52nd Street

52nd Street

Billy Joel’s previous album, The Stranger, sold 10 million copies, won two Grammys, and made him, after a decade of struggle, a household name. The successor, 52nd Street, added another Top 5 single (the ornery “My Life”), two more Grammys, and sold a still-enviable seven million copies, establishing Joel as a major star in the pop sweepstakes. It’s also his best-reviewed album (critics haven’t always loved Joel, nor has he always loved them) thanks largely to the confident way he traverses styles of music and different emotions. In “Big Shot,” one of his hardest-rocking songs, Joel mocks a trendy, affluent New Yorker who does coke in the back of his limousine; he later admitted that it was partly about the ways in which he overindulged in his newfound stardom. “Honesty,” one of his most enduring ballads, pleads for truthfulness from a lover. “Zanzibar” describes life inside a small jazz club and includes two vibrant solos from the esteemed trumpet player Freddie Hubbard; there’s an agile bounce and jazzy interlude to “Stiletto,” a bitter song about romantic masochism; and “Rosalinda’s Eyes” moves into a Latin-influenced groove and adds vibraphone, flute, marimba, and session ace Hugh McCracken’s nylon-string guitar. The giddy urban tale “Half a Mile Away” is driven by a horn chart written by the accomplished pianist Dave Grusin, and “Until the Night,” a sweeping, yearning ballad, points towards An Innocent Man, the ’50s- and ’60s-influenced album Joel released in 1983. If you were to change the opinion of a skeptic who thinks Joel is “Just the Way You Are” and not much more, this would be the record to play—struggle, joy, and the balance in between. Your attempt would most likely fail, though: No Billy Joel hater can be swayed, nor can any Billy Joel lover, and there’s very little room in the middle for opinions about his brassy, emphatic pop songs.

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