A recurring critical assessment of Carly Simon‘s work, perpetuated mainly by male writers, is that she’s a “singles artist”. That’s usually intended either as an open slight or a backhanded compliment – in other words, a slight in drag. Nothing could be further from the truth. Why someone would want to push the falsehood that Simon’s work is disposable upmarket bubblegum remains a mystery. She’s been crafting albums of clever, literate songs that hang together as meaningful bodies of work since 1971. Her 2022 nomination for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – whatever your opinion of that popularity club – is long overdue.
It’s hard to pinpoint a reason – possibly because there are several – that Simon attracts as many writers eager to minimize her as she does ones who lift her up. For Robert Christgau, self-styled ‘Dean’ of music critics, it’s her background of well-heeled bohemia – by that prejudice, he views her as innately and irredeemably complacent. It’s the same reason he finds James Taylor and Harry Chapin untenable. For others, though they might be reluctant to admit it, it’s Simon’s conspicuous glamour. Bobbie Gentry, whose work wasn’t reappraised until 2019, was another to be underestimated because of her physical presentation.
Let’s also not overlook just how many men can only perceive genius in other men. Glance at the covers of the print music monthlies, and you’ll see a ratio that never favors women. Ever. Yes, they’ll let Joni Mitchell into the club. And Rickie Lee Jones is permitted two or three good albums. But, like Carole King with Tapestry, Simon is only allowed No Secrets, as if to suggest it was a fluke. In fact, she’s issued many albums that are its equal. Simon’s songs reveal her as a sharp-witted observer of herself and others, a quirky diarist, a deep feeler, and a shrewd witness of passion, pain, and social/romantic mores. Though she can knock out straightforward rock songs like “Jesse” (from Come Upstairs, 1980), more often she displays a sharply sophisticated use of musical architecture, especially in terms of chords and chord progressions.
Think of the atypical (for pop) progressions that kick in during the plaintive “so don’t mind if I fall apart” post-chorus passage in “Coming Around Again”. Simon equals that musical flair with lyrics that loiter around emotional flashpoints quite fearlessly and never without brains and trenchancy. Not only is she good with words, but her occasional co-writer, Jacob Brackman, a lyricist she has worked with throughout her career, has an extraordinary knack for capturing her voice. As a result, even the songs with words supplied by him sound as if they were written by her. There’s a Carly Simon song for almost every shade of feeling, from despair to jubilation. Quite simply, she is one of pop’s greatest chroniclers of the human heart.
Neither taste nor opinion is not static, so a best album one week is not necessarily a best the next. Personal bias collides with any attempt to be objective, however much someone tries to suspend the former. To celebrate Simon, the auteur, I’ve eliminated her covers albums. If I’d included them, Torch (1981) would be present. I’ve also passed over her Warner Bros. and Epic periods. It pains me not to include the splendid, effervescent pop LP Spoiled Girl or the cross-genre, semi-experimental Hello Big Man. Ask me next week, and they could well appear prominently. But here are what possibly rank as Carly Simon’s ten best LPs – for the moment.
10. Have You Seen Me Lately? (Arista, 1990)
This charming LP was a reunion with British producer Paul Samwell-Smith, who’d worked on Simon’s second album, Anticipation. Also on hand was Frank Filipetti, one of Simon’s most sympathetic collaborators. But for whatever reason, the album didn’t quite replicate the success of 1987’s Coming Around Again. Was it a mistake to issue a live album (Greatest Hits Live, 1988) and a collection of popular standards (My Romance, 1990) in the period between the two? Could Have You Seen Me Lately? have broken through if it had been able to ride on the renewed momentum from Simon’s 1987 success? Or was it just a little too personal and cultivated to be a blockbuster seller? It had no shortage of sunny, instantly memorable tunes – “Better Not Tell Her”, “Life Is Eternal”, and “Don’t Wrap It Up”. There are also some incisive, happy-sad reflections on reaching the early stages of mid-life, particularly the wry “Happy Birthday”.
9. Hotcakes (Elektra, 1974)
The gold-selling follow-up to No Secrets is infused with a spirit of happiness and domestic contentment. It has an unmistakable flushed-with-success glow. Its least essential track, “Mockingbird”, was the biggest of its two hits. The spiritual empowerment anthem, “Haven’t Got Time For the Pain”, with a glorious Paul Buckmaster arrangement, was the other, better one. Perhaps this album isn’t as hard-hitting as its predecessor, but the songwriting is never less than gripping; the subdued, plaintive “Grownup”, the humorous childhood reminiscence, “Older Sister”, the contemplative “Mind on My Man”, the frolicking “Misfit”. Everything that makes Simon special is here.
8. Boys in the Trees (Elektra, 1978)
Simon’s collaboration with super producer, Arif Mardin, paid off with a hit single, “You Belong to Me”, co-written with Michael McDonald. Boys in the Trees, from which it was plucked, is one of her bestsellers. It’s no wonder that the title track, a perceptive art song exploring the complications of budding sexuality, struck a chord with Tori Amos, who later covered it in concert. “Haunting”, a tremendous pop aria about the concealed romantic obsessions we carry through life, and “In a Small Moment”, a touching folk-soul examination of the psychological toll of lying, lodge instantly in the memory. Simon was in a better voice than ever. There are some treading-water moments – Simon has written better romantic ballads than “You’re the One” and “For Old Time’s Sake” – but the album’s a solid 8/10.
7. Another Passenger (Elektra, 1976)
The vaulting ambition of Simon’s first post-Richard Perry album is admirable. It’s clear that after the sultry domesticity of Hotcakes and Playing Possum, she wanted a new kind of creative stretch. Ted Templeman’s production certainly provided it. Her sixth album’s 13 tracks dabble in soul, folk, boogie-woogie, bossa nova, sultry balladeering, and rock, and there’s a mix of storytelling, autobiography, and semi-autobiography. It’s hard to know which category the startling, sad “In Times When My Head” falls. In this soulful, lushly-arranged ballad, the narrator has committed adultery and is now consumed by a desperate paranoia that her partner will do the same thing. It’s an example of Simon’s very best pop songwriting.
Only on “Darkness ‘Til Dawn” is there excessive instrumental titivation. A year later, Simon would produce a far more effective, piano-only arrangement of this atmospheric song for her friend, Libby Titus. Here, it’s tarted up to its detriment. Another Passenger is an overlooked Carly Simon album – it didn’t have a big hit. Still, it’s an engrossing piece of work and includes the sweeping, orchestrated ballad “Libby”, an enduring fan favorite.