Celebrating the birthday of a Bronx original with a look back at her best studio work
Carly Simon’s illustrious career was cultivated in the singer-songwriter era of the early 1970s, and it hasn’t stopped blooming ever since.
From scathing breakup tunes, to starry-eyed glimpses at humanity, Carly’s work continues to capture the hearts of hopeless romantics everywhere. When digging into her discography, there are a surprising number of unexpected sounds. From reggae to synth pop, what is sustained through her wide array of styles, at the heart of Carly’s music is her candid lyricism – that is her legacy.
10. Another Passenger (1976)
Moving away from her classic sound with Richard Perry, Simon recruited Ted Templeman to produce her sixth studio album, Another Passenger. The Doobie Brothers, Jackson Browne, and Linda Ronstadt can all be heard in Carly’s harmonies on the album. It features a couple of Carly’s greatest narrative songs, “Cow Town” and “Libby.” The former tells the tale of a high-class French woman who runs off with a Texas oil tycoon; trading in the exquisite Parisian nightlife for drilling rigs and “livin’ on the Buffalo Bayou.” A heartfelt exercise in prose accompanied by Debussy-style piano passages, “Libby” produces a dream sequence of escaping life’s troubles in true Audrey Hepburn fashion: going to Paris. Incorporating Bossa Nova with “He Likes to Roll,” and the production genius of Van Dyke Parks on “Darkness ‘til Dawn,” this album is truly a menagerie of surprises. The main single from the album, “It Keeps You Runnin’,” is a Doobie Brothers classic, but Carly Simon’s mezzo-soprano vocals take the song to another level. Although it didn’t reach the same level of acclaim as her other albums, we can see Carly Simon at one of her most experimental moments on Another Passenger – willing to try anything, as long as it pleased her ear.
9. Come Upstairs (1980)
Carly Simon’s power-pop album Come Upstairs was her response to the New Wave of the 1980s. The album integrated a harder rock sound that was completely unexpected of Simon with her history of jazzy folk fusion. Incorporating synths and a dash of punk-rock, she brought her soft ‘70s sound around to the sharper-edged ‘80s. Tinged with electronica and involving paranoid science fiction lyrics, “Them” almost sounds like Carly collaborated with Devo. Flashes of art-pop occur in the tryptic heart of the album “James,” “In Pain,” and “The Three of Us in the Dark.” Released three years before her divorce from James Taylor, these songs show the cracks of their relationship coming to the surface of her creative output. The crowning glory of this album is the synth-shaded tune, “Jesse.” Inspired by trying to “baby train” her son’s sleeping patterns, she transformed “Ben, I won’t go to you… I won’t pick you up” into “Jesse, I won’t cut fresh flowers for you…” The song is a perfect example of Carly’s lyrical craftsmanship as she cleverly converted maternal impulses to soothe her baby’s needs, to the adult themes of lovers, and the games they play.
8. Hotcakes (1974)
Carly Simon’s fourth studio album captures her at complete domestic bliss; married to one of the foremost musicians in the world, James Taylor, and pregnant with her first child. The themes of the album include love and family (“Mind on My Man,” “Think I’m Gonna Have a Baby,” “Older Sister”), presented from a more mature and yet light-hearted perspective than her previous albums. It shows her life and career at a turning point, anticipating where her lyrics would take her, and how her sound might change. Produced by Richard Perry and arranged by Paul Buckmaster, there is a slick sophistication to this album that highlights the serious undertones of the cheery lyrics; the best example being the refined orchestral closing of “Haven’t Got Time for the Pain.” “Safe and Sound” laments the craziness of the world, and expresses the comfort of her familial sphere; “If through all the madness / We can stick together / We’re safe and sound / The world’s just inside out and upside down.” The major hit single was a cover of Inez & Charlie Foxx’s “Mockingbird.” The song was the perfect recipe for Hotcakes; harmonizing with her then-husband, mixing the adult undertones into the childhood rhymes, Carly and James served up a groovy slice of comfort listening, and marital bliss.
7. Hello Big Man (1983)
A criminally underrated album in Carly Simon’s discography, Hello Big Man paints a romantic portrait of life on Martha’s Vineyard. Many of the songs take on underexplored genres in her catalogue. There is a stylistic jab into the synth-laden 80s with the opening track, “You Know What to Do.” She includes World Music by using African rhythms and a marimba to sketch a story of romance on the island of “Menemsha.” Revelling in Reggae, she included a tranquil cover of Bob Marley’s “Is This Love?” Along with “Such a Good Boy” and “Floundering,” Carly conflates the Reggae style of Jamaica with life in New England, and captures tourists’ idealization of island living. In the song “Orpheus,” she shows her marriage in terms of the tragic Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice; maybe they could have made it had they just practiced more faith. In the title track, she takes a roman-à-clef approach in rewriting the story of her parents’ partnership, adding more love, and becoming a retrospective reconciliation: “You keep on expecting something to go wrong / And nothing does / They still live in the house where we were born / Pictures of us kids hanging up all over the walls.” Hello Big Man, both the song and the album as a whole, come to represent how Carly Simon is able to transform life into something intrinsically better through the power of music.
6. Carly Simon (1971)
One of the most striking debut albums of all time is Carly Simon’s melancholic self-titled album. Produced by Eddie Kramer at Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios, the album portrays Carly’s attempts to find her sound. Somewhere between country, rock, folk, and a Burt Bacharach-style pop, her candid lyrics graced the ears of listeners for the first time. Opening the album with the hauntingly beautiful piano ballad, “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard it Should Be,” Simon made her mark on the world of popular music. It still is one of the most realistic glimpses into society’s falsified idea of happily-ever-after; “Well that’s the way I’ve always heard it should be / you want to marry me, we’ll marry.” The album benefits from her versatile lyrical styles, while following the musical direction of those around her. Her lyrics on “Another Door,” and “Reunions,” illustrate her budding narrative technique, while “The Love’s Still Growing” is an unexpected foray into psychedelia, and “Dan, My Fling,” indicates where her sound may travel. Earning her a Grammy for Best New Artist in 1971, the album exhibits the unpolished facets of her talents that she continued to develop throughout her career.
5. Letters Never Sent (1994)
Carly Simon’s Letters Never Sent is a concept album that presents a collection of her letters set to music. With sincere words as her forte, she delves into many different styles while inviting the listener into her own personal life. The moving track “Like a River” was written as a musical obituary to her mother, who died of cancer in 1994. It acts as an elegy to her with movements of folk, pop, rock, and opera, and offers a particularly unfiltered look into her life at that point: “I fought over the pearls / With the other girls / But it was all a metaphor / For what was wrong with us.” Similarly, the power-ballad “Touched By the Sun” was a stirring tribute to the ever-elegant Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis, who also died of cancer in 1994. While the album promises a look into her stack of unsent letters, the themes of the album are ones that have always been with Carly: family, friends, and love. With moving words at the heart of the album and music dancing just under it, Carly’s creative process has always been setting words to music; whether they are lines written in the back of her notebook, or Letters Never Sent.
4. Anticipation (1971)
While 1971 was the zenith of the singer-songwriter era, Carly Simon’s sound differed from the hippie folk tunes of the west coast. Instead, her style indicated a skillful sophistication both lyrically and musically, owing more to jazz than to folk music. Stripping back the sounds of her debut, the A side of Carly’s second studio album presented her voice and words as the stars of the show, accompanied by guitar, piano, and a minimal rhythm section. The eponymous single, “Anticipation,” became synonymous with not only the “good old days,” but also with Heinz Ketchup back in the late 1970s, when it was a mainstay for their US commercials. Andy Newmark’s drum fill between the lines “Anticipation is making late” and “it’s keeping me waiting” embeds the sense of anticipation into the music itself, psychologically making you feel what she’s singing about. “Legend in Your Own Time” becomes a show-biz character study, with the genius being in the production. Strategically double-tracking Carly’s voice on the lines, “Then you turn on the radio / and sing with the singer in the band,” it momentarily sounds like her voice is being fed through a radio directly into the listeners’ room.
3. Coming Around Again (1987)
The Coming Around Again album carried Carly Simon from the ‘80s to the ‘90s. Written for the Heartburn film starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, Carly revitalized her career with the hit single “Coming Around Again.” Adding a new-wave synthesizer to the hypnotic track, she soothes the listener by not only baring her heart, but by also explaining the transience of life: “I know nothin’ stays the same / But if you’re willin’ to play the game / It will be comin’ around again.” Leading up to this point of her career, Carly has always been like a girlfriend or sister, but on this album, she becomes more like a mother giving advice on life and love. Complete with an enchanting allusion to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of,” produced one of her biggest hits on the Adult Contemporary charts, lasting at No. 8 for 17 weeks. Her narrative technique once again comes to the forefront in the song “Two Hot Girls (On a Hot Summer Night),” a slightly self-deprecating tune that reveals the all-too real feeling of being second-best to your closest friend (or, in Carly’s autobiographical case, a sister). One of the best moments on the album is “All I Want is You.” With backing vocals from the extraordinary Roberta Flack, the song was always bound for success. It hit number 7 on the Adult Contemporary charts, and is the only song that can make a hurricane sound sexy. After a brief lull in her commercial prospects, this album showed that Carly’s success was Coming Around Again.
2. Boys in the Trees (1976)
“Boys in the Trees” is an autobiographical folk song that retrospectively became the title of her 2015 memoir. In a similar way that “Mockingbird” brought great attention to Hotcakes, the Simon-Taylor duet of the Everly classic, “Devoted To You,” brought similar commercial attention to Boys in the Trees. While their version is considerably more romantic than the Everly Brothers’ original, this is mainly because fans crave that glimpse into Carly and James’ little Camelot. Disrupting the domestic image, “You Belong To Me” became a major hit as her reedy voice matches the incredible saxophone work on the track. ‘Haunting’ is a beguiling theme that includes Phantom of the Opera-esque level drama and works as a short story between the lyrics and the music. With “Tranquillo (Melt My Heart),” Carly began dabbling into disco, which would later be developed by Chic’s Nile Rodgers on the “Why” single in 1982. An incredibly slick tune, Carly inverts the sexual expectations of the disco genre into pleading with her child to go to sleep. While continuing to include romantic themes, the album effectively changed the pace of her career. Boys In the Trees is a landmark album that illustrated how the mellow singer-songwriter began adapting to the times in her own unique way.
1. No Secrets (1972)
The many creative waves of the 1970s came crashing on the shoreline of Carly Simon’s No Secrets. The title track perfectly sums up the relationship between Carly’s confessional song writing style and her fans. Throughout the album, Klaus Voorman’s groovy basslines hit against the melodic voice of Carly Simon, which created a chemistry perfect for radio play. James Taylor makes an appearance in the carefree “Night Owl,” which also features Paul and Linda McCartney, who were working just down the hall. The second side of the album opens with the wonderfully deep ‘Embrace Me You Child,’ which talks of her father and God; “At night in bed I heard God whisper lullabies / while daddy next-door whistled whiskey tunes.” With an impressive octave jump, Carly shows off her vocal capacity and provided a middle ground between heaven and earth. One of the best pop songs ever written is the enigmatic “You’re So Vain.” Laced with metaphor and vivid imagery, Carly sparked worldwide success with the song. The lyrics were so deliciously specific that listeners needed to know exactly who was glamor-boy subject of the song. With rock star Mick Jagger singing background vocals, many people suspected that it was him. Elsewhere, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Cat Stevens, and Kris Kristofferson were thrown into the mix, and the rumor mill spun out of control. Carly, however open her lyrics may be, has always kept this secret to herself. Since the song was released, “You’re so vain / I bet you think this song is about you” has become a part of the popular lexicon, a unique legacy for a pop song. The album stylistically epitomizes the ‘70s, but remains timeless. Blending words of love, with stories of childhood, Carly puts forward one of the most candid and contemplative albums of all time. No Secrets is a glimpse into her heart, the time period, and is the highest standard of popular music royalty.