After his commercial breakthrough with 1977’s The Stranger, Billy Joel decided to stretch himself musically, and the outcome was 52nd Street. He was still excellent at writing pop hits and had a special knack for turning a cultural catchphrase into a sly commentary on contemporary values. “My Life” captured the mood of Baby Boomers who saw the limitations of the American Dream and sought their own path, while “Big Shot” poked fun at the pompousness of celebrity and high society. Both songs were radio smashes, continuing Joel’s hitmaking streak, and the ballad “Honesty” also charted and became one of his signature songs.
Though 52nd Street went seven times platinum and was the first of Joel's albums to top the Billboard 200, it is a deep-cut record whose appeal goes well beyond its best-known tracks. It’s marked by jazz flourishes—the title itself invokes the heart of New York's mid-20th-century jazz scene—and the carefully sculpted drama of Broadway, and after the three hits that open the album, surprises abound. “Zanzibar” is among Joel’s more ambitious compositions, with tricky chord changes and touches of jazz fusion, including solos from trumpeter Freddie Hubbard; the buoyant “Half a Mile Away” features an entire horn section arranged by Dave Grusin. “Until the Night” finds Joel transforming his voice into the low, Tom Jones-like croon of a nightclub balladeer, a theatrical turn complemented by lush production featuring a string arrangement, while “Rosalinda’s Eyes” is warm and breezy, a Latin-tinged midtempo number with lightly strummed guitars and vibraphone. If The Stranger showed Joel’s sure hand with pop, 52nd Street was a showcase for his musical range, hinting at the wide variety of styles he would tackle in the coming years.