After blowing everyone’s minds in the ’60s with monumental breakthroughs like Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band and “Hey Jude,” Paul McCartney took a lot of flak in the first 20 years after the Beatles’ breakup—for focusing on light pop, sometimes wearing a mullet, and generally for being happy.
But by the ’90s, critics began to concede that his solo career was stunning in its own right. He was the ex-Beatle who went on to cover the most stylistic ground—from reggae, soul, disco, country, trance, demented techno, bagpipe campfire sing-alongs, and psychedelic swamp-rock freak-outs with his side project The Fireman to full-length symphonies and ballets.
So to try to sum up his career in 10 songs is impossible. Nonetheless, to mark the release of his 16th studio album, New, out today, here is a sampling of McCartney’s best post-Beatles work—starting with four of his best-known hits from the ’70s and moving into deeper cuts from the subsequent decades. These songs show how Sir Paul kept the Beatle magic alive with everything from acoustic breezy rockers to horn-laden epics. Enjoy.
“Maybe I’m Amazed” (McCartney, 1970)
McCartney was devastated when John Lennon quit the Beatles and retreated to his farm in Scotland. He briefly became an alcoholic—and by his own admission he almost had a nervous breakdown. His wife Linda helped him get back on his feet, and this song is his tribute to her. The burned-out distortion of the guitar suggests the despair of the death of the Beatle dream, while the gospel organ evokes the healing redemption of his marriage.
“Live and Let Die” (Live and Let Die, 1973)
In 1972, McCartney was hired to write the theme for the latest Bond film. (Former Beatles producer George Martin was enlisted to write the rest of the score.) He came up with his most durable mini-rock-opera—fueled by the desire to give his former bandmates hell by beating them on the charts.
“Band on the Run” (Band on the Run, 1973)
McCartney fashioned this ode to outlaws after his first couple of busts for marijuana. The track captures the excitement of recording in Nigeria with his wife and Wings guitarist Denny Laine in often dangerous conditions. McCartney yearned to reunite with Lennon, and the spirit of the song recalls the euphoria of the Beatlemania days.
“Silly Love Songs” (Wings at the Speed of Sound, 1976)
As the critics—including Lennon—carped that he wasn’t trying hard enough, McCartney responded with one of his most melodically intricate compositions. Featuring his bass as lead instrument and crystalizing the moment Philadelphia soul morphed into disco, it became the best-selling single of 1976.
“Wanderlust” (Tug of War, 1982)
George Martin and a brass ensemble brought a stately grandeur to McCartney’s lament of his chronic persecution by the authorities for pot, inspired by the time U.S. customs raided the yacht on which he was recording 1978’s London Town.
“Hope of Deliverance” (Off the Ground, 1993)
When McCartney returned to Liverpool to write his first classical piece, Liverpool Oratorio, he was flooded with memories from his World War II-era childhood. The title echoes the British patriotic anthem “Land of Hope and Glory,” and the bossa-nova percussion recalls the 1940s Latin hit “Besame Mucho,” a favorite of the Beatles from their early club days. With its stiff-upper-lip enunciation, the song is one of McCartney’s finest expressions of unsinkable determination in the face of darkness.
“The Song We Were Singing” (Flaming Pie, 1997)
Inspired by The Beatles Anthology reunion of the mid-’90s, McCartney looks back at the heady nights of the ’60s when the band would smoke a pipe, strum acoustic guitars, and talk cosmic solutions.
“Young Boy” (Flaming Pie, 1997)
Old friend Steve Miller helps with the Beatles-esque guitars and soaring vocals on this sympathetic ode to young men searching for love. As Bob Dylan once said of Macca, “His melodies are effortless, that’s what you have to be in awe of … He’s just so damn effortless.”
“Jenny Wren” (Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, 2005)
After Linda McCartney’s death from cancer and his tumultuous subsequent marriage to Heather Mills, a darker and more vulnerable McCartney emerged on 2005’s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard. “Jenny Wren” harkens back to “Blackbird,” both in its fingerpicking style and in its use of a bird as a metaphor for a woman rising above her oppressive background. (The song was inspired by Mills and by a character from Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend.) After this record, even resistant critics mostly gave up on dismissing McCartney as a lightweight.
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