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the new White Album, ranked

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For five decades now, Beatles fans on both sides of the Atlantic have been arguing about The Beatles. Not the band itself, but the self-titled double LP released in the U.S. on November 25, 1968. It’s the one more commonly named for its near-blank cover: The White Album. 

The longest Beatles album by far, with an astonishing 30 tunes, the White Album is also the band’s most uneven release. The strain in the group that would result in its breakup just over a year later was starting to show. Not only were John, Paul, George and Ringo writing their own songs, they also had increasingly disparate ideas of what good music sounded like. 

Some of the Beatles’ greatest moments of genius are here. At the same time, everyone who hears the White Album seems to have their own personal list of loathed tracks — even Paul McCartney, who hated that the rest of the band snuck in the avant garde experiment known as “Revolution 9” without his knowledge. 

Now the debates can begin anew, as we have a whole new version of The Beatles to argue about. A brand new mix by Giles Martin (son of Beatles producer George Martin) was released this month, and the overall effect is astonishing. Some tracks sound the same — but with others, it’s like cleaning away centuries of grime from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The new release also offers many outtakes and unheard demo versions. 

All of which means it’s high time for a fresh ranking. Here’s our subjective but also extremely correct ordering of The Beatles, 2018 edition, from worst to best.

30. Revolution 9

There’s not much a new mix can do to save a jumble of voices and brief classical music snippets. With apologies to Yoko Ono, who was heavily involved in its tape-looped production, this is easily the least essential Beatles track ever released. 

29. Wild Honey Pie

Paul may not have been around for the “Revolution 9” train wreck, but he proved he too could write disposable nonsense with this now even more queasy and jangly outtake from the other “Honey Pie”. At under a minute, it is at least mercifully short.

28. Don’t Pass Me By

Why didn’t Ringo write more for the Beatles? This unfortunate plodding song is why. The drummer had been working on it since 1962, and it still wasn’t quite ready for prime time six years later. The utterly WTF line “you were in a car crash, and you lost your hair” may raise a smile, but the less said about that incongruous bluegrass violin, the better. 

27. Rocky Raccoon

Speaking of ill-advised country and western sounds, here is Paul’s wince-inducing cowboy impression. Sure, the love-triangle storyline shows promise — but when your love song seems more focused on a hotel room with a Gideon Bible, perhaps it’s time to go back to the drawing board? 

26. Yer Blues

The Blues is a musical tradition that captures the pain of countless generations. John Lennon was eminently capable of channeling his pain so that others could feel it. He and the Blues should have been made for each other. Alas, John tells rather than shows. Given the circumstances of its creation, this song might just as well have been titled “A multimillionaire rock star screams about maybe committing suicide because he had a hard time meditating on an exclusive ashram in India.”

25. Sexy Sadie

At the end of his stay in India, John transferred his anger from himself to the Beatles’ meditation guru, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Believing a (probably fabricated) story that the Maharishi had hit on fellow pupil Mia Farrow, he wrote a lament that originally began with unprintable lyrics. The title was changed from “Maharishi” to “Sexy Sadie” because George was still a devotee, and put his foot down. Disguising the target didn’t do much to save an uninspired song, however.

24. Why Don’t We Do It In the Road? 

Paul could also write weird bluesy numbers inspired by his time in India. In this case, he saw a pair of monkeys copulating in the street, and wondered why humans don’t do the same. (Um, because chafing?) At least this new mix pumps up his wonderfully raunchy backing track. 

23. Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey

John’s more purely joyful monkey-related tune is the track least improved by the 2018 mix, probably because the original was sped up to begin with. 

22. The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill

Continuing the theme of ill-advised songs written about the Beatles’ India trip, here is John’s annoyingly catchy ditty about a guy who shot an elephant — featuring Yoko as the hunter’s mom. It’s not awful, but as with those other animal-themed tracks, it could easily have been an obscure B-side.

21. Long, Long, Long

George’s quiet prayer of a track is vastly improved by this mix, largely because you can actually make out what he’s saying now — and the sudden organ climax isn’t as annoyingly loud. 

20. Cry Baby Cry

John’s tune based on words from a 1960s commercial was later disowned by its creator as “rubbish.” He was being a little harsh, and the 2018 mix improves its clarity, but still — this tale of a King, a Queen and the kids who trick them into hearing voices from beyond the grave isn’t exactly Game of Thrones

19. Savoy Truffle

There are probably worse starting points for a song than listing all the chocolates enjoyed by Eric Clapton in a popular contemporary candy box called Good News. The real trouble with this George composition is that it doesn’t go anywhere beyond warning Clapton of all the dental pain that lies in his future. Yet there’s a great organ riff, a killer guitar break and some sharp funky brass sounds now brought to the fore. 

18. Good Night

True, this lullaby written by John for his son Julian and sung by Ringo is almost as cloyingly sweet as Clapton’s chocolates. But the new mix brings up the richness of the orchestra, and it wouldn’t sound out of place in a modern Disney movie.

17. Honey Pie

John’s greatest complaint about Paul was his habit of writing what John called “granny music shit” — pastiches of jazz tunes from the 1920s. But “Honey Pie” is far from Paul’s worst pastiche (“Your Mother Should Know” from Magical Mystery Tour easily wins that title), and its quality is far easier to appreciate in the clean 2018 mix. 

16. Birthday

Again, it’s hardly the deepest of themes, but it is utterly joyful and it rocks out like crazy. Who wouldn’t rather have this tune sung to them than that horrible “Happy Birthday” dirge? 

15. Glass Onion

Another fun rocker, but also John at his meanest, pointing and laughing at fans who looked for deep symbolism in Beatles tracks. Such sarcastic word play would come back to bite him a year later, when fans took lines like “the walrus was Paul” to mean that McCartney had died shortly after the band stopped touring. 

14. Julia

When you learn that this is John writing a lament to the mother he barely knew, who abandoned him as a kid and died when he was a teenager, “Julia” is utterly heartbreaking. But if you didn’t know that and simply took the tune on its own merits? Well, then it errs just a little too much on the side of cliched teenage poetry and repetitious acoustic riff. 

13. I Will

Paul at his most Paul, to the point where you don’t  know if he’s making fun of his own Paul-ness. He “didn’t catch your name,” but he’s in love with you forever? Really? Still, this is a delightful ditty, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. 

12. I’m So Tired

The ultimate anthem for anyone who ever stayed up until 2 am staring at their smartphone, feeling like a zombie but not quite ready to crash yet. John’s 1960s equivalent was to smoke endless cigarettes and swear at Sir Walter Raleigh for discovering tobacco (“stupid get” is the Liverpool version of the quintessentially British insult “stupid git”). These days he’d be postponing sleep even longer by looking up the Elizabethan explorer on Wikipedia. 

11. Piggies

George’s acerbic fairy-tale attack on the upper classes is probably the most unfairly maligned song in Beatles history. This may have something to do with the fact that Charles Manson took it as a call to action. Now that Manson is dead, can we finally appreciate the Animal Farm stylings of “Piggies”? The new mix helps by making that playful harpsichord clearer than ever. 

10. Mother Nature’s Son

The best song Paul wrote in India has an ineffable charm, especially in the 2018 mix. Its melody speaks of bright summer mornings in fields of “grass” — probably the marijuana kind, which Paul was deeply into at the time. Then it gives way to a minor chord progression, reminding us that even Mother Nature’s most beautiful day must end. 

9. Martha My Dear

Again, Paul is being playful and silly and ridiculously melodic, this time while writing an ode to his sheepdog Martha. But the sophisticated orchestration and rhythmic changes — from brass to strings to upbeat guitar band and back again — is what helps this timeless track lodge itself in your brain. “Don’t forget me,” indeed. 

8. Revolution 1

No, it isn’t as good as the fuzz-filled screaming electric guitar version of “Revolution” first heard on the B-side to “Hey Jude.” But this slower doo-wop take shows the Fab Four being more subtly subversive (can you count John “out” or “in” when you “talk about destruction”?). It may not have been exactly what the anti-establishment youth of 1968 wanted to hear, but the Beatles were right: it was in fact going to be alright. 

7. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da

Paul’s attempt at reggae, which was just starting to become fashionable in the UK in 1968, was very nearly a disaster. After too many disheartening days in the studio trying to Ob-La-do this the exact way that perfectionist Paul wanted, John saved the song by getting “more stoned than you have ever been” and banging out the tune at double speed on the piano. It just worked — as did Paul’s ahead-of-its-time switching of Desmond and Molly’s gender roles at the end of the song. 

6. Helter Skelter

Paul wasn’t just a sweet melody man. He also set out to write the dirtiest, angriest rocker in the Beatles catalog, and succeeded. You can hear the troubled band work out all its internal arguments in the album edit of a 27-minute studio jam session. The result may have unfortunately inspired Manson again (he thought the title referred to hell rather than a British carnival ride), but it also foretold the coming of heavy metal in the 1970s and 1980s.

And if you ever wondered who yells that they have “blisters on my fingers”: it’s Ringo. 

5. Dear Prudence

Just as Paul rocked harder than John could, John could turn out a more beautifully melodic piece of nature-praising than Paul. “Dear Prudence” is one of those songs that defies words; simple and hypnotic, it beckons you out of your head and into the world. 

4. Blackbird

Paul’s hymn to the U.S. Civil Rights movement, or so he has claimed in later years, also doubles as the most succinct self-help song in history. No matter how dark the night or how broken your wings, you can still learn to fly.  

3. Happiness is a Warm Gun

It starts as the most surreal set of lyrics John ever wrote (more so even than “I Am the Walrus”), then resolves itself into a bitingly sarcastic takedown of U.S. gun culture (the title was lifted directly from the front page of the NRA’s American Rifleman magazine). The message became achingly clear after John himself was shot and killed in 1980; now, in 2018, it is more urgent than ever.

On a musical level, “Happiness” is a master class on how to take song fragments with wildly different time signatures and stitch them together to create a whole greater than its parts. John, Paul and George all named this one of their favorite White Album tracks; in this mix, you can really hear why.

2. Back in the U.S.S.R.

It’s easy to forget how jaw-droppingly subversive the White Album opener was in 1968. At the height of the Cold War, Paul took one of the most American tunes imaginable — Beach Boys-style rock ‘n’ roll — and layered on the tale of a man (a Communist spy, perhaps?) leaving Miami Beach on a British plane for the delights of America’s number one nemesis. Bootlegged copies spread like wildfire inside the Soviet Union.

It was sonically subversive, too — who would have thought you could sustain a whole rock song with the sound of a plane taking off and landing in the background? The Beach Boys and the Beatles had been trying to out-innovate each other since 1966; this joking-yet-deathly-serious track dropped the mic on that contest.

1. While My Guitar Gently Weeps

“Ey up!” shouts John — a Northern English phrase that is both a greeting and a call to pay attention. The following five minutes were worth noticing, to say the least: after standing so long in John and Paul’s substantial shadows, George had finally came into his own with one of the best songs ever written. 

This minor-key response to the group’s (and the world’s) struggles is the first of George’s trifecta of timeless Beatles hits, to be continued with “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun” on Abbey Road. Shortly after that, he would release a solo triple album that was even longer than The Beatles. If George could write like this, why would he bother playing third fiddle? 

And so the sound of a guitar weeping (wielded by Eric Clapton, at George’s invitation) heralded the end of music history’s greatest group — and the beginning of four of its most collaborative solo careers. 

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