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 and explored world music further with The Rhythm of the Saints. Even his 21st century is enjoyable; his most recent three albums, Surprise, So Beautiful or So What, and Stranger to Stranger have all been worthwhile 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, but this means 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.
Paul Simon’s studio albums ranked from worst to best:
#13 – Songs From The Capeman
The soundtrack to Simon’s ill-fated Broadway musical, Songs From The Capeman tells the story of the crimes and rehabilitation of a New York gang member. It’s an awkward mix of doo-wop and salsa, even though it’s entertaining to hear Simon swear profusely in ‘The Vampires’.
#12 – The Paul Simon Songbook
While Simon and Garfunkel were on hiatus after the commercial 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 nice showcase for the young Simon. The Simon and Garfunkel versions are more polished and iconic, leaving Songbook as essentially a historical curiosity.
#11 – You’re The One
You’re The One serves as a retrenchment of Paul Simon’s signature style after the misguided Capeman project, but it’s one of his least impressive sets of songs. But even on a lesser Paul Simon album, there’s great material like ‘Señorita With a Necklace of Tears’ and ‘Darling Lorraine’.
#10 – Still Crazy After All These Years
This ranking is low for a Grammy-winning album that contains iconic Simon songs like ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’, ‘Gone At Last’, and the title track. Take away the highlights, 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, an unsuccessful movie about a struggling musician. The accompanying soundtrack is a little sleepy, but contains the hit ‘Late In The Evening’, and strong album tracks like ‘Jonah’ and ‘Ace in the Hole’.
#8 – So Beautiful or So What
Simon’s 2011 album 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.
#6 – Surprise
Simon teams up with veteran British producer Brian Eno for Surprise. Eno adds atmospheric washes behind Simon’s thoughtful songs. Highlights include the hymn-like ‘Wartime Prayers’ and the lovely ‘Father and Daughter’, 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 throwaways like ‘Cars Are Cars’, but the best work includes some of Simon’s most stunning songs; ‘Train in the Distance’, about his first marriage, and the title track, detailing his relationship with Carrie Fisher.
#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.
#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 often 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
Simon’s second post-Simon and Garfunkel album is sometimes dismissed as too soft and easy listening, but 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.
#1 – Graceland
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?