Posted by: Nathan | September 20, 2006

20 Best: Billy Joel

A while ago I wrote a post on Watermark in which I listed my twenty favorite Watermark songs. It was fun for me to think through all the songs I loved of theirs and then to try to evaluate what was the créme-de-la-créme and why, so I decided to make it a recurring theme in my blog.

Today, I’m going to list my top 20 Billy Joel songs, and these were hard to pick. In my experience as a music fan, no artist is as good over so many years in so many genres as Joel is. His albums span from the ’70s to the ’90s and into the ’00s if you count live albums. He plays it all: classical, rock, ballads, do-wop, love songs, politically-themed music, and he does it all exceedingly well. Joel’s lyrics are usually masterful; he has the rare gift of using rhyme without forcing it (by-and-large) so the rhyme seems a natural part of the message. His imagery and metaphor are always on point and rarely cliché. As for his musicality, he understands music in a way that most artists (if not all now) do not; he uses 6ths and 7ths, he plays in a variety of keys; he is a true artist who knows his medium and uses it brilliantly.

Here are my 20 Best Billy Joels tunes (sorry this is so long):

“You’re My Home” Piano Man, 1973. This song turns a sentimental cliché into a beautiful extended metaphor–soft and sweet.

“I’ll never be a stranger, and I’ll never be alone / Wherever we’re together that’s my home”

“Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” The Stranger, 1977. A great story song about people trying to balance life and money; tremendously fun to sing along with.

“You can pay Uncle Sam with the overtime / Is that all you get for your money?”

“New York State of Mind” Turnstiles, 1976. A paragon of songs about place. The lyrics make you feel like Joel does in the song, and the piano adds all the finesse and melancholy one could hope for.

“I don’t have any reasons / I’ve left them all behind / I’m in a New York state of mind”

“Say Goodbye to Hollywood” Turnstiles, 1976. A song about transition and what one leaves behind. Tremendously sung and well-written, and the saxophone solo is great.

“Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes / I’m afraid it’s time for goodbye again”

“Allentown” The Nylon Curtain, 1982. This one tells the story of a small coal mining town that time and money have left behind. Joel has the ability of taking individual situations, personalizing them, and making them universal.

“Well, I’m living here in Allentown / And it’s hard to keep a good man down / But I won’t be getting up today”

“The River of Dreams” River of Dreams, 1993. This song is highly symbolic in a way that dreams always are, and the musicality is simultaneously powerful and fun.

“I hope it doesn’t take the rest of my life / Until I find what it is I’ve been looking for”

“Piano Man” Piano Man, 1973. This song has almost become a cliché for a generation because it’s such a profound snapshot of a bar on a Saturday night. People are just searching for meaning in a confusing world, and we all can relate to that. It’s beautifully composed and the lyrics are poetic.

“Yes, they’re sharing a drink they call “loneliness” / But it’s better than drinking alone”

“A Matter of Trust” The Bridge, 1986. Joel examines the different kind of loves in this tune. It’s definitely an upbeat rock song, but he’s really onto something profound here: the relationship between love and trust.

“It’s hard when you’re always afraid / You just recover when another belief is betrayed / So break my heart if you must / It’s a matter of trust”

“Prelude/Angry Young Man” Turnstiles, 1976. The music in this is blistering and complex; it’s an amazing rock song even before the words begin, but when they do, the listener is rewarded with a spot-on portrait of a political martyr.

“I believe I’m past the age of consciousness and righteous rage / I found that just surviving was a noble fight”

“Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” The Stranger, 1977. This song is an opus of young love and the challenges of life. It’s long, beautiful, fun yet poignant.

“They started to fight when the money got tight / And they just didn’t count on the tears”

“Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” Turnstiles, 1976. Joel creates a mythology of the future in this song, and that in large part is why it made the list. “Miami 2017” refers to the idea that in the year 2017 all New Yorkers will have moved from the city because it’s been destroyed. Rather strange to listen to in a post-9/11 era.
“There are not many who remember / They say a handful still survive / To tell the world about the way the lights went out / And keep the memory alive”

“I Go to Extremes” Storm Front, 1989. Quintessential piano rock ‘n’ roll. This song is mainly fun, but it’s an excellent description of someone who’s all-or-nothing in life.

“Sometimes I lie awake night after night / Coming apart at the seams / Eager to Please, ready to fight / Why do I go to extremes?”

“Uptown Girl” An Innocent Man, 1983. This one is fun, classic and completely singable. There’s not a lot of depth here, but who said there always had to be? Great song.

“She’s getting tired of her high class toys / And all the present from her uptown boys / She’s got a choice”

“And So It Goes” Storm Front, 1989. This song is a surprise ending to the otherwise uptempo Storm Front album; it’s soft, contemplative, and really reflects the vulnerability inherent in any loving relationship.

“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”

“It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” Glass Houses, 1980. A rock song through and through with a catchy bass riff and a classic saxophone solo, this one is a lot of fun. The lyrics are actually a dialogue between Joel (or the speaker perhaps) and someone who’s trendy — it’s a great satire.

“‘Where have you been hiding out lately, honey? / You can’t dress trashy till you spend a lot of money'”

“Honesty” 52nd Street, 1980. The theme of truthfulness’ departure from relationships is one that rings true today more than ever — this is Joel at his lyrical best.

“I don’t want some pretty face / To tell me pretty lies / All I want is someone to believe”

“Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)” River of Dreams, 1993. It’s a lullabye, so of course it’s gentle, delicate and lovely; this is Joel as a father singing to his daughter.

“Someday your child may cry / And if you sing this lullabye / Then in your heart / There will always be a part of me”

“She’s Always a Woman” The Stranger, 1977. Another soft one, this song speaks to the varying condition of a woman’s heart. I always thought it was kind of mean, but J loves it, so he must be onto something.

“She only revels what she wants you to see / She hides like a child / But she’s always a woman to me”

“Tomorrow is Today” Cold Spring Harbor, 1971. This song relates the stagnancy of life via the oxymoron that becomes its extended metaphor. It’s another slow one, but it’s well written and composed.

“People tell me life is sweeter / But I don’t hear what they say / Nothing comes to change my life / So tomorrow is today”

“Summer, Highland Falls” Turnstiles, 1976. This is Joel’s best song in my opinion. The piano part is gorgeously orginal, and the lyrics are almost philosophical. It’s unlike any song I’ve ever heard.

“Now we are forced to recognize our inhumanity / Our reason coexists with our insanity / And though we choose between reality and madness / It’s either sadness or euphoria”

That’s it! That’s the list. I used this website for discography information and lyric quotations.

In case you’re curious, these just barely missed the cut: “Only the Good Die Young,” “I’ve Loved These Days,” “Captain Jack,” “Everybody Loves You Now.”

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Responses

  1. Billy Joel is incredible. Some great songs on your list. I have a like-hate relationship with Allentown (sometimes I like it, sometimes I hate it). I’m VERY glad to see “And So It Goes” made the cut. While probably not right for your list, Joel did some excellent covers like “Shameless” and “To Make You Feel My Love”.

  2. I liked your list. I’ve just read your post from home, and Jason has all our Billy Joel CDs in his car (and he’s at work)… You’ve made me anxious to hear some good Billy Joel music again!
    Jason, “Shameless” was written by Billy Joel. (Garth Brooks likes to sing songs that Billy Joel sings, and covered both “Shameless” and “To Make You Feel My Love.”)

  3. Yeah, not sure why I thought that was a cover of Garth. Still, his version is good too.

  4. Jason, you’re right on the money with “And So It Goes”…it’s my second favorite Billy Joel song, following closely behind “Piano Man”. Nathan, no love for “We Didn’t Start the Fire”? The verses are pretty impressive, I’ve gotta say..

  5. Yeah, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is impressive as all-get-out lyrically, but the tune doesn’t do too much for me. I still love the song, but I couldn’t include them all.

  6. Nathan and Dan,

    Can you guys remember which of these songs Billy did in concert when we saw him with Elton John? Here are my guesses, given as a Top 11 list saving the best concert number for last. I haven’t given this ranking a lot of thought, but I’m curious if you remember any others. It was a great night.

    >>
    –“Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”
    –“Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”
    –“Honesty”
    –“Say Goodbye to Hollywood”
    –“New York State of Mind”
    –“Uptown Girl”
    –“Allentown”
    –“Piano Man”
    –“I Go to Extremes”
    –“The River of Dreams”
    –“It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”

  7. Here’s the setlist we took in: http://www.billyjoelfan.com/Concerts/Dates/2003/04-17.shtml

  8. My Personal Top Ten Billy Joel Songs

    1. Captain Jack
    2. Piano Man
    3. Scenes From an Italian Restaurant
    4. The Stranger
    5. Summer Highland Falls
    6. Just the Way You Are
    7. Only the Good Die Young
    8. Miami 2017 ( I’ve Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)
    9. We Didn’t Start the Fire
    10. And So It Goes

  9. Great list, Rich. All amazing songs there, no doubt.


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