Here’s Our Completely Foolhardy Attempt To Rank The Songs On ‘Abbey Road’
Choosing a best track from 'Abbey Road' is like selecting which limb you'd least like to lose.
Ranking anything — let alone a masterpiece of the magnitude of Abbey Road by The Beatles — is an exercise in futility.
There’s simply no objectivity to such ordering. All one really does when they say that they like ‘Because’ more than ‘Octopus’s Garden’ is reveal something about themselves; about their own complex and personal notion of the good. Ask 12 different people to name the best song off Abbey Road and one will get 12 different miniature diary entries; a dozen little snatches of taste.
But hey, there’s value in that, and there’s value in the conversations that such rankings inspire. A core component of loving music means discussing it, and working out where your opinion slots in amongst others — that’s all a ranking can ever hope to do.
So, don’t read the following list as anything like a definitive ranking of a classic album. Read it as a conversation-starter; as an opportunity to dive into one of the musical masterworks of the 20th century, track by track; and as a little snatch of the self being revealed.
All good? Okay, then let’s hold hands and dive headfirst into futility, shall we?
#17. ‘Her Majesty’
It’s kind of a cop-out to include ‘Her Majesty’ on this ranking at all, given the thing’s only 23 seconds long and barely counts as a song. It’s more of a musical sketch; just McCartney humming away to himself, with a simple guitar part noodling in the background. But hey, for this doomed exercise to work at all there has to be a last place, and it makes sense to give it to Abbey Road‘s shortest tune.
#16. ‘Carry That Weight’
Another musical sketch, ‘Carry That Weight’ is a delightfully half-finished ode to teamwork. Given that the Beatles — and particularly McCartney and Lennon — didn’t always have the easiest of working relationships, there’s something amusingly tongue-in-cheek about the proceedings, an exhortation to come together that collapses under its own titular weight. It’s a strange little thing, but a good one.
#15. ‘Octopus’s Garden’
I know, I know — ranking ‘Octopus’s Garden’ so low is a kind of cop-out too, given how frequently Ringo Starr’s contribution to one of the greatest albums ever written is used as a musical punching bag. For the record, I don’t even think that ‘Octopus’s Garden’ is that bad; it’s more strange and wormy than its reputation might imply, and there’s some real gusto to that psychedelic chorus. It’s just a little slight, failing to balance the frivolous with the profound in the way that most Beatles’ tracks do. Sorry, Ringo.
#14. ‘Mean Mr. Mustard’
Speaking of a failure of balance, ‘Mean Mr. Mustard’ suffers from the same inability to walk fine lines, coming across as a mere novelty rather than a substantive track in its own right. Don’t agree with me? Then you’re parting ways from John Lennon, the song’s writer, too — he dismissed the song as “a bit of crap I wrote in India”.
#13. ‘Polythene Pam’
Now we’re talking. ‘Polythene Pam’ is an overstuffed abundance of delights, but right at the top of the pile is that glorious drum part. Ringo has never sounded more assured, or more focused — there’s a simplicity to his work here that dismisses the years of slights levelled against him in one deft go. Oh, and how can anyone have a problem with a song that features quite that much cowbell?
#12. ‘Sun King’
‘Sun King’ is difficult to talk about in isolation. It’s an interlude more than anything else, a musical breather designed to break up the caustic delights of ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ and to lead naturally into the tonal left turn that is ‘Mean Mr. Mustard’. But just try listening to the thing on its own and more subtle pleasures will emerge: the beauty of that harmony; the simple poetry of the lyrics.
#11. ‘Come Together’
This is probably the most heretical placement on this list — for some, ‘Come Together’ is one of the best songs that the Beatles ever recorded, let alone one of the best songs off Abbey Road. And don’t get me wrong — it’s a down and out masterpiece, full of roccoco weirdness and free-verse association that calls to mind the work of the Beat poets. If there’s anything that I hold against ‘Come Together’, it’s that it doesn’t always cash out on repeat listens; there’s something ever-so-slightly one note about it, a directness of vision that means what you hear is what you get. Still, it’s better than most songs ever bloody recorded, so there’s that.
#10. ‘Golden Slumbers’
A lullaby, coated in honey.
#9. ‘The End’
Nothing beats a medley. With its ironic title (there’s one more track to come!) ‘The End’ is a kind of summing up; an opportunity to look back at all of the high points that have revealed themselves before, and to reflect on the sheer range of technical mastery that has proceeded it. Even on its own, divorced from the rest of the album, it rules — there’s some thrilling about its speed and its compact nature, like a diamond compressed out of hundreds of years of history.
#8. ‘Oh! Darling’
‘Oh! Darling’ is as ragged and heartbroken as Abbey Road gets, a far cry from the experimentation and fun that surrounds it. A lot of that sheer emotional weight comes from McCartney’s vocals — he recorded the thing alone, stretching out his chords to give the proper sense of desperation. And desperation is the word of the day here, as the song drops down to its knees and begs for a second chance. It’s as vulnerable as the Beatles ever get, and as spirited.
‘Something’ almost didn’t make it onto Abbey Road — the song’s writer, George Harrison, famously almost gave it away to Joe Cocker. That seems unthinkable now. It’s not only one of Abbey Road‘s high points, it’s also a tone-setter of sorts, departing from the madness of ‘Come Together’ and providing something softer; something subtler. In a way, the one-two punch of ‘Come Together’ and ‘Something’ feels like the album’s entire modus operandi laid bare, a full range of textures gestured at and then thrillingly surpassed by what is to come.
#6. ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’
Given that it’s become something of a musical meme, it’s worth trying to approach ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ with fresh eyes. Far from mere novelty, the thing is a loping, hideous work of camp, combining one of the simplest melodies in the Beatles back catalogue with a story of murder and crime. Don’t take anything about it seriously, but don’t let its stranger textures fool you either: this is a tongue-in-cheek exercise in blending styles and tones, and it absolutely rips.
#5. ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’
In 1963, at the height of his powers, French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard unleashed Contempt, a refutation of the very industry that had made him famous and allowed him to explain the world as he saw it. ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ is the Beatles’ version of Contempt, a wry dressing down of the businessmen and power-brokers that the group had found itself surrounded by. And in that way, it is also a triumph of self-expression, the sound of a group of musicians surveying their unhappy lot and then retaking the very artistic skills the industry tried to rob them of to burn the whole thing down. It’s probably the most underrated tune on Abbey Road, a song of the self that practically demands another stretch in the critical sunlight.
#4. ‘Here Comes The Sun’
Speaking of sunlight, ‘Here Comes The Sun’ — probably the most popular tune the Beatles ever released — is exactly as good as you think it is. Written in a period of devastation, it serves as a flipside to the ribald and dark nihilism of ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’. Rather than fixating on the ugly, deeply commercial situation he had found himself in, Harrison instead turned his direction forward, towards better times. That hope feels impossibly fragile — there’s a deep vulnerability to the song, and to the way that Harrison sings it — but that’s precisely the appeal. It’s not a claim that the world will definitely turn out better; it’s the wild wish that things just might, at the end of the day, all fall into place.
#3. ‘She Came In Through the Bathroom Window’
Given its euphemistic, ethereal title and sound, it’s something of a shock to learn that The Beatles are actually singing about coming in through a bathroom window on ‘She Came In Through the Bathroom Window’. But hey, that’s always been one of the band’s most distinct skills — noticing the strangeness that exists naturally in the world, and then elongating and extending it to become something entirely new and fresh. It’s a kind of alchemy; a form of defamiliarisation that confronts weirdness and reveals the magic that lives in the everyday. And oh, then there’s the fact that this song fucking slaps.
No wonder that Elliott Smith would eventually record his own version of ‘Because’ — the song contains all the vulnerability and strange, muddled optimism that makes his work so distinct. In fact, ‘Because’ is a Rosetta Stone for an entire way of making music; a summing up of an artistic project embarked upon not only by the Beatles, but by most artists who want to make something distinct and special. It’s just so human; so deeply felt. There’s nothing like those opening strains of a song that seeks to put the world to rights, and it only gets better from there.
#1. ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’
‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ might at first glance seem like the contrarian first place choice. After all, it’s the strangest song on Abbey Road, more doom metal than the life-changing prettiness of something like ‘Here Comes The Sun’. But that’s precisely why it deserves this top spot. It’s proof that the Beatles never once sat still, or allowed their skills to atrophy. They were a group that ignored all external narratives; that didn’t allow either their fans or their critics to decide what a Beatles song would sound like. They were their own astonishing unit, forever raising their own standards. ‘I Want You’ is testament to that, a thrilling destruction of boundaries by a band that spent their entire career destroying boundaries. Let it wash over you like heavy rain.
Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Music Junkee. He tweets @JosephOEarp.