Tuesday, December 22, 2009

2009, so, so fine

Single of the year:

Diamond Rings – “All Yr Songs” (Hypelighter). A song for all seasons, this single (released only on seven-inch vinyl single) was on repeat all year: and not just because the viral video was the most goofy and grin-inducing two-and-a-half minutes you could spend in front of your computer. (The ensuing bizarre YouTube controversy brought it even more attention.) Johnny “Staccato” O’Regan writes songs almost as good as this in his other band, the D’Urbervilles, but the sparse drum machine and acoustic guitar accompaniment ensures that his melody burrows straight into your brain. If the rest of his as-yet-unfinished debut album even comes close to matching this pop perfection, he’s going to be bigger than Beyoncé .


1. Bell Orchestre – As Seen Through Windows (Arts and Crafts). As expansive and filled with vivid detail as a Burtynsky photograph, as intimate as a howling wind whistling through your windows in the depths of a Montreal winter. Classical composition, intricate textures, playful percussion and strong melodies unite in an all-too-rare fashion. “Elephants” alone has an album’s worth of ambition in it. Sharing some membership with Arcade Fire, Bell Orchestre is obviously in a position to reach fans who wouldn’t normally seek out this type of magical music, but once immersed in their vivid sonic playground, it won’t matter how you got there.

2. Handsome Furs – Face Control (Sub Pop). Before its release, Dan Boeckner talked up his new album in readymade comparisons to one-up the Springsteen-meets-Suicide notices that greeted Handsome Furs' 2007 debut: No Age meets Spank Rock, the Knife meets Sunn O))). But influences aren't as important as the songwriting and production here, both of which tower over everything Boeckner has accomplished in his short but productive career so far (Wolf Parade, Atlas Strategic). Cold War electronics and punk rock guitars with Woody Guthrie melodies make Handsome Furs a band out of place and out of time—and indeed, Dan Boeckner sing these anthems of disembodiment with an urgency and passion of a man facing uncertain futures.

3. Timber Timbre – s/t (Out of This Spark). Taylor Kirk comes on more Gene Vincent than Muddy Waters, but his work as Timber Timbre is haunted, harrowing blues where terror lurks in tension behind a smooth veneer. One is never sure if Kirk is the velvet voice of a seductive devil himself, or an honest man surrounded by spirits and faced with dire circumstance. With subtle shadings from violins, organs, plinking pianos and gospel choirs, Kirk takes you on a sparse, spooky and seductive late night drive to destinations unknown. Even the joyous, major-key moments are more like a weepy sigh of relief after the first sign of sunlight ends a lonely night of the soul.

4. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone (Anti). It was the challenge of every music writer in 2009 to write about this album without resorting to cheap meteorological metaphors, the cardinal sin being references to Neko Case’s voice as a “force of nature,” especially when she’s singing about tornados in the first person, or empathizing with the animal kingdom by possibly being the first songwriter to utilize the phrase “man-eater” quite literally. But if it inspired a lot of bad writing, that’s only because the music itself is so powerful: in texture, in lyrical imagery, and most importantly, in songwriting. Case has been evolving slowly as a songwriter over the past decade: often getting stuck in morose moods, wound up in waltzes and grafting melodic snippets together to create a semblance of a song. She still does all of that, but now every minor flaw in her aesthetic has been commandeered and amplified into a singular strength. It’s the first Neko Case album to successfully encapsulate her many moods, and the first where every tiny detail truly counts.

5. Bat for Lashes – Two Suns (EMI). A vocalist with perfect pitch and pristine tone usually errs on the side of conservatory conservatism, but Natasha Khan crafts her own musical planet on Two Suns. It's a world light years away from her tentative debut, full of "a thousand crystal towers, a hundred emerald cities," and one that came into being some indeterminate point in a 30-year period between the debut albums of Kate Bush and Fever Ray. Khan's natural instincts are inventive and unusual; her goals are equally gloomy, gorgeous, goth and grandiose. And on Two Suns, she's got an entire fantastical world to herself in which to roam.

6. Tune-Yards – Bird Brains (4AD). In my more callous moments, I’ve explained Merrill Narbus’s Tune-Yards project as saying: “It’s like the Dirty Projectors—only good.” With that critically adored band (and tourmates), she shares an inexplicably unique identity rooted in similar touchstones: acrobatic melodies, subtle African and Caribbean rhythmic influences brightening up the girl/boy-in-a-bedroom template, and distinguishing herself from any prevailing trend. And instead of the Projectors’ bombast and bluster, Tune-yards is remarkably intimate and welcoming, even in its weirdest and full-throttle moments. She does all this in her Montreal apartment with a ukulele, a digital voice recorder and various noisemakers, conjuring a fantastical musical world that’s part birdsong and barking seals, set to the melodies of a young Joni Mitchell. She leads you by the hand into her disorienting musical landscape, whispers in your ear, invites you to dance, and soon enough any fear you may have dissipates as you begin to hear and see new colours in every sonic shadow.

7. The XX – s/t (Young Turks). The two singers might sound like they’re bored out of their minds, but the haunting and spare guitar lines, occasionally danceable drum machine beats, and subtle bass combine to make a compelling combo. On the surface it can appear icy and detached, yet the aching vocals and the tension in the spacious arrangements are ultimately empathetic. “Can I make it better with the lights turned on?” they ask. Probably not: this is best consumed during what Springsteen called “the wee, wee hours.”

8. Fever Ray – s/t (Mute). You don’t need to see the creepy videos to know that these haunting electronic songs are inhabited by nocturnal creatures, ominous threats, and music made by mask-wearing, feral face-painted androygnes from a dark, northern climate (in this case, Sweden). You also don’t have to appreciate Karin Andersson’s other act, The Knife, because this trumps it on every level. Imagine how much more terrifying Where the Wild Things Are would have been if scored by Fever Ray instead of Karen O.

9. K’naan – Troubadour (Universal). “We’re alive, man, it’s okay to feel good.” From the streets of Somalia to the project towers of Toronto, K’naan is never short of narrative, and his flow makes it evident that he learned English by listening to rap. Musically, he comes hard: not just on the hip-hop and pop tracks, but on anthems like "Waving Flag"—the track that was just chosen as the World Cup theme song for 2010. The world is his.

10. Charles Spearin – The Happiness Project (Arts and Crafts). These are the people in your neighbourhood, your neighbourhood—well, Charles Spearin’s neighbourhood, specifically. The core member of Do Make Say Think and Broken Social Scene steps outside his penchant for epic rock and creates an intimate rumination on the nature of happiness, by charting out the cadence of their speaking voices and inviting Toronto all-stars to interpret it musically. It’s no small feat, and he’s certainly not the first person to play with the tonalities of the spoken word, but the result is fascinating, joyous and uplifting. One would hope something called The Happiness Project couldn’t be anything but.


Air – Love 2 (EMI). This French duo aced their atmospherics years ago, but building their home studio for this album has made them sound more confident and loose than ever. Easily their best album since their 1998 landmark Moon Safari, it’s also their most melodic and lush—and the latter says something for these purveyors of pillowy pop.

Apostle of Hustle – Eats Darkness (Arts and Crafts). Broken Social Scene guitarist Andrew Whiteman is usually faulted for having too many ideas: it’s his best and worst trait. Here, he channels his inner cacophony into intermittent sound collages that thread through the album, leaving the music as a perfect fit of avant-garde, pop and epic rock, making Eats Darkness his most concise, accessible album to date.

Billy Talent – III (Warner). Producer Brendan Benson may have wasted time in ’09 making phoned-in albums by longtime clients Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam, but he helped this Toronto band deliver not just their best album yet, but one that towers over the tired and desperate radio rock churned out by similar bands that can only dream of writing 11 songs this strong. I’ll also award them points for giving me something to bond with my sullen stepkiddo over, and, through the song “Saint Veronika,” for introducing me to Paulo Coehlo’s novel Veronika Decides to Die.

Bruce Peninsula – A Mountain is a Mouth (Bruce Trail). A gravelly preacher leads a rag-tag choir in neo-gospel songs with thundering percussion and apocalyptic themes. Like any spiritual journey worth embarking on, it’s never obvious where Bruce Peninsula plans to lead the listener on any given song, teaching us: always question, never accept as gospel.

Buraka Som Sistema – Black Diamond (Enchufada). This Portugese group bounces Angolan beats and Brazilian bass for the digital dancefloor, creating the most exciting new dance music of 2009. It’s also the polar opposite of the icy electronic click’n’cuts for the shut-in crowd that kicked off the decade: this music is alive, kicking, and ready to get “Wegue Wegue.” “Skank and Move” indeed.

The Burning Hell – Baby (Weewerk). Wordy writers like Mathias Kom don’t usually assemble bands as giddy as this one, who take his hilariously morose lyrics—about birth, death and international finance conferences—and set them to calypso rhythms and anything else that well help you dance away the apocalypse, complete with trombones, accordions and trumpets leading the charge. And when the party needs a breather, The Burning Hell turn down the temperature with cello-laden delicacies like “Animal Hides” and the cinematic “Mosquito.” Even the seven-minute closer, “Everything Will Probably Be OK” (which follows the Cold War pop song “When the World Ends”), gets increasingly charming the more ridiculously repetitious it gets.

Leonard Cohen – Live in London (Sony). Really, we should all be thanking Cohen’s ex-manager for cheating him out of millions of dollars. Otherwise, Cohen wouldn’t have embarked on a two-year world tour, and we wouldn’t have this live album: it not only supersedes any greatest hits collection, but these are superior versions of these classic songs—specifically his work of the last 30 years, which sounds more alive here than it ever did before. On top of that, the much-maligned moaner is singing in tune throughout, which surely even his harshest detractors have to admit by now. “Don’t stop, don’t ever leave me alone,” he laments in the extended vamp at the end of “Tower of Song.” We ask the same of him.

The Dead Weather – Horehound (Third Man). Thank god Jack White is never satisfied: his latest band could well become his best, thanks to the strut and swagger of Kills singer Alison Mosshart. (That is, if they don’t kill each other first.) PJ Harvey appears to have abandoned the blues; Mosshart is enough of a 50-ft Queenie to steal that particular rock goddess crown, and not a moment too soon. Apparently this was all thrown together in a matter of weeks, and the spontaneous combustion heard here sounds all the stronger for it.

Flaming Lips – Embryonic (Warner). Their bubblegum burst, the Flaming Lips set their controls for the heart of the sun, corralling the mindblowing production aesthetic they perfected in their pop music of the last 10 years and applying it to the unfocused freak-outs that marked their earlier years.

Charlotte Gainsbourg – IRM (Because). Even though this was written and produced by Beck , the French actress and famous progeny finds her own voice and unique sound that covers coffeehouse folk, trippy Euro weirdness, and raw psychedelic pop.

Kid Sister – Ultraviolet (Downtown). Lady Gaga might be the bigger media sensation—and, hype aside, an underrated songwriter—but newbie Kid Sister has hip-hop flow as well as pop smarts. It’s that flow that sets her far apart—sadly, as the market for quality female MCs isn’t exactly crowded. After debuting as a hot tip two years ago, she took her time making this record—and it shows.

Major Lazer – Guns Don’t Kill People… Lazers Do (Downtown). After years of mix tapes, tracks for MIA and a surprisingly chilled out solo album, star DJ Diplo finally puts his money where his mouth is, in this duo with DJ Switch (Santigold) that puts a polyglot pop twist on global beats all filtered through Jamaican dancehall. The result is as kooky as it is cutting-edge.

Metric – Fantasies (Last Gang). These long-time aspirants to “stadium love” dug deep and created a passionate pop album brimming with melodic triumphs and room to breathe amidst the anthems.

Micachu and the Shapes – Jewellry (Rough Trade). Kitchen-sink electronic folk music? Anything goes here, where this young British singer has trouble sitting still: she’s too busy commanding all sorts of organic sounds transformed into bleeps and blurps with the help of producer Matthew Herbert.

Olenka and the Autumn Lovers – s/t (indie). Take a shot of whisky, smash your glass on the floor in time with the beat, and then cry along with the accordion and cello on these Polish-Canadian folk songs, sung lustily by the captivating Olenka Krakus. (Note: technically an under-the-radar release from very late in ’08.)

John Southworth – MamaTevatron (Dead Daisy). “Tevatron” refers to the circular particle accelerator in rural Illinois, which is second in size only to the Large Hadron Collider in France—you know, the place where they’re trying to recreate the big bang just to see what happened. John Southworth’s oddball pop album isn’t quite as explosive, but it is chock full of romantic sci-fi keyboard cabaret pop that celebrates mundane fancies like getting married at Buffalo City Hall. And after years in the critical wilderness, Southworth has returned with possibly his best album to date.

Telekinesis – Telekinesis! (Merge). Maybe because Michael Lerner is a drummer first and a songwriter second, his pop melodies would sound just as sweet without a guitar’s power chords underneath them. Not since the New Pornographers’ Mass Romantic has a power pop debut album come on this strong.

The Tragically Hip – We Are the Same (Universal). Not only old fans had reason to cheer for this invigorating comeback, but people who never had the time of day for The Tragically Hip found themselves pulled in by their best single in years ("Love is a First"), the romance of "The Last Recluse," the ambitious "Depression Suite" and the simplicity of "Morning Moon."

Allen Toussaint – The Bright Mississippi (Nonesuch). The New Orleans pianist and bandleader still has top talent jostling to work with him, and can breathe life into even the most tired standard in ways that make you believe you’ve never heard St. James Infirmary before. Joe Henry produces sessions that feature Marc Ribot, Don Byron, David Piltch and others, but Toussaint is always front and centre, even when he’s just playing rhythm.

Wye Oak – The Knot (Merge). This boy-girl Baltimore duo are an indie rock Crazy Horse or a countrified Yo La Tengo, loping and lurching between delicacy and destruction, with a pedal steel occasionally soaring over the mix. Andy Stack is the drummer and multi-instrumentalist; Jenn Wasner is the sleepy singer who doubles as guitar god. Together, they can move mountains.

Honourable mention:
Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics – Inspiration Information (Strut)
The Clean – Mister Pop (Merge)
The Clientele – Bonfires on the Heath (Merge)
Gentleman Reg – Jet Black (Arts and Crafts)
Helado Negro – Awe-Owe (Asthmatic Kitty)
Lee Harvey Osmond – A Quiet Evil (Latent)
Nirvana – Live at Reading (Universal)
Tom Waits – Glitter and Doom (Anti)
White Rabbits – It’s Frightening (TBD)
Wilco – Wilco The Album (Warner)

Turkeys: over-hyped or worthy artists who wasted our time

Rihanna – Rated R (Universal). Her last album was packed with catchy singles; this one barely carries a tune. After what she’s been through in the last year, she should be singing like a fiery survivor; instead, she sounds comatose and robotic. And all the money in the world can’t seem to convince the top-notch collaborators here to do anything other than phone it in. Rated R, all right: reject.

Dishonourable mentions:

Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino). Another installment of the biggest hoax in indie rock of the last decade.

Devendra Banhart – What Will We Be (Warner). He’s always been flaky, but he’s never been boring—until this, his major label debut. Coincidence?

Booker T – Potato Hole (Anti). Why do so many old soul greats always team up with half-assed rock bands and do lame covers?

John Doe and the Sadies – Country Club (Outside). Even the Sadies couldn’t convince anyone that this punk legend should be singing country classics.

Marianne Faithfull – Easy Come Easy Go (Universal). A phenomenal waste of talent from everyone involved: the guest stars, the songwriters, producer Hal Wilner and Faithfull herself. Easy go, indeed.

God Help the Girl – s/t (Beggars Banquet). God help Belle and Sebastian fans who had to listen to amateurs sing Stuart Murdoch’s new songs: off-off-off-Broadway.

Sonic Youth – The Eternal (Matador). Returning to their indie roots didn’t breathe any life into this spent force.

Bruce Springsteen – Working on a Dream (Sony). Whatever that dream was, it must have distracted him from working on this album. A bad cap to a strong comeback decade.

Those Crooked Vultures – s/t (Universal). A supergroup is only as good as its singer, and Josh Homme is no match for his backing band of John Paul Jones and Dave Grohl.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Other business

This post puts this blog past its 200th entry, marking over three years of vanity, high geekery, self-promotion, and extreme indulgence.

On that note, here’s some other business I’ve been up to in the last six months at my day job, working as a copy editor at Maclean’s.

For starters, some book reviews (which can double as last-minute gift suggestions):

James Ellroy’s Blood’s A Rover reviewed here. If you ever, ever get a chance to see this man read—or, more accurately, howl, rage and perform—do not pass it up.

John Crossingham’s Learn to Speak Music reviewed here, an entertaining and wonderfully visual how-to book for aspiring musicians ages eight to 80.

Jason Schneider’s Whispering Pines reviewed here. Of course, it was also discussed here.

And some news briefs:
Another Russian multi-billionaire is on the run from the government and surfacing in London: link.

Saudi Arabian education goes co-ed: link.

Uganda’s horrifying anti-gay legislation: link.

Canada’s condemnation of Internet-assisted suicide: link.

Finally, my contributions to Maclean’s surprisingly indie-rock-centric Top 10 Canadian albums of the past decade. Is it a conflict of interest to write a blurb on the number one album if I also sang on it?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Beatles bonanza

As a child, one of the geekiest items I devoured was some kind of trivia book based on incredibly large subjective assumptions—like when it asked, “What is the only bad Beatles song ever?” Their answer, of course, was the avant-garde tape experiment “Revolution 9,” which is the single song in the Beatles catalogue without a melody. Which hardly makes it the worst of anything. I’m fine with “Revolution 9.”

But the point of the question is that the Beatles are supposed to be infallible. It’s considered heresy to dis the Fab Four, no matter what your own musical leanings may be. They’ve survived overexposure, boomer backlash, and Michael Jackson licensing their songs to commercials.

The Beatles mean everything to everyone: the cute, cuddly boy band; the soundtrack to a cultural revolution; the inventive and curious musicians who pushed the pop envelope; the rock’n’roll revivalists; the trippy weirdoes who brought the avant-garde into the mainstream, however tentatively. Hell, even our hopelessly square Prime Minister fancies himself a Beatles expert (though surely his advisers—and Laureen—told him that the Beatles were the new fuzzy sweaters).

There will never be another band like them, with such broad cultural appeal across every sector of society and around the world—and that actually has more to do with their actual talent and output than narrowcasting and niche marketing, which are the usual scapegoats when discussing diminished cultural impact.

And so this fall we once again witnessed an avalanche of press about the Beatles: every single album was remastered for CD (though still not available on iTunes), and the video game Beatles Rock Band promised to be a fantastical intergenerational love-in.

As part of the promotional push, I arrived home one day to discover the entire Beatles catalogue on my doorstep, in an envelope from EMI—surely one of the biggest pleasures of my life as a professional promosexual. I hadn’t owned these on CD; in fact, I’d never owned most of them at all. The Beatles were always so ubiquitous that I never had an urge to have them in my house, even though I’ve loved them passionately all my life.

My personal history: I first fell in love with them through an ’80s compilation called 20 Greatest Hits; those served me well for years, and I eventually wore out the cassette. I also had the two-LP collection Rock and Roll Music, which captures the best of the Beatles outside of their pop and psychedelic personalities.

Other than that, I own the White Album on CD and Abbey Road on vinyl. I took out Rubber Soul and Revolver on vinyl from the Toronto Public Library as a teenager. I’ve never read a Beatles biography. Of the movies, I’ve only ever seen Yellow Submarine.

And so this seemed the perfect time to dive in deep and discover Beatles songs I’d never heard before, had completely forgotten about, or had only the faintest recollection of. In some cases, I knew the song only from learning it from a Beatles songbook for piano.

I constructed a playlist based solely on whether I could recall a melody by glancing at the title. I came up with 85 songs out of the 227 tracks on the 14 CDs (including the Yellow Submarine instrumentals, which are technically not Beatles songs).

Some of them I recognized instantly. Many I didn’t. A few I fell in love with immediately. Some suffered merely in comparison to the high standard set by other Beatles songs. Some totally sucked.

“Act Naturally” from Help!
I didn’t realize until doing this exercise that Help! was such a country album. That might explain George’s Stetson hat on the back cover. This is the most obvious debt, a cover of an earlier hit by Buck Owens. Ringo’s “sad and lonely” vocal suits the narrative perfectly.

“All I’ve Got to Do” from Meet the Beatles
Underneath the teen treacle of the lyrics is one of Lennon’s stronger early melodies. I’m finding most of the first three albums largely unbearable other than the obvious hits, so this song is a pleasant surprise.

“All Together Now” from Yellow Submarine
I remembered this vaguely from the film, but never sat down and listened to it. Sure, it’s a silly children’s song on par with "Yellow Submarine" and "Octopus’s Garden," but it’s one I’m not sick of. And there are some slightly more adult lines (“Can I take my friend to bed?”) hidden amidst the naïvete. One of the things I’ve always loved about the Beatles is their willingness to be completely silly and ridiculous—a trait that, of the other great bands of the era, only The Who seemed to share.

“And I Love Her” from A Hard Day’s Night
I know this song primarily from my cherished Beatles songbook as a teenager; I don’t know the original, even though it’s one of my favourite Beatles melodies. I believe my grandmother’s Bontempi organ would classify this clave rhythm as a rumba. George’s Spanish guitar lead is lovely.

“Anna (Go to Him)” from Please Please Me
Creepy, reverb-laden backing vocals make this Latin-tinged mid-tempo pop song more interesting than it might be otherwise. Lennon sounds quite impassioned about willfully losing the love of his life. I guess this makes up for those “come back to me or I’ll kill you” songs (“Run For Your Life”).

“Another Girl” from Help!
Another passable country song, but definitely filler, George’s guitar notwithstanding.

“Any Time at All” from A Hard Day’s Night
Classic pop melody with rock’n’roll delivery, though it could definitely use a bit more bite. The fact that the vocals are mixed twice as high as the instruments doesn’t help.

“Ask Me Why” from Please Please Me
Oh, God. Any song that starts off with “I love you-woo-woo-woo” gets the gong immediately.

“Baby’s in Black” from Beatles for Sale
A rare waltz. If they’re not in 4, I’ll take Beatles in 6 rather than 3. That’s just me.

“Baby It’s You” from Please Please Me
I know the original by the Shirelles (written by Burt Bacharach), but not this version. It’s remarkably faithful, right down to every sha-la-la.

“Baby You’re a Rich Man” from Magical Mystery Tour
There’s a paisley-era Prince song that lifts this melody, but I can’t place it. The clavioline (the keyboard also heard in Del Shannon’s “Runaway”) noodles in between every vocal line on an Eastern scale, adding a wonderfully demented element to an already oddball song.

“Bad Boy” from Past Masters Vol. 1
I only put this on the list because I wasn’t sure at first if this was the Carl Perkins’ song. It is, and it’s fabulous: easily one of the best of their American rock’n’roll covers, and Lennon sounds like he recorded this slightly before he shredded his vocal cords for “Twist and Shout.”

“Blue Jay Way” from Magical Mystery Tour
This appears to be the one exception to my belief that the weirder the better when it comes to the Beatles. Everything about this just sounds lazy.

“Boys” from Please Please Me
On the one hand, this is a dreadful British appropriation of American R&B. On the other hand, it’s actually pretty good.

“Chains” from Please Please Me
Mediocre performance, cliché song. Why would they cover this? Next.

“Devil in Her Heart” from With the Beatles
I have an acquired distaste for “devil woman” songs, but especially ones that sound like they’re being sung with a shit-eating grin by boys wearing sweaters. This song almost sends me screaming into the Stones camp.

“Dig It” from Let It Be
This starts out with Lennon singing an interpolation of “Like a Rolling Stone” and… oh wait, that’s it, all 48 seconds of it.

“Don’t Bother Me” from With the Beatles
This sounds like a warm-up for “The Night Before”—which is a far better song.

“Every Little Thing” from Beatles for Sale
Woof. Not wussy enough to be a ballad, not rockin’ enough for a rocker, not remotely weird enough to be interesting. The bad pseudo-tympani tom hits on the chorus are extremely low-rent Phil Spector.

“Flying” from Magical Mystery Tour
Tasty and trippy, this one. The oboe-like keyboard is a lovely treat, and the man chorus in the second verse is strange and surreal—as is the indeterminate soundscape that closes the piece. This is the kind of gem I was hoping to find with this experiment.

“For You Blue” from Let It Be
A rare Beatles blues that works, primarily because of its light touch, and the weird interplay between what sounds like an electric ukulele or a prepared piano and the boozy slides of the lead guitar. Too bad their self-consciousness gets the better of them when John jokes, “Elmore James has got nothing on this, baby.”

“Hey Bulldog” from Yellow Submarine
I love the “you can talk to me” chorus and the guitar riff that follows it; it’s the Beatles at not necessarily their late-period weirdo best, but close. The last 30 seconds is deliriously deranged.

“Hold Me Tight” from With the Beatles
With so many songs in their early catalogue that sound exactly like this one, it’s more and more apparent why they were so itchy to break the mould.

“Honey Don’t” from Beatles for Sale
Is this a skiffle song? Because I thought they WEREN’T A BLOODY SKIFFLE BAND. I have no idea what skiffle actually sounds like: a bit rockabilly, a bit country and western, a bit British, maybe? Coz that’s what this is. Nice Paul vocal; George does a Bill Haley-ish solo.

“I Call Your Name” from Past Masters Vol. 1
I like how it shifts into a ska shuffle during the guitar solo and then back to jangly rock’n’roll. But that’s about it.

“If I Fell” from A Hard Day’s Night
This golly-gee schoolboy love song (“iI I fell in love with you/ would you promise to be true? And help me understand?”) would be unbearable if the melody and harmonies weren’t utterly gorgeous; they could make Brian Wilson giggle with joy. They should have gone all-out a cappella for kicks.

“If I Needed Someone” from Rubber Soul
Holy Byrds, Batman. Parts of the verse also sound like a precursor to Yes’s “Roundabout.” This song might be the best thing in the repertoire of some ‘60s no-hit wonder, resuscitated decades later on a psych-pop compilation—but it’s definitely beneath the Beatles’ standards of this era.

“I’ll Be Back” from A Hard Day’s Night
Another unheard gem to these ears, rich in California harmonies. A nice minor key verse makes it a wonder that the Mamas and Papas didn’t tackle this.

“I’ll Cry Instead” from A Hard Day’s Night
Rockin’ country song that I’d love to hear Roy Orbison sing; no doubt they had him in mind when they wrote it.

“I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” from Beatles for Sale
Another suspicious skiffle song.

“I’ll Follow the Sun” from Beatles for Sale
This is one of the earliest songs where Paul sounds like a mature adult, perhaps because it’s the kind of tender acoustic ballad that the young rock band wouldn’t have attempted until then.

“I’ll Get You” from Past Masters Vol. 1
I don’t know how I feel about these sweet, snappy stalker songs: “I’ll get you in the end.” I’m sure people used to find them charming.

“I’m a Loser” from Beatles for Sale
This country-inflected pop song could stand beside “Please Please Me” or “Love Me Do” as one of their greatest early tracks.

“I Me Mine” from Let It Be
They were really into 6/8 on Let It Be, and this one switches back and forth from an orchestral Phil Spector pop song to a 4/4 bluesy stomper with awesome Billy Preston organ fills. You can almost hear every side of the Beatles pulling at each other here, and it works.

“I’m Happy Just to Dance With You” from A Hard Day’s Night
I’m beginning to think that half of Hard Day’s Night’s titles start with “I,” and that the whole album was consciously designed to set teen hearts aflutter.

“I Need You” from Help!
This sounds a bit like early R.E.M. Or a much better Herman’s Hermits.

“The Inner Light” from Past Masters Vol. 2
Here’s a George Harrison ode to cocooning that claims “The farther one travels, the less one knows”—and yet I’m sure he didn’t find all those harmoniums and ehrus or whatever else is on this track at his neighbourhood junk shop. Bad stoner hippie poetry and dorky guitar fills aside, it’s quite good.

“It’s All Too Much” from Yellow Submarine
Thurston Moore built his career around the first 15 seconds of this song. The rest of this one-chord wonder is just as glorious, with a monstrously distorted guitar, droning organ, disproportionately loud handclaps, and a fine performance from Ringo. This is probably Yo La Tengo’s favourite Beatles song.

“It’s Only Love” from Help!
“I get high when I see you go by/ My oh my.” My oh my indeed. A passable melody by Beatles standards, but these lyrics are dreadful. “Is it right that you and I should fight? Every night?” If you keep speaking in dipshit nursery rhymes, it’s sounds right to me.

“I’ve Got a Feeling” from Let It Be
The Beatles suck at the blues. There, I said it.

“I’ve Just Seen a Face” from Help!
Of the Beatles songs whose titles I don’t recognize immediately, this is perhaps my favourite. The guitar intro alone is sublime; the rest of the song is flawless. I know I’ve heard more than a few folkies cover this.

“Little Child” from With the Beatles
Paul McCartney himself described this song as filler, but it’s better than many of the covers they were doing at this point.

“Maggie Mae” from Let It Be
Forty seconds of a silly Scottish folk song.

“March of the Meanies” from Yellow Submarine
This is an all-too-typical villain theme, but not a bad one—and you can hear its influence on John Williams’s Darth Vader theme.

“Matchbox” from Past Masters Vol. 1
This is one of the weirder songs Carl Perkins ever wrote, with one verse boasting: “Let me be your little dog until your big dog comes/ when your big dog gets here/ watch your puppy dog run.” An anthem for cowards who flee with their tail between their legs—and that’s supposed to be a come-on?

“Misery” from Please Please Me
Other than a hilarious two-second piano fill in the bridge, this is obviously album filler.

“Mr. Moonlight” from Beatles for Sale
I don’t know if this is better than Roy Lee Johnson’s original, but they don’t do much with it, and surely they were writing better songs by 1964, no?

“The Night Before” from Help!
Ah yes, this one. A classic quality album track; not dissimilar to their earliest hits like “Love Me Do,” but played by a more mature group of men. The Wurlitzer gives it a rollicking Ray Charles feel; nice backing vocals and guitar solo.

“No Reply” from Beatles for Sale
Oh, this one. A slight bossa nova feel to the rhythm, clumsy handclaps in the bridge, but great melody and harmonies on the verse. The explosive “I nearly died” part belongs in a rocker like “Twist and Shout,” not so much here.

“Not a Second Time” from With the Beatles
The title sums it up. Once is enough.

“Old Brown Shoe” from Past Masters Vol. 2
A sizzling shuffle from George, the b-side to “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” this was apparently recorded first for Let It Be but was ditched—no idea why, considering the filler that mars that album.

“One After 909” from Let It Be
In what is an obvious attempt to dial back to their beginnings, this rock’n’roll shuffle sounds like a tired band trying to remember what excited them in the first place, before the drugs and the discord. It’s not terribly convincing.

“Only a Northern Song” from Yellow Submarine
The meta lyrics are awful, not to mention patronizing: "If you’re listening to this song/ you may think the chords are going wrong/ but they’re not.” Thanks, guys, for assuming your audience is full of simpletons—even if this is a song for a children’s film. And yet the music is magical. Paul’s bass is the anchor while a carnival of cacophony drifts in and out of the mix, including one particularly persistent trumpet. This was the pop song that attempted to prepare fans for “Revolution 9.”

“Pepperland” and “Pepperland Laid Waste” from Yellow Submarine
Generic film music.

“P.S. I Love You” from Please Please Me
Aw shucks. What nice boys. What treacle.

“Rain” from Past Masters Vol. 2
Another song I know more from my Beatles piano songbook than the original; I also recall Crash Vegas covering this in their live set around 1989. I love everything about this melody and arrangement, especially the wiggly bass, one of Ringo’s finest hours, and the Scottish-inflected flattened fifth note in the choruses.

“Run for Your Life” from Rubber Soul
“I’d rather see you dead little girl, than see you with another man.” I’m sorry, I just don’t buy the Beatles singing threatening murder ballads as jaunty two-steps.

“Sea of Holes” from Yellow Submarine
This is perfect and instantly evocative of soundtracks to creepy scenes in animated films—and a reminder that no one writes this kind of music for film anymore, never mind children’s film. This could be mistaken for a Morricone Italian horror score in a blind test; the sparse use of wah guitar and backwards tape are nice touches.

“Sea of Monsters” from Yellow Submarine
This sounds more like a romantic Dr. Zhivago outtake than something titled “Sea of Monsters.” I don’t recall this scene in the movie, but I’m guessing those monsters are pretty cuddly.

“Sea of Time” from Yellow Submarine
This starts out like a melancholy R.D. Burman Bollywood piece before dancing into Mary Poppins territory.

“She’s a Woman” from Past Masters Vol. 1
Thanks, master of the obvious. Paul’s vocal dances is unusually gritty for this pleasant country stomp.

“Slow Down” from Past Masters Vol. 1
Standard 12-bar-blues boogie by Larry Williams; far too similar to another Williams song, “Bad Boy,” which the Beatles also cover—and the latter is obviously superior.

“A Taste of Honey” from Please Please Me
Here’s a weird one: the theme song from a play and film that came from the “kitchen sink” drama of the time, dealing with interracial relationships and homosexuality. There’s a tragic melancholy to the melody, which a heavily reverbed Paul takes a bit too seriously. In fact, the whole thing is a bit giggle-worthy—which is sad, because it’s a lovely song.

“Tell Me What You See” from Help!
I could swear there’s a song from Steve Earle’s prime pop period (El Corazon, Transfiguration Blues) that rips this off wholesale. Again, another song that would be a high-water mark for most other pop bands gets lost in the shuffle in the Beatles catalogue.

“Tell Me Why” from Help!
Tell me why this made it onto a Beatles album.

“Thank You Girl” from Past Masters Vol. 1
Wow, it’s crystal clear why this didn’t even make it as album filler.

“There’s a Place” from Please Please Me
Nice two-note “Moon River”-ish harmonica line, but those two seconds are the only memorable moments in the entire song.

“Things We Said Today” from A Hard Day’s Night
I remembered this instantly; it was in the Beatles songbook I used to play all the time on the piano in high school. I love the lilt between the two minor chords in the verses; very British folk harmonies on the chorus. Can’t believe I forgot this; may be one of my favourite Beatles songs.

“Think For Yourself” from Rubber Soul
This has many of the best traits of late-period Beatles, but is little more than a lukewarm rehearsal.

“This Boy” from Past Masters Vol. 1
Lennon admits he was trying to write a Smokey Robinson song. He fared much better covering him outright (“You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”).

“Till There Was You” from With the Beatles
A light rumba touch, bongos and tasty acoustic guitars all support a lovely vocal from Paul on this song from The Music Man—the only Broadway tune the Beatles ever recorded.

“Two of Us” from Let It Be
Despite the fact that this is the first song on Let It Be, I always forget about it—which is a huge mistake. This is a gloriously melodic acoustic foot-stomper; the guitars are present and lush; Ringo’s subtle shades of percussion are perfect; and the whole thing sounds like it could have been recorded live in a room—a rarity for late-period Beatles.

“Wait” from Rubber Soul
A wonderful amalgam of their country and Motown influences. Ringo’s got it going on here.

“What Goes On” from Rubber Soul
The chorus is an obvious inspiration for the Velvet Underground’s song of the same name. Not sure where this sits in the timeline of the Byrds’ country conversion, but it’s one of the Beatles more drugged-out, off-kilter takes on Nashville.

“What You’re Doing” from Beatles for Sale
Nice electric 12-string work from George, but the lame backing vocals (“Hey, let’s shout the first word of the line!”) are lame. As a Paul pop song, this is decent, but the arrangement is flaccid.

“When I Get Home” from A Hard Day’s Night
If any other band recorded this, they’d be accused of shamelessly ripping off “A Hard Day’s Night.” The Beatles put it on the album of the same name.

“The Word” from Rubber Soul
This sounds vaguely familiar, a jaunty pop song with harmonies rooted in the psychedelic folk of the time. The bass line and piano foreshadow “Taxman” and “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” and there’s an awesome dirty Farfisa organ that pops up here and there.

“Words of Love” from Beatles for Sale
What’s with the insistent quarter-note clapping through this entire song? Didn’t anyone think that was weird?

“Yellow Submarine in Pepperland” from Yellow Submarine
Basically an orchestral arrangement of the title song, this is a bit too Disney.

“Yes It Is” from Past Masters Vol. 1
No it’s not. This is a major yawnfest. Every single Beatle sounds like they’re falling asleep in the studio in the middle of this. I’m nodding off just typing this.

“You Can’t Do That” from A Hard Day’s Night
This is a refreshing change from so many early Beatles garage rockers in that the rhythm section actually sounds sexy: not just the push and pull between Paul’s pulsing bass and Ringo, but the rhythm guitar as well. Compelling vocal by John, as well.

“You Know My Name (Now Look Up the Number)” from Past Masters Vol. 2
I haven’t heard this in years, since around the release of the Anthology sets, and had forgotten how ridiculously awesome it was, more suited to a Monty Python or Muppets skit than a Beatles album; it was the b-side to “Let it Be,” and was recorded in four separate sessions between 1967 and 1969.

“You Like Me Too Much” from Help!
A solid George track: obviously overshadowed by all the Lennon-McCartney compositions on the album, but he’s really starting to shine by this point.

“You’re Going to Lose That Girl” from Help!
A passable attempt at a Motown-style song. I’d rather hear someone from Motown do it.

“You’re Going to Lose That Girl” from Help!
Thank god for those distracting bongos. More bongos! Also: it sounds like George Harrison just learned how to bend notes in his solo. (Also: if A Hard Day's Night is the "I" album, is Help! the "you" album?)

“Your Mother Should Know” from Magical Mystery Tour
I’ve definitely never heard this song before in my life—my loss. It’s a lovely psychedelic music hall number about a song that “was a hit before your mother was born.” Definitely a new favourite.

“You Won’t See Me” from Rubber Soul
All right, Ringo-haters, just try and nail this beat!

And so back to that trivia book’s question: what is the only bad Beatles song? Well, it turns out there’s quite a few, most of them on the first three albums. Of the 128 Beatles songs I know inside out, I’d only add a few to that list of stinkers (“Dig a Pony,” “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” “All You Need is Love”).

With 196 Beatles songs now shuffling on my iPod, including the ones that have already been seared into my brain for 30 years now, it’s refreshing (if not painfully obvious) to rediscover what an embarrassment of riches they are, all created in the span of six years, all of them turning an awaiting world on its ear, each of them containing tiny production touches that would go on to inspire entire genres of music.

There’s a reason this legacy endures beyond boomer bullshit and subsequent generations’ rosy childhood memories. And you don’t need to play a video game to appreciate it.