You know you really like an artist when you can't decide which album is their best. In the past, Billy Joel has had no less than 4 albums (Turnstiles, The Stranger, The Nylon Curtain and An Innocent Man) contending for the top spot. Recent listening has led me to add a 5th consideration, 1978's 52nd Street.
The follow-up to Joel's 1977 smash The Stranger (featuring no less than 5 outright classics), this one is a bit more challenging and diverse, but that didn't stop it from winning the 1979 Grammy for Album Of The Year.
Of course, every one of Joel's albums has the requisite hit singles. In this case we have Big Shot, that ode to a bad night with a uppity companion, and My Life, the once-and-future Bosom Buddies theme. Honesty, a bitter, pretty ditty, also got airplay. Interestingly, these three hits are also the first three songs on the record.
But, as with any album, the proof is in the pudding, a.k.a. the non-singles. And there're some great ones on 52nd Street.
Zanzibar, which takes its name not from the country but a restaurant/night club in New York, contains some of the strangest lyrics Joel ever produced. The main thrust of the song is a story about wooing a waitress, but also included are verses about Muhammed Ali and Pete Rose. The latter verse is one I'm sure Billy wishes he could have back, at least partly: "Rose he knows he's such a credit to the game / But the Yankees grab the headlines every time." I guess he can take solace in knowing the second line will be eternally true.
Stiletto is a companion piece to Big Shot, in that they could easily be about the same woman. Over boppy piano accompaniment, Joel tells the tale of a heartbreaker who you just can't walk away from. This type of subject matter is what makes Joel so great. Instead of simply vilifying the woman, he make it clear that her vicitims are equally to blame. The slasher metaphor deepens the song even more.
Also top-notch are the sweet, swooning Rosalinda's Eyes, which was used to great effect in Freaks and Geeks, and the bombastic closer Until The Night.
The album is unique in Billy Joel's ouevre. For one there's a distinct jazz influence as on the outro of Zanzibar, the intro to Stiletto, and the brief closing, Ray Charlesesque title track. Horns show up on other songs too, like Until The Night and Big Shot. Maybe that's why Joel is holding a trumpet on the cover. Either that or they couldn't get his piano out into the alley.
But does 52nd Street deserve the top spot? On certain days I might say yes, but not today. Even so, the fact that it's even in the conversation is a testament to Mr.Joel's talent, 30 years on.
Fave Song: Honesty