Skip to main content

Rock Solid: Billy Joel

"If you only own one album by Billy Joel it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.


Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and Amazon.com offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best. Rolling Stone serves as a tiebreaker in many cases and as a pain in the ass in others.

The declared winner will be subjected to the Th
riller Test (do I need to explain the name?), a set of 4 criteria an album should meet to be considered a masterpiece. Those are 1) at least 3 hits, 2) great album tracks that sh/could have been hits, 3) no filler, and 4) memorable cover art.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

Let's get straight to it. Billy Joel's most beloved album is clearly 1977's The Stranger. Here are some statistics:
  • A combined 9.5 out of 10 star rating from the All Music Guide and Amazon.com.
  • 10 million copies sold
  • 4 top 25 hits
  • 6 songs placed on Greatest Hits Volume 1 compilation
  • 2 Grammys
  • #67 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time
Of course numbers do not a good album make. What do the critics and fans have to say? Well, All Music Guide's Stephen Thomas Erlewine says, "Joel rarely wrote a set of songs better than those on The Stranger, nor did he often deliver an album as consistently listenable." Though I must point out that this is probably not as over-the-moon as it sounds considering STE's obvious dislike of Joel (none of his albums get 5 stars and STE writes that Joel's "lyrics are often vague or mean-spirited. His lyrical shortcomings are overshadowed by his musical strengths. Even if his melodies sound more Broadway than Beatles.").

Amazon fans were not so backhanded. Take it away The Great Me: "This is yet another album that earns my respect. It doesn't have but one of my favorite Billy Joel tracks but it's my favorite album by Billy Boy. It is a true masterpiece in which Joel weaves his audience nine Godly tracks of beauty."

Matthew G. Sherwin adds that The Stranger "is indeed one of rare albums that is a must have for any serious collector of today's music!" BillyJoelNtrDame claims, "Nearly every song shines with the glimmer of virtual perfection." And an anonymous customer with questionable priorities states: "This CD would be the first thing I would grab if the house was burning down!!"

But the best comment of all comes from Thomas Magnum, who calls The Stranger "a virtual greatest hits record." He's dead on. Let's revisit and consider that statistic from above. There were 11 songs on the first disc of Billy Joel's two volume 1985 Greatest Hits compilation. Six of them were from The Stranger. The Stranger only had nine songs in the first place. That's a ridiculously high success rate.

But what about the Thriller Test? You know, if we wanted we could just as easily call it the Stranger Test. Witness:

1) At least 3 hits
How about four? Movin' Out (Anthony's Song), She's Always a Woman, Only the Good Die Young, and Just the Way You Are. The latter won the 2 aforementioned Grammys and its sweetness helped cement Billy as anathema to rock snobs everywhere. Movin' Out is a cynical piece questioning the promises of consumerism. She's Always a Woman is a often held up as misogynistic, given the not-so-flattering list of characteristics and the title phrase that seemingly generalizes them to encompass the entire female gender. However, the "she's always a woman" lead-in is preceded by the word "but" which generally indicates that whatever follows contradicts what came before. I would actually argue that the song is the opposite of misogynistic, that it's about the emergence of women as anything other than housewives and sex objects. Either way, the song has a gorgeous melody. And the all-your-religion-has done is shelter-you-from-reality anthem Only the Good Die Young may not be entirely accurate, but it's an admirable effort nonetheless. Pass.

2) Great album tracks
Sure. The title track never charted, but easily could have. It's an incisive look at the shifting nature of identity. Scenes From an Italian Restaurant is Billy's Abbey Road moment, stitching together three distinct song bits into one epic. It's one of my favorites, even though it doesn't make much sense as a whole. And I'd put Vienna here too, even though it didn't get the attention the other two did. Interestingly, its "you have your whole life ahead of you" message is in direct opposition to Only the Good Die Young's live-while-you-can philosophy. By the way, Billy has named this one of his two favorite songs of his own (the other was Summer, Highland Falls). Pass.

3) No filler
It's easy when you keep it short. Get It Right the First Time and Everybody Has a Dream aren't in the same league as the other 7 songs, but neither are they just there to take up space. The former features more dodgy life philosophy ("you have to do this right on your first try") but is a catchy tune even so. Closer Everybody Has a Dream sounds like a treacly Disney theme, but is actually about a lost man whose only comfort is imagining being at home with the woman he loves. Pass.

4) Memorable cover art
The black and white, the suit, the unmade bed, the mask, the boxing gloves. It's self-consciously arty, but it's also iconic. Pass.

So The Stranger is basically a kick-ass album, but that's not to say that doesn't have worthy competitors in the Billy Joel catalog. Anyone looking to expand their Billy Joel experience cannot go wrong with Turnstiles (1976), 52nd Street (1978), Glass Houses (1980), The Nylon Curtain (1982), or An Innocent Man (1983). The latter, a stylistic tribute to Motown, James Brown, and doo-wop, is my own personal fave.

Author's Note: This is album review #268.

Comments

Uncle E said…
Total agreement. Nothing to add.
Alex said…
This is one of those records that was so ubiquitous that I grew really, really weary of it. Years later, when I gave it another listen, I remembered and appreciated how very, very good it was (and still is).

Popular posts from this blog

Big Bad Eddie (Is Sweet Edward Now)

I wasn't surprised this week when I heard the news that Eddie Van Halen had left our mortal realm. For one, 2020 has been such a parade of awful news that nothing terrible is shocking anymore. For another, I knew Eddie had been reckoning with cancer for a long time. And for yet another, we're all just visitors here, but Eddie was especially so. We were lucky to get him for as long as we did. * With the inordinate number of monumental musicians we've lost since David Bowie's death in January 2016, it feels like my music writing has been approximately 75% eulogies. These essays have developed a predictable formula wherein I detail my personal history with that person's music. I fear the familiarity of that risks diminishing their impact, so for Eddie I wanted to honor his sense of innovation with my own. But there's a reason that formula came about. Ever since I was a teenager, the primary goal of my writing has been discovery. In the process of writing, I learn w

REO Speedwagon: Nine Lives (1979)

Where We Left Off: With Kevin Cronin back on lead vocals and Bruce Hall replacing Gregg Philbin on bass, REO Speedwagon were finally building sales momentum with two successful albums in a row. * Nine Lives  was released in July of 1979. The title was likely a reference to the fact that it was the band's ninth album (if you include You Get What You Play For ), as well as the fact that they'd survived a level of turmoil that would have been the end of a band with less fortitude. There are also nine songs on the album. Perhaps the most interesting and puzzling thing about this record - both in sound and in presentation - is how much it represented a swerve away from You Can Tune a Piano... .  You'd think that having finally hit on a successful formula REO would want to repeat it. But on the whole the music on Nine Lives abandons the countryish pop rock of the previous record in favor of a faster, harder sound, way more "Ridin' the Storm Out" than "T

REO Speedwagon: Life As We Know It (1987)

Where We Left Off: Wheels Are Turnin' was REO Speedwagon's third consecutive multi-million selling album, producing the #1 hit "Can't Fight This Feeling." * Produced by the same team as Wheels Are Turnin' (Cronin, Richrath, Gratzer, and David DeVore), Life As We Know It was recorded while when Kevin Cronin was going through a divorce. He says making the album was a welcome distraction from his family falling apart. At the same time, his relationship with Gary Richrath was fraught with tension. That set of circumstances played a huge part in the album's lyrical content, and knowing the record was the last one for the band's classic line-up makes for an intriguing listen. For example, it's commonly held that "Too Many Girlfriends," a tune about someone running too hot for too long, is Cronin taking a shot at Richrath. This is most evident in the self-referencing line, "he better find the one / he's gonna take on the run