Ranking the 5 Best Songs on Paul Simon’s Standout 1986 Album ‘Graceland’

At a point when it looked like his time in the music limelight might be behind him, Paul Simon came roaring back with a major triumph in Graceland. Released in 1986, the album found Simon plopping his searching lyrics down into World Music settings, with a who’s who of stellar musicians from all over the globe helping him bring it all to life.

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There aren’t any flawed songs in the album, which makes choosing the top five songs from it a tough task. But that’s what we’re here to do, so let’s give it a whirl.

5. “I Know What I Know”

In many cases on Graceland, Simon composed original music that was influenced bv the sounds of South Africa. But with this track, he was essentially writing lyrics over a track that had already been written by General MD Shirinda and The Gaza Sisters, whose backing vocals take this song to a joyous new level. Simon’s lyrics are effortlessly funny here. His chance encounter with a girl he may or may not have met is rendered as a series of one-liners in the verses, but the chorus allows him to be decisive about where he stands in the world.

4. “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”

If nothing else, Graceland exposed some extremely worthy artists to audiences that might have remained ignorant of them otherwise. “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” gave a spotlight to Joseph Shabalala (who received a co-writing credit on the track for his contributions) and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Their a cappella section to begin the song is mesmerizing, and it allows Simon to indulge in a style not unlike the doo-wop that he idolized as a kid. Once the ridiculously rhythmic music kicks in, you just can’t miss.

3. “You Can Call Me Al”

The big hit off the record includes some incredible instrumental moments, most notably the stunning bass breakdown by Bakithi Kumalo that connects two parts of the song. But this is also the song that most obviously hearkens back to Simon’s ’70s singer/songwriter roots, so in that way it was a good way to ease people into the exotic sounds on the album. “You Can Call Me Al” is another song on the album where Simon’s self-deprecating sense of humor shines through, as it makes the narrator’s mid-life crisis somehow more relatable.

2. “The Boy in the Bubble”

For the most part, Graceland is a lighthearted album. Most of the concerns expressed are of the internal longing and questing kind, and even those are often expressed with a twinkle in the eye. But the opening track is the one song here that looks out at the world with unease. Simon’s exhortations that These are the days of miracle and wonder are meant to be heavily ironic, especially in light of the atrocities he details in the verses. The music is simply stunning, with the see-sawing accordion of Forere Motloheloa providing the impetus.

1. “Graceland”

The title track is the song where Simon’s writerly tendencies match up with the invigorating music in the most seamless fashion of all. Ray Phiri’s limber guitar work is a marvel, while the rhythm section of bassist Bakithi Kumalo and drummer Vusi Khumalo keep the narrator in relentless motion, even when the lyrics suggest that he’d rather wallow. At the core of the song is heartbreak (And I see losing love is like a window in your heart / Everybody sees you’re blown apart). And yet, the resilience of the narrator to find some sort of redemption in the titular location is the most moving part of the song.

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Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

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