A couple of months ago, in honour of McCartney’s eightieth birthday (!), a number of music publications set about compiling “best of” lists, ranking Paul’s lifetime of compositions and opining on the relative significance of the songs. I figure that I’m about as well placed as anybody else out here among the unwashed laity to pen such a thing, so here’s my own list of what I feel are Paul’s best songs, one for each year of his life, spanning his entire career. I’m not going to attempt a ranking, and the songs appear in no order at all, not even alphabetical or chronological, much less according to any impossibly concrete assessment of relative merit, though accompanying comments will, I’m sure, indicate when I think a given song is certainly among his very best; but the astonishing thing to appreciate, even after absorbing the plain truth of it over a lifetime of listening, is that everything on this long list is at a minimum a pretty frickin’ good song, and it wasn’t even hard to find eighty tunes that fit the bill. In fact, it was tough to stop at just eighty, and I’m sure others would find many of their own favourites inexplicably excluded. It’s also surprising to note how many post-Beatles tracks make the cut, challenging the received wisdom that nothing which came later can quite match the output of his younger days, and how many of those most worthy solo works were written in the 21st century.
The selection criteria were simple: it had to be written solely, or at least mainly, by Paul (admitting that during the Beatle years, any McCartney song might have touches of John in it, just as any of John’s could have been helped along by Paul) – so fantastic songs that are known to be 50/50 collaborative efforts with Lennon, like A Day in the Life, are excluded – and…well, that was about it. I was trying, of course, to single out one or another of Paul’s special gifts in making the selections, especially his singular talent for melody, but with a catalogue like his that wasn’t much of a filter. Thus it was all gut feeling. Throughout listening to all these tracks, it’s hard not to marvel at McCartney’s sheer fluency, the apparently off-hand ease with which he makes the most wonderfully intuitive compositional leaps in the dark, repeatedly demonstrating, as writer Adam Gopnik once put it, his “grasp of the materials of music”.
What’s most impressive, do you think, apart from the amazing compositional acumen? Paul’s routinely extraordinary vocals? His expert playing of just about anything a body could strum, pluck, bang, or blow into to make music? The breadth of musical styles, as McCartney, slipping into different idioms as easily as changing jackets, veers from hard rock to baroque ballad, from folksy country and western to English music hall, employing, along the way, tricks of the songwriter’s trade absorbed variously from just about everybody who ever fashioned a tune, from Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly to the unknown composers of medieval hymns and Anglican plainsong? You’ll find plenty of all of that below, and more besides. Curiously, though, few of the selected Beatles era songs highlight McCartney’s superlative bass playing, second, I’d say, only to Motown’s James Jamerson as an overall body of work (and then not by much). Paul seems generally to have reserved his best playing on his signature instrument for the songs written by Lennon and Harrison, though I’ll note the exceptions as we encounter them.
I must apologize in advance for the inevitable repetition of certain thoughts and turns of phrase, e.g. “soaring melody”, “deft arrangement”, “perfect formal construction”, “brought home expertly with a trademark plagal cadence”, etc. I’ll try to mix it up and say it differently, but after all, the frequency with which such descriptions are applicable is really the whole point, isn’t it?
So, drawing the titles out of a hat, as it were, here we go:
Martha My Dear
Paul’s ode to his beloved and apparently quite silly English sheepdog, an almost insanely clever little masterpiece, deftly arranged (see?), tightly constructed, and featuring both nifty key changes and surprising time signatures. The track features violins, cellos, and trumpets on top of the usual rock & roll instrumentation, all used rather sparingly and to great effect, but the backbone is provided by Paul’s piano, which introduces the irresistible melody. Here’s Paul during one of my favourite interludes within Peter Jackson’s sprawling Get Back documentary – without any of the other musical elements, that piano, all by itself, immediately captivates the listener:
Songwriter Seth Swirsky, explaining why McCartney is his favourite popular composer, had this to say:
He could do so many things, and he could do things that are hard to quantify. Some people might say, ‘Well, I like Hall and Oates as songwriters,’ let’s just say. But they do that 8th note thing where they’re just banging on the piano, like ‘Kiss On My List,’ so you could kind of copy their sound a little bit, or copy their style of writing. Very hard to copy McCartney, because you just don’t come out with ‘Martha My Dear,’ where it changes keys in the middle. That comes from a different kind of mind.
The only self-composed ballad off 2012’s Kisses on the Bottom, a collection of Paul’s covers of old standards from the Great American Songbook. Written in the melancholy key of C Minor, Paul knocked this out on a piano in the lobby of a hotel, while waiting for new flame Nancy Shevell to come downstairs, and it’s as gorgeous a melody as he ever composed. American Songwriter magazine did a whole piece on it, well worth a read,
…in which author Rick Moore writes that the song was as effective and timeless as any of the other great songs written by the masters he covered on Kisses On The Bottom, putting him squarely in their ranks. Nobody but McCartney could combine those lines with a killer melody in a minor key, of all things.
Actually, there’s one other songwriter I can think of who pulled it off marvellously, the great Richard Rodgers, whose extraordinary melodic gifts rivalled Paul’s, and whose own (perhaps unconsciously inspirational) My Funny Valentine was also written in C Minor. That’s the sort of company Paul keeps. So often, you have to look beyond modern Pop/Rock, and compare him to Gershwin, Rodgers, Porter et al. This is one for the ages.
An unassuming, charming little acoustic number that kicked off side 2 of 1973’s monstrous Band on the Run, Mamunia was inspired either by the name of a hotel in Marrakesh, or of a house in which Paul was staying in Lagos, Nigeria, where the album was recorded (sources vary, with the majority citing the hotel) – the word “mamounia” means “safe haven” in Arabic. It appears here mainly on the strength of its excellent guitar playing, its generally pleasing tunefulness and harmonies, and its elegant, soaring conclusion, played tastefully on synthesizer, which provides one of McCartney’s myriad clinics in how to bring a song to a tidy, satisfying conclusion.
I’ve Just Seen a Face
Sometimes, a young fellow will spot a girl across a crowded room, and bang – that’s it. Besotted. Paul channeled that feeling into one of the standout tracks on 1965’s Help!, though the rapacious Americans at Capitol Records, butchering away as was then their wont, excised it for later release on the stateside version of Rubber Soul, a much different record upon which, one has to admit, this energetic acoustic love song fits in surprisingly well. Compact, tightly constructed, and full of unexpected nuance, I’ve Just Seen a Face captures perfectly that breathless, heady rush of youthful infatuation, while managing, in the manner of so many of Paul’s songs, to pull off being a major bit of songwriting while masquerading as an accessible little pop toe-tapper. In 1965 McCartney was just hitting his stride, beginning that golden era when everything just came to him so easily.
Too Many People
One of the best songs from Ram, alternatively scorching and almost sullen, while also by turns positively spooky – the big studio echo, those ominously strummed chords, the ghostly horn floating overhead while Paul sings, in a tone oozing contempt that might even be called threatening, that was your first mistake – it’s enough to induce goosebumps. It’s widely interpreted as a dig at Lennon, particularly on account of the lines Too many people preaching practices / Don’t let ’em tell you what you want to be, as well as the acid sentiment that you took your lucky break, and broke it in two, which presumably refers to John’s determination to put an end to the Beatles and run off with new muse Yoko Ono. The hard rock electric guitar is amazing, as is McCartney’s immaculate production throughout (Paul had apparently paid close attention to what George Martin was doing up there in the booth all those years). Mixed in with a chorus that sounds uncharacteristically bitter are verses that are simultaneously full of inherent menace, yet graced with a typically compelling vertical melody. Note as well the back-up vocal contributions by Linda, always maligned, who does a creditable job of adding to the ethereal mood.
Funny thing: Ram was panned by just about everybody (save the purchasing public) when it was first released. Critics, often downright vicious, lambasted it for being “comfortable” and unpleasantly redolent of (God forfend) “domestic bliss”. Yeah, well, the impression I gather from Too Many People isn’t exactly blissful, but anyway, the young Turks in the rock press absolutely despised it, and proclaimed it an artistic disaster, an embarrassment, and even, impliedly, some sort of betrayal. You’d have thought they’d just figured out that Paul was actually Mengele in a clever disguise, the Nazi bastard. For years after, decades even, the album was singled out as a low point, until a few years into this century, when younger listeners forced a dramatic re-evaluation. Five decades on, it’s now considered brilliant, chock full of fascinating musical ideas and infused with a defiant indie spirit as Paul doggedly sought to go it alone after the break-up and prove his independent worth. This gushing tribute from Salon, marking the record’s 50th anniversary repackaging, typifies modern opinion:
Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another album by any other artist that’s undergone such a radical reappraisal.
Put it There
From 1989’s Flowers in the Dirt, this neat, pretty, and thoroughly moving little gem is one of those latter day pieces that could easily have slotted in on one of the late-period Beatles albums, I think especially the White Album. Paul has said that it was inspired by Buddy Holly’s Every Day, though this isn’t obvious on a casual listen – it’s in the cadence of the plucked acoustic guitar, and the general lightness of tone, although, as so often with Paul, there are tears lying just beneath the happy surface. Touchingly, Put it There is a tribute to his departed Dad; in times when Paul was troubled as a kid, feeling, as kids do, that the weight of the whole world was suddenly upon his shoulders, his father would reach out his hand in a pledge to share the burden, saying “put it there son, if it weighs a ton”. Some of us are lucky enough to have had dads like that.
One of the lighter numbers from the epochal Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the landmark artistic statement which McCartney dominated, Getting Better is pure pop joy, full of layered, ringing guitars, jaunty percussive rhythms, and terrific back-up vocals from John, who contributed the wonderfully (and typically) contrapuntal sentiment that things might be getting better simply because they can’t get no worse. This is the sort of song that years later, another ace pop tunesmith named Adam Schlesinger would write in abundance, infused with sunny joy, yet not without a certain wry sense of perspective. It’s 1967 now, and Paul is spinning ’em out right, left, and centre, just tossing them off with barely a pause, becoming the Beatles’ de facto musical director as John retreated into LSD and began searching for the alternative he’d find soon enough in the arms of a rather odd avant garde conceptual artist from Japan.
How Kind of You
One of the major compositions from 2005’s Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard, an excellent album that marked the beginning of an extraordinary late career renaissance, and was characterized by a more mature, reflective, and often melancholy frame of mind, as befit a man then attaining senior citizen status. Layered, complex, and intricately arranged, with somber lyrics betraying unsettled emotions, this one was produced by Nigel Godrich, who’d lately earned widespread praise for his work with Radiohead. There’s certainly a touch of Let Down and Fake Plastic Trees in the mood and overall compositional feel here, and elsewhere on the album, but Godrich’s main contribution was to act very much in the tradition of George Martin as a critical and unbiased filter for musical ideas, granting the Living Legend no leeway at all when he thought Paul was offering something substandard. McCartney, accustomed at this point to complete and utter deference (bordering sometimes on worship), was at first taken aback, but he grew to very much like the give and take, and the music clearly benefitted. This is no silly love song. It’s a heartfelt expression of gratitude from a wounded heart that’s almost beyond healing. It’s no wonder, of course, that the mood was tending gloomy; things at this point were decidedly unpleasant on the home front, the ill-starred relationship with Heather Mills having left the rails so thoroughly that within the next year Paul was forced into a litigious divorce that ended with him paying the woman close to 50 million dollars, a sum McCartney no doubt peeled off the bankroll he keeps in his pocket as walking around money. Maybe a certain amount of misery is good for the art? Listen especially to the gloriously evocative extended coda, as the song veers into ominous, unhappy territory before being brought home by one of the finest musical resolutions in Paul’s entire catalogue. That, kids, is how you do that.
Mother Nature’s Son
There are times when I think this is the loveliest thing he ever wrote. The delicate guitar work (played in a finger-plucking style learned from Donovan during the interlude at Rishikesh), the gorgeously smooth and mournful understatement of the brass, the booming drums in the distance (placed outside the studio and down the hall to create the effect), hinting at rolling thunder just over the horizon, this is the distillation of one brief moment of perfect bittersweet happiness, as beautiful as it is ephemeral.
Figure of Eight
Another track off Flowers in the Dirt, this one’s a bit of a sleeper, nothing spectacular, but liable to grow on the listener. I can attest that it’s a perfect mid-tempo soundtrack for cruising down the highway on a long road trip. I think John would have liked it, it’s straightforward, a little moody, and not at all sweet. I’ve always felt it would fit well in a mix-tape with stuff by the likes of Fleetwood Mac.
Things We Said Today
Wait a second – the mop-tops are writing their own songs. Paul’s best solo contribution to Hard Day’s Night, on which most of the songs were still fully co-written with John, with John dominating. It’s a curiously downbeat sort of love song, unexpectedly aloof and pensive, and thus a good companion to John’s excellent I’ll Be Back off the same album. Things We Said Today was one of the first to persuade the community of “serious” musicians and composers that these kids weren’t the disposable pop idols depicted in most of their press coverage. There were those who’d seen this from the beginning, and now their numbers began to swell.
On the Wings of a Nightingale
Attached are both Paul’s low-fi home-recorded demo, and the fully realized version performed by the Everly Brothers. This is another fine example of Paul’s uncanny capacity to adopt any style the situation demands, in this case infusing the track with a sort of rock-a-billy melodicism that’s perfect for the Everlys, who took to it like ducks to water. Succinct, perfectly structured, and superbly tuneful, while providing yet another example of its composer’s mastery of the art of bringing a song in for a landing, On The Wings of a Nightingale also demonstrates the extent to which McCartney was ready to gift the fruits of his “A” game to other artists.
From Memory Almost Full, released in 2007. Just a happy little ditty? Well, sure, in a way, but so artfully done, so full of craft – just listen to the keyboard harmonies, which come straight from the hymns Paul sang as a young choirboy, and the characteristically vertical melody of the whistling bridge, which on its own is worth the price of admission. It’s vintage McCartney, meant to bring a smile to your face straight away, and leaving it for repeated listenings to build an appreciation of the little touches that make it special.
Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band / With a Little Help From My Friends
A great way to kick off the dawning of a new musical epoch, with Paul assuming centre stage as master of ceremonies to introduce his new creation, a fictional band he contrived in the aftermath of the decision to stop touring, when all of them were bone-tired of the strain of being Beatles (reportedly, the name occurred to him when he misheard somebody on an airplane asking a flight attendant for some salt and pepper!). During the made-for-TV Anthology series, there was a segment in which George Martin, sitting at one of Abbey Road’s vintage mixing consoles, threaded through one of the original master tapes – a hallowed, priceless thing – and adjusted the sliders to isolate Paul’s vocal on this track. “Just listen to that”, said George. “What a great rock & roll voice”. Announcing that the “singer wants to sing a song”, McCartney then exits stage right, giving Ringo his moment in the sun with a jaunty tune composed deliberately to accommodate the affable drummer’s somewhat narrow vocal range. Ringo was always a reluctant lead singer, but he pulled it off, and With a Little Help From My Friends became an instant standard, covered by all sorts of artists (particularly Joe Cocker, who received endless praise for a heavily reworked, bluesy sort of rendition that always affected me like fingernails on a chalkboard). There’s something rather brave and heartwarming about it, with Ringo asking us to bear with him while he tries not to sing out of key. Listen particularly to Paul’s bass playing, which author Jonathan Gould likened to the sound of a circus bear, pirouetting happily at the back of the stage.
Noteworthy too is the exuberant reprise, which officially (and deceptively) ends the show, before the mind-blowing darkness of A Day in the Life descends. The guitar sound verges on heavy metal:
Junk / Singalong Junk
If you want to ground the argument that McCartney is the greatest, most evocative melodist of the modern era, begin here. Released on his eponymous first solo effort, Junk was half-written in advance of the White Album sessions, but never finished; such was the quality of the remainder bin in those days. The song paints a poignant vignette of sad, discarded objects being hawked in a second-hand store, and one can’t help but wonder about how they all found their way there, and what became of the people who once had use for them.
You think he can’t rock? Give your head a shake. The boy can definitely rock. Jet, a perennial favourite from Band on the Run, has been bringing ’em to their feet for almost 50 years now, and believe me, if you don’t get it from the record you would if you heard it live. It’s exhilarating. People go nuts. Sure, the words are essentially meaningless, as they so often were for a while there in the Seventies (I blame it on all the dope he was smoking), but who cares? Let’s dance! Besides, who but Paul ever overlays such hard, heavy-metal underpinnings with such sublime melody? Who ever penned so graceful a conclusion to a hard rock song? What, you’re a career grump or something? You don’t like feeling happy and alive?
It turns out “Jet” was the name of one of his dogs, a black Lab, so that’s two pooches made immortal in song.
An offbeat and curiously compelling little song that could have come from no other composer, with its gloomy brass introduction (which could well serve as the theme music for an English soap opera along the lines of Coronation Street) and its jumpy, staccato piano setting the tone. Mr. Bellamy is everywhere described, including by the composer himself, as a tale of some sort of depressed mid-level corporate drudge who’s out on a ledge thinking about jumping. This is nonsense – Paul’s just having us on – listen to those repeated, meow-like scratches on the guitar whenever the would-be rescuers, undoubtedly from a ladder company of the fire brigade, attempt to get ahold of him. Mr. Bellamy is obviously a domestic cat, seemingly stuck up a tree! Probably a big orange Tabby. That’s why the boys are cautioned to proceed slowly and take care not to frighten him (if he was a person, the shrinks would be trying to talk him down), and that’s why Bellamy, way up in the branches, is playing hard to get. He’s not stuck. He’s being a cat, and he’s actually quite comfortable up there, away from all the noisome primates, and no, he’s not coming down.
The Long and Winding Road
An exquisite track which for decades was, to Paul’s infinite horror, despoiled on record by Phil Spector’s ham-fisted wall of sound production methods (cue scads of violins! Now harps! Go celestial choir!), here it is, finally, in its pristine form, from the 2003 “naked” remix of Let it Be. It works a lot better when it’s just piano, a little tasteful guitar accompaniment, and Billy Preston adding touches on keyboard, doesn’t it? I doubt much needs to be said about this soulful, heart-rending ballad, composed at an emotional low ebb during the sometimes fractious Let it Be sessions, when it began to dawn on McCartney that a Beatles break-up was inevitable, despite all the energy he’d invested into keeping the band’s precious synergy alive. Anyway, you’ll never know, but many ways I’ve tried. Taken in context, that’s awfully sad.
Here’s one of the better scenes from the so-so movie Yesterday, a fantasy in which the protagonist awakens one day to find himself the only person alive who ever heard of the Beatles, and knows their songs. Claiming authorship for himself, thus achieving notoriety as a purported master composer, he winds up here in an informal songwriting contest, with Ed Sheeran being a very good sport by playing himself. Ed comes up with a little song I quite like, using stranded penguins as a metaphor; Jack, curating the entire Beatles’ catalogue, apparently composes Long and Winding Road off the top of his head, and Sheeran, feeling like Salieri to Jack’s Mozart, glumly acknowledges he’s hopelessly overmatched. I remember thinking, as I watched this, that it was entirely possible McCartney actually did write the bulk of it off the top of his head, just like that. It wouldn’t have been the first time.
Come and Get It
Recorded sometime around the White Album sessions, this is McCartney’s all but completed version of the guaranteed hit he later handed to Badfinger, giving the new recruits to Apple Records their first action on the charts. Layer on a couple of backing vocal tracks and the Beatles could have taken it right to the top themselves, but this was the point at which both John and George were growing weary and resentful of the endless, metronomic drumbeat of McCartney-penned #1 A-sides. Very well then, let the other guys have it, and good on ’em too. The lyrics provide sardonic commentary on the goings-on at Apple, which at this point was being taken to the cleaners by just about every charlatan and hanger-on who ever claimed to have had a big idea, among them a transparent fraud nicknamed “Magic Alex”, who squandered God knows how many thousands of pounds promising to achieve technological wonders in the manufacture of studio recording equipment, while managing mainly to produce loose piles of tangled wire, sometimes attached to a speaker, sometimes to an oscilloscope (you can imagine George Martin’s reaction). Meanwhile, people were shoplifting them blind in the artsy-craftsy Apple Boutique, until finally they just flung open the doors and told everyone to go ahead and take what they pleased, before shutting the place down. Ah well. All grist for the mill, which Paul ground into another effortless pop gem while working on other things.