After three earlier unsuccessful band albums, including the legendarily bad Atilla album, Billy Joel struck out again on his quickly forgotten debut solo album, Cold Spring Harbor, which featured the notable "She's Got A Way" (a hit in a 1981 live version) but was mostly notable for the production mistake that caused Billy's vocals to sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks. After signing to Columbia Records, Billy's second album, recorded with L.A.-id back session pros, was a step in the right direction and contains three of his most durable songs. “Piano Man,” an autobiographical account of his days playing at an L.A. cocktail lounge after his first album because his previous record company had no money, remains his signature song though he's had bigger hits. Still, it was his first top 40 chart success, and for all its corny faults it's an undeniable classic, helped along by its indelible harmonica hooks, richly drawn down and out characters, and especially its sing along chorus. Although not a hit, the heavily orchestrated and romantic epic “The Ballad Of Billy The Kid” is another well-known classic rock radio standard that showcases Billy's natural storytelling skills, plus the interplay between the horns, piano, and orchestration is impressive. Last but not least, "Captain Jack" may be over-long at 7+ minutes but it's another "losers down on their luck" classic, with memorable lyrics (Butthead: "he said 'masturbate' Beavis, huh huh...") describing the pathos of everyday life and more importantly a soaring chorus about getting a fix from the drug dealing Captain Jack (like many people I suspect for many years I thought this song was about Jack Daniels; same basic concept I suppose). Unsurprisingly, the rest of the album fails to keep pace with the three famous songs, but most tracks are both enjoyable and atypical, such as the briskly paced banjo/violin showcase "Travelin' Prayer" and "Ain't No Crime," a catchy, lively mid-tempo gospel flavored duet that features sax and guitar solos and defends the pleasures of drinking (unfortunately alcoholism would become a reoccurring problem in his life). "Stop In Nevada" is another melodic, catchy orchestral tune with gospel-ish female backing vocals, while "You're My Home" is a pleasant country tinged ballad, Billy obviously having been influenced by Elton John's country themed Tumbleweed Connection (comparisons between these two "piano men" are inevitable, and they would later embrace such comparisons by touring together). Elsewhere, Joel is somewhat undone by overwrought ("If I Only Had The Words (To Tell You)" or slight ("Worse Comes To Worst") melodies, as well as overblown orchestrations and overly wordy and at times clumsy or smarmy lyrics, but the majority of Piano Man is enjoyable (I quite like "Somewhere Along The Line" as well) and it's his best early album. Certainly Billy could give up his piano lounge job after this album, and after the so-so Streetlife Serenade, most notable for "The Entertainer," Billy really hit his stride.
Turnstiles (Columbia ’76) Rating: A-
Easily Billy Joel’s best, most consistent album to date, Turnstiles is one of his best albums, period (probably my second favorite), and it's also notable for being self-produced and for being the first album on which his (now) long serving backing band played. At a critical juncture of his career after the disappointingly slow sales of Streetlife Serenade, Joel came through with some of his loveliest and most memorable melodies. Though bereft of charting hits, a good half of this album is comprised of stage favorites and familiar classic rock radio tracks. The soulful, elegant, dreamy piano lounge ballad "New York State Of Mind," one of several odes to his hometown of New York, is perhaps the most notable of these, as it's one of his quintessential songs and has become a much covered standard, as well as something of an unofficial state theme song (after all, how can you not love that smoky sax solo?). Also excellent is "Say Goodbye To Hollywood," which borrows the drum track from The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and echoes the grandiose ambitions of Phil Spector while lyrically saying goodbye to California as he headed back to his hometown after several years away. "Prelude/Angry Young Man" is a stellar showcase for his considerable piano playing skills (there's a synth solo too) and his ability to write a catchy tune (I also appreciate the song's rhythmic cadences), while the dramatic, theatrical epic "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)," which tells the tale of an apocalyptic New York, obviously took on an added resonance after September 11, 2001. Elsewhere, the melodic, melancholic “Summer, Highland Falls," also about New York, is an overlooked gem of an album track, while "James" and "I've Loved Those Days" are pretty if sappy ballads; although I acknowledge their faults, I have to admit to having a soft spot for both of them, especially the latter due to nostalgic reasons as it was my high school's prom song. The only real misfire is the funky, reggaefied pop of “All You Wanna Do Is Dance,” which is still catchy but also kinda silly; Joel should leave these types of hybrid pastiches to Paul Simon who does it much better. On the whole, much of this album can be seen as a laid back love letter to Joel’s home state; it's small wonder then that he would always be so heartily embraced by New Yawkers - he was one of us and proud of it. Musically the album is very satisfying, lyrically less consistently so but oftentimes quite good as well, and though Turnstiles didn't quite break Billy on mainstream radio, it helped lay the groundwork for the gargantuan success of The Stranger.
The Stranger (Columbia ’77) Rating: A
Joel’s breakthrough album, The Stranger transformed Joel from a cult artist into a star. Teamed with decorated producer Phil Ramone, the master pop craftsman delivered a tougher, more energetic, and more rocking album than anything he had done previously. Containing nine songs, six of which were either hits or became radio mainstays, The Stranger plays like a greatest hits album, and the only major problem I have with it is just how overplayed most of these songs are. On the rocking front, “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” one of several songs here with an Italian flavor, is one of Joel’s toughest and catchiest (with its notable "ack ack ack" vocal hooks) rockers, while “Only The Good Die Young” is arguably even better, boasting an irresistibly upbeat melody along with memorable Catholic church baiting lyrics, not to mention a storming sax solo (I'm a sucker for a good sax solo and this album has loads of 'em). On the ballad front, “Just The Way You Are” (the album's biggest hit and a much covered standard) and “She’s Always A Woman” (featuring one of his loveliest vocals) may be sappy "chick songs" (Joel's words, not mine), but they sure are graceful and pretty, even if they became easy targets for punk rock loving professional critics. Also notable is the title track, a memorable story song about the various masks people wear that starts off with some exquisite, evocative whistling before it kicks into high gear with a tough guitar-driven mid-tempo groove. The album's piece de resistance, however, is the epic multi-sectioned masterpiece “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant,” which starts as a slow smoky ballad, builds up to a jaunty piano rocker with a New Orleans flavor that also shows off Joel’s knack for telling stories and creating rhymes, before finally returning to smoky ballad territory again. Simply put, this song shows off every side of Joel’s considerable strengths as a melodist (never in question) and lyricist (an area critics have always had harsh attitudes toward), and for my money it's the single best thing Joel ever did. Anyway, those are the famous songs on the album, but the subtle, classy piano ballad "Vienna" (that's where he tracked down his father who had left him when he was seven) is also something of an overlooked gem a la “Summer, Highland Falls," and I also like the admittedly slight but still quite tuneful “Get It Right The First Time.” The gospel flavored ballad “Everybody Has A Dream” provides a satisfying final track before the gorgeous piano/whistling melody of "The Stranger" is again reprised, a nice touch as it brings the album full circle. Simply put, there's a reason that this album has gone platinum 10 times over, as it's Billy Joel's best album, period, and the one where even the professional critics (many seemingly his sworn enemies) grudgingly give him his just due.
52nd Street (Columbia ’78) Rating: B+
The Stranger was #2 U.S. hit that was only kept from the top spot by the ridiculously successful Saturday Night Fever soundtrack; both are among the most quintessential albums of the late seventies. Riding the momentum of the prior album, 52nd Street, so named because that's where the album was recorded, became the first of several #1 albums by Billy Joel. That said, though new guitarist Steve Khan brings some cool riffs to the snotty rocker “Big Shot” and Joel delivers a “can’t get it out of my head” piano groove to the poppy “My Life” (the theme song of Tom Hank’s sitcom Bosom Buddies), big hits both, mean-spirited lyrics (“go on and cry in your coffee but don't come bitchin’ to me,” “you can speak your mind, but not on my time”) again had the critics on his case. Indeed, despite the huge success of The Stranger, the chip on Joel’s shoulder sometimes remains difficult to overlook, but what always made up for Joel’s lyrical shortcomings were his superlative melodies, which simply aren’t as immediate or as memorable this time out. Rather, this album, Joel's most diverse and jazzy to date, is comprised of "grower tracks" whose strengths become more apparent over time. The album's other hit was "Honesty," a melodic but mawkish ballad, while the ambitious epic "Until The Night," with its big soaring chorus, was a modest U.K. hit that showed an increased vocal range (his deeper register at times sounds shockingly unlike him). The majority of this 9-track album you'll never hear on the radio, however, including "Zanzibar," which brings together two of Billy's favorite hobbies, sports and drinking; he also now has the clout to recruit ace jazz musicians such as Freddie Hubbard, who adds a notable trumpet solo. Elsewhere, the groovy and melodic, tough yet urban "Stiletto," one of several songs containing an enjoyable sax solo, again had critics complaining about his "misogynist" lyrics, while the Latin flavored "Rosalinda's Eyes" is the type of relaxed, melodic, but maybe a bit boring ballad that makes some people think of Billy Joel as a "soccer mom balladeer." Of course, these are oversimplifications and are but one side of Billy Joel, certainly not his best side, but anyway, "Half A Mile Away" is a catchy song notable for Dave Grusin’s hooky horn arrangements, an oddly danceable beat, doo-woppy vocals, and interesting lyrics where Joel escapes (however briefly) to an alternate life away from family demands. Rounding out the set list, the title track is a jazzy, sorta funky sax showcase that takes some getting used to, but that could be said about this album on the whole, as it's certainly not a classic like The Stranger, which went from highlight to highlight. That said, when taken on its own merits 52nd Street is certainly a solid follow up that's a strong album in its own right.
Glass Houses (Columbia ’80) Rating: B+
With guitarist David Brown added to Khan, the Billy Joel band was ready to rock, as Glass Houses saw Billy trying to prove that he was a rocker first, then a balladeer. Embracing the simplicity and directness of punk and especially new wave, Joel's second straight #1 album is largely remembered for its massive hits and is partially forgettable due to a rather nondescript second half. The first half is among Billy's best, however, beginning with the hard rocking “You May Be Right,” on which Joel’s irascible nature comes to the fore on yet another song about binge drinking. Fortunately, it has a good tough groove (Billy's band is real good), a memorably rough voiced vocal, a catchy chorus, and enjoyable guitar and sax solos. “Sometimes A Fantasy” is another catchy, tough, nervy rocker whose horny lyrics are matched by a performance that grows in heat until its surging, exciting finish, while “Don’t Ask Me Why” features a breezy McCartney-ish pop melody. This one ammmo to the critics who decried him as being a "middle of the road" popsmith. Of course, at heart Billy has always been more Tin Pan Alley than punk rock, but that didn't stop him from directly taking on his critics on the album’s biggest hit (his first #1 single), “It’s Still Rock n’ Roll To Me,” whose chugging, finger snapping mid-tempo groove is more notable than its critic baiting lyrics (in turn the critics at Rolling Stone voted this the worst song about rock 'n' roll ever, but given that Billy had a #1 hit with it, I'd say that he got the last laugh). Anyway, wrapping up what used to be side one on the LP is the dramatic “All For Leyna,” another overlooked gem of an album track about another femme fatale with whom our pathetic young narrator has a dangerously lustful obsession. On the downside, though I think highly of them, songs such as "Sometimes a Fantasy," "All For Layna," and "Sleeping With The Television On" (the catchy highlight of side two) contain cheesy keyboards that date them to the early '80s. Also, "C'Etai't Toi (You Were The One)," with its pretentious butchered French, and "Close To The Borderline," a borderline annoying rocker, are skippable entries on side two, though "Borderline" is at least somewhat salvaged by some hot guitar soloing. Fortunately, though neither are highlights, "I Don't Want To Be Alone" (more tuneful pop) and "Through The Long Night" (which stands out due to its much multi-tracked vocals and melancholic horns) are enjoyable album tracks that have grown on me over time. On the whole, though its high points rise higher for me, Glass Houses is a bit more hit and miss than 52nd Street, and it sounds dated at times in ways that some other Billy Joel albums don't, but it also contains several excellent songs and is another tuneful and enjoyable album overall.
The Nylon Curtain (Columbia ’82) Rating: B
After a successful live album (Songs in the Attic) that highlighted some of his more notable album tracks ("Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)," "Say Goodbye to Hollywood," and "She's Got A Way" all got renewed airplay), Billy survived a serious motorcycle accident, after which he was unscrupulously sued by the woman whose fault the accident was! More legal problems would later follow, but in the meantime Billy released The Nylon Curtain, which was successful but not quite as successful as previous albums, "only" selling 2 million and spawning only a pair of popular but not massively popular top 40 hits. Then again, one of these, "Allentown," a tuneful, thoughtful mid-tempo message song about a struggling factory town, was easily one of the best songs Billy's ever done. The second single, "Pressure," is a melodramatic rocker that's seriously dated by its cheesy synthesizers, but the album features a pair of superior album tracks in "Goodnight Saigon" and "She's Right On Time." The 7+ minute "Goodnight Saigon" (also a single but this one never really took off commercially) also has its cheesy elements (those echoed "night night night" vocals for example) but it still presents a moving, theatrical (I could picture it in a Broadway musical a la "Goodnight Saigon") tribute that's justifiably become one of the more famous songs ever about the Vietnam War. I especially like its anthemic "Hey Jude"-like chorus, which isn't too surprising as this is easily Billy's most Beatles-esque album to date. As for "She's Right On Time," this is another "overlooked gem" of an album track that simply delivers simple, melodic pop; its upbeat, romantic lyrics are a stark contrast to "Laura," an angry, intense Lennon-esque rant. Having recently gotten divorced from his first wife and former manager, Elizabeth, whom he had earlier stolen from his best friend, Billy was clearly having anger management issues related to women (perhaps somewhat warranted given his recent lawsuit as well!), but anyway, back to this album, whose second side again fails to keep pace. "A Room Of Our Own" is this album's obligatory annoying rocker, but "Surprises" is better, though it suffers somewhat from its overly Lennon-esque vocal (comparisons don't flatter) and thin sound. I'm also not a huge fan of "Scandanavian Skies," an experimental but only semi-successful track inspired by John Lennon's late-'60s psychedelic period, while "Where's the Orchestra?" is a pretty but also pretty boring ballad. At least it is before it turns into a slower reprise of the melody of "Allentown," as Billy effectively reprises the trick introduced on The Stranger, bringing the album full circle and making it seem more thematically cohesive than it actually is. On the whole, The Nylon Curtain is another solid album with some major highlights, but it's also one that's pretty hit and miss for me, though I should note that I seem to rate Glass Houses higher than most people and this one lower. Maybe this album is just a little too overly derivative of The Beatles for me, or maybe I don't appreciate the decreased use of sax and the increased use of keyboards (which in some cases haven't aged very well), plus its sound is rather thin at times. In any event, despite its strengths I probably listen to this album less than any Billy Joel album reviewed on this page.
An Innocent Man (Columbia ’83) Rating: B+
This album features Joel at his most upbeat and joyous, and aside from his subsequent “greatest hits” compilations it’s the last Billy Joel album that I wholeheartedly enjoy (though his later albums had their moments as well). The reason for his unbridled cheerfulness is “Christie Lee,” i.e. Christine Brinkley, the gorgeous supermodel who had become the new love of his life, to the shock if not downright disbelief of many (Billy isn’t exactly a looker). A pre-Fab early rock ‘n’ roll sensibility makes these some of Joel’s most fun songs, in particular the classy homage to ‘50s street corner doo wop “The Longest Time” (the lesser but still solid “This Night” and “Careless Talk” are decidedly doo woppy as well), the Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons sendup “Uptown Girl” (replete with high-pitched falsetto vocals), the guilty sounding Drifters tribute “An Innocent Man” (with more falsettos as this is arguably Billy’s most impressive album from a vocal perspective), the sparse romantic ballad with wonderful harmonica “Leave A Tender Moment Alone,” the catchy, up-tempo, horn-heavy Motown sendup “Tell Her About It,” and the lightly funky pop of “Keeping the Faith.” These songs were all top 30 Billboard hits in the U.S., the title track and “Uptown Girl” cracking the top 10 and and “Tell Her About It” hitting #1 as the album went platinum many times over. Perhaps there are no “hidden gem” album tracks this time, and I personally find the James Brown tribute “Easy Money” and the boogie rock of “Christie Lee” to be annoying, but this album contains a plethora of contagiously enjoyable if somewhat insubstantial hits. Indeed, though it’s not really remembered as a blockbuster album, An Innocent Man was just that, and in retrospect this album can be seen as the closing chapter of what I consider to be his peak years.
Greatest Hits Volume I & II (Columbia ’85) Rating: A
This aptly titled double cd does justice to Joel’s fans by neatly encapsulating this charismatic artist's career up until this point (1973-1985), though there are enough important songs missing to make it far from a complete retrospective. This collection runs through the gamut of his repertoire in chronological order, beginning with the sprinkly piano intro to his classic “Piano Man” and continuing with other early standouts such as “Captain Jack” and “The Entertainer.” The album also contains first rate rockers brimming with his New York attitude, such as “Movin’ Out” and “Only The Good Die Young,” while “Just The Way You Are,” “She’s Got A Way,” and “Always A Woman” are examples of sappy yet undeniably effective and lovely ballads. Although Joel overreaches somewhat on the still mighty fine “Goodnight Saigon,” he achieves near perfection on his rhymey story song “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant,” which is dramatic and funny without his customary bitterness, which can make otherwise bouncy songs such as “My Life” a tad overbearing. Again, there are many key radio favorites missing - "The Ballad Of Billy The Kid," "Prelude/Angry Young Man," "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)," "Honesty," "Sometimes a Fantasy," "An Innocent Man," "Leave a Tender Moment Alone," and "Keeping the Faith" chief among them - but this album, which has sold about a bazillion copies, does what it sets out to do. In fact, though all of his individual albums have their own distinctive flavor, this compilation may be all that most casual fans will need, especially when you consider that it has all six of the famous tracks from The Stranger, his best individual album. Needless to say, the album's two new tracks, the catchy but dated to the '80s "You're Only Human (Second Wind)" and the solid but nothing special "The Night Is Still Young," also became hits (albeit a minor one in the case of the latter song), as Joel really had the Midas touch from a commercial standpoint once he broke through. To give you an idea of the universal appeal of this album, when I was a freshman in college I had two roommates and we all had very different tastes in music, but when we went to bed at night, every night, we put on the one album that we could all seem to agree upon: this one. Note: As of 2010, Billy Joel has released only three albums since (none since 1993), though he also released a classical album. Also of note is that in 1987 Billy became the first Western rock star to tour the Soviet Union, in the early to mid-2000s his songs formed the basis of a successful Broadway musical choreographed by Twyla Tharp called Movin' Out, and in 2008 he helped close Shea Stadium with several concerts before it was demolished. On the downside there were multiple failed marriages, numerous lawsuits after Billy discovered that his ex-manager (and former brother in-law) had robbed him blind, and bouts with alcoholism and careless car crashes. Still, though Billy's had his share of troubles, the guy has one of the best gigs going, as he's able to enjoy semi-retirement and still sell out Madison Square Garden (sometimes in tandem with fellow piano man Elton John) whenever he feels like it to keep the cash flow going strong. As such, there's precious little incentive for him to record a new pop album.
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