Almost 50 years since the release of the Beatles’ final album, pop culture across the globe still heavily references the iconic discography of the world’s biggest band sensation. From 1963 until 1970 – such a short period of time in retrospect – the landscape of recording and producing music changed massively, allowing the Beatles to experiment in the studio and in their own lives. At the core of the four’s catalogue is the incessant desire to create something different.
This very individuality comes through in later albums as the group settled into themselves and found their own voices amongst the others. Though it is relatively impossible to definitively rate the Beatles albums, there are definitely some that almost stop you in your tracks when you really pause to listen. From the most iconic to the least, here are the ranked Beatles albums from start to finish.
1. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
This is the pinnacle of Beatles creation. The evolution into a completely different group is neither easy nor common. What the Beatles managed to do here was prevent a disjointed, non-Beatles Beatles record. Instead of releasing under the guise of the Fab Four, in 1967 the group totally reinvented themselves in a way that made sense to their music – a full band ensemble, Indian chants, psychedelic trips, and future pop. Yet it was still all John, Paul, George, and Ringo in all their individuality.
Standing next to their old suited selves on the cover, the Beatles transform themselves yet again, challenging in such a short period of time the boundaries of genre. This was the Beatles’ complete evolutionary statement, the definitive and lucid dream state of the world they created themselves.
Other than this trippy album cover (spot Bob Dylan, Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, and others in the world-changing league in which the Beatles belong), the world was rewarded with songs like “Getting Better,” “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and the dynamic romp of a title track.
Sgt. Pepper fulfills every fantasy of music and the escapism we search for when listening. Such is the basis of Beatles music, a perpetual party with self-reflective slow dances, yet always somehow ending in joy. That is why we listen. It is the dream itself.
2. Abbey Road (1969)
Though Let It Be was released last, this is a better and more finite epitaph for the Fab Four. This album absolutely rocks – “Come Together” (released as a single with “Something”) put Paul on bass with that telltale riff. It’s haunting to hear John sing “Shoot me!” after each chorus.
There is something so final about Abbey Road, especially in heartbreakers like “I Want You (She’s So Heavy”) and the final medley, one that feels like the Beatles waving goodbye and pulling out of the station. Of course, there’s “Here Comes the Sun,” which George wrote in Eric Clapton’s backyard apart from all the other Beatles, and which has outlived many other Beatles tracks, finally giving George that deserved solo recognition.
Abbey Road is an honest, transcendent work brimming with that trademark creativity and invention. Iain Macmillan is responsible for that historic photo, designed by Kosh, which for fans fueled conspiracy theories and even further elevated them as gods of music. And at the time of its release, the world was hanging on the Beatles’ every word, fearing stories of their dissolution and demise; yet we are lulled back to a dreamy sleep with “Golden Slumbers,” affording us that rich, deep sleep, fending off the exhaustion of “Carry That Weight.”
Abbey Road is an emotional signature by all four bandmembers. The final medley combines eight short song fragments into one 16-minute track, sort of the final note sheet for the Beatles as a group. Even in their disbanding, there were things that needed to be said, needed to be sung for the fans and for the world. For posterity, the Beatles created Abbey Road.
3. The White Album (1968)
The White Album is one of the Beatles’ most extensive creations, and though fans love to call it by its given name – The Beatles – and argue about which songs shouldn’t have made the cut, the truth is that all four sides are intentionally created, and each song purposefully placed. Many of The White Album’s songs came from a meditation session in India, but whatever zen the foursome found was shattered upon arrival back at EMI studios and the butting heads over Yoko Ono.
The Beatles is a representation of four distinctly differentiated and distinguished musicians struggling to communicate with each other and losing trust in the process. Even so, what results is raw, rare, naked. That’s not to say that all the songs are bare; the roaring, fervent “Helter Skelter” is one of the group’s hardest rock tracks, eventually becoming the anthem for the murdering Manson Family.
Other tracks are more blues and folk, like “Blackbird,” “Julia,” and “Mother Nature’s Son.” George Harrison particularly shines on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” a song that is purely his, wonderfully written and exquisitely performed. Political statements are rampant on the record, like the introductory track “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” bootlegged heavily in the Soviet Union where the Beatles were banned.
Ringo too had his moment on “Don’t Pass Me By,” his first solo creation (also called “Ringo’s Tune”). This amalgam of styles is almost a collection of greatest hits for the band, passing by and acknowledging the many genres with which they experimented.
The cultural influences of this record are felt every day; the intimate studio experience on the quieter songs serve as templates for future recording styles. This album surrounds you. And its re-playability, even all these years later, serves as a lasting testament to what they were and how they lived: with vigor, passion, heartache, anger, structure, disorder, beauty, and the intense desire to create, create, create.
4. Revolver (1966)
The seventh Beatles album introduced a diverse exercise in experimentation both with musical styles and vocals, resulting in some of the most interesting and well-crafted songs of the band’s discography. Popular tunes include “Eleanor Rigby” and “Yellow Submarine,” the latter of which was created especially for Ringo to sing. “Got to Get You Into My Life” was written after Paul saw Stevie Wonder perform in London, becoming entranced by the horns and Motown sound, but later admitting that this “love song” was dedicated to marijuana.
“I’m Only Sleeping” features a backwards Paul guitar solo, completely unprecedented, and a sleepy-sounding John. Revolver also presented a wonderful technological adventure for the foursome, and they used automatic double tracking for the first time. Revolver also uses varispeeding, a technique that could slow or speed up a recorded track, to transform their voices into instruments themselves. “Tomorrow Never Knows,” a Lennon creation, would in retrospect be one of his most incredible creations. The harmony in the song is reminiscent of a Tibetan Buddhist ceremony, which had impacted the group during their travels abroad. This was also an inherently political statement, reminiscent of ones that would come later like “Revolution” and “All You Need Is Love.”
Revolver is a wonderful, thorough, and expansive yet decisive and purposeful collection of influence and inspiration from other musicians while creating something entirely new.
5. Rubber Soul (1965)
This boundary-busting record feels a far cry from the earlier tracks, Rubber Soul is often considered more folk rock and was definitely one of the first complete records taking an overall stylistic turn. A cornerstone for the progressive rock movement, this collection of masterpieces alludes to some new impetus behind the music.
Gone were the fresh-faced upbeat pop dances from earlier records. Now, the four were spending more time crafting the songs lyrically, especially “In My Life,” which John calls his “first real major piece of work.” These new tracks were steeped in tension, just extravagant in their emotional weight.
This is also the first record where each individual Beatle finds his tune and distinguishes himself from the others. What results is a mature divergence that affected profoundly the way we discuss and study music. Rolling Stone editors put it perfectly when they said that Rubber Soul “accelerated popular music’s creative arms race, driving competitors like the Stones, the Beach Boys, and Dylan to dismantle expectations and create new ones.”
6. Help! (1965)
Another film-paired album, Help! features the most-covered song of all time, “Yesterday,” and a handful of perfectly pop songs mixed with other artistic influences. Though less than two years after their debut album, coming fresh off a 60,000-seat show at Shea Stadium, the Beatles were already testing their surroundings and gathering inspiration from artists like Bob Dylan.
“You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” couples John’s vocals with Dylan-like flutes, while “I’ve Just Seen a Face” posits Paul in a country light. The album sparkles with layered vocals on tracks like “Ticket to Ride” and “Help!” while allowing for more intimate moments instrumentally and vocally. Ringo sings “Act Naturally,” only his second lead vocal for the band. Help! introduced new instruments for the Beatles, naemly a string quartet for the timeless, exquisite “Yesterday.”
This first excursion against the creative norm in the studio would begin a long and winding journey towards artistic and musical peaks unprecedented and untouched even by the world’s most notable acts.
7. Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
Originally issued as a six-song EP, and later supplemented by five singles, Magical Mystery Tour is just that – a tour of music pre-Rubber Soul. This is another one of those albums-not-albums that’s hard to analyze, simply because it includes a number of different sounds that feel like a compilation of what hadn’t been released already.
Still, some of the Beatles’ best are from those five additional singles, like “Penny Lane,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Hello Goodbye,” and one strange, trippy, silly yet somehow serious “I Am the Walrus,” the band’s first track recorded after the death of their manager Brian Epstein.
Magical Mystery Tour was also the name of the film, a fun, adventurous creation completely created by the Beatles that was made up as they went along. It only augments an already surreal atmosphere, and though the reviews were not friendly upon the film’s release, the music has withstood all criticism and provides wonderful additions to the definitive Beatles collection.
Let It Be (1970)
Though the title track’s introductory piano notes are recognizable worldwide, Let It Be as an album hides a dark history that complicates some of its other songs. This was the group’s last album, and unfortunately feels like an exhausted last-ditch effort at unification. It feels a far cry from the rock and roll of the Beatles’ early days, save for the obviously canonical “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road.”
Though this album was the ultimate released, it was actually Abbey Road that was recorded last. This conclusion to the Beatles’ seven-year whirlwind feels underwhelming and over-produced. The fragmented album cover feels indicative of the broken relationships in the band. Even so, John’s “Across the Universe” and George’s “I Me Mine” are undoubtedly fantastic additions to how we remember the Beatles as a whole. “Hey Jude” is just as somber now; though written to console John’s son after his divorce from his mother, it took on a new meaning after John passed in 1980.
Please Please Me (1963)
If you couldn’t tell by the fresh faces on the cover, this was the Beatles’ debut album following the release of the title track and “Love Me Do,” two singles that topped the charts in the UK. This was the Beatles’ first opportunity to put out a compilation of original compilations – mostly Lennon-McCartney written. In fact, 10 of the 14 tracks were recorded in just one day, including “Twist and Shout,” which engineer George Martin feared would fry John’s vocals.
Please Please Me was released during the next year in the States. The album cover features the foursome in the stairwell at London’s EMI headquarters. This was just the first step for the Beatles, whose creativity inside the studio was representative of what was to come for the rest of the decade.
This is a cherished album for many; the familiar “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Anna (Go to Him)” serve as reminders that the pioneering group was only just revving up and the creativity that would subsequently flow would be a reservoir of the deepest depths.
A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
This third album embodies the Beatles beginning sounds, upbeat and rockabilly-like. “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “A Hard Day’s Night” are upbeat, peppy and energetic songs. All seven tracks are original Beatles composition, the first album to include entirely self-written content. A musical comedy of the same name was released to coincide with the album, quite like others that would come later, won the world over.
The four had just performed on The Ed Sullivan Show to 73 million viewers, and the floodgates were opened. John would reflect in 1980 that the Hard Day’s Night era “was the sexual equivalent of the beginning hysteria of a relationship,” whereas later albums like Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road were the “mature part of the relationship.”
Beatles for Sale (1964)
This was the group’s fourth release but the first that introduced a slower, more reflective tone, much to the dismay of the rock and roll lovers of the band’s first three records. But it’s important to have some perspective: this was the group’s fourth release in only 21 months.
The slower, more introspective tones represent what was likely an exhausted effort at continued releases, and understandably so. As the band’s road manager Neil Aspinall commented later on, “No band today would come off a long US tour at the end of September, go into the studio and start a new album, still writing songs, and then go on a UK tour, finish the album in five weeks, still touring, and have the album out in time for Christmas. But that’s what the Beatles did at the end of 1964.”
A weary group of young men worked absolutely to the bone, the Beatles’ For Sale album has the aura of a Bob Dylan morose, folk rock collection. Better moments on the album are the band’s softer tunes, like “I’ll Follow the Sun” and a cover of Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love.”
With the Beatles (1963)
In a disjointed sophomore effort by the Beatles released under varying names internationally, With the Beatles consists of eight original compositions and six covers and the first “artistic” cover endeavor by the group, courtesy of photographer Robert Freeman.
Some of this record’s importance lies within the very cover itself, the first of any to go edge-to-edge. And of course, it was the first released in North America, beginning another wave of Beatlemania in the United States and Canada. Americans enjoyed songs like “All My Loving,” “I Wanna Be Your Man,” and a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven.” At this time in the Beatles career, the four were still just finding their footing.
Yellow Submarine (1969)
Though technically not an album, Yellow Submarine includes two of the Beatles’ most memorable songs – “All You Need is Love” and the title track itself, sung uniquely by Ringo, whose voice was the most elusive within the band. The soundtrack of George Martin’s film follows his score, leaving little to be said for the artist’s individual creativity.
However, allowing George Harrison’s voice to shine through on “Only a Northern Song” and “It’s All Too Much,” while beautiful, bitterly remind fans of the missed opportunities for George in favor of John and Paul. The film itself is gorgeous, dazzling, and psychedelic; but from a musical perspective, Yellow Submarine sinks to the bottom of the Beatles sea.