Nov 23, 2021
By Austin Saalman
In celebration of Billy Joel’s illustrious career, The Vinyl Collection, Vol. 1 traces each release from his debut album Cold Spring Harbor to his first live compilation Songs in the Attic a decade later. By following the generous box set’s chronological order, the listener is able to trace the influential singer/songwriter’s evolution from starving Long Island pianist to Grammy-winning, internationally-acclaimed megastar, an intriguing tale told over the span of eight classic albums included in this collection.
Happily, The Vinyl Collection, Vol. 1 features not only Joel’s major works, but also lesser known pleasures, most notably those present among his pre-Stranger output. Offered as well is the previously unreleased double LP Live at the Great American Music Hall, 1975, a portrait of Joel’s extraordinary artistry just prior to claiming his status as musical royalty, along with a handsome 58-page book, rich with color photographs, lyrics, and Joel’s thoughtful reflections upon each work. In its hulking entirety, The Vinyl Collection, Vol. 1 is one of the year’s most significant reissues, a gift to both nostalgic fans and enthusiastic vinyl collectors alike.
Beginning with Cold Spring Harbor, released 1 November 1971, and celebrating its 50th anniversary, Joel’s oft-forgotten debut found the shaggy 22-year-old songwriter still shaking off the ’60s, resembling at times any one of the previous decade’s popular musical troubadours. Later-to-be-rediscovered favorites “She’s Got a Way” and “Everybody Loves You Now” showcase the same unique voice and melodic mastery that became characteristic of his later output.
Peaking at No. 158 on the Billboard 200, Cold Spring Harbor introduced select listeners to a burgeoning talent, but made few waves. An available copy became something of a rarity until Songs in the Attic’s inclusion of the aforementioned “She’s Got a Way” and “Everybody Loves You Now” renewed the public’s interest, resulting in Cold Spring Harbor’s 1983 remixed reissue. This album may be a comparatively minor entry in a sprawling catalogue, but there is plenty to enjoy in its unassuming, era-appropriate folk pop sensibility, Joel revealing himself as an emergent talent straight out of the gate.
Picking up where Cold Spring Harbor left off, 1973’s Piano Man continued to propel Joel toward professional success with its Dylanesque title track. The album features a myriad of his finest early compositions, including “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” “You’re My Home,” and “Captain Jack.” Joel, ever seeking to strengthen his abilities, explored a wider sonic scope that time around, most notably flirting with country rock. While Piano Man charted at No. 27 upon its release, its hit title track eclipsed all else, remaining a staple of mainstream radio to this day. This aside, more obscure tracks such as “Stop In Nevada” and “If Only I Had the Words (To Tell You)” are also worth listening to.
1974’s Streetlife Serenade possesses a wealth of color not only upon its quaint album cover, but within its temperate melodies and cinematic imagery. An improvement over its predecessors, Streetlife Serenade is more consistent as a whole. Joel adapted well to Los Angeles, where he lived from 1972 to 1975, as evidenced on “Streetlife Serenader” and “Los Angelenos,” the former being the album’s standout track. A particularly noteworthy number, “The Great Suburban Showdown” is a portrait of privileged disillusionment in 1970’s America, and “Root Beer Rag” displays his exceptional expertise as a pianist. One of his more experimental ’70s releases, Streetlife Serenade found Joel inching closer to the utter greatness he would realize in the next couple of years.
By far the finest of Joel’s early offerings, 1976’s Turnstiles celebrated his return to New York on the Ronettes-flavored opening track “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” and apocalyptic closer “Miami 2021 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway).” However, “Summer, Highland Falls” and “New York State of Mind” have always stood as Joel’s major accomplishments here. Soulful and concise, Turnstiles was received positively, something of a prelude to the following year’s The Stranger, which marked Joel’s ultimate turning point as both an artist and commercial act.
Released in September 1977, Joel’s fifth studio album The Stranger launched him into the international spotlight, climbing to No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and boasting Top 40 hits “Just the Way You Are,” “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” “She’s Always a Woman” (one of his top compositions), and “Only the Good Die Young.” The endeavor earned Joel two Grammy Awards, The Stranger becoming one of the most familiar releases of its decade. Atmospherically, the album is New York City through and through, with the epic “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” conjuring vivid imagery of Joel’s stomping ground, while the astounding “Vienna” may be the greatest song of his career. A landmark release of its time, The Stranger showed an even more daring and ambitious side to Joel, experimenting with a diverse range of sounds from pop and rock to jazz. It remains his crowning achievement and stands as the much-anticipated centerpiece of the collection.
1978’s 52nd Street indicated an abrupt turn from that which came before it, further embracing the often subtle jazz influences of his past, as well as dabbling in Latin, synth rock, and funk. 52nd Street was greeted with positive reception upon its release, universally seen as a worthy successor to The Stranger and featuring hits “My Life” and “Big Shot,” as well as the underrated “Rosalinda’s Eyes” and “Until the Night.”
Rounding out the collection are two live recordings, beginning with 1981’s Songs in the Attic—one of the greatest live LPs ever released. Joel, then an international industry icon, compiled 11 lesser known tracks selected from his first four albums and performed them during his 1980 Glass Houses tour in an attempt to acquaint new fans with his older material. In many instances, the renditions featured on Songs in the Attic usurped the original recordings, in particular “Miami 2021 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway),” “Summer, Highland Falls,” “You’re My Home,” and “Captain Jack.” Here, we find a snapshot of Joel in his prime, his performances burning with fresh energy often difficult to muster in the studio.
Live at the Great American Music Hall, 1975 is a treat for fans, many of whom will find themselves pleased by the high quality of the recording. As with the still superior Songs in the Attic, many of the tracks included on Live at the Great American Music Hall, 1975 possess a certain nuance not found on the studio versions, especially “Somewhere Along the Line,” “Roberta,” and breezy instrumental “The Mexican Connection.” Between songs, we hear Joel banter with the audience—referencing everything from Janis Joplin’s Cheaper Thrills to Rolling Stone’s dismissal of “Root Beer Rag”—his stage presence cloaked in good humor, and his band sounding phenomenal. Interludes consist of reinterpretations of “You Are So Beautiful,” “Benny and the Jets,” and “Delta Lady,” all of which work well for Joel. It is fascinating to witness him in ’75, pre-Grammy, pre-Christie Brinkley, and pre-Madison Square Garden residency—a humble yet commanding performer on the cusp of massive success.
Billy Joel’s Vinyl Collection, Vol. 1 is a much-needed chronicle of one American master’s odyssey from obscurity to superstardom. Presumably, Vol. 2 will pick up with Glass Houses and continue on to 1993’s River of Dreams—Joel’s final rock album to date—in addition to whatever unreleased and bonus material that may become available in the interim. It is an exciting prospect, and a fresh reminder for fans old and new that Joel has left an assortment of gems beneath the better known hits, each album worth exploring in its own right. Kudos to Columbia and Legacy, for The Vinyl Collection, Vol. 1 is a solid, top-notch, and comprehensive treasury of some of modern American music’s most memorable tunes. (www.billyjoel.com)
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