by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Graceland (1986, Warner Bros.)
An ever-so-slightly overrated album, this album’s adventurousness and its cultural importance in terms of widening the appeal of world music (not since the Talking Heads had any major pop act so fully immersed themselves into the music of another part of the world) has tended to mask its flaws, namely that the production sounds rather dated today (the drum sounds in particular have not aged well) and some of the experiments just don’t work (namely, “That Was Your Mother,” which sounds like it came from another album entirely, and “Gumboots”). [And how the album’s #81-peaking title cut actually managed to score a Grammy for Record of the Year – and a full year after being nominated for Song of the Year, at that – I will never understand, but then, I’m a strong believer that hitting the Top 40 should be a prerequisite for a nomination in that category.] Whether or not this is actually his finest album is certainly up to debate (you could make just as effective an argument for Rhymin’ Simon or Still Crazy or even Hearts and Bones), but it certainly ranks among his very best, and its most charming moments are hard to resist, be it the fun, near-free-form-poetry of the Top 40 hit “You Can Call Me Al” (which sports the best bass playing to be found on any Paul Simon single) or the equally playful “I Know What I Know,” the Ladysmith Black Mambazo showcase “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” the Linda Ronstadt duet “Under African Skies,” or the Los Lobos collaboration “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints.”
The Rhythm of the Saints (1990, Warner Bros.)
A clear attempt to replicate the artistic and critical success of Graceland, albeit with a Latin American flavor this time, Simon never actually embarrasses himself here, but the difference between this album and Graceland is that the latter disc consisted of great songwriting that also just so happened to involve a lot of world-music textures and elements, whereas this disc conversely feels as if the tracks were recorded before the songs were actually written, the world-music textures meant to actually carry the tracks rather than just serve as decoration on fully-realized songs with traditional choruses. This means that there’s far less in the way of memorable hooks to be found here than were on Graceland, and even the singles like “Obvious Child” and “Proof” are shockingly forgettable by Simon’s own – and rather high – standards. (“Born at the Right Time” is fairly catchy, though, and might have been a stronger choice of single.) A lot of critics will try to tell you that One Trick Pony is the worse album, but at least that album had a song that’s incredibly easy to remember in “Late in the Evening.” This album sounds perfectly fine while it’s on, and it’s clear a lot of craft and care went into the production, but it’s hard not to walk away from this disc feeling like Simon should have invested less time in exploring new sounds and put more time into making sure that the songs were ones that your average listener might be able to remember afterwards.
Songs from the Capeman (1997, Warner Bros.)
Easily Simon’s worst album, this outing features Simon’s own performances of songs from The Capeman, a Broadway musical he co-wrote and produced that flopped both critically and commercially (losing nearly eleven million dollars). Naturally, this isn’t your normal Paul Simon solo album – it doesn’t exactly sound like your average album of show tunes (there are, after all, hints of the doo-wop and early-rock-and-roll that Simon grew up with), but it’s also not exactly a pop album, either, so it’s really hard to tell who exactly this record is supposed to appeal to: it’s too theatrical and story-driven to appeal to fans of Paul Simon’s ‘70s and ‘80s work (and its storyline too complex and insular to make any individual songs work on a stand-alone basis for your average pop fan the same way that, say, “Summer Nights” from Grease can) but not traditional enough to fully appeal to connoisseurs of Broadway cast albums. It’s certainly a very ambitious and artistic outing, but all but the most diehard Simon fans will find this disc a little exhausting to listen to in its entirety, particularly in a single sitting.
You’re the One (2000, Warner Bros.)
It’s not exactly a return to form – it’s a bit too insular and too focused on atmosphere over melody to resonate with most listeners, and Simon is still struggling to write the kind of memorable melodies he used to write with such ease – but Simon’s first proper pop album in ten years is at least a step back in the right direction after the misfires of Rhythm of the Saints. Like most of Simon’s solo outings, it’s a highly intellectual album and very artistic, but it doesn’t try terribly hard to connect to a wide audience, though the title cut is fairly catchy. “Hurricane Eye” and “Old” are also worth repeated listens.
Surprise (2006, Warner Bros.)
Easily his best solo outing since Graceland, Simon sounds newly inspired and re-energized on this disc, which also finds Simon co-writing several cuts with, intriguingly enough, Brian Eno, who is also credited with providing electronics and a “sonic landscape.” The album also features a great supporting cast, including Herbie Hancock and session greats Steve Gadd, Pino Palladino, Bill Frisell, and Abe Laboriel, as well as the Jessy Dixon Singers (who had sung backup behind Simon and Phoebe Snow on “Gone at Last” nearly thirty years earlier). Most importantly, Simon’s writing strong melodies again to go along with his always-intriguing lyrics, and the set of songs is his catchiest in decades, highlighted by the funky “Outrageous,” “How Can You Live in the Northeast,” “Wartime Prayers,” and the lovely “Father and Son.”
So Beautiful or So What (2011, Hear)
Just as strong as its predecessor, Simon continues his late-career comeback here. Brian Eno, whose songwriting and sonic contributions to Surprise made such a big difference in that album, is sadly missing this time around, but Simon compensates for that by bringing back Phil Ramone, who had co-produced Rhymin’ Simon, Still Crazy, and One Trick Pony. That would mean little if the songs weren’t up to snuff, but thankfully, Simon’s melodic abilities are still in fine form, and the songs are generally catchier than those on Saints or You’re the One, particularly the excellent title cut, “The Afterlife,” “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” and “Rewrite.”
Stranger to Stranger (2016, Concord)
Even better than his last two glorious albums, this is Simon’s strongest album in at least thirty years, possibly even more! Reuniting with his old partner Roy Halee (who had co-produced the Simon & Garfunkel albums, as well as Simon’s self-titled debut), Simon pulls off the difficult feat here of making an extremely experimental, atmospheric, and self-consciously arty album – one that not only fuses traditional instrumentation to electronic beats with great success but even employs some custom-made instruments like Cloud-Chamber Bowls and a Chromelodeon – that is simultaneously hook-heavy enough to appeal to fans of more pop-oriented music. Like The Rhythm of the Saints, this album is very groove-driven and heavily percussion-oriented (to the extent that the only instrumentation on “In a Parade” is drum-based, and “Street Angel” is nearly entirely percussion-based as well). But what separates this album from Saints is that most of the songs here have proper choruses – if not also very catchy ones, at that - and it's consequently never nearly as obvious as it was on Saints whether the songs were written prior to going into the studio or if the songs emerged out of studio jams. The songs seem much more carefully constructed and noticeably more radio-friendly, even if the production is still off-kilter enough to make the album still feel more experimental and intriguing than your average pop album. Highlights include the humorous “Wristband,” the stomping beats of “Street Angel,” the festive “In a Parade,” the slithering grooves of “The Riverbank,” and the incredibly fun “Cool Papa Bell,” which sounds like a slightly more off-kilter version of the kind of melodically lovely, vibrant African pop Simon explored on Graceland. Expect this deserving disc to pop up on a lot of critics’ best-of lists at the end of the year.
Simon’s solo career has been a bit over-anthologized, so there are an awful lot of options to go with if you want to start with a hits package. It’s missing four minor Top 40 hits (“American Tune” being the most sorely missed), but as far as single-disc packages go, it’s hard to beat Negotiations and Love Songs 1971-1986; it’s got all his most crucial hits from his days with Columbia as well as a well-chosen selection of cuts from his first three discs for Warner Brothers. Naturally, because of its release date, there’s nothing here representing his post-Graceland work, but he stopped having hit singles after that album, anyway, so it works better as a greatest-hits disc than his later single-disc compilations that devote a lot of their running time to his late-career albums. If you want to spring for a double-disc package, go with The Essential Paul Simon.
Simon only had two solo albums under his belt by the time he released Paul Simon in Concert: Live Rhymin’, his first live disc as a solo artist, so, while it’s still good, it’s not exactly representative of a modern-day Simon solo concert, either. Much more fulfilling is 1991’s Concert in the Park, which contains many of the same hits (along with more recent hits like “You Can Call Me Al” and “Late in the Evening”) and also improves on some of the songs from Simon’s then-most-recent disc, The Rhythm of the Saints.