Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Billy Joel Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Cold Spring Harbor (1971, Family)                                      

C  

A debut album with a really weird history to it, a mastering error caused the tapes to be sped up, making Joel’s voice higher than normal. It wasn’t until 1983 that the album was reissued (via Joel’s then-label Columbia) and the mistake corrected. Unfortunately, original producer Artie Ripp, who also oversaw the 1983 reissue, goes beyond simply fixing the mastering error and gives the album a complete makeover, significantly truncating the length of most tracks (even cutting over three minutes out of “You Can Make Me Free”).  Even worse, on several cuts, he’s either taken much of the original instrumentation out of the mix entirely (“Tomorrow Is Today”) and/or brought in studio pros to cut all-new backing tracks (“Everybody Loves You Now,” “Turn Around”). The end result of all this is that neither version of this album is an accurate reflection of how Joel meant for this album to be heard. You would think someone would have gone back by now to the original master tapes and simply done a new reissue of the original master tapes at the correct speed, but no such reissue exists, unfortunately. This is a much-different sounding Joel than the superstar of later years, showcasing the singer in an atypically stark and confessional setting. Rarely has Joel ever sounded so downright vulnerable, and the album’s intriguing for that reason, even if his songwriting has yet to fully blossom. The album does have its share of good cuts, though, in “Everybody Loves You Now,” “You Can Make Me Free,” and especially the ballad “She’s Got a Way.”

Piano Man (1973, Columbia)                                                

B –

An undeniable improvement on the debut, Joel would score his first major hit with the career-defining autobiographical waltz of the title track. Joel has still yet to fully find his own sound here, and the musical stylings are actually much more reminiscent of Elton John circa Tumbleweed Connection than they are of latter Joel albums like The Stranger. He’s showing growth as a songwriter, however, and there are several songs here worth a listen, especially the classic-rock-radio favorite “Captain Jack,” the lazy Western stroll of “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” the gospel-tinged pop of “Worse Comes to Worst,” and the ballad “You’re My Home.”

Streetlife Serenade (1974, Columbia)                                    

C +

The follow-up to Piano Man unfortunately seems like a real rush job. Of the ten cuts here, there are actually two piano instrumentals (“Root Beer Rag” and “The Mexican Connection”) and a ballad that’s just too brief to seem like a fully-realized song (the two-minute “Souvenir”).  The melodies aren’t nearly as catchy as those on its predecessor, either, with the exception of three songs in particular. The hook-laden, Little Feat-like slippery piano funk of “Weekend Song” is a pretty fun cut. The minor Top 40 hit “The Entertainer” is a cynical but playful commentary on Joel’s experiences in the music industry (even making a direct reference to his label’s decision to release a heavily edited version of “Piano Man” to try and elicit more airplay). “Los Angelenos” is the hardest-rocking Billy Joel song yet and helps to bring some grit to the album.

Turnstiles (1976, Columbia)                                                 

A – 

Employing Joel’s touring band on record for the first time, Turnstiles is not only a fine bounce-back after the underdeveloped Streetlife Serenade, but it’s also arguably his first genuinely great album. Joel finally has found the style that works best for him, and for perhaps the first time on record, he doesn’t sound like anyone but himself.  Ironically and sadly, the album actually fared poorly upon its initial release, stopping at #122 and failing to yield any Top 40 singles. (“Say Goodbye to Hollywood” would make the Top 40 five years later in the form of a live version from Songs in the Attic, however.) There are only eight songs here (the album clocking in at just over thirty-six minutes), but it’s a great set of songs. The Ronettes-inspired “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” boasts Joel’s most infectious melody yet, for starters.  There’s also many a later concert staple here, including the fan favorite “Prelude/Angry Young Man” (which opens with Joel attacking his piano with a barrage of hammered staccato notes to breathtaking results), the apocalyptic “Miami 2015 (Seen the Lights Go Down on Broadway,” the stunningly beautiful “Summer, Highland Falls,” and the modern-day standard “New York State of Mind.”

The Stranger (1977, Columbia)                                            

A +

This disc is the album that finally catapulted Joel into the pop-singer-songwriter elite. Nearly every last cut on this album has gone on to become a radio staple, including “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” the cynical-yet-playful shuffle of “Only the Good Die Young,” the nearly-eight-minute story-song epic “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” the cutting “She’s Always a Woman,” and the eerie title track. As if that weren’t enough, the album’s also got one of the most beloved love songs of the ‘70s in the classy smooth jazz of “Just the Way You Are,” with a note-perfect saxophone solo from jazz great Phil Woods; the song deservedly became Joel’s first Top Ten hit and arguably remains his finest ballad, even if he doesn’t play it in concerts anymore. Even the few cuts on here that don’t get much radio play are still impressive, especially the jazzy “Get It Right the First Time.” More so than any other Joel album up to this point, it also sounds carefully designed as an album, too, extremely well-sequenced and cleverly ending with an uncredited reprise of the eerie whistled melody that opens the album’s title track.

52nd Street (1978, Columbia)                                                 

A +

This isn’t quite as famous of an album as The Stranger, but it’s arguably every bit as good. Like its better-known predecessor, there are a handful of massive hits here: the deliriously fun, heated kiss-off of “Big Shot,” the stirring ballad “Honesty,” and the playful romp of “My Life” (featuring Chicago’s Peter Cetera and Donnie Dacus on backing vocals). What’s so surprising is just how strong the non-singles here are, be it the Steely Dan-like pop of “Zanzibar” (which brilliantly incorporates jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard), the stunning Righteous Brothers homage “Until the Night,” or the piano funk of “Stiletto.” Even better is the majestic melody of the gently-swaying, Latin-flavored, marimba-laden “Rosalinda’s Eyes.” It’s one of Joel’s most lovely and sophisticated melodies – right up there with “Just the Way You Are,” in fact – yet it’s not one you ever run into on the radio, and it’s consequently one of the greatest gems to be uncovered from listening to his albums in full.