Friday, August 16, 2013

A Blend Of Recognizable Greats And Forgettable Hits: Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II!

The Good: Some wonderful lyrics, Great voice, Decent sound
The Bad: Could be longer for my tastes, Some forgettable early songs
The Basics: Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II by Billy Joel may be one of the bestselling albums of all time, but it does not age as well as one might hope.

I think that some might be daunted to review one of the best-selling albums of all time, but I’m not one of those people. Instead, when I selected Billy Joel as my next male artist to immerse myself in the works of (yeah, that’s some spectacular grammar!), I actually had no idea that his compilation album set Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II was (at last count) the third best-selling certified album of all time (it turns out there’s an asterisk on that – this set is tied with two other albums for third). In listening to Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II, the first thing that struck me was how forgettable some of the early works of Billy Joel truly are. Given that I grew up in the 1980s, the album becomes more and more relevant late on the first disc and throughout the second disc, but it is hard for me not to think that had this been Volumes II & III together, it would have gotten a more favorable review from me.

At the crux of it is this: some of Billy Joel’s early works are clever but forgettable (“The Entertainer”) or dismally repetitive (“Captain Jack”) and might have been part of establishing Joel as an international superstar, but not they play poorly. After “Piano Man” on Disc One, there is a dearth of recognizable hits until “New York State Of Mind” and then a gap until “Just The Way You Are.” In the overall pantheon of Billy Joel’s works, it is hard to argue that “The Stranger” or “Say Goodbye To Hollywood” are truly his greatest works. That said, there is enough on Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II to please the fans and convert those who only have enjoyed Joel’s radio hits into fans!

Split into two discs, Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II is a compilation album that is distinctly the creative work of Billy Joel. With twenty-five songs on two discs clocking out at a total of one hour, fifty-three minutes, Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II does a decent job of including the hits with minimal fat. There are only two original tracks and they hold up poorly by comparison. “You’re Only Human (Second Wind)” and “The Night Is Still Young” do not hold a candle to the hits that appear on Volume III (eventually). I appreciate putting new material on Greatest Hits compilations, but it should be of a quality that matches the rest of the works and the two new songs are as unmemorable as some of the lesser hits on disc one. That said, Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II illustrates well the many talents of Billy Joel. Joel wrote the words and music to all twenty-five songs on Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II, which was a bit of surprise for me only for “New York State Of Mind.” Joel provides all of the primary vocals and he plays keyboard, piano, or other instruments on each track as well. The only major creative aspect of the album that Billy Joel is not credited with is production, though for the bulk of his career and the songs on this album, his works were produced by Phil Ramone. Given how long they worked together, it is hard to believe the works on Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II are not Joel’s musical vision.

Billy Joel’s sound is the very definition of light pop rock, especially on Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II. Recreating a 1950’s du-wop type sound on songs like “Uptown Girl” and “The Longest Time,” most of the songs are ballad and light rock piano-driven songs. While there is a (piano-driven) folksy sound to songs like “Piano Man” and an epic ballad sound to songs like “Just The Way You Are” and “She’s Got A Way,” Joel makes a series of fairly limited instrument combinations sound fresh track to track.

Vocally, Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II has Billy Joel largely singing in a mid-tenor vocal range. Joel sings clearly and articulately on every song and it is no surprise that “Piano Man” resonated so well as he articulates each and every word with perfect clarity. While Joel goes a little lower on songs like “Pressure” or holds notes longer on songs like “Allentown” and “Goodnight Saigon,” most of the songs on Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II have Billy Joel singing very similarly to on “Piano Man” with clear, direct vocalizations.

Lyrically, Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II has a pretty decent blend to it. Many of the songs are musical storysongs, much like what one might expect from folk music. Songs like “Piano Man” have a clear musical protagonist who tells a story and has something of a character arc. Joel appears to go autobiographical when he sings about the music industry with lines like “You’ve heard my latest record, it’s been on the radio / It took me years to write it, they were the best years of my life, / If you’re gonna have a hit you gotta make it fit / So they cut it down to 3:05” (“The Entertainer”) and the song is probably the best “hidden gem” for those who do not know most of Joel’s earliest works.

Many of the songs, though, are just emotional explorations of how relationships work. “Just The Way You Are” poetically embodies the feelings of love one might feel when they have found “the one.” With declarations like “I would not leave you in times of trouble / We never could have come this far / I took the good times, I’ll take the bad times / I’ll take you just the way you are” (“Just The Way You Are”) it is easy to see how Billy Joel became known around the world for great love songs.

Joel is known as well for upbeat, feel-good songs and “It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me.” Joel did lists songs remarkably well and when he wrote “Don’t waste your money on a new pair of speakers, / You get more mileage from a cheap pair of sneakers. / Next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways / It’s still rock and roll to me” (“It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me”) it sounded incredibly fresh. On Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II, Joel’s rhymes sound original and fun.

Ultimately, Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II is a good example of Joel’s popular works, but given that there are at least two more compilations that have all of these songs and more, it is impossible to recommend, despite being easy to enjoy.

For other Billy Joel reviews, please check out:
52nd Street
Glass Houses
The Nylon Curtain
An Innocent Man
River Of Dreams


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing.

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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