But Paul Simon is also, for many New Yorkers anyway, a piece of home. He loves the city, and starting from his formative years with partner Art Garfunkel, he’s found a way to make the Big Apple and its surroundings accessible and appealing to anyone. The 59th Street Bridge was a soul happy crossing, counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike was suddenly a glamorous activity, and even those of us who aren’t Yankees fans feel a twinge of sadness upon hearing that Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away. There is that girl in New York City who calls herself the human trampoline, but that one is probably best left to the imagination. And then there are the legendary concerts in Central Park; other artists have put on free concerts on the Great Lawn, but mention the phrase “concert in Central Park” to anyone, and a hundred bucks says they tell you that they love Paul Simon.
Since distancing himself from Simon and Garfunkel, which dissolved in 1970 after five smash albums, Simon has had an even more impressive career, racking up over a dozen albums, several greatest hits compilations, and even some scores for Broadway shows. Narrowing down his solo work to just ten songs is an arduous task, as he is an artist with a forty-plus year career who does not do filler tracks. Many will take issue with this list and cite errors and omissions, and it will be hard to disagree with their claims. Nonetheless, here’s our pick for the top ten Paul Simon tunes.
# 10 – Slip Slidin’ Away
It’s a downer of a song, to be sure, but there’s just something about 1977’s “Slip Slidin’ Away” that’s comforting. Maybe it’s a sort of commiseration in musical form, or maybe it makes us feel better about our own choices, but whatever it is, its sticky melody and quiet percussion won’t let us go. Truly, for all of us, “a good day ain’t got no rain” and a bad day is when you “lie in bed and think of things that might have been.” Fun fact: those background vocals? The Oak Ridge Boys.
# 9 – Rewrite
Paul Simon’s been through a lot, and most of it has been played out in the so-called “lifestyle” media. This track from 2011’s So Beautiful or So What feels mostly autobiographical, with the narrator trying desperately to rewrite his checkered past so he becomes the hero of his own story. In true Simon fashion, it’s told over a beautiful musical foundation — in this case, spare yet layered acoustic guitars — with a fun beat that feels much more involved than a straightforward 4/4.
# 8 – Mother and Child Reunion
There’s so much at play on Simon’s glorious 1972 single: a kicky Jamaican groove, layers of rhythm, lots of opportunity to sing along after just one listen, and a title that, believe it or not, was rooked from the menu of a Chinese restaurant. (It’s the name of a dish that features both chicken and egg.) The lyrics are abundantly hopeful (because Simon “would not give you false hope”), and that’s a big part of why “Mother and Child Reunion” is one of his most beloved tracks.
# 7 – Something So Right
It sounds like a sad song, but in fact, 1973’s “Something So Right” is just the opposite: a man’s slow, quiet amazement that for once, things are looking up. We may feel down on our luck, but really, we all have moments when something is going right; if you can’t immediately relate, perhaps it’s time to have an honest talk with yourself. This is one of Simon’s more covered songs too, with renditions by everyone from Trisha Yearwood to Annie Lennox to Barbara Freakin’ Streisand.
# 6 – Kodachrome
You may not know that this song is called “Kodachrome,” but at some point, you’ve heard the lyrics and done a simultaneous giggle/fist pump. You know the line: “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.” Named for Kodak’s popular film, the 1973 song celebrates the colorful things in life over a great shuffle beat, lots of cymbals, and a fun walking guitar line, with the insistence that “everything looks worse in black and white.”
# 5 – The Obvious Child
The first track off of Simon’s 1990 The Rhythm of the Saints grabs you immediately with its Brazilian drum intro and keeps you with its meandering melody and confessional lyrics. The percussion is the real standout on this track, though: it doesn’t quit through the whole song, and there’s a breakdown toward the end that you can’t help but tap along with. “The Obvious Child” is just further proof that Simon elevates his craft by surrounding himself with the world’s greatest musicians and letting them do what they do best.
# 4 – Late in the Evening
Simon’s 1980 hit is a lyrical look at how music shaped his life, from listening as a very young child to the time when he “blew that room away” with his playing. The horn line is classic, sort of like a high school marching band meets the late night jazz club. He doesn’t write too many mainstream songs that just make you want to dance, but “Late in the Evening” hit number six on the Billboard Hot 100 and has a groove that would tempt even the most timid wallflower.
# 3 – Still Crazy After All These Years
The thing about being a songwriter is that you more or less have to talk about your own life in your songs. All of the brilliant rock songwriters like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, Carole King,composed so many fictional stories yet at times always found their way back to their own lives.
Simon’s 1976 single off the 1975 album of the same name finds him feeling wistful over the past but knowing that nothing’s going to change. The electric piano chords provide a lovely backdrop for Simon’s soul searching lyrics, and midway through, there’s a scorching sax solo that will both tug and burn your heartstrings.
# 2 – Me and Julio Down by the School Yard
If there’s one thing we can learn from “Me and Julio Down by the School Yard,” it’s this: don’t underestimate the appeal of a good whistling solo. There’s no need for a guitar solo — frenetic strumming is plenty, especially when it’s accompanied by world-class percussion and layered vocals. It’s a fun one to sing along with, even if no one’s really sure what the mama pajama actually saw. All we know is that it was against the law, and that it’s not always good news when you’re on the cover of Newsweek. For a truly stellar version of this tune, head over to YouTube and check out Simon’s rendition with a young duet partner on a 1977 episode of “Sesame Street.” You will melt.
# 1 – Graceland
Let us take a moment to silently thank Carrie Fisher for making an enormous contribution to popular music. No, she didn’t sing on this track, or write it, or even shake a tambourine into a highly attenuated mic during the recording. Fisher is Simon’s ex-wife (one of them, anyway), and after the two split, he took the trip to Memphis that inspired this incredible song from his 1986 album of the same name. While it’s not as straight-ahead pop as some of Simon’s songs, and while it’s not as longing as others, “Graceland” represents a lyrical and musical triumph — a creative high water mark for a man whose whole career has been at high tide. The masterful South African musicians on “Graceland” (and on the entire album) lend the song a somewhat exotic feel, but the background vocals by the Everly Brothers help to ground it in American tradition. The writing is predictably beautiful, from the first line of, “The Mississippi Delta was shining like a national guitar” to the more aching, “Losing love is like a window in your heart, everyone can see you’re blown apart.” Thankfully, there’s Graceland, where we all will be received.
Updated Nov 12, 2020