All of Paul Simon's solo albums ranked

Every Paul Simon solo record reviewed.
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The opening track of Paul Simon’s first solo album begins with a simple guitar motif and a rather defiant young man warning the listener – “A winter’s day, in a deep and dark December – I am alone.” Almost sixty years later, the final lines the now 81-year-old Simon sings at the end of his latest album, Seven Psalms, represent something of an antithesis: “I need you here by my side – My beautiful mystery guide.”

Is this an acceptance? A concession to age and the inevitable? If so, what follows is an even bigger concession. Paul Simon, who became famous as part of a brilliant harmonizing duo and then rarely allowed other voices to take the lead on his solo records, gives the final lines of what may be his final album to someone else.

He gives those lines to his wife, Edie Brickell, who offers the soothing invitation, “Children get ready – It’s time to come home.” As Paul and Edie come together for the album’s last word – “Wait” – it is a strangely comforting moment.

Ranking every Paul Simon solo album

Seven Psalms is a remarkable album. We’ll return to it shortly. And we’ll take a look at that first album – The Paul Simon Songbook – as well. In fact, we’ll take a look at all fifteen of the original solo albums released by Paul Simon between 1965 and 2023. Not only that, we’ll put them in order from least to most successful. Because that’s what we do. We organize and rank things. We look for patterns. “Patterns that can scarcely be controlled,” as Simon might say. (Actually, he did say it.)

The most amazing thing that you discover when actually ranking those fifteen albums is that there is absolutely no pattern. Sure, there are recurring themes. There are periods when he tried on one type of music or another. But if you want to argue that he started strong and then grew tired, as so often happens to artists with such long careers, you can’t. If you want to say that he steadily improved to a peak in the middle of his career, before tailing off, you can’t. You can’t really draw a neat line from “I am a rock – I am an island” to “I need you here by my side – My beautiful mystery guide.”

And that’s one reason why Paul Simon is among the greatest English-language songwriters of the last century.

He never stopped exploring. He explored lyrically. He went even further musically. And it isn’t merely that he opened himself and his listeners to new traditions and new instruments. It’s that he took those new impulses and combined them with lots of other impulses – often radically different impulses – from his past present and future.

A couple of years ago, Simon sat down with author Malcolm Gladwell to talk about his career and describe the manner in which he went about creation. One of the main points Gladwell makes is labeled “the gift of Queens.” He suggests that growing up in Queens in the 1950s exposed Simon to so many diverse cultures and traditions, and Simon was a sponge. He was restless. He was searching. And he never seemed to settle on any one simple answer. He constantly mixed and matched those traditions, those voices and instruments, and rhythms, into something new.

I think the Gift of Queens is as plausible an explanation of Simon's varied musical career as any other. But I know for certain that the gift of Paul Simon can be found in those fifteen solo albums. So, whether you have them all memorized, or have never heard a single song, come with me on a brief tour of those sixty years. It’ll be worth the trip.