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Paul McCartney's 20 best solo years songs

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As Paul McCartney turned 80 recently, we pick the very best of his blockbuster solo and Wings catalogue, from new wave curios to classic piano ballads.

20. Paul McCartney – What’s That You’re Doing? (1982)

A hidden gem from Tug of War, What’s That You’re Doing? is everything the more famous McCartney/Stevie Wonder collaboration Ebony and Ivory isn’t. Rather than the gloopy schmaltz of their big hit, it’s wired and writhingly funky enough to equal Wonder’s 70s albums: high praise, but it’s a fabulous song.

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19. Paul McCartney – My Valentine (2012)

McCartney had dabbled in pre-rock’n’roll pop before, on the Beatles’ Honey Pie, the Black Dyke Mills Band’s Thingumybob and Wings’ Baby’s Request, but his self-penned contribution to Kisses on the Bottom, an album of standards, was particularly enchanting: a moody ballad that could have come direct from the Great American Songbook.

18. Paul & Linda McCartney – Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey (1971)

The medley on side two of Abbey Road evidently captivated McCartney: he kept returning to its fragmentary approach during the early 70s. Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey was the Ram album’s ramshackle take on the form, jump-cutting from hazy and dreamlike to perky singalong to a falsetto-voiced oompah interlude. A US No 1, incredibly.

17. Paul McCartney & Elvis Costello – My Brave Face (original demo) (1989)

The version of My Brave Face you need to hear is not the high-gloss single, but the rougher, tougher demo, where the song’s Beatley greatness is more amply evident: McCartney and Costello thrashing at acoustic guitars and harmonising, the latter’s acidic voice a perfect, rather Lennon-esque, foil.

16. Wings – Junior’s Farm (1974)

Situated in a delightful sweet spot between rock riffing and pop smarts, Junior’s Farm also features a rare moment of Macca politicking buried amid the Dylan-esque lyrics, which cheerily suggest a whip-round for “a bag of cement” with which to fashion concrete boots for Richard Nixon.

15. Wings – Little Lamb Dragonfly (1973)

Tucked away amid the uneven contents of Wings’ second album Red Rose Speedway was one of the loveliest melodies McCartney has ever written. Recorded during the Ram sessions and intended for the soundtrack of McCartney’s long-planned Rupert Bear cartoon, Little Lamb Dragonfly is pillow-soft, inexplicably moving and utterly gorgeous.

14. Paul McCartney – No More Lonely Nights (1984)

It says a lot about the lowly critical reputation of mid-80s Macca – and the awfulness of the movie from which it came, Give My Regards to Broad Street – that No More Lonely Nights isn’t lauded as the masterpiece it is. A big hit you never hear nowadays, it’s super-smooth, but a dazzling bit of songwriting.

13. Paul & Linda McCartney – Another Day (1971)

One striking thing about Paul McCartney’s late-60s and early-70s work is the empathy with which it depicts the ordinary people the counterculture tended to sneer at as hopelessly square. Hence Another Day: derided on release for its tender depiction of a woman’s humdrum existence, it is poignant, caring and beautifully written.

12. Paul McCartney – Little Willow (1997)

After decades of frequently unfair critical opprobrium directed McCartney’s way, Flaming Pie was released at the height of Britpop’s Beatlemania, and, if anything, slightly overrated. But there’s nothing not to like about Little Willow’s heartstring-tugging but heartfelt, delicately arranged response to the death of Ringo Starr’s first wife Maureen.

11. Paul McCartney – Junk (1970)

A lot of Beatles offcuts ended up on McCartney’s early solo albums. Sometimes you could see why the other Fabs had rejected them – the cloying Teddy Boy – but Junk is the wonderful “sentimental jamboree” described in one of its lyrics. Passed over for The Beatles and Abbey Road, it is magical: unassuming, twilit and pretty but somehow eerie with it.

10. Paul McCartney – Here Today (1982)

A perfectly poised reaction to Lennon’s murder. The lyrics admit Lennon would have scoffed at their sentimentality and it sounds poignantly like something from the mid-60s, an acoustic-guitar-and-strings sibling of Yesterday. A photo of the manuscript reveals a telling change: the line “I ease my pain” crossed out, replaced with “I love you”.

9. Paul McCartney – Coming Up (album version) (1980)

Rightfully impressed by its tight-but-lo-fi new wavey disco sound,Lennon famously responded to hearing Coming Up on the radio with the immortal exclamation: “Fuck a pig – it’s Paul!” Lennon preferred the home-recorded take on McCartney II to the live version released as a single; he was right about that, too.

8. Paul McCartney – Jenny Wren (2005)

Written, McCartney has admitted, “in conversation with” the Beatles’ Blackbird, Jenny Wren was, like much of Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, acoustic and powerfully stark. Its mood slips from optimistic to troubled and back again; McCartney’s voice is close-miked and intimate; and the solo on a duduk – an Armenian wind instrument – is atmospheric and unexpected.

7. Wings – Jet (1973)

Hard-rocking, euphoric and swaggering, Jet – like a lot of Band on the Run – sounds like McCartney finally finding his post-Beatles mojo. It’s a fantastic song, its fat sound a response to glam; its intro, by some distance, the best – and most subtle – of McCartney’s attempts to incorporate reggae into his sound.

6. Wings – Live and Let Die (1973)

McCartney’s post-Beatles work felt deliberately unassuming, until the challenge of writing the first rock Bond theme forced him into making a grand statement. Still a pyrotechnic-augmented peak in his live shows, Live and Let Die adapts the Abbey Road medley approach – ballad, reggae interlude, orchestral rock riffing – into thrilling high-drama.

5. Paul McCartney – Waterfalls (1980)

McCartney later said he should have held Waterfalls – a catalogue of parental worries set to a slowly sighing melody – back from McCartney II in order to give it the full orchestral treatment, but it’s perfect as it is: there’s something very touching about the fragility of its electronic backing.

4. Wings – Let Me Roll It (1973)

Its swipe of solo Lennon styles – caustic Cold Turkey guitar, Instant Karma-ish slapback echo – led some people to believe Let Me Roll It was aimed at him; McCartney has implied it’s a paean to marijuana. Either way, its stammering riff, raw vocal, and emotional shift from brooding verses to soaring chorus are all incredibly good.

3. Paul & Linda McCartney – The Back Seat of My Car (1971)

There’s a moment during last year’s Get Back documentary series where Macca strikes up The Back Seat of My Car, begging the question: why on earth didn’t the Beatles record this? Audibly inspired by Brian Wilson, its twists and turns amount to an astonishing firework display of melodic talent.

2. Wings – Band on the Run (1973)

Rattled by a mutiny among Wings’ ranks, McCartney defiantly stepped up his game on the subsequent Band on the Run. Its three-songs-in-one title track reflects both his embattled mind state and burst of new confidence. The moment at 2:06 where the mood dramatically lifts, with a vast orchestral riff is a thing of joy-bringing wonder.

1. Paul McCartney – Maybe I’m Amazed (1970)

Amid the low-key, charmingly scrappy contents of McCartney’s eponymous solo debut, Maybe I’m Amazed is a no-further-questions masterpiece, both a pledge of devotion to his new wife and a howl of bewilderment at the Beatles’ collapse (“Maybe I’m a lonely man who’s in the middle of something / That he doesn’t really understand”). The version on McCartney is understated – it suddenly fades in, as if someone pressed record slightly too late; the arrangement is sparse – but that does nothing to dim its slowly mounting emotional power, equal parts anguish and adoration. McCartney subsequently called it the song he would most like to be remembered for.

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