Paul Simon has enjoyed a long, worthwhile solo career since Simon and Garfunkel‘s breakup in 1970. A musical chameleon, he launched his post-duo career with an acoustic record that fitted into the singer-songwriter movement of 1972, then moved into jazz-inflected soft rock with 1975’s Grammy-winning Still Crazy After All These Years. By the early 1980s his career appeared to be petering out; 1983’s Hearts and Bones failed to make the US Top 40.
Simon successfully reinvented himself with the South African sounds of 1986’s Graceland, however, and explored world music further with The Rhythm of the Saints. His 21st-century output is enjoyable; his most recent three albums, Surprise, So Beautiful or So What, and Stranger to Stranger have all been substantial efforts from a restless musical explorer.
Simon hasn’t been especially prolific, only releasing 13 solo albums between 1965’s The Paul Simon Songbook and 2016’s Stranger to Stranger. This just means that his solo releases have been meticulously crafted and are almost all worth hearing. Simon also has a handful of excellent songs that never featured on a studio album – ‘Slip Slidin’ Away’ and ‘Stranded in a Limousine’ first appeared on 1977’s Greatest Hits Etc., while ‘Thelma’ was an outtake from The Rhythm of the Saints that first appeared on 1993’s Paul Simon Anthology.
Here are Paul Simon’s studio albums ranked from worst to best:
#14 Songs From The Capeman
Simon spent much of the 1990s working on a Broadway musical, The Capeman. It was written about Salvador Agron, a Puerto Rican immigrant who murdered two teenagers in Manhattan in 1959. The Broadway musical was a flop, while the album, with Simon’s version’s on songs from the musical, was his lowest-charting album. Simon doesn’t convince as a Broadway songwriter – the best songs, like ‘Trailways Bus’ and ‘Can I Forgive Him?’, stick closest to his singer-songwriter roots. It’s entertaining to hear Simon swear profusely on ‘The Vampires’, but the odd mix of Latin and doo-wop often doesn’t work.
#13 The Paul Simon Songbook
While Simon & Garfunkel were on hiatus after the failure of their debut album, Simon attempted to launch a folk career in London. He cut an album of songs that would mostly later appear on Simon and Garfunkel’s two 1966 albums. Recorded quickly with just Simon’s voice and guitar, it’s a worthy showcase for the young Simon. The Simon and Garfunkel versions are more polished and iconic, however, leaving Songbook as a historical curiosity.
#12 Seven Psalms
Seven Psalms feels like a bonus release from Simon. In his 80s, he’s already released a fabulous body of music. The appeal of Seven Psalms is 90% lyrics – it’s all one long song, divided into seven sections. It’s nice to have Simon still around, delivering patently Simon lines like “In my professional opinion/I’m no more satisfied than you are”.
#11 You’re The One
You’re The One serves as a retrenchment of Paul Simon’s signature style after the misguided Capeman project. It’s full of introspective lyrics and acoustic guitar and cracked the Billboard top 20, but it’s one of Simon’s least impressive sets of songs. But even on a lesser Paul Simon album, there’s worthwhile material like ‘Señorita With a Necklace of Tears’ and ‘Darling Lorraine’.
#10 Still Crazy After All These Years
Simon dived into a jazzy, soft-rock sound on his third solo album, featuring musicians like Michael Brecker and Phil Woods. This ranking is low for a Grammy-winning album that contains iconic Simon songs like ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’, ‘Gone At Last’, ‘My Little Town’, and the title track. Take away the singles, however, and you’re left with a bunch of unremarkable, self-justifying songs that deal with Simon’s recent divorce.
I’m gonna leave you now
And here’s the reason why
I like to sleep with the window open
And you keep the window closed
So goodbye, goodbye, goodbye
#9 One-Trick Pony
Simon spent the second half of the 1970s dabbling in cinema – he appeared in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, and then wrote and starred in One-Trick Pony. The movie, about a struggling musician, was ultimately unsuccessful – it’s most fondly remembered for the hit song ‘Late in the Evening’. The accompanying soundtrack is similar to the jazzy soft-rock of Still Crazy but it’s a more consistent set with strong album tracks like ‘Jonah’ and ‘Ace in the Hole’.
#8 So Beautiful or So What
Simon reunited with longtime producer Phil Ramone for his 12th studio album, recorded mostly in a cottage at his home in Connecticut. So Beautiful or So What is based around Indian rhythms and Western African blues guitar. Highlights include ‘Dazzling Blue’, dedicated to Simon’s wife Edie Brickell, and ‘The Afterlife’, where the protagonist finds heaven a bureaucratic nightmare until he meets his creator and he’s lost for words.
#7 Stranger to Stranger
Even at the age of 74, Simon’s still innovating on Stranger to Stranger. He teams up with young Italian producer Clap!Clap! for three tracks, as well as using Harry Partch’s instruments that were built for the micro-tonal scale (Partch used 43 tones in an octave instead of the usual 12 of Western music). ‘Wristband’ tells the story of a musician locked out of his own gig, who launches into a diatribe about inequality.
Simon teamed up with veteran British producer Brian Eno for Surprise. Eno adds atmospheric washes behind Simon’s thoughtful songs, while Steve Gadd provides drums. Jazz legend Herbie Hancock provides piano on the hymn-like ‘Wartime Prayers’, the strongest Simon song since The Rhythm of the Saints. The lovely ‘Father and Daughter’, with Vincent Nguini on guitar, was originally featured on The Wild Thornberrys.
#5 Hearts and Bones
Hearts and Bones was planned as a Simon and Garfunkel album, in the wake of the pair’s successful live reunion in 1981. Garfunkel failed to complete his vocals on time, so Simon released it as a solo record. Hearts and Bones is inconsistent, with trivialities like ‘Cars Are Cars’ and ‘Think Too Much (b)’. The best work, however, includes some of Simon’s most stunning songs. ‘Train in the Distance’ is about his first marriage, while the title track details his relationship with Carrie Fisher. There’s also the lovely ‘Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War’, as well as ‘Song About The Moon’.
#4 Paul Simon
Following the grandeur of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, Paul Simon’s debut album is a stripped-back affair, low key and personal. Simon’s experimenting with world music, like the early adoption of reggae on ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ and the Andean interludes of ‘Duncan’. There’s also the low key, acoustic ‘Peace Like A River’, an overlooked gem in a deep catalogue. Simon’s yet to disclose what the mama saw in ‘Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard’.
#3 The Rhythm of the Saints
Simon took the African guitars of Graceland, played by Vincent Nguini, and cross-pollinated them with Latin American rhythms. The Rhythm of the Saints is a little subdued and insular, apart from the rhythmic opener ‘The Obvious Child’. It’s one of Simon’s most substantial albums, nonetheless, with highlights like the gorgeous ‘Spirit Voices’ and the stunning climax of ‘The Cool, Cool River’.
#2 There Goes Rhymin’ Simon
There Goes Rhymin’ Simon has a bunch of fun material that would have made for a terrific Simon & Garfunkel album. It’s eclectic and jam-packed with highlights. The elegant anti-Nixon protest of ‘American Tune’, the gospel of ‘Loves Me Like A Rock’, the New Orleans ‘Take Me To The Mardi-Gras’, and the lush Quincy Jones arrangement of ‘Something So Right’ are all among Simon’s best solo songs. There’s a great piano riff on ‘One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor’, as well as overlooked treasures like ‘St. Judy’s Comet’.
Paul Simon rekindled a flagging career and introduced South African musicians, then isolated by apartheid, to the world with 1986’s Graceland. Even without the novelty of the sound, it’s filled with great songs like ‘The Boy In The Bubble’, ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’, and ‘Under African Skies’. Simon’s musical heroes, The Everly Brothers, provide backing vocals for the title track.
With Simon turning 77 this year and recently announcing his last tour, it’s unclear if he’ll have the opportunity to add much further to his excellent catalogue, but along with his five albums with Art Garfunkel, he’s left an excellent legacy. Agree? Disagree? Do you have a favourite Paul Simon solo album?
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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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