Can you think of any other songwriter that is more universally loved than Billy Joel? The answer is probably not with maybe one exception. The only other artists in popular music history that attracted the mass appeal that a Billy Joel has attracted would be Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and of course The Beatles. However, it could be argued that Sinatra and Presley have had limited appeal with the youth culture of the 2000s. Only The Beatles and Billy Joel have sustained a generous mass appeal for their entire careers. Of course, Paul McCartney has had a long distinctive solo career since the breakup of The Beatles. So it could be argued that Billy Joel and Paul McCartney are really the only living single artists that have captured the everlasting ears of music fans that range from elementary school age to senior citizens. Our personal favorite is Elton John, but for some reason, Elton John has not appealed to the youth of the 2000s like Billy Joel has.
Obviously not everyone loves Billy and Paul, but I think it’s safe to say that they probably cover the most ground as far as range of fans. So the next question would be why? The answer is really rather simple; great songs! However Billy Joel did not just write and record great songs, the man recorded entire albums full of great songs. Although each Billy Joel album had a distinctive feel to them, they all presented the public with a collection of timeless material that has sustained popularity since their initial releases. It’s impossible to pick the top 10 Billy Joel albums, but it’s fun to try.
# 10 – An Innocent Man
(Released August 8 1983)
Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man album was an ode to the music of his youth. Every song was written as a tribute to a specific musical artist from The Four Seasons to James Brown. However, the songs were so well written and performed, it proved inevitable that Billy Joel’s original songs overshadowed the tribute concept. They were meant to be songs written as tribute but the songs themselves were so well written they became classic themselves. Some of the best pure pop songs ever written.
# 9 – Streetlife Serenade
Released October 11, 1974
Billy Joel’s Streetlife Serenade album was released in 1974. It was the follow up album to 1973’s Piano Man. This album contained some of Billy Joel’s most virtuosic piano playing. Billy Joel’s chops were especially displayed on the great ragtime piece “Root Beer Rag.” The album yielded a top 40 single entitled “The Entertainer.” Our favorite track on the album will always be the poetic and depressing song “The Great Suburban Showdown in the Sky.”
# 8 – The Bridge
Released July 29, 1986
What made Billy Joel’s The Bridge album stand out from the rest of his work were the amount of legendary guest musicians that appeared on the record. Jazz legends Ron Carter, Michael Brecker, Eddie Daniels and Ronnie Cuber all performed on the track “Big Man On Mulberry Street.” These were some of the best Jazz musicians of the twentieth century. Also appearing on the album were legendary artists Ray Charles and Steve Winwood. Our favorite tracks on the record were the album’s opener “Running On Ice,” and the soulful duet with Ray Charles entitled “Baby Grand.”
# 7 – Storm Front
(Released October 17 1989)
Billy Joel’s Cold War album was heavily influenced by twentieth century popular culture and Billy Joel’s tour of the Soviet Union. The album’s mega hit “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” became one of the most popular songs used by middle school school teachers in the late 20th century. It was a song that introduced an entire new generation of young people to the music of Billy Joel. The song became a number one hit for Billy Joel. The success of the songs led to seven more singles being released from the album. Almost every song on the album was released as a single. It was very similar to what Columbia Records did with Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The U.S.A. which was released only five years before Storm Front.
# 6 – Glass Houses
(Released March 10 1980)
At a time when punk music had developed into a new genre called new wave, the Sound of “Glass Houses,”echoed the heavy synthetic and choppy rhythms of the new wave era of the early 80s. Glass Houses is an interesting record. The piano is not as dominant throughout the record as it was on his previous work. This one is all about guitar, bass, drums and synths. Its heavy but in a pop sort of sense. It was also an album very well received by everyone. The difference between the previous record, 52nd Street and Glass Houses is astonishing. Glass Houses presented fans with the huge hit singles “You May Be Right,” “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me,” and “Don’t Ask Me Why.” Still our favorite songs on the album will always be “Sometimes A Fantasy,” and “All For Leyna.”
# 5 – Piano Man
Billy Joel’s Piano Man was released in 1973. The title track “Piano Man,” is one of the most loved songs of all time. It is also one of the most hated by pianist who play in restaurant and lounges and are constantly asked to play the song night after night. The songs historic popularity has overshadowed all the other great songs on the record. Tracks like “Worst Comes To Worst,” “If I Only Had The Words To Tell You,” and “You’re My Home,” are pure gems. We can’t forget the epic “The Ballad Of Billy The Kid.” However the song that we all loved the most when this record came out was the album’s final cut “Captain Jack.” This album is a masterpiece.
# 4 – Turnstiles
(Released May 19, 1976)
Billy Joel’s Turnstiles is that album that hardcore Billy Joel fans often call their favorite. Songs like I’ve Loved These Days, “Summer, Highland Falls” New York State of Mind, “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)”etc…. Eight perfect tracks.This is why ranking Billy Joel albums is pretty much impossible, But it’s fun.
# 3 – 52nd Street
Billy Joel’s 52nd Street album was follow up to The Stranger record. Perfectly titled because of the strong jazz elements in the musical and lyrical content. By far, the highest level of musicianship of any Billy Joel album. Brilliant playing, singing, and songwriting. The Stranger album was so huge, the pressure must have been incredible to follow up that record. However Billy Joel came roaring back with a brilliant album that defined some of his best work with songs such as “Big Shot,” “Honesty,” “Zanzibar,” and “My Life.”
# 2 – The Nylon Curtain
Billy Joel has been quoted as calling The Nylon Curtain his “Sgt. Pepper” album. He was right, because this was his most artistic record. We would label it his Captain Fantastic album. One of the reasons we love The Nylon Curtain album so music is the amount of brilliant songs that Billy Joel has always called his lesser know tunes that define the album. The ones that were not hits. Songs like “A Room Of Our Own,” She’ Right On Time and one of our favorite Billy Joel songs of all time, “Laura.” Of course the album did have some big hits. Songs like “Allentown,” and “Pressure,” were very successful commercially.
# 1 – The Stranger
(Released September 29,1977)
The Stranger is the most obvious choice as Billy Joel’s greatest album, and it’s hard to argue against it being his best work. The Stranger album is the record that elevated Billy Joel to International super stardom. For a while it was Columbia’s biggest selling album. In 1977, every track on this record was played on FM radio all the time.
The album’s first single became one of the most popular wedding songs of the late 1970s. Multiple times in the 1970s Billy Joel seemed focused on writing songs that would become standards in the same vein as such classic songs as “Misty,” or “Autumn Leaves.” Turnstiles’ “New York State Of Mind,” and The Stranger’s “Just The Way You Are,” were his big stab at joining the legendary songwriters like Gershwin and Rogers and Hart. What he didn’t realize at the time was that his songs would become a different generation’s standards. And not just one generation, but multiple generations.
The real standards from the album would turn out to be songs like “Only The Good Die Young,” “Moving Out,” “Vienna,” “She’s Only A Woman,” and of course his greatest musical achievement and most loved song “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant.” This is why the album The Stranger stands in our number one spot on this top 10 Billy Joel Albums list. The Stranger is full of standards. Standards for our generation.
Top 10 Billy Joel Albums article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2015
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