, 1963
‘She Loves You’ is an early song with many unusually subtle touches for the time. Its love-song lyric is written in the third person, which is quite rare for this genre. The musical arrangement too, with its jazz-inspired chord sequence, went beyond the usual pop-chart conventions in several respects. For instance, the ‘yeh,yeh,yeh’ refrain borrowed the call and response device commonly found in soul music, whilst the head-shaking ‘oooooh’ which introduces the chorus was recycled from The Beatles’ live version of ‘Twist and Shout’.
2 ‘Yesterday’ (From the ‘Help!’ album) – Release date: 6 August, 1965
The most covered song ever; Paul McCartney’s ‘Yesterday’ has an intimate universal appeal. The calm poignant melody captures the essence of how our human spirit deals with rejection, right from the moment its opening line confides: ‘Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away.’ The instrumental accompaniment, initially a softly strummed acoustic guitar, builds in slow restrained fashion, gradually adding parts as an ultra-smooth string section emerges but never upstages the vocal. Finally, as the song ends, the strings slowly fade as their final breath expires.
1 ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ – Release date: 29 November, 1963
‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ is the Beatles song which broke them in America, thus bringing Beatlemania to the world stage. As one of a few truly iconic songs celebrating teen love, it remains a modern cultural milestone half a century after its release. Musically, the song’s simple form repeatedly restrains and then releases musical forces building tension and excitement in the process. Using drums and electric guitars in this way, creating waves of excitement, became a blueprint the rest of rock would later follow.