Billy Joel is one of the great American songwriters. He just is. The Piano Man created or channeled some distinct part of Americana that time and again made him a huge success. So when he stepped away from that success, at least in the form of recording new music, it was kind of incredible. Joel, now 71, last made an album 20 years ago: the classical record he composed, FANTASIES & DELUSIONS (which will be ranked on this list, by the way). That album, performed by Hyung-ki Joo, isn’t always counted as a core Joel record in the pop/rock vein, and in that case, RIVER OF DREAMS, released in 1993, was his last. So in a world where every iconic, old musician continues releasing music until nearly the day they die, Joel just walked away from it at the relatively young age of 44 (or 52). Of course, he’s continued touring, writing music that has ended up on a single or two, and generally making the big bucks. But on the whole, Joel’s recording career can be traced across 13 studio albums from 1971 to 2001, a 30-year period. His ubiquity gave way to a sudden transformation into an elder statesman of a pop/rock modality he helped create, alongside the likes of Elton John and Bruce Springsteen. It makes Joel’s discography somehow more interesting in hindsight. And so, I’ve ranked his work below.
#13 — FANTASIES & DELUSIONS (2001)
Favorite track: “Fantasy (Film Noir)”
As mentioned, FANTASIES & DELUSIONS isn’t always considered a full-fledged Billy Joel album. Also as mentioned, Joel composed the music to be performed and recorded by friend Hyung-ki Joo. But ultimately, the classical piece for solo piano is a Joel work as much as it is a Hyung-ki work. And the “opus,” which came after the biggest gap between Joel albums (eight years) and an ostensible recording retirement, is beautiful in a way. But it is admittedly hard to compare it to anything else in Joel’s discography, as far removed as it is from not only the style, but the very realm of his previous work. I am generally appreciative of classical music, and there is beautiful piano to be found on FANTASIES & DELUSIONS, but I base my lists on the order in which I would want to experience the work of the artist(s). And this would simply be the last “Billy Joel album” I would pick, just as it appears to be the last “Billy Joel album” ever released.
#12 — STORM FRONT (1989)
Favorite track: “That’s Not Her Style”
But when it comes to Joel’s pop/rock mold: yeah, STORM FRONT is the worst he did. Here’s the thing. The ’80s were bad for a lot of musicians, specifically the ones who came up in the ’60s and ’70s. Joel actually got through the decade relatively alright, but with his late ’80s records, it’s hard to get past the cheese that had been endearing on previous work. Joel has always been an earnest yet sardonic lyricist, and he’s operated on that scale to varying degrees. With STORM FRONT, he entered into too earnest territory, or at least some point where he lacked a bit of self-awareness. It’s hard to describe, I guess, but in any event, the music itself isn’t as strong either. Joel seems to have been overtaken by the ’80s cliches with STORM FRONT, and yeah, it is the record with “We Didn’t Start the Fire on It.” I hate that song, and I don’t really hate it, but I really kind of do. It’s admittedly catchy but just so…painfully nerdy or something, I don’t know how to handle it. “That’s Not Her Style” has a great, catchy chorus, however, and generally, I think STORM FRONT benefits from a register Joel’s voice had taken on by this point. It had entered into a kind of growl that had been developed for, maybe, GLASS HOUSES? In any event, the album mostly degrades into what I can only describe as unintentional self-parody.
#11 — THE BRIDGE (1986)
Favorite track: “This Is the Time”
THE BRIDGE, besides being STORM FRONT’s literal predecessor, also presaged the album to come three years later with its lack of edge. I don’t mean to say that Joel was ever truly “edgy,” but I mean that there is a distinct omission of pop hooks that truly sink into you. “This Is the Time” is a decent ballad, but like the rest of THE BRIDGE, it generally floats into the ether after you listen to it. I don’t know if I can really articulate what is so bland about THE BRIDGE, but I can only say that if STORM FRONT was ultimately a “degraded” Joel , THE BRIDGE was like Joel lite.
#10 — COLD SPRING HARBOR (1971)
Favorite track: “Falling of the Rain”
Billy Joel is one of those artists who had a decently long build up to major success. His debut album COLD SPRING HARBOR has therefore taken its position as a curio, a novelty, a historical footnote. Stories about the album’s original mastering mishaps, which led to Joel’s voice sounding unnaturally high, and bitter contractual disputes have defined COLD SPRING HARBOR in the Piano Man’s discography. But it’s actually quite a sweet, brief intro to the songwriter (and singer) who would come to be known as one of the best to ever do it. It doesn’t quite contain the pop hooks you expect from Joel, but he tickles the ivories pretty wistfully on COLD SPRING HARBOR, and “Falling of the Rain” especially. Perhaps it’s because of its marginalized status, but I have a soft spot in my heart for Billy Joel’s first record. However, I have to admit it’s not up to par with most anything else in his history.
#9 — GLASS HOUSES (1980)
Favorite track: “All for Leyna”
GLASS HOUSES is noted for its “harder” sound, acknowledging in part the punk and new wave movements of the day. But if Joel gets “harder,” it’s only to instill a bit of a growl and double down on pounding rhythms and choruses. And hey, it mostly works. “All for Leyna” is the best example, which I also believe is one of the guy’s best songs ever. However, no other track on GLASS HOUSES quite measures up to it, although the record as a whole is certainly enjoyable. I can appreciate Joel’s attempt to move in a different direction, as he did consistently in the wake of THE STRANGER’s success, but in this case, it didn’t result in a fully refreshing listen.
#8 — PIANO MAN (1973)
Favorite track: “Piano Man”
Although PIANO MAN, Joel’s sophomore effort, was essentially his “breakout” album, it didn’t quite propel him to stardom like THE STRANGER did. However, and especially in hindsight, the album and its title track bestowed Billy Joel with his famous nickname. And it’s deserved; “Piano Man” is one of the great ’70s ballads, of which there are many. As the follow up to COLD SPRING HARBOR, PIANO MAN does still kind of carry the stripped down, combination whimsy-melancholy that Joel debuted with that record. He had just developed his songwriting chops in a significant way, which are also on display on the uber-fun “Captain Jack.” PIANO MAN isn’t quite on the “great” scale of Joel’s albums, but it is a significant and enjoyable listen, and the two aforementioned tracks are all-time Joel greats.
#7 — STREETLIFE SERENADE (1974)
Favorite track: “Los Angelenos”
The frustration of Joel’s experience as a traveling “piano man” (note the lowercase at this point in his career) and general unease with his time in Los Angeles, so far away from his native Long Island and New York City, defined his earliest records. STREETLIFE SERENADE may be the best example of those emotions, and it’s a rocking record. “Los Angelenos” is one of my favorite Joel songs on any album, and there’s a drive to STREETLIFE SERENADE that was mostly not present on his previous two releases. And although he has stated the two instrumental tracks were thrown on the album because he didn’t have much time to write more songs, I think “Root Beer Rag” and “The Mexican Connection” are actually quite good. They, and this album, prove that even Joel’s rushed or minor works are still quite impressive.
#6 — TURNSTILES (1976)
Favorite track: “Prelude/Angry Young Man”
If STREETLIFE SERENADE was an expression of Joel’s discontent with the West Coast, its successor TURNSTILES was his long-awaited return and celebration of the East. But it’s not entirely positive; for example, the best track on the album, “Prelude/Angry Young Man,” is a great illustration of Joel’s ability to fuse difficult themes and lyrics with great pop hooks. At #6, TURNSTILES is fittingly the middle-place Joel release. It carried a lot of the ideas that would come to fruition on its sequel, THE STRANGER, and it mostly stands on its own, but it also doesn’t quite hit the same with absolute bangers. However, there isn’t really filler on TURNSTILES; all eight tracks are worthy, even if their collective quality doesn’t match the work of the next five albums on this list.
#5 — THE NYLON CURTAIN (1982)
Favorite track: “She’s Right on Time”
After his “hard” experiment, GLASS HOUSES, Joel turned to the influence of ’60s favorites, such as The Beatles, for THE NYLON CURTAIN. He really invested in string sections and arrangements that were made up of many disparate yet harmonic parts. It’s actually quite an interesting piece if you listen for what makes it a distinguished album for the Piano Man. THE NYLON CURTAIN can’t really be called a concept album, beyond the unified musical themes behind the record, but it stands out as a Joel album that is almost greater than the sum of its parts. “She’s Right on Time” is a good, standalone track, but THE NYLON CURTAIN is best experienced in full. I think that is a testament to (what I assume to be) Joel’s attempt to create a “symphonic” pop record.
#4 — AN INNOCENT MAN (1983)
Favorite track: “The Longest Time”
Joel followed up one of his most complicated releases with one of his simplest in the form of AN INNOCENT MAN. A full-blown homage to the doo-wop, soul, and rock music of his childhood in the ’50s and early ’60s, AN INNOCENT MAN could be defined by megahit “Uptown Girl” (which at times annoys me because of overplay but ultimately deserves its iconic status). But “The Longest Time” is the earworm I bear after listening to the album, and indeed, these two tracks are joined by the title one as the standout displays of excellence in pop songwriting. But the crooners on AN INNOCENT MAN are also affecting, and in general, the album is a great dose of sentiment.
#3 — RIVER OF DREAMS (1993)
Favorite track: “The Great Wall of China”
Depending on how you look at it, RIVER OF DREAMS was Billy Joel’s last album. I don’t look at it that way, but objectively, the record was his last in the pop/rock realm, and man, did he go out with a bang. It’s been noted that RIVER OF DREAMS is a “darker” album for Joel, due to its lyrical content, but I think he’s always been a bit underrated as a sly lyricist, at least in relation to his general songwriting abilities. I actually believe that RIVER OF DREAMS is a bold, spacy conclusion to the pop songwriting career of one of the best to ever do it. Joel constantly plays with self-harmonization on the record, and moves from the soaring chorus of “The Great Wall of China” to the slinking one of “Blonde Over Blue.” In fact, picking a favorite track was most difficult for this Joel album, not because RIVER OF DREAMS is his worst or best (clearly), but because many songs are of very similar, high quality. I was much more impressed by this album after revisiting it for this piece, and I’m not sure it gets the credit it deserves.
#2–52ND STREET (1978)
Favorite track: “Zanzibar”
However, I think I’ll have to conclude this list with some safe bets; first, with the jazz-influenced 52ND STREET. This was, in a way, Joel’s first conscious attempt to shift his sound, especially after the real breakout that was THE STRANGER. However, you can still hear the great influences of 52ND STREET’s predecessor, especially on “Zanzibar,” which kind of plays like a sequel to “Movin’ Out.” I don’t know that the jazz work truly changed the tenor of Joel’s songwriting, beyond a slight shift in tone and tempo, but for whatever reason, the result of 52ND STREET is a profoundly fun album that moves a little bit past the wistfulness and mythmaking of THE STRANGER.
#1 — THE STRANGER (1977)
Favorite track: “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”
But I said “past,” not above. THE STRANGER, routinely cited as Joel’s best, if not one of the best albums of the ’70s or ever made, mostly deserves its reputation. I am not inclined to think that Billy Joel ever made a perfect album (or as close as one can get to “perfect” with an artistic endeavor), but he got close to being close with THE STRANGER. After returning to his native land and channeling that energy with TURNSTILES, Joel turned his storytelling skills up to 11 and brought a wistfulness, a bit of anger, a sense of humor, and most importantly, stellar pop hooks to what would stand as his best record. THE STRANGER is, like many Joel albums, defined by a hit or two, and in this case that accolade belongs to the all-timer (period) “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song).” But while it’s far and away the most “fun” song on the record, it is joined by tracks that are similar in their ability to paint a visual picture with sound alone. I don’t know if Joel has ever been regarded as a “cinematic” musician, but hey, THE STRANGER is really fucking cinematic. I don’t know if that’s the highest compliment that can be paid to music, because I also think a lot of great music isn’t easily visualized or transcribed to a narrative. But Joel’s can be, because he’s a gifted lyricist and storyteller, and it can be so effectively and emotionally because he’s a gifted musician. THE STRANGER is the best example of what makes Billy Joel special, and illustrates the American treasure that perhaps wisely stepped out of the recording racket before he became too much of a stranger to himself.