Twin Cities songwriter and Music in Minnesota editor Erik Ritland releases a new article every Friday. Ranging from fun lists to serious music commentary, they are a companion to his podcast, Erik Ritland isn’t so Bad.
The Beatles are perhaps the most revered band in pop/rock history. Since their later material is so highly regarded, it’s hard to imagine just how impactful their earliest songs and albums were.
There was plenty of other great music released in the early ‘60s, but singles like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” were explosive. There was nothing like their music. Some would say that there still isn’t, although their early material is now obscured by everything that was influenced by it.
Below are 10 essential Beatles songs from the first half of their career, showing their arc from Hamburg-hardened pop/rock band into a more sophisticated sound. Find a playlist featuring each of these songs here.
If you’re looking for more fun content like this, I go over the best and worst Beatles albums on the latest episode of my podcast, Erik Ritland isn’t so Bad.
I Want to Hold Your Hand
As I said, it’s difficult to understand from our vantage point 50+ years later just how earth-shattering early Beatles singles like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” were. To our ears, they sound like a lot of other “oldies” or “old school” songs, but their combination of pure rock energy, complex harmonies, and catchy melodies/chord progressions was completely unique. Even looking back on the songs that came in their wake, what the Beatles were able to put together was special.
She Loves You
Like “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You” is an exhilarating rush of energy from start to finish. Beginning with Ringo’s intoxicating drum fill, the Beatles come in on all cylinders, led by their tight harmonies, unique chord progressions, and use of dynamics.
Some might say: “aren’t these songs really simplistic lyrically?” Well, yeah, but so are the lyrics for most pop songs, from the Beatles time to Taylor Swift.
Also, there’s something pure about the straightforward honesty of their lyrics, however simple. Like songs from the Great American Songbook, Tin Pan Alley songwriters, Hank Williams, and Chuck Berry, sometimes less is more.
All My Loving
This song had to make the list for one reason: John Lennon’s absolutely insane rhythm guitar playing. It’s fast, it propels the song, and it’s jaw-dropping. Again, the classic Beatle harmonies and background vocals shine on this classic McCartney ballad rocker.
A Hard Day’s Night
That chord man…that chord. The Beatles often opened songs with a bang, as they do here on the title track from their first movie, with George Harrison beginning with the coolest, wonkiest sounding thing you’ll ever hear. His solo and arpeggio’d outro are great, too.
In many ways, John Lennon was at the peak of his songwriting powers around the time of the Hard Day’s Night album. He predominantly wrote an amazing 10 of its 13 songs, including some scorchers (“Tell Me Why,” “Any Time at All,” “When I Get Home”), a classic ballad (“If I Fell”), and even a look to the more acoustic-oriented direction the band would go in (“I’ll Cry Instead,” “I’ll Be Back”).
Although he only wrote about half of “A Hard Day’s Night” – of course that’s Paul gloriously hitting the high notes on the “when I’m home” section – it’s still his baby.
John also wrote the title track to the second Beatles movie. Things had changed a lot in a few months, though, and this plea for – well, help – marks a turn in his songwriting that was apparent on the entire album. They lyrics are getting darker, things are getting a little folkier, and there’s a bit of Bob Dylan creeping in.
Before the Beatles got too serious, though – especially Lennon – they still had the energy and swagger that was a trademark of their earliest material, and “Help!” has that in spades.
Ticket to Ride
“Ticket to Ride” is sometimes called the first heavy metal song, a claim that can seem silly considering how much heavier rock n’ roll got in the late ‘60s. However, this was 1965, and nobody was rocking this hard at the time. The riff is from another world, Ringo’s start-stop drumming drives the song, and the twin lead guitars of McCartney and Harrison are at the very least proto-metal.
…and now for something completely different. Perhaps the most beautiful ballad of the ‘60s, Paul McCartney’s vaunted solo effort (okay, there was an orchestra behind him) is practically outside of time. It has been covered more than any other song in rock history for a reason.
As if the genius of Rubber Soul weren’t enough, the Beatles also released a smash of a double A-sided single right before it: “Day Tripper,” another Lennon riff rocker in the vein of “Ticket to Ride,” and McCartney’s stellar ballad “We Can Work it Out.” Both are essential, but the former rocks a little harder, and is a bit more enigmatic. Plus, those harmonies, man. And, like so many of these early Beatles songs, the flow and dynamics are flawless.
The Beatles took a huge step forward on Rubber Soul. Just the cover image – with the band looking sort of dour, definitely not like the loveable mop tops of the previous years’ (!) Hard Day’s Night – signaled a big change. The dark acoustic rock of “Norwegian Wood” shows this, its hook coming from George Harrison’s first foray into the sitar on a Beatles song.
Here, There, and Everywhere
“Yesterday” might be more popular, but “Here, There, and Everywhere” is the greatest Beatles love song. Alright, “Something” might be in the mix, but that’s about it. Paul’s gentle melody fits the lyrics perfectly, and the band’s harmonies never sounded so lush. Of all the songs on this list, if you haven’t heard this one, do it right now.
What did we miss? Tell us your favorite Beatles songs from this era in the comments!