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Billy Joel

   Cold Spring Harbor (Family, 1971)
    Piano Man (Columbia, 1973)
    Streetlife Serenade (Columbia, 1974)
     Turnstiles (Columbia, 1976)
     The Stranger (Columbia, 1977)
    52nd Street (Columbia, 1978)
    Glass Houses (Columbia, 1980)
    Songs in the Attic (Columbia, 1981)
     The Nylon Curtain (Columbia, 1982)
     An Innocent Man (Columbia, 1983)
     Greatest Hits, Volumes 1 & 2 (Columbia, 1985)
     The Bridge (Columbia, 1986)
    Kohuept (In Concert)
(Columbia, 1987)
     Storm Front (Columbia, 1989)
    River of Dreams (Columbia, 1993)
    Greatest Hits, Vol. 3 (Columbia, 1997)
    Complete Hits Collection, 1974–1997 (Sony, 1997)
    2000 Years: The Millennium Concert (Columbia, 2000)
     1/2 The Essential Billy Joel (Sony, 2001)
    Fantasies and Delusions (Columbia, 2001)
     My Lives (Columbia, 2005)
    12 Gardens Live (Columbia, 2006)
     The Stranger: 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (Sony Legacy 2008)

Billy Joel's most apparent gift is for writing songs in the tradition of Tin Pan Alley, the Brill Building, Burt Bacharach, and Paul McCartney. When he tries anything harder, he comes off sounding forced, but chances are you've had at least one Billy Joel song stuck in your head for an ungodly amount of time: For a decade or so, the man was a hit-making machine, wracking up beloved singles like "Piano Man," "The Longest Time," "Uptown Girl" and dozens more.

"She's Got a Way" from Cold Spring Harbor set the pattern for the ballads Joel would soon turn out effortlessly on almost every album. "Everyone Loves You Now" is tougher, its note of sarcasm one he'd continue through the years. Already on his first album Joel showed himself a graceful pianist; his singing was harder to assess—an error in the record's mix (corrected in the 1984 rerelease) sped up the vocal track, and he sounds trebly. The title track of Piano Man gave Joel his first hit; it also introduced a trademark theme that he's since treated with alternate grace and bitterness—the pathos of the performer. Filled with ambitious story-songs ("Captain Jack," "The Ballad of Billy the Kid"), the record provoked comparisons to Elton John and Harry Chapin.

The narrative vignettes off Streetlife Serenade ("Los Angelenos," "The Mexican Connection") strain to be clever, but the ballad "Roberta" and the rollicking "The Last of the Big Time Spenders" are the album's high points. Turnstiles shows Joel writing with assurance and loveliness about family and memory ("I've Loved These Days," "Summer, Highland Falls"). "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" is a neat Phil Spector tribute, and "New York State of Mind" is Joel's earliest acme. On The Stranger, Joel's commercial breakthrough, "Just the Way You Are" and "She's Always a Woman to Me" boast strong melodies and Joel's elegant singing.

52nd Street is overbearing. The sweet music of "Honesty" is sabotaged by trite lyrics; "Big Shot" is bombastic, though the swagger of "My Life" is a good epitaph for the "Me" Decade. Glass Houses displayed Billy in a black leather jacket on its cover, but the album's best tracks are the modest "Don't Ask Me Why" and the brassy "All for Leyna." On The Nylon Curtain, "Allentown" deals with unemployment and "Goodnight Saigon" with Vietnam. Examinations of domestic strife and modern-day pressures complete the record.

An Innocent Man—a spiritual tribute to doo-wop, the Four Seasons, the Drifters, and the sound of early rock and roll ("Uptown Girl," "The Longest Time," "Leave a Tender Moment Alone")—is Joel's most pleasing album. The Bridge echoes Innocent's lightness, if not in quite so breezy a fashion; its standout remains Billy's fond duet with Ray Charles on "Baby Grand." Storm Front finds Joel in the unlikely guise of a stadium rocker. "We Didn't Start the Fire" kicks heartily, as does "I Go to Extremes." With a streamlined production helping out, Joel found a way to sound tough without seeming overwrought.

River of Dreams, billed as Billy's final pop record, is still the work of an ultrapro, especially the fetching gospelish title track. After a long hiatus, Joel returned to recording with a surprisingly good venture into classical music, Fantasies and Delusions. It offers mainly sonatas, played by virtuoso pianist Richard Joos.

Of Joel's live work, Kohuept, a record of his 1987 Leningrad concert, is sharper and more comprehensive than Songs in the Attic or the bloated and near-identical live sets 2000 Years and 12 Gardens Live. Of the greatest-hits sets, The Essential is the most efficient – while the 2005 box set My Lives is a nice comprehensive set for completionists. The 30th anniversary Stranger box set contains a live set from Carnegie Hall that shows Joel at his absolute peak.

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