Paul Simon's best albums

By Sergio Ariza

Paul Simon can be described as being very short, not very cool and not very rock & roll, but not even the biggest hater in the world can deny that he knows how to write songs better than 99.99% of the profession. If there were popular music classes at a University of Composition Paul Simon would be one of the teachers, something that, by the way, he already was in 1971 at the University of his native New York. And the fact is that this artist has been able to adopt his approach to a wide variety of styles, from his beginnings imitating the Everly Brothers, through his folk period and his flirtation with gospel, reggae or that category called 'World Music', which encompasses all non Anglo-Saxon music, and which Simon helped to find a new audience with albums like Graceland. From Guitars Exchange we want to take advantage of his 80th birthday to review our 10 favorite albums of his career.   


Simon & Garfunkel - Sounds Of Silence (1966)

By the time this album appeared, Simon & Garfunkel had already released their first album, but had split up due to its lack of commercial success and Simon had emigrated to England, where he had released a solo album that had suffered the same fate (that is, poor sales) like his debut with Art Garfunkel. If they got back together it was because producer Tom Wilson had the idea of taking a song from their debut, The Sound Of Silence, and adding bass, drums and electric guitars, including Al Gorgoni's Epiphone Casino, to adapt it to the new sound in vogue thanks to the Byrds and
Dylan, folk rock. The song became a hit and the company demanded another record. At first Simon ‘played the folk purist’ and was horrified at the new electric arrangement - but then he saw that there was a career possibility there and went for it. For the sessions they mainly used songs from his solo album, The Paul Simon Songbook, but now giving them that new folk-rock sound.

is the only new song Simon brought to the recording and, despite his complaints about going electrific, it shows that he had also been listening to the Byrds, as it sounds very much like the Byrds cover of The Bells Of Rhymney. Even so, it is the first notable album of his career and shows us the promise of a spectacular composer and songs that will be the object of multiple cover versions, even in his own time, with Van Morrison's Them taking on Richard Cory, the Tremeloes releasing Blessed as a single and Graham Nash's Hollies doing a cover of the glorious I Am Rock. Of the folkie purism of their early days, only Kathy's Song remains, with little more than their heavenly harmonies and Simon's acoustic. As was to happen in the rest of their career the vast majority of the session musicians accompanying him were members of the incredible Wrecking Crew, such as the fundamental Hal Blaine on drums, Larry Knechtel on keyboards, Joel Osborn on bass and Glen Campbell on guitar (with his Teisco T-60 tinkling on I Am A Rock).


Simon & Garfunkel - Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (1966)

It's not the most famous album, nor the best regarded, but Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme may be my favorite album of Simon's career. It was here that he definitively took the reins, not only as a composer and performer, but also behind the desk, making all the creative decisions, even though Bob Johnston is credited as producer. The album opens with a magnificent arrangement of the traditional English tune Scarborough Fair and doesn't drop a moment in intensity until its shattering close with a melancholy rendition of the carol Silent Night, over which we hear about several news stories of the time: the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King's Civil Rights Movement and the death of comedian Lenny Bruce. Here also is the wonderful Homeward Bound, the delicate The Dangling Conversation, Garfunkel's moment of vocal brilliance on For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her, the naive The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy) and the funny A Simple Desultory Philippic (or How I Was Robert McNamara'd into Submission) in which Simon goes so far as to imitate Bob Dylan.

Simon & Garfunkel - Bookends (1968)

The success brought with it a creative block that Paul Simon did not manage to get out of until Mike Nichols invited him to compose some songs for his new movie, The Graduate. It was thus, with his Guild F-30, that Simon composed one of the best songs of his career, Mrs. Robinson, and was able to end his period of songwriting crisis. In that song he did a great job on guitar and delivered one of the most glorious choruses of the decade, resulting in a song that perfectly reflected the character played by Anne Bancroft. With inspiration flowing again like in the best of times, the duo went into the studio to record their most complex and ambitious work: Bookends. Simon also confirmed himself as one of the best chroniclers of the US of his time, capturing in his lyrics many of the problems and tragedies that plagued the country. Musically he showed that he had his ears wide open to the things that Beatles and Beach Boys were doing in the studio and also produced another gigantic song in the melancholic America, as well as on other treasures like At The Zoo (that in Spain Hombres G would rip off  to make Marta Tiene Un Marcapasos), the somber Old Friends and the energetic A Hazy Shade Of Winter; the most rock song of Simon's career, with a wonderful riff, played on his acoustic Guild but perfect for an electric, as the Bangles would demonstrate years later.


Simon & Garfunkel - Bridge Over Troubed Waters (1970)

The last and most successful album of Simon & Garfunkel's career served to give a glimpse of what the solo career of its composer and main member, Paul Simon, would be like, with his early ventures into 'world music' - here traditional Latin American music -, as well as broadening horizons and adding 50's rock & roll, gospel or R&B to the mix.With their relationship on the verge of imploding, Paul Simon decides to give his friend the most spectacular song of his career, the title track of the album, a gospel ballad on piano to the glory of Art Garfunkel's voice. It is clear that its inspiration is in the Beatles' Let It Be, but when you have a song that has been covered by Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin or Johnny Cash (with the help of Fiona Apple), you have something historic on your hands. The good thing is that the album doesn't stop at just one song, here are also the folk echoes of The Boxer, nods to the 50's rock of Baby Driver, his first flirtations with reggae in Why Don't You Write Me, the Andean folk music of El Condor Pasa, the bubbly Cecilia or the best of the lot, the pop glory of The Only Living Boy In New York.   

Paul Simon (1972)

After splitting with Garfunkel, Simon began his solo career where he had left off with Bridge Over Troubled Waters, mixing genres and looking to ‘World music’. It is here where his best reggae song appears, in a year, 1972, when the world had not yet discovered Bob Marley. It is Mother And Child Reunion, recorded in Kingston, at Dynamic Sounds Studios, with Jimmy Cliff's band and members of Toots & The Maytals as session musicians. There is also the wonderful Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard, in which he adds Brazilian percussions, courtesy of Airto Moreira, member of Weather Report, and Duncan, where he collaborates again with Los Incas after the success of El Condor Pasa. The most special collaboration comes with the appearance of Stephane Grappelli, the violinist plays on Hobo's Blues, where he pays homage to his time with
Django Reinhardt. A simple and charming album that serves as a preview of what would come to be called Indie Folk.


There Goes Rhymin Simon (1973)

Simon's second solo album sees him take a look at the best Afro-American music, recording part of it in the Muscle Shoals studios in Alabama and counting on the collaboration in the arrangements of mythical figures such as Allen Toussaint and Quincy Jones. Soul, R&B, New Orleans music are mixed with Simon's own compositions and he also delivers two of his best melodies, the pop Kodachrome and the folkie American Tune, in which he borrows from Johann Sebastian Bach himself.

Still Crazy After These Years (1975)

The most mature album of his career, possibly ‘the most Paul Simon album’ of all - and Simon always seemed, and sounded, older even in his early years. It is not surprising that the artist embraced the passage to maturity better than most of his contemporaries, as well exemplified in the title track. With Gone At Last he returns to more lively gospel, with the voice of Phoebe Snow; but of course the best known guest voice is that of his old friend Art Garfunkel, with whom he collaborates again in My Little Town. However the best song on this remarkable album is about Simon's failed marriage – and it has two totally different sides: the sad verses and the luminous chorus of 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, where Simon decides to take the whole thing with philosophy...


Graceland (1986)

One of the most important comeback albums in history. In 1986, after six solo albums and five with Garfunkel, nobody expected that Paul Simon would deliver the most important work of his career. Well, that's what Graceland was, a revolutionary album in which he delved into African music and molded it perfectly to his own style. Simon was not going through the best creative period when a friend lent him a record of South African music in 1984, but the author of The Sound Of Silence fell in love, reminding him of 50's rock & roll, Sun singles and Doo Wop. Something ignited inside him and he went to South Africa, in the midst of apartheid, to record this album which contains some of the best songs of his career, demonstrating how the composer was greatly inspired by this new music. The title track conjures up the ghost of Elvis, the harmonies of Simon's biggest influence in his career, the Everly Brothers, and the incredible, clear, liquid-as-water guitar lines of South African guitarist Chikapa 'Ray' Phiri on his Stratocaster, plus the pedal steel of Demola Adepoju. There are also other treasures like I Know What I Know, in which you can trace the inspiration for Vampire Weekend's first album; Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes, with the incredible vocal contribution of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, giving it a touch halfway between doo wop and African music; The Boy in the Bubble, with Forere Motloheloa's accordion in the foreground; the perfect chorus of You Can Call Me Al; and the duet with Linda Ronstadt in Under African Skies.


The Rhythm Of The Saints (1990)

Paul Simon tried to repeat, four years later, the perfect move of Graceland with The Rhythm Of The Saints, changing this time the South African influence for the Brazilian one, but this time it did not reach the same heights. Even so, the album was not exempt of great moments like the marvel that opened it, The Obvious Child, in which the drums of San Salvador were mixed to perfection with another of those wonderful melodies so characteristic of the house. On the rest of the album, calmer, congas and bongos are integrated into Simon's melodies accompanied by the guitar of Cameroonian Vincent Nguini, who helps to compose another of the best songs on the album, The Coast. Also of note is the collaboration with Milton Nascimento, Spirit Voices, who once again proves that he is the possessor of one of the most beautiful voices ever heard.

Stranger To Stranger (2016)

With 75 years and 12 solo albums behind him, Paul Simon delivered the most experimental and daring album of his career, mixing touches of electronics, echo, jazz double basses and invented instruments with his wonderful craftsmanship when it comes to songwriting. Simon sounds in his element and rejuvenated, with songs like the stupendous Wristband, in which he speaks with subtle humor about the injustices of the world; The Werewolf; and Street Angel; which contains a distorted sample of a gospel voice - resulting in his best album since Graceland, a work to which he returns with the playful Cool Papa Bell.