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. In fact, 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 next, longtime fans prefer to recognize their music as the continual evolving 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 over and over, regardless of current trends. It’s music that you can share with your kids and your parents and your grandparents, and they all get it because, simply, 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.) spend several weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart. For a subdued folk track, it was extremely well received at the time, though you can understand why. The lyrics speak to anyone who has become frustrated with people who simply react rather than think — it’s actually 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 was able to place all of these intense lyrics over a melody that moves slowly along and builds in intensity at the same time. 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 song’s 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 at 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, its walk up guitar line, its easy-to-sing-along-with dee dee dees and doo doo doos, and its coo coo ca choo homage to The Beatles. 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 great, 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 as wonderful is 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 all the way 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.” Maybe being a rock isn’t so great, but this song absolutely is.
# 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 gloriously upbeat. It’s a bouncing rhythm decorated with major 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, on the road lifestyle, but they’re delivered in such a happy 4/4 that it’s hard to take them too seriously. Still, when it’s all said and done, Simon and 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, though, 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 chords to riff, and the lyrics describe the feeling of just wanting to go home with amazing 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 true to the duo’s American folk roots, but on 1970’s “Cecilia,” we get just a little taste of what’s to come. The song is a total fan favorite, and for 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 of the thing is practically barbed. It keeps going for almost three minutes, and not one element lets up. The musical bridge is replaced with flutes and more whoa-ooo harmonies, and before it even fades out, you know you’ve heard something truly 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 it was written by Paul Simon, as the overwhelming majority 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, and while later feelings of jealousy supposedly cropped up, Simon’s assessment was probably the correct one. The resulting song is haunting, somber, 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, we hear loneliness and frustration, but we also hear hope. It’s the hope that packs the punch (please forgive the pun), and it’s the hope that most listeners point to as the driving force of the song.
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 in 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 it’s the looking that 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.