22. McCartney III (2020)
Who’s gonna tell Paul McCartney in his twilight years – hey, maybe that insta-riff and some throwaway lyrics is not an actual song? That’s the issue on this quarantine album, undeveloped songwriting. Which in his peak years he made up for with melody and charm, but not here. “Pretty Boys” works as a wry self-satire of the Beatles, and “Winter Bird/When Winter Comes” shines with his trademark class. But most of these tunes needed an editor or producer or something.
21. Pipes Of Peace (1983)
The title track would have made a fine single, with its wobbly McCartney lyricism (“all around the world, little children being born to the world”). Otherwise this album is obsessed with the pop ascendency of Michael Jackson. He guests on two tracks, while “So Bad” is another Paul attempt to write in his style. What’s missing with all that is Quincy Jones, the key underpinning of the MJ sound. Signs of mid-career decline – the throwaways are no longer gems, the cutesy stuff feels calculated.
20. Press To Play (1986)
This one has the reputation of a stinker. The problem is not the lack of interesting ideas, but melodies. These tunes don’t stick. Eighties kids weren’t going for this shit, and the core fanbase ignored it. “However Absurd” is nice nod to Lennon psychedelia, but the catchiest one (“Yvonne’s The One”) got left off the album.
19. Flowers In The Dirt (1989)
Marketed as a big comeback, with the key songs to sell (“My Brave Face,” “Put It There,” “Figure Of Eight”). Melodies are back, along with a writing partnership with Elvis Costello. Their songs together come off as a bit overwritten, just high level craft. So they fit right in here. The commercial gloss on this album rings with some desperation, and dulls the impact of the better songs.
18. Wings At The Speed Of Sound (1976)
Buoyed by two hits (“Let ‘Em In,” “Silly Love Songs”) that stretched the cute formula to near breaking point, this album was an attempt to put Wings over as an actual band. So Linda gets a song (“Cook Of The House”) that’s off key musically and with any wave of feminism. The usually reliable Denny Laine strikes out, so does drummer Joe English on vocals. The whole vibe is lightweight, with tepid hints of disco and Steely Dan. Note how it positions the two big songs at the start of each vinyl side – I suspect most fans treated this as an extended single.
17. Flaming Pie (1997)
Jeff Lynne was the rock producer with the squishy snare drum sound, associated with Tom Petty and the Traveling Wilburys and that ilk. He even put his grubby mark on the Beatles reunion songs in 1995, leading to this album positioned to ride that nostalgia wave. Critics and fans enjoyed it but this album is not for me.
16. Off The Ground (1992)
Here we have a good creative burst that just doesn’t translate to a good album. Why? A few awful songs torpedo the momentum, leaving the better ones with too much ground to get off of. This album is like watching a VH-1 documentary about itself. Still: “I Owe It All To You” would have been on a 1992 Beatles album, and I love the spaced out b-side “Kicked Around No More” with its whistling refrain like a dour “Let ‘Em In” reboot.
15. New (2013)
Modern producers do their best to draw up a modern McCartney album. The material is uneven, and sometimes the bounce feels like hackwork. “Queenie Eye” is great, an eccentric psychedelic pop song. So is the title track despite being borderline self-parody, so is “Get Me Out Of Here” which parodies the acoustic blues on Led Zeppelin III. Meanwhile arena rock nonsense like “Everybody Out There” is just concession stand music.
14. Memory Almost Full (2007)
Aside from the insipid single “Dance Tonight,” these songs are solid. “You Tell Me” has a rare edge of grim sarcasm for a McCartney love song while “Vintage Clothes” is a meta-argument against nostalgia in the form of a 60s pop song. At times this album feels a little forced, Sir Paul clocking back in for work.
13. Egypt Station (2018)
There’s a lot of material here, weighted with a stately sort of fatigue. Darker themes from Paul McCartney seem off at first, as does the political commentary, never one of his strengths. The sound is a bit unsettled, and unsure of itself. Like some of the joy is gone from these songs, but they’re keeping it real. “Hand In Hand” is an evocation of love that feels haunted. And I’m not mad at “Fuh You” which aims for a pop hit in the goofy way he’s always done it. I suspect this album will age well.
12. London Town (1978)
Paul McCartney makes his version of Ween’s The Mollusk. Wings is down to Paul and Denny Laine again, so we get a real collaboration here. Gene and Dean Ween they’re not, but this is a good quirky album. One tune sounds like a fey children’s TV theme song, another like a Michael Jackson ballad, plus pub folk and Elvis and rock star disco. “I’m Carrying” is pure McCartney, so is the goofy title track like an FM radio rewrite of “Penny Lane.” My issue is this album really wears out its welcome by the end, like the party’s over and sometimes even Paul needs to just go home.
11. McCartney II (1980)
Paul McCartney makes his version of Ween’s The Pod. I can’t take it seriously as some ‘inspiration for electronica’ but this keyboard driven album is a cool listen. Credit him for experimentation without abandoning his pop sensibility. Bouncy keyboard loop instrumentals, with some atmospheric Brian Eno on “Summer’s Day Song” and dare I say some G-funk on “Darkroom”? This is a weird album. Bookended by classic songs: “Coming Up” which sparked John Lennon’s inspiration and “One Of These Days” a gorgeous acoustic ballad that should be a McCartney standard.
10. Tug Of War (1982)
Producer George Martin is back for some career course correction after the drug bust in Japan and oddball McCartney II. It’s good to hear Paul at his slick professional best, since he can pull off pop music with class. Some of his guests like Stevie Wonder and Carl Perkins don’t mesh so well. Tug Of War hangs on polished songs like “Wanderlust” about a near drug bust during the London Town sessions, and the title track which is overwrought but still a nice peace anthem. “Here Today” is the gutpunch sad tribute to John Lennon, one of Paul’s finest songs.
9. McCartney (1970)
Just two years removed from the White Album, Paul’s first solo is full of “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” and “I Will” type tunes. Plus wonky experiments like a four-minute drum solo and go-nowhere instrumentals. This one is just lo-fi DIY music with a palpable sense of creative joy. Some good tunes like “Every Night” and Beatles’ outtakes “Junk” and “Teddy Boy.” The big ballad “Maybe I’m Amazed” almost doesn’t fit the vibe, but it’s one of his best and a foreshadowing of his successful solo career.
8. Wild Life (1971)
Super underrated. Underwritten? Yes. But this is a magic era for solo Beatles stuff. So just Paul testing out his new band yields some gems like “Some People Never Know” and “Tomorrow.” Note how “I Am Your Singer” jacks the tremolo guitar sound of Lennon’s “I Found Out,” while “Dear Friend” waves a white flag in their feud. The groove on “Bip Bop” would have had a home in the Jerry Garcia Band repertoire, jamming it out for fifteen or so minutes, John Kahn nodding on bass with ciggy in mouth. This is just a fun album to listen to, even if it doesn’t hold up to most critics’ ears.
7. Chaos And Creation In The Backyard (2005)
Credit to producer Nigel Godrich pushing for a high bar, but it’s the songs that have an uncommon emotional weight. If “Blackbird” was a civil rights metaphor, then could “Jenny Wren” be the feminist version? Just like “Follow Me” rings with the spirituality of “Let It Be,” and “A Certain Softness” is the “When I’m Sixty-Four” couple on a cruise ship vacation. Godrich makes his mark with a Radiohead-y break on “How Kind Of You.” Overall this feels like kind of a sad album, even if it wasn’t meant to be. Which is real, and why it will resonate when you need it.
6. Driving Rain (2001)
This one has a low reputation among critics and fans. Thanks partly to the abominable post-9/11 anthem “Freedom” that got tacked on to the tracklist. But for me this album hits the right McCartney highs – “Your Way” sounds like his twist on the Grateful Dead, “From A Lover To A Friend” is a breakup ballad that takes the high road, “She’s Given Up Talking” is spacey rock with some Gilmour-like guitar breaks. And I’ll take a sitar chant song, why not? The closer “Rinse The Raindrops” reminds me of Embryonic-era Flaming Lips – chunky psych rock that doesn’t quite come together but gets big points for trying. This is a great album.
5. Back To The Egg (1979)
Another one way underrated. Higher! This is a rebooted version of Wings with energy and chops. Paul set out to sell a rock album in 1979. Except it didn’t sell. Granted it doesn’t really work as a rock album. And I could see it not working at all, the way it reaches for styles and trends. I mean, we go from Denny Laine as Bob Seger on “Again and Again and Again” to Paul as KC & The Sunshine Band on “Arrow Through Me.” Two songs feature the sloppy Rockestra “supergroup,” like one of those Rock ‘n Roll Hall Of Fame “jam sessions.” Not good. But I’ll take it, all of it. Nods to Elvis Costello (“To You”) and AC/DC (“Old Siam, Sir”) and Elton John (“After The Ball”). I just like the ambition of this album because it springs from other musicians, not the music industry.
4. Venus And Mars (1975)
Spins the FM dial with a cavernous arena rock sound. I love how the mix of “Long In Song” is drenched in echo, which also gives “Treat Her Gently/Lonely Old People” the vibe of a soundcheck in an empty arena. “Listen To What The Man Said” is Paul at his earworm best with a wonderful progression of major7s and suspended chords, and it fits conceptually being about the radio. It’s a better version of what got rewritten the next year as “Silly Love Songs.” Elsewhere he dials in some glam rock and funk and soul and Pink Floyd. That eclecticism detracts just a bit from an emotional core. It’s all showbiz, but great music.
3. Red Rose Speedway (1972)
Not sure what this album was supposed to be. He’d formed Wings as a rock band to resume touring, but he was still writing warm little songs of domestic bliss. Rock fans in 1972 weren’t into this, and critics turned up their noses. But then again: it’s honest. First generation Beatles fans were getting married, having kids, settling down. This music resonated with that core audience. Sure it’s flakey – a pigeon with marriage problems, a dying lamb reincarnated as a fly, a twelve-minute medley of tuneful throwaways. I’d argue that though this was a failure as a rock album, it was exactly the right one for his fans.
2. Band On The Run (1973)
Yes, the band ran away before these sessions. Which left Paul to mostly solo this one with help from Denny Laine. The result was a solid return to the rock market, an album that could stand with Dark Side Of The Moon as state-of-the-art craft. It’s his most Beatle-y album, swiping conceptually from Sgt Pepper and loaded with hooky production tricks. “Let Me Roll It” is such a groove with the droning organ, and “Nineteen Hundred And Eighty-Five” is a piano driven spin on Bowie sci-fi. Give this album a chance and it will sink in deep.
1. Ram (1971)
I’ll take this album over half the Beatles’ catalog. Pop eccentricity perfectly executed. “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” is superweird and bursting with hooks with some Frank Zappa-y touches. I wish Zappa’d covered it instead of “I Am The Walrus” on his 1988 tour. “Too Many People” disses Lennon and Yoko, “3 Legs” is a bizarre acoustic blues obliquely referencing the Beatles breakup drama. This album is all sonic experiments and melodic detours that wind up in just the right places. “Long Haired Lady” drags a bit toward the end like some lesser “Hey Jude,” but then the closer “Back Seat Of My Car” is the graceful flip of Uncle Albert’s mini-epic style. I hear it as a love song informed by the pressure of Beatles fame and the sense in 1971 that Paul was the out of touch one. Critics hated this album, so never ever trust critics. Especially not ranked lists.