Recently I had an “aha” moment courtesy of Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al.” Subsequently I found myself reflecting on the profound impact his music and lyrics have had on me in the years since his Graceland album first made me conscious of his music (though I realize I had heard a good amount of it by that point). His melodies are irresistible, his lyrics are poetic and brilliant and his trailblazing incorporation of world music has opened millions of ears, even if he isn’t necessarily the first or greatest “world fusion” artist.
I’ll soon blog about the aforementioned “aha” moment, but a) in the meantime I invite you to enjoy this list and b) it’s telling that, even so, that is one of many great songs of his that I couldn’t even find room for on this list and c) I’ve chosen to not even open the can of worms of his work with . . . oh man, what was that guy’s name? Artie something? In any case, Simon’s work as a solo artist is vast and important and I can hardly imagine my own musical consciousness without it.
1 ) “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” from Graceland
When this album came out, Paul appeared on Saturday Night Live, performing this song as well as the a cappella “Homeless,” both with Ladysmith Black Mambazon, the subsequently-famous Zulu vocal group from South Africa. Hearing the richness of that sound, being taken by the infectiousness of the rhythms and even the dancing totally blew my mind that night. Thank goodness for transgressed bedtimes . . .
2 ) “Still Crazy After All These Years” from Still Crazy After All These Years
This is one of the greatest ballads of the 1970s, and a great example of Paul’s unique songwriting. The brilliant studio recording features the saxophone soloing of Michael Brecker and a lush arrangement (note the bridge) by Bob James, though I always gravitate towards the sublimely soulful electric piano work of the late Richard Tee.
3 ) “Paranoia Blues” from Paul Simon
The well-known songs are great – I can hardly think of one I dislike. But on many of his albums (particularly Graceland and this, his solo debut) there is an overabundance of more obscure tunes that are equally fabulous. I’ve always enjoyed both the surprising instrumentation and eccentric lyrics of this one.
4 ) “The Obvious Child” from Rhythm of the Saints
Looking back, this samba-infused song may have been my first real exposure to the sounds of Brazil. The rhythms are infectious and the tune itself is a characteristic and classic example of Simon’s songcraft.
5 ) “I Know What I Know” from Graceland
I had never heard anything like this song before, mixing the spine-chilling vocals of the Gaza sisters with a particularly clever example of Simon’s fun with words. This track also features possibly the most organic digital synthesizer programming (in this case the Synclavier) that the 1980s had to offer, also courtesy of Simon.
6 ) “The Coast” from Paul Simon’s Concert in the Park
I’m not usually one for lamenting missed opportunities. But in 1991 Paul Simon toured in support of the Rhythm of the Saints record and assembled one of the greatest touring bands I could imagine. And I had enough money to hear them or see Sting on the Soul Cages tour. And I chose the latter. Damn you, Gordon! At least there is this live album to document the band in action . . .
7 ) “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” from Paul Simon
This song could easily have been higher on the list . . . honestly, to me this song is like “Hey Jude” or “Superstition” in that it’s so iconic and so deep in my consciousness that I simply can’t imagine this song not existing . . . and making me smile every time I hear the best whistling solo in pop music history (sorry, Axl) . . . and the amazing talking drum . . . and the amazing lyrics . . .
8 ) “Late In the Evening” from One Trick Pony
I dare you to sit still on this one. In addition to being a great song (and a great example of modifying the blues format) this one also features one of my favorite horn arrangements on a Simon tune.
9 ) “Tenderness” from There Goes Rhymin’ Simon
The depth of Paul’s connection to pop and R&B traditions is displayed on this soulful ballad from his second solo album.
10 ) “I Do It For Your Love” from Possibilities by Herbie Hancock
The original version of this tune from Still Crazy After All These Years is laudable as well, but this jazzed-up version with Herbie displays both the quality of the song and Paul’s elegance and versatility as a singer.