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Billy Joel first tickled the ivories at the tender age of four. With that first piano lesson, a legend was in the making. Joel built his career on a unique combination of rock and blues, an unbelievable piano prowess, a voice of pure Americana, and genuine storytelling. His discography is overflowing with hits, including studio albums spanning three decades. With a multitude of hit records and a revolving door of melodic styles and lyrical approaches, Billy Joel’s albums are a classic album-ranking quandary. Let the chaos ensue.
Billy Joel Albums Ranked
12. River of Dreams (1993)
Joel’s last true studio album is an undoubtedly easy listen and includes a few classics.
River of Dreams is Billy Joel’s most recent studio album (besides Fantasies & Delusions which he doesn’t actually perform on). It’s a scattered but animated combination of tracks.
River of Dreams, the album’s namesake track provides an ethereal musical journey reminiscent of something from An Innocent Man (1983). The Great Wall of China is probably the closest to 90s rock Joel ever ventured, and he nailed it.
With an impressive career of instant classic albums, Joel had nothing to prove with this album, and yet he still delivered a handful of considerable tracks. By the end however, it feels quite like a river of dreams, floating along through a vaguely amusing experience, without totally making sense.
- The Great Wall of China
- Shades of Gray
- River of Dreams
- Two Thousand Years
11. Streetlife Serenade (1974)
The trouble with Streetlife Serenade is understanding if it’s a working man’s mixtape or a documentation of newfound fame. Either way, it’s perfect for your commute or road trip to the city.
It’s an album that picks you up from your generic geographic location and drops you off in a dirty, but hopeful Los Angeles after a stop in the desert. Streetlife Serenade comes at the time of Joel’s life in the city and offers his reactions to what’s going on around him.
Los Angelenos is sort of his critique of the new world he now inhabits for all of its diversity, exoticism, and noise:
Hiding up in the mountainsLos Angelinos
Laying low in the canyons
Goin’ nowhere on the streets
With their Spanish names
The Entertainer details the taxing and tumultuous road of the entertainment business and notes the cutting of Piano Man forced upon him by the label.
Joel rushes back and forth between his struggles of fame and maintaining blue collar sympathies in Streetlife Serenade, and the result isn’t half bad.
- Los Angelenos
- Root Beer Rag
10. Cold Spring Harbor (1971)
A raw debut that’s full of heart, Joel’s Cold Spring Harbor takes you to the East Coast where the magic began.
Billy Joel’s first record, Cold Spring Harbor, was released through Family Production before his second discovery by Columbia Records. It has a subtler softer sound, albeit one that’s just not as polished as his other work.
Falling of the Rain introduced the world to the beautiful piano magic that this sorcerer could conjure up and the sharp vocals that accompanied them.
Joel channeled one of his biggest career influences, The Beatles, for the tune of Tomorrow Is Today. Joel has said that seeing the band perform on the Ed Sullivan Show changed his life (as the show did with Springsteen as well).
Cold Spring Harbor is a spectacular debut album, even while lacking in sonic quality, partially due to being the one record produced and released at Family Records.
- She’s Got a Way
- You Can Make Me Free
- Everybody Loves You Now
- Falling of the Rain
- Tomorrow Is Today
9. The Bridge (1986)
The Bridge is a poignant and purposeful record from mid-career Billy Joel.
It wasn’t until The Bridge, 15 years after the release of Cold Spring Harbor, that Billy Joel decided to add features to an album. This jazzy, drummed up, rock album features The Genius, Ray Charles, and future pop star but then industry sophomore, Cyndi Lauper.
Running On Ice is a high-flying track that sounds like if The Police made a gritty bop for the Calgary Winter Olympics in ’86. It also happens to be featured in the TV movie “Threat Level Midnight.”
Electric guitar-driven A Matter of Trust offers heartfelt romantic truths, doing well enough to become the title of Joel’s only commentary album.
The third-longest gap between studio albums (three years) was bridged effectively, but not by an all-time great album (even with the help of friends). Still, what we’re left with is a couple great hits and an appreciable connection to the albums to follow.
- Running on Ice
- A Matter of Trust
- Baby Grand
- Code of Silence
8. The Nylon Curtain (1982)
The Nylon Curtain is a Beatles-esque project with serious subject matter and a finely-polished sound.
While not the most renowned album in his discography, The Nylon Curtain is actually the album Joel is most proud of. He spent tireless hours in the studio recording and producing the project.
In Laura, Scandinavian Skies, and elsewhere on the album, you can hear Beatles-esque melodies and strings, likely influenced by the recent passing of John Lennon 18 months prior. In fact, you can even hear hints of an adopted English accent on some tracks.
Goodnight Saigon deals with the Vietnam War from the perspective of American foot soldiers. It’s a fascinating track that actually fits into the album narrative like a puzzle piece.
A man winds up at a theatre production that he expects to be a musical in this allegory of life expectations verses reality on Where’s the Orchestra.
While notably the most political album of Joel’s career, The Nylon Curtain is much less serious than the Iron Curtain that still hung. The work is the most progressive and the most polished and that’s why it works.
- Goodnight Saigon
- Scandinavian Skies
- Where’s the Orchestra
7. Storm Front (1989)
Joel goes key crazy on Storm Front, bringing one of the harder rocking albums of his discography.
Billy Joel plays all the keys in his eleventh studio album; from organ to harpsichord to synthesizers to acoustic piano, he masterfully moves between them on Storm Front.
Guns-ablazing is how Joel rolls in with That’s Not Her Style, a Southern rock defense of his then-celebrity wife Christine Brinkley which opens Storm Front with a clap of thunder.
Central to the tropical storm theme (the album cover is the maritime flag for a sea storm of the highest danger) is The Downeaster ‘Alexa’. The song showcases Joel’s impressive vocal range…he’s still got it.
The most well-known track on the album is its historical pop hit We Didn’t Start The Fire which Joel has professed he isn’t fond of, melodically. Amidst the many references to events in Joel’s lifetime in the song, many were connected to the Cold War, which began just before his birth in 1949. Strangely enough the Cold War ended that same year; thanks Billy.
Storm Front offers meaningful songs and a mega hit between somewhat forced Huey Lewis vibes.
- We Didn’t Start the Fire
- The Downeaster ‘Alexa’
- I Go to Extremes
- And So It Goes
6. Turnstiles (1976)
The Billy Joel Band comes alive in Joel’s blissful return to his home state.
A physical return to his home state of New York from LA is what inspired Joel in his creation of Turnstiles. This album was recorded with the quintessential Billy Joel Band, each member handpicked by Joel himself. It seems enlivened by the return journey based on Say Goodbye to Hollywood and New York State of Mind.
Prelude/Angry Young Man showcases Joel’s razor sharp keystrokes as a pianist and makes you feel like dancing in a Manhattan subway station.
Summer, Highland Falls just happens to be one of my favorite Billy Joel songs of all time. Vastly underrated and overlooked, even one line strikes to the heart:
For we are always what our situations hand us,Summer, Highland Falls
It’s either sadness or euphoria
Miami 2017 is a curious, futuristic tale of the destruction of NYC in a beautiful ode to the city at a time when many thought the city literally wouldn’t survive much longer. The song resurfaced after 9/11 and was played as a way to honor a magnificent city in the process of healing.
Turnstiles was an amazing body of work so filled with the unbridled joy Joel has for returning home which started a consecutive three-year streak of iconic albums.
- Say Goodbye to Hollywood
- Summer, Highland Falls
- New York State of Mind
- Prelude/Angry Young Man
- Miami 2017
5. Glass Houses (1980)
It’s still rock & roll to Joel in Glass Houses. Far from fragile, this album has stood the test of time like few other 40-year-old works.
Billy Joel always had a knack for evolving musically without seeming worried about the reception of his latest work. Glass Houses finds Joel edging into New Wave territory, with his firmly established anti-establishment messaging, additional electronic reverberations, and sound effects.
Billy provides his signature slice of life writing in Sleeping With the Television On and his political microscoping on the hard rocking Close to the Borderline.
It’s Still Rock & Roll To Me notes Joel’s frustration with his label nudging him to stay relevant with the newest musical trends and genres at the forefront of the culture. He criticizes the fact that more importance is being placed on the fashion than on the music of musicians:
Next phase, new wave, dance craze, anywaysIt’s Still Rock and Roll to Me
It’s still rock and roll to me
As far as I’m concerned, whether he’s trying to fit in with that leather jacket and blue jean combo or not, the album simply rocks.
- You May Be Right
- Don’t Ask Me Why
- It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me
- All for Leyna
- I Don’t Want to Be Alone
- Close to the Borderline
4. An Innocent Man (1983)
In a flood of charming homages to the music that raised him, Joel rewinds the clock several decades on An Innocent Man.
An Innocent Man almost won the Grammy for album of the year, but it lost to an album entitled Thriller, by Michael Jackson. So the Grammy loss couldn’t have hurt too bad. Billy goes back to his musical roots on this album with a collection of songs that pay tribute to great doo-wop and soul musicians like Ben E King, James Brown, The Supremes, Little Richard, Smokey Robinson, and Sam Cooke among others.
The all-time hit record Uptown Girl pays homage to Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, with Joel even hitting the sorts of high notes Frankie was known for in the 50s.
On Careless Talk, Joel notes the power of words, beautifully harnessing his own:
All of the intimate thingsCareless Talk
That we ever might have said
In the heat of the passionate moment
In a conversation shared
The paradox of a white kid from Hicksville so heavily influenced by industry legend black soul musicians is actually quite enchanting, and the tribute is executed beautifully.
- Easy Money
- The Longest Time
- Tell Her About It
- Uptown Girl
- Careless Talk
- Leave a Tender Moment Alone
- Keeping the Faith
3. Piano Man (1973)
The iconic album filled with authenticity and piano ballads that drove Billy Joel to stardom.
Not much needs to be said to introduce this album. Few ever strike gold on their second try, but Billy Joel is one of them. Piano Man is pure joy, and listening sometimes feels more real than what’s in front of your face.
Billy Joel’s first real hit, the titular track Piano Man, was based on the stories of bar patrons at The Executive Room, chronicling his time spent performing there. More than just every local bar’s jukebox classic, this song was an essential part of the beginning of Joel’s professional career.
The Ballad of Billy the Kid is a slow-treading western ballad while also being a rock power ballad. It sounds like John Wayne riding through the streets of LA chasing down a car of bad guys.
It was actually Captain Jack that got initial radio air time and notoriety for the album, then grabbing the attention of an exec at Columbia Records.
Even Billy’s slowest, softest, saddest songs on the record, like You’re My Home and If I Only Had the Words (To Tell You), pick up the pace to meet the demands of a fast-living album that paints sonic portraits perfectly.
- Piano Man
- Ain’t No Crime
- You’re My Home
- The Ballad of Billy the Kid
- If I Only Had the Words (to Tell You)
- Somewhere Along the Line
- Captain Jack
2. 52nd Street (1978)
The jazziest Joel album, 52nd Street is slower and sweeter and almost unbeatable.
The third album in three years, 52nd Street is a jazzy pop masterpiece that, in contrast to Piano Man, is a much slower tempo for Joel.
Ever the pessimistic social commentator, Billy Joel uses Big Shot to comment on the careless lifestyles around him to the tune of catchy pop vocals reminiscent of Elton John.
Zanzibar and Half A Mile Away paint vivid scenes through brassy and palpable melodies. The former plays with amorous consequences:
Melodrama’s so much funZanzibar
In black and white for everyone to see
While Billy holds a horn on the album cover, he doesn’t play brass on a single track. Regardless of that piece of trivia, his instrumentals and vocals really shine on one of his best albums ever.
- Big Shot
- My Life
- Rosalinda’s Eyes
- Half a Mile Away
- Until the Night
1. The Stranger (1977)
At the apex of Billy Joel’s career, The Stranger is near-perfect thematically, lyrically, and instrumentally.
On The Stranger, Billy Joel works for the first time with producer Phil Ramone on a record that was the equivalent of a massive comeback capped off by a game-winning shot. Based on weak Billboard performance, Columbia had threatened to drop him from the label unless he executed something that performed quite well. Joel delivered with the greatest album of his career and one of the best of the decade, period. The Stranger simply doesn’t miss.
Joel captures the heart of the hopeless romantic with tracks like Just the Way You Are and She’s Always a Woman. Tales of love true and love genuine on the bedrock of unwaveringly sincere songwriting.
The Stranger keys in on the theme of masking ourselves in the midst of our dreams, hopes, romances, and careers:
Well, we all have a face that we hide away forever,The Stranger
And we take them out and show ourselves
When everyone has gone
On the heels of Turnstiles the year before and preceding 52nd Street the year after, The Stranger never sounds rushed. With crystal clear continuity and a barrage of gold hits, The Stranger is a masterpiece. And it turned out that in 1977, it became Columbia’s bestselling release of all time.
- Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)
- The Stranger
- Just the Way You Are
- Scenes from an Italian Restaurant
- Only the Good Die Young
- She’s Always a Woman
Billy Joel Albums Ranked – Standout Tracks Playlist
Featured Image Credit: Billy Joel performing at Madison Square Garden, April 15, 2016 – slgckgc – CC BY 2.0