1. "Coming Up"
McCartney entered the '80s on hiatus from his band Wings, a break that ultimately became permanent. He also processed a number of the changes in the surrounding musical landscape that had come about through the '70s, an interpretation that resulted in the peppy dance rock of this track. A live version of the tune performed with Wings became a No. 1 U.S. pop hit in June 1980, helping to bridge McCartney's distinct eras. The melodic thrust and sonic inventiveness of the song are said to have inspired former collaborator John Lennon to work on his massive comeback album, Double Fantasy. 1980 would ultimately come to a dreadful end for the latter, but "Coming Up" reminds us of McCartney's great melodic gifts when he's at his best.
Many observers of McCartney's '70s and '80s solo career probably lamented that his post-Beatles work too often ignored his heritage as one-fourth of rock music's most accomplished band of all time. However, 1980's McCartney II features more than a few throwback tunes with quirks and edges reminiscent of various periods of the Fab Four, including this one as well as the trippy "On the Way" and the '60s-tinged "Nobody Knows." This haunting track recalls the genius of McCartney's best collaborative efforts with Lennon, proving not only the former's sophistication as a composer but also his eclectic ability to meander into folk, pop and rock styles of all types. Quiet and broodingly lovely, this is a sleeper standout that holds up very well.
Though the '80s classic "Ebony and Ivory" became a massive No. 1 hit in early 1982 and will always be a major musical memory for children of the '80s, it suffers from some of McCartney's most hackneyed and simplistically sentimental impulses as a composer. Making "We Are the World" seem ambiguous and messy in tone, after all, is a hefty if not necessarily welcome achievement. "Take It Away," however - the other signature single from Tug of War - succeeds wildly as a stand-alone example of McCartney's indomitable melodic spirit. It's also a carefully crafted masterpiece that never sounds as if it were laboriously concocted. Instead, this timeless track serves as a moving celebration of McCartney's magnificent musical history.
4. "Here Today"
Some have criticized McCartney's public reaction to the tragic 1980 death of Lennon, claiming that it never seemed appropriate for the depth of the loss. This kind of scrutiny is ultimately rather silly, as this beautiful, brief tune certainly does much in a subtle but authentically emotional way to convey McCartney's complex relationship with Lennon and his necessarily layered method of processing his grief. Something that personal is impossible for us to fathom, anyway, but this direct composition captures the intense, permanent connection between the two men in a satisfying if ethereal musical way. "Knowing you, you'd probably laugh and say that we were worlds apart," McCartney imagines regarding a never-to-be reunion of the pair.
In any careful consideration of McCartney's compositions, one can only go so far without stopping in admiration to focus on one of the singer's piano ballads. This impressive album track rides smoothly on the substantial strength of an assertive melody along with some of McCartney's finest singing in years. An even nicer touch is the majestic use of horns that transforms the song into a particularly uplifting listening experience. Even McCartney's detractors never have anything negative to say about his vocals or his unquestioned ability as a well-rounded musician. Some, however, would like to see him employ more conceptual songwriting restraint, though I don't think such a claim is possible in the face of this impeccable piece.
Perhaps McCartney has always been the kind of artist whose biggest hits don't generally do him artistic justice, but that's certainly the case with his '80s output. 1983's Pipes of Peace yielded far more recognizable singles in its title track and, of course "Say Say Say," McCartney's tuneful duet with Michael Jackson. But if you're looking for the top-tier songs from one of pop music's greatest talents, it pays to peer a bit deeper. This tune displays a playful, even slightly edgy rock sound, and it yet again confirms McCartney's earned rock and roll pedigree. It also proves that this artist, when he chooses to do so, navigates a generally limitless field of music experimentation and craft.
7. "So Bad"
McCartney skillfully appeals to his past and present on this gentle ballad, employing Ringo Starr on drums alongside his longtime collaborator and wife, Linda. Neither of the latter has received consistent praise or credit for his or her contributions to McCartney's music, but one great thing about the more prominent ex-Beatle mentioned here is that he's always been willing to share his talents with loyal friends on record. As for the song itself, "So Bad" presents a lasting if familiar melody, wrapped up in a compelling, romantic falsetto vocal performance from McCartney. Though accused of being the resident confectioner of the Beatles' talented fold, McCartney never ignores substance altogether.
I don't know how much McCartney should be blamed for having an '80s vanity project, as pop stars from Prince to Rick Springfield and beyond also bestowed fairly unnecessary films upon an unsuspecting public during this self-indulgent period. Still, by even the most generous accounts, Give My Regards to Broad Street has little of permanence to offer beyond this sparkling Top 10 American pop hit from 1984. That turns out to be consolation in the case of this tune, which features one of McCartney's most satisfying melodic build-ups of his entire songwriting career. Lyrical sentimentality aside, the song's meticulous orchestral arrangement comes off impeccably well, capped by a distinctive guitar solo from Pink Floyd's David Gilmour.
9. "This One"
The American and British pop hits pretty much dried up for McCartney following the rather embarrassing 1985 single "Spies Like Us," but the singer-songwriter's final two albums of the '80s, Press to Play and Flowers in the Dirt, certainly contained their share of notable compositions. This 1989 track from the latter record seems more nuanced and affecting to me than the semi-hit "My Brave Face," which reached the Top 5 on the Billboard adult contemporary charts. It's not as well known, granted, but "This One" stands up better next to McCartney's finest work, I believe, demonstrating that as a songwriter the ex-Beatle would always remain a force to be reckoned with.
McCartney finished out the decade with this mildly successful single, a nice mid-tempo rocker that maximizes his strengths as a musician, songwriter and performer in exquisite fashion. Pop/rock of this ilk during the age of hair metal and the very early years of alternative rock was painfully difficult to find, which makes my basically brand new discovery of this tune all the more satisfying. I've always thought of myself as a John Lennon man when it comes to the Beatles - and I'll always remain in that camp - but the joys of McCartney's solo career are much more widely spread than I had previously imagined. McCartney is not merely the second-silliest Beatle; he's also one of pop/rock's true masters.