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Paul McCartney: Best of the Solo Years

Four decades of hits and near misses

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Paul McCartney’s 15th studio album, Kisses on the Bottom, is a collection of covers of Hit Parade-era songs that he loved while growing up. McCartney, of course, has compiled an incredible songbook of his own, and not just with his little band called the Beatles: 34 of his solo singles have made the U.S. Top 40. Some of them – “Band on the Run,” “Live and Let Die” – are as ubiquitous as his greatest work with the old band. Following is a selection of the highest highs of McCartney’s four-decade solo career, including some of his biggest hits and best album tracks. 

By James Sullivan

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‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’

After releasing his mostly demo-ish first solo album, McCartney, around the time of the Beatles' acrimonious breakup, McCartney found his solo stride on Ram, the 1971 followup (actually credited to Paul and Linda McCartney). The album featured the lovely ukulele tune "Ram On"; "Too Many People," a cranky swipe at his estranged writing partner, John Lennon; and the Number One hit "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey," a classic McCartney pastiche that starts like a dream, grows jaunty and progressively weirder ("The butter wouldn't melt so I put it in the pie!") and rocks out on the fade.    

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‘Live and Let Die’

Settling in with his new band, Wings, McCartney was invited to contribute a theme song to the next film in the James Bond franchise. It's another trademark McCartney mini-symphony with orchestral audacity, the familiar ballad-y breakdown ("When you were young . . ."), even a bit of ersatz reggae.

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‘Helen Wheels’

After a couple of uneven albums, Wings hit the jackpot with Band on the Run, recorded with a skeleton crew under unusual circumstances in Nigeria. The advance single, the full-throttle rave-up “Helen Wheels,” did not appear on the U.K. version of the album. It’s a classic car song, named for Paul and Linda’s Land Rover.  

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‘Junior’s Farm’

Like "Another Day," "Hi Hi Hi" and others, "Junior's Farm" is another of McCartney's non-album singles from his very productive first decade apart from the Beatles. It was recorded in Nashville.

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‘Listen to What the Man Said’

Wings’ incredible mid-Seventies run continued with the tuneful lead single from the Venus and Mars album which, in keeping with McCartney’s restlessness at the time, was recorded in New Orleans.

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‘Maybe I’m Amazed’

The most fully realized song from McCartney's half-baked debut album, the big piano ballad "Maybe I'm Amazed" earned a second life as a centerpiece of the blockbuster triple-live album Wings Over America (1976). 

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‘Say Say Say’ (with Michael Jackson)

McCartney seemed to foreshadow the coming Eighties with soft hits like "Silly Love Songs" and "With a Little Luck." The new decade wasn't always kind to the former Beatle, who was now entering his forties; however, his hugely successful collaborations with Michael Jackson more than made up for both his growing fascination with synthesizers and his other high-profile collaboration with Stevie Wonder (on the cornball smash "Ebony and Ivory").   

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‘You Want Her Too’ (with Elvis Costello)

McCartney was rejuvenated toward the end of the Eighties, going back to basics with the oldies covers set known as the "Russian Album." That was followed by 1989's Flowers in the Dirt, which featured several collaborations with Elvis Costello, who gave the ex-Beatle the acerbic counterpoint he'd been lacking since he and John Lennon cut their ties.

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‘Every Night’ (live)

Invited onto MTV's Unplugged in the show's early days, McCartney and his band insisted on sticking to the premise, playing without any amplification at all (unlike some other guests). One highlight was this version of one of the singer's signature unabashed love songs from the McCartney debut.  

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‘Great Day’

After detours into symphonic and electronic music, McCartney returned to Beatlesque form yet again with the 1997 album Flaming Pie, which featured help from Ringo, a tribute to John and typically shimmering production from Beatles fanatic Jeff Lynne. "Great Day" is the kind of back-to-the-land acoustic number that McCartney has made one of his many specialties over the years.   

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‘Jenny Wren’

McCartney's 13th solo studio album, 2005's Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, was produced by Radiohead regular Nigel Godrich. The cover photo shows a very young McCartney practicing guitar in his family's Liverpool backyard under their clothesline. Likewise, "Jenny Wren" distinctly recalls two classics from a much-younger McCartney: "Blackbird," with its delicate acoustic finger-picking, and the deft character study of "Eleanor Rigby."

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‘Only Mama Knows’

No, he's not going quietly. The aching strings that open this standout from McCartney's last studio album, Memory Almost Full (2007), are soon trampled by the feisty garage spirit of his excellent recent touring band.

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