Discover more from Michael's Record Collection
Ranking Billy Joel's Albums, Part 2
Let's get to the top six!
This issue of Michael’s Record Collection will start where we left off last time. The walk through Billy Joel’s Hall-of-Fame, 12-album catalog (studio releases, minus his classical compositions album) continues with a look at my picks for the top six. If you missed Part 1, where I counted down from No. 12 through 7, you can read it here. Thanks for the overwhelming response to Part 1. I enjoyed my recent “Billy binge” and writing about a great catalog of albums.
Based on the feedback from Part 1, I think it’s important to note that when I place a song in my “least fave” category for a particular album, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I hate the song, although there are a few in Part 1 that I don’t care for and I skip them. From this point forward in the countdown, there are no tracks that I skip when listening to a Billy Joel album. For the top two albums in particular, it was hard to put any song in the “least fave” category. Likewise, if a song didn’t make my “best tracks,” it doesn’t mean I’m slagging your favorites. It was often difficult to narrow things down to just three standout songs.
So, let’s get on with my completely subjective rankings, taking a look at my three favorite songs (and least fave) from each of Billy Joel’s best (IMO) six studio pop/rock albums.
6. An Innocent Man (1983)
Billy’s homage to the music of the 50s and 60s wasn’t for everyone but I loved it immediately. Growing up in the 70s, all the adults were big on the kinds of music that Billy honors on this record, and I heard echoes of that music throughout An Innocent Man, particularly on “Uptown Girl,” Billy’s tribute to the Four Seasons.
Full of the spirit of Sam Cooke, the Drifters, the Supremes, and others, An Innocent Man still somehow managed to sound modern in the early to mid-1980s and Billy’s band crushed it.
“This Night” — An incredible chorus lifted from Beethoven on a doo-wop tribute to Little Anthony and the Imperials? Sign me up! I love the lyrics, the melody, and the way Billy sings it.
“An Innocent Man” — The lyrics make the title track for me, but as an introvert, I never took them to heart. I merely nodded at the illogical act of inadvertently committing self-harm by trying too hard to protect yourself (out of a fear of taking chances) and continued the same behavior. Billy hits some impressive high notes in the chorus.
“Uptown Girl” — Billy captures the essence of his musical heroes on this song perhaps more than any other on the album. You’d swear Frankie Valli wrote it. When it’s playing, it’s almost impossible not to sing along.
“Christie Lee” — As with Storm Front, my least fave here isn’t one that I skip, but it doesn’t stand as tall as the others.
5. Glass Houses (1980)
I think this placement will be a bit controversial. Lots of people I know seem to rank Glass Houses at or near the top of their favorite Billy Joel albums. I don’t blame them. The first seven songs are about as strong a sequence as you’ll find in his entire catalog. I just think the album tails off after that and I’m not a big fan of the last three tracks. That’s not a knock on the album overall, but with the quality of his work across these six records, it’s just enough to knock Glass Houses to the bottom of my top five.
It was difficult limiting my “best tracks” to just three for this one. Songs like “All for Leyna,” with its proggy keyboard solo, smash hit “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” and the Elvis Costello-esque “I Don’t Want to Be Alone” could easily be among my top three Glass Houses tracks on any given day.
“You May Be Right” — The album grabs your attention immediately with this rocking opening track, starting with the sound of shattering glass. This is a great Liberty DeVitto song on a fantastic Liberty DeVitto album. The drummer is at the top of his game. Richie Cannata rips off a scorching sax solo in the middle of this one that will melt your face.
“Sometimes a Fantasy” — It’s creepy as hell if you stop to think about the lyrics (or about Billy Joel having phone sex) but this is a great pop/rock song. It’s full of outstanding musicianship and goes through cool little shifts, like the synthesizers at the end of the chorus. Phil Ramone’s production shines on this track.
“Don’t Ask Me Why” — This is a clever song lyrically as well as being a great tune. I like the way Billy puts together phrases like “every drunk must have his drink” and “no stranger to the street,” using split alliteration with ‘dr-‘ and ‘str-‘ while also throwing in some more traditional alliteration (“calendar’s complete”).
“C’était Toi (You Were the One)” — Another one that I don’t necessarily skip, but I’m not big on songs with lyrics I can’t understand. To be fair, it is only partially in French.
4. 52nd Street (1978)
I’m not sure if I got this album or The Nylon Curtain first. I was starting to buy cassettes in the early 1980s when I got both of them in a short time frame. It doesn’t matter which came into my possession first, just that they were the first two Billy Joel albums that I owned. Perhaps that’s partly why I place them so high on this list, but it’s also because they’re both outstanding albums.
Once again, the Billy Joel Band was firing on all cylinders, including guest musicians like trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, and the work behind the scenes by producer Phil Ramone and engineer Jim Boyer is immaculate. It’s a great sounding record and the non-hits like “Zanzibar,” “Stiletto,” “Rosalinda’s Eyes,” and the one I chose below are every bit as good as the smash singles.
“Until the Night” — I might be the only person I know who would put this song in my top three from an album with this many great songs, but I just love it. It’s a six-and-a-half-minute homage to the Righteous Brothers, with Billy dropping his voice down low for the verses and harmonizing with himself every other line. This song would fit perfectly on An Innocent Man. It also has a world class bridge and the way the song builds from the first verse to the end of that bridge is brilliant. An underrated masterpiece.
“Honesty” — This is one of my favorite songs in his entire catalog. It’s easily in my two or three favorite Billy Joel songs. I enjoy everything about it, from the melody to the lyrics, to the playing — including orchestration. It lost the Grammy for Song of the Year to “What a Fool Believes” by the Doobie Brothers, and it’s hard to begrudge that song its trophy, but man…this is such an amazing song.
“My Life” — People of a certain age will remember this song being used as the theme for the Tom Hanks TV show Bosom Buddies (but not with Joel on vocals). To me, this was always a great pop song with excellent lyrics. It’s also a great singalong song in the car or at the bar.
“52nd Street” — This seems like a bit of a tacked-on track to get up to nine songs and it’s a bit of a letdown after “Until the Night.” But it’s not bad.
3. The Nylon Curtain (1982)
If 52nd Street wasn’t my first Billy Joel album, then this one was. I wore out my cassette copy of The Nylon Curtain through repeated plays, although it wasn’t like other stuff I was listening to at the time. This wasn’t a rocker. It was sad, depressing, and full of social commentary, particularly the album’s first side. But this is also Billy’s homage to the Beatles, with a lot of intentional references to the music by those lads from Liverpool. Still, he manages to keep the music sounding original at the same time.
I was in high school and had a fairly sheltered life and wasn’t much interested in world news. I knew nothing of the plight of the American steelworker or what Vietnam veterans had been through. But here those stories were, told in a medium I understood, by a skilled storyteller who somehow managed to package all of that in catchy rock songs. The album also includes the hit “Pressure,” which had a great video on Mtv and might feature Liberty DeVitto’s best drumming to date. The entire album is well crafted, down to the mournful reprise of the “Allentown” melody line as closing track “Where’s the Orchestra?” fades out.
“Allentown” — The seriousness of the subject matter is juxtaposed with a song full of hooks. The decline of the American steel industry and the small towns dependent upon the health of their manufacturing plants never sounded so good.
“Goodnight Saigon” —This song is worth the lengthy fade-in of the helicopter sound effect that kicks it off. Building from a soft, slow, acoustic-guitar-driven song, “Saigon” builds and unwinds over the course of seven minutes of haunting verses and a singalong chorus.
“Laura” — There is Beatles influence all over The Nylon Curtain and this track is full of Fab Four goodness. This might be the first song I ever owned that had the F word in it, but it seemed the appropriate word given the apparent anger with which Billy delivered that particular line early in the song. It’s a dark song but anyone who has been in a relationship with someone they know is bad for them can relate to it.
“A Room of Our Own” — This wasn’t Billy’s best rocker but it’s fine. I don’t skip it.
2. Turnstiles (1976)
Ah, the album where Billy’s band came together. This was the first record featuring his classic band lineup of drummer Liberty DeVitto, saxophonist/keyboardist Richie Cannata, guitarist Russell Javors, and bassist Doug Stegmeyer. This band played every song as a cohesive unit and every part truly shines on this album.
Further, Billy wrote one of his best collections of songs for Turnstiles, failing to include a single clunker. I genuinely love every song on this album. It’s likely that I have this album rated higher than many people would, but it’s just too good to rate any lower than top two. Depending on my mood on any given day, this could be the one I reach for first.
“Summer, Highland Falls” — In a catalog as qualitative and large as Joel’s, it’s often difficult to pick a favorite. Not so, for me. This is my favorite song out of everything Billy Joel has ever recorded. I’d go so far as to say this is a desert island song. My life would be poorer if I’d never have heard it. It’s sublime, with some of the best vocals Billy ever recorded, standout lyrics, and a lovely piano line winding through it.
“Say Goodbye to Hollywood” — A beautiful homage to the Ronettes, as well as Billy’s farewell letter to life in California, this track somehow always puts me in a good mood. The “whoa-oh-ohs” at the end are a great tribute to Ronnie Spector, who later covered the song. There’s a great live version of it on Songs in the Attic, too.
“Prelude/Angry Young Man” — There aren’t many better piano songs in rock than this one and this is a huge favorite during live shows. The ferocious “Prelude” gives way to “Angry Young Man,” with galloping guitar and drum, great harmony vocals, and the usual excellent piano playing. There’s a synth solo in the middle that seems to have jumped into Turnstiles from some 70s progressive rock album.
“All You Wanna Do is Dance” — Least favorite here, once again, is simply a matter of being a good song that is not quite as good as the others on the album, and I set a bad precedent with even having this section.
1. The Stranger (1977)
The Stranger ranks up among the all-time great classic albums like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. And yet, as good as it is, for me it barely edges out Turnstiles. We’re talking almost coin flip territory.
“Movin’ Out” — Billy Joel songs don’t get any more classic than this one. Great musicianship, lyrics that bring the characters to life, and the unusual (but brilliant) decision to repeat syllables (“Cadillac-ac-ac-ac”) highlight this all-time great about the folly of making great personal sacrifices in terms of work/life balance just to have nicer material possessions.
“Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” — This one is like multiple songs, and not just because it’s seven and a half minutes long. “Scenes” has gorgeous and lush bookend intro and outro sections with orchestration. Those feel huge, like a film score. Between those two sections is a connecting piece with some New Orleans-style jazz, followed by a frantically paced song about the rise and fall of the relationship of Brenda and Eddie. The whole effect is reminiscent of side two of The Beatles’ Abbey Road. Along the way, there are some patented Joel piano heroics and a fun and clever lyric. One of Billy’s most brilliant works.
“Only the Good Die Young” — We’ve had guys named Anthony, an Italian restaurant, and now Catholic girls. The Stranger is Billy’s Italian record, although he’s not Italian. Maybe that “Italian-ness” is part of the appeal for me that pushes it over the top and just about a millimeter past Turnstiles. This up-tempo rocker about a kid trying to get into his Catholic girlfriend’s pants (and not necessarily succeeding) is fun, catchy, and easy to sing along with.
“Get It Right the First Time” — I like this song quite a bit, but something has to go in this section. There are no bad tracks on the album.
And there you have it. This is how Billy’s catalog rates for me. I hope you enjoyed reading it even half as much as I liked writing it. Be sure to let me know where you agree and disagree. And if there are any of Billy’s albums you haven’t heard yet, I hope you’ll feel inclined to give them a spin to check them out.
Is there a Billy Joel fan in your life who might like this issue of the newsletter? A music fan you know in general who might appreciate some independent writing about the subject? Feel free to share it with them via the “share” button below. I’ve also included a button below for those who haven’t yet signed up for a free account to receive Michael’s Record Collection in their mailbox whenever a new issue drops.
The success or failure of this newsletter depends on word of mouth, so any sharing you can do on your social media channels or via email to your friends, family, and coworkers would be greatly appreciated.