Billy Joel – 52nd Street

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  • With a Triple Plus (A+++) Shootout Winning side one and a Double Plus (A++) side two, this copy had some of the best sound we have ever heard on this, Billy Joel’s best sounding album
  • We guarantee there is dramatically more space, richness, vocal presence, and performance energy on this copy than others you’ve heard, and that’s especially true if you made the mistake of buying whatever Heavy Vinyl pressing is currently on the market
  • 4 stars on Allmusic, Grammy award for Album of the Year, and Billy Joel’s best batch of songs, even better than The Stranger
  • “…he dazzles with his melodic skills and his enthusiastic performances… not only… one of the biggest-selling artists of his era, but one of the most enjoyable mainstream hitmakers”

In our opinion this is the Best Sounding album Billy Joel ever made, and when you hear these sides you’ll understand why.

We heard some amazing sound coming from the grooves of 52nd Street, but let’s give credit where credit is due — the recording and mastering engineers involved with this album. Jim Boyer and Ted Jensen can both take great pride in the SUPERB work they have done here.

What outstanding sides such as these have to offer is not hard to hear:

  • The biggest, most immediate staging in the largest acoustic space
  • The most Tubey Magic, without which you have almost nothing. CDs give you clean and clear. Only the best vintage vinyl pressings offer the kind of Tubey Magic that was on the tapes in 1978
  • Tight, note-like, rich, full-bodied bass, with the correct amount of weight down low
  • Natural tonality in the midrange — with all the instruments having the correct timbre
  • Transparency and resolution, critical to hearing into the three-dimensional studio space

No doubt there’s more but we hope that should do for now. Playing the record is the only way to hear all of the qualities we discuss above, and playing the best pressings against a pile of other copies under rigorously controlled conditions is the only way to find a pressing that sounds as good as this one does.

What We’re Listening For on 52nd Street

  • Energy for starters. What could be more important than the life of the music?
  • Then: presence and immediacy. The vocals aren’t “back there” somewhere, lost in the mix. They’re front and center where any recording engineer worth his salt would put them.
  • The Big Sound comes next — wall to wall, lots of depth, huge space, three-dimensionality, all that sort of thing.
  • Then transient information — fast, clear, sharp attacks, not the smear and thickness so common to these LPs.
  • Tight punchy bass — which ties in with good transient information, also the issue of frequency extension further down.
  • Next: transparency — the quality that allows you to hear deep into the soundfield, showing you the space and air around all the instruments.
  • Extend the top and bottom and voila, you have The Real Thing — an honest to goodness Hot Stamper.

The Best Sounding Billy Joel Album

Let’s go out on a limb together, shall we? The best pressings of this album sound much better than we ever imagined they would. That being the case, we have to give it Top Sonic Honors in the Billy Joel canon.

It’s certainly a step-up in class over The Stranger and Songs in the Attic. If there’s another Billy Joel album that sounds as good I’ll believe it when I hear it.

On the best copies of the album, the sound of the piano was solid, full-bodied, with both weight and warmth, just like the real thing. The copies of the album with a piano that sounded lean or hard always ended up having problems with the other instruments as well. (This should not be surprising; the piano was designed to be the single instrument most capable of reproducing the sound of an entire orchestra.)

Vinyl Condition

Mint Minus Minus and maybe a bit better is about as quiet as any vintage pressing will play, and since only the right vintage pressings have any hope of sounding good on this album, that will most often be the playing condition of the copies we sell. (The copies that are even a bit noisier get listed on the site are seriously reduced prices or traded back in to the local record stores we shop at.)

Those of you looking for quiet vinyl will have to settle for the sound of later pressings and Heavy Vinyl reissues, purchased elsewhere of course as we have no interest in selling records that don’t have the vintage analog magic of these wonderful originals.

If you want to make the trade-off between bad sound and quiet surfaces with whatever Heavy Vinyl pressing might be available, well, that’s certainly your prerogative, but we can’t imagine losing what’s good about this music — the size, the energy, the presence, the clarity, the weight — just to hear it with less background noise.

Not So Rare

We rarely do a shootout with less than eight or ten copies of a fairly common title such as this. Let’s face it, this is not a rare record. In fact, we often open sealed copies for such shootouts in hopes of finding copies with quiet vinyl. We crack them open, clean them up and start dropping the needle on them one by one. In the case of Billy Joel’s records, not a single one played better than Mint Minus Minus! That’s Columbia vinyl for you.

Track Commentary

The Track Listing tab above will take you to a select song breakdown for each side, with plenty of What to Listen For (WTLF) advice.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

The first two tracks on side one really tell you everything you need to know about the sound of the side. It’s all about balance.

Big Shot

Big Shot is a big, balls-out rock song that packs a lot of punch. Typically the problem you run into is compression. When you get too much compression, the top end becomes pinched and shrill. You can hear this on Billy Joel’s vocals in the verses and in the guitar solo during the outro. Most copies make those squealing guitar notes rip your head off. The best copies give you a full-bodied Billy Joel; if he doesn’t sound right, what’s the point? Next!

Also, listen to the cymbal crashes throughout the song. They should really sound like cymbals and not like someone making explosion noises through a walkie-talkie. (Believe me, this analogy hurts me too, but they can really sound god-awful on some pressings.)

Honesty

This is such a great album cut! The intro is an ideal test for dynamic contrasts and transparency. On the best copies the piano can really crescendo and throw its weight around. On the best copies I swear you can hear the foot pedals on the piano in action.

During the chorus, when he sings “…is such a lonely word…” it should not be spitty and grainy as is so often the case. On the more dynamic copies that line is loud, powerful and heartfelt, exactly the way he delivered it.

My Life
Zanzibar

Side Two

Stiletto

The horn intro is an immediate test; the sax should be breathy and rich or you in trouble, dawg. Also, listen to the finger snaps when the drums start. They should have a HUGE room around them. The more of the room you hear, the more resolution and transparency your copy has. (Sergio’s Mais Que Nada off the debut album has that same wonderful sound, and it’s key to the best copies of that album as well.) Fresh off the stamper sound? Hey, whatever gets you through the night.

Rosalinda’s Eyes

This intro is a great test for sound with its combination of somewhat quirky instruments. The Rhodes should be delicate and moody with lots of room around it. The bass needs body as well as sweetness higher up to make it sing while interplaying with the keys.

Finally, listen to the marimba and vibes – what a cool sound! They should be harmonically extended up top to give the intro the life it needs to get the track going. Later on in the song you shouldn’t have to strain to hear the vibes; on the best copies they are perfectly placed a bit back in the soundfield, complementing the ensemble feel of the track.

Half a Mile Away
Until the Night
52nd Street

AMG  Review

Once The Stranger became a hit, Billy Joel quickly re-entered the studio with producer Phil Ramone to record the follow-up, 52nd Street. Instead of breaking from the sound of The Stranger, Joel chose to expand it, making it more sophisticated and somewhat jazzy. Often, his moves sounded as if they were responses to Steely Dan — indeed, his phrasing and melody for “Zanzibar” is a direct homage to Donald Fagen circa The Royal Scam, and it also boasts a solo from jazz great Freddie Hubbard à la Steely Dan — but since Joel is a working-class populist, not an elitist college boy, he never shies away from big gestures and melodies.

Consequently, 52nd Street unintentionally embellishes the Broadway overtones of its predecessor, not only on a centerpiece like “Stiletto,” but when he’s rocking out on “Big Shot.” That isn’t necessarily bad, since Joel’s strong suit turns out to be showmanship — he dazzles with his melodic skills and his enthusiastic performances.

He also knows how to make a record. Song for song, 52nd Street might not be as strong as The Stranger, but there are no weak songs — indeed, “Honesty,” “My Life,” “Until the Night,” and the three mentioned above are among his best — and they all flow together smoothly, thanks to Ramone’s seamless production and Joel’s melodic craftsmanship.

It’s remarkable to think that in a matter of three records, Joel had hit upon a workable, marketable formula — one that not only made him one of the biggest-selling artists of his era, but one of the most enjoyable mainstream hitmakers. 52nd Street is a testament to that achievement.

Heavy Vinyl Etc.

There is a new 180 gram pressing of the album, cut by Kevin Gray under the direction of Robert Pincus at the now defunct AcousTech Mastering. Side one is a joke (zero ambience, resolution, energy, etc.) but side two is actually quite good. Side two fixes the biggest problem with the album: hard, honky vocals.

But at a cost. It still sounds like a modern record, with not much in the way of space, transparency, richness, resolution and the like. You know, all that ANALOG stuff that old dinosaurs like us think our records should have.

For those of you who have thirty three dollars to spend, you could do a lot worse on side two. Side one is pretty bad and you would have a hard time doing worse.

One Last Thing

CBS Half Speed Mastered Mastersound Pressings just plain SUCK. They are way too bright. Don’t make the mistake of buying them if you are interested in better sound. If you own them get rid of them.

The Greater Fool Theory should work in your favor in this regard. No matter how foolish you may have been to buy them in the first place, there is always a fool greater than you to take them off your hands! Many of these fools can be found on Ebay. Audiogon is another good place to look. The fact that some audiophiles in this day and age are still buying such trash is astonishing to us, but that doesn’t make it any less true.