28 March 2012
Others have rightly pointed out that the Beatles are one of only a few artists in history—if not the sole artist—to be simultaneously the best and most innovative AND the most popular at their craft. No other act has ever received critical kudos like them; no other act innovated and advanced the music scene in so many ways as them; no other act was as remotely popular during their years together; and no other act has had the lasting power. Consider: the Beatles’ “1,” released thirty years after their last song was issued, was the best-selling album from 2000-2009. That is lasting power unheard of in our throwaway culture today. So what makes the Beatles the best, the greatest musical act ever, is their rare combination of artistic or critical respect AND widespread popular appeal.
So if that’s what the Beatles so great, then arguably the greatest Beatles songs are those that most fully combine critical appeal AND ongoing popular appeal. If true, that means it’s possible to sensibly “measure” the Beatles’ greatest songs if one can come up with a decent way of gauging critical approval and ongoing popularity. This is what I have tried to do. First I will present the results, and then I’ll talk about it my methodology. I know I present this stuff very earnestly but it’s all in good fun. These kinds of ranking games are irritating to some, understandably so, but a real kick to me. I recognize that at the end of the day it’s subjective–including this attempt to be objective. So….first the results. The greatest Beatles songs at combining popular AND critical appeal.
1. Let it Be
2. Hey Jude
7. Strawberry Fields
11. Help !
12. In my Life
13. Eleanor Rigby
14. Norwegian Wood
17. Golden Slumbers
18. Penny Lane
To measure critical appeal, I looked at different top-50 Beatles songs-polls conducted and compiled by experts in the music industry, or at least in music magazines. Paste, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and NME (New Musical Express, a British music magazine) are each respected magazines devoted (at least in part) to evaluating the music scene, and they have all issued Beatles Top Songs Lists that rank at least fifty songs.
There was a fair bit of agreement between the songs listed in the four lists, but the lists were hardly identical. Some eighty-six unique songs earned a top-50 ranking on at least one list. I recorded the ranking for each song mentioned by each of these lists. I also weighted the scores inversely, giving fifty points to the highest-ranking song and one point to the fiftieth-ranked song.
So then how to evaluate the data? I looked for those songs that earned a place on all four lists. Such an accomplishment would reveal widespread critical approval and reduce the influence of idiosyncratic tastes. Twenty-six songs were featured on all four lists, and so I took this group to serve as my basis for established “most critically respected songs.” I then ranked these twenty-six songs by the point system described above, thereby generating a rank-order list of the most critically acclaimed song. A Day In The Life topped the list, followed by Strawberry Fields, Something , Let it Be, and Hey Jude . No surprises; very intuitively plausible.
Next I puzzled over how to measure popularity. I decided to go with songs that are popular today rather than when they were released. Popularity today reveals lasting power, which surely is another sign of a song’s greatness. Also as non-singles from albums have become known over time they increasingly have taken their place besides the singles in the public imagination.
I initially used three different methods for detecting and charting popularity. I dropped Spotify because I couldn’t find a top-50 ranking. So I ended up looking at data from: (1) Last.fm, which collects data of their members of the songs they listen to in their portable devices, computers, and internet radio; and (2) iTunes purchases, which shows which songs people are willing to shell out money to own. Both offer top-50 rankings Ranking the top iTunes songs was a little tricky because a single song—such as Yellow Submarine —can be counted more than once on the list if people are purchasing it from different albums—say, from Revolver and Yellow Submarine and “1.” In theory the same song might be ranked at 13th, 31st, and 40th in purchase popularity. I couldn’t think of a fully satisfying solution so I simply ranked the first unique 50 songs that were mentioned in the order they were mentioned.
I took the same approach regarding popularity as I did with the experts’ lists and looked for only those songs that were listed BOTH by BOTH Last.FM and iTunes. There were some sixty-six unique songs that made at least one of the two lists, but there were only 34 songs that were on both the Last.FM and iTunes lists. For these 34 songs, I then determined their popularity by averaging their rankings. The five most popular songs come as no surprise: Let it Be, Come Together , Here Comes The Sun , Hey Jude , and Yesterday .
So now I had two lists of music: a rank order of the 26 most critically acclaimed songs and a rank order of the 34 most popular songs. I then looked for songs which were ranked on both lists. These are the Beatles songs that in effect were placed on all six lists, the four critics lists and the two popularity lists.
Nineteen songs made the cut. That is under just 10% of their catalog and about the right size to make a nice long Greatest Songs CD.
To determine the final ranking I decided to average the rank scores of the nineteen songs for critical acclaim and popularity. I weighted these two factors equally. The final product is listed above.
Golden Slumbers . I kind of cheated here. One magazine chose Golden Slumbers , I think another chose the Golden Slumbers –Carry That Weight –The End medley. Two others chose the entire Abbey Road Medley. The common denominator was Golden Slumbers , so I selected it.
Critical respect. It’s striking how evenly matched Paul’s and John’s songs are, and how dominant they were over George’s. This goes well beyond the list here, which over-represents George’s contributions and slightly underrepresents John’s contributions. (I took John’s account of attributing composer status; he tended to see them as products of a single composer. Paul always stressed their joint efforts. I actually believe Paul more on this but I thought it would be easier just to go with John’s account.)
Of the 86 songs mentioned on at least one magazine “expert” list, John was lead composer of 37 songs. Paul had 34 that were mostly his, 9 were jointly written (or had distinct significant contributions from both), George had 5. One song was a cover (Twist And Shout ). Basically George had three ginormous hits, and that was it
Popularity. There were sixty-six unique songs that made at least one of the two popularity top-50 lists. Of these Paul wrote 31, John 23, John/Paul 7, George 3, Ringo 1 (Octopuses’s Garden) and 1 was a cover. Paul’s music, it seems, remains, or has become, somewhat more popular than John’s. John is definitely the coolest Beatle, but when it comes to people’s purchases and private music listening preferences, they seem to prefer Paul a little. Again, George’s songwriting impact resides exclusively in three songs.
Overall the results are intuitively pleasing. There were a few surprises in the overall data, most of it not shown here. Tomorrow Never Knows is adored by critics but has little popular appeal. I expected it to be more popular. Lady Madonna is nowhere to be found on ANY of the six lists. That’s surprising given that it Billboard Number 1 song once upon a time. I expected I Saw Her Standing There to be popular but not critically acclaimed. The opposite proved true. Ditto with Paperback Writer . And lastly Day Tripper did a titch better than Lady Madonna but has far less critical approval and popular appeal than I would have guessed. Day Tripper is one of my favorite songs, leading to the question: what’s wrong with both experts and the public? J
The following people thank Four Thousand Holes for this post:Leppo, Oudis
6 July 2016
Wow you must have put a lot of time and work into this. Looking at the list I’m wondering if it’s weighted more towards popularity rather than critical acclaim? Hence why a song like Tomorrow Never Knows isn’t in there or Dear Prudence . Just my opinion but perhaps it should be weighted more towards critical acclaim which is a greater test for any artist than popularity alone. Also is it just me that finds the inclusion of Can’t Buy Me Love a surprise. I know it’s popular but I didn’t know it received acclaim.
The following people thank Leppo for this post:Four Thousand Holes, Oudis
Pivotal Moments in Beatles History No.118: Yoko helps herself to one of George's digestives.
26 January 2017
The following people thank sir walter raleigh for this post:Four Thousand Holes
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28 March 2012
Leppo, you asked, “I’m wondering if it’s weighted more towards popularity rather than critical acclaim?”
I weighted critical approval and popularity evenly. But what complicated the measurement is that I sought songs that are BOTH critically acclaimed and popular.
And the truth is, beyond their top ten picks, some of the critics’ darlings were a little surprising. I would have guessed that A Hard Day’s Night, I Saw Her Standing There , She Loves You , Paperback Writer , All My Loving were all extremely popular, but the data reveal that they are actually more well-regarded by critics than by the public. Who would have guessed?
Here is the weighted rank order of all twenty-six songs that found a spot on the four critics’ list (EW, Paste, Rolling Stone, and NME).
- A Day In The Life
- Strawberry Fields Forever
- Let it Be
- Hey Jude
- While My Guitar Gently Weeps
- In My Life
- Tomorrow Never Knows
- Norwegian Wood
- A Hard Day’s Night
- Eleanor Rigby
- Golden Slumbers
- I Saw Her Standing There
- I Want To Hold Your Hand
- Help !
- Come Together
- She Loves You
- Here Comes The Sun
- Paperback Writer
- Penny Lane
- Ticket To Ride
- Can’t Buy Me Love
- All You Need Is Love
- All My Loving
28 March 2012
I’m about to beat a seriously dead horse, but from what I’ve read in other posts I may not be the first person guilty of that crime. Maybe I have a Beatles-related sickness.
Comparing my own concocted list with the Ultimate Forum Ranking what I’m most strike by is the overall similarity of choices. The first seven songs on the Ultimate Forum Ranking are also on my list of nineteen songs, and there is overall agreement between the two lists on twelve of the nineteen songs I list.
Seven songs on the Ultimate Fan Forum do not make my list:
The End ,
Because , and
And (obviously) seven songs on my list do not crack the top-19 Ultimate Forum Rankings list:
and Golden Slumbers .
But the truth is that there only two meaningful disagreements between the lists, especially in light of data I have on my excel sheet that I’ve spared y’all. Because I care about you! 🙂
The first significant difference is Tomorrow Never Knows . Now just to clarify—personally this is one of my favorite songs, and a source of mild tension in my marriage because I play it so often! And as noted before Tomorrow Never Knows ranked extremely high on both the Ultimate Forum Ranking as well as the four magazines’ lists I drew upon. But it fails to make my final list because it’s simply not that popular. It’s not popular in any Spotify category. It’s the 74th highest played track on Last.FM and it’s the 93rd best-selling Beatles song. It’s a Beatles song, so of course it’s very popular from a global perspective. But compared to other Beatles songs, its appeal is relatively limited—and that, in my opinion, makes it a less great song than other critically acclaimed songs that ALSO garner widespread devotion.
But the most significant difference between the two lists is Because . This is a song exceptionally well-regarded by the Ultimate Forum Ranking, but it fails to crack the top-50 on ANY of the four magazines’ lists. And it’s fairly popular but not exceptionally so. It isn’t a Spotify-user favorite. It’s the 31st most frequently listened to track on Last.FM and it’s the 72rd best-selling Beatles song.
BeatlesBible Forum readers REALLY like that song. Any thoughts, Because fanatics out there?
17 December 2012
I am afraid you have been misled by the title “The Ultimate Forum Ranking”, @Four Thousand Holes. It was a poll with some issues, and was followed by this poll. The 2015 poll is the most up-to-date snapshot of forum opinion.
"I only said we were bigger than Rod... and now there's all this!" Ron Nasty
To @ Ron Nasty it's @ mja6758
The Beatles Bible 2020 non-Canon Poll Part One: 1958-1963 and Part Two: 1964-August 1966
28 March 2012
Ahhhh….thank you @Ron Nasty for the clarification. Wow. How interesting! Yes there are significant differences between THIS list and my composite list.
This poll of 39 folks corresponds to basically no other ranking I’ve seen. The worst ranking that Let it Be earned on any of the four magazine rankings was 13, Hey Jude 14, and Yesterday 22. Day Tripper cracked the top-50 on only two of the four polls with okay-ish scores of 39 and 41. Nowhere Man also only placed on two of the four polls with a score of 35 and 45.
No right or wrong here, obviously. But it does show how idiosyncratic polls can be based on the group being polled, and it also reveals the utility (at least as far as I’m concerned) of taking into account an average of a number of sources from competing places to get a more complete picture of the place of honor any given song has in the Beatles pantheon.
Not that any of these polls should change our own opinions one single iota about our own favorite Beatles songs!