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’.
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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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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