No list of best albums is complete without a Beatles disk. I say that as someone who really didn’t like the Beatles for most of my life, finally learning about and appreciating their genius over the last five years or so. (My dislike for the Beatles was perhaps the first manifestation of my contrarian side. When I was little, my parents and their friends listened to the Beatles all the time, so I got sick of them and decided I didn’t like them. All the Wings albums my parents had didn’t help, either. I think John would have approved. “Don’t like something just because someone tells you to. Find your own way, man!”) But over those five years, I’ve become a true fan and now count them among my five favorite bands of all-time.
I know it’s a real stretch listing Revolver as my #4 favorite album. It’s generally considered one of the ten greatest albums of all time. While you can make an argument that any one of five Beatles albums is their best, I think Revolver is clearly their finest effort. It fits into the sweet spot of their career, when they were just beginning to expand their sound but had not yet dissolved into a band in name only. Where the later albums were basically collections of John, Paul, and George songs (along with a few that John would write for Ringo), Revolver still sounds like a true group effort. The band was beginning to see just how far they could stretch things, how much freedom the studio offered, and how they could sing about more than just falling in love or being chased by teenage girls.
It doesn’t hurt that Revolver includes both my favorite Beatles song, “And Your Bird Can Sing,” and what I feel may be their most influential song, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which I argued awhile back is the root from which all alternative music grew. Aside from those, it includes two other great Lennon songs (“I’m Only Sleeping,” and “She Said She Said”); three great McCartney songs (“Eleanor Rigby,” “Here, There, and Everywhere,” and “For No One”); George Harrison’s first major statement as a songwriter (“Taxman”); and a song custom-made for Ringo (“Yellow Submarine”). Finally, the album shows exactly where the band members were headed in their writing over the next decade.
One of my favorite things to do with albums that changed music is to try to imagine the reactions of people when the album was first released. With Revolver, I like to imagine a young girl, maybe 16 or so and deep in the grips of Beatlemania in 1966, taking the album home and placing it on her small turntable. She thought “Taxman” was a little strange, but her dad always complained about taxes and it was nice that her dad and the Beatles agreed on something (And who was that singing? John or George?). “Eleanor Rigby,” “Here There and Everywhere,” and “For No One” were beautiful. “Yellow Submarine” was lots of fun to sing along with. “And Your Bird Can Sing,” was a bouncy little rocker. “Got to Get You Into My Life,” was different, but also sounded kind of mature, and the boys were growing up. And then “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Nice girls didn’t drop f-bombs back in the 60s (or at least in my little fantasy they didn’t), but I imagine the girl sitting and staring at her turntable, slack-jawed, and thinking, “What the fuck was that?” and seriously considering not listening to the album again just because of it.
Revolver covers an immense amount of territory, jetting off in dozens of different directions. It’s remarkable that the album sounds so good when the band was exploring so many new sounds and ideas. Some of their later albums, notably the White Album, suffer from trying to cover too much ground. Revolver, though, was the perfect statement at the perfect moment. Along with the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan, the Beatles were leading rock and pop into an exciting new age where writing music meant more than just crafting a dozen or so pop songs that lasted 3:30. Revolver is the album that every band since has tried to equal.