If Paul McCartney retired from music after the Beatles broke up, no one would blame him. How do you follow up nearly a decade of being in a band that changed music, changed culture, and maybe changed the world?
But McCartney clearly had a lot of fuel left in the tank. In the decades since, he’s been a formidable force in music: he dominated radio in the ’70s with Wings, he was ubiquitous on MTV in the early days of the cable channel and has collaborated with Kanye West and Rihanna, the surviving members of Nirvana, Diana Krall, David Gilmour, George Michael, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Elvis Costello, among others. He’s delivered classic theme songs for Cameron Crowe and James Bond, and besides recording scores of rock and pop albums, he’s also composed classical music and done experimental electronic music under the name The Fireman.
On December 18, he’s releasing McCartney III. Like 1970’s McCartney and 1980’s McCartney II, it was recorded entirely by McCartney — this was his “quarantine album.” Given that some of his recent songs (“Home Tonight,” “Fuh You,” “New”) made this list, we’re sure we’re going to have to update this one pretty soon.
Recorded during the ‘Egypt Station’ sessions but left off the album (and the expanded version of the album), it was finally released as a Record Store Day single. Produced by Greg Kurstin, who produced and co-wrote Adele’s “Hello,” he has also worked with Pink, Sia, Halsey, Kelly Clarkson and the Foo Fighters. In the ‘70s, or in a world with more sensible pop charts, this would have been a massive hit.
A gorgeous solo acoustic piece by Paul and produced by George Martin, the song starts out as a tender love song: “It was written that I would love you/From the moment I opened my eyes/And the morning when I first saw you/Gave me life under calico skies.” But then it takes a turn and sounds like a protest song: “Long live all of us crazy soldiers/Who were born under calico skies/May we never be called to handle/All the weapons of war we despise.”
A odd little bit of electro pop, which sounds like Paul was listening to a bit of Devo or Kraftwerk. It was a little ahead of its time; in fact, McCartney never performed it live until 35 years after the release of ‘McCartney II’: on May 23, 2015 at the O2 Arena in London. He kept it in the set for a about a year.
A collaboration with Ryan Tedder, a songwriter/producer who scored huge hits with Adele, Beyonce and Maroon 5, among others. And this is indeed a catchy pop jam. Of course, the overly cheeky title and chorus probably kept it from being a hit.
The first song Paul ever wrote. Paul performed this very Buddy Holly-ish song once -- on his ‘MTV Unplugged’ episode. He poked fun at his lyrics, and yeah, he still had some developing to do, but hey, he was only 14. “Well, her clothes were not expensive/Her hair didn't always curl/I don't know why I love her/But I love my little girl.”
Buddy Holly was a huge influence on Paul McCartney, who would later purchase the man’s publishing catalog. McCartney and his band are clearly having a great time bashing out this garage rock gem.
A song that George Michael wrote and recorded for his 1990 album ‘Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1’ as a tribute to McCartney and the Beatles. McCartney clearly took the compliment well, re-recording the song sixteen years later with Michael.
The B-side to the first single from ‘Flowers In The Dirt,’ it was a good sign for fans. After a few years of comparatively weak albums, the fact that “Flying” didn’t make the cut for Paul’s new release showed that, for the first time in a while, he had an overabundance of great songs to choose from.
Fun fact: “Say Say Say” was recorded about a year before McCartney and Jackson’s “That Girl Is Mine” duet, but was released about a year after ‘Thriller.’ And while the megastars seemed to have fun hamming it up on “That Girl Is Mine,” “Say Say Say” is clearly the better song. It also had a video that kept McCartney in front of MTV audiences, along with the channel’s biggest star at the time.
Call it soft-rock, or even yacht-rock, it was dominating radio in the late ‘70s and Paul’s “With A Little Luck” fit right in on those playlists. One of Paul’s sweetest jams, it’s another of his #1 hits. It also has one of pop’s best false endings: you think the song is wrapping up at about 3:44, but at the four minute mark, Paul brings in a funky bass line leading to a great final section of the song.
McCartney said that he’s often written one line and started a song around it. As he said in ‘Paul McCartney: In His Own Words,’ “With 'Eleanor Rigby' I had 'picks up the rice in the church where the wedding has been.' That was the one big line that started me off on it. With this one it was 'No one ever left alive in nineteen hundred and eighty-five. That's all I had of that song for months. No one ever left alive in nineteen hundred and eighty... six?' It wouldn't have worked!"
Along with “Drive My Car,” it’s one of Paul’s best driving songs, inspired by the trips that Paul and Linda used to take in their landrover in Scotland.
Written, in part, as a rebuttal to John Lennon who said that his ex-partner just wrote “silly love songs,” it nevertheless was a #1 hit in the U.S. and featured a funky Paul bassline that allowed the song to co-exist next to disco hits on pop radio.
Paul’s second best “bird” song (the best, obviously, would be the Beatles’ “Blackbird”), it is still one of the highlights of Paul’s best post-Beatles album, ‘Band On The Run,’ and if offered three and half minutes to chill after the album’s opening tracks, “Band On The Run” and “Jet.”
A goofy tweet about this song has led to a funny little “Paul Is Dead” type rumor about the lyrics. The tweet theorized that it’s about witchcraft: “The moon is right/The spirits up/We're here tonight/And that's enough.” And then someone walks in and they act like everything’s all normal: “We’re simply having a wonderful Christmastime!” Regardless of what you read into the lyrics, it’s a holiday classic and one of Paul’s best solo jams.
The title track to one of Cameron Crowe’s weirder movies; Paul only saw a bit of the film and it clearly inspired him to get a bit psychedelic -- a bit Beatlesque, dare we say -- for this two and half minute ditty.
‘Driving Rain’ marked a relaunch of sorts for McCartney; it was his first album of originals following the death of Linda, and you can hear his angst and sorrow in this song: “I tried to get over you/I tried to find something new/But all I could ever do/Was fill my time/With thoughts of you.” The album also saw him working with drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. and guitarist/bassist Rusty Anderson, who would become the core of his touring band for the album (which has been his band for every subsequent tour).
‘Flowers In The Dirt’ was something of a “comeback” album for Paul McCartney, following a string of mostly weak ‘80s albums (he might have also have felt a bit of a kick in the rear watching George Harrison’s massive success with his 1989 ‘Cloud Nine’ album). Many of the highlights of ‘Flowers’ were songs that McCartney co-wrote with Elvis Costello, but “This One” showed that Paul could still write amazing songs on his own.
“Choba B CCCP” is Russian for “Back in the USSR,” and this 1988 album was recorded for Paul’s Russian fans. It saw him returning to the songs that the Beatles covered when they were playing bars. “Twenty Flight Rock” is an Eddie Cochran jam from 1956 movie ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’; it’s also the song that Paul played to John Lennon when the two first met. It led to Lennon inviting him to join the Quarrymen who later changed their name to -- of course -- the Beatles.
1984’s ‘Give My Regards To Broad Street’ -- the album and the film -- did not mark a high point of Paul’s career. But this song -- featuring a stellar guitar solo from Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour -- salvaged the project.
There’s a good argument to be made that George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” was the greatest song ever rejected by the Beatles (you can hear his original demo on ‘Beatles Anthology 3’). The song, about the transient nature of love and life (“Sunrise doesn't last all morning/A cloudburst doesn't last all day/Seems my love is up and has left you with no warning/It's not always going to be this grey”) was widely interpreted to be about the fracturing of the relationships between George, John, Paul and George. So hearing Paul perform a solo version, a few months after George’s passing is profoundly moving.
Slammed by some as being a bit too overly simplistic (with lyrics like “We all know that people are the same wherever you go/There is good and bad in everyone/And we learn to live, we learn to give each other/What we need to survive together alive”), it was nonetheless one of his biggest hits, topping the U.S. pop charts and stayed there for seven weeks. And even though it’s music and lyrics are pretty inoffensive, it still got banned in apartheid-era South Africa.
Sometimes, you just need some sax. McCartney wasn’t happy with the song until they had the idea to get a sax player on the track. Someone in the studio noted that jazz musician Tom Scott lived a half hour away. They gave him a call, he showed up, and the song went on to top the U.S. pop charts. “‘Love is fine for all we know/For all we know, our love will grow’/That's what the man said.” But who is the man? We still don’t know. Paul has said, “I like the idea that I leave it to the people to decide who, in their minds, is the man.”
A song that Paul wrote while he was in the Beatles, and recorded at the beginning of the ‘Ram’ sessions, “Another Day” ended up not making the album, but being released as an independent single. It was his first solo single release and went on to be a #5 hit. Over the years, people have been a bit critical of Linda’s singing, but her and Paul’s voices meld perfectly on this song.
Paul’s first U.S. number one hit after the Beatles was more than a little reminiscent of the second side of ‘Abbey Road’; like that suite, it seems to combine small fragments of songs that seem totally separate from each other. But, as Paul was at the peak of his powers, it somehow works.
‘Kisses On The Bottom’ saw Paul visiting the pre-rock and roll songbook -- backed by jazz star Diana Krall and her band -- with songs like “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” and “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive.” But he wrote two songs in the style of that era, and this song (featuring Eric Clapton on acoustic guitar) holds up to those standards.
The highlight of Paul’s ‘Chaos and Creation In The Backyard’ album, produced by Radiohead collaborator, Nigel Godrich. Legend has it that after one day in the studio with his touring band, Godrich decided that Paul would have to record the whole album solo, without his mates, to deprive him of being surrounded by his usual gang. Unlike his self-titled solo albums, here he is accompanied by a string section.
Paul and the Beatles always loved covering their early rock and roll idols, and Paul went back to this on ‘Run Devil Run,’ his first album following Linda’s passing. The album had a lot of iconic pre-Beatles rock and roll covers, including “Bluejean Bop,” and “All Shook Up,” but this zydeco-infused accordion-heavy take on Chuck Berry’s classic was the highlight of the set.
Like some of his peers -- notably, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones -- the late ‘80s saw Paul get his mojo back. He was no longer chasing trends, and instead getting back to basics after a few albums that Brits might refer to as “naff.” Paul did this with the help of Elvis Costello, a little more than a decade into his own career. Elvis helped Paul reckon with his past as a Beatle, and reminded him what it was like to have a solid co-writer. The version of “That Day Is Done” on ‘Flowers In The Dirt’ is solid, but the demo -- featuring just Paul and Elvis singing over a piano -- is even better. It’s available on the expanded ‘Flowers In The Dirt’ box set.
More than fifty years after Beatlemania, Paul was still writing hits for teenagers, and he didn’t really change his style too much. “Four Five Seconds” was mostly Kanye West and Rihanna singing over Paul’s acoustic guitar playing; the three were co-writers on the song. And when the song dropped, it apparently turned some younger listeners on to Paul, with some tweeting that Kanye gave “some guy” Paul McCartney “his big break.” Paul surely got a laugh from that, and he still performs the song live.
‘New,’ the album, paired Paul with a bunch of hot producers; on this song, he worked with Mark Ronson, who was well known for producing Amy Winehouse and Adele. (Fun fact: his stepfather is Mick Jones of Foreigner!) “New” was a pop song with an optimistic feel that recalled his early days in the Fab Four.
Collaborating on this one-off song with the surviving members of Nirvana, Paul got in touch with his Little Richard/Jerry Lee Lewis screaming voice. Leading the band and playing a weird “cigar-box guitar,” this is one of the heaviest songs Paul has ever done. More than a novelty, it won the quartet the Best Rock Song Grammy in 2014.
A cooler take on McCartney’s duet with Michael Jackson, “That Girl Is Mine.” Elvis takes the mic during the song and you can hear him pushing Paul to get a bit edgier here. It’s easy to hear Costello’s effect on the album when you listen to this song.
When Paul wants to create music a bit ediger or weirder than what he does on his solo albums, he reactivates his “Fireman” project: it’s a partnership between Paul and Youth, aka Martin Glover, a member of industrial punk band Killing Joke, who has produced the Verve and Bananarama, among others. Their early work was more trancey, but on their third album, ‘Electric Arguments,’ they got a bit more rocking. “Nothing Too Much Just Out Of Sight” is, in fact, one of McCartney’s most rocking songs, and one of the few Fireman jams to make it to a McCartney setlist.
One of the songs from the McCartney/Costello union that ended up on Elvis’s album; Paul plays bass here. In fact, it’s his iconic Hofner bass guitar, which he hadn’t played in years. Elvis insisted Paul use it during their sessions, and he’s played it on all of his tours since then.
OK, we said that this album would be about Paul’s post-Beatles songs. But while “Something” was a Beatles song, it was written and sung by George Harrison. This version sees Paul starting the song solo, just singing and playing ukulele -- an instrument that Harrison loved. After a verse, the band -- including George’s friend/rival Eric Clapton and Ringo on drums -- joins in. McCartney often does the solo uke version live but having so many of George’s friends on this version just gave it even more gravitas.
The original version of this was from 1982’s ‘Tug Of War,’ and was a letter to John Lennon, who’d been murdered two years earlier. But this solo acoustic version, recorded two decades later, has even more weight coming just a few months after George Harrison’s death as Paul -- and all of us -- realized that only half of the Beatles still walked the earth.
Much of ‘Memory Almost Full’ was done solo, a la ‘McCartney,’ ‘McCartney II’ and, later, ‘McCartney III.’ This one features Paul playing mandolin and singing, as well as guitar, bass, keyboards, percussion and drums. This one, inspired by watching his young daughter Beatrice dancing, is one of his best songs of this millennium.
After Linda’s tragic death in 1998, Paul decided to get back to basics on ‘Run Devil Run,’ an album of pre-Beatles rock and roll covers. But he also wrote two new songs: this one saw Paul coming to terms with life after Linda. He could’ve written a ballad, but this song is a rocker that shows defiance in the face of misery. It’s one of Paul’s most underrated gems.
“You gave me something, I understand/You gave me loving in the palm of my hand.” Sometimes simple lyrics get the idea across: “Let me roll it/Let me roll it to you” became an almost too obvious stoner anthem.
After “Give Ireland Back To The Irish” in ‘71, McCartney mostly avoided politics in his music, but he did obliquely reference Watergate in this song, singing, “At the Houses of Parliament/Everybody's talking about the President/We all chip in for a bag of cement.” Was Paul insinuating that they’d “take care” of him, mob-style, by fitting him for a pair of “concrete shoes?” Paul still hasn’t said. Whatever it was about, it’s one of Paul’s most rocking solo jams.
In the ‘80s, classic artists needed to get on MTV to find a new audience, and this single did the job for Paul; it was ubiquitous on the Music Television channel in its early days. The song was about a band trying to get signed, something Paul probably hadn’t thought about much for about twenty years at that point. The song and the video reunited Paul with Ringo Starr and George Martin.
The opening track and first single from ‘Flowers In The Dirt,’ this song announced that Paul was back and it was a bit edgier than what he’d done on his past few releases; it was one of the best songs of McCartney’s songwriting partnership with Elvis Costello. The lyrics, about a newly-single guy, would take on new and haunting meaning a few years later, after LInda’s tragic passing.
‘McCartney’ opens with a 44 second tune called “The Lovely Linda,” but the real opening track is “That Would Be Something,” which really set the stage for what was very much a solo album. It’s just Paul singing, playing acoustic guitar and bass, along with a tom tom drum and a cymbal. He also adds vocal percussion. It was surprising to hear the guy who led the Beatles through productions like “Let It Be” and “The Long And Winding Road” from the ‘Let It Be’ album, doing such a lo-fi recording with such simple lyrics. But “That Would Be Something” was more delta blues than arena rock and still holds up as one of Paul’s coolest songs.
Paul’s second solo album, ‘McCartney II,’ came after Wings ran its course. Like 1970’s ‘McCartney,’ it saw Paul playing all the instruments and doing nearly all of the vocals. But it was, of course, a different musical climate; “Coming Up” was Paul’s nod to disco. The song, apparently, was a favorite of John Lennon’s as well. Paul told ‘Billboard’ that he’d heard that “Coming Up” inspired his old songwriting partner to get back into recording after a hiatus.
By 1970, the rockers of the ‘60s were approaching middle age, but few of them were able to express any happiness about it in their music. Praising your wife in song, after all, just didn’t seem cool. McCartney, the only Beatle capable of doing a full solo album with no assistance (he played guitar, bass, keyboards and drums on the album) didn’t have to worry about looking uncool to bandmates as he wrote an ode to his solid relationship with LInda.
What is “Jet” about? McCartney has said that it’s about a puppy that they had at the time, although that doesn’t explain the “suffragette” line. In ‘Paul McCartney: In His Own Words,’ he said, “I make up so much stuff. It means something to me when I do it, and it means something to the record buyer, but if I'm asked to analyze it I can't really explain what it is. 'Suffragette' was crazy enough to work.”
Paul was an icon in the ‘60s with the Beatles, but as a solo artist, he also fit in perfectly on radio playlists in the ‘70s. The title track to Wings’ best album was a multi-part epic (a la Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer) that had elements of funk-rock *and* country-rock. He somehow fit all of this into a song that was barely longer than five minutes.
The original version came from Paul’s solo debut, ‘McCartney,’ and was inspired by Linda. Paul wrote the song as the Beatles were disintegrating, and as lovely as that intimate solo debut was, “Maybe I’m Amazed” benefitted from the full-band treatment. Indeed, it was the live version that became a top 10 hit, and it was one of the best stadium ballads of the ‘70s. It’s still a high point of Paul’s solo shows today.
It’s the best James Bond theme song ever, and also Paul’s best post-Beatles moment. The song, which reunited Paul with Beatles producer George Martin, combines Paul’s lovely balladry with some laser-and-pyro-friendly arena rock. He also succinctly summarizes 007’s job thusly: “When you got a job to do/You got to do it well/You got to give the other fellow HEEEEEELLLLLL!!!” The song got a more sinister update nearly two decades later when Guns N’ Roses covered it for 1991’s Use Your Illusion I.