This is a bold statement, but one that I think is valid – Paul Simon’s “Graceland” is one of the most famous albums in the history of rock music. It was a huge worldwide hit, it won the Grammy Award for Best Album of the year, and it won the Village Voice Pazz & Jop Poll in the year it was released, by a landslide. There may have been other albums to achieve that troika, but off the top of my head I can’t think of a single one.
When “Graceland” was released in 1986, Paul Simon’s stature in the history of rock and pop music was already secure. Through his work with Art Garfunkel, his solo work, and his appearances on Saturday Night Live, he was destined for inclusion in a Hall of Fame that hadn’t even been invented yet. Some called him a bourgeois Bob Dylan, but few could argue with his musical and lyrical accomplishments.
But “Graceland” represented something new for Simon, and something new for American pop music. What lifted the album beyond the ordinary was Simon’s decision to cut most of the tracks with South African musicians, who were still living under the last vestiges of apartheid. Simon was accused at the time of violating the cultural boycott of South Africa, but 25 years later, one could just as easily argue that the exposure Simon gave to these musicians – great musicians like Ray Phiri, Joseph Shabalala, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo – was just another nail in apartheid's coffin.
And 25 years later, one can set aside the politics of the time and enjoy the album simply for its music. And there’s no doubt that working with the South Africans energized Simon in a way that hadn’t happened for a very long time. From the first propulsive chords of the album’s opener, “The Boy in the Bubble,” the music crackles with vitality, and could genuinely be said to be a sound that many people had never heard before. And Simon himself was up to the task – his vocals on the album remain the strongest of his career, and the musicians inspired him to write some of his most memorable lyrics.
“Graceland” – for Paul Simon, the highlight of a long, memorable career.
Graceland (1986) • Produced by Paul Simon
The Boy in the Bubble/Graceland/I Know What I Know/Gumboots/Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes/You Can Call Me Al/Under African Skies/Homeless/Cray Love Vol. II/That Was Your Mother/All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints