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2020 Album Draft- Round 12- Pick 5- Compilation- Dave A Sound Day selects- Billy Joel- The Essential Billy Joel.

So, “compilation” albums…but no box sets. The best ofs and greatest hits, the quick summations of a career on one (or two) easy records or CDs. A concept I’ve always liked. Which I realize puts me quite at odds with some of the other writers here, which is fine. To me, there are some types of greatest hits compilations which make eminent sense.

For example, ones by acts which were always singles-oriented. Let’s face it, pre- Pet Sounds and Revolver , a lot of artists concentrated on just that jukebox-ready single and rushed to put eight or nine other tracks onto the LP, which was an afterthought. I’m thinking of you, early Motown, though the Supremes or Four Tops were a long way from unique in that category.

Then there are the one-hit wonders, or two-hit wonders. In some cases, they deserved better fates, but in some cases, well… no offence intended Jack Hues, but does anyone really need seven Wang Chung albums at this point? Probably one Best Of will dish up all that most of us will really feel like listening to more than once or twice a decade. In a similar vein, there are artists who were prolific and put out some great albums but maybe just don’t appeal to me as much as they do to some others. I don’t dislike Styx, for example, but might not go out and buy The Grand Illusion or Kilroy Was Here . But if I’m walking through Walmart and see a greatest hits of their in a $4 bin, it could be a sale.

. Then there are even the ones that might be worthwhile if they’re redundant in one’s collection (my pick today is close to that category but not exactly). The opposite of the last area, some bands or singers you like so much you want all their work. But sometimes it’s good to the real core hits on one disc for times when you can’t be shuffling around records or CDs that much… a Beatles compilation is handy for a half hour drive around the city, for example.

For me, I have a bigger percentage of these sorts of albums in my collection for another reason. Largely budgetary. I once had a pretty large collection of CDs with a fair number of LPs and singles still from the ’70s and first half of the ’80s; alas, I lost almost all of them a bit over a decade back. C’est le vie. So, I’ve been dealing with trying to rebuild my collection since and I don’t usually have the spare cash to just go wild in a record store and haul home a cartload at a time. (Then again,where would I find a record shop these days anyway?). So sometimes a Best Of is not my dream album for an artist but is better than nothing.

All that said, it made it really difficult for me to narrow it down to one pick. I ended up with about five strong contenders, artists whom I’d really like to have a selection of along with me. Run-sew-Read narrowed it down by one by picking Gordon Lightfoot, which left me with a trio of greatest hits’ I listen to start-to-finish routinely. Shout outs to Atlanta Rhythm Section, Squeeze and Howard Jones. But to me, I really would want some Piano Man with me on that island so my pick is-

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The Essential Billy Joel . A 2001 double-CD best of that covered more or less Joel’s entire career. Three dozen tracks starting with “Piano Man” and running through to a couple of interesting classical instrumentals from his 2001 concerto Fantasies and Delusions. In between, pretty much all of his hit singles (“Just the Way You Are”, “Only the Good Die Young”, “You May Be Right”, “Allentown”, “Uptown Girl”, “The Longest Time”, “A Matter of Trust”, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and so many more) plus some of his better album tracks or lesser-known singles like “Say Goodbye to Hollywood”, “ Baby Grand” – a duet with Ray Charles – and “New York State of Mind.” Now a diehard fan could definitely split hairs and find a worthy song or two not included – “You’re Only Human” comes to mind – or an album track that you especially like that’s omitted, but it’s a pretty solid collection that captures most of the high points of his great career.

I’ve always liked Billy’s music right back to when I first heard the piano and harmonica- laden story of “Piano Man” on radio as a kid; I got The Stranger and 52nd Street on LP I think with my first package from Columbia House when I was a tween or young teen around the beginning of the ’80s and filled in the collection right through his under- rated The Bridge in the late-’80s. There was a time when he was in vogue and I liked him, then there was a time when he was very “uncool” but I’d still listen to Glass Houses or An Innocent Man right in between say Depeche Mode and Bauhaus. Once (or if) this pandemic ever goes away, seeing him in one of his monthly Madison Square Gardens shows is somewhere on my bucket list. His song structure, voice, and story-telling always have appealed to me and there aren’t many artists around whom I would enjoy hearing 30-odd tracks in a row from. Most of the ones who do fall into that category already have been picked by me for at least one album, so now’s Billy’s turn.

By the way, some might wonder why I chose this and not the more ubiquitous 1985 Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits . I mean, this album is triple platinum in the U.S. but his Greatest Hits is an astounding 23X platinum. Well, two reasons. First, we get more good tracks on this compilation. While the ’80s one did have “You’re only Human” lacking here, this one contains songs from albums after ’83 like The Bridge and River of Dreams . Secondly, I have found the quality of Greatest Hits to be iffy. I once had a copy which was fine but the last copy I bought a few years back was frankly lacking. It was poorly mastered, rather quiet in comparison to most discs and very muddy sounding. Little dynamic range. In contrast, I find the sound quality on The Essential to be top notch. Much like the music.


  1. I like his pop stuff more than when he tries to rock- I do like the fact after his last album in 1993- he said he had said all he had to say- and in the past 27 other than a classical album has kept his word. The Stranger- is my go to Billy Joel album.

    • i think you’re right, by and large he was a pop artist more than a rock & roll one, even if he didn’t quite acknowledge it. But some of his rock songs were good as well. Either way, a very good body of work over a fairly short span of years. I’d probably like to hear him do something new in the pop/rock world but I respect him NOT doing it if he’s not into it way more than some artists who keep on rolling out album after album long after they stopped having anything interesting to say or any new tunes to play.

    • It’s not a bad single but not one of his real greats. I like that it had tracks from The Bridge on it & ‘We didn’t start the Fire’…plus the good sound quality.

  2. When it comes to Billy Joel…I’m more of a singles guy with him…I would buy this in a heartbeat. I just checked out the tracklist… it has about everything I would want. Good pick Dave.

    • Thank you. I think I mentioned to you I almost put ‘An Innocent Man’ in my first 10…he has a great string of very good albums but perhaps no exceptionally great one. This kind of hits the high points.

  3. Enjoyed your write up. With the compilation picks, it’s interesting to see what other albums were in contention along with the chosen one. As much as I love upbeat sing-a-long music, which is Billy Joel’s forte, my favorites of his are Captain Jack, Goodnight Saigon and Leningrad. They are all on this compilation, so it would suit me just fine.

    • ‘Leningrad’ is 1 I’ve not listened to that much but it is quite good…the other 2 you mention are excellent & under-rated.
      I find a lot of people look down on the idea of ‘greatest hits’ so I wanted to explain my thinking on the subject in the piece.

    • I’m in total agreement with you on the value of ‘greatest hits’ compilations. It’s often the accessible first step to getting further into a band’s music. And then there was the migration from vinyl to tape to CD, and then Mp3. I’m betting most of us did not recreate our album collections in every one of those formats. I know I only bought duplicates of what I wanted to hear on a run or in the car, as you referred to. Compilations were perfect for that.

  4. Good to see Billy taken. I gravitate to his pre-Innocent Man stuff. Such an odd career for someone who can still sing and play piano as well as him to completely shut down the writing. As was suggested above, I guess that’s better than releasing a bunch of crud over the years if his heart isn’t in it.

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