You could have excused Paul Simon if his songwriting well had dried up after his amazing run of classic singles with Art Garfunkel in the 60’s. Yet his solo output, from 1972’s Paul Simon album to 2011’s So Beautiful Or So What, has been so marvelous that choosing the greatest of his songs from that era is a nearly impossible proposition. With apologies to all the brilliant tracks that didn’t make the cut, here are the best of the best from this one-of-a-kind talent.
15. “Something So Right”- Simon’s treatises on romance often take a turn for the dark side, but this gem from 1973’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon plays it pretty straight as an ode to someone who cures all of the narrator’s various ills even when he doesn’t feel worthy of such a gift. Quincy Jones arranged the sumptuous strings that add lushness without overdoing it. Sophisticated love songs don’t get much better than this.
14. “Darling Lorraine”- The cream of the crop from 2000’s You’re The One traces a roller coaster relationship from original infatuation through a turbulent marriage to the death of the title character, finding room for every possible emotion that crops up along the way. A top-notch backing band carries the song through all of the delicate tonal shifts. The black humor won’t prepare you for the powerful emotions that sneak up at the end.
13. “My Little Town”- Simon rose to the occasion for his mini-reunion with Garfunkel with a song worthy of the duo’s imposing legacy. Recorded for 1975’s Still Crazy After All These Years, “My Little Town” subverts the nostalgia you might expect from a song with that title. In fact, the protagonist looks back at his former home with clear, unsparing eyes, seeing it for the stifling prison that it was. Luckily those triumphant harmonies transcend all of the constraints of that backwater burg.
12. “Born At The Right Time”- Some of the material on 1990’s The Rhythm Of The Saints was too complex for its own good, but this song marries instrumental intricacy with pop smarts, creating an irresistible mix. With joyful backing vocals and nimble guitar from Simon, Vincent Nguini, and J.J. Cale, this song celebrating the innocence and wonder of newborns still stands as one of Paul’s most charming efforts.
11. “Another Galaxy”- Ever the risk-taker, Simon joined forces with electronic music pioneer Brian Eno for 2006’s Surprise. The bold move paid off for that unheralded album, especially on this meditation on the pivotal decisions everyone must make in life, told from the perspective of a runaway bride. Eno’s atmospherics somehow deepen Simon’s piercing lyrics, leading to a beautiful and resonant piece of music.
10. “Rewrite”- The first time you hear this gem from 2011’s So Beautiful Or So What, you’ll likely notice the mesmerizing interplay between the kora, a West African harp-like instrument, and Simon’s insistent acoustic groove. Upon further review, the surprisingly affecting tale of an addled car wash attendant/wannabe screenwriter will sneak up on you, causing you to marvel at the subtle brilliance of the storytelling.
9. “Hearts And Bones”- While contemporaries were courting MTV in 1983 with glossy dance tracks, Simon was writing twisting, profound relationship songs like this title track to his most underrated album. The marriage of the “One and one-half wandering Jews” (Paul and former wife Carrie Fisher) may not have survived the romantic pitfalls Simon eloquently renders, but their “arc of a love affair” is endlessly captivating nonetheless.
8. “Late In The Evening”- 1980’s One-Trick Pony may have been a letdown as both a movie and a Simon album, but at least it produced a crackerjack single. Bassist Tony Levin, drummer Steve Gadd, and percussionist Ralph MacDonald lay down a relentlessly propulsive foundation, onto which Paul adds a kind of musical autobiography while horns blare thrillingly all around him. It’s an unstoppable burst of energy from start to finish.
7. “Mother And Child Reunion”- The very first track on his first solo album following his separation from Garfunkel, “Mother And Child Reunion” immediately establishes the musical adventurousness that would distinguish Simon’s subsequent career. Recorded in Jamaica, it’s one of the first pop songs to incorporate reggae rhythms. That it does so without sacrificing any of Simon’s innate melodic touch is the real triumph.
6. “The Boy In The Bubble”- With the bass taking the lead and the accordion seesawing wildly, “The Boy In The Bubble” introduced fans to the South African sounds that would dominate 1986’s Graceland. The forceful music coaxed similarly potent lyrics from Simon, as he muses on modernity and its deleterious effects on society. The real “miracle and wonder” inhabits this innovative combination of rhythmic ingenuity and songwriting acumen.
5. “Rene And George Magritte With Their Dog After The War”- The lackluster public response to Hearts And Bones means that there are probably a lot of folks who don’t know this beauty, which is a crying shame. Suffice it to say that it manages to combines surrealist painters, time travel, and doo-wop music and it does all that without an ounce of strain. Yet ultimately it’s a love song, one of the most moving that Simon has ever written.
4. “Still Crazy After All These Years”- It deserves a spot on this list if only for the glorious instrumental peak in the middle of the song when Mike Brecker’s sax solo arches skyward in conjunction with the strings. But the title track to Simon’s wonderful 1975 album is much more than that. Accompanied by Barry Beckett’s bluesy electric piano work, Simon defiantly fights off the doldrums of old age with the wildness still lingering from younger days.
3. “American Tune”- This beauty from There Goes Rhymin’ Simon seems at first like a throwback to the folk confessionals that Simon wrote with regularity in the 60’s. Yet with the help of Del Newman’s stirring score, “American Tune” slowly expands its scope. As the “I” becomes “we,” Simon paints a melancholy picture of an entire nation tired, lost, and dream-deprived, scrambling to find the ideals it lost somewhere along the way.
2. “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard”- We may never know what Mama Pajama saw or what went down between the narrator and Julio on that fateful day. Nor does it really matter, since Simon was choosing his words more for their impact as sounds than for any message they might convey. With Paul’s insanely catchy acoustic playing and Airto Moreira’s impossibly melodic percussion, “Me And Julio” is the kind of song that gets stuck in your head and you’re grateful when it does.