By the time the Beatles broke up in 1970, the four members had already started work on their respective solo debuts. John Lennon produced the raw, vulnerable, critically lauded Plastic Ono Band. George Harrison's monumental All Things Must Pass sprawled over three vinyl records. Ringo knocked out two LPs within the span of five months — one a collection of jazz standards, the other a country album he cut in Nashville.
Paul McCartney's solo debut, simply titled McCartney, was the most modest of the lot, a series of doodles and improvs whose release coincided with a press release officially confirming his departure from the Beatles. It was the first public acknowledgment that the most successful band of all time had called it quits, and it unfairly marked McCartney as the true saboteur behind the Fab Four's demise (in fact, Lennon had privately "divorced" himself from the band the previous year).
But McCartney's career continued unabated, and his 25th studio LP, McCartney III, hits digital platforms next week. Like we recently did with Bruce Springsteen's discography, we're culling Sir Paul's post-Beatles output down to his 10 best studio LPs — and yes, the Wings albums will be included in the mix.
10. McCartney II (1980)
The great sore thumb of McCartney's catalog, a sporadically brilliant swipe at new wave experimentation that's full of blippy electronic sequencing and caterwauling synths. Its most tedious moments sound like Paul randomly pressing buttons on his Moog to see what kind of noises they make, but its highlights — the Talking Heads pastiche "Coming Up," the jittery nonsense of "Temporary Secretary" — sure are high.
9. Egypt Station (2018)
McCartney has always tried to stay hip to new sounds — he recorded a hit with Kanye and Rihanna, after all — which has naturally resulted in the occasionally embarrassing old-man moment. So there are certainly a couple face-palm moments on his most recent release Egypt Station (even the title of the single "Fuh You" is a bit cringey), but it's otherwise solid and sonically diverse, featuring some of his best late-period compositions.
8. Venus & Mars (1975)
The critical establishment never stopped thumbing its nose at McCartney's supergroup Wings, which featured he and his wife Linda, guitarist Denny Laine and a revolving roster of side musicians. But their chart-topping soft-rock mostly holds up today, and this bestseller is shot through with some welcome eccentricity, blending arena-ready anthems with McCartney's penchant for department-store pop, old-timey vaudeville and skiffle.
7. Tug of War (1982)
McCartney was mere days into recording Tug of War when John Lennon was murdered, and it changed the course of the album. As if to recapture the spirit of his most successful collaborations, McCartney enlisted Beatles producer George Martin and Ringo Starr, and penned the lovely Lennon tribute "Here Today," now a live staple. Those moments are so bittersweet that I'm willing to forgive the album for closing with the awful Stevie Wonder duet "Ebony and Ivory."
6. Back to the Egg (1979)
Wings' swan song has long been considered the definitive flop of the band's discography, but Back to the Egg actually isn't bad at all. In fact, it's damn good. Originally intended as a loose concept record about the travails of touring, it fell apart right along with the band, and you can hear the wear and tear in McCartney's ragged vocals. The pompous production can't disguise his fatigue, but he still manages to sneak in a bunch of terrific songs, including the power-pop gem "Getting Closer."
5. McCartney (1970)
Most of the tracks on McCartney's official solo debut are a tad on the flimsy side, but it remains a fascinating snapshot of his feelings of loss and betrayal at the time. Reeling from the dissolution of the Beatles and isolated in his Scottish country home, McCartney's distinctly DIY aesthetic ended up influencing a score of lo-fi and bedroom recordings, and standouts include the soaring ballad "Maybe I'm Amazed" (a McCartney signature) and the lovely, whimsical "Junk."
4. Flaming Pie (1997)
Like every other over-the-hill rocker in the '90s, McCartney called on Jeff Lynne for production help on his 10th LP, and the ELO svengali's distinctly plasticine style is all over Flaming Pie, which gets its name from an old John Lennon joke. This is where you really hear Paul finally and comfortably leaning into his role as aging rock legend, and the easy sentiment and seasoned confidence of these songs earned him his best reviews in years and reinvigorated his solo career.
3. Chaos and Creation
in the Backyard (2005)
I may be overrating this album a bit due to nostalgia, since it came out when I was a teenager and really struck a chord at the time. With Nigel Godrich, best known for working with Radiohead, at the production helm, sessions for Chaos nearly spanned the length of McCartney's brief, much-publicized marriage to Heather Mills, capturing the peaks and troughs of a disintegrating relationship. This is another of McCartney's "I played everything" albums, and yet it's hardly indulgent, a string of gentle, even playful songs befitting the cover image of a teenage McCartney practicing guitar in his parents' garden.
2. Band on the Run (1973)
'73 was a good year for Wings: They scored a No. 1 hit with "My Love," and their Bond theme "Live and Let Die" became an instant franchise highlight. That year also produced their third LP, Band on the Run, which would turn out to be not only their finest hour but one of the very best Beatles solo albums. First and foremost, it's a showcase for McCartney's superpower for crafting slick radio hits — the epic title tune was a chart topper, while the ever-accelerating "Jet" and the chugging "Helen Wheels" cracked the Billboard Top 10 — but it's also a glimpse into his harried mental space at the time. Its songs convey a sense of displacement, of parties that have gone on too long, of artists in the throes of obsolescence, and yet all that desperation is stowed away in the Trojan horse of sunny hooks and instantly hummable melodies.
1. Ram (1971)
As was the case with most of McCartney's early solo output, contemporary critics despised Ram. Rolling Stone slammed it as "monumentally irrelevant," while self-appointed rock dean Robert Christgau called the album's No. 1 single "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" a "major annoyance." McCartney's former bandmates even badmouthed the record to the press — even Ringo! — no doubt a knee-jerk response to lyrics that not-so-covertly dripped with contempt for them ("You took your lucky break and broke it in two," McCartney sniffs on album opener "Too Many People," an obvious dig at Lennon's unceremonious departure from the Beatles). But time has been kind to Ram: It's one of the best singer-songwriter albums of its era, quirky and unpredictable and even a bit naughty, filled with weird little detours into foot-stomping country, dance-hall jaunts and raucous blues. Credited to both Paul and Linda, the record radiates the freedom they must have felt throwing everything they had at the studio walls and seeing what stuck. A lot of it does, and it remains McCartney's finest solo collection, '70s critics be damned. ♦