The Ballad of Billy Joel: Part II

The Ballad of Billy Joel: Part II

At the end of Part I, Billy Joel had just released the album Streetlife Serenade in Los Angeles, but it failed to capture public attention or critical acclaim. After some side projects with other artists, Joel moved from Los Angeles to New York. This decision was partly because of the disappointing outcome of his last album, and partly because Joel simply no longer liked the City of Angels. However, he did not achieve success in New York until he finally broke through with The Stranger, which completely changed the trajectory of his career.

When Billy Joel moved to New York, he began working on a new album, though still with Columbia Records. At first, he recorded songs with Elton John and his band, but Joel did not like these recordings, so he then re-recorded them with his own touring band. Finally, after months of recordings and editing, Joel released Turnstiles in May of 1976.

Turnstiles is, in my opinion, the best Billy Joel album, because of the ubiquitous quality of its songs: every single one is extremely good, and could be the best song on a different album. Every part of this album seems polished and refined, demonstrating the care and effort that was clearly put into this album. One detail that I learned is that each person (or pair of people) on the album cover represents a song in the album. Unfortunately, this album did not have the commercial impact that it really deserved. This is most likely because it did not have a strong single. The closest equivalent was “Say Goodbye To Hollywood.” While “New York State of Mind” has become very popular recently, it was not released as a single.


Rating: 9/10.
Favorite Song:
“Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway).”

After touring for Turnstiles, Joel began to work with a new producer, Phil Ramone, who would stay in that position for more than a decade. This change may have affected The Stranger, which upon its release would quickly become Billy Joel’s most popular album of all time. This accomplishment was aided by five excellent singles, four of which would go on to reach the Top 25 on Billboard. In addition, “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” became a fan favorite, as the story it tells unfolds in a very relatable way. It is also one of Joel’s favorites among his songs.

I like this album, but still think that it is a slight step down from the previous album, as some of the songs feel either too long or too bloated. Another problem with this album is that there are more forgettable tunes, such as “Everybody Has a Dream,” than there are on Turnstiles. A few songs just do not resonate with the listener. The Stranger remains an excellent album despite these flaws, especially the eponymous track. “The Stranger” is great because it balances a long piano intro and similar conclusion with a slightly more upbeat and faster middle section.

The Stranger

Rating: 8.5/10.
Favorite Song: “The Stranger.”

After the success of The Stranger, Joel followed it up the next year with 52nd Street. This album was named after the street on which Columbia Records was located and has a picture of Joel standing in an alleyway with a trumpet in his hand. This picture is a perfect representation of the album, which was jazz themed and one of his many ventures into different genres. Coming right on the heels of The Stranger, it had great success and was considered a more mature Billy Joel album.

Although 52nd Street is a great album, I feel that it does not live up to the two previous ones. Turnstiles and The Stranger are some of my favorite albums of all time, and 52nd Street simply does not have that consistent strength in every one of its songs. I do like the dedication that Joel put into the jazz aspect of the album, even working with jazz musicians to direct its focus, but a focus on jazz alone is not enough to lead an album. My favorite song has to be “My Life,” which is just Joel telling somebody that he doesn’t want their advice.

52nd Street

Rating: 7/10.
Favorite Song: “My Life.”

Over the course of these albums, Billy Joel had ups and downs, but each one has its own flavor and characteristics. It is great that during this time, Joel’s music was finally gaining currency in the world. He had a special ability to make every single one of his songs good enough to be a hit. If you are still not convinced, come back next time for Part III.

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