Billy Joel is the closest thing Madison Square Garden has to a sure thing — certainly more than the Knicks or the Rangers or the Liberty. It’s been 21 years since Joel released a new pop album, yet he sold out the arena 12 times in 2014 alone, and he’ll play his second (also sold-out) show of 2015 on February 18.* He has established a standing residency there, like a guy who plays a monthly nightclub gig, except that the club happens to seat 18,000.
By the measure of hit-making, his stats are staggering. The New Yorker’s profile of him last year pointed out that he’s had 33 songs in the Top 40. That’s about a quarter of the songs he’s written and recorded. Most of those charted in the era when you had to sell a lot of records to get there, too.
For critics, he’s a problem. They used to beat him up for his perceived lack of edge. Robert Christgau called his 1976 album Turnstiles “obnoxious,” which it is not. Lately, though — like every artist from a generation back — he is undergoing a critical reassessment, despite some dissenters. The argument is headed in this direction: He’s not quite the hard-rock star he sometimes tried to be, but he’s a better pop songwriter than you remember, and sometimes a great one.
I am in his camp. I grew up right off the Jersey Turnpike, halfway between Levittown and Allentown, during the years when he was on the radio every day. People who write paeans to the suburbs, on topics that sit on the cusp between white-collar and blue-collar, are unfashionable these days. It’s certainly not very cool for an arts editor to defend Billy Joel. “Dad rock,” one of my younger colleagues said, unimpressed, when I told her about this project: relistening to the 121 songs that Joel has written and recorded, and ranking every one.
Stipulated: This is all one listener’s opinion. But the ranking draws on 30 years of soaking in these songs, plus multiple repeat playings of every one over the past three months. That said, appreciation does not mean blindness, and Joel himself would agree that not every song on every album catches fire (though he did light it, and we tried to fight it). A close listening to the Joel-ian canon reveals a couple of generous handfuls of greatness, forgotten cuts that deserve to be resurfaced, familiar hits that have aged poorly, and flat-out clunkers.
Ground rules: I’ve limited this to the 114 songs Joel wrote and recorded on his 12 studio albums, from Cold Spring Harbor (1971) through River of Dreams (1993), plus seven additional singles he has released over the years. (As fans know, Cold Spring Harbor was butchered on its release; I used the remastered boxed-set version to give those songs a fair shake.) I omitted Fantasies and Delusions, the wordless neoclassical album Joel released in 2001, because another pianist does the playing. I also left out his covers, a few songs he’s written that other people sang, and his recordings with the Hassles and Attila, his early Long Island bands. You gotta stop somewhere.
A few general observations:
• The songs that rise to the top are, with a few exceptions, the purer ones. Billy Joel was was never a Captain Beefheart or Frank Zappa, out to subvert the conventions of pop music; his strengths are plainspoken language, melody, and (of course) piano, and the songs that depend most on those qualities tend to be better than the ones where he gets artier.
• His Achilles’ heel is a recurrent, petulant demand for respect. The best example is “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” a great-sounding pop song whose lyrics suffer from a general annoyance at all the critical love showered on the CBGB crowd. Other times, we too often hear classical-music references or an awkward French lesson. Too many songs have a chin-jutting defiance, an insistence that I Am an Artist to Be Taken Seriously, as subtext. Outrage can bring greatness to art; irritability, not so much.
• Too many sound effects. The shattering sound that opens Glass Houses, the helicopters in “Goodnight Saigon,” TV static and dial tones: All are gimmicky, and most are cliché. I’ll admit that the brake screech in “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” is fun.
• He’s best when writing about his own time and his own world. His Lawn Guyland worldview comes from an honest place, and when he writes about, say, Anthony (who works in a grocery store, saving his pennies for someday), that guy rings true.
Let the arguments begin.
121. “The Mexican Connection,” Streetlife Serenade
An instrumental that sounds like the rights-free music people use in YouTube videos. Fills up side two of the album, and does no more.
120. “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Storm Front
The biggest problem song for the Billy Joel apologist, because it is highly popular and inescapably bad. So much is wrong here: boomer-generation narcissism, the tri-state-area-news myopia (“hypodermics on the shore”? Bernie Goetz?), the iffy rhymes (“James Dean” with “winning team,” among many others), the double mention of the Dodgers. Why didn’t I put it dead last? It gets one point for its classroom value: I will admit that I had to look up who Syngman Rhee was, and I learned interesting things.
119. “You Look So Good to Me,” Cold Spring Harbor
A corny ballad, justifiably forgotten. The weakest song on an album even Joel doesn’t think much of.
118. “A Room of Our Own,” The Nylon Curtain
The staple standup-comic territory of “Hey, men and women are different, you know?” in convenient pop-song form. Pretty bad, and on a pretty good album to boot.
117. “All You Wanna Do Is Dance,” Turnstiles
One a few songs on this list with misplaced reggae inclinations. Yes, everyone was doing it in 1976, but that doesn’t make it right.
116. “Root Beer Rag,” Streetlife Serenade
Yeah, it maybe sounded cool when your friend was banging it out on the music-room piano in the eighth grade, but put it next to the gnarly chords of some actual ragtime, and you quickly realize that a rag built mostly on a C-major triad is pretty weak sauce.
115. “Worse Comes to Worst,” Piano Man
Title tells you most of what you need to know. An album ballad, not worth resurrecting.
114. “You Picked a Real Bad Time,” B-side from 1993
Very slick, not very good white-guy blues. Sounds like it was cut from River of Dreams.
113. “Shades of Grey,” River of Dreams
“Dad rock” is a cheap label, but this is pretty much it; sounds like a lot of session musicians without a center. A song that exemplifies a recurring problem on this list: memorable hook paired with dull verses.
112. “State of Grace,” Storm Front
After more than a few listenings in the past month, not a single lyric from this song stuck with me. Literally forgettable.
111. “Getting Closer,” The Bridge
Repetitive and plodding.
110. “Temptation,” The Bridge
A schmaltzy torch song. Lyrically slack.
109. “C’était Toi (You Were the One),” Glass Houses
Oh man. You hear the first verse, and it’s pretty square but okay — and then he sings it again, in French, and you cringe. (The Beatles’ “Michelle” has the same problem, by the way.)
108. “Running on Ice,” The Bridge
Petulance on parade: “I could never understand why the urban attitude is so superior.” The piano-playing is virtuosic and showy, but the song’s ultimately a less interesting “Pressure.”
107. “The Great Suburban Showdown,” Streetlife Serenade
Not-terrible vision of suburban anomie, but the references — crabgrass, sitting around the kitchen — are just too unoriginal. Might’ve been a lot better with a rewrite.
106. “Stop in Nevada,” Piano Man
Why is a guy from Long Island writing a fake-Western song? Inauthentic, and it shows.
104. “Tomorrow Is Today,” Cold Spring Harbor
Two minutes into a rather quavery M.O.R. song, a bizarre vocal break — he drops an octave and throws in an R&B turn, then snaps back to the sensitive-guy voice — feels like it fell in from Mars.
103. “Turn Around,” Cold Spring Harbor
Another first-album ballad, probably not worth reviving.
102. “House of Blue Light,” B-side, 1990.
The flip side of the “We Didn’t Start the Fire” single is bar-band blues, not much more.
101. “The Great Wall of China,” River of Dreams
Another one with a really polished hook and dull verses. Lyrics about broken friendships have a little kick, given that Joel’s had his share.
100. “Code of Silence,” The Bridge
Co-written and sung with Cyndi Lauper. Another one that I keep listening to, over and over, trying to like it; can’t tell you a word that stuck with me. A really solid performance of a not very interesting song.
99. “Falling of the Rain,” Cold Spring Harbor
Screams 1971 in a weird, Pippinish-hippie way that doesn’t seem to come from a natural place for Joel: “misty satin dreams” and “wooded glades”? What would Mama Leone say?
98. “You Can Make Me Free,” Cold Spring Harbor
An undistinguished song, and then the wildly oversung bit at the end leaves you with a flinch.
97. “The Night Is Still Young,” Greatest Hits
An odd and unique one-off recording, with Joel’s voice multi-tracked. Very typical big-’80s sound, with synths and echo that haven’t aged well.
96. “Blonde Over Blue,” River of Dreams
Nicely written first verse about being lonely at night, but it goes boring after that.
95. “When in Rome,” Storm Front
I’m surprised this didn’t click as a radio hit, because it hits every mainstream note of that era — leaving it sounding a little generic today. Could be Steve Winwood; could be the Traveling Wilburys; could be almost anyone.
94. “That’s Not Her Style,” Storm Front
Another dated-sounding track, but the lyrics are actually pretty okay — this is (presumably) one of his Christie Brinkley songs, several of which are more charming. Might benefit from a remix.
93. “This Night,” An Innocent Man
A strong vocal performance on a mostly excellent album, but borrowing the Beethoven “Pathétique” for a melodic line was a terrible idea — it reads like a pointless play for respectability — and it weighs down the already-somewhat-leaden lyrics.
92. “She’s Right on Time,” The Nylon Curtain
Punchy performance, but the lyrics are thin, without much staying power.
91. “Why Judy Why,” Cold Spring Harbor
Another very early song that sounds like it was made by an entirely different person. Recording is wavery and soft, and I’d be curious to hear a cover version that perhaps brings out whatever the song has in it.
90. “Two Thousand Years,” River of Dreams
He’s reaching for something philosophical and trying for a big idea, but it doesn’t quite get there, and the lyrics wander.
89. “All About Soul,” River of Dreams
Another from the Depression Series that had many of the ingredients to be a hit but didn’t have the snap to get there.
88. “A Minor Variation,” River of Dreams
Somewhat similar to “All About Soul.” More white-guy blues, decently sung, but ultimately, there are so many better blues singers that it’s hard to get excited about this one.
87. “Storm Front,” Storm Front
Surprising that this one didn’t end up in Twyla Tharp’s Movin’ Out, because it’s got a punchy, big sound that would translate well to a Broadway pit. Goes on forever, though. It also has picked up an unfortunate association of late (Stormfront, to which we will not be linking here, is the premier white-supremacist site on the internet).
86. “A Matter of Trust,” The Bridge
Closest thing he’s ever made to a Queen-style stadium anthem to play at sporting events, with a chorus that benefits from a lot of people singing along. Hard not to get swept up, even if it’s kinda bombastic on the album. Fun song in concert; cheesier at home.
85. “Roberta,” Streetlife Serenade
Lonely guy wants to save a stripper who won’t talk to him. Surely that scene could’ve produced a song more interesting than this.
84. “Los Angelenos,” Streetlife Serenade
He really didn’t like L.A. very much, did he? Not terrible, but loses a lot of points for the awkward “no one ever has to feel like a refugee,” and the weird rolled-R delivery of “Mexican rrreefers.”
83. “If I Only Had the Words (to Tell You),” Piano Man
A familiar genre: the longing song. This one doesn’t hold a candle to his other songs on the same turf, like, say, “Just the Way You Are.”
82. “Ain’t No Crime,” Piano Man
Elton-ish record with a lot of backing vocals. Not terrible, but ultimately not very interesting, either.
81. “Easy Money,” An Innocent Man
Unfortunately evokes nothing so much as Rappin’ Rodney. An extremely commercial song of the ’80s, recorded as a movie theme. An artifact of its time and place.
80. “Don’t Ask Me Why,” Glass Houses
Not bad at all, and very, very, catchy, but makes you wonder: What does this tropical-hotel setting have to do with anything? Was he on vacation?
79. “52nd Street,” 52nd Street
Sounds like one of the Ray Charles duets without Ray. Sax licks are a little cheesy, too. But it holds its place on the album — barely.
78. “Somewhere Along the Line,” Piano Man
An early song from his Depression Canon, this one seems to be about anhedonia — “it’s all going to catch up to you” — but it’s musically a little flat. Might be fodder for the right cover artist.
77. “You’re My Home,” Piano Man
Warm, but also dull.
76. “Modern Woman,” The Bridge
Spirited, and sorta fun — you can really picture this as the music behind a quick-cut montage in an ’80s Danny DeVito movie — but the cheese factor is very high. Possibly saved by the “modren woman” throwaway at the end.
75. “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’,” Storm Front
One that people argue over. Comes from a good place — Long Island fishermen do indeed have it tough; he probably knows some of those guys, going way back; the whole scene feels honest — but the synths and production have aged terribly. It’s 60 percent of the way to being a great Pete Seeger song, which is not a knock; a lot of people never get close to that.
74. “Christie Lee,” An Innocent Man
Yeah, it’s dated, but c’mon: If you were reading gossip columns in the heyday of Page Six, the Christie Brinkley songs (of which there are several) are pretty nearly irresistible fun.
73. “Careless Talk,” An Innocent Man
An album cut that doesn’t rise above, but it has nice bounce. Would be curious to hear it in a cabaret setting.
72. “Tell Her About It,” An Innocent Man
One of what I refer to as Joel’s Instructional Songs: records aimed directly at young people who need a boost in times of trouble. This one tells guys to risk rejection and be honest and vulnerable with their crushes, and even though you know it probably didn’t go well for some of those nerd-boy listeners, it’s a hard song to hate.
71. “Leningrad,” Storm Front
Yes, it’s kitsch — of course Russian people live ordinary lives too — and the music is gooey. But “We were sold a bunch of nonsense” is a thoughtful lyric in this context. (Benefits by comparison with Sting’s “Russians,” a similar, cheesier record.) Deserves to be revisited.
70. “Pressure,” The Nylon Curtain
You do, in fact, have to deal with pressure. Unimaginable that it’d be a hit today — this is another one that’s totally out of style — but it’s a particular weakness of mine, even though it’s not about much of anything besides, y’know, pressure.
69. “Through the Long Night,” Glass Houses
Has a sewing-machine piano line that gets sleepy, but a nice ballad.
68. “Until the Night,” 52nd Street
A precursor to An Innocent Man’s doo-wop songs, reaching for Elvis territory. Would have been better shorter — loses steam as the title repeats.
67. “Zanzibar,” 52nd Street
A lot of people like this one, and would have ranked it higher. I get mostly overreach here: straining for Steely Dan complexity, in several different directions — jazz, fusion, atmospheric-cinematic — without reaching greatness in any of them.
66. “Souvenir,” Streetlife Serenade
Joel’s shortest recorded song. Nice little prelude to … something.
65. “Travelin’ Prayer,” Piano Man
Another one that feels like he’s on weird unfamiliar turf, but taken as a product of the early seventies, it’s not bad at all. Fast piano, banjo, even a jaw harp. The false ending is a little cheap. A charming if dated song.
64. “You’re Only Human (Second Wind),” Greatest Hits
Another buck-up-kid Instructional, and another one that’s got some charm. Not a song you want to turn off.
63. “Famous Last Words,” River of Dreams
“These are the last words I have to say”: Joel’s last song on his final studio album, apart from some one-off releases. A friendly, affectionate thanks-and-bye-for-now song, and, well, all right, it’s not side two of Abbey Road, but it’s not hateable either.
62. “And So It Goes,” Storm Front
A better song on Joel’s weakest album, maybe because the sentiment isn’t very complicated. Kind of a shrug, in the end, but a pretty one.
61. “Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel),” River of Dreams
Nicely sung, presumably for his daughter Alexa, who was about 7 when this was recorded. Sweet if not deep; a little out of place on the album, but that’s okay.
60. “Shameless,” Storm Front
No piano! What? Better known, perhaps, for the Garth Brooks cover version, and if you don’t hate that Nashville sound, a good one.
59. “Get It Right the First Time,” The Stranger
Joel calls this the weak link on one of his best albums, and I’ll admit that it sounds like the theme to a funny-cops sitcom that never happened. But it’s no embarrassment, either.
58. “You May Be Right,” Glass Houses
Good straight-up power pop song. “Even rode my motorcycle in the rain” is a pretty dumb line, which pulls it down on the list, and it loses a couple more points for the repeat-and-fade.
57. “Sometimes a Fantasy,” Glass Houses
He gets major points for trying to write a great phone sex song, but the result has a high ick factor, maybe because “make love long distance,” followed by pervy breathing, comes off gross rather than sexy. The unintentionally hilarious video may be affecting my judgment a little here.
56. “I Go to Extremes,” Storm Front
As catchy as a single ever was. Not a very interesting idea — essentially “Yeah, I can sometimes be an ass, but I’m fun, too” is a sentiment that covers about three-quarters of the population — but a well-wrought song if you accept that up front.
55. “Uptown Girl,” An Innocent Man
It’s shlock, but — as my colleague Jody Rosen has persuasively written — there’s a place for shlock, particularly if, as mentioned above, you were there for the ’80s heyday of the Billy-and-Christie tabloid show. (Never mind that it was reportedly written about his previous supermodel girlfriend, Elle Macpherson.)
54. “Surprises,” The Nylon Curtain
One of several Beatles tributes he’s recorded. Does that minor/major/minor/major step-down chord progression that Paul McCartney made his signature, with added George Martin shimmer. Not a song many people think of, but I like it.
53. “Where’s the Orchestra?” The Nylon Curtain
The performance on the album is a little low-energy, but it has interesting lyrics, with an unexpected callback to “Allentown” buried in the last verse.
52. “Scandinavian Skies,” The Nylon Curtain
A junkie song by a non-junkie: As far as I know, a unique idea. Points for its complexity and opacity; points off for the blatant “I Am the Walrus” echo.
51. “Allentown,” The Nylon Curtain
A lot of people think this is a terrible song. I disagree. Yes, the arrangement is heavy, and kind of thuds along; yes, the vocals are weirdly processed, and that shh-ooh-ah quasi-beatbox thing should go. The line “they threw an American flag in our face” is a clunker, badly misaligned with the music. But stare down the rest of the lyrics: They’re plainspoken and pretty okay. “Iron and coke / Chromium steel” is vivid, the change from “we’re living here” to “I’m living here” is thoughtful, and the last line of the verse (“I won’t be getting up today”) takes you out with a strong image.
50. “All for Leyna,” Glass Houses
A pretty intense, pretty good stalker song. Electric and well sung, especially on the bridge.
49. “Elvis Presley Boulevard,” B-side, 1982
An offcut, rarely heard and better than you’d think; worth seeking out for a listen.
48. “Half a Mile Away,” 52nd Street
As tight a commercial-radio song as ever recorded. Sits well on the album, though not super-interesting when taken on its own.
47. “Honesty,” 52nd Street
Heart-on-sleeve vulnerability. I kinda like this one, but it does feel like a song a lot of people could have written.
46. “Big Shot,” 52nd Street
Arguably the most pissed-off record he ever made, and about what? Hanging around with Bianca Jagger? Seems out of proportion to the problem. Falls down our list for that “nonononono biiiiig shottttttt didnja” line he sings toward the end, which is just ridiculous. But play it in a room full of music snobs, and they know every. Single. Word.
45. “Everybody Has a Dream,” The Stranger
Joel says “Get It Right the First Time” is the weak link on this album, but this is the song nobody remembers. Anthemic, a little soft. Might benefit from a less-dense arrangement with fewer layers.
44. “Weekend Song,” Streetlife Serenade
Another one with echoes of Elton John. Not bad at all.
43. “The Entertainer,” Streetlife Serenade
The Piano Man finds success! And hates his record company, and writes about it. The synths sound terrible now, and the petulance is creeping in, which does him no favors. But “Gotta have a hit / So they cut it down to 3:05” is clever, for sure.
42. “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” Piano Man
Is the end of the song, when he inserts himself, cheesy or charming? Could make a case for either; I like it. The big piano breaks are old-fashioned but not bad. Another one that’s quite a bit better in the live recordings than in the studio.
41. “Got to Begin Again,” Cold Spring Harbor
Another small but nicely wrought song that someone should dig up and rerecord.
40. “No Man’s Land,” River of Dreams
A guy watches the suburbs rise around him, hates them, but stays there all the same, hating himself. Irritable Billy makes an appearance, but it’s still a solid song.
39. “Keeping the Faith,” An Innocent Man
A friendly, bright song about his teenhood. Better than you may remember, mostly for the lyrics and the enthusiasm in the vocals.
38. “Goodnight Saigon,” The Nylon Curtain
Another argument about authenticity appears. Alright, it’s arguably bogus: He didn’t actually go fight in Vietnam. But it’s a vivid, thoughtful song about guys he clearly knew well. Can we knock it for portraying secondhand experience? It feels honest to me. Wish he’d left out the helicopters, though.
37. “Laura,” The Nylon Curtain
A highly conflicted mom song, and the darker counterpart to “Rosalinda’s Eyes,” as it gets at the crueler, more difficult side of Rosalind Joel. Another Beatles tribute, too, this one a gesture to the Magical Mystery Tour era.
36. “James,” Turnstiles
Admittedly a little watery, but in the end, it’s a small, personal song about a mysterious broken friendship. Wonder who it was?
35. “Close to the Borderline,” Glass Houses
Just about the hardest rocking-out he ever recorded, and he did it pretty well. Does not fail on the angry-young-man front. Mostly avoids the oversinging that hurts songs like “Big Shot” — he sings with more of a straight growl here, and it’s a bit better.
34. “She’s Always a Woman,” The Stranger
People ding this song for being schmaltzy, but I don’t think so — it wouldn’t seem out of place on several Bob Dylan records, and you’d probably think more of it then. The arrangement could, admittedly, be a little crisper.
33. “Rosalinda’s Eyes,” 52nd Street
Just about every male singer-songwriter records a mom song; this is a good one. Doubly poignant because his mother didn’t have it so easy, and their relationship was not always smooth (cf. “Laura,” a much less affectionate view).
32. “My Life,” 52nd Street
Chipper, maybe a little defensive, impeccably bouncy pop song with dark undercurrent. First verse is the best.
31. “Nobody Knows But Me,” single, 1982
A kids’ record, made for a CTW compilation album. It’s about an imaginary friend, and it’s much better than you’d ever guess.
30. “Big Man on Mulberry Street,” The Bridge
Is he a GoodFella, a restaurateur, just some shmo? Maybe a little too much production going on here, but a memorable, fun, remember-that-guy-Vinnie-we-used-to-know song.
29. “Everybody Loves You Now,” Cold Spring Harbor
Super-catchy, bouncy piano, sneery. Pretty strong cut for one that few people remember.
28. “I’ve Loved These Days,” Turnstiles
One of the better songs on this album, and I’m surprised it hasn’t become more of a standard. Bring it out at your high-school reunion, and watch the couples start to slow-dance.
27. “Summer, Highland Falls,” Turnstiles
Everyone but me seems to single out this song as one of his very best, maybe the best. I just don’t hear it — I think it’s pretty but not great. I’ll admit that the live recordings are way better than the studio version. I’ll also give you that the piano performance is among his best. I still say “choose between reality and madness / it’s either sadness or euphoria” is pretentious undergrad stuff. We may have to agree to disagree here.
26. “Last of the Big Time Spenders,” Streetlife Serenade
A baby “Baby Grand,” unjustly ignored. Soars nicely in the chorus, especially.
25. “Captain Jack,” Piano Man
Joel has said he’s tired of this one, and it does go on for too long. You can also knock ten points off for that uncomfortable “sit at home and masturbate” line, which has been filling arenas with uneasy giggles for 35 years, especially when “pick your nose” comes along a few lines later. But the big chorus is undeniable — it’s hard not to be swept along when it starts to crest.
24. “The River of Dreams,” River of Dreams
The almost-title song of the album (why add a “The”?). Has more of that Innocent Man lightness and exuberance than most of the stuff on his later records, and benefits from it.
23. “Baby Grand,” The Bridge
The big Ray Charles duet, a bookend to “Piano Man.” A great, heartfelt performance from both of them, but the song itself is a weird extended metaphor that doesn’t entirely come off (the only one who sticks by you is your piano … or whatever it is your piano represents).
22. “Stiletto,” 52nd Street
Another energetic R&B song. Joel’s recording is not bad at all, but if only someone like Bobby Womack had given it a whirl!
21. “She’s Got a Way,” Cold Spring Harbor
Is it a little gooey? Is it very pretty? It’s both, and these things can comfortably coexist. A Great American Songbook song, written 20 years too late to have made it into the canon.
20. “This Is the Time,” The Bridge
Another ’80s-prom anthem, and I think you have to be a real churl to hate it.
19. “Prelude/Angry Young Man,” Turnstiles
That hammered-keyboard intro is one for the ages among show-offy high-school piano students, and the song itself is a slightly more settled guy’s look at his snotty younger self. I like this one, probably more than most people do. I’m guessing that Joel also does because, even though it was never a hit, he still performs it regularly.
18. “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” Glass Houses
Most fans would put this one much higher on the list. It does have about the purest, cleanest production he ever had. But that whole “Hey, what about me? Why are all those CBGBs acts getting all the love?” attitude is off-putting. It’s saved (of course) by the fact that it’s funny and, here and there, pretty sly (“dance craze / anyways” is a rhyme most people would be afraid to write).**
17. “Streetlife Serenader,” Streetlife Serenade
Maybe a little too long, and yes, it’s about the emptiness of pop-star-hood — “shoppin’-center heroes” — but, hey, write what you know. A sequel to “Piano Man,” once the protagonist is out of the crummy bar and has a couple of albums under his belt.
16. “The Stranger,” The Stranger
A little self-conscious, a little arty (that whistled intro). On multiple relistenings, I half-expected to find it annoying, but it’s not. Has aged better than you’d think.
15. “Piano Man,” Piano Man
Scoff if you will, but you’ve probably just heard it too many times. “Real-estate novelist” is a great, vivid three-word characterization. (Although I recently had an argument with someone who claimed that line was junk. I, of course, was correct.)
14. “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” Turnstiles
Poorly recorded — the bass overwhelms it — and the studio cut sounds weak and wan, but underneath all that, there’s a well-wrought pop song in hiding. (He really hated L.A.) Much better in live later recordings, where the piano sounds cleaner, the violins are gone, and he sings it better.
13. “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” The Stranger
Only the goofy-awkward “heart attack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack” keeps this one out of the top ten. Anthony and Mama Leone and Sergeant O’Leary are New Yorkers of a certain age, people we know well, and this is a fine three-and-a-half-minute radio drama about them.
12. “All My Life,” 2007 single
The coda to his singer-songwriter career. A mature guy, doing the standards thing — except it’s a standard he wrote himself. No more chip on his shoulder, secure in his talent, out Tony Bennett–ing Tony Bennett. A keeper.
11. “Leave a Tender Moment Alone,” An Innocent Man
This is a really sweet song that nobody pays attention to. Also, arguably the best vocal recording he ever made: His voice is really supple, midway between his early quavery thing and his later baritone. Holds up, and you should go listen to it again.
10. “The Longest Time,” An Innocent Man
The most retro song on a retro album, and another affectionate tribute to the doo-wop he heard as a kid. Not profound, but a superior piece of pop craftsmanship. Not the most ambitious song; simple structure, simple lyrics, and there’s nothing bad about it.
9. “I Don’t Want to Be Alone,” Glass Houses
How’d everyone miss this? It’s an amazingly accurate (and completely unexpected) Elvis Costello pastiche, missing only the organ part. A great next-phase–New Wave pop song, one that deserves to come out of the trunk.
8. “Vienna,” The Stranger
A pretty song, a long metaphor for finding yourself at a crossroads in life, with a nice lilt and a restrained bit of whimsy. Unusually oblique. As a musician I know neatly put it to me the other day, “It’s what I want from him, with few Billy problems.” Cole Porter would have nodded and smiled at a line like “You can get what you want or you can just get old.”
7. “Just the Way You Are,” The Stranger
The straightest of straight-up ballads, I grant you, but this is Billy Joel’s “Yesterday,” and “clevah conversation” makes it all his own, because Long Island.
6. “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway),” Turnstiles
That date sounded deep in the future back in 1976, didn’t it? New York was, everyone thought, dying; amazing to think that a song could be written from the point of view of a retiree in Florida, remembering when the city collapsed. So he got the future wrong, but something about New Yorkers’ toughness still applies. And wait two years for the be-all-end-all live performance of this one, probably at Sun Life Stadium.
5. “An Innocent Man,” An Innocent Man
Hard to think of a rock star as an innocent, but he really was — don’t forget that he was repeatedly conned out of millions of dollars by his managers and handlers. Another great vocal performance, on an underrated album that contains several of his best songs.
4. “Sleeping With the Television On,” Glass Houses
The best Billy Joel song that was never a hit. He still plays it in concert now and then, and has been known to introduce it as “kind of an obscure song”; it shouldn’t be. Clean power, vivid image, supple singing, tight rhythm, well-made, and bulletproof. The TV-sign-off sound effect at the beginning is the only bit of corn here; lop that off and it’s perfect.
3. “New York State of Mind,” Turnstiles
Every era produces a couple of standards about New York City, and this one more than holds its own, between Comden and Green on one end and Jay Z and Alicia Keys on the other. Sinatra could’ve recorded it; Tony Bennett did; many others will. Impeccable.
2. “Only the Good Die Young,” The Stranger
None of that sour petulance here; it’s a song by a happy warrior in love and romance. Maybe Catholic girls start much too late, maybe they don’t, but either way, it’s funny as hell.
1. “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,” The Stranger
His longest song — it’s really three songlets, intertwined, a little seven-minute operetta — and, yes, his best. A century from now, if you want a wry but ultimately affectionate look at Long Island middle-class life circa 1976, you could do a lot worse than Brenda (sorry, Brender) and Eddie, their paintings from Sears, and the Parkway Diner.
*An earlier version of this post said Billy Joel was performing at Madison Square Garden tonight. We’ve corrected it to say that the concert is February 18.
**An incorrect reference to the sax solo in this song has been removed.