Billy Joel spent the first 22 years of his career making pop albums, and the last 20 years performing that music all over the world. Stopping after 1993's River of Dreams means that he never had a true failure (even if Joel is unhappy with Cold Spring Harbor and The Bridge), and he never embarrassed himself with lame latter-day releases. He was never a critic's darling, but in recent years Joel's popularity has remained remarkably solid, and many of his most ardent foes admit maybe they were a little too tough on him. We asked our readers to vote on their favorite Billy Joel album last week. The top album won by an insanely high margin, but it was pretty close after that. Click through to see the results.
Nobody knew that River of Dreams would be Billy Joel's last album when it came out in August of 1993, but looking back, the clues were there. It had been four years since Storm Front, marking the longest break of his career. Clearly, he was feeling a little tapped. The LP also ends with a lovely ballad called "Famous Last Words." "And these are the last words I have to say," he sang. "It's always hard to say goodbye/But now it's time to put this book away/Ain't that the story of my life." He was 44 when the album came out, but he felt it was time to hang it up. Fortunately, he ended on a real high. River of Dreams may have hit near the peak of grunge, but songs like the title track, "All About Soul," "No Man's Land" and "Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel)" were all hits. His fans (and his label) are still waiting for the follow-up to River of Dreams, but odds are high it will never come.
Billy Joel was ready for a big change when he made 1989's Storm Front. He'd been working with producer Phil Ramone for over a decade and together they created the best music of his career, but 1986's The Bridge was a creative and commercial disappointment. Joel wanted to try working with new people, and they parted ways on good terms. Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones was brought in to produce Storm Front, and he helped create a modern album that sounded unlike anything else in the Billy Joel catalog. First single "We Didn't Start the Fire," a rapid-fire history lesson, shot to Number One, and the album stayed high on the charts for months. The LP firmly re-established Joel as a hitmaker, though some fans felt he strayed too far from his roots. Radio disagreed, playing the shit out of "We Didn't Start the Fire," "I Go to Extremes" and "The Downeaster Alexa."
Few artists have more hits than Billy Joel, but it's his first one that seems to have left the biggest impression with the public. When he plays the opening notes of "Piano Man" at the end of his concerts the place erupts with the loudest cheers of the night. Fans often throw their arms around complete strangers and sing along to every word. No matter what he does with the rest of his life, Joel's nickname will forever be the Piano Man. The song is a highly fictionalized account of Joel's six-month stint at a Los Angeles bar. Oddly enough, it's not even the most important song on the album of the same name. A 1972 live version of "Captain Jack" went into heavy rotation on a Philadelphia radio station, grabbing the attention of Columbia Records. They signed him, forever changing his life. Piano Man wasn't a huge hit album, but when his career took off much later in the decade fans went back and redisovered the disc.
By 1983 Billy Joel had churned out nine albums in a little over a decade. It was an era of Culture Club, Michael Jackson and the Police, but Joel felt audiences were ready for something very different. "An Innocent Man was kind of an homage to the music of the early Sixties," Joel recently told Rolling Stone. "My teenage years." There weren't many doo-wop flavored songs like "The Longest Time" on the radio in 1983, but it was still a big hit. "Uptown Girl" sounds like a Four Seasons number, but with a lot of help from MTV it also became a huge hit. It also have Christie Brinkley a nickname.
The first four Billy Joel albums are full of great songs, but when Joel listens back to them he often cringes. Producers refused to let him record with his touring band, and the first album was even mastered at the wrong speed. Joel threw it down the block like a Frisbee the first time he heard it. So when he didn't have a new album to give Columbia in 1981 he had the rather brilliant idea of creating a live album from his early material. Huge hits like "My Life" and "Only the Good Die Young" were kept off Songs in the Attic in favor of hidden gems like "Everybody Loves You Now," "You're My Home" and "Summer, Highland Falls." This was how Joel wanted fans to hear the songs, and it's far and away the best live album of his career.
The Nylon Curtain is an extremely ambitious work. "I was kind of playing the studio as an instrument, which I had never done before," Joel recently told Rolling Stone. "It took a year to make, and we finished up that album exhausted but very proud of it." The lyrics deal with the Reagan years and the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Album opener "Allentown" is the stark take of a dying town, while "Goodnight Saigon" is an emotionally charged song that Joel wrote after speaking with Vietnam vets. Both songs received a lot of airplay, as did "Pressure," one of the more modern-sounding songs from the LP. The hits are on side one, but hardcore fans love side two, especially the finale, "Where's the Orchestra." Joel hopes to revive that one on his tour later this year.
At its core, Billy Joel's 1976 LP Turnstiles is a celebration of New York City. He's even posing at the Astor Place subway station on the cover. He cut the album after living in Los Angeles for a few years. He was ready to come home, as he made clear on the album opener "Say Goodbye to Hollywood." "Summer, Highland Falls" is a beautiful ode to a small upstate town, while "New York State of Mind" remains one of the definitive songs about the city, up there with "Theme From New York, New York" and "Empire State of Mind." The album even ends with a science fiction song about New York in the distant future after the city has been destroyed, though "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)" is really about the resilience of New Yorkers. It's given Joel a great song to sing at benefits for victims of 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy.
The huge success of The Stranger completely changed Billy Joel's career, but when it came time for a follow-up he knew repeating the formula would be a mistake. "We wanted to do something completely different," Billy Joel told Rolling Stone this year. "Phil Ramone had the idea to bring in jazz musicians. I was really enthusiastic about it." 52nd Street didn't quite surpass The Stranger, but it was a huge success. "Big Shot," "Honesty" and "My Life" were enormous radio hits. The latter track had a second life two years later when it was used as the theme to the Tom Hanks/Peter Scolari sitcom Bosom Buddies.
If 52nd Street was Billy Joel's jazz album, the follow-up LP, Glass Houses, was a rock album. It's evident from the opening sounds of shattered glass followed by the loud guitar on "You May Be Right." The music scene was changing a lot in early Eighties. Punk and disco had left huge marks, and some of the Seventies icons felt a little out of touch. It's no coincidence that Bob Seger wrote "Old Time Rock and Roll" at nearly the same time that Billy Joel write "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me." Of the two songs, Billy's is a little more accepting of the changes. "It's the next phase, New Wave, dance craze, anyways," Joel sings. "It's still rock and roll to me." The album was yet another huge hit, and it got the decade off to a very strong start for the piano man.
This wasn't even a close contest. The Stranger received three times as many votes as the runner-up, and that's no huge surprise. The Stranger is the album that forever made Billy Joel a superstar. It was his first time working with producer Phil Ramone, and their chemistry was instant. "I wasn't sure what a producer was even capable of before I met Phil," Joel recently told Rolling Stone. "He gets the artist to believe in his own stuff." The album took off like a rocket, and "Just the Way You Are," "Only the Good Die Young," "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" and "She's Always a Woman" were playing everywhere you went in 1977 and 1978. He's recorded many great albums since The Stranger, but he's never quite managed to top it.