Nearly every time there is a debate over The Beatles best album, it almost boils down to ‘Sgt. Peppers’ and ‘Revolver.’
Sure, others will throw out ‘Rubber Soul’, ‘The White Album’, ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Abbey Road’ out as choices but for the most part, the debate centers around Sgt. Peppers and Revolver.
Personally, I have always favored Sgt. Peppers over Revolver. While both albums have great songs, The Beatles reached a level a musical craftsmanship on Sgt. Peppers that was unparalleled in previous efforts. Over the last month or so I have really been on a Beatles kick and have listened to a ton of their music from the oldest to the newest.
I agree with criticism of their early stuff that it was very “bubblegum” like and would categorize them more as the “boy band” of their era while The Rolling Stones were more the “bad boys” of the British Invasion.
As their musical and lyrical talent grew, so did the quality of the work they did. Since their last concert was in 1966, it gave them more time to hone their craft. So their work got progressively better starting with Rubber Soul, then Revolver, Sgt. Peppers.
And then The Beatles (White Album).
I have to say it has not held up well. The reason is, most of it is really just freaking weird. Back In The USSR, Dear Prudence and While My Guitar Gently Weeps are all great songs but the rest are hit and miss or just bad. I know some people feel differently, but I can’t even listen to the entire thing.
That brings us to Abbey Road.
I have listened to this album extensively over the last month or so. During my commute, while I’m working and at home. It quite simply is a brilliant album.
The record is not without some weaknesses. The two most notable would be the songs ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ (A song Lennon called “granny music” – a sentiment shared by Ringo Starr) and Ringo’s ‘Octopus’s Garden.’
That being said, the record featured some of Ringo Starr’s best work on the drum kit. While I always considered him to be an underrated drummer (not great but never given as much credit as he deserved), this was the record where he stood out. He got the opportunity to do some nice drum fills for a change and he probably used the ride cymbal on this album more than any other time. On the song ‘End’, he was even given some time to do a nice little solo.
George Harrison, who was always limited to one song, had two tracks on this record and they are two of his best. ‘Something’ is one of the great love songs and ‘Here Comes The Sun’ features a rare instance of the acoustic guitar being front and center as well as an orchestral arrangement and overdub of a Moog synthesizer.
The entire album is The Beatles at their best in all areas – songwriting, composition, musical craftsmanship and singing. Some of the harmonies they do are the best I’ve ever heard.
The crowning achievement of this album is clearly the side 2 16 minute medley of songs. Wikipedia (yes it is good for a lot of stuff) has a great rundown on it:
Side two contains a 16-minute medley of several short songs, recorded over July and August and blended into a suite by McCartney and Martin. Some of the songs were written (and originally recorded in demo form) during sessions for the White Album and Get Back / Let It Be sessions, which later appeared on Anthology 3. While the idea for the medley was McCartney’s, Martin claims credit for some of the structure, adding he “wanted to get John and Paul to think more seriously about their music”.
The first track recorded for the medley was the opening number, “You Never Give Me Your Money“. McCartney cites the band’s dispute over Allen Klein, and what McCartney viewed as Klein’s empty promises, as an inspiration for the song’s lyrics. MacDonald doubts this given that the backing track, recorded on 6 May at Olympic Studios, predated the worst altercations between Klein and McCartney. The track is a suite of varying styles, ranging from a piano-led ballad at the start to arpeggiated guitars at the end. Lennon played the solos at the end of the track, which Beatles author Walter Everett considers his favourite Lennon guitar contribution.
This song transitions into Lennon’s “Sun King” (which, like “Because“, showcases Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison’s triple-tracked harmonies). Following it are Lennon’s “Mean Mr. Mustard“, written during the Beatles’ 1968 trip to India), and “Polythene Pam“. These in turn are followed by four McCartney songs, “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” (written after a fan entered McCartney’s residence via his bathroom window), “Golden Slumbers” (based on Thomas Dekker‘s 17th-century poem set to new music), “Carry That Weight” (reprising elements from “You Never Give Me Your Money”, and featuring chorus vocals from all four Beatles), and closing with “The End“.
“The End” features Starr’s only drum solo in the Beatles’ catalogue (the drums are mixed across two tracks in “true stereo”, unlike most releases at that time where they were hard panned left or right). Fifty-four seconds into the song are 18 bars of lead guitar: the first two bars are played by McCartney, the second two by Harrison, and the third two by Lennon, with the sequence repeating. Harrison suggested the idea of a guitar solo in the track, Lennon decided they should trade solos and McCartney elected to go first. The solos were cut live against the existing backing track in one take.Immediately after Lennon’s third and final solo, the piano chords of the final part of the song begin. The song ends with the memorable final line, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”. This section was taped separately to the first, and required the piano to be re-recorded by McCartney, which was done on 18 August. An alternative version of the song, with Harrison’s lead guitar solo played against McCartney’s (with Starr’s drum solo heard in the background), appears on the Anthology 3 album, and again on the 2012 digital-only compilation album Tomorrow Never Knows.
It is a masterpiece and when asked in the future what The Beatles best album is, I won’t hesitate to say ‘Abbey Road.’