According to the Wikipedia article entitled Albums Considered The Greatest Ever, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (which is the one picture disc I own) is the album most often listed as #1 in “definitive” best ever lists. It also is pointed to as the album that drove Brian Wilson crazy trying to top.
One critic, Kenneth Tynan called it “a decisive moment in the history of Western Civilization.”
So yeah. It’s got some hype to live up to.
It was also the first Beatles album I owned, after borrowing my dad’s copies of Ones and The White Album pretty frequently in high school, so listening to it critically is pretty hard since it’s ingrained so deeply in my mind, which makes every single sound seem perfect.
But, that’s pretty close to the truth. From the tuning orchestra in the beginning to the scrambled noise collage that closes the album (in the original pressing, this collage was placed in the closed loop at the end, repeating forever. This is absent on the picture disc), every single note and beat and sound effect is impeccably placed. This is to be expected considering that after Rubber Soul, the Beatles focused all of their energy to recording, constantly tinkering and honing their skills in the studio until they reached as close to perfection as they could.
But the most remarkable thing is that even though the studio noodling is uber-present here, never does it sound like they’re horsing around in the studio. Instead, it’s used for effect, like the dizzying waltz in “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite” or the super-reverbed double-tracked vocals in “She’s Leaving Home.” This mastery also allowed for the seamless transitions between songs—the first time this would occur on a pop record.
Super-slick production aside, the songs are also excellent, even as varied as they are. It includes Lennon’s psych-rocker “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” George’s sitar-based “Within You and Without You,” and Paul’s jazz-pop standard “When I’m Sixty-Four.” It covers some of the most expansive musical ground of their entire career, and every corner of it is handled masterfully–even the Ringo-led tune is good! It’s also features Lennon-McCartney’s most collaborative offerings of their entire career—”She’s Leaving Home” and the absolutely perfect “A Day In The Life,” complete with a terrifying orchestra interlude that bridges John and Paul’s sections.
In the greater context of the Fab Four’s discography, Sgt. Pepper’s is in a unique place. It’s the one point where their studio savvy and songwriting were both at their peak, free of the both immaturity of earlier songs and the self-indulgent experimentation of later offerings. It also features the Beatles at their most Beatle-esque, operating as a full band rather than as four corners pulling toward their own ideas of what the band should become. So maybe believing the hype wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.