6. Spy (Elektra, 1979)
The less successful but more consistent of the Mardin-produced albums, Spy came with a kind of concept. The cover captured the artist with a “strategically dipped” hat and bore the Anais Nin quotation: “I am an international spy in the house of love.” But lead single, “Vengeance”, underperformed, despite ravishing promotional footage. Consequently, Spy remained an album only listened to by established fans rather than the wider audience necessary for a hit. That’s a shame because it includes “We’re So Close”, one of Simon’s finest creative triumphs. It’s a torch song for a marriage-in-denial. This heartrending jazz-pop ballad depicts a union slowly drained of the lifeblood of kind words, thoughtful gestures, and everyday tenderness. Simon sings about a man for whom expressions of affection are unnecessary clutter. He is gaslighting her by saying, “the less I convey it, the more I love you.”
In the context of Simon’s marriage, one wonders if this cri de coeur acted as a hand grenade or, perhaps more devastatingly, was met with indifference. Whatever the case, it’s riveting writing with lovely chord progressions and a sax solo that sounds like someone crying at midnight. And in its greatness, it’s not alone; “Just Like You Do”, “Spy”, “Never Been Gone” (one of Simon’s most glistening, straightforward folk songs), “Coming to Get You”, “Love You By Heart” and the jazz-rock experiment, “Memorial Day” are almost its equal. The flatly unimpressive “Pure Sin” is the sole weak link.
5. The Bedroom Tapes (Arista, 2000)
Simon has never blanched at the opportunity to mine art from adversity; The Bedroom Tapes, which she co-produced, was written during and after her recovery from breast cancer. Although its production is not short of dexterous little flourishes, it’s actually the most scaled-back of the Arista albums, sometimes harking back to the Anticipation era. It captures every side of the artist, from the typically Simon-esque intelligent erotica – “Our Affair”, “Big Dumb Guy” – to the poetic making sense of loss and suffering – “Scar”, “I Forget”.
Then there are the witty, whimsical self-portraits, such as “I’m Really the Kind”. Many Carly Simon albums have elegant little dabs of acridity and pithiness, and on this one, they appear in the form of the astringent “We, Your Dearest Friends”. It’s a pity this distinguished album arrived just as Simon’s relationship with Arista was curdling; several critics threw their weight behind it, and it deserved a more prolonged spell in the spotlight. It was reissued sometime later with an additional two tracks. The original version ends with “In Honor of Your, George”, an enthralling, sprawling Gershwin tribute.
4. No Secrets (Elektra, 1972)
There’s a reason this album is so frequently identified as Simon’s best. As well as including “You’re So Vain”, it’s incredibly consistent. Beyond its two hits, it features mature, subtle songwriting, typified by “His Friends Are More Than Robin”, a wistful, yearning character study. Its title track confronts the tension caused when a desire for maturity and openness in love clashes with childlike insecurity and possessiveness. There are some lovely reflections on how adulthood disabuses us of comforting fantasies, a recurring motif of Simon albums – “It Was So Easy Then”, “Embrace Me You Child”. “The Carter Family”, about the grownup realization that we pine for things we once found tiresome, is another high point. Some of Simon’s other albums linger, unfairly, in the shadow of No Secrets, but it’s easy to hear why it casts such a long one.
3. Playing Possum (Elektra, 1975)
A warm, sensual sound-bath, Playing Possum has been cited as the point at which Simon’s work took a turn for the worse. Nonsense. If anything, this is where her three-album collaboration with producer Richard Perry reached its pinnacle. Perhaps its reputation suffers because the hit associated with it is the fun, frivolous “Attitude Dancing”. Simon reportedly wanted the riveting “Slave” to be released instead – it’s the better song but less commercial.
Playing Possum is one of the albums on which Simon’s piano-playing, an under-appreciated part of her early sound, is particularly prominent. There’s also some guest piano from Dr. John. Today, it may be more famous for its sexy cover, but this album is a breezily lustful pleasure. The simmering, jazzy ballad “After the Storm” is one of her all-time best album-openers. The concluding title track, about the post-hippie disillusionment of 1960s idealists, is a fine closer.
2. Letters Never Sent (Arista, 1994)
Simon had a tremendous second act when she moved to Arista in 1986. While it was Coming Around Again that restored her fortunes, that was a half-great album. In its other half, especially on the Bryan Adams track “It Should Have Been Me”, it bore the prints of Clive Davis’s sticky little fingers. It was the follow-ups where Simon bloomed creatively. Letters Never Sent is an outstanding, ambitious, romantic concept album based on a box of unsent missives produced by Simon and Frank Filipetti.
The slick, funky title track sounds like something Ashford & Simpson could have confected, but “Lost in Your Love”, a dreamy, rapturous gem of romantic abandon is pure Simon. And so is the quirkily erotic “The Reason”. Concluding with the folk mysticism of “I’d Rather It Was You”, Letters Never Sent was where Simon’s commercial and anti-commercial instincts came together to splendid effect. It’s her ’90s masterpiece, with sumptuous, no-expense-spared production and arrangements.
1. Anticipation (Elektra, 1971)
No Secrets has surely had more than its fair share of time in pole position. Simon’s second album, Anticipation deserves to take its turn. She has identified it as the album made most according to her wishes, with the least concern for commerciality. Yet it delivered two hits; the enduring sing-a-long title track and the less well-remembered “Legend in Your Own Time”. But the album tracks shine just as much, whether it’s the shimmering bossa nova of “Summer’s Coming Around Again” or the apocalyptic rock theatre of “Share the End”.
“The Garden” is the kind of folk-in-heat that’s always been one of Simon’s strengths. The slightly washed-out cover image of Simon striking a power pose in Regent’s Park (the album was recorded at Trident Studios in London) captures the album’s essence. This is a coming-of-age singer-songwriter LP with considerable bite. It concludes with a fine, highly-charged recording of Kris Kristofferson’s “I’ve Got to Have You”.