Sorry folks, no goofy post today. I’m actually going ahead with a post I’ve long been ruminating on: my top ten Paul McCartney songs you probably don’t know but should definitely check out.
For years, McCartney struggled to garner much critical respect; most critics dismissed his work as slight and throwaway. This was due to two factors: McCartney’s own inconsistant output, and the effort to canonize and mythologize John Lennon at the expense of his former songwriting partner. The last ten years has seen a welcome critical re-evaluation of Paul McCartney’s solo work. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and his bold, creatively-vital albums this decade have led people back to an appreciation of his career highlights since the Beatles ended. Now he headlines Coachella festivals and collects stellar reviews for new albums. How do you like him now?
Over the past few years, I’ve been poring over a lot of his work. Certainly not all of it is great, but it’s a pleasure uncovering more hidden examples of his effortless melodies and playful song suites. You don’t need this blog to tell you that “Maybe I’m Amazed” or “My Love” are gorgeous, or that “Jet” and “Live And Let Die” kick ass. Instead, I wanted to point you toward ten lesser-known tracks you won’t find on any brief greatest hits album. A couple of these were singles, but none were massive hits. Most of them are album tracks that have worn well. Think of this list as a multicolored buffet of sweet ear-pudding.
1. Junk (1970): McCartney’s first solo album was a homemade batch of songs that initially didn’t sit well with fans or critics expecting a sound on par with the superb production of the Beatles. “Junk” is a lovely little tune about a lonely antique shop, and its homespun, snapshot charm is part of its appeal.
2. Big Barn Bed (1973): This is a bizarre tune with an infectious groove. Like a lot of these tracks, McCartney played every instrument himself, and the production is strong (Jeff Tweedy nodded to this era McCartney and Wings as partial inspiration for the sound of the last Wilco album). The song is about life on his rural Scottish farm with wife Linda and their kids.
3. Rock Show w/ “Venus & Mars” intro until 1:10 (1975):
McCartney has a reputation as a balladeer, but his rock output is regularly awesome. “Helter Skelter” and “Jet” are his most celebrated songs in this vein, but I’d put “Rock Show” up with any of them. In it, he turns the tables, singing about the excitment at a big concert, the moment before the band takes the stage. The tune is fun puzzle with odd little side sections and a drug reference or two. It’s a bummer he doesn’t seem to pull this one out in concerts anymore – he tends to rely too heavily on the crowd-pleasers these days.
4. Goodnight Tonight (1980)
Here’s a song from the late disco era with hooks galore. It’s a clever little tune, with the singer pleading with his date to stay with him, while the countermelodies offer her replies of “I gotta go home”. Great singing, catchy melodies, and offbeat instrumentation make this a fun song to uncover. The 1920s-themed video has a goofy charm to it as well.
5. Tug of War (1982): This is the title track to an acclaimed album McCartney put out in the wake of John Lennon’s death. There are allusions to his relationship with Lennon in this song, which adds an emotional heft to it that isn’t always present in his work. The song itself is fine, but for me the real payoff is the bridge (at about 2:05 of the song) – it’s a soaring, yearning moment that can give me goosebumps if it catches me in the right mood.
6. Calico Skies (1997):
With a few exceptions, the late 80s and early 90s were creatively barren years for McCartney (and most of his generational peers). He seemed to break out of his slump with 1997’s Flaming Pie album. This track displays his deft acoustic guitar skills (similar to “Blackbird”) and the lyrics are a lovely ode to his wife Linda. He wrote it when she was dying of breast cancer, making it all the more touching.
7. Your Loving Flame (2001): Here’s an excellent late-period ballad from McCartney – just a beautiful, lovely song. The key to the song for me is the switch into the minor chords for the chorus. It adds enough bitter to the sweetness to make it a song worth returning to.
8. Friends to Go (2005): This is from Chaos & Creation in the Backyard, an excellent album produced by Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Travis) and again featuring McCartney playing every instrument. I could have picked 5 or 6 songs from this album, but I chose this midtempo rocker with a sturdy groove and catchy hook. He said he felt like he was channeling George Harrison when he wrote it, which definitely comes through.
9. That Was Me live (2007): This is a fun autobiographical tune, like his memories being run through kaleidoscope. Again, the hooks are plentiful in this song, tossed out offhandedly with supreme confidence.
10. Sing the Changes (2008): This was released last year under the pseudonym The Fireman, a name he’s used for some of his past experimental electronic projects. This track, however, is a gorgeous, swirling song that soars beautifully. Written and recorded in a day, it demonstrates that McCartney, even at age 67, still has some magic left in him.