Paul McCartney is turning 80, so naturally we ranked his 80 best songs
That Paul McCartney is a musical genius is indisputable.
But just how gifted he is as a musician and songwriter might not truly become evident until you accept the ludicrous task of ranking 80 of his best songs in honor of his 80th birthday on Saturday.
Let’s just say that if the man lived to 200 and people attempted to classify that number of compositions, they would still have an unwieldy task.
McCartney isn’t just a prolific songwriter; he’s an astoundingly consistent phenomenal songwriter. And anyone who has witnessed his current Got Back tour knows that he also still clearly revels in playing 30-plus nuggets from his catalog at every show, grinning through “Live and Let Die,” storytelling before “Blackbird,” giddily leading the singalong on “Hey Jude.”
His joy for music is infectious and for that, we thank him.
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So here is an imperfect list of 80 of our favorites from The Beatles, Wings and his solo catalog. Songs that he wrote that became hits for others (such as Badfinger’s "Come and Get It" and Elvis Costello’s “Veronica”) weren’t included. And for those Beatles songs co-written with John Lennon, if McCartney included them in his book, “The Lyrics,” they were under consideration.
So happy birthday, Sir Paul. You make your brilliance look so easy.
This duet with Stevie Wonder – a first for McCartney with another major artist – is much maligned because of its simplified ode to racial harmony. But it’s hard to fault McCartney’s intentions – or the song’s easily digestible tunefulness.
Possessing more of a rock edge, the single from “Off the Ground” was a minor hit in Germany, but is best known for the origin of its title: McCartney and wife Linda were discussing cameras and their phrases “I like a Leica” and “I like a Nikon” merged into a story about a girl who liked a biker…like an icon.
The topic of how to pick someone up at a party isn’t novel, but McCartney turns the notion into an engaging challenge, buoyed by a stomping, uncomplicated chorus.
Kraftwerk-esque electronic elements color the song with an almost incomprehensible sound for a McCartney effort. But – and this is why it squeaked onto the list – it can be considered a bold zigzag that, in retrospect, is at least interesting.
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McCartney aimed to duplicate the DIY format of his first album with “McCartney III,” his most recent release. While his voice might have more warble to it, his ability to turn the bucolic into something infinitely listenable is still formidable.
A sparse backdrop – Fender Rhodes electric piano and eventual acoustic guitar – paired with layered vocals, this underrated ballad from “McCartney II” is yet another indication of the man’s inimitable ability to make even the small things sound grand.
So unfussy that a child could easily sing along, the other side of Wings’ “Hi Hi Hi” single – in the key of C, of course – follows the same lite-reggae format as its companion, with xylophone!
Based on a game McCartney played as a child, the chant-along chorus is infectious on its own, but the rest of the song is indicative of a genius of melody whose touch remained deft 60 years into a career.
With harmonizing reminiscent of Crosby, Stills & Nash, the B-side to “Goodnight Tonight” is a feast of poppy synths and raspy high-hats.
“As long as you and I are here, put it there,” goes the chorus of this acoustic guitar-fronted testimony of the strength of a mere handshake, wrapped in delicacy and finesse.
The lead single from “Pipes of Peace,” this second pairing with Michael Jackson (they teamed for the Jackson-written “The Girl is Mine” in 1982), lopes along on a lightly funky shuffle beat under the pristine production by George Martin.
From Wings’ “Red Rose Speedway” album, the six-plus-minute gentle folk ballad is often connected to McCartney’s switch to vegetarianism. In addition, it’s enchanting.
Injected with layers of percussion to provide a soft Latin touch, the “Off the Ground” single isn’t among McCartney’s most musically challenging songs, but its message of optimism never fades.
A bit like Elton John’s “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” this medley of two songs taken from the “Venus and Mars” album is a delectable melding of woodsy folk that escalates into a four-on-the-floor rocker.
The B-side to “A Hard Day’s Night” has since been described by McCartney as “future nostalgia.” Which means he’d probably like a chat with Dua Lipa.
Paired with “C Moon” (see No. 74), the uncomplicated rock song is often remember for being banned by the BBC for supposed sexually suggestive lyrical content.
A modest hit from the “Flaming Pie” album deserves a deeper listen for its combination of a serrated guitar riff, musical and vocal contributions from Jeff Lynne and astute lyrics (“I go back so far, I'm in front of me”).
A massive hit in the UK for good reason – the Wings strummer is a love letter to the Kintyre peninsula in Scotland, locale of McCartney’s haven, the remote High Park Farm. Bagpipes lend not only authenticity, but wistful glory.
Utilizing the guitar-plucking style employed on “Blackbird,” as well as a duduk played by Pedro Eustache, the tender acoustic ballad is supposedly named for the character of the same name in Charles Dickens’ novel, “Our Mutual Friend.”
Penned in tribute to McCartney’s Old English Sheepdog, Martha, the piano-heavy selection from “The White Album” is often tied to The Beatles’ inner-band turmoil at the time, as McCartney played all of the instruments on the tune.
A valentine to beloved wife Linda that could be seen as a companion to “Maybe I'm Amazed.” Except the unfettered devotion in the latter is replaced by swooping strings and a gushy chorus that merely offer an antiseptic veneer.
Noteworthy because it’s McCartney’s debut single following the Beatles’ breakup in 1970, and was therefore instantly dissected with microscopic precision. Often dismissed as trite, the song actually unveils a vivid portrait of sadness (“Alone in her apartment she'd dwell/'til the man of her dreams comes to break the spell”).
Issued as a double A-side with “Day Tripper,” the jangly pop submission is another exemplary example of the equilibrium between McCartney (supposedly writing about then-girlfriend Jane Asher) and Lennon (more interested in mortality with his “life is very short” contribution).
Not that McCartney needed another vehicle for his unparalleled bass playing, but the disco-funk he crafted not only ideally fit its era, but did so with percussive panache.
With its heavy bass intro meshed with electric piano, the lightly funky inclusion on Wings’ “Back to the Egg” album is enticingly scattershot, with horns and a clavinet providing an R&B vibe.
A genial selection from McCartney’s “Memory Almost Full” album finds its sweet spot in the chorus (“the things I think I did” quickly lodges in your brain), but also finds him embracing nostalgia (“Looking back It went by/it went by, in a flash”) wrapped in an warm synth-pop blanket.
The title track from McCartney’s 11th post-Beatles album captures him in a vulnerable state, realizing over a sublime orchestral arrangement and striking horns that there will always be “pushing, pushing/pulling, pulling.”
McCartney’s semi-secret side project with Killing Joke bassist Youth– their album “Electric Arguments” the root – spawned this ethereal loveliness with echo-y vocals and a chorus so exquisite, it would make Coldplay shudder.
Initially released as the B-side to “Pipes of Peace,” the sweet ballad spotlighting McCartney’s falsetto later landed on his 1984 “Give My Regards to Broad Street” soundtrack.
Another from the Paul is Eternal Optimist canon that is so earnest, his idealistic lyrical declarations almost overshadow the prominent synthesizers that paint the swirly splendor of the song.
Is the song lightweight? Yes. Indicative of McCartney’s desire to stay on the charts (i.e., commercial)? Sure. But it’s also unfairly maligned because Macca is completely in on the ridiculously catchy joke. And what’s wrong with that? I’d like to know.
Handclaps and stinging electric guitar are complemented by a sweet chorus, its “la la la’s” giving the song the weightless vibe it strives to project.
The potent piano chords that open the song endow it with energy, but lyrically, the final track on Wings’ “Band on the Run” album subscribes to the same theme of emotional claustrophobia as the title track.
Anyone who thinks McCartney’s edges have dulled with age need give this nearly seven-minute epic a spin. One of the final tracks on “Egypt Station” is as layered and musically complex as anything The Beatles’ created in their most inventive period, while offering pointed commentary on global warming and politics.
Some (ahem) may find the repetition and overt minimalism of the lyrics annoying, but that same person will concede that the guitar riff is an undeniable earworm.
Among the pack of songs co-written with Elvis Costello for 1989’s “Flowers in the Dirt” album, this beauty opens with a constellation of harmony vocals that lead the song – with its especially Costello-ish bridge – down its poppy path.
Between the intricate guitar work from George Harrison and Lennon and a set of double-tracked vocals, a new sound in 1960s British pop was born. For the trivia geeks: This was the opening song of The Beatles’ “Ed Sullivan Show” debut in February 1964.
Named for the Land Rover McCartney and Linda used to travel around Scotland, the guitar-rocker gives listeners the opportunity to travel the countryside with the pair with nods to Liverpool, Birmingham and London along the way.
Keep this in mind whenever you read anything about McCartney: He wrote this song when he was about 14. As in years old. As in, that is an insane amount of foresight, even for this guy.
41. ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ (1963)
The first U.S. No. 1 for The Beatles captures them in their wide-eyed, bowl-haircut youth, cheerfully nodding their heads as they proclaim their innocent intention.
Another co-write with Elvis Costello from the underappreciated “Off the Ground” album is a gorgeous waltz paired with devastating lyrics about a woman in a passion-devoid relationship.
39. ‘Listen to What the Man Said’ (1975)
The gliding soft-rocker – a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 for Wings – is also a creamy love song with memorable lyrical imagery (“soldier boy kisses girl/leaves behind a tragic world”).
38. ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ (1967)
Perhaps more of a genuine Lennon-McCartney collaboration – and sung by Ringo Starr – the swaying avowal of camaraderie is a delightful arrangement of shifting time patterns and singalong-ability.
Another iconic guitar opening from early-era Beatles leads into a perfect permutation of double-tracked vocals and a phrase/chorus that has insinuated itself into the lexicon.
Not the only Beatles song about sex, but perhaps the most subtle.
Part of McCartney’s new wave/disco phase of the times that initially included sped-up vocals. But in the U.S., the live version – with normal vocals – became the No. 1 hit, much like “Maybe I’m Amazed.”
Back in the headlines due to McCartney using Lennon’s isolated vocal tracks to duet with him on his current tour, the blues-leaning rock song is a meshing of two unfinished tracks – McCartney’s “I’ve Got a Feeling” and Lennon’s “Everybody Had a Hard Year.”
Not many radio hits can claim success through the use of a doorbell chime, a vibraphone, flutes and a marching beat. As usual, McCartney scribbled all over the blueprint.
Naturally, Lennon reportedly despised the bouncy bop that borrowed heavily from Jamaican ska and utilized a phrase from Nigerian musician Jimmy Scott, a friend of McCartney’s. We’ll just call it lightweight fun.
The addition of a harpsichord infused the song with a baroque-pop sound that countered the relative apathy of the lyrics: “And it really doesn’t matter if I’m wrong or right/where I belong I’m right.”
To read McCartney’s various explanations about the song’s origins, it’s either about his and Linda’s Labrador puppy, a pony he owned at some point or meeting Linda’s father for the first time. So just enjoy the music.
Every time you hear this emotionally piercing heart-melter that McCartney wrote following Lennon’s shocking murder, you’ll be moved to share your own affirmations of love with the most important friends in your life.
Recorded during the “Magical Mystery Tour” film sessions, the seesawing ballad was deeply motivated by The Beatles’ meditation teacher, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a guru who McCartney felt suffered unfair detractors.
The squishy bass line leads into Ringo Starr’s identifiable drumming and a surprising blast of horns, urging the song from a midtempo head-nodder to a comfortable gallop.
The narrative of parents realizing their daughter had absconded in the early-morning hours is a lyrical heartache, but one that McCartney (with a vocal assist from Lennon) delivers with reflective sensitivity.
Written primarily by McCartney, the sunshiny “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” offering nonetheless thoroughly exemplifies the contrasting personalities of McCartney and Lennon with the former endlessly positive (“I’ve got to admit, it’s getting better/a little better all the time”) and Lennon chiming in the background with the cynical, “It can’t get no worse.”
An unlikely hit given its piecemeal arrangement, vocal effects and bird chirps. But its inventiveness helped earn McCartney’s first Grammy Award as a solo artist (best arrangement accompanying vocalists in 1971).
Lyrically brutal (“And in her eyes you see nothing/no sign of love behind the tears”), the emotional blow is cushioned by the mesmerizing cadence.
McCartney’s storytelling instincts are on point as he delivers another set of characters to envision (the poker man, the Eskimo, the grocer) while prodding us to join what sounds like an incredible party on Junior’s farm.
Accented by a spotless guitar solo from Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, the centerpiece of the “Give My Regards to Broad Street” soundtrack is part hopeful prayer (“May I never miss the thrill/of being near you”) and part open-hearted pledge (“You’re my guiding light/day or night I’m always there”).
A bit of psychedelia, a cache of trumpets and a dollop of cheesy razzle-dazzle (The Beatles starred in a TV movie of the same name). But it’s still irresistible.
Fervent piano with a boogie-woogie vibe and lyrics that subtly nod to McCartney’s mother, Mary, a midwife during his childhood, provide one of the most R&B-leaning offerings from The Beatles.
Now regarded for the eardrum-popping pyro that accompanies the live rendition – which McCartney is still performing – the oft-covered symphonic rocker could have become the first James Bond theme to win an Oscar but lost to Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were.”
At just over two minutes, the mostly instrumental platform would barely be a blip for most bands. But when you’re The Beatles, your song can contain a single lyric and it’s worthy of being etched in perpetuity: “The love you take is equal to the love you make.”
A clever, zippy power popper that also prominently features McCartney’s bass as the song whooshes by in a heady rush.
The words of comfort written for a young, gloomy Julian Lennon have become the definitive singalong at McCartney’s live shows. But also, it’s seven-plus minutes of grand piano supplemented by the most famous coda this side of “Layla."
Those who watched The Beatles’ “Get Back” documentary will recall their jaws dropping as the essence of the song tumbled out of McCartney’s head, eventually being fashioned into the sprinting guitar-rocker that would live in music lore.
The brooding opening adeptly captures the impending dread of feeling cornered (“if we ever get outta here”) before a sunburst of acoustic guitar and sublime chorus carry us through the great escape.
Both the opening track to the album of the same name and its groove-infested reprise are a gleeful dismantling of traditional song structure. Instrumental bridges mesh with refrains which bump into verses and it’s all a glorious sound.
It’s no secret that McCartney says he was inspired by The Beach Boys’ equally soul-gripping “God Only Knows” when he wrote this delicate musical poem about realizing what you have, when you have it.
Musically inspired by Bach’s lute piece “Bourrée in E minor” and lyrically inspired by the civil rights struggle in the U.S., the tranquil guitar ballad remains a metaphoric stunner.
Released a month after The Beatles’ breakup, the soaring piano ballad – a kin to “Let it Be” – finds McCartney in a particularly pensive mode, whether referencing the Phil Spector orchestrated version or the more straightforward original.
8. ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ (1966)
McCartney explains in “The Lyrics” that the song so many of us have digested as a pleading, you-make-my-life-complete sentiment is actually his ode to discovering marijuana.
The Beatles’ final single before McCartney departed for a solo career, its grandiosity cannot be overstated. It’s also the only known Beatles song to feature backing vocals from Linda McCartney.
The clip-clopping rhythm is an ideal balance to lyrics that are honeyed but never cloying (“And when at last I find you/your song will fill the air/sing it loud so I can hear you”).
One of the most covered songs in music history (the tally is more than 2,200), the aching lament McCartney has said came to him in a dream remains classic due to its sparseness and honesty.
McCartney’s flair for character creation creates a palpable melancholy as he sings about a lonely old woman laid to rest by an equally lonely minister (Father McKenzie). The sawing strings only add to its bleak beauty.
While obviously the lyrical sentiment contains romantic implications, the veritable love affair is really between McCartney and Lennon, their friendship and creative partnership an enviable match.
Forget about the astute narration (barbershops, bankers and roundabouts). Don’t even pay much attention to the heavenly pop melody. Listen to the supple bass line, which dances throughout the song as its own character.
Initially released on his 1970 self-titled solo album, the apex of McCartney’s luminosity arrived years later on Wings’ live “Wings Over America” album, when the song became a hit. The original is a gratifying valentine. But this live version unleashes McCartney, who comes undone with ragged, feral vocals that will rearrange your molecules as he bares his utter devotion.