For owners of the various Billy Joel Greatest Hits collections Volumes I & II: 1973-1985 and Volume III: 1985-1997, Columbia’s The Essential Billy Joel seems, at first, to be superfluous. Released in that now fateful fall when everything we knew prior to September 11
vanished and the war on terror changed our lives and the way we see the world, this entry in the Essentials series could have been seen as just a record company’s transparent attempt to milk more cash from Billy Joel fans after the singer/songwriter’s retirement from writing eclectic adult-oriented pop/rock and his genre switch to classical music.
I own the three Billy Joel Greatest Hits “volumes,” not only in their mass-market “standard issue” jewel case versions but also in the Limited Edition Greatest Hits Collection boxed set, only of two CD boxed sets in my music library. (The other is The Star Wars Trilogy Soundtrack Anthology, a 4-CD set), so at first I resisted purchasing The Essential Billy Joel. My reasoning was, If I already own the “greatest hits” albums, why get more of the same?.
Then again, I own multiple albums of Star Wars related music, most of them being the various versions of the John Williams/London Symphony Orchestra Original Soundtrack albums from Star Wars: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.. While the various re-issues have essentially the same musical material, there are discernible differences, such as restored arrangements, revised track order, and bonus tracks of previously unreleased material, that make the decision to acquire them a lot easier to make…and to live with.
After doing a bit of soul-searching and dilligent research on the Internet, I discovered that although The Essential Billy Joel did, indeed, cover all-too-familiar ground (Piano Man (Disc 1, Track 1) was the obvious album opener), it did provide enough unfamiliar (to me, anyway) songs to justify adding it to my Billy Joel collection. I had never heard You’re My Home (Disc 1, Track 2) or Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out on Broadway), and although I had purchased Fantasies & Delusions, Joel’s classical piano album, I hadn’t yet opened that CD, so I was pleased when I saw that Waltz #1 (Nunley’s Carousel) and Invention in C Minor were included on Disc 2 (Tracks 17 and 18).
Another factor that influenced my decision to get The Essential Billy Joel – aside from the fact that it would be more convenient to take the two-disc set along on trips rather than either the three or four discs of Greatest Hits – was the correction of a sin of omission on the part of the producers of Volumes I & II, which had almost all my favorite songs except Honesty (Disc 1, Track 12), which is one of my favorite songs from 1978’s 52nd Street. I realize that there is only so much space on a CD to squeeze in a finite number of songs, but I always preferred Honesty, with its bittersweet melody and poignant lyrics (Honesty is such a lonely word/Everyone is so untrue…) to Captain Jack (Disc 1, Track 3), which is well-written and sardonic but not my usual cup o’ musical tea.
I have to say this about the wide range and topicality of his songs: I admire Joel’s uncanny ability to write such an eclectic variety of songs; he can tackle any topic, ranging from autobiography (Piano Man), the foibles of love (An Innocent Man, She’s Got a Way), a father’s love (Lullabye), Vietnam (Goodnight Saigon), Cold War politics and history (Leningrad, We Didn’t Start the Fire), and even spiritual matters (The River of Dreams).
Obviously, if you include some “greatest hits” songs in a two-disc album that covers a 28 year span of time, there will be some necessary casualties, and most of us Joel fans had to accept the omission of Scenes From an Italian Restaurant – which is one of my five Top Favorite Billy Joel songs, along with Piano Man, An Innocent Man, Goodnight Saigon, and Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel).
I’m not the only listener who noticed Brenda and Eddie’s absence; indeed, one of the “professional” reviews I read in ’01 started with: “A compilation of Billy Joel’s greatest hits without Scenes From an Italian Restaurant?” (Or something along those lines!) It’s only one minor quibble, though, because the inclusion of Honesty and several really nifty songs that I’d never heard before more than made up for that song’s absence. (Besides, I have Scenes From an Italian Restaurant on two CDs!)
All in all, The Essential Billy Joel is an enjoyable album, even if it overlaps with the pricier Greatest Hits “Volumes.” It’s a great “take along on a trip” compilation, and for listeners who haven’t heard any of Joel’s previous offerings, this is a perfect sampler of some of the Piano Man’s best songs.
The Essential Billy Joel: Track List
(* indicates “Personal Favorite”)
1. Piano Man *
2. You’re My Home
3. Captain Jack
4. The Entertainer *
5. Say Goodbye To Hollywood *
6. Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway) *
7. New York State of Mind *
8. She’s Always A Woman *
9. Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)
10. Only the Good Die Young
11. Just The Way You Are *
12. Honesty *
13. My Life *
14. It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me *
15. You May Be Right *
16. Don’t Ask Me Why *
17. She’s Got A Way *
1. Goodnight Saigon*
2. An Innocent Man *
3. Uptown Girl *
4. The Longest Time*
5. Tell Her About It *
6. Leave a Tender Moment Alone *
7. A Matter of Trust *
8. Baby Grand – (with Ray Charles)
9. I Go To Extremes *
10. We Didn’t Start The Fire*
11. Leningrad *
12. The Downeaster “Alexa” *
13. And So It Goes *
14. The River of Dreams *
15. All About Soul – (remix) *
16. Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)*
17. Waltz # 1 (Nunley’s Carousel) *
18. Invention in C Minor *