When he wasn’t collaborating with wife Linda, working in Wings, doing a duet, or disguised as the Fireman, Paul McCartney was going at it alone post-Beatles. In honor of his 69th birthday and the recent reissues of McCartney and McCartney II, here’s a look at his best solo work.
It’s hard not to get technical when discussing Paul McCartney’s music. When talking over the idea of this list with my editor, I quickly realized how an article called “Paul McCartney’s Best Songs” just couldn’t be done. First, there were songs like “Yesterday”, when he was the only Beatle playing on a Beatles song. Then there were all of those great Wings (AKA Paul McCartney & Wings) songs ranging from “Band on the Run” to “Silly Love Songs”. There were also all of his collaborations, with wife Linda McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Carl Perkins, Michael Jackson, Elvis Costello, Steve Miller, Ringo Starr, and more. And let’s not forget his electronic experiments/rocking under the guise of the Fireman. However, when we really get down to it, McCartney has released 14 solo albums so far, and that’s quite an accomplishment.
Most discussions on Paul’s best work overlook most of these gems in his discography, but in light of the recent reissues of McCartney (1970) and McCartney II (1980), now is the perfect time to change that. With the exception of McCartney, most of his solo work dates from 1980 onward, so let’s count down 41 years of highlights!
I’ve seen many know-it-alls say that the music industry is a young person’s game. In a world where 30-year-olds are said to over-the-hill, Paul McCartney did a shocking thing for a man in his 60s: he recorded an album that a teenager couldn’t, and he blew everybody out of the water. Singing in a rare, almost-hoarse tone, he remembers past rain-free summers with bright, red cardinals. Or does he? “When was that... you tell me," marks each statement as if the subject is beginning to lose his memory. A shattering thought, yet not all is despair, his whistling towards the end tells us that an altered life is still worth living. He isn’t singing about himself, of course, but this is one great acting performance.
Many musicians have covered this Fats Domino hit over the years, but no one else has really packed as much enthusiasm into it. He works his way around the love-gone-wrong lyrics so well; you would be led to believe he wrote them himself from personal experience. McCartney was certainly gutsy for tackling the track, being that his best friend and former bandmate, John Lennon, notably put his own spin on the track decades before. The song ends with overdubbed hysterical howls that suggest that McCartney might also know a thing or two about primal scream therapy.
I once saw a fan remark that the best thing about McCartney is that he “records every damned thing that comes into his head”. He was kidding, but with records like “The Pound Is Sinking”, one could see how someone would think that. Several notable Beatles songs (“A Day in the Life”, “I’ve Got a Feeling”) were actually separate incomplete Lennon/McCartney songs pieced together. McCartney seems to use this technique here with two compositions of his own, first going into a financial report (!) (“The pound is sinking, the peso’s falling...”) and then summing up another person (“Well, I feel my dear that it’s evidently clear that you can’t see the trees for the forest...”). We could decipher its meaning in a dozen different ways, but the fact remains that this catchy earworm of a song just sounds so right that we don’t need to know what it’s about, if anything at all.
A cover of the Vipers’ forgotten oldie, “No Other Baby” is rendered heartbreaking by Paul’s rendition. His voice make you sense something beyond the mere declaration that he’ll be true, and when you put yourself in his mindset at the time, his melancholy makes sense. Recorded after the death of Linda McCartney, the song’s feeling of longing and loneliness even seeps into its guitar part. Its official music video, a black-and-white short film in and of itself, is enough to bring a tear to your eye.
More pop than rock, “This One” is pure catchiness wrapped up in a theme a bit more complicated than your average love song. A list of past regrets about a friendship, though some could argue it could also be a romantic relationship, it segues into a hypnotically sing-songy chorus about a god riding a swan across the ocean. Rarely does a song with allegorical religious references come off as so easily listenable.
Despite being one of the world’s biggest celebrities, Paul doesn’t discuss it much. While other, far lesser-known artists have devoted multiple albums to fame and its side effects, McCartney gives us this look at fame in the third person. In addition to that cool perspective, we get an equally cool rock sound on par with any radio hit at that time. Hardcore fans even get a hidden backwards message around the 2:40 mark (“Save animals’ fur, Linda Eastman")!