Ah, the Beatles’ finest (half) hour. I can’t count how many times I’ve had the “Which Beatles album was the best?” conversation with friends, family and sometimes total strangers. My answer has been the same ever since I first heard Revolver in high school, and most I have had the debate with have been on my side, which always surprises me. While there’s no question that Sgt. Pepper was bigger than the music, when it comes to determining which Beatles album was the best musically, most of us, in my experience, would pick Revolver. The Beatles’ groundbreaking 1965 album Rubber Soul saw them expand their sound to include the sitar, an Indian instrument George Harrison became enchanted by in their travels to India. When Harrison’s sitar pops in during “Norwegian Wood,” it’s like hearing something from another universe. It marked the beginning of the psychedelic era, but it only hinted at what was to come.
Compared to the mind-bending Revolver, the Beatles’ follow-up released eight months later, Rubber Soul is pretty tame, really. On Rubber Soul, they acknowledged the walls around them for the first time, hesitantly feeling them out. Revolver is the Beatles tearing down those walls. I think what gives Sgt. Pepper the edge in greatest albums lists is that with Sgt. Pepper, they rebuilt the walls how they wanted, which is a more notable feat, I suppose. I think the reason I prefer Revolver to Sgt. Pepper is that when the Beatles rebuilt those walls on Sgt. Pepper, they did so by reusing some of the same innovations from Revolver. While nothing on Revolver can touch “A Day in the Life” in terms of composition, certainly parallels can be drawn between “Within You Without You” and “Love You To,” or “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Tomorrow Never Knows,” or even “She’s Leaving Home” and “Eleanor Rigby.”
As a result, I’ve always felt sort of cheated when I listen to Sgt. Pepper. Not that it’s not great, but you’d expect the greatest album of all time to be more wholly innovative. And while it’s important to keep in mind that pretty much nothing is wholly innovative, Revolver is the more innovative of the two. Sgt. Pepper refined those innovations and expanded them further, but Revolver is the most jarring album in the Beatles’ entire catalog, as their more subtle experimentation on Rubber Soul progressed into full-blown drug psychedelia on some tracks. I was pleasantly surprised to see Revolver on a season 5 episode (“Lady Lazarus”) of Mad Men. In it, advertising man (and central character) Don Draper complains to his much younger wife that he doesn’t understand what young people are into now (the episode takes place in October 1966). His wife gives him a copy of Revolver at the end of the episode, telling him to start with a track she points to but we can’t see. Don puts on the record, and listens to “Tomorrow Never Knows” for a little bit, and then turns it off. It’s easy to forget when we have these discussions about the best music of all time that the Beatles were labeled “noise” by the parents of the kids who grew up listening to them.