“I’m proud of the Beatle thing,” Paul McCartney told Rolling Stone in 1978. “It was great, and I can go along with all the people you meet on the street who say you gave so much happiness to so many people. I don’t think that’s corny.” Even though it was Paul’s 1970 solo debut that marked the end of the Beatles, it was Paul’s post-Beatle career that was truest to the band’s world-hugging, happiness-spreading vision, as he channeled his own changing inspirations and desires into beloved hits like “Baby I’m Amazed,” “Jet” and “Band on the Run,” as well as genius obscurities like “Monkberry Moon Delight.” Our ranking of his 40 greatest solo songs is sure to start some arguments (his banned stoner-anthem rocker “Hi, Hi, Hi” makes the top 10 and his radio-dominating global smash “My Love” isn’t here at all), and the picks run from pop to folk to punk and disco and beyond, as well as a few silly love songs – some of the greatest of all time, in fact.
McCartney tapped into the restless energy of a
man half his age on this backward-looking single, singing about “searching
for the time that has gone so fast” over quick, incisive riffs. “I
wouldn’t use the word ‘nostalgia,'” he said. “I would use the word ‘memory.’ … If you’re using your imagination, you tend to look into the past.”
Nigel Godrich’s production makes this psychedelic ballad feel like it’s floating in space, while the excellently sharp-edged lyrics lash out at an undermining type. “I don’t write many songs like that,” he told RS. “I thought it might be good to tell some people you can’t stand them.”
A bagpipe-assisted pub singalong in praise of
the gorgeous, remote part of western Scotland where McCartney’s farm is
located, “Mull of Kintyre” is a footnote for most U.S. fans. But it
was an unstoppable phenomenon in Britain, becoming the country’s bestselling
single ever, beating “She Loves You.” (It was unseated in 1984 by “Do
They Know It’s Christmas?”)
Deep into the free-form tape-machine improvisation that produced most of McCartney II, Paul came up with this oddly catchy electro-pop nugget, about a slightly creepy-sounding guy looking to hire a temp. “I just saw it as an experiment,” he said years later, by which time the song had become a cult favorite. “I didn’t know I was doing anything innovative, really.”
This late-model Wings cut followed up the ultra-easygoing
“With a Little Luck,” with tough talk and guitars to match. McCartney’s
sarcastic snarl suggests he was already paying close attention to future
collaborator Elvis Costello. “I’ve Had Enough” was a minor Top 40 hit
in the U.S. – but it flopped in the U.K. “You can’t win ’em all,”
McCartney said with a shrug.
You might think of McCartney as being beyond the old debates over who wrote what in the Beatles, but if so, you don’t know Paul. “I know my memory has got chips in it that still can go exactly back to two guys sitting in a room trying to write ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ or ‘One After 909,'” he told Rolling Stone in 2014. “I can see every minute of John and I writing together, playing together, recording together. I still have very vivid memories of all of that. It’s not like it fades.” This highlight from 2013’s New, he explained, is rooted in that same sense of frustration at revisionist Beatles histories. “They can’t take it from me if they try/I lived through those early days,” he sings. “So many times I had to change the pain to laughter/Just to keep from getting crazed.” And because he’s Paul, it comes out as a bittersweet, gentle folk ballad that’s one of the most moving songs he’s written this century. There’s no resentment in the performance, just a lot of love for the memory of a friend.
Like many of McCartney’s early triumphs, “The
Back Seat of My Car” could have been a Beatles song: He played them an
early version in 1969. Two years later, he revived it as Ram’s grand
orchestral finale. “A really teenage song,” he said in 2001. “The
two lovers are going to take on the world. I always like the underdog.”
On vacation in Jamaica, McCartney started buying
comic books for his kids – inspiring him to write this jolly little tune about
a bank robbery involving several Marvel supervillains. On Wings’ next tour,
images of Magneto and Titanium Man were featured alongside paintings by artists
like Magritte. “It’s all art,” he said.
McCartney rode the wave of excitement from the Beatles’ Anthology with Flaming Pie, named for an old Lennon joke about the band’s origins. The title track is at once rocking and bizarre, with a from-nowhere New Orleans piano breakdown and acid-trip lyrics. Paul said he “really didn’t give a shit” how the LP sold: “Everyone likes to have
a hit, but not at the expense of fun.”
Before they fell out over the rights to the Beatles’ publishing catalog, McCartney and Michael Jackson were good pals. “Mike’s great; lovely guy!” Paul said the year they released this zippy duet. Virtually anything involving Jackson was a guaranteed hit at the time, and this was no exception – it spent six weeks at Number One.
Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich pushed McCartney out of his comfort zone on Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, getting Paul to play nearly every instrument himself for the first time in decades. The results, as heard on this urgent, piano-driven jam, came out sounding classic.
Technically a duet between Rihanna and Kanye West featuring some evocative acoustic strumming from Paul, “FourFiveSeconds” was nonetheless McCartney’s biggest hit in decades, proving that pop music still needs and feeds him long after his 64th birthday – and blessedly replacing “Spies Like Us” as his most recent appearance in the Top 10. And even though he barely sings on it, “FourFiveSeconds” is a deeply McCartney-ish song in spirit. From the understated uplift of the chord progression to the churchy organ breakdown in the middle to the quiet jabs of passive aggression (“All of my kindness is taken for weakness,” Rihanna sighs like she’s dissolving Apple Corps), it sounds far more like him than like either of his younger co-stars. It takes a powerful musical presence to overshadow Yeezus, but that’s Paul for you.
“Goodnight Tonight” was one of McCartney’s biggest disco-era hits – a butter-smooth groove recorded with Wings’ seventh and final lineup. But he almost left it on the studio floor while making Back to the Egg. “We scrapped the whole thing,” he recalled. “A week later, I played the record again and thought, ‘That’s crazy.'”
The McCartney who howled “Helter Skelter”
mostly took the Eighties off. But he rages in this proto-grunge blast – with
Pete Townshend on guitar and Phil Collins on drums – righteously ranting
against racism and Margaret Thatcher. “Britain’s attitude toward apartheid
at the moment is just so crazy,” Paul told RS. “It’s so insane.
Couldn’t they just wise up?”
When the business battles that followed the Beatles’ breakup threatened to drive him mad, McCartney headed to Scotland with Linda and threw himself into country living – an experience commemorated in this joyful, folksy idyll. “It was an escape,” he said years later. “I had always been a nature lover as a kid, but I’d never really had any time to return to that.”
Named for a cottage McCartney owned in Sussex, this stately ballad is a highlight of one of his lesser-known LPs. Serious fans might have noticed something familiar when they heard TLC’s R&B hit of the same title 14 years later: The central metaphor and some key lyrics are nearly identical. “It’s like, ‘Excuse me?'” an incredulous McCartney later said.
“It’s an international message with a Latin
American flavor,” McCartney said of this uplifting anthem, where he trades
Spanish guitar solos with Robbie McIntosh over syncopated rhythms, with a
first-take immediacy. It wasn’t a hit in the U.S. – but it was huge in
post–Cold War Eastern Europe, where its optimism had fresh, deep resonance.
It wasn’t quite “The Hustle,” but “Listen
to What the Man Said” – with its silky, seductive groove spotlighting
session pro Tom Scott’s zesty sax – proved that McCartney would have no trouble
fitting into the dawning disco age. “‘The Man’ could mean God, it could
mean many things,” he said. “It’s a good summer single.”
An ominous late-night fantasy: Over a hard-chugging piano riff, McCartney wails about getting loony under some exotic influence, with “a piano up my nose.” “It’s like abstract painting,” he told RS. “People go, ‘Wow – is that cocaine?’ And I go, ‘No. It’s a piano up his nose. Haven’t you ever seen surrealist paintings?'”
When McCartney asks, “Shall we dance?” it’s hard to say no. “You Gave Me the Answer” is his return to the old-timey music-hall vibe of “Honey Pie” and “Your Mother Should Know,” with soft-shoe crooning worthy of Rudy Vallee: “You gave me the answer to love eternally/I love you, and you – you seem to like me!”
“Here Today” is McCartney’s moving response to Lennon’s death. Produced by George Martin, the subtle ballad carries distinct echoes of the Beatles, with heartbreakingly honest lyrics that continue McCartney’s lifelong dialogue with his late friend. “We had some great conversations just before he died,” he recalled in 1993. “I felt like I’d made my peace with him.”