One year ago, for no particular reason, I decided to compile a list of my 30 favorite records of all time, limiting myself to only one album per artist. I excluded classical music and non-vocal jazz from the list. In other words I stuck to recordings that fall within the amorphous definition of vocal popular music. The Kinks (Muswell Hillbillies) made the list, as did Skip James (Today), Steve Earle (Transcendental Blues), Billy Bragg and Wilco (Mermaid Avenue), and Ella Fitzgerald (The Cole Porter Songbook). I came of age in the 1960s and, like hundreds of millions worldwide, I used to be a Beatles fanatic. So, needless to say, a Beatles album is on the list. It was hard making that selection, but I settled on their namesake creation, The Beatles, which is popularly known to one and all as The White Album.
Last week I remembered my list of 30 albums. One idea leading to another, I started wondering about which pop music album is the best of all time. Some of us would pick a Kanye West oeuvre, or something by The Cure or Stevie Wonder. Yet, there’s no doubt that a Beatles record would be top choice for countless folks. Maybe Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Maybe Abbey Road. Maybe The White Album. Picking one album from the millions that have been recorded is of course a somewhat foolish exercise. Most listeners have heard a meaninglessly small percentage of all there are to hear. Still, it’s an interesting proposition. I’m hardly the first to think about this. Oh well, late to another party.
The Web is full of lists ranking the best albums ever. Rolling Stone magazine polled musicians and music industry folks in 2012 to compile a list of the all-time 500. The Beatles took four of the top 10 spots, Pepper coming in at number one, The White Album at number 10. Pitchfork magazine says that Kanye West’s My Beautiful Twisted Fantasy is the greatest of the 500 greatest. The first Beatles album on the Pitchfork list is number 71, Abbey Road. The White Album missed the Pitchfork cut altogether. Entertainment Weekly rated 100 records, and The Beatles proved to be EW royalty. Revolver ranked number one, and White took the twelfth position.
It’s time for another list, a very short list, and I’m going to keep my poll simple. I’ll poll only one person. Me. Though “favorite album” and “best album” aren’t necessarily one and the same, in my case I’ve concluded that they are. Hear ye, hear ye! The best pop album ever, of those that I know about (and I have heard a lot of albums over the years), is The White Album.
I’ve spun this recording on vinyl and CD a thousand times, but until last week hadn’t in at least a year. I listened twice and was taken aback, though I shouldn’t have been. I mean, The White Album is amazing, an aural kaleidoscope. It is modern, dazzling and delightfully tuneful. Some songs are heart-tugging. Others are witty, endearingly whimsical or downright wacky. Many rock like crazy, though a surprising number are tender ballads or spacey contemplations and not really rock at all. Regardless, The White Album hits with great song after great song, except for Revolution 9 (the less said about it the better) and maybe Martha My Dear, which is awfully treacly but which I like anyway. With each listening now and those many years before, White has revealed textures, accents, wonderful backing vocals and sound manipulations that I hadn’t noticed before. It’s that kind of album.
Part of The White Album’s brilliance is its sheer size. On vinyl and CD it is a double disk holding 30 tracks. It is maybe a sort of miracle that the record turned out so well, as The Beatles were starting to unravel during its making. Before the recording sessions began, though, things were pretty copacetic in Beatlesville. In spring 1968, John, Paul, George and Ringo spent time learning Transcendental Meditation in India at an ashram run by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It was a productive musical period for the boys, as most were. They wrote many songs while there, though apparently John and Paul composed largely individually, collaborating very little. About two-thirds of The White Album comprises songs from the India adventure, including Ringo’s first compositional effort, Don’t Pass Me By.
Recording sessions for The White Album began on May 30, 1968, and lasted for four and a half months. The sessions were often bumpy. The Beatles had previously made albums basically as a fenced-off unit with their producer George Martin and various engineers. Not true for White, as Lennon frequently brought Yoko Ono to the studios. John and Yoko had become a couple earlier that year. Yoko’s presence changed the working dynamics that McCartney, Harrison and Starr were used to. Inevitably, verbal squabbles punctuated some sessions. Tensions rose. In June, one of the chief engineers couldn’t stand the atmosphere anymore and quit. Worse yet, halfway through the sessions Ringo fell victim to feelings of self-doubt and frustration and left the group. His bandmates begged him to return, and 12 days later he did.
All of this proves that, for bands, greatness doesn’t necessarily depend on internal harmony. Struggle and discord might still result in a magnificent end product. It’s true that a few of The White Album’s tracks were recorded by only one Beatle (just John on Julia; just Paul on Blackbird), but the Fab Four stuck it out as best they could and played together on most songs. And what they created sounds as fresh as if recorded yesterday.
Listening to The White Album last week, various songs jumped out at me. Hellter Skelter is a grinding heavy workout, a wonder. Long Long Long, a Harrison composition in waltz time, is beautiful and airy, brought to a close by Ringo’s perfectly placed snare drum whack. Dear Prudence grips the heart, framed by chiming repeating guitar chords and lifted by angelic vocal choruses.
Speaking of Ringo, to me he is a star throughout The White Album, not only on drums but as a singer. He doesn’t appear on Dear Prudence or the album’s opening cut, Back In The USSR. They were recorded during his absence from the band. But elsewhere his drum work is nimble and creative, right on the money. And the album comes to a majestic close with Ringo’s gorgeous vocal work on Good Night, a lullaby credited to Lennon-McCartney but written fully by John. Ringo is the sole Beatle on Good Night. He sings so well, so tenderly, backed by a large orchestra and vocal choir. Who’d have thunk he could sing like this? It is the finest vocal performance of his career.