MUSIC HAS NO superstar more polarizing than William Martin Joel. In 1993, when he retired from making records after River of Dreams, he’d moved more units than any solo artist except for Elvis Presley. Two decades later, he remains high on the leaderboard, bested only by the likes of Michael Jackson, Elton John, and Garth Brooks. The guy’s sold 150 million albums. And yet people—critics at the big magazines, almost to a man; bloggers of more discriminating musical taste; lazy comics seeking easy punchlines—revile Billy Joel. They detest him on an almost visceral level.
Here’s Ron Rosenbaum, writing in Slate: “Why does [Joel’s] music make my skin crawl in a way that other bad music doesn’t? Why is it that so many of us feel it is possible to say Billy Joel is—well—just bad, a blight upon pop music, a plague upon the airwaves more contagious than West Nile virus, a dire threat to the peacefulness of any given elevator ride, not rock ‘n’ roll but schlock ‘n’ roll?” This from an essay with the oh-so-subtle title, “The Worst Pop Singer Ever.”
And Rosenbaum isn’t some hipster on the make, baiting for clicks; he’s a serious fellow who writes about art and literature and politics, who has produced books about Shakespeare and Hitler and nuclear holocaust. And he feels about listening to “Allentown” the way I felt reading The DaVinci Code: physically repulsed by its sheer awfulness—a Stendhal Effect in reverse.
That explains one man’s reaction, but not the overall paradox of an artist so overwhelmingly popular garnering such uniformly shitty notices. Chuck Klosterman explained this beautifully in “The Stranger,” a long piece he wrote for the New York Times Magazine in 2002:
There are no lyrics from The Stranger as ridiculously melodramatic as the worst lines from Born to Run (”Just wrap your legs round these velvet rims/And strap your hands across my engines”), nor was Joel’s public posture any less organic or more calculated than that of the Sex Pistols. But guys like Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Rotten have a default credibility that Joel will never be granted….The problem is that Joel never seemed cool, even among the people who like him. He’s not cool in the conventional sense (like James Dean) or in the self-destructive sense (like Keith Richards), nor is he cool in the kitschy, campy, ”he’s so uncool he’s cool” way (like Neil Diamond). He has no intrinsic coolness, and he has no extrinsic coolness. If cool were a color, it would be black—and Joel would be kind of a burnt orange. The bottom line is that it’s never cool to look like you’re trying . . . and Joel tries really, really hard.
Joel is the highlight color of the cover of The Nylon Curtain for sure, but it’s more than that. Contributing to Rosenbaum’s Joel-induced nausea, I’ll wager, is the singer’s uncanny ability to ooze toxic-level cheesiness. It’s not just that Billy Joel isn’t cool; he’s the antipodes of cool: gooberdom personified.
Adding to the enigma is that he doesn’t present as a goober in real life. In every interview I’ve ever read with him, Joel comes off as bitter and angry. He’s pissed off a lot. He drops F-bombs. He’s combative, spoiling for a fight, like an abused dog. In print, he sounds like a punk-rock star. Yet he takes all that rage bottled up inside him, all that hurt and scorn and heartbreak and loss, and he sits down at the piano…and bangs out “Just the Way You Are.” How is that possible? It’s like he’s a creature from Greek mythology, cursed with fame and fortune and talent but the inability to use any of those things to successfully process his true emotions.
Klosterman is hardly the first writer to compare Billy Joel to Bruce Springsteen. I’ve done it myself. Both singers are products of unloved suburban sprawl beyond New York City. Both are solo artists who have maintained the same band for many years. Both have their die-hard detractors and their unabashed fanboys. Yet The Boss, as Klosterman observes, has more gravitas, more critical cachet. There’s just something more artful about him. As I wrote on The Nervous Breakdown years ago: “Imagine Springsteen covering ‘Innocent Man.’ Pretty good, right? But Joel doing ‘Thunder Road’ would invoke the wrath of the gods. Frogs would fall upon his Baldwin, the moon would turn blood red, the Whore of Babylon would reveal herself to be Christie Brinkley.”
And yet Joel is the superior virtuoso, and far and away the better composer of melodies. Springsteen—much as I love him—is more concerned with poetry than with melody line; his melodies exist to give voice to the lyrics he’s written. He’s more akin to Joni Mitchell than his compeer from Long Island. No, the closest analog to Billy Joel is the musical wunderkind he cites as a major influence: Paul McCartney. Remember, Sir Paul woke up one morning with the entire melody of “Yesterday” in his head. The most popular radio song of all time came to him in a dream. Joel has similar powers. The guy churned out pop song after pop song after pop song, all of them, even the clunkers, with strong melodies, for 22 solid years. Like McCartney, Billy Joel has an unfortunate fondness for the story song. And like McCartney, he’s sappy. The difference is that whenever McCartney went too far in the direction of schwarmerei, John Lennon was there to mock him, thus tempering this tendency. Billy Joel is Paul McCartney, if Paul McCartney spent his formative years in Oyster Bay, Long Island, and never met another Beatle.
But then, maybe Joel didn’t need a Lennon to his McCartney. Maybe what he needed was a Bernie Taupin to his Elton John. See, what people hate about Billy Joel aren’t his melodies, nor even the oft-schlocky arrangements devised by producer Phil Ramone. What people hate—what makes Ron Rosenbaum’s skin crawl—are the lyrics. Even I hate a lot of the lyrics, and I’m the guy doing the 50 Greatest Songs of Billy Joel list. There are moments in almost every song that make me cringe. They sit at the bar and put bread in my jar and say, “Man, what are you doing here?” She can’t be convicted, she’s earned her decree. They put an A-mer-i-can flag in our face. They gave us soft soap. You’re my castle, you’re my cabin and my instant pleasure dome. Cold beer! Hot lights! Those sweet romantic teenaged nights! [1. “It’s the vibrato,” my wife insists. “He has vibrato, and vibrato is not cool. He’s too musical theater.” Hmm. They did make a musical out of his songs.]
It’s not just the cheese factor, either. There’s something else at play, something that’s always bothered me intuitively about his words, and I think Rosenbaum has figured out what it is: Billy Joel’s lyrics exhibit “unearned contempt. Both a self-righteous contempt for others and the self-approbation and self-congratulation that is contempt’s backside, so to speak. Most frequently a contempt for the supposed phoniness or inauthenticity of other people as opposed to the rock-solid authenticity of our B.J.” For example in “Piano Man,” Rosenbaum explains, “you can hear Joel’s contempt, both for the losers at the bar he’s left behind in his stellar schlock stardom and for the ‘entertainer-loser’ (the proto-B.J.) who plays for them.”
I don’t disagree, although the effect is not sufficient to lure me over to the other, hipper side.[2. “You’re doing 50 Joels?” our own Sean Beaudoin said, when told of my little project. “I may have to take a vacation in Detroit the week that comes out.”] But it does leave me conflicted. As a Billy Joel fan, I’ve always been conflicted. He’s not just polarizing in the sense that people either love him or hate him—he’s polarizing in the sense that the same person can both love him and hate him at the same time. No wonder he’s been married three times!
And that’s the challenge to making a list like this: the best Billy Joel songs are the ones in which his sublime melodies are not saddled with egregiously awful words. Once he starts invoking waiters in sad cafés, the gig is up. He’s capable of writing great lyrics—seriously, he is!—but it doesn’t happen very often. This was a major criterion in compiling this list. Otherwise, it’s completely subjective. If your quibble with my ranking of the songs is that I’m trying to be cool, let me remind you that this is a list of the 50 greatest Bill Joel songs, and its Klostermanian color matches the subheading bar at the top of this page. Coolness has no place here. With that in mind, I welcome feedback. Or, put another way, it’s no big sin to stick your two cents in if you know when to leave it alone.
Honorable Mention: “We Didn’t Start The Fire” | Storm Front (1989)
This song has always been a guilty pleasure, mostly because its recitative of historical events is chronological, which came in handy when I took my AP history test. The video, featuring a kitchen that evolves with the times, is Mad Men-esque, but for the presence of the dark-sunglassed BJ and the fire. I didn’t put it on the list because my wife said, “No, you cannot have that song on the list. It’s terrible!”
50. “Uptown Girl” | An Innocent Man (1983)
I loathed this song, one of his biggest hits, when it was released, but I’ve come to appreciate it. He was trying to write something in the style of Frankie Valli. Mission accomplished.
49. “Pressure” | The Nylon Curtain (1982)
The creepy, creaking organ line really is a fine musical approximation of pressure. But lyrically, in the ninth, two men out and three men on, Joel, like the mighty Casey, strikes out.
48. “Nocturne” | Cold Spring Harbor (1971)
A pretty instrumental from his debut album. Cold Spring Harbor features ten really solid songs. Unfortunately, a technical glitch raised his already-too-high voice, making him sound like a castrato on the entire record (“chipmunkesque,” Klosterman calls it). Can you imagine finally getting to record an album with a big studio, and then being humiliated that it exists because of a fuck-up in the mastering process? Perhaps all of his anger originates with this. It certainly didn’t help his standing with critics.
47. “Surprises” | The Nylon Curtain (1982)
The Nylon Curtain is when Joel trades in his McCartney for his Lennon, and attempts to get all second-side-of-Abbey-Road-like. It’s not totally successful, but it’s interesting to hear him try.
46. “Laura” | The Nylon Curtain (1982)
Odd little number from his weirdest album, and the only track in which he says the f-word.
45. “Downeaster Alexa” | Storm Front (1989)
Suffers in retrospect from lousy production values. Features a “fiddle” part by “The World Famous Incognito Violinist,” believed to be Itzsak Perlman.
44. “She’s Right on Time” | The Nylon Curtain (1982)
A largely forgotten track, but he made a video for it.
43. “Somewhere Along the Line” | Piano Man (1973)
This was the anchor song in his early live sets. The lyrics are a bit simplistic, but they aren’t contemptuous, and I like the way the drama builds.
42. “Stop in Nevada” | Piano Man (1973)
Story-song about a woman who breaks out of an abusive relationship. Could almost be a country song.
41. “The Great Suburban Showdown” | Streetlife Serenade (1974)
A young man returns home for the holidays, and loathes the experience, vows never to return. If it was performed by someone else, anyone else, it would be a big radio hit, but there’s something off about the tone somehow.
40. “I Go to Extremes” | Storm Front (1989)
A musical ode to bipolar disorder, a complaint from which he may well suffer.
39. “Until the Night” | 52nd Street (1978)
Fine, dramatic track buried on a forgettable album.
38. “Close to the Borderline” | Glass Houses (1980)
Watch out! He’s losing his mind! He may be crazy! It just may be a lunatic singing this song!
37. “Streetlife Serenader” | Songs in the Attic (1981)
Gorgeous piano part, killer guitar solo (!), solid drum work. With a few exceptions, the first few BJ albums, Turnstiles especially, sound like demo tapes. Songs in the Attic is where he took the band on the road and recorded the best of the tracks from those early years, and all of the lives versions are much, much better. If you own Turnstiles, please destroy it.
36. “Big Shot” | 52nd Street (1978)
Let’s be honest: her Halston dress is pretty impressive.
35. “Just the Way You Are” | The Stranger (1977)
Michael Jordan was asked years ago to endorse a Democratic candidate in his native state of North Carolina who was running against the odious Jesse Helms. He declined, giving the (perhaps apocryphal) explanation: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” I wonder if (easy) money is any consideration in Joel’s songwriting calculus—if he knows that a song with anodyne lyrics like “I don’t want clever conversation…I just want someone I can talk to” will generate more revenue than the same song with edgier lyrics. Does he imagine all the publishing money and default to cornball? Is he an egregious sell-out? Does he want to work that hard?
34. “Root Beer Rag” | Streetlife Serenade (1974)
Cute, fast-as-hell Joplinesque instrumental he recorded before he broke his wrist in the motorcycle accident (Note: if you are a professional piano player with a history of alcohol addiction, stay off the bike!). Root Beer Rag was the name of his fanzine.
33. “It’s Still Rock ‘n Roll to Me” | Glass Houses (1980)
Listening now, it reminds me of early Elvis Costello, of the call-and-response in “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes.” I know it’s cheesy, but I still like it. Bonus: it spawned the best Weird Al song you’ve never heard.
32. “You’re My Home” | Songs in the Attic (1981)
Per the liner notes, he wrote this song for his wife for Valentine’s Day in 1972. (Cue: “Awwwww.”)
31. “My Life” | 52nd Street (1978)
I always wondered what this would sound like if, say, Alice Cooper recorded it instead of Billy Joel, with requisite heavy guitars, and no one knew who wrote it. Would it still be dorky? I can’t decide. But one thing’s for sure: it would not have been used as the theme song for Bosom Buddies.
30. “Ballad of Billy the Kid” | Songs in the Attic (1981)
The live version of this one really kills. A historical song, a departure for him, and it works, especially because he shares the outlaw’s first name. The liner notes claim that the second “Billy” hailing from “a town known as Oyster Bay, Long Island” is not the songwriter himself, but a rather bartender who’s “still behind the bar in Oyster Bay.” Those liner notes were written in 1980. Let’s hope that guy’s moved on.
29. “Tomorrow is Today” | Cold Spring Harbor (1971)
Way back when, Billy thought about killing himself. He wrote a suicide note. He turned it into a song, a rare example of his lyrics actually corresponding to his genuine feelings. The break in this song where his voice gets low is chilling, a rare moment of raw power in his work.
28. “And So It Goes” | Storm Front (1989)
An old song he didn’t care enough about to put on an earlier record. Found its way on the end of this late release. Why did he withhold it? He’s the only one who knows.
27. “Big Man on Mulberry Street” | The Bridge (1986)
The horns work for me. I like that it’s a song about Little Italy, and that he tells us in the song where Little Italy is (“north of Hester and south of Grand”). Underrated.
26. “Allentown” | The Nylon Curtain (1982)
He tries to get all Springsteen on us, with mixed results. The actual town he’s talking about is Bethlehem, incidentally, but it didn’t fit into the rhythm of the song.
25. “Leave a Tender Moment Alone” | An Innocent Man (1983)
This one has grown on me over the years, and the title really works.
24. “Honesty” | 52nd Street (1978)
Joel’s longtime (and excellent) drummer and good friend Liberty DeVitto, legend has it, has made up dirty alternative lyrics to every BJ song. This song was written on tour, and the music predated the words by a few weeks. DeVitto had his alternative lyrics done before the real ones emerged. He called it “Sodomy.”
23. “Matter of Trust” | The Bridge (1986)
A comeback song of sorts. The version on the (vastly overrated) Russia album has an angrier guitar part than the studio version.
22. “The Stranger” | The Stranger (1977)
Title track from his breakthrough record. Love that whistle!
21. “The Entertainer” | Streetlife Serenade (1974)
Back to this business of the business of rock music: his whole working man’s ethos is right here. He has to keep churning out pop tunes, filling the coffers of his corporate overlords, or he’ll be “put in the back in the discount rack, like another can of beans.” And he can’t have that! Later, he talks about taking years to write a beautiful song, only to have the record execs “cut it down to 3:05” so it will be short enough to release as a single. Wanna guess how long the single version of “The Entertainer” is? Yup: 3:05.
20. “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” | The Stranger (1977)
When Anthony inherits the house his mother bought in Hackensack in 1977, he’s going to see that she did, in fact, get something for her money. (Note: I love that he used “Hackensack” as a rhyme. Huge bonus points for that).
19. “Prelude/Angry Young Man” | Turnstiles (1976)
Musically, one of his best compositions. But the words! The lame, pathetic words! Our “angry young man” is not some drunken lout venting his spleen at a sporting event, but rather a fellow with “working class ties” and “radical plans.” Joel is talking about an activist—in a song written in 1975 or earlier, probably one of the anti-war variety—and his message is, basically: don’t bother. “I believe I’ve passed the age of consciousness and righteous rage,” he sings (contemptuously, as Rosenbaum suggests). “I once believed in causes, too. Had my pointless point of view. Life went on no matter who was wrong or right.” Or, as Bart Simpson once said, paraphrasing Homer’s parental advice: “Can’t win, don’t try.” What a sad, sad worldview for a 24-year-old to espouse, right after Watergate and Vietnam.
18. “Travelin’ Prayer” | Piano Man (1973)
Opening track on the record, and a real beauty. Still a bit sappy, but there’s a sweetness beneath it all that shines through.
17. “Falling of the Rain” | Cold Spring Harbor (1971)
Sick piano part that sounds a bit like Elton John’s “Grey Seal,” although it’s actually the other way around, as this is older. There’s still the problem of him sounding a bit like Alvin, Simon, and Theodore, but all of the essential Joel components are here. This hints at what’s to come. This is the best of his songs that most people have never heard.
16. “She’s Got a Way” | Songs in the Attic (1981)
Liner notes: “Written in 1970, I still feel the same way.”[3. I’m quoting the liner notes from memory. In case there was any question of my being a dork.]
15. “Everybody Loves You Now” | Songs in the Attic (1981)
Another track rescued from the wreck of the Cold Spring Harbor and done to perfection on Songs in the Attic. Contains this rare lyrical gem: “Ah they all want your white body, and they await your reply / Ah but between you and me on the Staten Island Ferry…so do I.”
14. “Sometimes a Fantasy” | Glass Houses (1980)
Sneakily subversive, wryly funny, and about masturbation. So un-Joel.
13. “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” | The Stranger (1977)
A poll of die-hard Joel fans would rank this #1. Hear me out. It’s really three songs cobbled together. The first one (“A bottle of red…”) is kinda lame. The second one (“Things are okay with me these days…”) is pretty good. It’s only the Ballad of Brenda and Eddie that’s great. My only quibble: This greaser power couple, we are told, gets married “at the end of July” in ’75. Two months later, they are divorced. How did this happen? How did the money get tight so soon? Did they not get wedding gifts? And what do those paintings from Sears look like? I wonder also if the person he meets in the second mini-song (“You lost weight! I did not know…) is Brenda.
12. “Only the Good Die Young” | The Stranger (1977)
Gives us the best Billy Joel senior yearbook quote (“I’d rather laugh with the sinners than die with the saints; the sinners are much more fun.”), the best Billy Joel dance song (I remember dancing to this at a school dance in seventh grade), and the only Billy Joel song that tackles theology. What we never find out is if Virginia said yes.
11. “She’s Always a Woman” | The Stranger (1977)
Yeah, yeah, I know. Cheese central. I don’t care! The melody is just too damned good. And even though I’m not entirely sure what it means—or, perhaps, because I’m not—I’ve always loved the last lines: “The most she will do is throw shadows at you, but she’s always a woman to me.”
10. “Piano Man” | Piano Man (1973)
I’m sick of it, you’re sick of it, and Billy Joel is really fucking sick of it. He doesn’t even bother to sing it anymore; he lets the crowd do the honors. But if you’d never heard it before and turned it on, I mean, it’s a pretty great song: catchy, a tiny bit melancholy, with a nice waltz beat. Comment-board maven Becky Palapala once argued over at The Nervous Breakdown that this was America’s drinking song. I agree. So does Klosterman: “Drunk people will sing ‘Piano Man’ for as long as there are karaoke bars, so [Billy Joel] shall live forever.”
9. “Goodnight, Saigon” | The Nylon Curtain (1982)
The same guy who dismissed the entire anti-war protest movement, and causes in general, in “Angry Young Man” turns in this masterpiece about “my friends who went to fight in Vietnam,” as he explains to the Russians on his concert album. The lyrics are a hair too simple for my liking, with some of the lines sticking in my teeth. But the music is masterful, and the chorus, the drunken “We will all go down together”…I mean, that’s good shit.
8. “Innocent Man” | An Innocent Man (1983)
Written after listening to “Stand By Me” about 100 times in a row. Would be phenomenal if sung by Ben E. King. I love that little pause after the loud burst at the end…he’s arguing with her, and he’s about to lose it: “I guess you’d rather be a martyr tonight!” And then he shuts up, and he steps back, and the triangle comes in, and it’s like he’s taking a breath to defuse the situation, and then he’s back to singing gently: “That’s your decision, but…”
7. “All for Leyna” | Glass Houses (1980)
One of the few songs in which the age of the narrator is obvious. He’s teenager, and he’s hung up on a girl named Leyna, and he’s driving everyone around his nuts with his moping, and his father is yelling at him: “Stop! Kidding yourself, wasting your time.” Awesome keyboard intro. Theory: “Leyna” and “Virginia” are actually the same girl; he slept with her once, she spurned him, and he became obsessed with her.
6. “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” | Songs in the Attic (1981)
This one just motors along like a hot new Rent-a-Car.
5. “The Longest Time” | An Innocent Man (1983)
I love to sing this to my daughter as a lullaby. The first verse manages to evoke his love without being cheesy: “If you said goodbye to me tonight / There would still be music left to write / What else could I do? / I’m so inspired by you / That hasn’t happened for the longest time.” Sorry, folks, but that’s good stuff.
4. “You May Be Right” | Glass Houses (1980)
Billy Joel is supposedly a funny guy in real life. Why is he never, ever funny in his songs? Here we have the one exception. This is a perfect pop song: upbeat, really funny, and built around a simple idea: that she thinks he’s a nutjob. Her saying that is only implied, however; the whole song is a response to her insisting, “You’re crazy.” His counter—”It just may be a lunatic you’re looking for”—is perfect. Bonus points for the line about Bedford Stuy.
3. “Summer, Highland Falls” | Songs in the Attic (1981)
The monotonous piano line, he explains in the liner notes, is supposed to evoke the tedium of a long summer in a boring town. These are some of his best lyrics, mostly because he plays around with words and doesn’t overexplain everything. The binary, bipolar Joel is here, too, in full force: “It’s either sadness or euphoria,” he sings; we get the sense that it’s a lot more of the former.
2. “Captain Jack” | Songs in the Attic (1981)
The piano intro! The drums! The crackling guitar! The sick bass line! The band has never been better than it is here, at The Spectrum in Philly—the only place he ever plays the song, he says in the liner notes. He writes the whole thing in second person, successfully, and manages to use “masturbate” as a rhyme. Rosenbaum is right that there is contempt for the lazy, privileged, pot-smoking, jerk-off-happy heroin addict—that’s what “Captain Jack” is, heroin; the “push” is the plunger on the needle—but how else is he supposed to feel?
1. “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” | Songs in the Attic (1981)
My favorite song of all time, by any artist.[4. The live version. The studio version blows.] A sci-fi piece, in which a narrator living in Florida in 2017 recalls the destruction of New York by the federal government. Inspired by the famous Daily News headline: FORD TO NEW YORK: DROP DEAD. “New York State of Mind,” one of his worst songs, is often cited as a valentine to New York, but to me, that always rang false, like he was trying to write something they could play for tourists waiting in line at the Empire State Building. This is the true New York love song. Only when we watch something destroyed forever can we really appreciate how much we love it. That he wrote a song in 1976 that included the line “I watched the mighty skyline fall” is, of course, eerily prescient, and only adds to the majesty of this, the greatest Billy Joel song of all time.