Paul McCartney is, no matter where you stand on rock music, the Beatles or list-making, indisputably one of the best—and most important—popular musicians of the last century. Our artistic landscape would be inconceivably altered without his work, and the myriad minds he inspired.
I have written many (many) words about the Beatles, and before I’m done I will undoubtedly write many more. The Beatles are like the sea or the sky; they are there, life is impossible to imagine (or live) without them, so they must be recognized and celebrated. A little is never enough.
To commemorate Macca’s 70th birthday this past week, rather than write (too many) more words, I figured an appropriate way to pay tribute was by selecting my favorite song of his from each proper Beatles album (note: not the ones I necessarily think are the best; just the ones I personally like the most, the ones that have given me ceaseless joy over the decades).
(Please Please Me, 1963)
Talk about an opening statement. The countdown that kicks off the first album (one, two, three, FAH!) is one of the most exhilarating few seconds in early ‘60s rock. Plus, where Chuck Berry brilliantly danced around the obvious in his lascivious love letters, McCartney—with a wink and a nod—minces neither words nor intentions: “Well she was just seventeen / And you know what I mean….” It’s both fair and accurate to say that nothing was ever the same after this.
(With the Beatles, 1963)
The Beatles were still, arguably, too buttoned-up and safe by half on their second album, at least considering what was just around the corner. At this point they were systematically focused on one thing: writing perfect hit songs. That is what “All My Loving” is: a pure, unfiltered distillation of their songwriting genius.
(A Hard Day’s Night, 1964)
It is still astonishing to consider how quickly the Beatles went from very good to great (after that, they went somewhere else we are still not capable of properly quantifying). This McCartney masterpiece, on an album fairly dominated by some of Lennon’s stronger early writing, is wise beyond its years, typically bittersweet (Lennon without Mac too often went bitter, Mac without Lennon too often got syrupy sweet, but when both found the right balance nobody could touch them) and overflowing with confidence. It’s a short statement of purpose that cries: “I am genius, hear me roar” and it’s over before you know it.
(Beatles For Sale, 1964)
The band’s fourth album is proof that the Beatles were human. It could not have been more obvious that they were burning out, exhausted, and running low on ideas (almost half the album is covers). Proof that even on half-a-tank, Macca’s engine could still kick into overdrive: not terribly deep or profound, “I’ll Follow the Sun” is nothing more or less than a catchy, irresistible tune.
Now we’re talking. The year 1965 was the ultimate sweet-spot for the Lennon/McCartney collaboration: at no other time before or after did they write so prolifically and sing together so beautifully. So many tracks on both Help! and Rubber Soul feature them harmonizing in ways that should make even lukewarm fans acknowledge that these two men were placed on this earth to do exactly what they did and, for a time, do it together better than anyone else ever did.
(Rubber Soul, 1965)
This was, possibly, the last album where Lennon clearly dominated in terms of quality and originality. It is very likely (if probable) that it was the sheer strength of Lennon’s songwriting in ‘65 that motivated Mac to push himself and, in the process, go to another level and become the de facto leader of the band. In hindsight, haters can say it was this exact turn of events that signaled the beginning of the end. Maybe. But looking at what McCartney achieved from ‘66 to ‘70, it’s difficult to deny that this was not both a necessary and wonderful thing.
Still straining—albeit effortlessly (or making it sound as such, which is one handy definition of virtuosity)—for increasingly mature material, Macca renders a topic that could be—and often is—reduced to soap opera melodrama into something at once ambivalent and devastating. “For No One” is the story of a relationship that ended because… well, because relationships end. Is it her fault? His? Who knows. It’s ambiguous, painful, and unforgettable, like love can be. This economic track evinces insight and empathy that McCartney would fully develop on the next album with “She’s Leaving Home”.