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100 Greatest Songs of All Time: 50-1

on September 21, 2012, 7:11am
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05. The Beatles – “A Day in the Life”

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967

Unlike so many entries on this list, The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” did not stumble into greatness by chance. This was the design of a band that just seemed to know something no one else did; they were in that sweet spot of their career, the kind that tends to escape bands before they have any idea it had even arrived, before Yoko, before any deaths (real or mythical), before the blisters formed on Ringo’s fingers. It was a time when John Lennon’s and Paul McCartney’s differing methods could both flourish and even coexist perfectly on one song before inevitably growing too big for each other, clashing and killing the band within three years. They had arrived at their peaks of both ability and self-awareness, and knowing perfectly well that this chapter couldn’t last forever, they realized it was time they laid their teenybopper-heartthrob-icon role to rest for good and aimed for high art.

As we now know, they would reach heights previously considered impossible for pop music with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and “A Day in the Life” was the immaculate closing argument: the most ambitious track on the album that redefined the word “ambition”. McCartney delivers his strongest Paul McCartney melody of the album, and Lennon sings about a man who “blew his mind out in a car”, blowing listeners’ minds out the backs of their skulls in the process. Musically, “A Day in the Life” is a progged-out requiem–turned-Top-40-bait-turned-apocalyptic-prophecy; lyrically, it’s a series of anecdotes that simply speak to the inherent morbidity and mundanity of the human condition.

And then there are the orchestral swells, which marked the first time in modern pop music history that anyone even remotely as popular as the Beatles – or popular at all, really – had considered the idea that melodically devoid noise could actually be useful, no less transcendental, in song. More surprising still is that it was McCartney, the one who took the most measures so as not to alienate his band’s fanbase, who was largely responsible for their inclusion. These two separate crescendos as performed by 40 outsourced musicians became the origin of art rock, which itself would go on to develop off in the peripheries of rock and pop music despite being derived from the most popular band ever.

So, it was only fitting that this song end on the densest, biggest sounding chord possible. That absurdly sustained E-major of three pianos hits like an exclamation point placed precisely at the apex of an era, or like the jarring boom that a microphone makes when dropped on a wooden stage after a stunning performance, when the only thing left to give to a totally confounded audience is one last massive, assertive, punctuating note. -Steven Arroyo

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