Billy Joel Albums: Ranked from Worst to Best

I spent my teenage years enamoured by the pop tunes of Billy Joel. 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. Nevertheless, Billy 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 their concerns eloquently.

While this list represents my personal opinion, Joel has a clear prime era. The half dozen studio albums he released between 1975 and 1985 are all superior to the six records he released earlier and later. During this era, 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, lacked identity; incongruously sweet singer-songwriter fare on his 1971 debut Cold Spring Harbor, and L.A. country-flavoured rock on his following two albums. After 1985’s Greatest Hits, 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 attraction. His ability to perpetually sell out Madison Square Gardens is proof of Joel’s enduring popularity.

Billy Joel Albums Ranked from Worst to Best


#12 Cold Spring Harbor

Joel intended his first album as demos of songs for other artists 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

Joel’s final album has a slick, guitar-heavy sound that doesn’t play to his strengths. The best songs were released as singles – ‘The River of Dreams’ is an impressive slice of gospel-flavoured pop, ‘All About Soul’ has a huge, memorable chorus, while ‘Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)’ is sweet and touching. But elsewhere there are slim pickings as Joel’s melodic touch is less exhilarating than before.


#10 Streetlife Serenade

Joel was rushed into releasing his third album, which forced him to pad it out with the instrumentals ‘Root Beer Rag’ and ‘The Mexican Connection’. “The Great Suburban Showdown’ is a bizarre entry into Joel’s catalogue, like an embarrassingly sincere Jackson Browne facsimile. The sardonic ‘The Entertainer’, the rock of ‘Los Angelenos’, and the dramatic 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.


#9 The Bridge

Joel employed his usual team when he made The Bridge after a three-year studio album break – the Billy Joel Band and Phil Ramone are present. But this time, Joel, perhaps distracted by marriage with a super-model and fatherhood, is less focused. The album is a grab-bag, both in terms of quality and style. I enjoy the jazzy, big band showcase of ‘Big Man on Mulberry Street’, while Joel straps on a guitar for the strong single ‘A Matter of Trust’.


#8 Piano Man

Piano Man is the best of Joel’s early albums. It contains the title track, his signature song, and the adolescent drama ‘Captain Jack’. The country parody, ‘The Ballad of Billy The Kid’, is fun, and there’s a memorable harmonised gospel chorus on ‘Stop In Nevada’. The album, however, is filled out with a bunch of uncomfortable sounding, routine, country-flavoured material like ‘Worst Comes To Worst’ and the “instant pleasuredome” reference of ‘You’re My Home’, surely Joel’s worst-ever lyric.


#7 Storm Front

Guitar-heavy 1980s rock production from Foreigner’s Mick Jones means that Storm Front has aged less gracefully than Joel’s earlier albums. But there is a core of strong songs on Storm Front – the cold war tale of ‘Leningrad’, the plight of local fishermen in ‘The Downeaster Alexa’, and the gentle ‘And So It Goes’. I even enjoy Joel’s baby boomer history lesson on ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’.


#6 52nd Street

We’re into the heavy hitters now. Joel’s follow-up 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; ‘Zanzibar’ is close to 1970s Steely Dan. But the album is light on substance after the excellent opening trio: the snotty ‘Big Shot’, the disco-infused ‘My Life’, and the plaintive ‘Honesty’.


#5 An Innocent Man

A newly single Joel enjoyed a stimulating 1983, dating Elle McPherson and Christie Brinkley. This inspired a set of songs based on the music of Joel’s youth in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Outside of the brooding title track, An Innocent Man is Joel’s most lightweight album. That’s not a criticism, as it’s a ton of fun – 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

Moving back to New York after a stint in California, Joel immediately sounds more comfortable and Turnstiles is his artistic breakthrough. Turnstiles features 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’. It’s mostly terrific but there are a couple of duff tracks – the lame McCartneyisms of ‘James’ and the embarrassing reggae of ‘All You Wanna Do Is Dance’.

#3 Glass Houses

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. There are, however, lots of great album tracks; 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

After acting like an adolescent on Glass Houses, Joel made the serious concept album The Nylon Curtain. Joel paired 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

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’, and the Catholic-baiting ‘Only The Good Die Young’, as well as Joel’s breakthrough hit, the soft-rock of ‘Just The Way You Are’. The Stranger also featured a pair of fan favourites – ‘Vienna’, and the lengthy, multi-section ‘Scenes From An Italian Restaurant’.

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  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.

  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.

    • 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.

  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

    • 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.

    • Amazingly, it didn’t make it to number one on the US charts – got stuck behind Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours (which spent 31 weeks at number one), and was number 2 for 6 weeks.

  4. While acknowledging Billy Joel’s talent as a songwriter, the songs themselves have never really grabbed me. Nonetheless I enjoyed reading the list (lists!) and was surprised at how many I could hum.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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.

      • There is some good work by the studio musicians on the record. I have a few cool songs about Billy the Kid (Tom Petty, Joe Ely). He makes it a lot romantic than the real thing but hey the song sounds good. Mark/Almond do a really nice version of ‘NY State of Mind’.

        • Joel’s always been adamant that he wanted to use his touring band on his records, and he wasn’t allowed to until 1976’s Turnstiles. But there are some pretty big names there, he just wanted the chemistry of his own band.

  9. 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.

    • 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.

  10. 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.

    • 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.”

  11. Agree with the Top 6 but unlike others here I have to call 52nd Street Billy Joel’s greatest release. For all the reasons many people disliked side 2 I LOVE it. Stiletto, Rosalinda’s Eyes and Until the Night are tremendous songs. I will go with The Nylon Curtain in the #2 slot.

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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person. It features album reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.

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Graham Fyfe has been writing this website since his late teens. Now in his forties, he's been obsessively listening to albums for years. He works as a web editor and plays the piano.

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