Paul McCartney will forever live in the shadow of the Beatles -- every rock band lives in their shadow -- yet he has still managed to amass a solid body of work over the years. His 1970 self-titled debut has all the scrappy charm he originally envisioned for Let It Be; its follow-up, Ram, matches its pastoral feel with orchestral grandeur, and the frothy masterpiece Band on the Run is the mirror image of Lennon's confessional masterpiece Plastic Ono Band, both of which are definitive '70s albums. McCartney's solo work displays strong melodies and craftsmanship, but most of his lyrics can't match the sharp point of view he had on "Eleanor Rigby" or "Lady Madonna." That said, songs such as "Maybe I'm Amazed," "Dear Friend," and "Too Many People" are strikingly autobiographical, showing the confusion, anger and isolation he felt after the breakup of the Beatles. Other cuts, such as the bizarro No. 1 hit "Uncle Albert/Admiral Hasley" and the ace James Bond theme "Live and Let Die," display his decidedly experimental interest in playing around with song form and studio sound. What's amazing is that he has often found as much popular success with his practically avant-garde pop as he has with a ballad like "My Love" or a disco-rock hybrid like "Silly Love Songs." By the mid-'70s, McCartney's band Wings was a touring powerhouse, delivering the kind of satisfying stadium rock shows that people craved. Unfortunately, all of his energy went into touring, and after the undervalued Wild Life and Band On the Run, the songs on Wings releases were generally generic '70s rock.
After a 1980 arrest in Japan on a drug charge, McCartney broke up Wings and released McCartney II, another self-recorded outing, though this time he cut a largely synth-driven LP that showed his interested in both Kraftwerk and roots rock, and contained the great comeback single "Coming Up." During the '80s, Macca's music started to sound saccharine and bloated, and he took on the ever-cheery, ultimately guarded public persona he's displayed ever since. In 1989, he bounced back with Flowers in the Dirt, a strong, if over-praised, collaboration with Elvis Costello, before re-exploring stripped-down rock and a respectable -- but ultimately pointless -- classical excursion. In 1999, McCartney recorded Run Devil Run, a joyous celebration of the early American rock 'n' roll that inspired him to pick up a guitar in the first place. The release of the Beatles Anthology TV series and book shed light on how much McCartney contributed to the sound and production of key Lennon tunes, while the Wingspan CD retrospective reminded people how many great solo tunes he crafted over the decades. The companion DVD documentary shows how hard the initial breakup of the Beatles was for Macca -- financially and, especially, psychologically. 2001 saw him surrounding himself with young rock musicians to positive effect, while 2005's Chaos and Creation featured his strongest set of new tunes in years. Like Brian Wilson, who created brilliant "vapid surf music" with the Beach Boys, Paul McCartney has a pure pop genius -- he just makes complexity look so simple.