In a very odd pattern of semi-random choice this is the fourth album in the row placed as #-8 on the acclaimed list (at least before the update little while ago anyway). It has seen albums that encapsulate the rise of college radio, a turning point in female singer-songwriting and whatever superlative you want to attach to Odelay. The superlative that can be attached to Graceland is a rather interesting one, the album that brought African music into the Western music mainstream.
To put this into a historical musical context Graceland was recorded and released during the time of apartheid in South Africa, a time where boycotts existed against the cultural elements of the nation. As such, when Paul Simon crossed over the metaphorical picket line to work with South African musicians he had some explaining to do. Now here’s the thing, the musicians he chose to work with were the ones being discriminated against under apartheid and he never showed any support towards the government so… all was good.
The fact that Paul Simon did this helped to introduce a wide audience to music of black origin that did not fall into the world of jazz or rhythm and blues. It was also the album that helped the group Ladysmith Black Mambazo crossover and gain world prominence. It is also the album that inspired the likes of Vampire Weekend, so my thanks to Paul Simon there.
The reason that this album works so well and became a classic (as well as one of the select few albums in this Top 250 lists that also won the Grammy for Best Album) is how well the seemingly disparate genres mesh. This is most evident, at two ends of the spectrum, on tracks ‘You Can Call Me Al’ and ‘Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes’. On the one hand you have the latter, the closer of the first side of the album, where the stylings of Ladysmith Black Mambazo are very much at the forefront to make this a very atmospheric number. Then there is personal favourite ‘You Can Call Me Al’, a rather upbeat song about a man going through a midlife crisis (with a very memorable music video starring comedian Chevy Chase) where the fusion of genres is very much westward-leaning.
The rest of the album well accomplishes this meeting of musical worlds, just not as well as titular track ‘Graceland’ or the other two songs that I have previous mentioned. In the absence of Miriam Makeba’s eponymous album this may be the only time I get to listen to music with such obviously African elements. A pity really since it really helps an album to stand out.