KamerTunesBlog

Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

Thirty Year Thursday – PAUL SIMON “GRACELAND”

[Welcome to Thirty Year Thursday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1986]

Artist: PAUL SIMON
Album: GRACELAND

Paul Simon - GracelandWe’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.

Paul Simon with Chevy Chase

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?

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52 comments on “Thirty Year Thursday – PAUL SIMON “GRACELAND”

  1. Phillip Helbig
    June 30, 2016

    While I’m a big fan of Simon and Garfunkel, both of their solo stuff is not as good. With Garfunkel, perhaps no surprise, as he is not a writer. With Simon, it is just lower quality. Not bad, just not as good as with Simon and Garfunkel. (I rarely think that a “solo” album is better than an album from the (perhaps former) group.)

    A couple of years ago, I went to a Paul Simon concert. 3 hours or more, very competently played, but it just didn’t do it for me. I also think that he could have done more than just one Simon and Garfunkel song—and the one he did, “The Sound of Silence”, was not even the Simon and Garfunkel version.

    A few months ago, I was at an Art Garfunkel concert. It is probably in my all-time top-20 list (which is saying a lot, as I’ve probably been to 1000 concerts. Be sure to see him before he dies. (This was, admittedly, also my motivation for seeing Simon.)

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    • I think Simon’s songwriting during his solo career has been just as inventive and consistent as it was during his S&G days, but maybe the albums aren’t quite as strong because their two voices together generated such a unique sound. I only have a couple of Garfunkel albums and they’re definitely not on the same level as S&G, but that’s an unfair comparison. It would be like complaining that Roger Daltrey’s solo albums aren’t as good as The Who.

      Sorry you didn’t get much out of the Simon concert you attended. I’m guessing he’s played more S&G songs on other tours but his solo catalog is rightly his focus. I only saw him once and it was fantastic.

      Interesting that you rate the Garfunkel show so highly. I’d like to see him but it’s unlikely since I don’t go to many shows anymore.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Phillip Helbig
        June 30, 2016

        “maybe the albums aren’t quite as strong because their two voices together generated such a unique sound”

        That’s part of it. Another part is that I find songs like “Old Friends”, “Kathy’s Song” and so on genuinely moving, while “Mother and Child Reunion” and “You Can Call Me Al” just aren’t on the same level.

        Speaking of The Who, I’ll be seeing (what is left of) them in September. Along with the Beatles, Rush, and Queen, there is no way to change the classic line-up and still have the feeling that it is really the same band.

        “his solo catalog is rightly his focus”

        Nothing wrong with that; I didn’t expect anything else. But only one Simon and Garfunkel song in three-and-one-half hours was too little!

        Garfunkel was also another see-him-before-he-dies decision and frankly I wasn’t expecting much. But it was really good. He does have a really good voice, but it was also the songs (most from Simon and Garfunkel) and his stories which accompanied them. He has also dramatically aged and I think he realizes that he doesn’t have that much time left.

        Speaking of which, Dave Swarbrick, original fiddler for Fairport Convention and one of the most important figures of the folk revival in England, died a couple of weeks ago.

        2016 has probably had more high-profile rock-musician deaths than any other. Off the top of my head: David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Paul Kantner, Signe Anderson (these two on the same day), Prince, Scotty Moore, George Martin, Keith Emerson, Jimmy Bain, Lemmy Kilmister (OK, barely last year), Bernie Worrell, Maurice White, Wayne Jackson, Bill Ham, Henry McCullough, Nick Menza, Lonnie Mack, Gib Guilbeau, Jimmie Van Zant, Dennis Davis, Mic Gillette, Dale Griffin, Robert Stigwood, Merle Haggard (OK, not rock), Paul Gordon, Piotr Grudziński, Lennie Baker, Peter Behrens, and a host of lesser known musicians.

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      • There are plenty of songs in his solo discography that are as genuinely moving (to me, at least) as the S&G songs you mentioned…although it’s hard to think of a better song he’s written than “The Boxer.” You would just have to dig a little deeper beyond the radio hits. Knowing you, though, I imagine you’re pretty familiar with his output and you just didn’t find anything that moved you. Different strokes, as they say.

        Based on footage I’ve seen of The Who in recent years (since they lost John Entwistle), they sound very good but it’s clear that their best days are, unfortunately, far behind them. I give them a lot of credit for still going out there and giving the audience their best, especially Roger Daltrey. Not sure how he can even try to sing like that at his age. I hope you enjoy the show in September. I probably sound more critical than I mean to be. They’re in my top 5 all-time artists.

        I was sorry to hear about Swarbrick and, yes, this has been a tough year for musical icons. Sadly that will probably be the trend for years to come, as these guys (and women) get into their ’70s & beyond. It’s amazing that many of them lasted this long, but it doesn’t make their losses any easier.

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  2. Phillip Helbig
    June 30, 2016

    What I never could understand was the criticism Simon got for working with South African musicians. Sure, there were the boycott and sanctions, but these were directed against the White apartheid government, not at the Black population Simon was working with.

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    • I was also confused about the backlash he received at the time, but I guess it was considered taboo to have any connection with South Africa due to the government. Even though he was working with black musicians some people felt he was legitimizing a country whose leaders they disagreed with. In the end he probably helped to expose the injustices and was a big reason why apartheid eventually ended.

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  3. Kevin
    June 30, 2016

    I have to admit, I never heard this album, aside from the singles, which didn’t inspire me to buy it (I also might have been too busy listening to Peter Gabriel’s own 1986 foray into exotic African and Brazilian styles). I do love Rhythm Of The Saints, though.

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    • Kevin, if you get past the singles (which I enjoy, but I understand why some people were turned off by them) there’s a lot to love on Graceland. As I wrote back in 2011, it might be his most consistent collection of songs, and his collaborators really brought them to life.

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  4. Jeff Kempin
    June 30, 2016

    I’ve always liked Paul Simon, whether with Garfunkel or solo, and Graceland is a pretty stellar album. I’m overexposed to songs like You Can Call Me Al, but that doesn’t mean its a bad song. 1986 was a nice year for older artists to have big hits and/or finally break through the Top 40 charts. Peter Gabriel and Steve Winwood come to mind, but Paul Simon really hit it out of the park, getting the Album of the Year award and huge sales. Good for him.
    Great post, Rich.

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    • Hi Jeff. I’m glad you agree about the greatness (or stellar-ness) of this album, and it’s nice to hear from someone who can separate an overexposed song from a bad one. I know so many people who dismiss great-but-overplayed songs as terrible simply because they’ve heard them too many times, but I disagree with that viewpoint. Excellent point about ’86 being a good year for some of the older guys breaking into the mainstream big time (Gabriel pun intended). Thanks for your feedback. Hope you’re having a good week.

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  5. mikeladano
    June 30, 2016

    Great post Rich! I have the weirdest memory of this album. It would have been about 87-ish and we were visiting some family friends. Typically I’d be upstairs playing video games with the kids. Anyway, this one, my one guy Garnet had this album playing while we played Wolfenstein on the PC. Weird, weird combination.

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    • Thanks Mike. I have no idea what Wolfenstein is but it sounds like an interesting combination simply based on the name. I love when I have strange connections to certain music. Thanks for sharing this story. Glad you enjoyed the post.

      Liked by 1 person

      • mikeladano
        June 30, 2016

        It was a top-down shooter with you in a Nazi castle trying to track down and kill Hitler. That’s what I vaguely remember about the game!

        I think I’m going to play this album a bit later tonight!

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      • Hmm, a Hitler/Nazi-related game mixed with music by one of the most famous Jews in music history. It’s making more sense now.

        In spite of some ’80s drum sounds I think you’ll find that this album holds up extremely well. The songs and performances are outstanding.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Phillip Helbig
        July 1, 2016

        “Hmm, a Hitler/Nazi-related game mixed with music by one of the most famous Jews in music history.”

        I wasn’t going to mention it, but since someone brought it up:

        Around 1970 or so, Simon was a judge in a talent competition for young people from all over the world, somewhere in South America. A mixture of Pop Idol and the Eurovision Song Contest. Before it even started, he said that he would give no points to Germany because of the Holocaust.

        What a jerk!

        The person representing Germany was born years after World War II. What’s the point of punishing her, or even Germany, in this context?

        Supreme irony: The representative from Germany was Marianne Rosenberg (later famous as a “Schlager” singer, and more recently for more experimental electronic music). She is from a Sinti family. Like the Jews, homosexuals, communists, and others, Sinti and Roma (also called Gypsies, though some consider this derogatory) were systematically killed in the Holocaust. Marianne’s father was a survivor of Auschwitz. He, and Marianne’s sister Petra, have held various offices in the official Sinti and Roma organization.

        There are, of course, other musicians whose music I like but who have a different political opinion than I do (for that matter, different opinions on many things), but this incident seems particularly despicable.

        It would have been nice if Simon, who certainly knows the back story now, had apologized. He even apologized to Martin Carthy (closing the circle, long-time collaborator of Dave Swarbrick) for nicking his arrangement of the traditional tune Scarborough Fair. (By the way, I do like the Simon and Garfunkel version, especially the addition of the second vocal melody.)

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      • Interesting story about Simon on that talent competition. Not sure if that makes him a jerk, but he was probably misinformed and he was still very young. A whole generation of Jews were raised to mistrust anything German based on the atrocities committed during WWII. Fair or unfair, that’s what they were taught. I still have older family members who won’t consider buying a Mercedes or Volkswagen. I like to think Simon has done more good in the world through his music that he can be forgiven for one silly contest. Of course, I completely understand your reaction and wouldn’t think of trying to convince you otherwise.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Phillip Helbig
        July 4, 2016

        “Not sure if that makes him a jerk, but he was probably misinformed and he was still very young. A whole generation of Jews were raised to mistrust anything German based on the atrocities committed during WWII.”

        A jerk in this context only, of course.

        The irony is that this reaction is not that much different than the racism one (rightly) accused the Nazis of. 😦

        By the same token, many young Nazi soldiers were misinformed. And it is almost impossible to grow up in the Middle East today without being misinformed. Recently, there was a report about a Palestinian stabbing a sleeping Israeli teenager to death. Despicable, of course. But even kindergarten graduation in Palestine features glorification of terrorists. People criticize Trump when he says that the families of terrorists should be killed, but this routinely happens when Israel kills Palestinian terrorists.

        Unless people are judged by their actions and not where they come from, there is no hope. And even the actions have to be taken in context—not in the sense of excusing them, but of understanding them. (Which doesn’t mean, of course, that every excuse is a valid one.)

        Misinformed about the candidate, perhaps, but the idea of rejecting everything German (including, say, Beethoven* and Bach) is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Einstein never returned to Germany after fleeing from the Nazis, but when someone politely approached him, knowing that he had never returned to Germany, asking whether he would object to a school in Germany being named after him, he replied that of course it would be no problem, as children should not suffer for the sins of their fathers (and not all fathers sinned). By the way, Einstein only became concerned about his Judaism when anti-semitism became an issue. He was never religious, but thought of himself, in later life, as a “cultural Jew”. (After all, anti-semitism is based on lineage and not on the personal beliefs of those who are victims of it.)

        *Old joke: Austrian PR is so good that half the world thinks that Beethoven was an Austrian—and Hitler a German.

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      • All excellent points, Phillip. I’m going to bring this particular conversation to a close, though, since it’s veering into territory that many will find too controversial, and I prefer to keep discussions here as non-confrontational as possible, and focused on music of course. Nothing personal. 😀

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  6. stephen1001
    June 30, 2016

    A fine album (and preamble/review!) – I may prefer his self-titled ’72 album but more due to its strength than any shortcomings here

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    • Thanks Geoff. The only album that comes close for me is There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, which is probably equally consistent with Graceland. I love his debut as well but don’t think it’s as strong as the other two. Not a bad little catalog he’s amassed, eh?

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Daddydinorawk
    July 1, 2016

    So much to love about this album, even from the 80’s its production is nearly timeless. True to say he hasn’t really strayed too far from this format since, though the instrumentation is different the eclecticism he puts forth on each release is really remarkable.
    Some of the greatest songs from a great career are included here.

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    • Always happy to find someone else who feels as strongly about this album as I do. Couldn’t agree more regarding the sheer volume of great songs he included here. What a discography.

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  8. Murphy's Law
    July 1, 2016

    “These are the days of miracle and wonder…”

    I was raised on S&G and I always thought of Paul Simon as “Mom music” but this album is amazing.

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    • You chose a wonderful quote from this album, and I’m glad you agree about its greatness. I guess I can understand your “mom music” feelings, which would depend on how you were exposed to Simon’s music, but sometimes moms have good taste. During my childhood years I thought of Cat Stevens that way (thanks to a neighbor’s dad owning all of his albums), but when I was teenager I realized what an amazing writer & performer he was.

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      • Murphy's Law
        July 2, 2016

        I have that reaction to a lot 60’s folk rock and 70’s pop/rock. As I’ve gotten older and less rebellious I’ve come to love some on it’s own merits (Peter, Paul and Mary, Steely Dan) and some not (The Eagles)

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      • Never thought I would see PP&M and Steely Dan in the same sentence, but I understand your point. Sorry you don’t enjoy The Eagles. I understand why some people dislike them but I think their catalog is too strong to dismiss. We had a nice discussion here about them in 2014:
        https://kamertunesblog.wordpress.com/2014/08/10/a-friendly-discussion-about-the-eagles/

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  9. Phillip Helbig
    July 1, 2016

    I read recently that Hearts and Bones (the album before Graceland was originally intended as a Simon and Garfunkel reunion album, but these plans were changed after an argument. Garfunkel had sung on the album, and Simon removed his voice in the studio.

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    • I addressed this situation in my post about this portion of Simon’s discography. It’s a shame that Garfunkel’s vocal contributions weren’t included due to personal differences between the two of them, but it’s a pretty spectacular album and since he wrote all the songs I guess he can do whatever he wants with them. I wonder if there’s a version with Garfunkel sitting in the archives.

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  10. Phillip Helbig
    July 1, 2016

    Remember folks: This is the guy who married Princess Leia! 🙂

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  11. J.
    July 2, 2016

    Never been that much of a fan of I’m not a fan of Simon and Garfunkel (and haven’t heard too much of their solo offerings), but I like this album. I think it was more accessible to me at the time I heard it and I enjoyed the vibes he was exploring here. Plus, there was fun and some energy that I found missing with Simon and Garfunkel. But that’s just my opinion.

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    • Thanks for your feedback, J. I know a lot of people who have never liked S&G for the reasons you stated but they’ve enjoyed some of Simon’s solo output. Graceland was an ideal gateway for many fans into his discography. You couldn’t escape it in ’86 & ’87, and it’s held up extremely well. Certainly one of those rare commercially successful albums that was also a creative and critical success.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Vinyl Connection
      July 2, 2016

      James, try S&G’s ‘Bookends’ sometime. If you can hear it in the context of its time (nine months after Sgt Pepper) it is full of invention and creativity.

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      • J.
        July 3, 2016

        That’s the album before Bridge Over Troubled Water? I’ll jot it down on the list headed ‘for further investigation’.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I second Bruce’s recommendation of Bookends. It’s well worth investigating. And you are correct that it’s the album before Bridge Over Troubled Water, which might be my favorite S&G album.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. J.
    July 2, 2016

    Hit the ol’ button before finishing my comment! Point being: the massive success didn’t put me off listening. In fact, You Can Call Me Al was the reason I checked Graceland out.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Vinyl Connection
    July 2, 2016

    What a fine balancing act Paul Simon pulled off with Graceland. Commercial zingers, some roots music nods, even a plug for Ladysmith. And a little humanitarian protest quietly slipped in amongst the toons. Probably an album I appreciate more than venerate, but a triumph of song-writing, for sure.

    If push came to shove, I’d nominate ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ as my favourite for its sardonic humour, insight and wit. And utterly stellar playing.

    And a little footnote shoutout about your thoughtful and connecting responses to comments, Rich. Very nicely done indeed.

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    • J.
      July 3, 2016

      Still Crazy After All These Years is a wonderful song. Whenever I hear it now I think Larry David, thanks to that splendid episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t remember the Curb Your Enthusiasm reference. I was a huge fan of the show for the first few seasons but at some point it jumped the shark for me and I found it unwatchable. Still love the early years, though.

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      • J.
        July 4, 2016

        I know a few folks who either didn’t like it to begin with or got bored somewhere along the line. I honestly thought it kept getting better.

        Episode 2 of the very first season (Ted and Mary) has a few of my favourite moments … and whenever I head Still Crazy After All These Years I chuckle a bit …

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      • I thought the show kept getting better through the first 3-4 seasons but then I felt it lost something and there was a complete season (can’t remember which one) where I barely remember laughing. I loved it during the first season but can’t remember the “Still Crazy…” scene. Will have to watch it again.

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      • J.
        July 6, 2016

        That’s unfortunate … maybe time to revisit it?

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      • That’s unlikely since my free time has been limited and there are too many unwatched shows I’d like to check out, but I’m guessing I would still enjoy the early seasons of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” if I ever revisit them. I’m also certain the seasons I didn’t enjoy would never grow on me. Larry David’s humor is hit-and-miss, and those later seasons missed by a lot…for me at least.

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      • J.
        July 6, 2016

        That’s fair enough, Rich. I believe the expression some folks use is “that chap’s like Marmite”.

        Also, I know the feeling of having so much to fill so little free time!

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      • “That chap’s like Marmite.” I love it. 😀

        Liked by 1 person

    • Bruce, you really captured everything that’s great about Graceland in just a few sentences. Well done. As for Still Crazy…, are you referring to the song or album? The only Simon solo album that I consider the equal of Graceland is There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, but of course he’s got several others that come very close.

      Thanks for your comment about my responses. I’ve always looked at my blog as a way to begin conversations, so the back-and-forth is my favorite part of the process.

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      • Vinyl Connection
        July 3, 2016

        I really like ‘There goes…’ too. Particularly fond of ‘One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor’. Actually, I was referring to the album of ‘Still Crazy’. A belter, I reckon.

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      • As much as I love the musicianship on Still Crazy… (ah, that mid-70s New York sound) I feel like it’s a half-great album with too many average songs to put it in the same league as his best work. But that’s just me and my opinion, which is still crazy after all these years.

        Liked by 1 person

  14. 1537
    July 3, 2016

    My parents and I just loved this one for years, but we were very into African stuff anyway and I love the wit and fun of it. I’ve probably not listened to it for about 25 years or more but I can still remember every second.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. John Sturm
    July 4, 2016

    As I think I might have mentioned back on your Paul Simon series, Rich, my entry album was Rhythm of The Saints so that will always be my go to Simon album. But Graceland is in the Top 4 (Hearts & Bones and Songs From The Capeman are the other too). Graceland stands the test of time because it’s not of it’s time. There are elements (those 80s drums) but as a whole this album sounds nothing like anything else that came out in 86. So couple that with is the quality of songwriting and it’s (probably) why it’s the most well known of his solo stuff. Well, that and THAT video 😉

    If you haven’t seen the two documentaries about the album (Under African Skies and the Classic Albums series), I highly recommend them!

    Like

    • Hi John. Great to hear from you. Hope all is well. I like your unpredictable list of favorite Paul Simon albums. I don’t think there are many people who place “Songs From The Capeman” so high but I’ve always enjoyed that record and think it’s undervalued because the Broadway show was a flop.

      I’ve seen both of those documentaries and they’re excellent. Highly recommended to any fans of Graceland who want to dig deeper into the background & making of the album.

      Liked by 1 person

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