For the Beatles, 1964 was a huge year. The band managed to star in their first feature film, produce their first album of all original material (and the only one made up entirely of Lennon/McCartneys), and take America by storm — breaking records in television viewing and record sales, selling out concerts in minutes, and earning an airport welcome greater than the president’s. In the U.K., they churned out two number 1 albums and three number 1 singles — all despite filming, touring, and promoting what was already released.
By the end of 1964, John and Paul were so burnt out that they struggled to come up with material, and Beatles For Sale is thus among the weakest albums in their catalog. But the lads still managed to put their all into the singles and soundtrack, not to mention dramatically improve their writing, singing, and playing overall. Combined, it kept Beatlemania going at as hyper a pace as ever, and made the completion of this list full of difficult choices and extensive, careful pruning.
1. Can’t Buy Me Love
When I tell people that I think Can’t Buy Me Love is among Paul McCartney’s greatest songwriting accomplishments, they usually look at me as though I must be joking or giving a backhanded compliment. Neither is true. Can’t Buy Me Love is no Let It Be or Blackbird, I will grant you. But it is indeed a masterpiece of a different kind. The song lasts a mere two minutes. And those two minutes are soaring, divine, perfect moments that are always over far, far too soon. The guitars — one of them notably 12-string — clang away as the drums and bass dutifully drive them on. And with no vocal harmonies on this song — a first for the Beatles — Paul belts the notes out like his life depends on it, hardly taking a breath the entire time. The result is a frantic, frenzied, and yet covertly careful tour de force.
And when I say that it is one of Paul’s finest, I call that absolutely nothing to sneeze at.
2. I Feel Fine
There are fewer hooks that are as simultaneously cool and catchy as this one. Lyrically, the song doesn’t have much to offer. But musically, it’s perhaps the Beatles’ most sophisticated song up to this point. From George’s pitch perfect guitar to Ringo’s absolutely brilliant drumming and John’s syrupy, thick, almost lethargic vocals, the entire track is hypnotizing. And from that famous opening feedback to John’s far less famous but no less enticing closing “mmm,” you couldn’t ask for a better, more iconic single.
3. A Hard Day’s Night
The precise makeup of that famous opening guitar chord still inspires frustration and heated debate among musicians everywhere — with the latest conclusion being that it’s not just guitar, after all. In any case, it maintains the power to shock your senses and make you sit up and pay attention. And once the song has captured you, it doesn’t disappoint. John and George’s guitars drive the song on with a sense of determination — George’s solo and outro, especially, are undeniable — and Paul’s middle eight vocals don’t just tie it all together, they damn well make the song. It set the tone not just for the film, but for all that the Beatles would be and represent in the year it was released.
4. Things We Said Today
This darker, moody, and frequently forgotten track is a little bit out of character for 1964 Paul. It’s also absolutely superb. The harsh contrast of the verse and two bridges is one of the song’s defining features — on the one end it’s a jolt out of complacency, on the other a soothing slide back into the comfort of what is known. This clever, musically accomplished ode to nostalgia that hasn’t happened yet always deserved better than placement on the B-side of a soundtrack, and should be finding its way onto more peoples lists.
5. If I Fell
If I Fell is one of the Beatles’ earliest original ballads, from a time when they were still primarily performing up tempo rock and roll. What perhaps amazes me most about this John-penned song is the fact that John and Paul recorded the vocals at the same time, and into one microphone. No overdubbing of one vocal track with another was necessary — and if one of them messed up the close harmony, both of their tracks were shot. But supposedly, despite the challenging task they faced, it didn’t even take them that many takes. The finished product is sweet, subdued, and memorable.
Bonus Track: What You’re Doing
Left at the end of this list with so many songs of approximately equal value, all far too evenly matched, I decided to fall back on a track that’s both a personal favorite and an overlooked gem. Ringo’s drum intro/outro is deserving of accolades all on its own. That it’s followed up with such squeaky, shiny, perfect pop is just icing on the cake. The guitar hook shimmers, and Paul’s vocals are almost too glossy to be real. It feels a bit silly to say for a song that is, in the end, just a lovely little piece of ear candy, but the way he croons “I’ve been waiting here for you, wondering what you’re gonna do …” just about takes my breath away. Genius though it may not be, I think that both Paul and John sold this track way too short when they referred to it as a throwaway — so good, they were, that they didn’t always manage to see the beauty of their own skill.
1964 was certainly a fruitful year — left off of this list are great tracks like Eight Days a Week, I’m a Loser, I’m Happy Just to Dance With You, and the incorrigibly stalkery yet undeniable No Reply. And that’s just a start!
Let me know what your list would have looked like, which of my picks you would have left off, and which omissions you would have included. (A full list of Beatles songs by year can be found here.) Up next week, as the years keep getting harder and harder to trim down, I’ll be taking on 1965.
Previously in this series:
Top 5 Beatles Songs from 1963
Top 5 Beatles Songs from 1963