This month, Billy Joel turned 75 years old. But even before that, 2024 was a momentous year for the Piano Man. In February, he released “Turn The Lights Back On,” his first original pop song in decades, and performed it as the ceremony closer at the Grammys. In April, he played his 100th concert at Madison Square Garden, and streamed it live on network television. While his profile doesn’t approach Taylor or Beyoncé — or even his own fame back in the 20th century — Billy is more back than he has been in ages.

Therefore, it seems like a good excuse to revisit the man’s catalog. Because there is a lot of relatively unexplored territory to cover! The paradox of Billy Joel is that he is one of the most famous songwriters in the world, with dozens of well-known hits that basically everybody knows. But at the same time, knowledge of his music beyond those hits — and the albums that contain that music — remains somewhat obscure in the general populace. We all know about “Piano Man” and “Uptown Girl” and “Just The Way You Are.” But deep cuts like “Zanzibar” and “Summer, Highland Falls” and “Sometimes A Fantasy” remain obscure to most non-Joel-heads.

There’s also the matter of Billy Joel’s checkered critical reputation. In the realm of singer-songwriters, he’s not put in the same class as Springsteen or Petty or Neil Young, even though he came out of the same era and has sold more records. His alleged lack of coolness is usually blamed for this, but it really comes down to how broad his songs are. (Also: Billy dated super models and toured Russia back in the ’80s — he’s cooler than you or I will ever be.) Accessibility remains his greatest blessing — and worst curse. But even if you think Billy Joel is corny, the man’s music remains deeply embedded in popular culture. And that stickiness speaks to his ability as an all-time pop craftsman.

Have you walked through Bedford Stuy alone? How about something even more thrilling? I’m not talking about riding your motorcycle in the rain. I’m talking about taking a trip through Billy Joel’s discography!

Let’s do this!

PRE PRE-LIST ENTERTAINMENT: LET’S TALK BRIEFLY ABOUT “WE DIDN’T START THE FIRE,” A SONG THAT IS NOT ON THIS LIST



A lot of people hate this song. One of those people is Billy Joel, who considers it one of his worst. But I do not mind “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it, either. If this list were 83 songs long, I would have included it.

“We Didn’t Start The Fire” is definitely — and defiantly — okay.

I understand why other people hate it. “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is a boomer apologia that absolves Billy’s generation of responsibility for the problems they ignored and exacerbated. (Global warming, the excesses of capitalism, the erosion of democracy, the slow destruction of the social safety net, Bill Maher’s comedy career, etc.) Ideologically, “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is annoying. Therefore, I do not support “We Didn’t Start The Fire” ideologically. But as music, my feelings lean positive.

Nostalgia has something to do with it. “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is the second track on 1989’s Storm Front, which was among the first tapes I stole from Columbia House Record Club as a pre-teen. (Stealing tapes from Columbia House was the Gen-X version of streaming music online.) Why did I like Billy Joel as a pre-teen? Because it was very easy music to like! Billy Joel was the embodiment of approachable and easy-to-understand art in 1989. He was like the training wheels of rock music. Though I didn’t think that way at the time. To me, Billy was edgy. When I was in the sixth grade, “We Didn’t Start The Fire” might as well have been a Bob Dylan protest song or a Howard Zinn polemic. It scanned as “important” music in my young mind. “JFK, blown away, what else do I have to say?” Nothing, Billy. Absolutely nothing. I am also blown away. Like JFK.

I don’t feel that way now, obviously. But I do appreciate how odd “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is. Does the rest of the world appreciate how odd “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is? It is inexplicable that this song has been streamed almost a half-billion times on Spotify. Because it’s not really a pop song, nor is it remotely typical.

Here is (what I assume) Billy’s methodology was when he created “We Didn’t Start The Fire”:

Start with this thought experiment: What if R.E.M.’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” was only the “Leonard Bernstein, Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce and Lester Bangs” part on repeat?

Figure out which famous astronaut rhymes with “heavy metal suicide.”

Do not write a melody. (“I know melody is my bread and butter,” Billy thinks to himself, “but what if it weren’t?”)

Hire the guitar player from Foreigner to produce.

Make a music video in which you turn over a table to express how angry you are about the cola wars.

In a vacuum, none of this is normal. It took Billy Joel to normalize it. Because Billy Joel wrote and performed “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” the public tricked themselves into believing it was a chart-topping pop song. That’s how much of a mind meld this man had with his audience from the late ’70s to the mid ’90s, when Billy Joel was our most normal abnormal middle-of-the-road pop behemoth.

PRE-LIST ENTERTAINMENT: MY TOP TEN SONGS I REGRET NOT PUTTING ON MY BILLY JOEL LIST

Inside baseball time: When I write these list columns, I like to think of them as essays that happen to be broken up by numbers. So I structure them in a certain kind of way where each entry builds on the next one, and over time certain overriding themes and arguments emerge.

I did the same for this Billy Joel list, and I did it with 40 songs. But as I was doing more listening and research, I started to panic. There were (at least) 10 other songs I wanted to include, but it didn’t fit with the structure I had already established.

So here we are. To put it in Billy Joel terms: This is the “Prelude” to the main list’s “Angry Young Man.”

10. “Modern Woman” (1986)



From The Bridge, described by Billy himself as “not a happy album.” Though you wouldn’t know it listening to “Modern Woman,” which sounds like the mean of every ’80s soundtrack song ever. It’s impossible to put “Modern Woman” on and not imagine Julia Roberts trying on a series of floppy hats. (It actually appears in the 1986 Danny DeVito/Bette Midler comedy Ruthless People, which I haven’t seen but I assume has at least one montage of “modern woman” Bette Midler acting in a ruthless fashion.) If I had put “Modern Woman” on the main list, I would have concocted a half-baked theory that this song helped to invent vaporwave.

9. “Uptown Girl” (1983)

Most Billy Joel thinkpieces are preoccupied with making a supposedly “revisionist” case for Billy Joel being good. I’m not interested in that. If you think Billy Joel sucks, I am not trying to persuade you to think the opposite. If the other 27 revisionist Billy Joel thinkpieces didn’t do it, this one won’t either.

What I am interested in is parsing the nuances of Billy-dom. For students of the man’s catalog, it’s possible to think that Billy is great and also that Billy sucks at the same time. And that is due to the divide between ’70s Joel and ’80s Joel. Those who make the case for Joel’s greatness tend to lean hardest on his ’70s material while downplaying the significance of his ’80s work, even though the latter songs are among his most famous.

To really parse the nuances: ’80s Joel does not begin with 1980’s Glass Houses or 1982’s The Nylon Curtain, which are typically grouped with “golden era” ’70s records like 1976’s Turnstiles, 1977’s The Stranger, and 1978’s 52nd Street. Which means this era actually commences with An Innocent Man, the romantically inclined homage to ’50s and ’60s pop typified by “Uptown Girl.” It’s the dividing line between his “sports-jacketed singer-songwriter” era and his “awkwardly dancing with Christie Brinkley in music videos” period.

Even if you like Billy Joel, it is easy to clown on ’80s Joel. Admittedly, I am going to lean harder on the ’70s songs as we move up the list. But I am also going to pay proper respect to ’80s Joel. Because I do not think that ’80s Billy Joel doo wop sucks.

8. “Scandinavian Skies” (1982)



Here is a fun prank to play on a Billy Joel hater: Play the first 30 seconds of this song and tell them it’s from Another Green World.

7. “River Of Dreams” (1993)

“Uptown Girl” is an example of Billy’s talent for mimicry. He has his own distinctive style, but he’s also good at setting that aside and blatantly biting someone else’s thing. During his “imperial” era in the late ’70s and early ’80s, he had a Ween-like tendency to turn every album into a genre experiment. 52nd Street is the “I enjoyed Steely Dan’s Aja” record. Glass Houses is the “I enjoyed Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model” record. The Nylon Curtain is the “I enjoyed late-period Beatles” record. And An Innocent Man is the “I enjoyed the oldies that influenced the Grease soundtrack” record.

The title track of Billy’s “final” pop album River Of Dreams is fascinating because it sounds remarkably like The Lion King soundtrack that his frenemy Elton John composed. You keep waiting for Billy to say “Hakuna Matata” in the chorus and he never does. That’s because “River Of Dreams” actually came out one year BEFORE The Lion King soundtrack, so maybe the influence went the other direction.

Anyway. Billy Joel is unlike the Grateful Dead in every way save for this: His ’70s era is the most respected, his ’80s era is the most commercial, and his ’90s era is still mostly unsung. I didn’t put any ’90s Joel on the main list, but I can’t front like I wasn’t into him in 1993. I bought River Of Dreams on compact disc at Best Buy one month before I bought In Utero at the same box store as I entered my sophomore year of high school. I did not admit this to the world at the time, but I can do it now.

6. “Piano Man” (1973)



I’m not being a contrarian. It’s his signature song, yes, but does anyone really love “Piano Man”? Does anyone even need to hear “Piano Man” ever again? We all know that Davy is still in the Navy and probably will be for life. We are aware that Paul is a real estate novelist, even though “real estate” as a literary genre does not exist. Did John ever become a movie star? Who knows, and frankly who cares? I know I can’t leave “Piano Man” out of this column completely, so I’m putting it here out of respect.

But I will soon make a case for other songs — there are many of them! — in which Billy articulates his hostility toward show business with greater eloquence.

5. “A Matter Of Trust” (1986)

Another song from The Bridge, the “unhappy” record that Billy essentially stopped caring about in the middle of recording. He wanted to be home with Christie and their newly born daughter rather than toil in the studio on yet another album bound to go multi-platinum with at least three Top 10 hits. Though I suspect that he was also going through a professional mid-life crisis, as the album was a literal bridge from the Reagan era pop of An Innocent Man to the stadium-rock moves of Storm Front.

In the video for the album’s first single, “A Matter Of Trust” – I can’t separate the video from the song in my mind — he looks like a man trying to be someone he is not. And that person is Bruce Springsteen. The guitar, the pained facial mannerisms, the husky “one, two, a-one-, two, three, fah” count-off — the Bruce aping feels deliberate and strained. (Also, seeing Billy play guitar is like watching Miles Davis play the tambourine.)

Having said all of that: It’s a good song! Even in the midst of personal and professional crisis, Billy was still a tunesmith.

4. “Shameless” (1989)



Even Joel’s critics have conceded that he knows how to put a song together. When it comes to mastering song mechanics, Billy Joel is Charles Bronson in 1972. His songs typically are set in the 32-bar form, also known as AABA, in which the main section is repeated twice and then followed by a bridge before returning to the main section. It’s the formula applied to many of the most famous standards of the 20th century, from “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” to “Yesterday” to many of the Billy Joel classics on this list. Is this formula predictable? Maybe. Is this formula the reason why Billy Joel songs seem slightly boring after a while? Possibly. Is this formula responsible for lodging at least a dozen Billy Joel tunes in your head, even if you can’t stand the guy? Probably.

One of the most satisfying aspects of a Billy Joel song is that they usually have a memorable bridge. “New York State Of Mind” has a memorable bridge. (“It was so easy living day by day …”) “Just The Way You Are” has a memorable bridge. (“I need to know that you will always be …”) Yes, even “Piano Man” has a memorable bridge. (The “la-di-da” section.) And “Shameless” — which became a modern standard after Garth Brooks covered it and put it on an album that sold 80 billion copies — has a memorable one as well.

3. “Roberta” (1974)



If there is such a thing as a “connoisseur’s choice” for the best Billy Joel album, it has to be 1974’s Streetlife Serenade. I’m not saying it is the best album overall, just that it’s the record with the highest ratio of good Billy Joel songs that most people never heard of. “Interesting musical ideas, but nothing to say lyrically” was Billy’s assessment, but I would argue that the opposite is true. The album’s weakness is that he didn’t yet have his regular band; the lyrics meanwhile are one of its strengths. The sex worker ode “Roberta” is an example of the L.A.-based character studies he was writing at the time. “Roberta, how I’ve adored you / I’d ask you over but I can’t afford you.”

2. “Everybody Loves You Now” (Songs In The Attic version, 1981)

The most preposterous entry in Billy Joel’s catalog is his 1971 debut Cold Spring Harbor, the infamous “the songs sound a touch too fast because his crummy record label screwed up the mastering” album. It was remixed in the early ’80s, but Cold Spring Harbor still makes Billy Joel sound like a world-weary 11-year-old. If people wonder why Billy Joel has a chip on his shoulder in so many of his songs, stories like this explain why. (Nobody screwed up the mastering on James Taylor or Jackson Browne records.) Of course, Billy already had that chip before Cold Spring Harbor was released. In “Everybody Loves You Now” — which Billy revived on Songs In The Attic, a live album focused on obscure tracks from his pre-fame career released at the height of his fame — he takes aim at a beloved starlet that Billy predicts will soon have a fall from grace. “Loneliness will get to you somehow / But everybody loves you now.”

1. “She’s Right On Time” (1982)

One of Billy Joel’s best songs, according to Billy Joel, from The Nylon Curtain, Billy Joel’s favorite Billy Joel album. The Nylon Curtain is the epitome of the “Billy has something to say lyrically” Billy Joel record. The death of the American steel industry, the plight of the Vietnam veteran, the crippling effects of presh-shaw! — these were the topics that vexed him at the time. (On the back cover a newly bearded Billy peers up from a newspaper while holding a coffee cup, so you know you’re in for something serious.) The Nylon Curtain is also the most overtly Beatlesque album of Billy’s career — specifically, he was obsessed with reworking the Paul McCartney section of “A Day In The Life,” as evidenced by this track.

Okay, now on to the list …

40. “Keeping The Faith” (1983)



If “Modern Woman” is the most ’80s that ’80s Joel gets, then “Keeping The Faith” has to be his second most ’80s track. It’s the concluding song on An Innocent Man, but Billy must have been sick of the doo wop concept. Instead, he gets down to the business to setting the parameters that define ’80s Joel — sticky pop melodies, blindingly bright production, instantly dated music videos, questionable choreography, conspicuous doses of Christie Brinkley, etc. This video even has a Joe Piscopo cameo, which feels like running up the score.

39. “Leave A Tender Moment Alone” (1983)

Billy Joel has often said in interviews that he writes best when he’s depressed, which is precisely the artistic cliché that prompted Jeff Tweedy to write several books that refute it. But it really is true that Billy Joel’s most famous songs either (1) come from a position of weakness or (2) an urge to lash out at something (or someone) that bothers him. The songs from An Innocent Man are the exception. Billy was rich, relatively happy, and on a roll in all aspects of life. The result is the corniest record of his career, and possibly his most purely enjoyable (as evidenced by this corny but sweet song).

38. “Streetlife Serenader” (1974)



Howard Stern’s favorite Billy Joel song, as he revealed in his latest Billy Joel interview. Coming from the leading journalist in the field of Billy Joel studies, this is an important opinion. Howard Stern is to Billy Joel what Brian Windhorst is to LeBron James. (Howard will be cited several more times in this column.) In the same interview, Stern claims that he listened to Streetlife Serenade every day in college, front to back, though the existence of “Root Beer Rag” makes this claim seem implausible.

37. “The Entertainer” (1974)

The better anti-show biz alternative to “Piano Man” I referenced earlier. It’s really a sequel to “Piano Man,” in which Billy escapes the piano bar, gets famous, and winds up even more jaded. His complaints this time are more specific. (Billy’s most memorable gripe is that the record company edited his single down to three minutes and five seconds.) But the overall thrust of “The Entertainer” is that the protagonist will be cast aside and left in the dustbin of history once the hit songs inevitably run out.

The irony of “The Entertainer” is that most people heard it on Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II, the two-disc compilation that was manually installed into every family car and minivan sold to white suburbanites at the time of its release in 1985. “Piano Man” was the first track, and “The Entertainer” arrived in the third slot. Millions of people heard Billy sing “I won’t be here in another year / if I don’t stay on the charts,” and it registered as science fiction. In 1985, Billy Joel not staying on the charts was a mathematical improbability. Nobody sang about being a music-industry loser with greater success than Billy Joel.

36. “I’ve Loved These Days” (1976)



The additional irony of “The Entertainer” is that not being on the charts has not hampered Billy Joel at all. He has been in the public eye for more than 50 years, but he’s only put out new music for about 40 percent of that time. The majority of Billy’s career has consisted of the public asking him to write songs. Billy (until recently) has refused, and millions of individuals responded by paying hundreds of dollars, time and again, to hear the old songs in concert.

But I digress: “I’ve Loved These Days” is a deeply sad song about the empty decadence that accompanies fame and riches. (“We drown our doubts / In dry champagne / And soothe our souls / With fine cocaine.”) It comes from my favorite Billy Joel album, Turnstiles, a go-to text for any “Billy Joel is a great songwriter, actually” argument. It was released the year before Billy Joel put out The Stranger, the best-selling LP in the history of Columbia Records before Thriller dropped five years later, and the record that loads up the bulk of the ’70s portion of the Greatest Hits album.

“I’ve Loved These Days” should have been on the album AFTER The Stranger. That it appears on the one before The Stranger tells you a lot about Billy Joel: He liked to make himself miserable about the downside of accomplishments he hadn’t achieved yet.

35. “All For Leyna” (1980)



The first of many songs on this list about women who attempt (usually with tremendous effectiveness) to manipulate, control, and hurt Billy Joel. In one verse, he says that Leyna once took him to the beach and didn’t tell him “there were rocks / under the waves / right off the shore.” At first glance, this seems like a metaphor for the impetuousness of an insensitive person. But Billy implies that this beach incident literally happened. (“Washed up on the sand / barely alive / wishing the undertow would, stop / how can a man take anymore.”) Even by the standards of the femme fatales that populate Billy Joel songs, this Leyna is a real piece of work.

It comes from Glass Houses, a record commonly perceived as Billy’s attempt to make a new wave record, an accusation Billy has denied. (“My intention was to write bigger stuff we could play in arenas,” he claimed in 1993.) In the music video, he dresses like a member of The Hives, which put him ahead of the new wave revival of the early aughts by 20 years.

34. “James” (1976)

A common criticism of Billy Joel concerns his propensity for writing songs like “All For Leyna,” i.e. somewhat problematic, judge-y screeds about the opposite sex. In Billy’s defense, he also writes judge-y songs about men as well. Take “James,” a diss track about a former high school classmate “who pursued an education” while Billy became a musician, hit the road, and did all the other things detailed in “The Entertainer.” The implication is that James has an unfulfilling life as an anonymous normie, which sounds bad if you haven’t heard Billy complain about his own agonizing show-biz life. Billy sets these lyrics to an incongruously dreamy soft-rock soundscape — it evokes a less horny variation on 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” — that wraps the cutting portrayal of yuppie dissatisfaction in a veneer of warm silkiness.

33. “Los Angelenos” (1974)



Joel-heads recognize that “Zanzibar” off of 52nd Street is his late-’70s Steely Dan homage. But less heralded is this apparent tribute to early ’70s Steely Dan from Streetlife Serenade. It’s possible I’m the only one who hears this. (I’m not aware of Billy of acknowledging the influence.) But “Los Angelenos” sounds like the work of a guy who is temporarily situated in Southern California and doesn’t feel great about it and now is consoling himself with the work of two other displaced East Coasters. Plus, I could imagine these lyrics on Can’t Buy A Thrill:

Tanning out in the beaches
With their Mexican reefers
No one ever has to feel
Like a refugee
Going into garages
For exotic massages
Making up for all the time gone by

32. “Captain Jack” (1973)

Years ago I wrote a column that speculated on the course of Billy Joel’s career had he not decided to stop releasing pop songs after River Of Dreams. I imagined he would have made an Unplugged album in the late ’90s composed of big band standards, as that seems like a middle-aged Billy move. In the early aughts, he would have made his 9/11 record. And he would have inevitably worked with Rick Rubin on an LP that consciously returned to his classic ’70s sound. In this scenario, he might have tried his hand at a “Captain Jack”-type song, only instead of surveying the wreckage of post-Woodstock youth culture Billy would write about the internet and social media. “And you just sit at home and masturbate” is the one line that would work in both tunes.

31. “It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll To Me” (1980)



Of course, none of that happened. And the fact that none of that happened explains why Billy Joel is better regarded now than he was when he put out new multi-platinum albums every few years. Billy Joel never died (fortunately) but his creative output did, and that “soft” death is what took the juice out of the rampant Billy Joel haterism that defined how he was discussed in the media for years.

The reaction to “It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll To Me” represents the peak of that haterism. It’s the song that inspired music critics to make “Worst Songs About Rock Music Ever” lists, just so they could put “It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll To Me” at the top. The charitable reading of the lyrics (to which I subscribe) is that Billy is making the case for punk, new wave, funk, and disco music being part of a larger continuum that goes back to the roots of rock. It’s an inclusive view of music history. But most critics didn’t read it that way. They read it as a personal attack in which Billy was calling them idiots for believing this music was “new.” And this was perceived as a defensive reaction to music writers clowning Billy’s helmet-haired rock star moves in the late ’70s.

This is all ancient history now. Now when I hear “It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll To Me,” I think about Billy’s revelation (in a long-lost Stern interview that I can no longer find online) that it has the same chord progression as “Lay Lady Lay.”

30. “Just The Way You Are” (1977)

Billy blamed his soft-rock wimp image on this song, so in a way “Just The Way You Are” is the prequel to “It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll To Me.” He didn’t want to be known as a balladeer. He wanted to be viewed as what he truly was, a legitimately tortured dude. (He famously tried to take his own life as a young man by chasing a handful of sleeping pills with a swig of furniture polish, which has to be one of the more ghastly methods for killing yourself.) He was also authentically tough. (He was a former amateur boxer who quit with a 22-2 record after busting up his nose. He probably could have beat up all of the Ramones.) But nobody looked at him that way, and Billy resented it. In later years, he disparaged “Just The Way You Are” as a “chick song” and claimed that he wanted to leave it off the record.

Do I believe this? Not really. “Just The Way You Are” was his breakthrough hit, and it sounds like a song that announces itself as a breakthrough hit the moment you write it. Billy might be a reluctant entertainer, but he’s an entertainer nonetheless.

29. “The Stranger”



The song before “Just The Way You Are” on The Stranger, the one where Billy writes about the phony façade we all put up around other people to hide the person we really are. (Also the song where Billy whistles his ass off.) Billy literalizes this idea on the album cover, which must have entered Stanley Kubrick’s orbit at some point when he was conceptualizing Eyes Wide Shut.

28. “Sleeping With The Television On” (1980)

One of two songs on Glass Houses in which Billy writes very well from an Elvis Costello-esque posture. Once again he is questioning a woman who seems poised to turn him down romantically. “I really wish I was less of a thinking man / and more a fool who’s not afraid of rejection.” It’s worth noting that Billy Joel was dating multiple supermodels around this time, so being “a thinking man” apparently did not hamstring him in real life.

27. “Pressure” (1982)



Similar to how “We Didn’t Start The Fire” seemed like the most profound “statement” song I had ever heard when I was 11, “Pressure” sounded like the darkest and most sinister music. The synths evoked an adult world of doom, anxiety, and, well, presh-shaw! It’s what I would have imagined Joy Division sounding like. It gave me a stomach ache.

When I was a little older, “Pressure” sounded more like a famous rock star’s brain on cocaine. Actually, it still sounds like that.

26. “Big Shot” (1978)

Speaking of cocaine! This song is pretty cocaine-y, and not only because of the “spoon up your nose” line. “Big Shot” appears to epitomize the “judge-y” side of Billy’s writing, since this song is nothing but him dressing down some jerk (presumably a woman, again) who’s full of herself. (“They were all impressed with your Halston dress / and the people that you knew at Elaine’s / and the story of your latest success / kept ’em so entertained.”) Billy has said (again, on Stern) that he wrote “Big Shot” about Bianca Jagger from the point of view of Mick Jagger, who he hung out with at least once in the ’70s. And in that context, you can detect Billy the mimic slipping into a Mick Jagger circa 1978 impersonation. (Though that doesn’t explain the part when he briefly slips into a broad Italian accent.)

INTERMISSION

Time to do some important housecleaning on vital categories that I couldn’t squeeze in elsewhere.

THE BEST FAKE BILLY JOEL SONG



“What It’ll Be (Hey, West Covina)” from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

While this song is credited to Rachel Bloom and Adam Schlesinger, it was mostly written by the latter, a brilliant pop-music mimic paying tribute to another brilliant pop-music mimic. Not only does “What It’ll Be” nail the musical cues, but the lyric feels ripped from one of Billy’s own pathos-filled diatribes. (“Thanks for this town three short hours from the beach / where all of your dreams can stay just out of reach.”)

THE BEST BILLY JOEL TRIBUTE BAND



Gene Ween Does Billy Joel

In 2015 and ’17, 50 percent of Ween hit the road for two short tours where he performed remarkably faithful covers of Billy Joel songs. If this sounds appealing to you, we can be friends.

THE BEST FAKE BILLY JOEL TRIBUTE BAND



Uptown Girl in Step Brothers

This is the second time I’ve posted this clip in this column. And I might do it again!

THE ONE GOOD ATTILA SONG



“Revenge Is Sweet”

This song is actually just okay. But I had to mention Billy’s bitchin’ Deep Purple-ish pre-fame rock duo at least once in this column.

Back to the list …

25. “Honesty” (1978)

Shoutout to Liberty DeVitto, the hard-hitting drummer who served in Billy’s band from Turnstiles up through the mid-aughts, at which point he was unceremoniously dumped. (Allegedly, DeVitto discovered his ouster after Billy didn’t invite him to his third wedding.) DeVitto made invaluable contributions to some of Billy’s most famous records, even the songs that don’t have particularly exciting drum parts. Take “Honesty,” another judge-y anthem about how Billy is surrounded by liars. DeVitto wanted Billy to call it “Sodomy,” which might have been an improvement. (Also shoutout to Beyoncé, who covered “Honesty” back in 2008 and I’m sure is not aware of the “sodomy” story.)

24. “Laura” (1982)



Of all the Billy Joel songs about controlling women, this is the angriest, possibly (according to DeVitto) because it’s about Billy’s mother. Like countless sons, he’s annoyed by how often his mom calls and makes him feel small. “She makes me lose my cool / I’m her machine / and she can punch all the keys / she can push any button I was programmed through.” This song is also notable because Billy drops a rare F-bomb, which sounds even more incongruous given the song’s psych-pop trappings.

If Father John Misty ever covers a Billy Joel song it will be this one.

23. “She’s Always A Woman” (1977)

Like he does in “Just The Way You Are,” Billy pays tribute to a woman by listing all of her faults and claiming not to be bothered by them. She can ruin your faith with casual lies! She’ll ask for the truth but never believe you! She’ll cut you and then laugh while you’re bleeding! (Jesus, for real Billy?) I assume she’s also the kind of person who leaves cereal bowls on the kitchen table with the leftover milk, but it’s hard to find a line that rhymes with that.

Again, the charitable reading is that in relationships you see the worst sides of your partner, and you learn to accept and even love those parts. And I support that view! It helps that the folky melody evokes another classic neg-fest with “Woman” in the title.

22. “Goodnight Saigon” (1982)



Billy had the misfortune of his creative peak coinciding with the prime of Bruce Springsteen, an artist to which he was frequently compared, unfavorably. The problem is that these comparisons were always made on Springsteen’s terms. Bruce positioned himself in the lineage of rock music derived from folk, country, and R&B, a chain that included Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, and Bob Dylan. Billy wasn’t part of that — he comes from a pop tradition rooted in Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and early radio-friendly rock ‘n’ roll. The music Billy made was inherently made for the masses, whereas Bruce (outside of his commercial blockbuster Born In The U.S.A.) generally eschewed pop hits in favor of weighty albums.

Billy wasn’t going to top Bruce on Bruce’s territory. But did he beat him out in one respect: He wrote his big, thundering Vietnam song and put it out two years before Bruce put out his. And nobody misinterpreted his tune.

21. “The Longest Time” (1983)

Billy’s pop acumen would have made him successful in any era. Especially if he were only a songwriter. He could have written hits for Bing Crosby in the 1940s or Elvis in the 1950s or countless girl groups in the 1960s. If he had been born in 1990, he would be giving Jack Antonoff a run for his money in the 2020s. He just has a knack for delivering tuneful packages that instantly connect with the public. His old-fashioned approach might have been a liability with critics and the credibility police in the short run, but it has given his work eternal appeal over the long haul. Tunes defeat fashion every single time. The song is one of his purest pop confections, from his “corny but happy” album, An Innocent Man.

20. “Don’t Ask Me Why” (1980)



Another low-key perfect pop song and one of Billy’s finest Beatles tributes. The specificity is what impresses: “Don’t Ask Me Why” sounds like the follow-up to the late ’65 “We Can Work It Out”/”Day Tripper” single. Also: It has one of Billy’s best bridges. “You can say the human heart / is only make believe / I am only fighting fire with fire / But you are still a victim / Of the accidents you leave / As sure as I’m a victim of desire.”

19. “Say Goodbye To Hollywood” (1976)

A sister song to “New York State Of Mind,” a fellow mainstay from side one of Turnstiles. “New York State Of Mind” was Billy’s “I’m coming home” song, and this tune is his kiss-off to the adopted hometown on the left coast where he never fit in. The move to L.A. was always destined to fail. Billy is an East Coast songwriter, and in the tradition of other East Coast songwriters — Springsteen, Simon, Reed — he was a lone wolf. Those guys never hung out together. They brooded in private, and then wrote about their pain in sharp, cinematic language. Whereas in L.A., everyone appeared on everyone else’s records. Music was a party, not a refuge from parties like it was for Billy and his brethren. The communal vibe was endemic to the artists orbiting David Geffen and Asylum Records, and Billy was never going to fit in with that. “So many faces in and out of my life / some will last, some will just be now and then / Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes / I’m afraid it’s time for goodbye again.”

18. “She’s Got A Way” (Songs In The Attic version, 1981)



Originated from Cold Spring Harbor, where the boyishly warped vocals don’t supply this quintessential Billy Joel ballad with the gravitas it needs. The proper version is from Songs In The Attic, recorded at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston the summer of 1980. “She’s Got A Way” is about as Billy Joel as Billy Joel gets. If you were to make a parody of a Billy Joel ballad, it would sound like this song with a few Italian names shoehorned in.

17. “And So It Goes” (1989)

Billy Joel’s No. 1 Billy Joel song. (He confirmed that it’s his favorite composition in the latest Stern interview.) It’s also — probably not coincidentally — his saddest number. “And So It Goes” is not a breakup song, it’s actually more depressed than a breakup song. It’s an anticipating a breakup song. If you have ever gone through a breakup, you know that anticipating a breakup is worse than the actual breakup because you are imagining how painful it will be ahead of experiencing that pain. That’s the vibe of “And So It Goes.” Billy is marinating in anticipatory agony. “So I would choose to be with you / That’s if the choice were mine to make / But you can make decisions too / And you can have this heart to break.”

16. “Where’s The Orchestra?” (1982)



The second saddest Billy Joel song. It’s Billy taking one long look at adulthood and asking, “Is that all there is?” It’s an expression of extreme ambivalence at being alive. And that is a pretty brutal sentiment coming from a guy who has played Madison Square Garden 100 times. ”That song still applies to me,” he said in 2002. ”I heard it the other day, and it still moved me, because I feel like that today. I’ve only felt content a few times in my life, and it never lasted.”

15. “Rosalinda Eyes” (1978)

Why did I put this 52nd Street deep cut at No. 15? Because of Freaks And Geeks, of course.

14. “Sometimes A Fantasy” (1980)



Peak “Costello-aping” Joel. A brilliant combination of “No Action,” “This Year’s Girl,” and Walter Mitty. Easily one of his hardest-rocking songs. That’s why I have to go with the Glass Houses version even though the “STOP LIGHTING THE AUDIENCE” bootleg cut from Moscow might actually be the definitive take.

13. “Allentown” (1982)

An elite Billy Joel song, and an absolutely atrocious Billy Joel video. Why did the music video directors of the early ’80s insist on inserting dance into the milieu of Billy Joel? Billy Joel does not make dance music. He makes “sit down and contemplate the state of the steel industry” music. And yet this insistence on melding Billy Joel and interpretive dance continued well beyond the 1980s, reaching its climax with the musical Movin’ Out in the aughts where people danced to Billy Joel music for two hours.

Dancing to Billy Joel is like moshing to Randy Newman. I simply do not understand it. (I actually saw Movin’ Out but I do not remember it, out of deference to Billy Joel.)

12. “Miami 2017 (Seen The Light Goes Down On Broadway)” (Songs In The Attic version, 1981)



Even as a Turnstiles truther, I have to go with the Songs In The Attic version over the studio take. “Miami 2017” is Billy working in one of his best and most underrated guises — Prog Joel — and it requires the grandiosity that you can only get from playing in front of 20,000 people at Madison Square Garden. In the song, the narrator is reminiscing about the end of the world from the vantage of a retirement community in Florida. But after the 2016 presidential election, “Miami 2017” could also be interpreted as an apocalyptic number taking place at an infamous resort about an hour’s drive from Miami.

11. “My Life” (1978)

The first Billy Joel song I ever loved. Though I didn’t know it was Billy Joel at the time. I only knew it as the theme for my favorite sitcom, the Tom Hanks vehicle Bosom Buddies. (Until this very moment when I looked it up, I thought the Joel version was used on the show. But the theme is actually a cover performed by Gary Bennett. I have been Mandela Effect’ed!) This context has always influenced how I hear “My Life.” Joel’s song predates Bosom Buddies by two years, but I am still convinced that Billy wrote a song about two men who pose as women in order to gain entry into an all-woman’s apartment building.

10. “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” (1989)



It makes the Top 10 because it contains Billy Joel’s finest line reading outside of (obviously) “heart attack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack.” I refer to “can’t sell NO STRIPERS!” If you listen to “The Downeaster ‘Alexa,’” you are required to yell “can’t sell NO STRIPERS!” at the appropriate moment. Billy is embodying the soul of a disenfranchised fisherman, and he approaches the role with “Bradley Cooper in Maestro” levels of commitment. If you were to ask an actual disenfranchised fisherman why is he driving his ship more and more miles from shore every year, you would not find a more impassioned reply about the inability to hawk STRIPERS!

9. “Only The Good Die Young” (1977)

This was not intentional, but there are a disproportionate number of Billy Joel’s “tough guy” songs in my Top 10. We have already touched on Billy’s boxing career and his authentic toughness. But his “tough guy” songs really take it to another level. These are the songs where it’s suggested that Billy is a menacing figure whose malevolence has an erotic charge. For instance, in “Only The Good Die Young” Billy talks about how he runs with a “dangerous crowd” that “ain’t too pretty” and “ain’t too proud.” Though the only tangible crime this gang appears to be guilty of is laughing a bit too loud, which seems a little annoying but hardly scary.

I don’t know why I am drawn to this version of Joel. Perhaps I see myself as similarly savage despite my “suburban dad” trappings. Though in my defense I laugh at the precisely correct volume.

8. “Vienna” (1977)



For years this was the default “obscure” Billy Joel song that loyalists trotted out to skeptics in order to convert them. But “Vienna” is no longer obscure — it has been streamed more than 540 million times on Spotify, which means it’s more popular than many of his hits. (“Just The Way You Are” has been streamed nearly 300 million fewer times.) For that reason, as good as it is, “Vienna” now seems slightly overrated. Still belongs in the Top 10 though.

7. “New York State Of Mind” (1976)

The Billy Joel song that will probably endure for the longest amount of time. Because it is a great, classic tune. And also because New Yorkers require constant reminding in musical form that they live in a good city.

6. “Zanzibar” (1978)



I put it here partly for sentimental reasons. (When I met my wife we bonded over 52nd Street and this song in particular.) But I also just love the hell out of “Zanzibar.” My theory is that Billy heard “Deacon Blues” from Aja and decided to write about the guy in that song as a younger man. (It’s like the Young Sheldon version of Steely Dan.) In “Zanzibar,” that guy is not yet daydreaming about dying behind the wheel. He’s borrowing the old man’s guitar and lighting up for the big city with joy in his heart. Only when he put himself in relation to Donald Fagen and Walter Becker did Billy no longer seem like the biggest curmudgeon in the room.

5. “Prelude/Angry Young Man” (1976)

Like “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” this one is ideologically problematic. Billy’s position on civil disobedience is that it is ultimately an empty performance of fury signifying nothing, which echoes the critiques from boomers of modern-day student activists. I can’t endorse Billy’s position on that one. Nevertheless, “Prelude/Angry Young Man” makes the Top 10 because it is the finest example of Prog Joel in the entire canon. Billy was like, “The Who just put out a song in which an accordion is positioned as a double entendre for sexual intercourse. This leaves an open lane for me. Therefore, I will condense all of the good parts from Tommy into one five-minute-and-sixteen-second song.” And — with the help of DeVitto’s hellacious drumming — the beautiful bastard pulled it off!

4. “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” (1977)



One of the best Billy Joel songs, and the No. 1 most Billy Joel song. It is impossible for a song to be more Billy Joel than “Movin’ Out.” You have Anthony and Mama Leone and Sgt. O’Leary and Mister Cacciatore and the Long Island accent and the motorcycle sound and the resentment and the judginess. It’s all here. All the things that instantly pop in your head when you think about this guy. “Movin’ Out” is pure and uncut Billy.

3. “You May Be Right” (1980)

His finest “tough guy” song. “You May Be Right” rides the line between the silly and the sublime with the deft navigation of a lunnnnnnatic riding his motorcycle safely (but dangerously!) in the rain. Is Billy’s aggression trumped up to the point of ridiculousness? Of course! But the guitar riff is genuinely bad ass and Billy’s Mick Jagger impersonation (see how he sings “in the raiiiiin“) is on point. You can accuse Billy of writing a fake punk song, but “You May Be Right” kicks as hard as any tune that did the FM radio rounds in 1980. (Shoutout, again, to Liberty DeVitto.) The duality is real. Take Billy as he is. Because you might enjoy some madness for a while.

2. “Summer, Highland Falls” (1976)



This should be the new “Vienna.” The Billy Joel song that you play for people who say they hate Billy Joel to prove that the man has many quality deep cuts beyond the played-to-death hits. “Summer, Highland Falls” is one of his most direct songs about depression, a theme expressed lyrically (“It’s either sadness or euphoria”) and musically (via the contrasting counter-melodies). Billy is praised/derided for his broadness, but “Summer, Highland Falls” is as smartly constructed as any tune composed by his more overtly “clever” peers. Though the song’s strength derives from how Billy isn’t trying to front-load the cleverness — the line about thoughtlessly dissipating our energies aside — at the expense of expressing intense melancholy.

1. “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” (1977)



Is this Prog Joel? This suite of mini songs comes together, mini opera style, to tell the story of a doomed marriage by two kids who peaked in high school and now are reduced to buying paintings from Sears. It is Prog Joel, but so is “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” Once again, Billy takes a song that is sort of strange and complicated and makes it sound like mainstream ear candy. In the case of “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant,” he comes up with enough promising song ideas to make up an entire LP side and crams them all into one eight-minute song, a true flex at the start of his imperial pop star era. But the reason that “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” is spinning on 100 classic rock radio stations at this very second is because Billy Joel found another way to normalize the abnormal. An epic about domestic strife that aspires to the grandeur of Abbey Road’s side two written by a lonely ex-boxer who has dabbled in heavy metal, jazz rock, punk rock, doo wop, and folk songs about fishermen. The stranger whose songs are super-glued inside the cerebellums of practically all of us. That’s our Billy.

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