I was a big Billy Joel fan growing up, oblivious to the fact that he was one the least cool "rock stars" in all of music. He wrote great pop songs, with lyrics that usually told a complete story. He was nearly unparalleled in the catchy hook department. Though never one of rock's greatest voices, in his prime his vocals were expressive and varied. And of course his piano playing has always been more exciting and inventive than much of what passes for musicianship in pop.
Like a total idiot, I went through a phase where I allowed the overall critical consensus to influence my tastes. Out went all my Billy Joel albums, including the rock solid ones like The Stranger and The Nylon Curtain. I parroted all the reviews I read that chastised Joel for writing social commentary songs that had no personal point of view. Some claimed that Joel had no right to pen songs about Vietnam ("Goodnight Saigon"), struggling fishermen ("The Downeaster Alexa"), or a great many other things, because he had never experienced them himself. Seriously, if that was an legitimate criticism there would be considerably less creative writing in general (and not just in pop music).
At some point I began thinking for myself again and reacquired a lot of Joel's catalog. The fact is, for twenty or so years, he was one of pop's most consistent singles artists. A good compilation of highlights (avoid the recent, skimpy single-disc The Hits) should be satisfactory for most people. The critical consensus that landed him a prominent spot in Jimmy Guterman and Owen O'Donnell's Worst Rock and Roll Records of All Time (1991) was simply too harsh. It is, however, worth noting that Joel's detractors do have some points. His attempts to actually rock out are often a bit stiff and unconvincing. Most of his albums (with a few exceptions) are loaded with filler. And he is derivative to a fault at times (Joel often sounds like many other artists, without anyone really ever sounding like Billy Joel).
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Joel simply stopped releasing new material. His final studio album of pop songs was 1993's River of Dreams. In addition to dabbling in classical composition, he has trotted out his formidable catalog of hits on numerous tours over the years. On July 16th and 18th, 2008, he played the final concerts at New York City's Shea Stadium. A compilation of these two historic shows has been issued on Blu-ray as, quite simply, Live at Shea Stadium. The two and a half hour show provides good evidence why the bad rap against Joel eventually melted away. He remains a very conventional, mainstream, middle of the road entertainer - but of a very high order. Though he barely moves from behind his piano, his performance is very tasteful and accomplished. His voice has seen better days, but the same can be said for any pop star his age.