A Paul Simon Primer
Earlier this year, Paul Simon released “Seven Psalms,” a full album in a single, continuous 33-minute track. It is a beautiful, fascinating meditation on death, love, God and the mysteries inherent to all three. It also may end up being the swan song for one of the greatest songwriters in the history of American music.
In honor of “Seven Psalms” – and in the spirit of the project – I thought we should take a look back through the storied solo career of THE Paul Simon.
I’m an enormous fan of his work. He’s probably my all-time favorite artist in any medium. So what follows is a very subjective ranking of all of his albums, with a few caveats*, not including the newest work or any of the Simon & Garfunkel records.
*Does not include 1965’s “The Paul Simon Songbook.” Technically his first solo album, it was only released in the U.K., during folk music’s popular heyday. It’s a fascinating glimpse at the early, acoustic and unadorned versions of beloved Simon & Garfunkel classics like “I Am a Rock” and “Flowers Never Bend With the Rainfall,” not to mention the alternate lyrics of the Bob Dylan parody, “A Simple Desultory Philippic,” but I don’t consider it part of the Paul Simon solo canon.
*Does not include 1997’s “Songs From The Capeman.” Simon’s only foray into the world of musical theater, “The Capeman” was a critical and financial flop on Broadway, but nonetheless produced a lot of quality songs. Out of respect for artistic intention – he was writing a (based on true events) story, not a collection of pop songs – it is excluded from this list of albums.
*Does not include 2018’s “Into the Blue Light,” an album of reimagined, rerecorded songs with new arrangements and instrumentation from past albums. It is unexpectedly moving to hear Simon’s aging voice still inflected by the same tuneful emotion after so many decades. But without any original tracks, it doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of these albums.
Every album here (and more!) is available for free through the Trebel app. Download the app, register for an account with your Anythink library card number and dig in!
11. “One Trick Pony” (1980)
If this was a list of best screenplays written by Paul Simon, “One Trick Pony” would be number one. As it is, this companion album to the movie of the same name rates in last place. But it's not a bad album by any means. “Oh, Marion” and the title track are terrific little numbers. “That’s Why God Made the Movies” is slyly funny, but surprisingly affecting. His least artistically successful album does, however, contain one his very best songs: the supernaturally catchy Latin-tinged opener, “Late in the Evening.” It alone makes the whole record worth the price of admission.
10. “Still Crazy After All These Years” (1975)
You know it’s a strong list when an album this good is near the bottom. The title track and “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” are among Simon’s most popular songs ever. The lovely “My Little Town” served as a single-song Simon & Garfunkel reunion, and “Gone at Last,” a joyful, soulful duet with Phoebe Snow, is a standout. His third solo album, “Still Crazy After All These Years,” was a critical and commercial hit. Its placement near the bottom of this list, though, reflects a certain unevenness and, of course, my own personal preference.
9. “You’re the One” (2000)
After the failure of his musical, “The Capeman,” this album was a return to adult contemporary folk form for Simon. Despite being nominated for an Album of the Year Grammy, “You’re the One” is often overshadowed by the bigger, buzzier entries in his discography (including on this very list). But some of the songs, like “That’s Where I Belong” and “You’re the One,” are as good as any he ever made. Strong songwriting abounds: “Look at That” is a wonder-filled ode to love and devotion, and “Darling Lorraine” is a funny yet heartbreaking journey through one relationship, two lives and how those three things can so messily entwine.
8. “Surprise” (2006)
This is Simon’s headphones album. He worked with musician/producer Brian Eno, renowned for his ambient compositions and lush production with artists such as Coldplay and U2, to craft a crisp, almost verdant sound on “Surprise.” The driving, progressive “Beautiful” is exactly that: beautiful. “Another Galaxy” sounds suitably cosmic. “How Can You Live in the Northeast?” showcases both his sarcasm and rich guitar playing. Then there’s the stunning “Father and Daughter,” originally written for “The Wild Thornberrys Movie” of all things. With its earnest lyrics and exquisite production, I used to think it was a sweet, pleasurable little tune. Now, as the father of a daughter myself, it is an instant tear-inducer; a perfect encapsulation of love and a parental mission statement contained within a four-minute soft rock ballad.
7. "Stranger to Stranger" (2016)
Recorded when Simon was in his mid-seventies (!), he’s nevertheless as wise and playful as ever on “Stranger to Stranger.” The album sounds as fresh and forward-looking as anything in the modern pop landscape. It plays like the perfect culmination of a career full of collaboration, experimentation and restless exploration. He works with French electronic artist Clap! Clap! on a number of tracks, including “Street Angel,” a witty and compassionate tale told over playfully syncopated rhythm. “Cool Papa Bell,” the most buoyant song on the album, finds him irreverent and hilariously foulmouthed, while on the title track he brings his melancholic sentimentality to a jazzy little love song about his longtime partner, Edie Brickell.
6. "There Goes Rhymin’ Simon" (1973)
Probably the most joyous collection of songs in his catalog, “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon,” finds the eponymous Rhymin’ Simon by turns a blues crooner (“Tenderness”), a gospel lead (“Loves Me Like a Rock”), and – on the album’s best track, “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” – a Dixieland maestro. The nostalgic “Kodachrome” and melancholic “American Tune” were gigantic hits at the time and remain beloved today. And personally, my appreciation for “St. Judy’s Comet” grew tenfold when I became a father and suddenly longed to see all sorts of celestial phenomena sparkle in my own child’s eyes.
5. "Paul Simon" (1972)
After six massively successful years recording with Art Garfunkel, Simon struck out on his own with this self-titled solo debut. From literally the very first second of the record, the reggae-inspired drum spill of “Mother and Child Reunion,” it was clear he’d moved beyond his folk rock roots. The intricate acoustic picking of the bluesy “Peace Like a River” and the jaunty Latin bounce of the beloved “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” proved Simon was one of the most versatile and creative songwriters in the world, while the moody and evocative “Duncan” reinforced his lyrical brilliance. This album is incredible – somehow both a logical extension of Simon & Garfunkel and a captivating reinvention all at once.
4. "Rhythm of the Saints" (1990)
It’s tempting to say that Simon followed the “Graceland” (more on it soon) playbook with “Rhythm of the Saints,” only replacing South Africa with Brazil, but that sells short the amazing accomplishment of this album. Working in a way he never had before, starting with percussion and crafting melodies to compliment it, Simon made maybe his most interesting and rewarding album ever. On every track, the drums stun; the polyrhythms and bongo beats create a thrumming pace unlike anything in his catalog. “The Obvious Child” (man, this guy really knows how to open an album) is fun and infectious, while “Can’t Run But” tiptoes along on bass and bell into a smooth groove. “Further to Fly,” a world-weary ode to loss and aging, embodies the album’s darker tone, but “Born at the Right Time” places us right back on a muggy late-summer evening, reflecting with gratitude on childhood, both ours and others’.
3. "Hearts and Bones" (1983)
Originally intended as a Simon & Garfunkel reunion album, the personal nature of these songs – along with some lingering resentments between the two of them – made “Hearts & Bones” Simon’s fifth Garfunkel-free release instead. And it was… kind of a flop. To date, it has sold the fewest copies of any of his solo work, which is surprising given that this album is a near masterpiece.
Some of the songs, like “Think Too Much (a)” and “Allergies,” sound very eighties, as if Huey Lewis read poetry rather than the News. But even these songs are identifiably Simon. He’s clearly experimenting with his sound, yet still painting with a similar palette throughout. “Think Too Much (b)” is as delicate and mournful as “Train in the Distance” is assured and melancholic. “Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War,” in storytelling, tone, production, and performance, is simply exquisite. Then there’s the title track, written in the aftermath of his split with Carrie Fisher, which is one of the very best songs that one of our very best songwriters ever recorded.
2. "So Beautiful or So What" (2011)
Most artists never even make it to 17 albums. Fewer still make some of their strongest work at album 15. “So Beautiful or So What,” released in 2011, is pretty close to a perfect album. The production is lush and modern, often utilizing hip hop-style sample loops, and the lyrics are as clear-eyed and perceptive as those of his much younger self.
Look no further than the opening track, “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” which rides a rollicking stomp to deliver an empathetic ode to the holiday that somehow balances a heart on the sleeve and a tongue in the cheek all at once. “Dazzling Blue” sets a driving guitar riff against myriad percussion elements, layering sound after sound until you are, fittingly, dazzled. Simon also showcases his underrated guitar playing on the rousing title track and the witty, syncopated “Rewrite.” But the “power and the glory and the story” of this album is present entirely within the 4:18 runtime of “Love & Blessings.” Built around a haunting vocal sample and evoking a railroad drifter’s jam, the song embodies Simon’s deft blending of old and new, past and present, modern and classic – reflecting the magic of this moment in the life and career of an aging titan.
1. "Graceland" (1986)
An obvious choice, perhaps, but sometimes the sheer obviousness of an answer serves only to reinforce its correctness. “Graceland” is not only the best album of Simon’s career, but close to the best album of anyone’s career. The story has been told a million times before, but the abbreviated version goes like this: Simon, stuck in a creative rut and inspired by a cassette tape he was given, traveled to South Africa to work with local musicians – Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Boyoyo Boys, among others – to create a groundbreaking, infectious and surprising album that not only reinvigorated his career but also kickstarted an interest in international music in America. But what’s sometimes lost in the circumstances – and controversy – of its creation is just what a rousing collection of songs it is.
Our hero is clearly inspired here, infected by an entirely new muse. His singing and lyricism have never been looser and his career-long fixation with unconventional rhythms found its glass slipper in Johannesburg. “I Know What I Know” with its liberating yelps, and “Gumboots,” with its prancing accordion, are fun and fresh, while the title track rides its smooth groove all the way from South Africa to Memphis, Tenn. “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” is gorgeous, beginning acapella in the clouds before the guitar falls from the sky and we’re whisked away on a walking dream until the brass comes in and invigorates us anew (you can tell I like it, yeah?). Heck, not even noted grump Chevy Chase could dampen “You Can Call Me Al,” the album’s most famous track and one of the best pop songs of the entire 1980s. But as good as every song is, they work best as a cohesive whole – each of them a unique and unmistakable cog in the machinery of this masterpiece.
Any other Paul Simon fans out there that want to dispute – or laud – my rankings? Drop a comment below. For everyone else, I sincerely hope you’ll check out at least one of the albums above (again, the Trebel app has got you covered). I promise you'll "Have a Good Time."