When someone spends the pandemic creating a free-to-view six-hour documentary series about Paul McCartney’s career after the Beatles, they’re what you would call a serious expert. So here are some very serious listening recommendations from a very seriously knowledgeable P.B. Conte, including a Spotify playlist with song commentaries, featuring several rarities and alternate versions, below the Albums. Enjoy, and leave a highlight or comment if you find something you love!
Ram (1971) Commonly regarded as Paul’s best album for a reason; It’s hard and soft, dissonant and melodic, quirky yet extremely listenable. Always sounds unpredictable and novel, no matter what year it is. A great place to start for people just getting into McCartney. (Credited to Paul and Linda McCartney)
Memory Almost Full (2007) This album didn’t impact me immediately and took a few listens to fully absorb. But when I rediscovered it a few years later I became obsessed and it shot to the top of my list. The songs are gorgeous and deep, with some of his best lyrics ever.
New (2103) This is just consistently excellent all the way through. His songwriting is at top form. The multiple producers keep the songs sounding fresh and varied, and Paul sounds inspired throughout.
Tug of War/Pipes of Peace (1982/1983) This is kind of a cheat (OK, definitely a cheat!), but I think of these as a double-album. The production sometimes sounds dated, but there’s some solid early 80’s jams here. I think they contain some deeply personal and philosophical songwriting about the challenges of marriage and fame.
McCartney II (1980) I’ve never read a review of this album that resonates with me. It’s often obtusely compared to Kraftwerk, but M2 sounds nothing like its contemporaries because Paul was listening to R-n-b at the time. M2 sounds more like early ’90’s-era electronica, industrial, rave and hip hop. Kanye’s early work evokes this trippy lo-fi vibe more than anything produced back in 1979.
Rushes (1998) Ethereal, mournful, sexy, anxious and zen, all rolled into one outstanding album. I’ve listened a million times and could listen to it a million more. A complete aural pleasure. (Credited to The Fireman)
Electric Arguments (2008) Opens with Paul possessed by the Devil; slowly progresses to slices of transcendent bliss. This album is wild. (Credited to The Fireman)
Back to the Egg (1979) Top notch songs in a wide range of moods and styles. Perhaps it lacks continuity of theme, but the quality of the tracks are so outstanding it doesn’t matter. Standards, pumped up rockabilly, power pop, sound collages, a cacophonous rock orchestra experiment, and a bad-ass R&B jam. What’s not to love? (Credited to Wings)
See below for P.B. Conte’s notes on the songs included on this playlist.
Hell to Pay (New (Collectors’ Edition), 2013) This is quintessential, high quality pop; infinitely singable, with something different and interesting in each verse. Paul is the architect of what we call modern pop music, and can still conjure it with ease into his 70s.
4–4–4 (Strawberries, Oceans, Ships, Forest, 1993) Paul has been playing with electronic music since the mid-60s, when he incorporated looping into Beatles music. He absolutely shines in this genre! As someone who was there, I can personally guarantee this was much better than the vast majority of house music in 1993.
Man We Was Lonely (McCartney, 1970) Impressive that he crafted this sound by himself in 1969/70. This is a fine example of a simple idea, executed with impressive vision.
Long Tail Winter Bird (McCartney III, 2020) He knows how to make his guitar sound like a bird or a chorus of birds whenever he wants. He can say all he has to say in three lines. And as always, he has impeccable taste with regard to how and when to drop a beat.
Struggle (New (Collectors’ Edition), 2013) I love when Paul taps into his dark side. As the lyric suggests, the mood here is poisonous, like something intoxicating and alluring but ultimately dangerous.
That Was Me (Memory Almost Full, 2013) This song gets progressively better with each subsequent beat! There is so much to love here: the backwards cymbals, the insane bassline, that delicious piano chord and McCartney’s many voices (all of which are sublime).
Bogey Music (McCartney II, 1980) I never get tired of this absolute banger. The syncopation, the amazing vocals, the creepy lyrics, the demon family, the clowns. How is one song dancehall, rockabilly and hip-hop all at once? Nothing else sounded remotely like this in 1979. NOTHING.
The World Tonight (Demo) (Flaming Pie (Archive Edition), 1997) This demo has such a realness to it; he sounds completely spent from screaming or crying or days without sleep. It’s not a voice we get to hear often, which makes it feel all the more special.
Hey Hey (Pipes of Peace, 1980) This is the product of an in-studio collaboration between Paul and Stanley Clarke. I love the crazy energy and the dreamy, luxury-Airlines vibe of the middle section.
Message to Joe (Wings at the Speed of Sound (Archive Collection), 1976) Apparently Joe English joined a religious cult and hasn’t been heard from in awhile. This was Paul sending him some love from afar on the Archive Edition of Speed of Sound.
Tommy’s Coming Home (Flowers in the Dirt (Archive Edition), 1989) All the McCartney/MacManus collaborations are terrific (and all the demos are superior to the album versions) but this track has a special place in my heart. The lyrics are wonderfully evocative and their harmonies are magic.
Cell Growth. Semplice (Standing Stone, 1997) This is the best taste of Standing Stone in a single track. You can see the rocky shoreline, smell the verdant pastures and taste the salty air.
Soily (Venus and Mars (Archive Edition), 1975) For those who like to rock: this band is for you!
All You Horse Riders/Blue Sway (McCartney II (Special Edition), 1980) What is Horse Riders? A gay club in Houston? A cowboy on methamphetamines at a children’s birthday party? A stripper wrestling a mechanical bull? I don’t know but I can’t look (listen) away.
And then Blue Sway kicks in, revealing one of the most gorgeous pieces of electronic music in this or any other decade.
Only Mama Knows (Memory Almost Full, 2007) I think this is just a sublimely structured rock song; lyrics and melody are both excellent. But what’s best is the character of McCartney’s voice and those weird surges of rage that gives the whole song its neurotic urgency.
Mumbo (Wild Life, 1971) Absolutely adore the bratty, punk energy of this opening track from Wild Life. This is about the time (1971) where you realize that although McCartney likes to keep an eye on the mainstream, he doesn’t live there and never really has.
Pretty Boys (McCartney III Imagined, 2020) A very unique perspective on the brutality of the entertainment industry from an old man who was once himself a Pretty Boy. Khruangbin’s version from III Imagined gives it an uplifting je ne sais quoi.
No More Lonely Nights (Play Out) (Give My Regards to Broad Street, 1984) The 45rpm of this is one of my favorite Paul singles, but this version is a bop too, in the most ’80s way possible. His vocal quality is amazing and I just love his ability to reimagine his own songs in multiple styles.
Ram On (Thrillington, 1977) Right after completing Ram in 1971, Paul decided to reimagine the entire album as an offbeat, 50’s flavored, orchestral affair. Leave it to this innovator of lo-fi to run his seminal indie pop album through the exact opposite treatment! Just to make sure the melodies hold up. (They do)
Sweetest Little Show (Demo) (Pipes of Peace (Archive Edition), 1983) I love when Paul gives us a peek into the crazy world of being “Him” (the famous version of himself). I prefer the demo to the studio version, with its chilled-out rhythm and those weird little vocalizations he does.
Goodnight Princess (Give My Regards To Broad Street , 1984) There is no sentimentality like the wartime kind! This number evokes wistful 40s pop with a touch of Old Hollywood. Makes you wanna canoodle with your sweetie because life is short.
Silly Love Songs (Demo) (Wings at the Speed of Sound (Archive Edition), 1976) The 45 rpm stands out for its production (heavy machinery as percussion, that thumping bassline) and the live version pops with its jangly guitar and iconic brass quartet. But this demo really showcases the warmth of Paul and Linda’s vocals, the sweetness of the melody and the purity of the message. Silly Love Songs was a #1 hit for a reason; it’s an endlessly appealing, inventive piece of music.
It’s Not On (Pipes of Peace (Archive Edition), 1983) This is a Pure McCartney Oddity. Ended up in the trash bin, but thankfully salvaged for the Pipes of Peace Deluxe Reissues.
Nineteen-Hundred-Eighty-Five (Live) (Band on the Run (Archive Edition), 1973) While the album version from Band on the Run is lovely, the live piano and vocal from the TV special One Hand Clapping remains the defining performance.
Mama’s Little Girl (Red Rose Speedway (Archive Edition), 1973) There are few odes to fatherhood as shamelessly sweet as this delightful love song.
Love in the Open Air (The Family Way Soundtrack, 1967) Paul composed this “love theme” for the 1967 film The Family Way during preparation for Sgt. Pepper. There’s a young man’s touch to the romance here.
Nobody Knows (McCartney II, 1980) I love songs that stomp, and this one has a frenetic, street-musician feel and impudent attitude. Paul beating kookily on a tin of Jiffy Pop in the background helps.
The Pound is Sinking (Tug of War, 1982) IMO, this is the most unsettling song from Tug of War. The lyrics are inscrutable, but I hear the main theme as: the risks and rewards of thrill-seeking behavior.
Hey Diddle (Ram (Archive Edition), 1971) This is another soft, early Paul & Linda number, forever evoking farm animals and frolicking toddlers. I love that Paul views nursery rhymes simply, without trepidation or prejudice, as just another art form in which he can play.
Nothing Too Much Just Out of Sight (Electric Arguments, 2008) Another glimpse into the demonic side of Paul. Everything about this track is, in fact, electric. How is he playing all the instruments himself? How is he such a great “band”? How is he such a powerful musician? It’s all a bit disconcerting.
Palo Verde (Rushes, 1998) There is so much texture in this song from Rushes. Escapism and love and transcendence; several different stories, never boring.
Daytime Nighttime Suffering (Wingspan, 1979/2001) An overlooked classic from the final days of Wings. It is unbelievable how many surplus classics McCartney has lying around.
Arrow Through Me (Back to the Egg, 1979) This late-70s gem has gotten a lot of play lately, for obvious reasons: Killer lyrics, killer vocal and a bad-ass groove that makes you move.
Why So Blue (Memory Almost Full, 2007) Memory Almost Full is full of numbers like these: sophisticated pop numbers that deliver in all the right ways, with all the expectations you have from McCartney — his particular blend of making “the unexpected feel inevitable.”
Little Willow (Flaming Pie, 1997) This one is sad and soothing all at once. There’s grief, but lightness, too.
At the Mercy (Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, 2005) I often like songs that feel depressed, and several on Chaos and Creation fit that bill for me. There’s an emotional exhaustion to At the Mercy that is really gratifying. Occasionally it sounds like McCartney is sleep-walking through his work and I find it fascinating- that he continues to push through and create, no matter what. This song embodies that feeling to me; being half-awake and half-aware.
Nothing for Free (Egypt Station (Explorers’ Edition), 2018) Fame is a huge part of McCartney’s life and it’s always intriguing when he writes about it. (Also, this slaps)
She’s My Baby (Demo) (Wings at the Speed of Sound (Archive Edition), 1976) Paul wrote a slew of piano songs in the mid-70s and I like them a lot. You can hear how he draws from a variety of influences (early rock n’ roll, ragtime, jazz-n-blues) but still makes it his own.
Slidin’ (McCartney III, 2020) Damnit, he can still rock.
Back in Brazil (Egypt Station, 2018) I see this as a trilogy with “Ob-la-Di-Ob-La-Da” and “Waterspout”; the Girl-Meets-Boy, Happily Ever After stories. This one is best at portraying the shiny beginnings of the first phase of young love. The “Ichiban” cheers invoke Instagram and other social media to me -the glossy, sanitized way we project ourselves into the public sphere- in our globalist, post-modern world.
Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey (Ram, 1971) Another classic that didn’t fit into my six-hour documentary on McCartney. In many ways this encapsulates all the hallmarks of Paul McCartney: a mind-blowing amount of memorable hooks, dramatic tempo changes, sound effects, bizarre vocalizations, unforgettable lyrics, an inscrutable narrative, warm harmonies. And somehow… SOMEHOW… he turns all of that into something completely accessible and radio-friendly. That’s Paul.
Big Barn Bed (Red Rose Speedway, 1973) I still think this is one of Early Wings’ best numbers and it still sounds fresh and original.
Find My Way (McCartney III, 2020) This could be right at home on Beck’s Odelay. Very creative drums/beats from Paul. The last minute is such a powerful and enjoyable flex, just Paul showing off his amazing instrumental and compositional skills (at nearly 80 years old). He wrote the book on how to do layered, poppy electronica. He is the OG.
Dominoes (Egypt Station, 2018) A song like this really gives the impression that Paul has finally figured out how to be happy. I don’t know if it’s true. I hope it is.
Have you read the article about Understanding McCartney and the interview with P.B. Conte?
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