There's little that can be said about Paul McCartney that hasn't been uttered before. But as he turns 70 today, June 18, he continues to assert his status as one of music's most revered individuals, an elder statesman who's influenced practically every artist who's followed in his footsteps, regardless of any genre. Never mind the fact that Sir Paul and the Beatles literally changed the course of popular music for all time, creating songs that have not only stood the test of time but achieved a rarified immortality.
Even so, Sir Paul continues to be misunderstood and even criticized in some quarters. There are those who think of him as better suited to lightweight pop, silly love songs that have, at one time or another, even included a redo on "Mary Had a Little Lamb" (an early single) and such superfluous entries as "Bip Bop," "Mumbo," and "Big Barn Bed." The disparity sometimes seems mind-blowing, given that this pap stands alongside some of the greatest songs of the twentieth century - "Yesterday," "Hey Jude," "Let It Be," "Michelle," and "The Long and Winding Road," among them.
That a man can create such monumental works of art, and then turn in such inconsequential examples of mediocrity seems somewhat unfathomable to say the least. Still, it's simply not true what some have said, that McCartney was the fluffy lightweight that resided in John Lennon's shadow. Despite Lennon's reputation as the edgiest member of the quartet, and the fact that Paul was saddled with purveying wimpier fare -- due in large part to the Vaudevillian echoes of "When I'm Sixty Four," "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," and "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da" -- he was also responsible for the band's most resilient rockers - "Back in the USSR," "Helter Skelter," and "Birthday," among others.
That wide divide continued to characterize Macca's output with Wings and well beyond into his solo years. Great albums often gave way to some of his more forgettable, although much of his catalogue falls somewhere in-between. Admittedly, he's hampered by expectations that somehow he should be able to reclaim his earlier peaks with the Beatles, but as time goes by, it's obvious that only by replaying his oldies in concert will he come close to replicating his glorious youth.
Ultimately, several McCartney albums deserve to reap praise on their own merits, but have also managed to remain underrated. To clear things up on all accounts, here are our thoughts on what ranks as the best of McCartney, what exemplifies his worst, and what constitutes his middle ground.
McCartney (1970) - Paul's first full post Beatles album is entirely homegrown, recorded at his farm in Scotland with Macca providing his own accompaniment. While several of the songs were written in the twilight of the Beatles years, it did boast some undeniable classics -- "Maybe I'm Amazed" and "Every Night" among them.
Ram (1971) - The only album officially credited to Paul and his missus Linda, Ram seemed to emulate the Beatles' knack for flowery arrangements and the band's penchant for elaborate song structure. Recently reissued, it seems to have grown even better in retrospect.
Band on the Run (1973) - With Wings fully in the fold, this ranks as Paul's first undisputed masterpiece and the source of several standards that are played in concert even today, including the title track "Jet" and "Let Me Roll It."
Venus and Mars (1975) - One of the few times Macca actually achieved an able follow-up to an album of such high prominence, Venus and Mars was as rocking and resolute as its predecessor, boasting not a single dud in the bunch. Although it sometimes resides in the shadow of Band on the Run, it's equally exceptional in its own right.
Flowers in the Dirt (1989) - Nearly 15 years elapsed before Paul managed an album that boasted such a consistent set of songs, but with Flowers in the Dirt, he regained his mojo, courtesy of such entries as "My Brave Face" (courtesy of his inspired collaboration with Elvis Costello), the rocking "Figure of Eight," and the lovely ballad that serves well as Father's Day fodder "Put It There."
Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005) - Released the year after Paul turned that fateful age of 64, he was rebooting for the new millennium, beginning a renaissance that lasted throughout most of its first decade. A more introspective album, by his usual standards, its high point is the beautiful "Jenny Wren," a song that brings to mind earlier winged ballads like "Black Bird" and "Bluebird."
Memory Almost Full (2007) - Macca's best recording in nearly two decades, it boasts several immediate standouts in "Dance Tonight," "Only Mama Knows," and the most obviously autobiographical song of his entire canon, "That Was Me." Practically every track resonates long after its notes finally fade away.
Wings at the Speed of Sound (1976) - Standout tracks: "Let 'Em In," "Wino Junko," and -- dare we say -- "Silly Love Songs."
London Town (1978) - Standout tracks: "I've Had Enough," "London Town," and "With a Little Luck," one of Paulie's most energized efforts ever.
Tug of War (1982) - Standout tracks: "Take It Away," "Ballroom Dancing," and Paul's tender, touching tribute to his fallen friend Lennon, ""Here Today."
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Flaming Pie (1997) - Standout tracks: "Calico Skies," "The World Tonight," and the song whose title was nicked from Lennon's description of how the Beatles came to be, "Flaming Pie."
Driving Rain (2001) - Standout tracks: "From a Lover To a Friend" and "Driving Rain."
Wild Life (1971) - An ad hoc Wings attempts to take flight and fails miserably, thanks to a set of songs that sound incidental at best, throwaways at worst. Mostly worst, in fact.
Red Rose Speedway (1973) - At this point, Wings were still attempting to rev up, but sadly to little avail. Even the inclusion of the magnificent "My Love" can't salvage this regretable collection.
McCartney II (1980) - With Wings finally put to bed, Paul attempts to emulate the charm and spontaneity of the first namesake McCartney. Sadly though, there's not one hummable ditty here, making it only mildly worth the effort.