Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
[Welcome to Thirty Year Thursday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1986]
Artist: PAUL SIMON
We’ve reached the point in Thirty Year Thursday where I’ve covered just about all of the 1986 releases that I loved then and, in most cases, I still enjoy just as much today. The only exceptions are the records that I previously wrote about as part of my coverage on certain artists’ discographies. For the next several weeks I’ll shine a light on these records with a brief introduction followed by my original write-up (with a link to that post in case you’d like to dig deeper into that artist’s catalog). The first such album is the biggest seller of Paul Simon’s career, Graceland. I think I adequately explained back in 2011 why it was such a groundbreaking release that deserves all its accolades & commercial success, so here’s what I wrote in Part 3 of my Paul Simon series.
When Graceland (1986) was first unleashed on the public, no one could’ve predicted how successful it would be. On paper, a famous singer/songwriter who hadn’t had a major hit in years collaborating with mostly South African musicians wouldn’t signal a worldwide phenomenon, multi-platinum sales, and another Grammy for Album Of The Year. Yet that’s exactly what happened. I loved it from the first time I heard it, and before revisiting his catalog this month, it’s the album I was most familiar with. Its success has as much to do with the incredible songs as with the arrangements and guest musicians. Honestly, there’s not a bad song in the bunch, and many of them are among his very best.
The two best-known songs are probably “You Can Call Me Al” (famous for the video where Chevy Chase lip synchs the words while Simon sits there looking bored) and “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes,” which features South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I’m sure a lot of people who watched Saturday Night Live in the ‘80s will remember their performance of this song, with Ladysmith’s commanding stage presence. They’re also featured on the a capella “Homeless,” another instantly memorable song with some incredible vocals.
“The Boy In The Bubble” is a great album opener, with accordion, booming ‘80s drums, a funky bass line and some of Simon’s most confident singing. In fact, that applies to the whole album. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him sound so sure of his voice and his lyrics. The upbeat “Gumboots” was actually an existing instrumental record by The Boyoyo Boys that Simon added vocals to, including the memorable line “You don’t feel you could love me but I feel you could.” Linda Ronstadt adds her glorious harmonies to the poignant “Under African Skies,” and Los Lobos provide the music for “All Around The World Or The Myth Of Fingerprints.” This track has some controversy behind it, as Los Lobos have claimed that they collaborated on the song but Simon took full songwriting credit. I’ve read some back-and-forth bickering about this online, but as far as I can tell there was never any legal action. Regardless of this issue, it’s a fun song with a feel similar to David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” and a great way to close out the album.
The real hidden gem on this album is “I Know What I Know” that features cool female African vocals by The Gaza sisters. There’s a bit of an off-kilter quality to the music & vocals, but that adds to its charm. It’s the song I most look forward to hearing every time I listen to the album. In popular music, commercial success doesn’t always coincide with the quality of the music, but in the case of Graceland, its popularity is well-earned. I imagine there are some people who dislike the album simply because it’s popular, but they’re missing out on possibly his best collection of songs.
Please let me know if you agree about the timeless nature of Graceland or, if its massive success affected your enjoyment, which Paul Simon album(s) do you prefer?