by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Glass Houses (1980, Columbia)
A notable departure from the more pop-and-jazz-tinged stylings of his last two albums, Glass Houses showcases an angrier side of Joel, one determined to prove to critics once and for all that he can rock out convincingly, and he succeeds to the degree that the only tracks that really don’t work here are all ballads. The album yielded several notable hits in the vaguely New Wave-tinged Number One “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” the Afro-Cuban lilt of “Don’t Ask Me Why,” the aggressive rocker “Sometimes a Fantasy,” and the maniacal “You May Be Right.” They’re all strong singles – especially “You May Be Right” – but, like 52nd Street, what’s most impressive about the album is just how fun and incessantly catchy the majority of the non-singles are. “All for Leyna” and “Close to the Borderline” are both despondent yet quite hooky rockers that hit with as much intensity as “You May Be Right,” while the playful romps “I Don’t Want to Be Alone” and “Sleeping with the Television On” are every bit as catchy and addictive as any of the singles. [“Sleeping with the Television On” may actually be the single-catchiest Billy Joel song to never grace the Top 40.] The only misfires, really, are the album-closing “Through the Long Night,” which is a fine song that just seems out of place on such a rough-edged album, and the bilingual ballad “C’etait Toi (You Were the One),” which may be Joel’s worst song.
The Nylon Curtain (1982, Columbia)
Joel’s first studio outing after the live disc Songs in the Attic, The Nylon Curtain gets off to a phenomenal start and then proceeds to dovetail quite a bit in its back half. That might have been fatal, but thankfully, the album’s first half is really, really excellent. “Allentown” is one of Joel’s very few excursions into sociopolitical commentary that doesn’t over-reach, its thoughtful take on the decline of the American manufacturing industry also thankfully being welded to one of Joel’s finest melodies, resulting in a song that’s stunningly quite addictive and hooky when you consider its subject matter. The non-single “Laura” is an angry ballad with a late-Beatles vibe to it (especially in its George Harrison-like guitar solo); the lyric itself isn’t very musical, but the melody is great and the song packs a real emotional punch. (Joel even drops a very unexpected profanity during the bridge. Since Joel so rarely uses any profanity in his lyrics, the moment packs a real wallop.) The paranoid frenetic pop of “Pressure” is a real adrenaline rush, while the much more subdued balladry of “Goodnight Saigon” is a moving tribute to Vietnam vets. Side Two starts off promisingly with “She’s Right on Time,” but the rest of the disc just seems uninspired and lifeless. Still, the album’s first five songs are all very much worth owning.
An Innocent Man (1983, Columbia)
This album is not only a dramatic improvement on its predecessor, it might very well be the single-most creative album of Joel’s career and one of the most unique albums in pop music. In a much more playful mood than he was on The Nylon Curtain, Joel was also suddenly nostalgic for the music of his youth. Rather than simply make an album of ‘50s and ‘60s covers, though, Joel went ahead and wrote a full album of new material that simply incorporated the sounds of the “good old days.” Hence, nearly every track here bears an obvious musical influence in golden greats like Jackie Wilson, The Drifters, The Tymes, The Supremes, or Little Anthony and the Imperials. It’s a remarkably creative move, and one that very few other songwriters have ever been as bold or daring to try themselves. Like the best songs of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, these songs are all overflowing with hooks from start to finish. There are plenty of hits here, including the Four Seasons homage “Uptown Girl,” the acapella doo-wop of “The Longest Time,” the Drifters-like balladry of the powerful title track, the Motown-tinged Number One hit “Tell Her About It,” the stunningly pretty “Leave a Tender Moment Alone,” and the soulful “Keeping the Faith.” Even the non-hits are deliriously fun as well, be it the Sam Cooke-tinged sway of “Careless Talk,” the Little Richard-esque “Christie Lee,” or, best of all, “This Night,” in which Joel ingeniously takes an old Beethoven melody and turns it into the chorus of a sweeping doo-wop ballad. It may not necessarily be Joel’s masterpiece – that title still probably belongs to The Stranger – but this is easily Joel’s most fun studio album and probably his most creative.
The Bridge (1986, Columbia)
Most music critics tend to rate The Bridge fairly poorly, and while it’s certainly not the equal of The Stranger or 52nd Street or An Innocent Man, the songwriting is still impressive, and it’s more consistent over its two sides than The Nylon Curtain. The fun and frenetic “Running on Ice” is reminiscent of the new-wave of The Police, “Big Man on Mulberry Street” finds Joel taking a stab at big-band jazz to excellent results, and the muscular rocker “Code of Silence,” a co-write and duet with Cyndi Lauper, is one of Joel’s all-time catchiest non-singles. There are also plenty of hits here as well, including the Ray Charles duet “Baby Grand,” the smooth adult-contemporary balladry of “This Is the Time,” the Ruthless People shuffle “Modern Woman,” and, best of all, the gritty rocker “A Matter of Trust,” which finds Joel ditching his usual piano for an electric guitar. It’s not only got a great rock crunch and a fantastic melody, but it also boasts one of Joel’s most underrated set of lyrics.
Storm Front (1989, Columbia)
Storm Front was much better-received by critics than The Bridge, but I’ve never really understood why, to be honest. Of all Joel’s albums from Turnstiles onwards, this is easily the one I listen to the least. Joel has undergone a bit of a musical makeover here. Longtime guitarist Russell Javors and bassist Doug Stegmeyer have sadly both been replaced, and even more unexpectedly, Joel has brought in Foreigner guitarist/songwriter Mick Jones as his producer. Jones recasts Joel as a full-blown arena-rocker, this easily being Joel’s least piano-oriented album to date, being structured more around loud guitars and electric keyboards. It’s not the sonic tinkering that is the album’s failing so much as it is that the songs just aren’t quite as memorable as they usually are. The topical rock of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” would become a Number One hit, but it would also be one of Joel’s more polarizing hits. In hindsight, Joel’s efforts to summarize the prior four decades of world history in pop-song form are actually quite impressive and the verses are consequently great fun, but the chorus just seems well below Joel’s abilities, and you can’t help but wonder how much stronger the song could have been with a different chorus. “Leningrad” and “The Downeaster Alexa” were both singles, but neither actually feels like a commercial song. More successful are the songs where Joel sticks closer to his usual winning style: the muscular rocker “I Go to Extremes” is fantastic and wouldn’t have sounded out of place on The Bridge, while the chilling album-closing “And So It Goes” is a gentle ballad featuring only Joel and his piano.
River of Dreams (1993, Columbia)
Joel’s most recent – and, apparently, final – studio album is a fine ending to the man’s career. Co-produced with one of the quintessential studio session men of the ‘70s, Danny Kortchmar, the album’s production fits Joel better than that of Storm Front. It’s muscular when it needs to be without ever seeming too arena-sized, and its softer material is much more immediate and intimate. The most crucial difference, though, is that the songs are just better this time out. The gospel pop of the title cut was the album’s biggest hit, but it’s actually one of the least impressive songs here. Much more interesting are the pounding rock of “All About Soul,” the lovely classical-styled piano ballad “Lullaby (Goodnight, My Angel),” the angry funk of “The Great Wall of China,” the ecology-minded rocker “No Man’s Land,” and best of all, the paranoid pop of “Blonde Over Blue.” The album – and, for that matter, the man’s legacy on record as a pop/rock songwriter – comes to a fitting end with the self-examination “Famous Last Words.”