Every year, we see articles alerting us to “The 200 albums you must hear before you die.”
I’d rather tell you about the one album you must hear 200 times before you die.
And I know the album in question. I’ve already clocked the requisite number of hearings. And in fact, I’ve surpassed 200 listenings.
I’m speaking of “The White Album” by The Beatles.
Sure, you’ve heard a mouthful about “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver” and “Help” and “Sergeant Pepper” and “Magical Mystery Tour” and “Let It Be” and “Abbey Road.” Yeah, yeah, yeah.
And those are beautiful albums. No argument there.
But The White Album is a forest of creativity, with more than double the songs of a typical recording, in double the discs. Thirty songs in all, with melodies that rivet themselves to your brainstem for a lifelong fix.
So as the Bard might say, let’s start at the album’s feet and say what it is by inches.
30. Good Night. A lush lullaby penned by Lennon for Ringo Starr, with enough tranquility in it to dry briny tears in sleepy eyes.
29. Revolution 9. Lennon tottering on the verge of the fringe of the hem of the tip of unconsciousness, lifting the lid of our tepid hearts and moaning.
28. Cry Baby Cry. Lennon glossing suburban life with lady-love Yoko, king and queen and children of the king, all old enough to know better.
27. Savoy Truffle. Harrison in levity, mocking a friend’s sweet tooth and dental decay. The rhythm section alone is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.
26. Honey Pie. McCartney’s nod to pop’s past, with a song so melodically contagious that, if the past is prologue, you’ll be humming I’m in love but I’m lazy for half a hundred years.
25. Revolution. Lennon’s rock bottom realization that he must draw the line at violent social change. We’d all love to see the (alternative) plan.
24. Long, Long, Long. Harrison’s almost silent, almost whispering, meditation on love, understated, yet beautiful.
23. Helter Skelter. McCartney in a violent frenzy, coming down fast and dragging the band with him. Perhaps the origin of heavy metal?
22. Sexy Sadie. Lennon fed up with the clay-footed gurus and rishis of the world, whom Lennon had recently fallen for in South Asia.
21. Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey. Lennon at his candid rock and roll best. His inside is out, and come on, come on, come on, it’s such joy.
20. Mother Nature’s Son. McCartney in folkie mode and never far from surreal. He’s born a poor young country boy, as the lyric allows. Who isn’t born young?
19. Yer Blues. This is where the word cathartic goes to achieve catharsis. Lennon is almost too honest here, putting it out in one of the best rock vocals ever. The gods themselves light votive candles to this tune and cast offerings on the visage of John W. Lennon.
18. Birthday. McCartney remaking happy birthday forever. We could have asked the Beatles to re-write the national anthem and they would have one-upped it.
17. Julia. Lennon’s prayer to his mother, lost twice, the last time for good, and telling mum he’s found new love. As beautiful a song as could be found any time, anywhere.
16. I Will. This time it’s McCartney in love, and there’s a surreal touch again. After devoting most of the song to this lover, and after admitting he can’t remember when he began loving her, he sings at the end, “And when at last I find you.” He hasn’t even met this woman yet. She’s a figment of his imagination. Will he wait a lonely lifetime for her? Apparently, yes. To the last syllable, to the final breath.
15. Why Don’t We Do It In The Road? McCartney with a prehistoric query and a flawless rock delivery. No eight-word song is better than this one.
14. Don’t Pass Me By. Ringo’s vehicle, pop perfect, and hardly a filler. Harrison noodles on the violin, no less.
13. Rocky Raccoon. Typical McCartney, irresistible, whimsical. An old West shootout for love’s sake, gin tinctured and joyous.
12. Piggies. Harrison with metaphorical barn animals needing a damn good whacking.
11. Blackbird. McCartney had one of the best acoustic guitar picking and strumming styles in popular music, seen before in Yesterday and here in an effortlessly gorgeous melody angling at the plight of American Blacks.
10. I’m So Tired. Lennon convincing us in vocal delivery just how exhausted he is, from sotto voce to the uncoiled scream.
9. Martha My Dear. McCartney on piano in homage to his sheepdog. But no one knew that for years and all were left to wonder who exactly Martha was. This song puts to sleep any notion that McCartney was less of a lyricist than Lennon. “Though I spend my days in conversation, please/Remember me/Martha my love/Don’t forget me/Martha my dear.” And this to a dog.
8. Happiness Is A Warm Gun. Lennon’s double entendre and eerie adumbration of things to come. The song’s a tear sheet for those demanding proof that a real rock and roll voice existed in the second half of the twentieth century.
7. While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Harrison in the upper regions of Mt. Olympus and plucking inspiration from the deities above. A guitar personified can do nothing other than weep, and this guitar does cry, and then it shines like a comet’s silver tresses.
6. The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill. Lennon’s journalistic rendering of actual events, poeticized and disguised for the ugly American and mom. What did you kill, Bungalow Bill?
5. Wild Honey Pie. McCartney unhinged for ever-so-little-a-bit and thereby providing a necessary garnish to the list of thirty.
4. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. Melody-maker and storyteller McCartney with another earworm, once heard never able to un-hear. He misspeaks one of the latter lines but they leave it in: Desmond stays at home and does her pretty face.
3. Glass Onion. Lennon peeling back the layers, and if he wasn’t high when he wrote this, he should have been. While alluding to other tokens in the Beatles canon that he’d already told us about years earlier, he adds a gram or two more.
2. Dear Prudence. Lennon’s offering to the Aural Dictionary entry for ‘lovely,’ which lifts PF from the anonymity and comfort of a country ashram and its cloistered virtues.
1. Back In The U.S.S.R. If McCartney had only ever written this one song and this song alone, he would still have gone down in history as one of the best songwriters of the twentieth century. To write that song in the West in the age of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain and the Red Scare and the Cuban Missiles and the Communist Plot and the Bomb, and to do it in the chirpy tones of a Southern California beach groove? You don’t know how lucky you are, boys.