Four lads from Liverpool

A.V. To Z is an alphabetical survey of a specific realm in pop culture.

Over the course of their eight-year existence, the Beatles released 27 studio albums, churning out LPs like Help, Rubber Soul, and Revolver within the space of a single year. Those albums were made up in part by some of the group’s 237 original songs, and 20 of those songs went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts. Still, not every Beatles song shines brightly. Some are better than others, and after decades of nearly constant play on oldies radio, in commercials, on soundtracks, and in the general ether that surrounds each and every one of us, even the most diehard Beatles fans are bound to get tired of some cuts. Below, The A.V. Club runs through its list of Beatles songs we’ll never skip, from “All My Loving” to “Yesterday.” Unlike in other A.V. To Z lists, not every letter is represented this time around, but we think that’s okay.

A: “All My Loving” (1963)

Paul McCartney’s unaccompanied voice made The Beatles’ first impression on America. Performing “All My Loving” at the top of the band’s Ed Sullivan debut, McCartney gave the audience a few beats of a cappella vocals before he and his bandmates kicked in with the song’s syncopated jangle. It’s a neat trick on record, but an even neater trick on TV: A cheery love tune (like countless others performed on Sullivan’s stage) suddenly snapping into the sound that would dominate the airwaves through the end of the decade. “All My Loving” wears The Beatles’ influences on its sleeve—George Harrison’s chiming guitar solo echoing every country-and-western record to ever land on the Liverpool docks—but it also points toward the sophistication of the group’s later recordings. Holding down the walking bass line of “All My Loving” while handling the lead vocals would make anyone want to retreat to the studio. [Erik Adams]

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B: “Back In The U.S.S.R.” (1968)

Intended as a Beach Boys homage, “Back In The U.S.S.R.” also nods to The Beatles’ early rock ’n’ roll heroes—notably Chuck Berry, whose “Back In The U.S.A.” the title references. But understanding that isn’t necessary to enjoy the song, which is one of The Beatles’ best straight-up rockers, especially when the guitar starts squealing at the two-minute mark. Had the band been touring at the time, “Back In The U.S.S.R.” sounds like it would have been immensely fun to play live—which is probably why it remains a staple of Paul McCartney’s sets. [Kyle Ryan]

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C: “The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill” (1968)

It’s not always easy to identify what separates a great silly Beatles song from a not-so-great one, and at first glance, “Bungalow Bill” would have all the earmarks of a skippable track. The song itself is a riff on a killer of wild animals, with a mocking sing-song refrain set on repeat and a serious tempo change that eliminates the easy nod-along pleasures of most pop. Also, it ends with whistling, a death knell for most good music. And yet somehow, it all works. The jaunty melody counterposed with the slowed-down, lurching pace of the narrative offsets the potential pitfall of each section, making the hearty cheers heartier and the melancholic acoustic guitar more potent. It’s a classic example of opposing structures bringing out the best in one another, and it makes the song great, every time. [Alex McCown]

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D: “A Day In The Life” (1967)

At this point, most of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’s “greatest record ever made” luster has faded: Its iconic cover subjected to innumerable parodies, its tracks like “With A Little Help From My Friends” and “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” covered into oblivion. But nothing sours “A Day In The Life.” The song refuses to believe in the tedium of its title, juxtaposing a highly publicized automotive fatality with a jobber nearly missing his bus. The song suggests that any day can be mundane or tragic, a climax or a denouement, with the noise of every other possibility bleeding together into 40-piece orchestral discord. And then there’s that concluding chord, four pianos releasing the tension built up by the song’s signature din. Sgt. Pepper’s has been bested, but “A Day In The Life” never will be. [Erik Adams]

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Runner up: “Dear Prudence” (1968)

The second part of the one-two punch that opens The Beatles, “Dear Prudence” is the moody successor to “Back In The U.S.S.R.” The pleading song—written to Mia Farrow’s sister Prudence, who was getting a little fanatical about meditation while she and The Beatles were in India—simmers and builds over the course of four minutes, anchored by Paul McCartney’s noodling bass. It’s a standout track on an album that has its share of them. [Kyle Ryan]

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E: “Eleanor Rigby” (1966)

Here’s a song both lyrically and compositionally striking, its super-sad lyrics highlighted by the sparse strings accompaniment. Reduced down to its elements, the song sounds like a disaster: violins, violas, and cellos replace guitars, bass, and drums; instead of the usual love song or anthem of a larger movement, the song dwells on the universal, timeless condition of devastating loneliness. Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie strike an emotional chord with their solitary toils, and The Beatles spin heartbreaking little stories with lines like how Eleanor Rigby “picks up the rice at the church where a wedding has been” and Father McKenzie is “writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear.” It’s tragically sad, and it’s still a catchy pop song. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

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F: “For No One” (1966)

Hiding in plain sight in the middle of Revolver’s second side—between the harmonizing Rickenbackers of “And Your Bird Can Sing” and the pill-pusher boogie of “Doctor Robert”—is one of Paul McCartney’s most heartbreaking compositions. Tracing the end of a romance along a descending chord progression, “For No One” is still and stylish, the finest sad-bastard anthem ever written for clavinet. McCartney earned his reputation as the good-time Beatle, but “For No One” finds him moping with the best of Lennon’s laments, looking backward and forward from his defeated perch, finding no probably cause for why “a love that should have lasted years,” well, didn’t. Of the many Beatles covers performed by Elliott Smith, this was the one that best suited his style. [Erik Adams]

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G: “Get Back” (1969)

I sang these lyrics as a preteen with no idea what they might mean, and to be honest, I’m still unsure of what’s going on. It doesn’t really matter, though; the noodling guitar, the thumping beat, and the way the song meanders around all come together to make a weird, fun little song. John Lennon told Playboy in 1980 that every time Paul McCartney sang “Get back to where you once belonged” he’d look at Yoko Ono, so maybe that’s what’s going on. The verses are still delightfully obtuse, which makes it one of the fun ones to sing along to, even if you don’t know what it means. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

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H: “Hey Jude” (1968)

One of the all-time great codas in pop music, the ensuing decades have cost this Beatles track none of its affecting luster. The ode to Julian Lennon and strength in the face of adversity still packs a thunderous wallop, the kind of song that’s perfect for sitting on a balcony, staring into the distance, and reflecting on life. That, or a killer tune to sing in the shower—it works equally well in either situation. People complain about a four-minute coda. Those people are wrong. It goes on so long, it passes through a looking-glass, becoming even more resonant in the process. It takes a lot to make a seven-minute pop song worthwhile, but to have it end up arguably one of the best songs ever? That’s something worth repeating. [Alex McCown]

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I: “In My Life” (1965)

“In My Life” is the perfect Beatles song for just about any type of fan: It’s short and sweet, like the early, poppier years, but it’s also more sonically complex, like the hairier Beatles. (Relatively well-known fact: The solo that sounds like a harpsichord is actually a sped-up piano.) The lyric is completely relatable—almost generically so—with John Lennon waxing poetic about the very idea of remembering anything at all. But he brings it all around to “you.” He loves you, and he wants you to know about it. It’s hard to get tired of hearing that. [Josh Modell]

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Runner up: “I’m So Tired” (1968)

This short nod by John Lennon almost gets lost on The Beatles, but deserves another listen. It starts out with a torch-worthy lament that Peggy Lee could pull off (“I’m so tired / I haven’t slept a wink”). Then the guitar kicks it into high gear with a rock ’n’ roll rant against the person who’s keeping us awake; just as we groove into this throwback to the band’s earliest days, the song drops down again. “I’m So Tired” offers some nice rage against insomnia, as well as that jerk you’re in love with. [Gwen Ihnat]

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J: “Julia” (1968)

Though it’s more or less a solo John Lennon joint, finger-picked guitar and all, “Julia” still embodies the Beatles’ more sensitive side. Both Lennon and McCartney had lost their mothers rather unexpectedly when they were still in school, and while McCartney chose to commemorate his mother on “Let It Be,” “Julia” is a much more intimate track, and one that finds Lennon opening himself up to listeners like never before. With lines like “Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it just to reach you,” “Julia” is Lennon at his most exposed and least sarcastic. [Marah Eakin]

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K: “Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand” (1964)

The Beatles essentially went to rock ’n’ roll college in Hamburg, Germany, so it makes sense that the group would re-record two of its songs—“She Loves You” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand”—in the country’s mother tongue. “Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand” isn’t a reinvention of the group’s already existing hand-holding wheel, and some lyrics ring a little clunky when translated into the brusque-sounding language, but it’s a cute and fun spin all the same. [Marah Eakin]

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L: “Love Me Do” (1964)

“Love Me Do” was The Beatles’ very first single, helping to kick off Beatlemania in 1964. This early effort was a true Lennon-McCartney collaboration, with a teenaged McCartney drafting the verse and chorus, and Lennon filling in the bridge. The deceptively simple track kicks off with Lennon’s bluesy harmonica, a tribute to the bands that were the lads’ greatest influence. McCartney explained, “John expected to be in jail one day and he’d be the guy who played the harmonica,” and his spirited harp melody line carries the song, even as he deftly juggles harmonica and backing vocals. In his first recording session with the band, poor Ringo is reduced to only playing tambourine while a session drummer takes over the kit, but he makes the most of it, drowning out the drum set. Although released earlier, “Love Me Do” became the fourth Beatles U.S. No. 1 out of six in 1964, a record that still stands for most No. 1s in a calendar year. [Gwen Ihnat]

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M: “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” (1969)

Abbey Road is approximately 50 percent novelty songs, which makes its artistic achievements all the more impressive. Appearing outside the confines of the side-two medley, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is the most fully realized of those trifles, a darkly comic music hall throwback about homicidal med student Maxwell Edison. It’s a thoroughly ludicrous number, but one with a readily comprehensible story: Maxwell kills his girlfriend and his teacher, and when he’s made to answer for his crimes, knocks the judge off as well. But with a melody this catchy, what jury would ever convict him? (Maxwell earns a further pardon thanks to Steve Martin’s manic depiction of the character in the otherwise abominable Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie.) [Erik Adams]

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N: “Nowhere Man” (1965)

One of the better tracks on Rubber Soul, “Nowhere Man” is one of the first Beatles songs not explicitly about love. That emotional withdrawal serves the band well, with “Nowhere Man” serving as the perfect blend of the group’s pre-existing pop sensibilities and its newfound spirituality. It’s still catchy, but it’s also perfect for the tumultuous mid-’60s, which the group pretty much perfectly defined with its Rubber Soul and Revolver LPs. [Marah Eakin]

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O: “Oh! Darling” (1969)

The songs that hit closest to home are often the most honest ones. “Oh! Darling” is among the most direct of The Beatles’ catalog, with the first two verses a simple reaffirmation of love and a plea to stay together. What makes the song hit is how Paul McCartney goes from singing to emotive shouting in the third verse, where the lyrics move into distressing post-break up territory: “When you told me you didn’t need me anymore / Well you know I nearly broke down and died.” His use of “Oh”s, too, go from hitting a high note to plaintive wailing. Sometimes even the simplest words won’t do when a primal moan or a yelp gets the sentiment across. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

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P: “Paperback Writer” (1966)

Though sometimes pegged as across-the-pond rivals, The Beatles and The Beach Boys had a mutual respect for one another and found inspiration in each other’s music. “Paperback Writer” is one of the more direct tips of the mop-top to the music of Brian Wilson, with a four-part harmony for a chorus that lovingly recalls the hook of “Good Vibrations.” Like the stockpiling vocals, each layer of the track offers its own compelling thread while blending together seamlessly. It’s easy to get lost in the propulsive bass line, but then you’d be missing out on John and George’s escalating “Frère Jacques” wails in the background of the second verse. A rollicking ditty about nothing more than someone trying to get a job from a publisher, “Paperback Writer” is the most fun you could ever have with a cover letter. [Cameron Scheetz]

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R: “Rocky Raccoon” (1968)

Partaking of the proud tradition of the story-song, “Rocky Raccoon” is an example of McCartney’s uncanny ability to borrow and toy with other musical tropes without the results feeling hacky or derivative. The story of a young man seeking revenge on the gentleman who ran off with his lady, it showcases Paul’s faux-Western accent, yet never once feels cheap or mocking. There’s something deeply powerful, even for us agnostics, about the fact that Rocky keeps heading to his room, before and after his ill-fated showdown, to have that Gideon’s Bible awaiting him. It’s a little reminder of a different way of looking at things, something that the best music also does—including this paean to a boy in the black mountain hills of Dakota. [Alex McCown]

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S: “Something” (1969)

Where earlier Beatles love songs tell of a starry-eyed infatuation, “Something” plays as a more mature, thoughtful declaration. This isn’t just puppy love, it’s a realization that, “Whoa, this person means the world to me.” And, when that feeling sets in, where do you go from there? George Harrison’s ponderous lyrics can’t even begin to provide the answers, but that acceptance of the unknown and the willingness to give in to love are what make the track so timeless. Harrison gets a well-deserved vocal showcase on “Something,” but he’s really sharing the spotlight with his guitar. From the opening chords to the iconic solo, it oozes with a voice all its own, putting the listener in a trance and drawing them in closer. A sexier Beatles song just doesn’t exist. [Cameron Scheetz]

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Runner up: “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” (1969)

Of the many “she”s in the Beatles catalog, the one who bows in the middle of the Abbey Road medley is the loveliest. “She” is more than just a hook, unlike “She Loves You”; “She” shows a wider range of emotion than the maudlin Sgt. Pepper’s downer “She’s Leaving Home”—and in almost half the time. “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” is a pocket-sized romance, suffused with “he said, she said” intrigue (those days of the week are awful gossips) and ending in heartbreak. At least that’s one interpretation: The lyrics are a lot of playful nonsense, yet their obliqueness—and the “ooh-ahh” harmonies—tickle the imagination in a more satisfying manner than “She Said She Said.” [Erik Adams]

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T: “Tomorrow Never Knows” (1966)

Like its Sgt. Pepper’s equivalent, the final track on Revolver is one of the few “revolutionary” Beatles tracks that lost none of its groundbreaking edge across the decades. Following Indian musical conventions and taking lyrical inspiration from The Psychedelic Experience, the tape-loop experiments on “Tomorrow Never Knows” still sound like otherworldly broadcasts, propelled ever forward by Ringo Starr’s elementary, krautrock-before-there-was-krautrock beat. A song without precedent, it still succeeds in being a song, its experimentalism never taking priority over John Lennon’s rise-and-fall melody. Don Draper can’t hear it, but there’s songwriting genius buried in all that bad-trip cacophony. [Erik Adams]

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W: “We Can Work It Out” (1965)

“We Can Work It Out” works because it’s equal parts Paul McCartney and John Lennon in 1965, a time when that wasn’t happening as frequently as when a slew of Lennon-McCartney singles came out in 1963. Besides the entrancing lyrics, it also gets a nice bit of help from George Harrison’s suggestion to slow the middle down to 3/4 time, giving “Life is very short / There’s no time for fussing and fighting, my friend” more emphasis and pushing that overall theme to the forefront. The jaunty tambourine throughout doesn’t hurt either. [Becca James]

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Y: “Yesterday” (1965)

When Paul McCartney is left to his own devices, sometimes we wind up with dreck like “Birthday,” and sometimes we get “Yesterday,” the Guinness Book Of World Records holder for “most-covered song.” “Yesterday” is a perfect barely two-minute ode to a failed love, full of pain and remorse and longing, accompanied only by plaintive string instruments like guitar and violins. The solo McCartney song is all the more illogical when you learn that he created the melody first, so instead of “Yesterday,” its working open was “Scrambled eggs / Oh my baby how I love your legs.” In a radio interview, McCartney credited Lennon with eventually coming up with the title, leading to the true message of “Yesterday”: Love can turn on a dime, just like this song. [Gwen Ihnat]

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