Paul McCartney’s Solo Masterpieces: 7 Albums That Define His Post-Beatles Career

Had he never played or uttered another note after The Beatles broke up, Paul McCartney’s musical career would still loom staggeringly large in rock and pop history. But McCartney soldiered on and became one of the most successful artists of the five decades-plus since The Fab Four’s last goodbye. Credit goes to his willingness to travel down new musical paths, his reluctance to bask in past success, and, of course, his immense talent. Along the way, he released albums that scaled the same kinds of heights as those reached by his former group. Here are his seven post-Beatles masterpieces.

1. Ram (1971)

Credited to Paul and his wife Linda McCartney, Ram captures McCartney getting a bit more intricate than the homemade vibe of his first post-Beatles effort, 1970s McCartney. The album was dismissed by many critics still reeling from The Beatles’ breakup, but more recent appraisals have deemed it one of Macca’s very best. The big hit was the inventive song suite “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” but that kind of imagination is found all over the record’s lesser-known tracks, including the hilariously deranged “Monkberry Moon Delight” and the lushly melodic “Dear Boy.” The album-opening “Too Many People” was a thinly-veiled swipe at his old buddy John Lennon, which famously led to Lennon’s even more vicious “How Do You Sleep?” But Ram is mostly filled with warm-hearted moments, alongside heaping helpings of McCartney’s virtuosity.

2. Band on the Run (1973)

McCartney’s early years with Wings featured several hit singles but two uneven albums. As he was set to head to Nigeria to make the band’s third record, two band members quit, leaving just Paul, Linda, and Denny Laine. Paul even lost demo tapes and lyric notes when he was robbed at knifepoint once on location. But he and his two cohorts rose to the occasion with the best album in the decade-long history of Wings. The title track matches some of The Beatles’ most ambitious song suites. Band on the Run also features McCartney at his rocking best on songs like “Helen Wheels” and “Jet.” Don’t sleep on Side Two either, especially when you consider the lovely folk of “Mamunia” and the wildly inventive “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five.”

3. Tug of War (1982)

All eyes were on McCartney for his first album release following the death of John Lennon in 1980. He turned to some old friends to help him out, with George Martin producing and Ringo Starr drumming on three tracks (not to mention appearances by Stevie Wonder, Carl Perkins, and ex-Wing Denny Laine.) But what truly carried the album was Paul’s finest set of songs since Band on the Run. The title track is a melancholy wonder, “Take It Away” is pop at its most effortlessly sophisticated, and“Wanderlust” shows that Macca’s touch with ballads was still pinpoint. “Ebony and Ivory” may have been simplistic, but it was well-intended, and it proved to be a monster smash for Wonder and McCartney. The Kleenex moment comes when he delivers “Here Today,” backed with Martin’s orchestration, and wonders what his departed Beatle buddy might have to say.

4. Flowers in the Dirt (1989)

The argument can be made that McCartney’s best post-Beatles work often came about with the help of a strong-willed collaborator. In the case of Flowers in the Dirt, Elvis Costello, a card-carrying member of the Beatle fan club, provided the spark. Although he only co-wrote four of the dozen songs, Costello seemed to inspire Paul out of the doldrums that had bedeviled his career throughout the middle of the ’80s. Three of the Costello co-writes are among the album’s standouts: the buoyantly melodic “My Brave Face,” the hilarious duet of one-upmanship “You Want Her Too,” and the towering gothic ballad “That Day Is Done.” Elsewhere, McCartney delivers one of his toe-tapping acoustic beauties in “Put It There” and sounds more at ease than he had in years on mid-tempo gems like “This One” and “Figure of Eight.”

5. Flaming Pie (1997)

McCartney’s best album of the ’90s was aided by the production assistance of Jeff Lynne on half of the 14 tracks. Lynne had worked on the “Threetles” songs just a few years before, and he lends his trademark pixie dust here on the woozy psychedelia of “The World Tonight,” the nonsensical but fun “Flaming Pie,” the nostalgic “The Song We Were Singing,” and the heartbreakingly beautiful “Little Willow.” But this is another case where the success of the album is based largely on McCartney’s songwriting. Beautiful love songs like “Somedays” and “Calico Skies” hit hard upon the album’s release, but carried an even deeper resonance when Linda McCartney, the inspiration for those and so many other McCartney love songs, passed away the following year.

6. Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005)

If you’re looking for the most underrated McCartney record, this should be first on your list. (And the stunning beauty “Jenny Wren,” found on this record, might be his most underrated song.) In this case, McCartney enlisted Nigel Godrich, who had gained his reputation working with buzz bands like Radiohead and Travis. McCartney was candid in interviews after the fact about how the two occasionally clashed, but the end result is one of the moodiest, prettiest albums of the man’s career. Looking back, one might suspect that the darker undertones found in the lyrics of songs like “Riding To Vanity Fair” might have been inspired by McCartney’s marriage to second wife Heather Mills (the two would separate just a year after the album’s release.)

7. New (2013)

It seems like a decade can’t go by without McCartney coming through with at least one record that reminds you of his unparalleled brilliance. While the 2010s were pretty strong as a whole for him, both as a recording and touring artist, New stands out. It’s one of those Macca records with a little bit of everything to show off his versatility: baroque pop (“New”), rollicking rock (“Save Us”), and nostalgic balladry (“Early Days”). Working with a variety of hot producers (including Mark Ronson and George Martin’s son Gilles), he proved that he can still show the young singer-songwriters and rockers of the era how it’s done.

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