10 More Classic Billy Joel Songs

In 2021, I assembled a list of my ten favourite Billy Joel songs. It included big hits and deep cuts, taken from his 1976-1983 prime.

There’s been a lot of Billy Joel discussion in my household recently. My nine-year-old daughter’s interest in Joel has been piqued by a shoutout from her favourite musical artist, Olivia Rodrigo. In her tune ‘Déjà Vu’, Rodrigo sings:

I’ll bet that she knows Billy Joel
‘Cause you played her “Uptown Girl”
You’re singing it together
Now I bet you even tell her
How you love her
In between the chorus and the verse

Olivia Rodrigo

My daughter inspected my first list of Joel songs. Upon not finding ‘Uptown Girl’ on it, she demanded a recount. Hence a second list of Joel songs – ‘Uptown Girl’ narrowly missed out on the first list, so I was happy to include it here.

It’s another assortment of big hits and deep cuts. This time I spread the net wide. I limited the tunes to one track per album, taking in songs from Joel’s first major-label album in 1973 to his swansong River of Dreams in 1993.

As you’ll notice, both lists omit some of Joel’s very best-known songs. ‘Piano Man’ outstays its welcome at 5:40, while the best moment of ‘Just The Way You Are’ is Phil Woods’ lovely sax solo.

10 More Classic Billy Joel Songs

#20 The Ballad of Billy the Kid

from Piano Man, 1973
Joel’s work with producer Michael Stewart on 1973’s Piano Man and 1974’s Streetlife Serenade largely pushes him into a country-ish sound. It’s not what he does best – it doesn’t showcase his piano chops or New York smarminess like his best work. But ‘Ballad of Billy the Kid’ is my favourite early Joel track.

It helps that it’s totally insincere. As Joel explains “that song is actually a nonsense song. It’s an absolute lie from beginning to end. Billy the Kid wasn’t hanged, he was shot. He never got to Colorado. He never got to Oklahoma.”

#19 The Night Is Still Young

from Greatest Hits – Volume I & Volume II, 1985
‘The Night Is Still Young’ is a new song from Joel’s bestselling 1985 compilation. It uses one of my favourite songwriting tricks – it withholds the big hook until halfway through the song – the wordless vocal melody.

It’s unique in Joel’s catalogue. The use of his deep vocal register in the verses, the heavily reverbed drums, and the accordion hook in a 1980s pop production are all outside his usual style.

#18 Stiletto

from 52nd Street, 1978
‘Stiletto’ is a decent song, but it wouldn’t make this list without the killer arrangement. There’s a staccato piano riff, inspired by Traffic’s ‘Shanghai Noodle Factory’. And there’s a stop-start arrangement, with finger snaps and a sax riff from Richie Cannata.

It’s a natural fit for a live setting as a jam-based song. Joel recorded it on his 1987 Russian tour, later released as Kontsert.

#17 The Downeaster ‘Alexa’

from Storm Front, 1989
Storm Front is one of Joel’s most serious albums. On ‘The Downeaster ‘Alexa” he takes on the persona of struggling fisherman working the waters off Long Island.

Musically, it’s an interesting structure with no chorus and a wordless bridge. There’s violin accompanying Joel’s “yo-yo-yo-yooo” in the latter. He was credited as “World Famous Incognito Violinist” in the Storm Front liner notes, but it was later revealed as Ishtak Perlman. Joel’s an impressive vocal chameleon and his rich baritone here is unlike any other song on this list.

#16 Close to the Borderline

from Glass Houses, 1980
Glass Houses is one of Joel’s most consistent albums, with deep cuts that outshine the singles. Joel was inspired by punk and new wave for this record. “This album is hard rock heavy. No balance between the ballads and the harder stuff.” That’s a disputable claim for an album that features the French-language ballad ‘C’était Toi (You Were the One)’.

‘Close to the Borderline’, its heaviest track, sounds closer to Led Zeppelin than The Sex Pistols with the funky riffing. It features some of Joel’s best lyrics, about New York’s Summer of ’77:

Blackout, heatwave, .44 caliber homicide
The bums drop dead and dogs go mad
In packs on the West Side

#15 Vienna

from The Stranger, 1977
‘Vienna’ is Joel’s most-loved deep cut. It enjoyed prime real estate – it opens the second side of Joel’s best-loved album, The Stranger. It’s also the b-side of Joel’s breakthrough single, ‘Just The Way You Are’. Even though it’s not a single, it’s enjoyed placement in TV shows (Taxi) and movies (13 Going On 30)

It’s relaxed enough to make you realise how tightly wound most of Joel’s work is. Anecdotally, i’s appealing to young adults, who take lyrics like “Slow down you’re doing fine/You can’t be everything you want to be before your time” to heart.

#14 Big Man on Mulberry Street

from The Bridge, 1986
The Bridge was the last stand from Joel’s classic era. It’s his final record produced by Phil Ramone, and the last to feature long-serving bassist Doug Stegmeyer and rhythm guitarist Russell Javors. On the lengthy ‘Big Man on Mulberry Street’, Joel mines big band territory.

I have some reservations about Joel’s vocal affectations. But there’s an undeniable riff, and Joel’s piano fills after each riff are the song’s main selling point for me.

#13 The River of Dreams

from River of Dreams, 1993
Joel’s ability to deliver a smash hit two decades after ‘Piano Man’ is impressive. On ‘The River of Dreams’ he blends a falsetto doo-wop lead vocal with gospel backing vocals, over a funky 1990s beat. It’s magical, even if I wish the piano break in the bridge was longer.

The cover art for this Joel era was created by Christie Brinkley, the supermodel who was Joel’s wife between 1985 and 1994.

#12 Uptown Girl

from An Innocent Man, 1983
On his 1983 album An Innocent Man, Joel played homage to the music of his youth in the late 1950s and early 1960s. ‘Uptown Girl’ takes inspiration from the doo-wop of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.

Joel divorced his first wife in 1982. He originally titled the song ‘Uptown Girls’, about a time he was dating Elle McPherson, and hanging around with Whitney Houston and Christie Brinkley. By the time he finished ‘Uptown Girl’ he was dating Brinkley. After the serious-minded The Nylon Curtain, ‘Uptown Girl’ was fun and breezy. It’s Joel’s only chart-topper in the UK.

#11 Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)

from Turnstiles, 1976
In 1975, New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy. They were denied assistance by the government. This inspired this apocalyptic fantasy. Joel imagining himself as grandparent in 2017, retired to Florida and recalling the fall of New York. Some of it did come true, Joel sings “I saw the Empire State laid low, I watched the mighty skyline fall” – presaging the destruction of the Twin Towers in the 2001 terrorist attack.

Joel found his artistic voice with 1976’s Turnstiles – it was the first Joel album to feature stalwarts like drummer Liberty DeVitto. This live version is taken from the 1981 live album, Songs from the Attic.

Did I (still) miss your favourite Joel tune?

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  1. He’s great but I cannot stand uptown girl. I like “ you may be right” and “Big Shot” and such.

    Everyone should watch the documentary- last night at Shea. About him and the Beatles and the reason we have suburbs. Very smart.

  2. My faves BJ list:
    A matter of trust
    An innocent man
    It’s still rock and roll to me
    Big Shot
    New York State of Mind
    Scenes from an Italian Restaurant
    The Stranger
    You May Be Right

    • Thanks for sharing – a couple of those (Stranger and Scenes) were in the top ten. It’s always weird seeing the piano man strapping on a guitar for A Matter of Trust.

      • You’re welcome, and yes, it is. I’ve seen him as a guest on Colbert a few times recently. He doesn’t perform but he does talk about a standing venue where he performs regularly (forgot which one.) I like his music but now he strikes me as a bit of a creeper (dirty old man.)

  3. I do like Uptown Girl so I agree with your daughter.
    My favorite Joel song is number #7 on your list…it’s almost like a mini rock opera.
    I always liked The Ballad of Billy the Kid….I just haven’t heard it in a long time. Your list here is great.

    • Joel wanted George Martin to produce Scenes from an Italian Restaurant because he thought it was like the second side of Abbey Road. Phil Ramone was a better choice at that point though – he did a great job on Joel’s peak period.

      Thanks for reading!

  4. Nice playlist. I’ve listened to each of the albums you touched on over the years – something I can’t say for most other artists. That said, I couldn’t remember a few of the song titles, e.g., “Stiletto” and “Close to the Borderline.”

    It’s remarkable how Billy Joel released pop albums at a steady pace between 1971 and 1993 and then seemingly ran out of gas. Perhaps even more notable is that even though he stopped releasing any new pop music after “River of Dreams” (excluding “Turn the Lights Back On”, which I suspect will be a one-off), he still remained a popular artist who has sold out one show after the other in his soon-to-end residency at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

    • I was reading that he got discouraged by the lack of success for the singles from The Rivers of Dream album (apart from the title track). I thought he’d have been happy he’d had one big hit.

      He’s become a lot cooler over the last thirty years. Maybe not leaving a string of albums with diminishing returns has helped his legacy.

  5. Here’s ten of my favourites that didn’t make your 20 –

    1. Until The Night
    2. The Entertainer
    3. Captain Jack
    4. You’re My Home
    5. This Is The Time
    6. Leningrad
    7. I Go To Extremes
    8. Rosalinda’s Eyes
    9. Big Shot
    10. Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)

    • Thanks for sharing.

      Captain Jack’s a pretty popular one I couldn’t fit. Same with Movin’ Out, and ‘Big Shot’, which is pretty funny. This Is The Time has a great chorus.

      That line “You’re my castle, you’re my cabin and my instant pleasure dome” kind of kills You’re My Home for me.

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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person. It features album reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.

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Graham Fyfe has been writing this website since his late teens. Now in his forties, he's been obsessively listening to albums for years. He works as a web editor and plays the piano.

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