What are the best singles by The Beatles? They’ll be ranked two different ways.
(Some of my old Beatles singles. Click to enlarge, then zoom.)
Albums by The Beatles are often ranked, but let’s consider their singles. First, we’ll look at them as 2-sided collections. Which 45’s gave us two great songs? Only singles released by The Beatles in the U.S. during their active years, 1962-1970 will be considered (all songs were recorded in the ‘60’s).
10. And I Love Her / If I Fell This one might normally be overlooked, but it gives us two great ballads. Paul McCartney’s “And I Love Her” backed with John Lennon’s “If I Fell”. These two songs from the film A Hard Day’s Night have only grown in stature. In fact, “And I Love Her” is one of the top 10 most recorded songs of all time. It’s a tender straight-forward love song with one of McCartney’s great melodies. He credits George Harrison with adding the famous acoustic guitar riff. “If I Fell” has Lennon writing as if he’s unsure of himself, hoping his new love won’t treat him the way his ex-love did. He sings “Don’t hurt my pride like her”. Leave it to John Lennon to write a love ballad from a slightly skewed point of view. Both songs were included on United Artist’s A Hard Day’s Night album, and Capitol’s Something New album.
9. Can’t Buy Me Love / You Can’t Do That “Can’t Buy Me Love” was the big #1 single released in 1964 prior to the movie A Hard Day’s Night. Paul McCartney’s song packed so much energy it was used multiple times during the movie. The flip side is an underrated rocker by John Lennon…”You Can’t Do That”. It gave The Beatles another solid rock song for their live shows.
8. Paperback Writer / Rain As The Beatles moved into more adventurous recordings during their Revolver sessions, they created this great single. “Paperback Writer” is another #1 from Paul McCartney, with an unusual topic and excellent sweeping harmonies. John Lennon’s “Rain” is a psychedelic song. It fit in with similar pioneering recordings by other groups in 1966. It features variable speed tape effects, a backwards vocal at the end, and some creative drumming by Ringo Starr.
7. Yesterday / Act Naturally It’s hard to know where to place this one, because the A-side is so strong. “Yesterday” not only was #1, but it’s the most recorded song of all time (cover versions). “Act Naturally” is not nearly as good as the other B-sides, but it’s a fun Buck Owens tune that let’s Ringo’s love of country music shine through.
6. We Can Work It Out / Day Tripper These two A-sides are both extremely strong. “We Can Work It out was another #1 with Paul McCartney as the main songwriter. John Lennon’s “Day Tripper” was not far behind at #5. It’s a great rocker, and it might have hit the top of the chart if it had been the only A-side, with a weaker song as a B-side.
5. Something / Come Together Another double A-sided single. “Something” was George Harrison’s first A-side on a single, and in 1969 it went to #1 in both the U.K. and the U.S. John Lennon also had a #1 with “Come Together”. This collection is kind of like Beauty and the Beast. A truly beautiful ballad, and a nonsense lyrics rocker, but with a cool groove and great chorus.
4. Eleanor Rigby / Yellow Submarine “Yellow Submarine” was Ringo’s first & only vocal effort to hit #1 (for four weeks in the U.K., #2 in U.S.). It’s a highly imaginative song that McCartney says was meant to be a fun sing-along for children. The just-over-2-minutes story of Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie is generally considered a masterpiece, and is one of the top 5 most recorded songs of all time. Paul McCartney was the main songwriter, with some lyric input from John Lennon and George Harrison. The striking string octet arranged by producer George Martin was the only instrumental accompaniment…something totally new to Rock.
3. I Want To Hold Your Hand / I Saw Her Standing There This might be the most exciting and important single for The Beatles. Both songs are bundles of energy that made The Beatles explode into America! When these songs came on the radio near the end of 1963, they sounded like nothing else. If you bought this single, you played both sides over and over. “I Want To Hold Your Hand” was #1 for 7 weeks, and was only moved out of that position by “She Loves You”, which was then replaced at the top by “Can’t Buy Me Love”. At that time, in April of 1964, The Beatles had the top 5 positions on the singles chart. “I Saw Her Standing There” started with an excited count-in by Paul McCartney, and then rocked right on through to the end. Some credit should go to Capitol Records. Although they badly failed by letting other labels release some of the earliest singles by The Beatles, choosing “I Saw Her Standing There” instead of the ballad “This Boy” (which was on the British single) added to the initial excitement of The Beatles’ arrival on the American airwaves.
2. Hey Jude / Revolution When The Beatles launched Apple Records at the time of The White Album in 1968, they chose these two songs as the first Apple single. Paul McCartney originally wrote “Hey Jude” with Jules in the title, because he was reaching out to Julian Lennon after his parents, John and Cynthia, divorced. “Hey Jude” remained at #1 for 9 weeks in 1968. That’s the longest a Beatles song held the top spot. The song remains extremely popular, and has often been chosen by Paul McCartney to close arena and stadium concerts. Before “Revolution” became the choice for the single, it was reworked. The Beatles decided the original version (“Revolution 1”) was too slow. The song was turned into one of John Lennon’s best rockers! This combination of songs certainly could be the #1 single, but the next one is also very special.
1. Penny Lane / Strawberry Fields Forever Of all The Beatles singles, this may be the one that’s hardest to decide which song is the best. Yes, McCartney’s “Penny Lane” was #1 and Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever” was #8, but that’s probably due to “Strawberry Fields” being so original and experimental.
Some years later, Lennon looked back on his time with The Beatles and said it seemed like when he introduced songs to the group, they decided it was time to try new things. By most accounts, it was Lennon himself who requested innovative techniques and experimentation. In preparation for this article, I found there are 32 recordings of “Strawberry Fields Forever” by The Beatles in my digital music collection. They include demos, alternate takes, various stages of layering instruments, remasters, and remixes. It’s amazing how The Beatles and George Martin created such an original final recording.
“Penny Lane” also went through many stages, and in its own way is as innovative as Lennon’s song. The complex arrangement includes four keyboards…3 pianos and a harmonium…all used for different textures. The song has brass, woodwinds, key changes, unusual melody choices, and some surreal lyrics. One of the most unique touches is a piccolo trumpet. It’s high clear classical sound was completely new to Rock.
The original mix of “Penny Lane” sent to radio stations included a final seven-note piccolo trumpet flourish at the start of the song’s long last note. However, the released single didn’t include that trumpet ending. You can hear it on the alternate version on the Anthologies. The early “radio version” was on The Beatles Rarities album, which I bought in 1980. Once I heard it, my mind added that trumpet flourish every time I listened to the regular version of “Penny Lane”. When the 2015 remix came out, I placed a digital copy in Garage Band and added the trumpet ending. It’s the version I listen to the most.
Update: About ten months after I wrote this article I read that George Martin selected “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever” as “The best record we ever made.”
(Some colored vinyl jukebox singles from 1987, plus a picture disc.)
Now…what are the best singles if we look at the songs individually?
- Eleanor Rigby
- Hey Jude
- Let It Be
- Penny Lane
- Strawberry Fields Forever
- Can’t Buy Me Love
- I Want To Hold Your Hand
- And I Love Her
- Nowhere Man
Okay, that’s impossible. There are so many Beatles singles that could be put on that list. There’ll never be a definitive top 10. The Beatles had 21 #1 singles, and a total of 46 Top 40 singles during their active years.
In America, Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper, and The White Album had no singles released from them. Plus, other Beatles albums contain so many more quality tracks.
Imagine how many hit singles there could have been!
Bonus List: Here’s my “No Singles” playlist. It contains some songs (chronologically) The Beatles did not release on singles in America (1962-1970).
- All My Loving
- This Boy
- Things We Said Today
- I’ll Follow The Sun
- I’ll Be Back
- You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away
- Drive My Car
- Norwegian Wood
- In My Life
- For No One
- Here, There And Everywhere
- Good Day Sunshine
- Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
- With A Little Help From My Friends
- Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
- When I’m Sixty-Four
- A Day In The Life
- Magical Mystery Tour
- The Fool On The Hill
- Back In The U.S.S.R.
- Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da
- While My Guitar Gently Weeps
- I Will
- Two Of Us
- Here Comes The Sun
For more, check out the article: The Beatles…Singles Left Off Albums.