Before asking what Paul McCartney has done for us lately, it’s fair to ask: what does he really have to do for us? The Beatles changed music, pop culture and — some might argue — the world. Throughout the ’70s and into the ’80s, he was one of the most reliable hitmakers, on his own or with Wings. His status is beyond iconic, and he could sell out football stadiums without ever releasing a note of new music. And yet, he’s put out music at a pretty startling pace since 2000. Besides the typical pop-rock, he’s also done some collaborations with electronic artists that you may have missed, plus a few classical/operatic works. And a number of one-off tracks, which have shown some of his most rocking, and most tender moments of his career. In with the New (as in, his new album out today) is Macca’s philosophy right now, but we’re taking a look backwards to the not-so-distant past.
Driving Rain (2001)
Paul’s first rock album of original songs since Linda’s passing. It marked a new era for him: after this album, he returned to the road for the first time in about a decade. Guitarist Rusty Anderson and drummer Abe Laboriel Jr., who played on the album, have been in McCartney’s live band ever since. “Lonely Road” was one of his most impassioned performances in years, and “From A Lover To A Friend” one of his saddest. The album also featured the “hidden track,” “Freedom,” which Paul wrote after 9/11 and debuted at the Concert For New York City.
Critical Response: Generally warm. Rolling Stone gave it four stars, and Entertainment Weekly gave it a B.
Sales: Lukewarm. It went gold in the U.S.
What stuck: Not much. The title track, “Your Loving Flame” and “Lonely Road” haven’t been played live since 2003.
Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005)
By this point, Paul had been touring with his backing band for four years, establishing a strong bond with them. So when he hired Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich to work on the album, Godrich decided to take McCartney out of his comfort zone by dismissing the band. Most of the album is Paul playing all the instruments, as he had on his much-loved solo debut, McCartney.
Critical Response: Pretty good. Rolling Stone gave it four stars, calling it “the freshest sounding McCartney album in years,” and Entertainment Weekly gave it a B, saying that the album sees McCartney “honestly following his muse — always a compelling event.”
Sales: Lukewarm, again. It went gold in the U.S.
What stuck: “Fine Line” has been played live as recently as 2008.
Memory Almost Full (2007)
Like Chaos and Creation In The Backyard, Memory Almost Full was record predominantly by Paul alone. On a few songs, he used his longtime backing band of guitarists Brian Ray and Rusty Anderson, drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. and keyboardist Paul “Wix” Wickens, who’d been playing with him since 1989. The album’s highlight was mandolin-heavy single “Dance Tonight,” which saw Paul getting back on the U.S. pop charts after 10 years away.
Critical Response: Mixed: Entertainment Weekly gave it an A-, calling it his best album since 1989′s Flowers In The Dirt. The Guardian, on the other hand, gave it only two out of five stars, calling it “lumpishly heavy.” Rolling Stone gave it three stars, which is really saying something considering they’re generally one of McCartney’s biggest supporters.
Sales: Again, gold. See a pattern?
What stuck: “Dance Tonight” was in setlists as recent as last year.
Kisses On The Bottom (2012)
Paul takes on the Great American Songbook and puts nearly all his effort into singing: he plays a bit of acoustic guitar on the album, but for the most part, focuses just on being a vocalist. Most of the songs were covers, but the original “My Valentine” stands up to many of the man’s greatest ballads.
Critical Response: The Guardian gave it four out of five stars, while Rolling Stone gave it just three.
Sales: It has yet to go gold. It certainly didn’t have the impact of Rod Stewart’s dive into standards, but that’s what Paul gets for doing with a bit a class (even if it is a little snoozy).
What stuck: The album probably wasn’t meant to feed Paul’s setlists, but “My Valentine” still makes the setlist.
Liverpool Sound Collage (2000)
John Lennon always got the credit for being the avant-garde Beatle, while Paul was usually regarded as the more “pop” guy. That characterization is a bit unfair, and Paul has proved it various times in his post-Fab Four career, notably here. Artist Peter Blake asked Sir Paul to create an ambient work for an art opening (not such an odd request, as Paul had recorded two ambient works with former Killing Joke member Youth under the moniker The Fireman in the ’90s). Paul came back with this album, which sampled in-studio chatter by the Beatles, as well as a bit of Paul’s 1991 classical piece, Liverpool Oratorio. Youth collaborated with Paul on this, as did indie group Super Furry Animals. If Paul is “just” a “pop guy,” then he’s being about as pop as the Beatles’ “Revolution 9.” If you imagine that sound collage with beats, it’s kind of what this record is like.
Twin Freaks – Twin Freaks (2005)
A collaboration between Paul and DJ Freelance Hellraiser, who had opened Paul’s 2004 shows with a DJ set remixing Paul’s solo songs. They worked together on this album that fleshed out the concept a bit more. A very forward thinking effort from Paul, who doesn’t get enough credit for his dance music and ambient efforts. Sublime, and largely overlooked and/or ignored by his fans, since this was a “stealth” release with virtually no promotion. Most people have only heard these tracks during the video montage that precedes Paul’s recent concerts, played as people are taking their seats.
The Fireman – Electric Arguments 2008
The Fireman is McCartney’s occasional teaming with Killing Joke member Youth (who has also worked with U2 and the Verve), but this was the first one McCartney actually acknowledged that he worked on. For the two prior Fireman efforts, it was a poorly-kept secret that McCartney contributed to the instrumental tracks, but the cat was out of the bag when Macca opened his mouth the third time around. The album got good reviews nearly across the board, but of course suffered from the fact that it wasn’t an official “Paul McCartney” album. The glorious “Nothing Too Much Just Out Of Sight” sees him returning to “Helter Skelter,” while “Sing The Changes” really sounds more like a McCartney solo song than the rest of the album (and has actually made his setlists).
“Nova” from A Garland For Linda (2000)
Paul contributed an operatic piece to a classical tribute to his late wife, Linda McCartney. Both somber and sweet, it’s a lovely tribute; the album raised funds for the cancer-fighting organization the Garland Appeal.
Ecce Cor Meum – 2006
Another of Paul’s classical pieces, composed for an orchestra and choir. The classical music community will always see rock stars — even Paul McCartney — as dilettantes. AllMusic‘s classical critic got it right: “This grandiose, neo-Romantic work… would seem unbearably tedious were it not for the chains of attractive themes that are laced throughout, and the monumental structure would collapse under its ponderous weight were it not for the light, lyrical touches that hold it up.”
Ocean’s Kingdom (2011)
Paul returns to the classical world; this time, he wrote a piece for ballet. This project saw him collaborating with his daughter, fashion designer Stella, who designed the costumes for the production.
“Maybe Baby” from the Maybe Babysoundtrack (2000)
Paul returned to his rockabilly roots and partnered with Jeff Lynne for this Buddy Holly cover from the British film of the same name, starring Hugh Laurie. Paul frequently pays homage to the music that first inspired the Beatles; we’d highly recommend his 1999 covers album,Run Devil Run.
“That’s Alright Mama” from Good Rockin’ Tonight” The Legacy Of Sun Records (2001)
Paul, again, returns to his ’50s rock inspirations, this time joined by Elvis Presley’s sidemen, Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana, who played on the King’s original version of this song.
“I’m Partial To Your Abracadabra” from Brand New Boots And Panties: A Tribute To Ian Dury (2001)
Paul generously adds his name to a tribute to the legendary punk/new wave icon Ian Dury and is backed up by Dury’s band, the Blockheads. Dury’s contemporaries in The Clash may have chanted, “No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones!” but if punk rock’s class of ’77 ignored the former Beatle’s solo work, the feeling wasn’t mutual. Paul is clearly having a blast rocking out here.
“Vanilla Sky” from the Vanilla Sky soundtrack (2001)
A quiet, but psychedelic ditty that Paul wrote for the Cameron Crowe film of the same name; it wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Rubber Soul or Revolver.
“All Things Must Pass” from The Concert For George (2001)
One of Paul’s most moving performances; Paul plays the George Harrison solo classic that he and Lennon turned down. Paul also performed Harrison’s Beatles classic “Something” at the same show (and he’s played it at his concerts ever since), but this performance can break your heart.
“The Very Thought of You” from Tony Bennett’s Duets (2006)
Paul dueted with Tony Bennett on this 1930′s pop standard, foreshadowing his own Kisses On The Bottom.
“I Want To Walk You Home” from Goin’ Home: A Tribute To Fats Domino (2007)
On this tribute to another of Paul’s earliest influences, he teams up with New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint. Paul always sounds like he’s having a blast when he records this kind of material, and it’s a blast to listen to him do it. You can almost see Paul winking when he sings, “I want to hold your hand” in the song, as if he were saying, “Where’d you think we got that from?”
“(I Want To) Come Home” from the soundtrack to Everybody’s Fine (2009)
A lovely piano ballad. If you’re a director and you need a sentimental song for your film, you should hope Paul’s available.
“It’s So Easy” from Rave On Buddy Holly (2011)
Paul returns to the Buddy Holly well, again, with roof-raising results, stretching the song to twice it’s length, going four and a half minutes with it, including a false stops and breaks for rock and roll preaching (“I’m gonna come by your house! About eight o’clock tonight! Yeah, you better be ready honey!”).
“Cut Me Some Slack” – with Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear, from Sound City (2012)
After composing a ballet and singing Sinatra-esque standards, Macca thankfully got back into the “Helter Skelter” territory. Dubbed “Sir-vana,” the short-lived group — comprised of Paul and the surviving members of Nirvana — was one of the most rocking things Paul has done in any decade, showing that he isn’t slowing down any time soon.
“Out Of Sight” – Bloody Beetroots, Paul McCartney and Youth
Italian electro house duo Bloody Beetroots were working on a new project with Youth, who asked them to remix the Fireman track “Nothing Too Much Just Out Of Sight.” Youth looped in Paul to add new vocals, introducing him (again) to a new audience.
Sir Paul isn’t going to match the cultural impact of his ’60s work, or the chart performance of his ’70s and early ’80s songs. And while it requires some sifting, Paul’s post-2000 catalog has some great surprises and shows that he is still a great songwriter that you can never count out.
– Brian Ives, Radio.com