A great Paul McCartney album – from any era – must account for both his canny pop sensibilities and an underrated penchant for experimentalism.

Think Ram and Band on the Run, from his days with Wings. Turns out, McCartney's most recent albums contain more than enough material to construct a compilation of songs that mimic that creative sweep.

Going backward chronologically, we're able to get to a late-career triumph through just five contemporary studio records. Things got more interesting when we limited this new playlist to 12 songs and roughly 45 minutes, like classic vinyl releases of old.

Memory Almost Full and Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, consecutive solo albums from 2005 and 2007, respectively, are the original homes to six of our selected songs. There are also two tracks each from 2013's New and 2018's Egypt Station. These records featured his current working band, which ended up playing together longer than the Beatles or Wings.

McCartney began touring with Rusty Anderson, Abe Laboriel Jr., Brian Ray and Paul “Wix” Wickens in 2002, while supporting Driving Rain. Wix was a carryover from McCartney's '90s-era bands. Since then, the former Beatles star has worked consistently with the same backing quartet on the road, and it's contributed to McCartney’s studio efforts, as well. Anderson, Laboriel and Ray appeared on Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, and all four played on Memory Almost Full, New and Egypt Station.

The remaining two cuts come from 2008's Electric Arguments, McCartney's third collaboration with producer Youth – and the first to focus on pop and rock rather than dance music. And make no mistake, our perfect modern-era Paul McCartney album makes time to rock – beginning with its rumbling opening track.

SIDE ONE

1. "Only Mama Knows" (Memory Almost Full, 2007)

Embroiled in a very public divorce, Paul  McCartney might have been expected to do what Paul McCartney does: hide behind a pastiche pop facade and/or a series of homespun character studies. Certainly, that's what he did in the aftermath of splits with the Beatles and then Wings. Instead, McCartney plugged in for "Only Mama Knows," simply bulling his way through gauzy nostalgia. This muscular track went on to become a concert staple for McCartney's long-standing backup band.

2. "Dominoes" (Egypt Station, 2018)

An endearing career travelogue, "Dominoes" finds McCartney boldly reclaiming his own considerable legacy. He starts with a lithe acoustic riff that would have been at home on the White Album, then continues to build: There's the crackling cadence of his '80s albums, the enveloping background vocal style of his '70s work, a backward guitar straight out of the '60s. His lyric, about how one thing can unexpectedly lead to another, underscores this stirring musical journey. "Dominoes" then ends with a delicately conveyed, note-perfect line: "It's been a blast."

3. "Queenie Eye" (New, 2013)

What if the Beatles never broke up? By the '10s, they might have sounded something like "Queenie Eye." The ruminative orchestral opening, fizzy wordplay, nervy groove and processed vocal point like a streaking arrow back to late-'60s successes with producer George Martin. Yet the production feels completely of the moment. When "Queenie Eye" comes to a momentary pause, it's as if the dream-state reverie is complete. Then McCartney does what every Beatles trope says he should do: Start all over again, with a swirling chorus of vocals, a banging piano and a second sudden stop.

4. "Sing the Changes" (Electric Arguments, 2008)

McCartney sought to recapture a sense of childlike wonder on "Sing the Changes," and this privately released album helped him get there: With no due date, no glowering label big-wig and no expectations, McCartney found the wide-open spaces that characterize his best work as a songwriter. Just as importantly, however, he had Killing Joke bassist Martin Glover (aka "Youth") to examine those ideas, and to provide the appropriate counterpoint. McCartney sometimes needs either a governor or a kick-start – or both – and he got them from Youth.

5. "Jenny Wren" (Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, 2005)

This Grammy-nominated track recalls the finger-picking triumphs of "Blackbird" and "Calico Skies," allowing McCartney to explore his still-strong upper range on a lyric born of nature. Seems he found himself with a guitar overlooking this picturesque canyon scene. McCartney made an interesting sound, then recalled a character from Charles Dickens – one who shared the name of his favorite bird, a tiny, quite shy species – and allowed the instrument to guide him the rest of the way. "Jenny Wren" was completed later with the addition of an Armenian woodwind called a duduk.

6. "Vintage Clothes" (Memory Almost Full, 2007)

"Vintage Clothes" seemed to tap into the hippie narratives of McCartney's lengthy first marriage to the late Linda McCartney – and no one could blame him for feeling wistful for that era. Linda died after a cancer battle in the late '90s, and his next marriage was falling apart by the time McCartney set about completing Memory Almost Full. Certainly, the setup is vintage: McCartney navigates the song's unusual tempo changes behind a Mellotron, liberated from Abbey Road Studio. In fact, he used the same setting from the "Strawberry Fields Forever" sessions.

SIDE TWO

1. "Anyway" (Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, 2005)

There's a consistency in tone – of quietness, really – about this decidedly serious, mostly solo project that might lead to distraction for those enamored with McCartney's more obvious quirks. The album-closing ballad "Anyway" solves this issue, ending things on a more expected, orchestral-laden note. Everything feels familiar again, from a refrain that seems to recall the earlier "Little Willow" to a piano signature straight out of "People Get Ready." That puts a bow on one of the very best McCartney LPs of any era.

2. "New" (New, 2013)

Maybe the thing that was newest about New was how comfortable McCartney seemed in his own skin again, after a period spent singing the Great American Songbook. There are next-gen flourishes, principally in the production style, but thankfully this title track doesn't feature anything too outside McCartney's basic musical framework. Rambling along like a tougher "Penny Lane" or a less refined "Got to Get You into My Life," "New" doesn't particularly live up to its name — but that's better than creating a quickly forgotten modern-day curio.

3. "Sun Is Shining" (Electric Arguments, 2008)

The Fireman records don't represent McCartney's first solo forays into experimental pop; it's just that the others were typically unfocused vanity projects, self-involved noodlings or simply half-finished demos. Electric Arguments boasted a frisky, yet more controlled spontaneity, as if the original "Get Back" idea had been brought into the indie era. Everything – even a song like "Sun Is Shining," which in many ways is your typical McCartney song – feels as if it's been cuffed around some.

4. "How Kind of You" (Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, 2005)

This project started out with the producer from McCartney's last album, and a studio setup involving his touring band, before Nigel Godrich arrived and blew it all up. Good thing. Otherwise, we might never have experienced the gorgeous drone of "How Kind of You." Largely a studio creation, the track began in typical jangle-pop territory as McCartney offered a flinty thank-you to those who stuck with him through difficult times. Godrich oversaw its transformation, creating a deeply involving music bed that sounds like an underwater harmonium.

5. "See Your Sunshine" (Memory Almost Full, 2007)

A canny Wings redo, this is the kind of pure pop that McCartney parlayed into a soundtrack for the decade immediately following the Beatles' breakup. That's fitting since he was enduring another split, this time from second wife Heather, during the sessions for Memory Almost Full. "See Your Sunshine" is actually part of an ardent project known for its striking musical variety. But let's face it, McCartney is supposed to sound like this song. That he once again meets that standard during a period of crushing adversity is part of his charm. It always has been.

6. "I Don't Know" (Egypt Station, 2018)

McCartney's first No. 1 album since 1982 opens with this looming sense of doubt, a most surprising emotion from the world's most famous progenitor of silly love songs. You expect him to be glib, but he instead uncovers something far more revealing in the all-too-rare expression of his own thoughts. These verses, perhaps the bleakest McCartney has ever penned, eventually give way to a gorgeous, more typically consoling chorus. His piano figure is there to guide you along, tracing this brilliant juxtaposition perfectly.

 

 

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