I spent my teenage years listening to Billy Joel, and other mainstream retro acts like the Eagles and Neil Diamond. Joel has a touch of show-tune about his work, and his work has never been as critically acclaimed as his 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 natural assets 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 this worst to best list is my subjective opinion, Joel has a clear prime era. All of the six studio albums he released between 1975 and 1985 are superior to the six records he released earlier and later. 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.
Cold Spring Harbor
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.
River of Dreams
Joel’s final album has a slick, guitar heavy sound that doesn’t play to Joel’s strengths. The best songs were released as singles – ‘The River of Dreams’ dabbles into gospel while ‘All About Soul’ has a huge, memorable chorus. But elsewhere there are slim pickings with Joel’s melodies less exhilarating than before.
‘The Entertainer’, ‘Los Angelenos’, and the title track are all worthwhile entries into Joel’s catalogue. But overall, Streetlife Serenade is unsatisfying, a homesick Joel unconvincingly playing a Californian singer-songwriter.
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’.
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.
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’.
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 mid 1970s style, 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’.
An Innocent Man
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’.
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’.
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.
The Nylon Curtain
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.
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’.
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?