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10 Best Billy Joel Songs

Despite his talent, it took Billy Joel a long time to find success. He played piano on the Shangri-Las’ ‘Remember (Walking in the Sand)’ in 1964 as a teenager – although it’s unclear whether he appeared on a demo or on the finished version. Thereafter, he spent years playing in unsuccessful bands like the Echoes, The Hassles, and Attila – the latter duo releasing an infamous album in 1970 where Joel played heavy metal on a Hammond organ. Even 1973’s signature song ‘Piano Man’ didn’t mark a career upturn, and Joel remained obscure until 1977’s mega-seller The Stranger. Joel stopped recording new material after 1993’s River of Dreams, but has remained a popular live act.

I’ve been a fan of Joel’s since my early teens. This list presents a mixture of hits, forgotten singles, and deep cuts; the songs that have held up the best for me. All ten of these songs are drawn from his prime era between 1976 and 1983. As you’ll notice, it omits some of Joel’s very best-known songs – ‘Piano Man’ outstays its welcome at 5:40, the best moment of ‘Just The Way You Are’ is Phil Woods’ lovely sax solo, while the Frankie Valli pastiche ‘Uptown Girl’ narrowly missed the cut.

10 Best Billy Joel Songs

#10 – This Night

from An Innocent Man (1983)
An Innocent Man is Joel’s most joyous album, referencing the doo-wop and R&B of his youth in the early 1960s. I’ve tired of the hits – ‘Uptown Girl’, ‘Tell Her About It’, and ‘The Longest Time’ – and I’ve opted for a deep cut. ‘This Night’ combines doo-wop verses with a chorus that’s lifted from Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique. It’s a slightly awkward blend, but the key change into each chorus is glorious. While ‘Uptown Girl’ is written about Joel’s second wife, Christie Brinkley, ‘This Night’ is written about a prior fling with another supermodel, Elle McPherson.


#9 – My Life

from 52nd Street (1978)
Joel followed his commercial breakthrough The Stranger with his first number one album. 52nd Street won the album of the year Grammy, despite not matching The Stranger artistically. First single ‘My Life’, however, is a great slice of disco-inflected pop. Joel’s electric piano and the stepping bass line from Doug Stegmeyer provide impetus, while the lyrics provide a time capsule of the 1970s me-generation. Chicago’s Peter Cetera and Donnie Dacus are on backing vocals.


#8 – The Stranger

from The Stranger (1977)
Joel aimed to create a cinematic introduction, like the theme for The Third Man, for the title track to his breakthrough album. His whistling and jazzy piano are used in the introduction, but the main track is driven by bluesy guitar. It’s one of my favourite Joel vocals, with just enough sassy drama in lines like “Some are satin some are steel/Some are silk and some are leather.”


#7 – Scenes From An Italian Restaurant

from The Stranger (1977)
Billy Joel was a Beatles fanatic growing up in the 1960s. When he approached George Martin to produce The Stranger, he played Martin ‘Scenes From An Italian Restaurant’. ‘Scenes’ was a suite of songs inspired by the second side of Abbey Road. Martin disliked Joel’s band, and refused to work with them, and Joel instead began a long and fruitful working relationship with Phil Ramone. ‘Scene’ is Joel’s longest studio song, at 7:37, but the portrait of Brenda and Eddie is a fan favourite, recalling Springsteen’s romantic 1970s epics. It’s the only song that also makes Joel’s own list of his five favourite songs (along with ‘Vienna’, ‘And So It Goes’, ‘You May Be Right’, and ‘She’s Right On Time’).


#6 – Goodnight Saigon

from The Nylon Curtain (1982)
Billy Joel is a musical spokesman for his baby boomer generation, and ‘Goodnight Saigon’ recounts the Vietnam War. Joel didn’t serve in the war, but wrote the song based on his friends’ experiences. He doesn’t take sides, just recounts the experience from the perspective of an American soldier. Despite some sloppy lyrics (“They heard the hum of our motors/They counted the rotors”) there’s emotional power in the song’s slow build-up and the camaraderie of the chorus.


#5 – All For Leyna

from Glass Houses (1980)
‘All For Leyna’ was Glass Houses first single in the UK., but it’s largely been forgotten. Joel plays an obsessive adolescent in a new wave flavoured track. It’s a guitar-heavy rocker by Joel’s standards, but he contributes solos on an Oberheim OB-X synthesizer and plays dramatic piano fills.


#4 – Sleeping With The Television On

Billy Joel Glass Houses

from Glass Houses (1980)
Also from Glass Houses, this deep cut sounds closer to Elvis Costello than you’d expect based on Joel’s other work. In my opinion it outshines the record’s best-known songs – ‘You May Be Right’ and ‘It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me’ – as Joel balances energy with sophistication.


#3 – She’s Always A Woman

from The Stranger (1977)
Joel’s first wife, Elizabeth Weber, took over managing him in the mid-1970s. Her tough-nosed approach was successful, coinciding with Joel’s rise to stardom, and ‘She’s Always A Woman’ is a tribute to her as a wife and manager. It makes for an interesting love song – most don’t contain lines like “she steals like a thief/But she’s always a woman to me.” It’s also notable for Joel’s gorgeous baroque piano and it suits his higher 1970s register – his voice would thicken up from smoking – and the arrangement is just Joel’s voice and piano backed with some gently picked guitar. Regrettably, 1985’s Billy Joel: An Illustrated Biography misspells the title as ‘She’s Only A Woman’!


#2 – Summer, Highland Falls

from Turnstiles (1976)
After recording a pair of records in L.A., where the hints of Americana weren’t a great fit for a streetwise city kid, Joel returned to New York. He rented a home in upstate New York, in Highland Falls, and ‘Summer, Highland Falls’ documents this time – Joel has stated that it’s about manic depression. Like the previous song in this list, it’s notable for its lovely baroque piano.


#1 – Allentown

from The Nylon Curtain (1982)
Joel started writing ‘Allentown’ in the 1970s – it was originally titled Levitttown. He read about the steel industry in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, and wrote lyrics about Bethlehem Steel’s decline. The song’s actually about Bethlehem, but neighbouring Allentown worked better for rhyming. Joel plays acoustic guitar on the single cover and on the video, but the song’s centred around Joel’s gorgeous piano figure.

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Any suggestions for songs that I missed?

66 thoughts on “10 Best Billy Joel Songs Leave a comment

    • Angry Young Man probably would have come in next, actually. I feel like only one Turnstiles song is a bit harsh – ‘New York State of Mind’, ‘Miami 2017’, ‘Say Goodbye to Hollywood’ are all very good too.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I’m not big on “Angry Young Man”. The intro a little too showy, and the lyrics a bit too defeatist/condescending (which I know is a common criticism against Joel). It was a song that I liked when I was young, but then I really listened to them when I was 16 and was turned off.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. The closest I ever got to being a Billy Joel fan is when I purchased “Storm front” on cassette tape as a teenager. I don’t know what ever happened to it…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Storm Front isn’t really his best work – it has a big AOR sheen that’s not the best fit. His six best albums all came out between 1976 and 1983 – although I reckon Storm Front is his best from outside that peak.

      Liked by 1 person

        • I’m assuming, off the top of my head: Don Henley’s End of the Innocence. Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever. Travelling Wilburys. Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy. Paul McCartney’s Flowers in the Dirt.

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        • Yes to everything except Dylan.
          Add:
          Phil Collins: But Seriously
          Eric Clapton: Journeyman
          Steve Winwood: Roll With it
          Neil Young: Freedom
          Rolling Stones: Steel Wheels
          Mike + The Mechanics: Living Years

          Liked by 1 person

        • I think a lot of what we now think as “big deal” albums in that era really weren’t, at least outside of magazines/critical consensus. And if the only point of reference you have is that, you’d think that Oh Mercy and the s/t Brian Wilson were significant in the pop world sense as well.

          I was 13-15 from ’88 to ’90, and heavily listened to AOR radio here in the US and watched MTV. Neither the Dylan or Wilson album were played much (if at all) but I heard lots of Storm Front, But Seriously, The End of The Innocence, and the others on my list.

          Looking back, radio and MTV were pretty dire. My local AOR station still played current music (it wasn’t ’70s rock 24/7 yet), but that was split between The Second Coming of Boomer Rock like I listed, or hair metal.

          This all put into sharper relief when a song by Jane’s Addiction or The Cult came on the radio. They were still “rock” enough to get played on AOR but different enough to be interesting. That had to suffice until Nirvana broke, and I found out about punk and indie/college rock.

          Anyhoo, this is supposed to be about Billy Joel, so I’ll end on this: I really like “A Matter Of Trust” off The Bridge, one of the few great songs on that album.

          Liked by 1 person

        • According to Spotify the Pixies have more monthly listeners than Don Henley now, but it’s pretty close. So critical consensus does kind of come true over the long run, but it’s not very pronounced. I turned 10 in 1989, and wasn’t really following music.

          Living in New Zealand, some more alternative-leaning UK stuff was popular here: Stone Roses debut went to #11, as did New Order’s Technique.

          I’ve always liked the line “The cold remains of what began with a passionate start”.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Alternative didn’t have as much as an impact yet on the US charts. The Cure and Depeche Mode scored top ten hits in 89-90, which is a big deal for the Billboard Hot 100.

          I think a lot of it was because how much influence boomers still had over popular music as the ’80s closed. It dropped off sharply in the early ’90s, but I definitely remember other teenagers listening to that Don Henley album. The videos were all over MTV as well.

          Liked by 1 person

        • You’d imagine that teenagers must have been buying those boomer-act records, otherwise their sales wouldn’t have fallen off so drastically after Nirvana hit. It’s easy to see 1991 as a last gasp of relevance for something like Genesis – album probably would have sold half as much if it had been released a year later.

          Liked by 1 person

        • It was a bit of Stockholm Syndrome. Us Gen-X kids were constantly told by our Boomer parents how music “mattered more” in the ’60s to early ’70s, so the best way to tap into that was buy albums by those acts. Especially if you thought your alternative was Top 40 whatever or Hair Metal. (Underground music was still that, and Hip Hop wasn’t played much outside of “Urban” radio.)

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  2. Nice list, Graham! I started listening to Billy Joel in my teens and still enjoy many of his songs. Your no. 1, Allentown, also happens to be one of my favorite Joel tunes. I also really dig “Goodnight Saigon”. If I had to pick only one Billy Joel song, I’d go with “New York State of Mind.”

    It’s amazing to me how a music artist who hasn’t released any new pop music since 1993 still sold out one Madison Square Garden show after the other prior to the pandemic. And I imagine once large concert venues open up again, he’ll resume where he left off!

    Well, I believe I know the answer: I got to see him in the early 2000s, and it just was a great show!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Good idea for a post. We have exactly in common but I could just as easily have put ‘Scenes’ on my list. Here’s mine:

    The River of Dreams
    The Stranger
    An Innocent Man
    The Longest Time
    Tell Her About It
    You May Be Right
    A Matter of Trust
    New York State of Mind
    Vienna
    Pressure

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Scenes From An Italian Restaurant would be my #1 and you probably said the reason why…I like the grouping of different songs. Allentown would be a solid two right behind it.

    River of Dreams and Say Goodbye to Hollywood would probably be in mine…but we are really close.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m not a fan of ‘best ofs’ as I find them so difficult, particularly with artists like Bily Joel who have so many good ones, but here goes:-

    1. Scenes From An Italian Restaurant – Eddie could never afford to live that kind of life….
    2. Until The Night – as the cars turn their headlights on….
    3. Summer, Highlands Falls – it’s either sadness or euphoria….
    4. Allentown – iron and coke, chromium steel….
    5. Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out On Broadway) – before the Mafia took over Mexico….
    6. Say Goodbye To Hollywood – Bobby’s driving through the city tonight….
    7. Captain Jack – your sister’s gone out, she’s on a date….
    8. We Didn’t Start The Fire – England’s got a winning team….
    9. Only the Good Die Young – you Catholic girls start much too late….
    10. Movin’ Out – he works at Mr. Cacciatore’s down on Sullivan Street….

    Bubbling under – She’s Got A Way, Rosalinda’s Eyes, The Stranger, Temptation, An Innocent Man

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I saw Billy Joel on November 13, 1973 ay Massey Hall in Toronto. He opened for The Doobies. He was touring in support of Piano Man, released four days earlier. Nobody was there to see Joel sitting at the piano and singing. The lights were on and the audience was seating itself while he played. At one point he turned to us and asked us nicely to listen to him rather than talking over him. Little did we know! Since then I’ve had an equivocal relationship with Joel. I purchased and listened to all of his early LPs, beginning with Piano Man and ending with An Innocent Man. I was a mild fan who enjoyed much of his material while not really being overly enthused. Graham Parker once remarked (I think on Live! Alone in America) that the Russians had no idea; they think that Billy Joel is a rock and roll singer. Anyway, I stopped playing his records and CDs entirely after I heard We Didn’t Start the Fire, one of my least favourite popular songs of all time. i simply couldn’t take him seriously. That single song affirmed the thought that had always lodged in the back of my mind; that Billy Joel was a talented songsmith but was an insincere lightweight. Recently I have been working my way through his discography and must admit that he sure did write some catchy tunes. I still don’t love him but can understand why many do. I’d have Zanzibar on my list.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think he has a lot of musicality – he’s a good pianist and strong singer, and writes memorable hooks, But he’s not really a tier one album artist, apart from maybe The Stranger – and even that one ends limply. I definitely agree that he’s a bit of a lightweight, but I still like a lot of that 1976-1983 stuff.

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  7. Summer Highland Falls is my number one (and my ringtone!). For some reason, I can’t stop listening to Until The Night at the moment and singing along to it very badly! I’ve been a fan for over 30 years and I’ve never ever realised how bloody fantastic it is!

    Liked by 1 person

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