It’s Either Sadness or Euphoria: The 50 Greatest Songs of Billy Joel


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.



About Greg Olear

Greg Olear (@gregolear) is a founding editor of The Weeklings and the author of the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker, an L.A. Times bestseller.
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66 Responses to It’s Either Sadness or Euphoria: The 50 Greatest Songs of Billy Joel

  1. Becky Palapala says:

    Oh man. “Downeaster Alexa” was one of the first songs I can remember giving me chills. My dad had that album and I would make him play that song over and over and over until I was in such an emotional state, he would refuse to play it anymore.

    I get down with the sappy stuff for sure.

    And as a kid, I memorized “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” then sat down with my parents’ encyclopedias and looked up every. last. damn. thing.

    Billy Joel is a-okay by me.

  2. zoe zolbrod says:

    I always like hearing your analysis of my first favorite singer-songwriter, Greg. I had forgotten all about “Miami” until your post. Then I listened and was like: Of course!

    • The Editors says:

      Thanks so much, Zoe. Listen to the drums on that song. So so so good. They free the drummer from the studio and he goes to town.

  3. Marni Grossman says:

    I found myself nodding along aggressively at the analysis of “Piano Man.”

    I actually have “Piano Man” on my iTunes, as well as “For the Longest Time.” But I wouldn’t consider myself a Billy Joel fan. And it’s partly because “Piano Man”‘s lyrics smack of such self-satisfaction that you could choke on the fumes. Every time I hear the words “he knows that it’s me they’ve been comin’ to see,” I have an intense desire to shout at my computer, “fuck you, Billy Joel!”

    • The Editors says:

      I agree. And it’s a shame, because it’s such a part of the collective consciousness that the melody feels almost primal.

      Also: if the microphone smells like a beer, that’s on him.

  4. RBW says:

    Thanks for starting this fire, Greg. I am fond of geezer Joel. He’s released some crap, but so what? I’ll say this: when his daughter gets in trouble, it makes my heart hurt for him. I feel a connection. His music came to me at a crucial, impressionable time, and The Stranger, Glass Houses, and Piano Man constitute part of the soundtrack to some great memories, so I’m useless as a critic.

    That said, I’ve never bought a BJ record. But I rarely turn the songs off when they come on the oldies radio, in part because his band is pretty killer (Liberty DeVito in particular swings). And you are spot on about the melodies. The faux Italian of “Big Shot” is hard to take, but, like Elton and McCartney, the man’s melodies are deeply ear wormy and, quite often, downright lovely. Therein lies great power. Hip, schmip. He deserves whatever riches have rained down on him because of those melodies. It seems a simple thing to do, to conjure a sequence of notes that gets into millions of people’s bones – whether or not they want that – but it is no small thing.

    And another thing: the loathing for El Joel always strikes me as a form-over-content thing, i.e., other artists deemed “hip” by the cognoscenti have committed the same “sins” as Joel – questionable lyrics, pretensions, self-satisfaction – but because they’re in lower tax brackets, they’re not taken to task. Anyone that successful is going to get slagged, in part because of that very success. I find that tiresome. Listen: if Jagger sang “she’ll promise you more than the Garden of Eden, she’ll carelessly cut you and laugh while you’re bleedin” on Beggar’s Banquet, people would think it’s genius.

    • The Editors says:

      1. Liberty rules. Rules.
      2. Excellent point re: Jagger, although that guy is UNDERrated as a lyricist, it says here.
      3. Hip, schmip indeed!

      Thanks for reading and commenting, sir!

  5. jjdynomite says:

    One of Billy Joel’s appeals is his communal aspect. The melodies are so strong and the lyrics so, well, scrutable, that anyone can enjoy.

    Now 40, I grew up worshipping James Brown and the Beastie Boys.

    My late father was weaned on Brahms and the Beatles.

    We bonded over Billy Joel.

    I doubt I’m the only one.

    • The Editors says:

      Good point. Becky touched on that in her “Piano Man is America’s drinking song” comment. Even Rosenbaum, who wrote the “Worst Pop Song Eever” piece for Slate, cops to liking a few Joel tunes.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  6. J.M. Blaine says:

    I’m reading this new book from the 33 1/3rd people about why Celine Dion is despised. It’s psychologically deep.
    But now I think they should have done Joel first & Dion second.

    • The Editors says:

      I love those people, and they are Friends of the Site.

      But yeah, I’d love a GLASS HOUSES book, or THE STRANGER. Good call!

  7. Erica says:

    As a lifelong Billy Joel fan, I have been thinking about your thoughtful article and list for days, and I have two songs to add.

    [I would slash “Until the Night” (repetitive) and Leave a Tender Moment Alone (somehow skeevy to my ears) to make room for these.)]

    First, “I’ve Loved These Days.” It’s a nice adjunct to “Summer Highland Falls” — sure there are a few cheesy lyrics, but if “Goodnight Saigon” didn’t kill you, you can take it. “I’ve Loved These Days” is so damn beautiful.

    My second addition would be “Where’s The Orchestra?” It’s such a nice summation of what it’s like to feel unrecognized, and the little Allentown riff at the end is to die for.

    As for Billy Joel’s personality, I think just “bitter and angry” sells him short. We could probably derive a diagnosis of manic depressive directly from his lyrics (Hello “I Go To Extremes”) but I just adore that aspect of his music — the hyper and the morose laid out together for our enjoyment. He also has a surprising sense of humor.

    Anyway, thank you for creating a forum for this conversation! Love it!

    • Scott says:

      Nice comments Erica. I’ve been following Billy moods and interviews closely for years, but in particular the last 2, as he’s back on tour! His moods do run all over and sometimes you’re not sure if you seeing the same person! Irascible, sardonic, humble, in-love, hilarious, plus he’s a great mimic. We are all complicated, but he just happens to be a lot more public with a boatload of talent. Check out his recent town hall when you have the time: :)

  8. The Editors says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Erica, and for reading/commenting.

    “I’ve Loved These Days” is pure subjectivity. I’ve just never dug that song, although my wife, for one, does. It and “Los Angelenos” are the only two tracks on Songs in the Attic not on my list. But it’s not a bad song.

    “Where’s the Orchestra?” was on my short list, along with “Souvenir” and “Mexican Connection” and “Vienna” and one or two others, that just didn’t make the cut. But I do like the song a lot.

    I wish he were funnier more lyrically. I think it would have served him well.

  9. C. Tollefsen says:

    Been listening to the Billy Joel Channel on SiriusXM. Heard so many of his works that I never knew existed. Everyone has a top 10 or 40 or 50 list. Enjoyed the master class sessions on the channel. Interesting to hear his reasons why he wrote certain songs.

    I’ve worked with several Vietnam Vets and Goodnight, Saigon had just the right lyrics for those who lived through it. Didn’t hear the version on the Russian concert but didn’t hear any drunken chorus on the others either. Good background on why and for who he wrote it during other concerts and the master class excerpts.

    I have several friends who are Bipolar and at least three of the songs relate to that. Summer, Highland Falls (in concert he mentioned this is for all the manic depressives out there). I go to extremes is another and probably You may be right. In one segment he talked about Bipolar and creativity.

    I don’t take the critics view of his music, just how it may or may not relate to me. So if a song is written years after another with a 180 take on the subject, well, we all get older and change our minds.

  10. Erica says:

    C., I agree that “Goodnight Saigon” in general is a wonderful song, and at several concerts I saw him bring up a group of vets to sing it with him — so clearly it has endorsement from those who laid down their lives for their country in Vietnam. It’s just that he makes a few strange lyrical choices that make me grind my teeth, “tameless horses” for example, isn’t even a real thing. I know Billy Joel is capable of better. Or maybe I’ve just been a victim of too many writing workshops!

  11. Mike says:

    I am a huge Billy Joel fan and have been since I heard “For the Longest Time” on top 40 radio in 1984. Seen him many times in concert.

    I don’t agree that he still quite so reviled by many critics. He had that phase certainly (Rolling Stone bashed most of his albums save “The Stranger” until “The Nylon Curtain” in 1982. They gave him good notices from then out).

    I am surprised you call “52nd Street” forgettable. You may not like it, but it was the followup to “The Stranger” and won a Grammy for Album of the Year, I think. Tons of concert mainstays on it: “Big Shot,” “My Life,” Honesty,” “Stiletto.”

  12. MoroccoMole says:

    List pieces are designed to make you enraged over the inclusions and the exclusions, so mission accomplished, but this is a pretty terrific compendium, and you masterfully capture the love/hate relationship many of us have with these songs (and the singer-songwriter). That said: no love for “Stiletto” or “Don’t Ask Me Why”?

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  18. Jeffo says:

    The simple explanation for the cloying nature of Joel’s lyrics is this: he constantly addresses the listener in a second person point of view.

    • An Entity With Which You Are Unfamiliar says:

      Big Shot, She’s Always A Woman, Everybody Loves You Now (emphasis on the YOU in the title), My Life, Stiletto, Honesty, A Room Of Our Own, You’re Only Human (Second Wind), You May Be Right, You’re My Home, etc. In all these songs the narrator, played by Billy Joel, refers to the subject in the second person. Now, it doesn’t bother me, per se, but it definitely led me to a realization about his works. What the realization was, I don’t know, but I do know that he uses “you” a lot. It’s Just A Minor Var- er, detail, but a detail nonetheless.

  19. Carolyn says:

    I know you had “Vienna” on your short list, but I would put it in my top 10. I think it’s one of his “perfect” songs, both lyrically and melodically. Also, while I appreciate Captain Jack’s musicality, I think it goes on for too long; the verses are a bit too monotonous for me, and I don’t think it should be anywhere near the top 5. And I’d swap “She’s Always a Woman” and “You May Be Right.” Nothing cheesy, IMO, about the former.

    • The Editors says:

      “Vienna” is a bit too direct for me, although I understand why people like it. You’re right that “Captain Jack” is perhaps a verse too long, although one could make the argument that this was intentional, designed to simulate the boredom of his non-high moments. (Thinking). Actually, one could not make that argument. Never mind.

      Thanks for reading!

  20. Adam Sarp says:

    This article destroys itself. All you do is bash half of these songs, which you actually know nothing about. Like Scenes From an Italian Restaurant? That is not just “three songs cobbled together.” It’s a conversation he’s having with a friend at his favorite italian restaurant. You should maybe do a little more research before just writing off his songs as something that they are not.

    • M. Less says:

      Actually, Scenes from an Italian Restaurant was quite literally cobbled together from what was initially intended to be 3 separate songs. During production of the album they decided to meld them together to make one epic length, multi-part piece.

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  22. M. Less says:

    I’ve never been a huge Billy Joel fan. I think Captain Jack is a great song and there are a few other songs of his that I like. Most of his ‘classic’ material however I regard as just OK. He quite dramatically jumped the shark with “An Innocent Man” however. “Tell Her About It” and “Uptown Girl” are shallow, soulless 80s pop. And he only got worse after that.

    To each his own of course (I’m nota lookimg to start a flame war here).

    The reason I’m posting however is that I’m curious what Billy Joel fans have to say about his looks. He is frequently described as being physically unattractive.

    I don’t get that at all. Sure, NOW he looks terrible. But he’s 65 years old, overweight, and whatblittle hair he does have is grey.

    However, he never struck me as being particularly unattractive in his prime. I always imagined women wouod have found him attractive. If this was said about Elvis Costello or Elton John I could understand.,In fact, with the exception of Paul McCartney, none of The Beatles were partiuclarly good looking. But I really don’t get why Billy Joel was considered especially unattractive. It seems to me that in his prime, aside from being a bit on the short side, he was a pretty good looking guy. No James Dean perhaps but certainly no Lyie Lovett either.

    He never really struck me as being terminally ‘uncool’ either. There was a period there in the 70s when he seemed to be trying to effect a sort of Brooklyn Italian persona/look, which was mildly annoying, but not even close to the most annoying thing many celebs do. I guess that would be him “trying too hard” to look cool?

    I did see this old clip of him performing “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” which was painfully cheesy. He was acting out the words he was singing, making hand gestures and other motions corresponding to the lyrics. He would make a gesture to indicate his tie being too wide tie and point to his pants when singing “bright orange pair of pants” etc. That was hard to watch. You’d never catch Sting doing that.

    I’m curious what others have to say about Joel supposedly being ‘ugly’? Was he? I don’t see it.

  23. Mark B. Spiegel says:

    I just came across this and think it’s terrifically on point– I know of no other singer-writer who has written both so fantastically (almost everything on “Songs in the Attic”) and so horribly (“Just the Way You Are” being the “almost”). And in that light, I have to agree with the previous commentator who noted the absence of “I’ve Loved These Days” which– in my opinion– is unquestionably a top-five Joel song.

  24. Krissy R says:

    I too am confused about “Brenda and Eddies” marriage. Can a marriage really go that bad in 2 months? I mean, nowadays yah maybe, but the 70’s? They were a long time couple not people who met in Vegas and married in 2 days…

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  26. An Entity With Which You Are Unfamiliar says:

    It’s uncanny how greatly our opinions differ. If it starts with a Billy and ends in a Joel, you have my attention. Yes, many songs on this list do deserve their ranking, but songs like Until The Night and The Downeaster Alexa deserve much better in my opinion. I think that The Nylon Curtain deserved as much love as Songs In The Attic did. Y’know, a little more A Room Of Our Own and Laura. And I’m just going to put it out there: 52nd Street is by no means forgettable. Sure, 52nd Street and Rosalinda’s Eyes are easily dismissed, the latter being an unwanted surprise, much like Joel’s history in automotives, and the former being a pleasant but ultimately superfluous addition, like eating Thanksgiving leftovers the day of. But aside from those two, I have no quarrel with the album, in fact, I feel it’s second only to The Stranger. I’d rank its songs like this: Until The Night/Half A Mike Away, Big Shot/My Life, Stiletto/Honesty/Zanzibar, 52nd Street, and Rosalinda’s Eyes. Overall, you bring up many great points and have changed my negative opinion on She’s Always A Woman. I thank you for this. Thank you for sparing your time to read.

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  29. Jochen Ed. says:

    I’ve loved BJ for all of my music listening age and I fully agree that his lyrics range from emarassingly cheesy to outright brilliant. That can by said about Bernie Taupin’s body of work as well.

    He’s the grandchild of German-Jewish merchants, who could flee from the Nazis. with many less fortunate relatives ending up in Auschwitz. Cleverly picking up the business via his Nazi connections was Josef Neckermann, Germany’s post-war catalog retail and tourism magnate. German TV had the idea of confronting Neckermann’s grandchildren with Billy. I still cringe at their efforts to portrait old Neckermann as a victim of circumstance instead of the obvious criminal collaborator he was. Billy seemed unable to even try to make a stand against such historical ignorance and self-deception.

    So “Vienna” is as close as he ever let the family trauma get into his work. His public history starts when the fire was burning in the fifties. Vienna, the very ground zero of antisemitic theory and practice, was his fathers destiny as a classical conductor. I bet it was a very controversial choice in the Joel family.

    So obviously excluding the real demons lurking, he became this acute observer with what I feel is a satirical side. He must have laughed to himself, penning “instant pleasure dome”. So the “Downeaster Alexa” is a far as he let himself explore his personal emotions in his songs, carefully wrapping them in metaphor.

    So being German and seeing that this nation managed to cut it’s own cultural heart out with the Holocaust, I’m glad that this emigrant son has returned so much musical enjoyment. He deserves his place with the other Jewish musical greats I admire, the Paul Simons, Donald Fagans and Leonard Cohens.

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  33. Stasia says:

    I saw him in concert in 1980, the year I graduated high school. Just the Way You Are was the senior prom theme. After Glass Houses, I didn’t pay as much attention to him. (Springsteen never got old!)
    Hearing Ben Platt sing Vienna in The Politician reminded me of how much I loved The Stranger. The King Singers arrangement of And so it Goes is beautiful, I have sung it in choral performances. Thank you for this!

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    Traditionally, couples in Russia don’t wait for greater than two years before getting married, and many of them are tying the knot even after six months of courting. But, of course, it is only generalization as there are a lot of couples which can be dwelling together without ever becoming officially married, as well as there are ones that marry after a number of days of realizing one another. Most ladies living in certainly one of the foremost cities, like Moscow or St. Petersburg, are pretty fluent in English. If you truly like one another, it will not take a lot time and effort to beat them. While Russian girls recognize when guys behave like gentlemen and act powerful as rocks, they’re also able to taking good care of themselves with out waiting for his or her knight in shining armor to resolve their issues for them. That is dictated each by practical reasons and the desire of Russian women to provide as a lot attention to their kids as attainable. There have been times when three and more children have been considered the norm in Russia.

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