This week we released A MusiCares® Tribute to Paul McCartney, a star-studded tribute concert (including Sir Paul himself) featuring some of the ex-Beatle's most-loved hits. It got me thinking about how, in a career more legendary than most musicians could even dream of, there are inevitably top-notch songs that get comparatively lost in a mountain of classic singles.
True, songs like "Hey Jude" and "Yesterday" very much deserve heaps of praise and global recognition. But what about all the songs you probably won't hear on the radio, yet are still great? When your deep album cuts would be the lead single for most other artists, you know you have some serious talent. So while it's thankless task to pick only a handful of examples from such an sprawling catalog, here are 10 excellent-yet-underrated Paul McCartney songs—mostly from his Beatles years, but with a couple from his solo repertoire as well.
P.S. I Love You
This song was released as the B-side to the Beatles' first single, "Love Me Do." While most people know the A-side well, in many ways "P.S. I Love You" is the better song, with a more interesting melody and a very early example of Paul & friends toying with unconventional-to-rock chord progressions. Experimentation would become a bit of a hallmark for that band, so "P.S. I Love You" was a harbinger of great things to come.
I've Just Seen a Face
"Hey, we're the biggest rock and roll band in the world, what should we put on the next record?"
"How about a bluegrass song?"
Well, it would pretty much be bluegrass if it had a banjo and a fiddle, but instead "I've Just Seen a Face" is just an amazingly infectious, country-inspired album track often overshadowed by the singles.
The Night Before
Also from Help!, "The Night Before" is a fairly straightforward rock song, but with gut-wrenching lyrics of disbelief at being used and unceremoniously dropped by a person the narrator thought he genuinely connected with. Also a great example of the call-and-response vocals that the Beatles did so effortlessly.
For No One
Why is this song so great? Because the lyrics are downright depressing as hell. For a guy who made a name for himself as a cheery, lovestruck optimist, when McCartney went sad, he went really sad.
Fixing a Hole
There may not be another Beatles album (aside from Abbey Road, perhaps) were McCartney's star shined brighter than on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Sure, John Lennon contributed a few classics, but even his best track—"A Day in the Life"—had a significant contribution from Paul. Full of eerie chord progressions, soaring melodies and playful lyrics, "Fixing a Hole" is a good example of how even Macca's lesser-played album tracks were something special compared to many of his contemporaries.
Martha My Dear
Here we have a perfect example of McCartney's formidable skills as both songwriter and musician: he combines odd time signatures, tricky piano patterns and a throwback musical style into a catchy pop song that sounds deceptively simple despite its complexities. He also plays all the instruments on this track (aside from the horn and string arrangement). Oh, it's also about his dog, so there's that.
I've Got a Feeling
Every once in a while, Paul just wanted to let 'er rip and belt one out. Like, really belt one out. The results were songs like "Oh! Darling," "Helter Skelter" and "I've Got a Feeling," the latter a song that may not quite have had the substance to stand out on Let It Be next to all-time favorites like the title track and Lennon's "Across the Universe," but it's a winner based on pure, visceral delivery alone.
Two of Us
Is there a better duet in the Beatles' catalog? Paul and John teamed up on many tracks, but "Two of Us" is one of the few examples of both singers being on equal ground throughout the duration of a song and feeling, thanks in no small part to the lyrics, like true team spirit.
The End + Her Majesty
Yes, "The End" is the coda of an epic medley on the second side of Abbey Road and "Her Majesty"—which was originally smack dab in the middle said epic medley—isn't even 25 seconds long. Together, they should add up to less than one song, but here's the thing: in "The End," McCartney perfectly summed up the entire career of the Beatles in a single line. Then, even after that exclamation mark was placed on the end of the band's legendary run, they tacked on "Her Majesty," which takes nothing away from that perfect ending and it's also one of the catchiest and fullest-feeling thirty-second songs ever made. Go figure the Beatles could pull that one off.
When you've been around as long as Paul has, your discography becomes, well, extensive. And when you're as successful as he is, there comes a point when you don't really have to try anymore if you don't want to. That's what made Chaos and Creation in the Backyard and its lead-off track "Fine Line" so notable: even after all his years of success, Macca was still willing to (successfully) try new things. With the help of producer Nigel Godrich, McCartney managed to get out of his comfort zone and expand his musical boundaries late in his career while keeping his pop craftsmanship intact.
"New" harkens back to the Beatles sound while not feeling like a rehash, and it underscores the astonishing-yet-simple fact that McCartney, now a stately septuagenarian, is still able to effortlessly crank out super-catchy pop songs decades after his "prime" years. We get it, Paul: you're really, really good.