Artist Spotlight courtesy of thunderclap_monolith
He’s sold more than 150 million records, won countless awards, and is enjoying his status now as a respected elder statesman – but for the longest time, at least in my experience, it used to be nearly impossible to find anyone who would openly admit to liking Billy Joel.
Growing up, the conversation began and ended with Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, The Who – bands that had a bad-ass appeal. Bands that were loud and interested in the sensory overload of riffs, battering rhythm sections or, in the case of Floyd, exploring abstract ideas through sonic hypnosis.
Billy Joel did none of those things, so he became a private thing for me. And that was the way it needed to be — because Joel is best understood in an intimate way, his themes and obsessions slowly taking shape through a close examination of his deceptively casual lyrics and pop sensibilities. I quickly learned that this radio-friendly balladeer was a bit more than he appeared on the surface – oftentimes syrupy, sure — but many times willing to express righteous anger, cynicism, and a deep sadness.
These kinds of undercurrents are amazing for a teenager to realize, to relate to.
And while those feelings made an impact, what truly affected me was the music: his deft way of building a vertical melody, expressive singing voice, breathtaking piano playing, and sense of humor. I grew to love his melancholy lullabies, endless hooks, contrasting Beatle-esque bridges and consistent ability to describe, in conversational language, feelings that aren’t always comfortable to feel: love and regret, depression and angst—and longing, always so much longing.
Critics lit into Joel for many things over the years for what they heard as pedestrian music and a poseur attitude (personified, I believe, in the song “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me,” from “Glass Houses,” which many believe is condescending and obnoxious – and lacking in actual rocking). Plus, try as he might, Joel just wasn’t “cool,” whatever that tends to mean at certain points in time. (For more on this, read Chuck Klosterman’s essay on Joel).
“It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”
Any sustained criticisms are bound to have grains of truth. But as you get older, you learn that dissenting views can help you find balance and seek out what you thought was special to test it, weigh it. You learn to accept an artist’s limitations as well as your own. And although I wish Joel was part of the larger cultural conversation, I know it is enough that he is part of MY conversation. Filtered through the stifling walls of my childhood home, his music feels like some sort of soundtrack to my life – maybe a cheesy movie about growing up and self-discovery and filled to the brim with joyous melodies.
So let go of any lingering shame, and let’s dive into the discography of one of the most successful pop musicians of all time!
THE EARLY YEARS
Cold Spring Harbor (1971), Piano Man (1973), Streetlife Serenade (1974)
Joel began his career firmly entrenched in the 70s confessional singer-songwriter mode. And although he would rarely deviate from typical pop music song structure and a heart-on-his-sleeve worldview throughout his career, he had something that helped him stand out right from the start: A piano, which opens up all kinds of classically inflected harmonic possibilities that escape many singer-songwriters. Like Elton John, Joel used his piano to give him a hook, an edge, as he slowly began carving out a persona. Unlike John (who was a far better pure classical player), Joel dialed down musical eclecticism and fantastical lyrics and went for clarity, control. His playing was more bluesy and groovy in service of the rhythm of a song, his words honest, his popular intentions clear. Listeners eventually rewarded him to the tune of 11 platinum albums.
It took a few albums for him to get his feet under him, though.
Joel’s debut, “Cold Spring Harbor,” is an awkward bleeding sore, a portrait of a young man trying to find himself. Joel famously hates the album – and with good reason: The original release was mixed too fast and left his voice sounding high and reedy to the point of comedy. The remix corrects this, but he is still warbly, full of unhinged vibrato. Still, you can hear the genesis of things to come in the original version of “She’s Got a Way,” which already shows his knack with a simple ballad. The real finds here – and true glimpses into the psyche — are “Why Judy Why” and “Tomorrow is Today,” both of which are absolutely drenched in pain. The latter is based on a suicide note Joel wrote before he tried to drink furniture polish.
“Harbor” is naked and unsure to the point of being uncomfortable. You hear glimmers of ideas that fade away, melodies that start to take off and then are pulled back again – fear, uncertainty. He’s had the experiences, but he had not yet hardened his shell and honed his chops. It’s a curious listen, but it can be a rewarding one after you work through the rest of his discography.
“Tomorrow is Today”
Joel as we know him arrives on “Piano Man,” and although the album still falls short – too many mid-tempo songs that don’t go anywhere – there are some great musical leaps and a lot more personality. The title track is filled with vivid characters and imagery (“the piano sounds like a carnival, and the microphone smells like a beer”), and hooks such as the minor key “la la la di de da” waltz refrain. It’s a song that finds joy in communal loneliness, the shared grief of failure. He relates to the sad sacks in the room in a display of glorious humanity. It earns its boozy singalong.
“Captain Jack,” while not one of his better tunes, is a great example of how Joel could write a melody to fit the meaning of a song. Joel was a master of vertical melody much like McCartney and Brian Wilson. His lines usually strive up and down the staff in giant leaps, sometimes over the span of octaves, but “Jack’s” melody is lazy, horizontal, barely getting past one note through each interminable verse, which fits the song’s themes of drug-fueled lethargy. Throughout his career, we will hear him marry melody and themes in this way.
The true joy of the album is “Stop in Nevada,” which is one of his first self-assured pop songs. Singing in the third person, Joel builds a tale of a wife who wants something more—a vivid snapshot of escape. Simple staccato chords burst forth into a chorus of pure release. You can see the sunshine on this woman’s face if you close your eyes. A steel guitar solo takes the place of what would later, no doubt, be a perfectly constructed bridge. Other country flourishes give the album a homey feel, but the genre doesn’t quite suit him. He’s still trying to define his sound.
“Stop in Nevada”
“Streetlife Serenade” is hindered by some sluggish performances and a muddy sound, but Joel’s angular melodies almost make up for it as does his blossoming sarcasm, which will soon be one of his most defining traits. His playing is stronger, too, more idiosyncratic – such as the piano’s chiming quality in the title track. “The Great Suburban Showdown” shows Joel getting comfortable with shading: A casual chorus/bridge leads to the contemptuously spit: “We’ll all sit down at the kitchen chairs, with the TV on and the neighbors there…” A couple of instrumentals lighten the load and show off his chops, playful and euphoric.
The gem of the record is “Souvenir,” a short track based on a Chopin prelude that shows Joel mastering direct intimacy—just a piano and a voice that laments. Listen to the melody on the line “A program of the plaaaaaaay,” and the way he absorbs that C minor crescendo while the chords descend beneath him. His playing is confident, teeming with dynamics, muscular and sensitive. He’s already mourning a life that is made up of disposable moments. There’s a sense of self-realization on “Streetlife Serenade” as well as a growing agitation, which gives even the softer songs a bit of a bite. It’s a moody record, perfect for rainy days, teenaged wonderings and adult regret.
THE PRIME YEARS
Turnstiles (1976), The Stranger (1977), 52nd Street (1978), Glass Houses (1980), The Nylon Curtain (1982)
“Turnstiles” is where Joel finally breaks through as an artist, and it’s where I knew I had found a kindred spirit who saw the world in a similar way – appreciative of its beauty, but also suspicious and guarded. Joel gets strange here in a way he won’t ever again, and a lot of it has to do with the sound, which is stark, almost alien.
The album bubbles with inventive melodies and piano dexterity, especially on “Summer, Highland Falls,” which has a hypnotically repetitive motif that represents either a bi-polar personality (“It’s either sadness or euphoria”) or an argument that never resolves. “Miami 2017” overflows with wit (“The flames were everywhere/but no one really cared/they always burned up there before”), and it’s his first song that kind of rocks. “New York State of Mind” is a vast and romantic tribute, chords a mile wide, presented without a hint of irony. You can smell the steam in the streets as he longs for home, any home, really.
Joel’s soul was really present in “Prelude/Angry Young Man,” a workout, both lyrically and musically, that represents a lot of what I thought of myself at that time (and still do, sometimes) — fighting fights that weren’t worthy of my time. The line in the bridge: “I had my pointless point of view, and life went on no matter who was wrong or right” feels particularly prescient now. “Turnstiles” is also notable for the debut of drummer Liberty DeVitto, aggressive and lightning fast, who changed the entire dynamic of Joel’s sound. Listen to him fill the gaps and keep up with the piano histrionics in “AYM,” listen to the give and take—it’s a monumental performance that fills me with joy.
“Summer Highland Falls”
“Prelude/Angry Young Man”
“The Stranger” made Joel a superstar, and it’s still easy to hear why. His songwriting was now honed to a fine point, perfect for pop/rock radio of the time, but credit must also go to new producer Phil Ramone, who understood what rock critic J.D. Considine knew to be Joel’s strength: a light touch. So Ramone buffed the edges and bathed Joel in a cozy glow. Joel evens out his voice—no more nasal vibrato – and the piano is now fully integrated into the songs, sitting in the middle of the mix, offering up rip currents of chords or twinkling surprises. There is no lagtime, no fat, and Joel goes down his usual checklist — anger, romance, nostalgia, sexual politics – with a vocal delivery both at ease with gentle crooning (“Just the Way You Are,” still a perfect pop song) and a wicked temperament (“Movin’ Out,” which plays up his New York attitude to perfect observational pitch).
“Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” is probably the single best song of Joel’s career, or at least the one that most represents him: A story song with equal parts romance, wistfulness, dry commentary and punchlines. The song has so many keen musical tricks – especially the octave-riff instrumental break before the “Brenda and Eddie” section and the shout of “Rock and Roll!” before a passionate solo featuring Devitto’s rapid crash/snare combos – that it’s easy to miss it circling back around to romance as the saxophone makes you forget the pain. What fun this song is! You just have to sing along. It’s mandatory.
“Vienna” and “She’s Always a Woman” toss off casual lessons on life. They are subtle ballads, taking flight only when they need to, such as the bridge of “Woman,” which is one of the finest things he ever wrote. Struggling with a note near the very top of his register (“Oh, and she never gives out”), Joel communicates what it’s like to love someone and ultimately be imprisoned by the process.
“The Stranger” is an album of confidence, perfectly presented and expertly modulated. These are songs of experience, observation, learning, inside a candy-coated shell. It’s amazing pop music.
“She’s Always A Woman”
“Scenes From An Italian Restaurant”
“52nd Street” is strutting, breezy confidence – Joel is a master of disguises now, changing styles and textures like he’s trying on hats. Ramone’s pop blanket is still here, but there’s also a Steely Dan seediness, a back room throb cutting through cigarette smoke and private deals. Joel has the freedom to indulge, and he clearly wants to be a cool jazzman and/or a rock and roller: Witness the tough guy bullshit of “Big Shot” (lurching, stuttering rhythms), the all-out delivery in “Zanzibar” (intense, feverish piano chords in the chorus) and the cover art of him posing in some dank alleyway with a trumpet. (The great Freddie Hubbard plays the whiplash trumpet solo in the latter song’s breakdown.)
Let’s examine “Honesty,” which is everything Joel does better than anyone else. It’s him at a piano, with another perfect little intro, speaking directly to the listener. He just tells you straight up – no metaphor, no tricks, no riddles, which has always been part of his charm. The chords are beautiful, lots of clanking sharps and flats, but listen to the melody line hitch underneath itself — as if it’s gathering its feet to jump higher – on the line “All I want is someone…to believe.” That last word is held for a complete measure as it crashes into the chorus, which also starts on the same note and holds on even longer: “Honesty….is such a lonely word.” It’s staggeringly intuitive and emotive songwriting that personifies a desperate plea. And the song ends with a restated piano hook from the beginning, made just different enough to catch the ear one last time, his blood-curdling cry “…HARDLY EVER HEEAAAAAARDD!” still ringing in your ears.
The rest of the record is just as good: “My Life” lifts McCartney’s “Let ‘Em In” and throws in some “fvuk you” lyrics, a bridge with phased harmonies, an electric piano solo and a breakdown where DeVitto smacks a snare around while the song catches its breath. It’s wall to wall kitchen sink cleverness. “Rosalinda’s Eyes” is a lovely Latin-flavored trifle with some of his most expressive singing. “Until the Night” is a Phil Spector-ish production about a private romance, a celebration of the melodramatic. The best song on the record is “Stilleto,” which overcomes some nasty lyrics with a groovy “let’s fvck” breakdown that erupts into an orgasmic sax solo punctuated by DeVitto’s insane crash accents.
“52nd Street” is goddamned comfort food. It’s this ballsy, obnoxious thing that also has a soft 70s underbelly. It’s a towering pop statement from a piano man who is actually a chameleon, an unapologetic cheeseball, and a bit of a crank. The associations I have with it are almost too powerful to confront: The giant vinyl sitting on a coffee table in my parents’ den on some lazy summer day, trying to figure out the chords, wondering if I could write melodies that might make someone smile while having absolutely no idea how to get those melodies into the world. Am I just as valuable if I’m playing in my room? (A “Rosalinda’s Eyes” lyric: “Hardly anyone has seen how good I am.”) I don’t think I’ve ever properly answered that question.
Joel goes full bore wannabe rocker on “Glass Houses,” or maybe he’s more interested in being Elvis Costello or Joe Jackson. You might be surprised how well he pulls it off (or how many critics he pissed off), only because he seems to know on some level how ridiculous it is. But it doesn’t matter when the songs are this good. Sure, the guitars on “You May Be Right” (which overstays its welcome) sound more middling than metal, but then he turns around and sings a great song about phone sex: “Sometimes A Fantasy” is a brazen thing with a desperate momentum that’s just shy of hysteria. When the song slows into the keyboard solo and the hi-hat sloshes around, I feel ecstasy as well as the emptiness of a dial tone. The lyrics are sputtered with a great tongue in cheek.
Obsession shows up again in “All for Leyna,” with its pounding chords of sexual frustration bolstering another breathless delivery, words tumbling faster than he can think. (“STOP…kidding yourself!”) The song is blistering, immediate, balled up in knots. The wall of sound stops dead once in a while for a piano tickle – the kind of personality tic that Joel excels at.
There’s a lot of posing and pomp here, but he’s still as expressive as ever: “Sleeping with the Television On” and “I Don’t Want to Be Alone Anymore” are two halves of the same coin, exploring the exasperation of the chase. The former’s “No no no!” in the last chorus is the kind of intuitive yelp that makes you buy what he’s selling, and the bridge of the latter is accusatory Joel at his finest (“Your eyes are saying talk to me”) – turning the song around, changing the tempo, leaning on minor chords as DeVitto goes double time to add to the tension. Will she take him home or not? The answer is no, of course.
Finally, “Through the Long Night,” inspired by The Beatles, a trembling tune with multitracked harmonies that briefly turns playful before ending on a moody note. To write a song like this—to know someone that would inspire a song like this — was my life’s goal. When I met her, I felt everything come out in my own art. “It’s all right, sleep tight,” he sings, and when she does, you kind of can’t believe it.
“Glass Houses” was billed as Joel’s rocker album—but that undersells it. It’s a journey through tough-guy posturing that reveals the core to be just as sensitive and wounded as it’s ever been – no matter the coating. We’re all just pretending. It can be a fun fvcking ride, too, if you learn not to give a shit.
“All For Leyna”
“Through the Long Night”
The Nylon Curtain is Joel’s climax, a self-consciously “serious” album that takes an adult look at some modern terrors. It’s the culmination of a spiritual quest and everything he’s learned about songcraft since “Cold Spring Harbor,” bathed in Ramone’s Beatle-esque echo. (The album was one of the first recorded and mixed digitally.) In fact, Joel often sounds like John Lennon on the record, but he still employs hooks that would make McCartney proud such as the prolonged and shifted “hey—ey-ey-ey-eys” in “Allentown” – a song that would be absolutely joyous if it weren’t about unemployment. God, the piano track! Joel’s genius, again, is simplicity: These repetitious chords provide a glorious rhythmic base, and his bass notes happily gurgle in the rich mix.
Synthesizers creep into “Pressure,” in which DeVitto’s bass drum is a hypertensive heartbeat that’s about to burst through your shirt. “Laura” is a Lennon-esque dirge about a destructive relationship, with sunny “ahhs” and strings welling around, before true rage proves the cycle may never end (“I’ve done everything I can—WHAT ELSE AM I SUPPOSED TO DO?!”).
DeVitto is a hammer of doom on “Surprises,” hitting just as hard as Bonham ever did. The melody starts high, but Joel lets the air out and it sinks like a balloon, wafting left and right, swaying slowly. It’s a fussy, odd little track – the kind of deep album cut that makes Joel’s records so rewarding, all these years later.
“She’s Right on Time,” on the other hand, is unadulterated joy – one of the purest, most powerful pop songs ever written. Your lover is coming over, and you’ve had some difficulties, but all is right tonight, in the moment. There is nothing but possibility, and the song builds indescribable momentum, each chorus more powerful than the last and then…everything stops for a HARPSICHORD, which restates the theme before Joel opens the door and lets out a “WHOOOOOAAAAAAAAAA” that lasts forever, a cry of triumph. We get to the last “I’ve had to wait forever, but better late than never” and DeVitto’s rapid-fire snare bursts like celebratory gunfire, and it’s ecstasy, it’s everything pop music should be.
Joel’s ability to communicate through twin poles of expression — tension and release, beauty and ugliness, rage and reward — is all here on “The Nylon Curtain,” one of my favorite albums. It starts with a factory whistle and ends with the lines: “The curtain falls, on empty chairs,” as an unresolved chord fades away. It’s as if he knew it: He would never reach these heights again.
“She’s Right on Time”
An Innocent Man (1983), The Bridge (1986), Storm Front (1989), River of Dreams (1993)
“An Innocent Man” is where I parted ways with Joel. It’s a lovingly rendered tribute to the 50s and 60s music of his youth, but cheesy pastiche doesn’t suit him as well as free expression, and, honestly, he’s pretty much said all he needs to say. He’s out of gas, so he goes back to what inspired him. The record is enjoyable, but there’s no edge, no fire. These are stunt songs: “Uptown Girl,” “Tell Her About It,” “The Longest Time.” And stunt videos, too. The title track is pretty, but there’s not enough harmonic change to balance the wordiness. Joel is finally becoming ponderous. His cheese is no longer charming.
“The Bridge” is hampered by terrible ‘80s production—Ramone finally missteps in a bid to snap back to current times — and the instantly dated fluff takes away from Joel’s strengths. The drum machines and electronics put a distance between him and the listener. There are hooks and melodies here—there always are—but it’s a chore finding them amid the noise.
“Storm Front” is better, even with Ramone gone. The best song – one of Joel’s very best, actually — is “And So It Goes,” a haunting, oddly metered track about a relationship that fails before it even begins. Halting lyrics perfectly gel with halting chords. This is a tentative conversation that ultimately turns sad. “And so it goes, and so will you too I suppose.” It’s heartbreaking – not because she leaves, but because it seems INEVITABLE.
“And So it Goes”
“River of Dreams” is Joel’s final pop studio album, and it’s a solid and unspectacular set of songs produced too loudly. “Lullaby” stands tall—another ballad with one of his finest melodies, this one written to a troubled daughter trying to comprehend death. He longs to connect to her through song (the story of his life, really), and when he sings “Someday your child may cry, and if you sing this lullaby…” he throws in a few extra notes and a measure to the melody—another lovely, intuitive trick. But the album is ultimately hollow. The ease is gone, and it’s an exhausting listen. The title track, with its melody dropping multiple octaves like it’s falling through a trapdoor, manages to have some fun, though. (“Not sure about a life after this, God knows I’ve never been a spiritual man.”)
Joel called it a recording career after “River of Dreams,” perhaps realizing he was spinning his wheels. He released one more album, “Fantasies & Delusions” (2001), which is an instrumental record of classically inspired solo piano compositions. It’s a good listen if you want to learn a bit more about his strengths as a piano player, but it’s ultimately nonessential to a pop music discussion.
Going back through Joel’s discography for this piece, I’m still astounded at my associations and visceral reactions to his music. His songs are tied up in my memories and experiences, and I know that’s true for so many people, who either grew up with him or found him inescapable on the radio. There is something special here, something that makes me proud to be a fan: He was the first artist that really made me aware of the joy of popular music—before I discovered The Beatles, The Kinks and others. He was the first artist I could play songs along with at home. He was easily accessible with his singles and then worth deeper listens since each of his albums had an overall shape, tone and rhythm. And finally, Joel has a quality that intensified when I became an adult: A sense that he’s faced his trials, bared his soul and understands—and it’s better for all of us when we can sing along. I hear him now more clearly than ever, and I love him for that.
Billy Joel cranked out catchy tunes for more than 20 years. This alone should inspire respect, because writing a single great song—something that touches a person and weaves itself into the fabric of Western culture and musicology—is a truly difficult act. It’s also a gift to hold onto and treasure.
ESSENTIAL: Turnstiles, The Stranger, 52nd Street, Glass Houses, The Nylon Curtain
SECOND TIER: Streetlife Serenade, Piano Man
THIRD TIER: An Innocent Man, Storm Front, River of Dreams
STILL INTERESTED?: Cold Spring Harbor, The Bridge, Fantasies and Delusions
“Songs in the Attic” (1981): Highly recommended collection that was released in his prime post-Stranger era to capitalize on his back catalog. The performances here give many of the old songs new life: The hit version of “She’s Got a Way” is here, and the up tempo performances, especially “Miami 2017” are fvcking blistering.
“2000 Years: The Millennium Concert” (2000)
“12 Gardens Live” (2006)
“Live at Shea Stadium: The Concert” (2011)
GREATEST HITS/COLLECTIONS: Too many to mention. But you really can’t go wrong with any of these because there are just so many great singles.