It’s hard to imagine an America without Simon & Garfunkel. For over half a century, their warm harmonies and socially conscious lyrics have helped to define us as a nation. They’ve compelled us to think about our identity, quietly made us love New York (and, by extension, urbanism in general), and reminded us that rock and roll is all about the size of your attitude, not the size of your amp.
They’re deeply ingrained in our popular culture: they provided the soundtrack for the 1967 classic film The Graduate, they’ve appeared, together and separately, on Saturday Night Live many times, and they’ve demonstrated that even if you have personal and creative differences with someone, you can still get together every now and again to make beautiful music — literally. If you’ve never had the privilege of listening to the recording of their 1981 concert in New York’s Central Park, perhaps now is the time to start downloading it.
Simon & Garfunkel’s music is timeless, with acoustic melodies that stay with you and themes that inform your moods. While some critics may argue that as a duo, their sound never evolved at all and that one Simon & Garfunkel record blends seamlessly with the following, longtime fans prefer to recognize their music as the continual evolution of their craft, where the two kept working toward some admittedly unattainable Zen-like perfection. And for many fans, that’s exactly what Simon & Garfunkel’s music represents: a moment of Zen, music you can listen to repeatedly, regardless of current trends. It’s music that you can share with your kids, parents, and grandparents, and they all get it because it’s just good.
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were together, barring reunions, only between 1964 and 1970, and in those years, they released five major studio albums. With each effort loaded with classics, paring down their music to a top ten list is no easy task; songs left off the list are significantly better than other groups’ best efforts. But it’s worth a shot. Here are our picks for the top ten Simon & Garfunkel songs.
# 10 – The Sound of Silence
Released toward the end of 1965, “The Sound of Silence” (from 1964’s Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.) spent several weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It was exceptionally well received at the time for a subdued folk track, though you can understand why. The lyrics speak to anyone who has become frustrated with people who react rather than think — a theme that’s become increasingly relevant as the years have passed.
The building of intensity throughout the song is just so appealing, from the quiet opening of “Hello darkness, my old friend” to the more emotional “And in the naked light I saw / ten thousand people, maybe more” to the nearly cried out insistence that “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls / And whispered in the sound of silence.” Remarkably, writer Paul Simon placed these intense lyrics over a melody that moves slowly along and builds in intensity simultaneously. It’s not an easy accomplishment, but it sounds effortless.
# 9 – Mrs. Robinson
It initially became well known as the song from The Graduate (if you haven’t seen it, the title is the name of one of the film’s main characters), but over time, “Mrs. Robinson” has taken its place among classic 1960s American rock songs. It’s a critical look at nostalgia and a woman who longs for the past instead of looking toward the future, with lines like “Heaven holds a place for those who pray” and “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?”
More than its lyrical content, though, “Mrs. Robinson” is perhaps best loved for its timeless melody. The Lemonheads had a hit with their cover of the song in 1992, and while Evan Dando certainly did a great job with it, it’s just so hard to top the original Simon & Garfunkel recording.
# 8 – I Am a Rock
The guitar noodling that opens the track is excellent, yet it in no way foreshadows the strength of what’s to come: the insistence that no emotional connections are needed for a man to survive. We’ve all felt this way or tried to convince ourselves that we feel this way; at any rate, we don’t need love because “I have my books and my poetry to protect me.” The theme is 100% relatable but equally outstanding as the guitar work and the melody.
The beat of the insistent high chords following the chorus is irresistible, and Simon and Garfunkel’s harmonizing almost through the song is nearly flawless. The real zing comes at the end, with Simon calmly reminding us that “a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.”
# 7 – The Only Living Boy in New York
Recorded for Simon & Garfunkel’s final album, “The Only Living Boy in New York,” is, like so many of the duo’s other songs, a Paul Simon song. He wrote it as Garfunkel was leaving to shoot a movie, and the pangs of loneliness are evident from start to finish. It boasts a lovely melody, beautiful chords, and lyrics that are at once about him and about all of us (“Half of the time we’re gone, but we don’t know where”), but the real draw of this one comes at around two-thirds of the way through. The guitar turns a riff, and then vocals flatten into long, layered “ahhhhhhhs,” then “Here I am,” and it’s all so gorgeous that it sounds more like a devotional hymn than a track on a pop album. Listen to it over and over because it never gets old.
# 6 – Keep the Customer Satisfied
Simon & Garfunkel may be known for their slower, thoughtful songs, but “Keep the Customer Satisfied” from their last album sounds upbeat. It’s a bouncing rhythm decorated with significant chords and harmonies so tight you’d swear it was The Everly Brothers singing them. The lyrics seem to speak to the frustrations of rock and roll and the on-the-road lifestyle, but they’re delivered in such a happy 4/4 that it’s hard to take them too seriously. Still, Simon & Garfunkel are just trying to make audiences happy. It seems to be working.
# 5 – Homeward Bound
Homesickness is one of those universal feelings; it’s a misery that we’ve all experienced, and it’s one that so many artists have tried to capture. No one captures it better than Paul Simon in this 1966 track from the duo’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme album. The acoustic guitar work shifts from riff to chord to riff, and the lyrics describe the feeling of just wanting to go home with fantastic precision: “And each town looks the same to me, the movies and the factories, and every stranger’s face I see reminds me that I long to be homeward bound.” The Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B” may be a more sing-along-able variation on the theme, but if we’re going for sheer emotional pull, it’s a round that Simon & Garfunkel win handily.
# 4 – Cecilia
In his post-Simon & Garfunkel solo career, Paul Simon would bring more Afro-Latin rhythms to the mainstream. His work with Art Garfunkel was, in many ways, more faithful to the duo’s American folk roots, but in 1970’s “Cecilia,” we get just a little taste of what’s to come. The song is a fan favorite, and for a good reason: the drum-and-claps rhythm kicks the song off right, the lush harmonies come in before the happy strum of the guitars, and the hook is practically barbed. It keeps going for almost three minutes, and not one element lets up. The musical bridge is replaced with flutes and harmonies, and before it even fades out, you know you’ve heard something genuinely remarkable.
# 3 – Bridge Over Troubled Water
It’s the song that Simon & Garfunkel are perhaps best known for. Many artists cover it, fans love it, it won Grammys for both Record of the Year and Song of the Year in 1971, and it’s flat-out gorgeous. And even though Paul Simon wrote it, as most of the pair’s songs were, it’s sung by Art Garfunkel. Lore has it that Simon felt Garfunkel’s higher vocal range was better suited for the song than his own baritone. While later feelings of jealousy supposedly cropped up, Simon’s assessment was probably the correct one. The resulting song is haunting, melancholy, and uplifting, all at the same time.
# 2 – The Boxer
“A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” — have truer words ever been written? In Simon & Garfunkel’s 1969 single “The Boxer,” we hear despair and heartbreak, loneliness and frustration, and hope. It’s the hope that packs a punch (please forgive the pun), and it’s the hope that most listeners point to as the song’s driving force.
In fact, “The Boxer” ends on such a hopeful note (“I am leaving, but the fighter still remains”) that Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels tapped Paul Simon to open the late-night show’s first broadcast after the 9/11 attacks with it. It was just what the country needed at the time, but more importantly, it’s what we all need on a regular basis. Add a dramatic chorus of lie-la-lies and 1812 Overture-ish cymbal crashes, and you’ve got a song that transcends generations.
# 1 – America
The shadow of the Beat Generation hung over much of the 1960s, and even though the romance of Kerouac’s On the Road had started to fade, the idea behind it was still clear: America is out there, but you have to go looking for it. Find it, and you find yourself. Paul Simon wrote “America” based on actual experiences hitchhiking from one mundane American city to another. They don’t find much — a man in a bad suit, a moon rise, an empty pack of cigarettes — but they do find others just like them: “Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike / They’ve all come to look for America.”
Maybe the looking defines us, or maybe there’s nothing to find, but when Garfunkel comes in the harmonies, the point becomes moot; we stop wondering and start listening. “America” tops our list because it’s perhaps the most representative of Simon & Garfunkel’s music: wistful and optimistic, personal and universal, and most of all, uniquely American.
Photo: By alaina buzas from Chicago (Simon and Garfunkel. Yes.) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons