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LC

Billy Joel's Best

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LC   

Hmm... not many Springsteen fans here, obviously. But my next deep dive is Billy Joel. (My deep dives are starting these days with iPhone playlists I'm making... just for me.)

I've been a huge Billy fan since my college pal Dave begged me to drive him to the ONE record store in Rochester, NY, he could find (after several calls) that happened to be carrying Joel's brand new album, The Stranger. It wasn't a "hot new release"—it was just the next album by the guy that did "Piano Man" a few years earlier.

The Stranger slid out without much fanfare... which is why Dave had to hunt to track down a copy. But he LOVED Billy, having come from Long Island, and couldn't wait to hear his latest. As we all know, it didn't take long The Stranger to break loose, turning Billy from regional and cult favorite to international star.

And to think... Eric Carmen was way more well-known before The Stranger hit, having scored all those hits on his first solo album. When "Just the Way You Are" took off, the tables turned. 

PS: Did you know Billy hasn't released a studio album since 1993 (River of Dreams)? Yet he hasn't disappeared, considering all the touring he did in the decades that followed.

Anyway, for me, Billy's finest were the following albums and songs. 

5 ALBUMS
The Stranger was such a strong pop album, and most of it holds up. I like Nylon Curtain just as much. And Turnstiles isn't far behind. Years ago, I might've had The Bridge on this list, but it hasn't aged all that well.

1. The Stranger (1977)
2. Nylon Curtain (1982)
3. Turnstiles (1976)
4. 52nd Street (1978)
5. Piano Man (1973)

On the outside looking in: Glass Houses (1980) and Storm Front (1989).

20 SONGS
I've got 10 of Joel's 13 albums represented below, with nothing from Cold Spring Harbor or Glass Houses or his 2001 classical album. The split (I had to count) was four from Turnstiles; three each from The Nylon Curtain, The Stranger and 52nd Street; two from An Innocent Man; and one each from Piano Man, Streetlife Serenade, The Bridge, and River of Dreams.

1. Summer, Highland Falls  
2. Vienna  
3. Goodnight Saigon  
4. Piano Man  
5. Rosalinda’s Eyes 
6. Scenes from an Italian Restaurant  
7. I’ve Loved These Days  
8. Pressure  
9. Laura  
10. Stilletto  

11. She’s Always a Woman  
12. I Go to Extremes  
13. Miami 2017  
14. This Night  
15. This Is the Time 
16. The Longest Time  
17. River of Dreams  
18. James  
19. Until the Night
20. Souvenir 

On the outside looking in: "Allentown," "Captain Jack," "My Life," "Baby Grand" (w/ Ray Charles), ""Where's the Orchestra?"

On the other hand, "Just the Way You Are," "You're My Home," and "She's Got a Way"—all former favorites—didn't make the cut for me. Gushy, hopelessly sappy love songs don't wear well.  

However, "James" did make my list. 

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James   

Another great post LC, you put a lot into these, very enjoyable and educating. I recently bought a couple Joel albums for the first time. Haven´t gotten into listening to them yet. Of the songs I´m aware of, and it´s s mostly limited to the singles released and the album "The Stranger" (which I got to become a little familiar with as it was played by my dorm mates all the time freshman year of college).

Anyway, here are my favorites for what it´s worth:

1. My Life...If someone asked me to name the greatest pure melody of all time, it might be this song.
2. Uptown Girl....I know the intelligentsia of music doesn´t like this one, but I find it one of the greatest pop tunes of all time, and also one
     of the best videos of all time.
3. Allentown, another genius melody
4. Piano Man, great song, I somehow listened to it too many times so got kinda sick of it. 
5. Scenes from an Italian Restaurant
6. Honesty
7. The Stranger
8. She´s always a woman
9. James....never heard the song, but there´s something about it I like. : )

..truth is of all his hits he put out, these are the only ones I liked, and only the first 5 do I consider exceptional songs. Many of his hits just
didn´t do much for me, but in his hits, I hear a guy who is an uber talented writer, and thus probably has a bunch of great stuff inside his albums
that stayed as deep cuts and never released as singles. We´ll see as I explore his albums.


 

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RIVER OF DREAMS is a pretty darn good album, which tells you what I think of Billy Joel. Not a bad one among the bunch. His Live SONGS IN THE ATTIC completely energizes the included songs in the same way that Frampton Comes Alive energized the studio recording of Peter Frampton. The difference is that it relies less on the energy from the crowd, and more on the actual performance. 

To me. "Honesty" is the perfect song. Ranks in my Top 10 all time. The song is great, the performance is greater. "You're My Home" is another under-rated classic. He just has SO many great songs. I'll try to do a list of my top ranked songs, but it will super hard.

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LC   

James, 
Interesting that you haven't discovered your namesake song. It was one I backtracked to find after The Stranger broke loose. I probably bought Piano Man first, because of the title track, and Turnstiles second, because of "I've Loved These Days." 

At first, "James" didn't connect. In fact, I think I was ducking it for a while. It's the opening track on Side 2 of the LP (a place of honor!), and truth be told, I often laid the needle down just after it, because the other three songs on that side were so awesome (and still are). I couldn't wait to get to them: the fiery "Angry Young Man," the all-time ballad "I've Loved These Days" (you didn't have friends playing that one during senior year?), and then the kick-ass rocker "Miami 2017."

But... you can't be that persnickety with a turntable too long, so I started playing all of Side 2, and "James" sank in. It has a sort of gentle, ethereal quality, and you'll find it starting to stick in your head. And then you start wondering about the story.... It's written as a series of questions to a childhood friend—a hard-working dude, a writer, a good guy... but somebody who puts everybody else first, to his own detriment. James tries too hard to live up to standards people around him have set. As the lyric says, "James, do you like your life? / Can you find release? /And will you ever change? / Will you ever write your masterpiece?"

I especially love this line, a good one to live by, really: "Do what's good for you, or you're not good for anybody, James..." 

So... check it out. And when one of you friends pops in while you have it on, he or she might ask, "What are you listening to?" And you can say, "James." "I know your name, but what are you listening to?" "James." "Yes, you're James, but what's the name of that song...?" You'll get a little Abbott & Costello routine going....

 

 

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LC   

Also, I do love "Uptown Girl," from the time Billy was going through a doo-wop period. And that video, with Christie Brinkley—very entertaining.  

"My Life" and "Honesty" marked a one-two punch in 1978, our sophomore years... an uptempo pop-rocker and a ballad with a bit of an edge. See, that's how you follow up a blockbuster album... two can't-miss singles that flooded the airwaves within months, seemingly, of The Stranger. Makes you think about that long, long, long delay of Eric's between his Arista debut and Boats Against the Current. All that momentum from the three hits (plus "That's Rock'n'Roll") on his solo album was lost in the waiting, right? 

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LC   
4 hours ago, Craig Benfer said:

RIVER OF DREAMS is a pretty darn good album, which tells you what I think of Billy Joel. Not a bad one among the bunch. His Live SONGS IN THE ATTIC completely energizes the included songs in the same way that Frampton Comes Alive energized the studio recording of Peter Frampton. The difference is that it relies less on the energy from the crowd, and more on the actual performance. 

To me. "Honesty" is the perfect song. Ranks in my Top 10 all time. The song is great, the performance is greater. "You're My Home" is another under-rated classic. He just has SO many great songs. I'll try to do a list of my top ranked songs, but it will super hard.

Craig, you're right on River of Dreams—that title track is one of the most uplifting songs of the era. It's one to add to ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky" and Bruce's "Waiting on a Sunny Day" as mood-boosters. 

Also, I'm glad you mentioned Songs in the Attic. I LOVED that record when it came out. It was so smart of Billy to dust off deep tracks from his earlier albums and give them the excitement of a live show. And you're spot on about the difference between Frampton Comes Alive and Attic is that Billy's album relies more on the actual performance. He had a killer band on the road back then. Anyway, Songs in the Attic got me exploring the other Billy albums I hadn't bought at the time (Cold Spring Harbor and Streetlife Serenade). 

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Helen Reddy remake of Billy Joel's "You're My Home" (from 1974 "Love Song For Jeffrey") (audio only) (also flip 45 single "Keep On Singing" remake of the Austin Roberts 1973 song) The last 13 seconds were cut from the 45 single!!  

 

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LC   

James, I was thinking... if you don't know "James," then you probably don't know "Summer, Highland Falls." You might have noticed it atop my list of favorite Billy Joel songs above. Have a feeling you'll dig this, if not be quite moved by it. A symmetrical melody, nice performance, wistful lyrics. "As we stand upon the ledges of our lives, with our respective similarities, it's either sadness or euphoria."

 

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James   

Really nice song LC, you're right, I'd never heard it. Cool piano. Thank you!

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Geez...I just noticed that my rankings never posted here. I must have forgotten to hit the the Submit Reply button. I'll have to work on it again.

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Billy Joel Albums

1. Cold Spring Harbor - It's not flashy. It's mostly Billy and his piano doing great tunes.
2. Piano Man - Not a bad song on it. "Ain't No Crime" is my least favorite though.
3. 52nd Street - "Honesty"...my favorite Billy Joel Song
4. The Nylon Curtain
5. The Stranger - Billy's breakout album which I think most fans would rank at the top of the list.
6. Turnstiles - Very underrated album. Has 9 songs...8 of which rank from very good to outstanding.
7. Storm Front - Just like Turnstiles, I think it's underrated. I do skip a couple tracks though.
8. Innocent Man - I don't skip any tracks, but I don't LOVE any single track on here. Plus, most of the hits were overplayed on the radio.
9. Glass Houses - A more rockin' style Billy. The good is very good, the rest...not so much.
10. Steetlife Serenade - I like half the tracks a lot, and the other half are ok.
11. The Bridge - Should I be ranking this so low? I usually skip a couple songs on this one, but the rest in pretty good.
12. River Of Dreams - As I Said in another post, the fact that I'm ranking this album last goes to show how much I like him. This album is actually pretty good.

If you're not super familiar with the deep cuts from Billy Joel's first four albums, do yourself  favor and get Songs In The Attic. If you like that, you may want to start exploring his early stuff more.

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LC - I'm happy to see that "Until The Night" made your list of Top 20 songs. I always loved it, though if you didn't know it was Billy singing, you might not recognize him.

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James, I know that in my review of INNOCENT MAN, I commented that there were no tracks that I loved, but I really did love "Uptown Girl" when I first bought this album. I sorta played it to death, and then they overplayed it on the radio. But through all that, I still like it a lot and it's my favorite track on the album.

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James   

......and thanks for the heads up Craig re "Songs in the attic".....I'm ordering it today. Says that Joel felt the songs chosen for the album didn't meet his vision for them when they were originally cut in the studio, but that the live versions, with his live band rocking them, manifest the songs in a way that matches his original vision of how they should sound. Looking forward to receiving the cd.

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LC   
6 hours ago, James said:

......and thanks for the heads up Craig re "Songs in the attic".....I'm ordering it today. Says that Joel felt the songs chosen for the album didn't meet his vision for them when they were originally cut in the studio, but that the live versions, with his live band rocking them, manifest the songs in a way that matches his original vision of how they should sound. Looking forward to receiving the cd.

Good call! I love Songs in the Attic. If I were including live albums in my Billy list, this one would be somewhere around 4, 5, or 6. EVERYTHING on it is from Billy's pre-Stranger albums, so if you're looking for hits, they're not there. However, you do get energized and updated versions of all kinds of worthy deep tracks. Including "Summer, Highland Falls."

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LC   
13 hours ago, Craig Benfer said:

LC - I'm happy to see that "Until The Night" made your list of Top 20 songs. I always loved it, though if you didn't know it was Billy singing, you might not recognize him.

Another good call. I know what you mean—it's Billy sounding his most un-Joel-like. I always considered this his most powerful track on 52nd Street—dramatic in the best possible sense, and kind of heartbreaking. 

 

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