In April of 2021, Paul Simon sold his song catalogue for $250 million to Sony. Perhaps he should have held out for more. The songs he wrote while in Simon and Garfunkel are priceless (to fans, anyway) and the songs he wrote as a solo artist are part of the soundtrack to many people’s lives. Even though Paul Simon is retired from making any new albums, he still leaves behind a jaw-dropping body of work. Here are the 10 best Paul Simon albums ranked for our listening pleasure.
# 10 – One-Trick Pony
This was released in 1980 along with the Paul Simon film of the same title. Despite the same names, there is different music in the album and the film. This is a very 70’s sounding album with the usual chimes, rhythms and arrangements found in Paul Simon’s previous albums. This does include two energetic live tracks and duets with Patti Austin and Richard Tee. The title track does refer to a literal one-trick pony that moves like “God’s immaculate machine”, which is reminiscent of the racetrack announcer describing Secretariat’s 30 length win in the Belmont Stakes, “Secretariat is moving like a tremendous machine”. The stand out track that everyone knows is “Late in the Evening.” It has contributions from legendary bass player Tony Levin.
# 9 – Paul Simon
Paul Simon’s first solo album was hit or miss with critics when it was released in 1972, but has been a big hit with fans. Tracks everyone knows are “Mother and Child Reunion” and “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.” It also includes the funny “Paranoia Blues”, which is one song that makes you wonder why it was never released as a single. Other songs with strong melodies and exquisite lyrics are tinged with pain and beauty.
# 8 – So Beautiful or So What
Arguably the best titled of Paul Simon albums, this 2011 received great reviews and was a commercial success. If you only listen to one song on this album, make it “Rewrite”, which shows the misadventures of a wannabe-writer backed to African instruments. In other tracks, wife Edie Brickell and daughter Lulu Simon appear. Paul Simon plays eight instruments, as well as sings, composing and co-producing with Phil Ramone. This album also includes samples, which is unusual for Paul Simon. Then again, it’s an unusual album.
# 6 – There Goes Rhymin’ Simon
A more pop than rock album overall, it nonetheless opens with the popular, bouncy “Kodachrome”, which did not make the Kodak company happy since the name Kodachrome was trademarked. No good song ever goes unpunished. The songs are strong here, even the happier ones, with very 70s arrangements of strings, chimes, Hammond organ, flute and a funky bass. Other songs include, “Something So Right”, the gospel-inflected “Love Me Like a Rock” and “Take Me to the Mardi Gras.” It was yet another album to receive Grammy award nominations for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male and Best Album of 1973.
# 7 – Surprise
Again, the lyrics are the star of this catchy and sometimes funky 2006 album, with gems like “We don’t mean to mess things up but mess them up we do” (from “Everything About It is a Love Song”) and “Who’s gonna love you when your looks are gone?” (from “Outrageous”). Paul Simon explained in interviews that he wrote the songs differently for this album. He started with the rhythm and worked his way from there. Joining him for the album was Brian Eno and Herbie Hancock.
# 5 – The Rhythm of the Saints
It was impossible to follow up on such a monster like Graceland, but Paul Simon takes a good shot here. This time he explores Latin American music and some more African music. This was an exuberant, complex album that gets better over time. Melodies slip and slide about in very unconventional ways at times. It did receive some commercial and critical success, but nothing in the Graceland stratosphere. As the line from “The Coast” says, “That is worth some money.” Other songs include the title track, “The Obvious Child”, “Proof” and “Born at the Right Time.” This 1992 album earned some Grammy nominations, but did not win. Perhaps it will win a place in your CD collection. Listen with the headphones on.
#4 – Still Crazy After All These Years
This award-winning 1975 album also was a commercial success. It included what would be the final studio track Simon & Garfunkel would work on together, “My Little Town.” This would also appear on Art Garfunkel’s solo album of the same year, Breakaway. As always, the lyrics are stars here, as in the twisted love song, “You’re Kind”, where the loved one is superlative in every way but the one thing that mattered – keeping the window open at night. Other songs include, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”, “I Do It for Your Love” and “Gone at Last.” The cover is confusing – the only thing that looks crazy there is the moustache.
# 3 – Graceland
Depressed by his divorce, a failed Simon and Garfunkel album and the failure of his album Hearts and Bones to sell, Paul Simon was so low that anywhere looked up. He decided to make music that excited him rather than trying to make an album that would sell. He incorporated African rhythms and musicians into Graceland. He also added a zydeco number with New Orleans musicians. Adding international flavors to pop music was not new – artists like Peter Gabriel had been doing it for years – but Graceland was the first album to be successful. How successful was it? It not only made money, but won many awards, including the Grammy for Best Album. Songs include the title track, “You Can Call Me Al,”, “The Boy in the Bubble” and a duet with Linda Ronstadt, “Under African Skies.” This came out in 1986 but still sounds fresh today.
# 2 – You’re The One
This 2000 album is worth listening to just for Paul Simon’s evil laugh in the allegorical “Pigs, Sheep and Wolves.” Besides that laugh, this includes one of Paul Simon’s personal favorites, “Dear Lorraine,” a song about the humorous and heartbreaking history of an elderly couple. Another standout is one of the funniest songs he ever wrote, “Old.” The title track uses some Middle Eastern singing styles, but for the most part globe-trotting is now over for Paul Simon in this album. He is able to take the best of what he learned from musical styles from around the world and blend it with his own style of music. This album would be one of many Paul Simon albums nominated for Best Album that would not win.
# 1 – Hearts and Bones
Somehow, this 1983 masterpiece was overshadowed by the next album, Graceland. Perhaps the public had grown tired of Paul Simon after the Simon & Garfunkel tour and the successful Concert in Central Park. Or perhaps it was disappointment. The next album was supposed to be the long-awaited next Simon & Garfunkel album, but the two could not get along and that album was never to be. Songs that would have appeared on it became Hearts and Bones. It is not as musically adventurous or downright strange as later albums, but still is a powerful collection of songs with the lyrics as the true stars. Songs include “The Late Great Johnny Ace” for John Lennon (and included guest writer Philip Glass), and “Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War” about a photograph Paul Simon saw of the surrealist artist.