CD Review: Billy Joel

(billyjoel.com)

Billy Joel
The Complete Albums Collection
Columbia/Legacy
By David Chiu

Exactly forty years ago, a young man from Long Island released his debut album. Cold Spring Harbor, which launched of the one of the most successful careers in pop music. Over the years, the songs of Billy Joel have become modern pop standards, covering a wide breadth of styles and genres but always maintaining a melodic sensibility that harkens the great composers from the classical through the and rock and roll periods. In celebration of his work in the last four decades comes this boxed set that contains all his 12 Columbia Records studio albums as well as the live Songs in the Attic, the classical work Fantasies and Delusions, and a collection of non-album songs. Each record is housed in vinyl replica packaging. It’s a well-deserved summation of an extraordinary body of work.

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Cold Spring Harbor (1971): Not exactly a commercial-sounding record compared to Joel’s more successful future works, and perhaps the most overlooked, Cold Spring Harbor is a striking album just for its simplicity: with the exception of some minor backing instrumentation and strings, it’s just Joel and his piano playing on some really wonderful songs such as “Tomorrow is Today,” the lovely instrumental “Nocturne,” and the hopeful “Got to Begin Again.” Cold Spring Harbor’s best known songs are the ballad “She’s Got a Way” and “Everybody Loves You Know,” the latter an ironic song about fame. Unfortunately at the time, problems with the mastering of the record made Joel’s voice sound high — it was later corrected in 1983.

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Piano Man (1973): If this album sounds a bit twangy and rootsy, that’s because Joel relocated to the West Coast. Piano Man is certainly a musical leap forward in the songwriting and production compared to Cold Spring Harbor. There’s a couple of  country/gospel-laden tracks on Piano Man such as “Traveling Prayer,” “Ain’t No Crime,” the ballad “You’re My Home” and “Worse Comes to Worst.” This album is crucial because it would introduce a couple of Joel songs that has remained popular in concert and radio: the orchestral rocker “The Ballad of Billy the Kid”; the provocative and gritty “Captain Jack”; and of course the signature  title track.

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Streetlife Serenade (1974): Joel’s third album is essentially a continuation of Piano Man with its West Coast sound, particularly heard on “Los Angelenos,” “The Great Suburban Showdown” and the lean and funky “Weekend Song.” “The Entertainer,”  a commentary on the life of a musician, is the album’s most famous cut with its quirky synthesizer sound. The hidden gems on the record are the rollicking instrumental “Root Beer Rag” and a great Joel ballad, “Souvenir.”

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Turnstiles(1976): The album marks Joel’s return to the East Coast as documented on two of its popular songs, “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” (which cleverly mimics the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound) and the jazzy “New York State of Mind.” Even if you are not a New Yorker, you could relate to the feeling of being home there through that track. Aside from those two songs, nearly every track on Turnstiles would be a familiar staple on Joel’s live set list: the urgent rocker “Miami 2017 (See the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” the dazzling “Prelude/Angry Young Man,” and the pastoral-sounding “Summer Highland Falls.”

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The Stranger (1977): The breakthrough record, The Stranger establishes Joel as the reliable hit maker we’ve all come to know. No doubt with the help of producer Phil Ramone, the Piano Man really found his way with some memorable songwriting here: “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” “She’s Always a Woman,” the romantic standard “Just the Way You Are,” “Only the Good Die Young, “ the epic “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,” and the title song. The non-singles from The Stranger shouldn’t be under-appreciated as they further Joel’s reputation as a stylist: the feel good Latin boogie of “Get it Right the First Time” and the gospel-influenced number “Everybody Has a Dream.” Clearly, The Stranger is Joel’s masterpiece.

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52nd Street (1978): The first of several stylistically-themed Joel albums, 52nd Street takes its inspiration from jazz pop as represented on the title song, the wonderful “Zanzibar” and “Half a Mile Away.” It’s also diverse that Joel again pays homage to Latin music with “Rosalinda’s Eyes,” and the sweeping ballad “Until the Night,” which certainly evokes the Righteous Brothers. A Grammy-winning album, 52nd Street rolls out several hits in the unforgettable “My Life,” the rocker “Big Shot” and the angst-ridden ballad “Honesty.” It is an album that captures Joel at his most confident.

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Glass Houses(1980): This can be best described as Billy Joel’s rock-and-roll album whose sound was influenced by punk and New Wave. Songs like “I Don’t Want to Be Alone Anymore” and “Sleeping with the Television On” took a page from late 70s-era Elvis Costello; the phone sex ditty “Sometimes a Fantasy” and “All for Leyna” could have come straight from L.A. punk/New Wave; and “Close to the Borderline” is the closest thing to hard rock that Joel has done up to that point. Not to alienate his older fans, Joel shows his balladeer side with the “Through the Long Night” and the bilingual charmer “You Were the One.” Glass Houses contain a trio of Joel classics: the roaring “You May Be Right,” “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” (his first Number One song), and the elegant “Don’t Ask Me Why.” Glass Houses is a likeable and accessible album all the way around.

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The Nylon Curtain (1982): Possibly The Nylon Curtain is the most underrated Billy Joel album in the catalog, even though it sprouted the hits “Pressure “and “Allentown.” It’s a very intimate and emotional work through songs like the angstful “Laura” (the only Joel tune that features the F-word), “Surprises” and the Ray Charles-like shouter “Room of Our Own.” The ambitiously-crafted “Scandinavian Skies” recalls  the Beatles’ Revolver-era period and the very Euro-sounding “Where’s the Orchestra?” closes the record on a very sweet yet melancholy note. The best track on The Nylon Curtain is the haunting “Goodnight Saigon,” a searing composition about Vietnam War veterans. Critics of Joel’s music need to listen to that song and “Captain Jack” for a second opinion of his depth as a songwriter.

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An Innocent Man (1983): As far as stylistically-themed albums, An Innocent Man is Joel’s most realized work. The opposite to The Nylon Curtain in terms of mood, An Innocent Man is an upbeat homage to ‘50s and ‘60s American rock and roll. Joel captured the nostalgic spirit of those times through “The Longest Time,”  the ballad “This Night” (which cleverly incorporates Beethoven), and “Tell Here About It.” If one has to pick one record the Top 5 Billy Joel albums, An Innocent Man would be right up there.

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The Bridge (1986): An appropriately-titled album, The Bridge is a sort of transitional and tentative album as Joel seems to be trying to find his musical footing after some several stylistically-themed records. While it may not be his strongest work coming off a string of smash albums, The Bridge offers some really solid moments: the once-in-a-lifetime duet with Ray Charles on “Baby Grand”; the sentimental “This is the Time”; the earnest rocker “A Matter of Trust”; and the breezy and very ‘80s-sounding “Modern Woman.” Guest artists Cyndi Lauper (“Code of Silence”) and Steve Winwood (“Getting Closer”) enliven the record with their appearances, but Joel at this point was probably looking for a new approach. The Bridge would be the last album he would record with Phil Ramone.

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Storm Front (1989): Joel bounced back in a bolder and inspired way with this record—part of that has to do with the presence of Foreigner mastermind Mick Jones as producer along with a new backing band. The resulting sound is very direct and brash as evident with the opening bombast of “That’s Not Her Style,” the title track and “I Go to Extremes.” Even if it has its critics, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is still a catchy musical lesson that history always repeats itself. “State of Grace” is an underrated track and one of Joel’s best performances on the album as is the tender “And So it Goes” that concludes the record. Coming off of The Bridge, Storm Front sounds like a comeback record even though he never went away.

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River of Dreams (1993): As of this moment, and not counting Fantasies and Delusions, River of Dreams is Joel’s final pop record. A reflective album, River of Dreams kind of hinted as being his swan song work with the fittingly-titled closer “Famous Last Words”; other songs such as “Lullaby (Good Night My Angel),” “2,000 Years” and the soulful title track reveal the artist maturing gracefully. If Joel had meant this to be his final studio record, River of Dreams is not a bad way to bow out at the top of his game.

The disc that comes with The Complete Albums Collection  is more of an carries material that has not been on Joel’s studio albums: some original material and a considerable portion from soundtrack work. It rescues two of the songs from Greatest Hits Vol. 1 and II, “You’re Only the Human (Second Wind)” and “The Night is Still Young,” the latter being one of his poignant and best songs. And while he is a terrific songwriter in his own right, Joel has also reveals himself to be a capable interpreter of other’s people songs whether it’s Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love,” or  Leonard Cohen’s “Light as the Breeze.” This disc ends with the romantic and elegant 2007 single “All My Life”— it’s Joel’s most recent pop song that he’s recorded.

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