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Billy Joel: Worst to Best

Billy Joel Glass Houses

I’ve been reticent about covering Billy Joel‘s catalogue on this blog – I spent a lot of time in my teenage years listening to Joel, and other mainstream retro acts like the Eagles and Neil Diamond, but have since largely disowned them. Joel’s never been critically acclaimed, he has a touch of show-tune about his work, and his work doesn’t have as much depth as more celebrated contemporaries like Bruce Springsteen or Elvis Costello. Even Joel’s best albums generally have at least one clunker on them.

But Joel has plenty of merit and deserves attention. He’s a fluid pianist, a capable vocalist, he writes attention grabbing melodies, and he’s deserved his plethora of chart hits. He’s a spokesman for an American, suburban, baby boomer generation – songs like ‘Goodnight Saigon’ and ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’ represent his generation’s concerns eloquently.

While of course this worst to best list is my subjective opinion, Joel has a very clearly delineated prime. All of the six studio albums he released in the decade between 1975 and 1985 are superior to any album he released outside it. During this decade he recorded with the Billy Joel Band, and players like drummer Liberty DeVitto and bassist Doug Stegmeyer added personality to his records. Producer Phil Ramone came on board for 1977’s commercial breakthrough The Stranger and was also an integral part of Joel’s prime years.

On the other hand, Joel’s first three solo albums, released in the early 1970s, were lacking identity, a talented songwriter uncomfortable playing incongruously sweet singer-songwriter fare on his 1971 debut Cold Spring Harbor, and L.A. country-flavoured rock on his next two albums. After 1985, his last three studio albums are comparatively bland and have less consistent songs. Joel retired from recording pop albums after 1993’s River of Dreams, but he’s remained a popular live act.  His ability to perpetually sell out Madison Square Gardens is proof of his enduring popularity.

#12 – Cold Spring Harbor

billy-joel-cold-spring-harbor1971
Joel intended his first album as demos of songs for others to cover, and it was dogged by technical problems. Sensitive singer-songwriter is an awkward fit on Joel – there are pretty tunes and beautiful piano playing, but at the same time Cold Spring Harbor feels perfunctory, a talented player phoning in professional but meaningless songs.


#11 – River of Dreams

billy-joel-river-of-dreams1993
Joel’s final album has a slick, guitar heavy sound. There are some good singles – ‘The River of Dreams’ utilises a gospel sound, while ‘All About Soul’ has a huge, memorable chorus. But elsewhere there are slim pickings with Joel’s melodies less exhilarating than before.


#10 – Streetlife Serenade

billy-joel-streetlife-serenade1974
Streetlife Serenade has some strong songs – ‘The Entertainer’, ‘Los Angelenos’, and the title track are all worthwhile entries into Joel’s catalogue. But overall, it’s unsatisfying, a homesick Joel unconvincingly playing a Californian singer-songwriter.


#9 – The Bridge

billy-joel-the-bridge1986
Joel still had the team that had created a decade of strong albums together on The Bridge – the Billy Joel Band and Phil Ramone are present. But this time, Joel, perhaps distracted by marriage with a super-model and fatherhood, seems less focused, and the album is a grab-bag, both in terms of quality and style. I do love the jazzy, big band showcase of ‘Big Man on Mulberry Street’.


#8 – Piano Man

billy-joel-pianoman1973
Piano Man is the best of Joel’s early albums. It contains the title track, his signature song, and the adolescent drama ‘Captain Jack’, but the album is filled out with a bunch of uncomfortable sounding, routine, country-flavoured material like ‘Worst Comes To Worst’ and the painful “instant pleasuredome” reference of ‘You’re My Home’, surely Joel’s worst ever lyric.


#7  Storm Front

billy-joel-storm-front1989
The guitar heavy, MOR production from Foreigner’s Mick Jones means that Storm Front has aged worse than Joel’s earlier albums. But there is a core of strong songs here  – the cold war tale of ‘Leningrad’, the plight of local fishermen in ‘The Downeaster Alexa’, and the gentle ‘And So It Goes’. I’m even a fan of Joel’s generational history lesson, ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’.


#6 – 52nd Street

billy-joel-52nd-street1978
We’re into the heavy-hitters now. Joel’s followup to The Stranger is the first of a series of strong guise albums, where Joel explores one specific genre. A lot of 52nd Street features a jazzy sound, not unlike Steely Dan’s 1970s albums on songs like ‘Zanzibar’. But the album is less substantial outside the excellent opening trio of the snotty ‘Big Shot’, the disco-infused ‘My Life’, and the plaintive ‘Honesty’.


#5 – An Innocent Man

billy-joel-an-innocent-man1983
A newly single Joel enjoyed a stimulating 1983, dating Elle McPherson, inspiring a set of songs based on the music of his youth in the late 1950s and early 1960s. An Innocent Man isn’t Joel’s deepest album, outside the brooding title track, but it’s full of delightful pop like the a cappella of ‘The Longest Time’, the Four Seasons tribute ‘Uptown Girl’, the Beethoven lift on ‘This Night’, and the punchy ‘Tell Her About It’.


#4 – Turnstiles

billy-joel-turnstiles1976
Moving back to New York after a stint in California, Joel immediately sounds more comfortable, and Turnstiles is his artistic breakthrough. There are a number of songs that reference the geographical change – ‘Say Goodbye To Hollywood’, ‘New York State of Mind’, and the classical piano of the beautiful ‘Summer, Highland Falls’.


#3 – Glass Houses

Billy Joel Glass Houses1980
Joel kicked off the 1980s with an album of punchy pop songs, inspired by new wave acts like The Cars and Elvis Costello. The most famous songs, ‘You May Be Right’ and ‘It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me’, aren’t my favourite singles from Joel’s prime, but there are lots of great album tracks like the whimsical ‘Don’t Ask Me Why’, the hard rocking ‘Close To The Borderline’, and the perfect pop of ‘Sleeping With The Television On’. ‘All For Leyna’ is a great, half-forgotten single.


#2 – The Nylon Curtain

billy-joel-the-nylon-curtain1982
After often playing an adolescent on Glass Houses, Joel made a serious concept album with The Nylon Curtain, pairing music inspired by mid 1960s Beatles with lyrics that addressed his generation’s concerns. He deals with Vietnam on ‘Goodnight Saigon’, the downturn of American industry in ‘Allentown’, and his own failing marriage on the album’s dud track, ‘A Room of Our Own’. ‘Laura’ addresses Joel’s difficult relationship with his mother, while ‘Surprises’ and ‘She’s Right On Time’ are melodic, over-looked pop songs.


#1 – The Stranger

billy-joel-the-stranger1977
Phil Ramone produced Joel’s commercial breakthrough, featuring an impeccable core of songs that made him into a household name. Singles included ‘Movin’ Out’, the title track, the baroque ‘She’s Always A Woman’, ‘Only The Good Die Young’, and the breakthrough hit, the soft-rock ‘Just The Way You Are’. The album also featured a couple of fan favourites – ‘Vienna’, and the lengthy, multi-section ‘Scenes From An Italian Restaurant’.

If you ever wondered how to play ‘Scenes From An Italian Restaurant’ on guitar, my friend Kerry explains how here:

Do you have a favourite Joel album? Do you think he’s talented, or too mainstream for your liking? And is it just me, or does Billy Joel playing a harmonica look like a dying Darth Vader?

joel-vader

39 thoughts on “Billy Joel: Worst to Best Leave a comment

  1. Hell, I think Billy’s great, critical consensus be damned. In fact, I’ve been working on a six- pack of his tunes for a post and I had a hard time whittling it down from 25. I’ll publish that early next month and link to your page. It’ll be a nice one-two punch.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This post captures an artist who has been a huge presence in my life (no pun intended) for 40 years. I’m glad you ranked River Of Dreams near the bottom, as I consider it the nadir of his career by a wide margin. I completely disagree about Cold Spring Harbor. It’s not quite one of his classics but the songs, his voice & piano work are all excellent. If you can find a copy of the speed-corrected original version of the album, which is out there in cyberspace, I think you’ll appreciate it a lot more. Some of the songs are longer, and the helium quality of his voice that appears on the official CD release is nowhere to be found.

    While I agree that the albums between ’77 & ’83 are his peak, due to a combination of consistently great songs, Phil Ramone’s production and that killer band (which I rank up there with The E Street Band, The Attractions and other notable “backup bands” as integral to their artist’s sound), I have strong connections to the three albums that preceded them as well as The Bridge (which I discussed at length in my Thirty Year Thursday series in 2016). I was more of a Storm Front fan when it was released (still love Liberty DeVitto’s drumming throughout that record) but I don’t think the songs or production have held up over the years.

    Having owned all of his albums on vinyl initially, one of my favorite possessions is the Complete Album Collection box set, which replicates every element of each original album, including the paper stock for inner sleeves. I own more than 200 box sets but none of them comes close to the quality of that one (and the mastering is better than any previous CD editions I’ve heard). Well worth the hard-earned cash if you can find a copy.

    Love the concise write-ups on each album. My order might be slightly different…and I can never choose an all-time favorite as they each mean so much to me…but your assessments are very fair, as always.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for writing in – I was worried what you’d think, as I know you’re a fan of Joel.

      I think the early albums have lots of musicality, but don’t sound like Billy Joel very often – sometimes he sounds like he’s writing songs to order rather than writing about something he relates to, and the best songs are the ones than sound more like his later work. On Turnstiles he suddenly flips a switch and sounds like Billy Joel for an entire album, and there are a lot of great songs.

      On the other hand, his later albums sound more like Billy Joel – even with the dated production and arrangements, he at least sounds like himself – but they’re lacking in musicality. River of Dreams sounds pretty burnt out except the two songs I mentioned. I do have a lot of time for Storm Front though.

      The only Billy Joel album I actually own on CD, and therefore have in Itunes, is The Nylon Curtain. I owned all the others on cassette or vinyl in my teens. I should really at least get Glass Houses and The Stranger sometime. I did listen them to a lot in the past, when I didn’t have many albums, so even relistening them once to review them, I could remember how all the songs went.

      Like

  3. I went through a Billy Joel phase and reached similar conclusions as to the best records. The Stranger, Nylon Curtain and Glass Houses are high up for me too. 52nd Street I’d put maybe in the top 3-4.
    From 1983 and onwards I mainly like him for the singles and less for the albums. Joel quit the pop scene after 1993 and I respect him for that decision. He knew it was time to move on to other things

    Liked by 1 person

    • 52nd Street is a weird one for me – it’s the one Joel album that I think doesn’t have a really bad song, but I never connected to most of the second side. Those first three songs are super good, and overshadow the rest for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Very interesting list. Truth be told, I’ve never really bothered with Billy Joel, though I do own An Innocent Man and I actually like it a fair bit, though I’ve never really been inclined to explore further.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Nice review. I’m a fan, but at this stage of my life my interest probably stops after Nylon Curtain. I keep thinking I’ll revisit The Bridge because I liked it quite a bit when it came out (the cassette is buried in my garage somewhere), but I know that the production is so 80’s that I don’t want to be disappointed so I might just let it go. Songs in the Attic is one of my favorite albums by anyone and is in the rotation at home.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Terrific post – I’d be on the same page with the top 3, though my order for those changes by the hour.
    Thanks for acknowledging the brilliance of Sleeping with the Television On & All for Layna, absolute gems!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Now here’s something funny. I haven’t busted out any Joel for years. Last night I threw ‘Piano Man’ on and it brought back how much I dug this record. The very first song I ever heard was ‘Captain Jack’. It still sounded good last night. I get up this morning and you bomb me with Billy. He wrote some good stuff. I drifted away but I still have a place for him because of my initial exposure. My album is pretty beat up because it’s OLD.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow great post! Good on y for being able to talk about the individual albums. I am more of a Greatest Hits I, II and III guy usually, but I now that’s missing the point!

    Also, that Darth Vader bit at the end just slayed me. It’s so true!

    Also, all I could think of in connection to Billy Joel was a line from some old movie I saw where a couple is going through a breakup, and he’s in one room while she’s in another packing to leave and he shouts (I’m paraphrasing) “Take what you want, but the Billy Joel records are MINE!” Haha awesome.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the kind words! He’s a bit frustrating, as there are some really good album tracks that aren’t on the greatest hits, but none of the albums are completely consistent. It’s definitely worth checking out Glass Houses if you find a copy – that’s got a lot of good non-greatest hits tracks, and a few other people have endorsed it on this page.

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  9. Great post. Don’t always agree as I think he pretty much peaked with Nylon Curtain and it was downhill from there. Turnstiles through Nylon is a pretty damn near perfect run, though I do have a soft spot for Piano Man and Streetlife. You are right about the musicality early on vs the sounds like Billy Joel of his later albums.

    Ive never heard that Laura is about his mother, have to disagree with you on that. Its clearly about a somewhat obsessive and non self-regulating person who was taking him for an emotional ride during the bleak time around his divorce. Before he started dating supermodels that is. I also disgaree with you on Room of Our Own. One of his perfect pop songs imo.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for writing in!

      Obviously most of these things are opinion, but Wikipedia states that Laura/mother thing, and I’ve read it elsewhere too:
      “Joel’s drummer Liberty DeVitto eventually disclosed that “Laura” was actually written about Joel’s own mother Rosalind. DeVitto suggested that the title “Laura” was chosen because it has two syllables, just like the word “mother” does. According to Klosterman, Joel confirmed the fact that “Laura” was about his mother in an interview with him, and that Joel noted in the interview that the line in the song “How can she hold an umbilical cord so long” should have been a giveaway.”

      Like

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