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Rock - Released October 2, 2001 | Columbia

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Released in conjunction with Billy Joel's grand experiment with classical music, The Essential Billy Joel was a welcome reminder of Billy Joel's way with a pop song, improving on the previous Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 & 2 by extending into the '90s and delving deeper into his catalog. There were some casualties along the way -- it's easy for a fan to carp about the absence of personal favorites like "She's Right on Time" or "Travelin' Prayer," and it may even make some sense that "You're Only Human (Second Wind)" or "Shameless" didn't make the cut, but it's mind-boggling that "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" isn't here (we won't mention that the classical pieces that end the record, no matter how surprisingly good they are, are as out of place as Attila would have been) -- but for the most part, this has every one of Joel's heavy-hitters, and his craftsmanship, both as a songsmith and record maker, has never shone brighter. The biggest fault is that there is a notable drop-off in quality after 1986's The Bridge (which ends midway through disc two), but even so, this is as good a distillation of Joel's talents imaginable. In fact, as the first disc unfurls, even cynics may wonder why he's been dogged by the critics, since singer/songwriter pop doesn't come better than "Say Goodbye to Hollywood," "New York State of Mind," "Only the Good Die Young," "My Life," "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," "Don't Ask Me Why," "Allentown," and their seven companions. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Pop/Rock - Released September 29, 1977 | Columbia

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Billy Joel teamed with Phil Ramone, a famed engineer who had just scored his first producing hits with Art Garfunkel's Breakaway and Paul Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years for The Stranger, his follow-up to Turnstiles. Joel still favored big, sweeping melodies, but Ramone convinced him to streamline his arrangements and clean up the production. The results aren't necessarily revelatory, since he covered so much ground on Turnstiles, but the commercialism of The Stranger is a bit of a surprise. None of his ballads have been as sweet or slick as "Just the Way You Are"; he never had created a rocker as bouncy or infectious as "Only the Good Die Young"; and the glossy production of "She's Always a Woman" disguises its latent misogynist streak. Joel balanced such radio-ready material with a series of New York vignettes, seemingly inspired by Springsteen's working-class fables and clearly intended to be the artistic centerpieces of the album. They do provide The Stranger with the feel of a concept album, yet there is no true thematic connection between the pieces, and his 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 -- the epic suite "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" feels like a show-stopping closer -- there's no denying that the melodies of each song on The Stranger are memorable, so much so that they strengthen the weaker portions of the album. Joel rarely wrote a set of songs better than those on The Stranger, nor did he often deliver an album as consistently listenable. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Pop/Rock - Released November 9, 1973 | Columbia

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Embittered by legal disputes with his label and an endless tour to support a debut that was dead in the water, Billy Joel hunkered down in his adopted hometown of Los Angeles, spending six months as a lounge singer at a club. He didn't abandon his dreams -- he continued to write songs, including "Piano Man," a fictionalized account of his weeks as a lounge singer. Through a combination of touring and constant hustling, he landed a contract with Columbia and recorded his second album in 1973. Clearly inspired by Elton John's Tumbleweed Connection, not only musically but lyrically, as well as James Taylor, Joel expands the vision and sound of Cold Spring Harbor, abandoning introspective numbers (apart from "You're My Home," a love letter to his wife) for character sketches and epics. Even the title track, a breakthrough hit based on his weeks as a saloon singer, focuses on the colorful patrons, not the singer. If his narratives are occasionally awkward or incomplete, he compensates with music that gives the songs a sweeping sense of purpose -- they feel complete, thanks to his indelible melodies and savvy stylistic repurposing. He may have borrowed his basic blueprint from Tumbleweed Connection, particularly with its Western imagery and bluesy gospel flourishes, but he makes it his own, largely due to his melodic flair, which is in greater evidence than on Cold Spring Harbor. Piano Man is where he suggests his potential as a musical craftsman. He may have weaknesses as a lyricist -- such mishaps as the "instant pleasuredome" line in "You're My Home" illustrate that he doesn't have an ear for words -- but Piano Man makes it clear that his skills as a melodicist can dazzle. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Pop/Rock - Released October 1, 1978 | Columbia

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Pop/Rock - Released August 8, 1983 | Columbia

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Pop/Rock - Released March 12, 1980 | Columbia

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The back-to-back success of The Stranger and 52nd Street may have brought Billy Joel fame and fortune, even a certain amount of self-satisfaction, but it didn't bring him critical respect, and it didn't dull his anger. If anything, being classified as a mainstream rocker -- a soft rocker -- infuriated him, especially since a generation of punks and new wave kids were getting the praise that eluded him. He didn't take this lying down -- he recorded Glass Houses. Comparatively a harder-rocking album than either of its predecessors, with a distinctly bitter edge, Glass Houses still displays the hallmarks of Billy Joel the pop craftsman and Phil Ramone the world-class hitmaker. Even its hardest songs -- the terrifically paranoid "Sometimes a Fantasy," "Sleepin' With the Television On," "Close to the Borderline," the hit "You May Be Right" -- have bold, direct melodies and clean arrangements, ideal for radio play. Instead of turning out to be a fiery rebuttal to his detractors, the album is a remarkable catalog of contemporary pop styles, from McCartney-esque whimsy ("Don't Ask Me Why") and arena rock ("All for Leyna") to soft rock ("C'etait Toi [You Were the One]") and stylish new wave pop ("It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," which ironically is closer to new wave pop than rock). That's not a detriment; that's the album's strength. The Stranger and 52nd Street were fine albums in their own right, but it's nice to hear Joel scale back his showman tendencies and deliver a solid pop/rock record. It may not be punk -- then again, it may be his concept of punk -- but Glass Houses is the closest Joel ever got to a pure rock album. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Pop/Rock - Released April 3, 2006 | Columbia

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This international collection of highlights from the East Coast native's prolific career takes its choicest bits from Columbia's three hugely successful Greatest Hits compilations. Piano Man: The Very Best of Billy Joel may just skim the surface of Joel's large reservoir of material, but it's hard to argue with the end results. All of the radio hits, minus some of the more obscure ones like "Allentown," "Pressure," and "Matter of Trust" are dutifully represented. From "River of Dreams" and "We Didn't Start the Fire" to "Piano Man" and "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant," this skillfully paced compilation, which also includes a ten-track DVD, is about as good a single-disc Billy Joel primer as one is likely to find. © James Christopher Monger /TiVo
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Pop/Rock - Released October 17, 1989 | Columbia

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When he went for a masterpiece on The Nylon Curtain, Billy Joel worked with his band and producer Phil Ramone, crafting a Beatlesque song suite that was perfectly in step with Turnstiles. For Storm Front, he decided it was time to change things. He fired Ramone. He fired everyone in his band, save longtime drummer Liberty DeVito. He hired Mick Jones, the architect behind Foreigner's big AOR sound, to man the boards. He wrote a set of sober, somber songs, save "That's Not Her Style," a weirdly defensive song about his model wife, Christie Brinkley. He was left with an album that is singularly joyless. Joel makes no bones about his ambitions for Storm Front -- when you lead with a history lesson as your first single (the monotonous chant "We Didn't Start the Fire"), it's clear that you're not interested in fun. That wouldn't have been a problem if his melodic skills weren't in decline. Joel packed all the strongest numbers into the first half of Storm Front, from the rocking "That's Not Her Style" and "I Go to Extremes" to the fisherman's plight "The Downeaster 'Alexa'" and the power ballad "Shameless," which Garth Brooks later made a standard. Compared to the murky second side, which perks up only mildly with "Leningrad" and "And So It Goes," it's upbeat, varied, melodic, and effective, but when it's compared to his catalog -- not only such high-water marks as The Stranger or Glass Houses, but with a record as uneven as The Bridge -- it pales musically and lyrically. The five singles ("Fire," "Style," "Extremes," "'Alexa'," "Goes") were catchy enough on the radio to propel the album to multi-platinum status, but in retrospect, Storm Front sounds like the beginning of the end. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Pop/Rock - Released May 19, 1976 | Columbia

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Pop/Rock - Released August 10, 1993 | Columbia

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Billy Joel had never taken as much time to record an album as he did with River of Dreams, and its troubled birth is clear upon the first listen. Never before had he recorded an album that sounded so labored, as if it was a struggle for him to write and record the songs. With River of Dreams, he's surrounded himself with ace studio musicians and star producer Danny Kortchmar, all of whom have the effect of deadening an already self-consciously serious set of songs. There are no light moments on the album, either lyrically or musically -- all the songs are filled with middle-age dread, even the two best moments, the gospel-inflected title track and his song to his daughter, "Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)." Those two songs have the strongest melodies, but they're not as natural as his best material. Everywhere he tries too hard -- the metaphors of "The Great Wall of China," the bizarre vocal intro to "Shades of Grey," minor-key melodies all over the place. He may be trying different things, but he doesn't sound comfortable with his detours, and by the end of the record, he sounds as exhausted as the listener feels. By that point, the closing track, "Famous Last Words," seems prophetic -- River of Dreams feels like a sad close to an otherwise strong career, and from all indications he's given in the press, Joel claims it is indeed the last pop album he'll ever make. It's an unworthy way to depart. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Pop/Rock - Released November 1, 1971 | Columbia

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Pop/Rock - Released June 23, 1982 | Columbia

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Billy Joel hit back as hard as he could with Glass Houses, his bid to prove that he could rock as hard as any of those new wave punks. He might not have proven himself a punk -- for all of his claims of being a hard rocker, his work inevitably is pop because of his fondness for melody -- but he proved to himself that he could still rock, even if the critics didn't give him any credit for it. It was now time to mature, to move pop/rock into the middle age and, in the process, earn critical respect. In short, The Nylon Curtain is where Billy Joel went serious, consciously crafting a song cycle about Baby Boomers in the Reagan era. Since this was an album about Baby Boomers, he chose to base his music almost entirely on the Beatles, the pivotal rock band for his generation. Joel is naturally inclined to write big melodies like McCartney, but he idolizes Lennon, which makes The Nylon Curtain a fascinating cross between ear candy and social commentary. His desire to record a grand concept album is admirable, but his ever-present lyrical shortcomings mean that the songs paint a picture without arriving at any insights. He occasionally gets lost in his own ambition, as on the waterlogged second side, but the first half of the song suite -- "Allentown," "Laura," "Pressure," "Goodnight Saigon," "She's Right on Time" -- is layered, successful, mature pop that brings Joel tantalizingly close to his ultimate goal of sophisticated pop/rock for mature audiences. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Pop/Rock - Released June 13, 1997 | Columbia

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Perhaps it was inevitable that Billy Joel's Greatest Hits, Vol. 3 would pale next to its double-disc predecessor. Greatest Hits, Vols. 1 & 2 covered nine albums (it ignored Cold Spring Harbor), a period during which Joel had 26 Top 100 hits. If it had picked up where the first collection left off, Vol. 3 would have covered three studio albums, which produced 11 hits. That alone would have made a respectable hits collection, and it would have made sense, since The Bridge marked the beginning of a new phase of Joel's career. Instead, the 17-song Vol. 3 begins with a pair of songs from An Innocent Man ("Keeping the Faith," "An Innocent Man") that sound entirely different from the material that follows, which finds Joel delving into mechanized, slickly produced adult contemporary pop. The remaining songs don't strictly adhere to his charting hits, substituting such album tracks as "Leningrad," "Shameless" and "Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)" for hits like "Modern Woman," "That's Not Her Style" and his non-LP cover of Elvis' "All Shook Up." Even with those missing hits, Greatest Hits, Vol. 3 does summarize Joel's latter career quite well, culling most of his best songs from the time. However, the album ends on a down note, as it adds three new songs, all covers, that are limply produced and colorlessly played. Bob Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love" -- which Joel decided to perform as if it was a slow, sanitized Blonde on Blonde outtake -- is the best of the trio, but none of them qualify as Joel classics, and they are an inauspicious way to end this chapter of his career. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Pop/Rock - Released September 14, 1981 | Columbia - Legacy

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Having scored three multi-platinum hits in a row, Billy Joel took a breather, releasing his first live album, Songs in the Attic, as he worked on his ambitious follow-up to Glass Houses. Joel wisely decided to use the live album as an opportunity to draw attention to songs from his first four albums. Apart from "Piano Man," none of those songs had been heard by the large audience he had won with The Stranger. Furthermore, he now had a seasoned backing band that helped give his music a specific identity -- in short, it was an opportunity to reclaim these songs, now that he had a signature sound. And Joel didn't botch the opportunity -- Songs in the Attic is an excellent album, ranking among his very best work. With the possible exception of the Turnstiles material, every song is given a fuller, better arrangement that makes it all spring to life. "Los Angelenos" and "Everybody Loves You Now" hit harder in the live setting, while ballads like "She's Got a Way," "Summer, Highland Falls," and "I've Loved These Days" are richer and warmer in these versions. A few personal favorites from these albums may be missing, but what is here is impeccable, proving that even if Joel wasn't a celebrity in the early '70s, his best songs of the era rivaled his biggest hits. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Pop - Released October 11, 1974 | Legacy - CBS - Sony

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Pop/Rock - Released July 28, 1986 | Columbia

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Riding high on the blockbuster An Innocent Man and with a new jet-setting bride at his side, Billy Joel took full advantage of the high life, as is clear from The Bridge, an album that unwittingly celebrates the excesses of the Reagan years. While he hasn't quite settled into middle age, Joel is ready to take advantage of his wealth and status, recruiting a hero (Ray Charles) and a new wave kid (Cyndi Lauper) for duets, turning to Sting for inspiration ("Running on Ice"), fronting a big band ("Big Man on Mulberry Street"), writing a song for a movie ("Modern Woman"), and picking up the guitar ("A Matter of Trust"), just for the hell of it. You could say that it's eclectic, but it's scattershot, because it's just Joel showing off his musical skills. He's done this before, to great effect on Turnstiles, but this is all about hubris and, as such, it sounds exactly like its time. From its processed, distorted guitars to its hollow synthesizers, The Bridge sounds dated and it's his most uneven since Streetlife Serenade. Even on the hits, he sounds as if he's stretching -- "This Is the Time" is labored compared to "Just the Way You Are" (not to mention considerably more vulgar); "A Matter of Trust" never hits upon a solid riff like "Sometimes a Fantasy"; "Modern Woman" is catchy but fluffy; "Baby Grand" is weighed down by Joel's vocal affectations. In context of the album, they're fairly enjoyable, but they hint at the dry spell that was just around the corner. Nevertheless, Joel still has enough panache and is riding on so much exuberance that The Bridge remains an entertaining listen, especially if it's viewed as a Reagan-era artifact. It just doesn't compare to what came before. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Pop/Rock - Released January 18, 2013 | Columbia - Legacy

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Pop - Released June 29, 1985 | Columbia - Legacy

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Pop/Rock - Released March 8, 2011 | Columbia - Legacy

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Pop - Released June 13, 2006 | Columbia