22. Billy Joel, 52nd Street
52nd Street was undoubtedly the most highly anticipated album in the career of the man born William Martin Joel. After years of struggle, both with bands that were mismatched with his skill set (sometimes severely so) and a solo career that launched with an album so haphazardly produced that his vocals were infamously sped up on the pressed release, Joel had a major breakthrough with his 1977 offering, The Stranger. He’d had modest hits previously, most notably with the 1973 single that was his first to chart in the Top 40 and his eventual, inescapable signature song. The Stranger, though, was something different: a smash, surpassing Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water to become the best-selling album in Columbia Records history (a title it would eventually cede to Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., among others). With the follow-up, then, Joel had something to prove. It was his chance to show that The Stranger was no fluke.
Joel worked again with producer Phil Ramone, a relationship he’d inaugurated at the label’s suggestion on The Stranger (Ramone would actually produce every subsequent Joel album up to 1986’s The Bridge). Rather than try to strictly duplicate their success, Joel and Ramone pushed for the more musically complex album that their success snatched them the opportunity to make with necessary time and studio resources. 52nd Street wasn’t revolutionary, but it did exhibit Joel’s compunction for more intricacy in his music, expanding past his pop instincts to bring in clearly recognizable jazz elements, Latin rhythms, and even tinges of the classical training that was his foundation. That didn’t necessarily show up in the album’s hit singles–the jaunty “My Life,” the anxious stab at hard rock of “Big Shot,” and the wistful, stealthily cynical ballad “Honesty”–leaving it to be discovered by those who dug deeper into the lengthy grooves.
The first three tracks of the album rewarded those who wanted nothing more than what they’d heard on the radio, with the last cut on side one, “Zanzibar,” starting to stir the mix, hitting the listener with with an odd stop-start tempo and Joel manages to sing about both a seductive waitress and the way Pete Rose’s baseball accomplishments were consistently overshadowed by the attention rained down upon the New York Yankees. Then the whole second side is Joel flashing his range, from the jazzy come-on of “Stiletto” to the title cut that closes the album, with Joel giving it his best Ray Charles. If that threw off the listening audience, it didn’t show up on the sales chart, as 52nd Street achieved something that, for all its success, eluded The Stranger. It topped the Billboard album chart, the first time Joel managed the feat. Further, it went on to win the Grammy Award for album of the year, besting efforts from the Doobie Brothers, Kenny Rogers, Donna Summer, and Supertramp.
Whether or not 52nd Street decisively proved Joel was in for the long haul, he certainly made himself a lengthy, prosperous career, capped off by his inclusion among this past year’s Kennedy Center Honorees, about as high of a cultural award as the country’s got. Before long, he wasn’t spending a whole lot of additional time in the upper reaches of the college charts, though. Indeed for many student broadcasters, Joel was the epitome of what they were rejecting with every needle-drop on an album by the Clash or the Cure. Back in ’78, the guy was still cool enough for the left end of the dial.