John, Paul, George, and Ringo. And maybe the other George. You know who they are, or at least those first four. Nearly 60 years after the earliest incarnation of The Beatles first formed, they're still nearly universally beloved and listened to across generations.
If you're a younger fan, you may have only heard them on streaming services, or through your parents' CDs, or maybe just piecemeal through radio play and soundtracks. But there's a certain thrill the oldest can remember about hearing the quartet on vinyl. Their singles were events unto themselves, and their albums were some of the first to elevate the pop record into a work of art, commanding the attention of their fans through both sides of an LP.
Do yourself a favor and experience The Beatles' discography as it was originally released. But where to begin? In this guide, we'll start by suggesting the must-have Beatles records. But as you'll find below, there's much more to collecting The Beatles than just buying a copy of your favorite record—which, depending on the version, may not even include your favorite song. Between US and UK versions and mono and stereo mixes, there's a lot of variation in the Fab Four's discography. Below, we'll explain why.
With that in mind, as a wise man once said, “Ladies and gentlemen… The Beatles!”
For as much as these records were mass experiences, it's interesting that many of the individual records weren't even the same experience when compared to each other, in more ways than one. American versions of Beatles albums often differed greatly from those from the UK. Stereo mixes were popular, but the band preferred mono. Some pressings, cut by different mastering engineers, were significantly louder than others. Finding which specific type of record you prefer and collecting variations is all part of the fun.
For example, let's talk about a few of these American vs. UK differences. Especially so for the group's early records, it's common for tracklists to be incredibly different. Sometimes, the records had entirely different names and packaging. But yet another important difference is the reverb that Capitol Records put on US albums, once it became the Stateside home of The Beatles. Capitol mastering engineer Dave Dexter added reverb and other elements to make these classic albums sound more like the other pop records on American charts at the time.
The Beatles' debut album in the UK was Please Please Me, while in the US it was called Introducing… The Beatles. Some US pressings omit "P.S. I Love You" and "Love Me Do," while some do have "Love Me Do," but in place of "Ask Me Why." (Also interesting to note is that the original American disc is possibly the most pirated album of all time. Real copies from that era were issued on the Vee Jay label, but many copies you'll find are convincing fakes.)
The US and UK versions of A Hard Day's Night are radically different as well. The UK version of this classic soundtrack stuck to songs by the Beatles, while the US version has a number of the songs re-worked as instrumentals arranged by George Martin and omits others. The UK cover also has cascading filmstrips of each of the lads mugging for the camera, while the US has a closeup of each Beatle from just the eyes up. Paul and John on top, George and Ringo below. Initially, the original US pressings were released by United Artists instead of Capitol.
This trend even continued for a bit past the Beatlemania era. The US Rubber Soul is a lot mellower overall, opening with "I've Just Seen a Face" instead of the rocking "Drive My Car," while omitting "If I Needed Someone" and "What Goes On." Similarly, the US version of Revolver has an altered track list, with the US version missing “I’m Only Sleeping,” “And Your Bird Can Sing,” and “Dr. Robert.” But, it does have that crazy reverb sound not on the UK version. The UK version also has the distinction of having an early pressing that doesn't sound very good at all. Early monos with the matrix numbers that end in “-1” are referred to as the “loud cut,” and as the name implies, these were cut a little hotter than they probably should have been.
But from Sgt. Pepper's on, the tracklists and album art would remain relatively the same—with one big exception being Magical Mystery Tour, which was released as a proper LP in the US, including the five singles from that era: “Hello, Goodbye,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Penny Lane,” “Baby, You’re A Rich Man,” and “All You Need Is Love.” The UK version was a double EP and did not include these hits. The entire B-side of the US LP is missing.
As stated above, there are also significant differences between stereo and mono mixes in most of The Beatles' discography. Rubber Soul's "What Goes On" gets an entire guitar part added to the UK stereo mix and"Norwegian Wood" gets the addition of a small cough. Revolver includes a few entirely different takes of songs between its mono and stereo versions.
The mono version of Sgt. Pepper's—how the band themselves intended the album—is far punchier and has a trippier phasing effect on the vocals of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” while the stereo version of “She’s Leaving Home” is a half-step lower due to it being slowed down. Many people prefer the instrument separation that the stereo mix provides. One final example can be heard in Magical Mystery Tour. On stereo mixes of the album, "Blue Jay Way" has creepy backwards singing (it’s just the chorus and not, say, a declaration that Paul is dead), while mono has none of that trippiness. (If you’re curious about more differences between mono and stereo pressings, check out our mono vs. stereo guide here.)
Now, if you're an American reader, you might be asking yourself, "Have I been listening to The Beatles wrong my whole life?" Chances are, no. When CD became the dominant format, the British stereo editions of the early Beatles albums became canon. Obviously, this move had the blessing of The Beatles themselves (although there’s a case to be made that they only cared about the mono mixes). But the actual sound of early Beatlemania, especially in the States, is starting to become lost as a result. Those American mixes have never made it officially to digital. Vinyl is more than just a format. It preserves history.
But those looking for great-sounding Beatles albums can also find a number of high-quality reissues released in recent years, including those made by MoFi and 2014's Beatles in Mono releases. These were cut off the analog mono masters and pressed on 180-gram vinyl and meticulously produced, but are themselves becoming collector's items now that they too are out-of-print. (For another collectable reissue, try to find the 1978 white-vinyl pressing of The White Album.)
Of course, one great way to hear The Beatles and gain the same sense of immediacy that made the group a global sensation is to hear their singles.