Best Billy Joel songs: Critic's ranking

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Billy Joel had quite the year in 2014.
He started the year on national TV, performing songs live at his sold-out debut at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and he wraps it up with a record-tying 12th concert at Madison Square Garden. In between, he received the Library of Congress' Gershwin Prize for Popular Song and ASCAP's Centennial Award. He also sold out stadiums and arenas across America, prompting new consideration from music critics around the world and a new biography from journalist Fred Schruers.
Of course, Long Island fans didn't need to rethink their feelings about the Hicksville native, who is still a fixture at fundraisers and volunteer events around the area, as well as at his motorcycle shop in Oyster Bay. They simply continue to support their Piano Man. (He even beat out bagels in Newsday's "That's So Long Island!" contest this summer.)
In honor of Joel's year, it seemed like a good time to celebrate his career accomplishments. Here are his 14 best songs.

14. ‘Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)’ (1976)

Originally a science fiction tale about the destruction
(Credit: Bruce Gilbert)

Originally a science fiction tale about the destruction of New York City, the resilience he describes in "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)" turned it into a rallying cry following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “They say a handful still survive to tell the world about the way the lights went out,” he sings, “and keep the memory alive.”

13. 'The Longest Time' (1983)

(Credit: AP)

"The Longest Time" is a beautiful bit of doo-wop, with Joel handling the vocals and all the harmonies as a way to recapture his musical innocence as well as his romantic one. You can almost hear him walking on air in the tribute to Christie Brinkley, his feelings showing plainly in the music, even as he worries about holding back in the lyrics.

12. 'We Didn’t Start the Fire' (1989)

“We Didn’t Start the Fire” is a great
(Credit: Neal Preston)

“We Didn’t Start the Fire” is a great songwriting feat – condensing five decades of history into five minutes of rhymes and images. It’s a great song because of the chorus. “No, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it,” says volumes about Joel’s generation and its approach to history. The photo shows Joel onstage in the Soviet Union in 1987 as part of his Bridge To Russia concert.

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11. 'It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me' (1980)

“It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” Joel’s

“It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” Joel’s take on new wave, is also interesting bit of call-and-response, giving what would be called "haters" today their say, and then shutting them down. Rock and roll defies trends, Joel argues, and then proves it musically. That he wrote it on the LIE on the way to the studio in Manhattan makes it even more impressive.

10. 'Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)' (1993)

One of Joel’s simplest songs, “Lullabye (Goodnight, My

One of Joel’s simplest songs, “Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)” is a gorgeous example of how less is more, both musically and lyrically. Written for his daughter, Alexa Ray, it telegraphs the marital troubles with Christie Brinkley that would result in a divorce, but it also works as a simple lullaby for a child that misses her father.

9. 'Goodnight Saigon' (1982)

“Goodnight Saigon,” his tribute to the military (and,
(Credit: Sony Music Archives)

“Goodnight Saigon,” his tribute to the military (and, really, to everyone who dedicates his or her life to serving others), is stellar because the verses sound like actual remembrances from the Vietnam War. The simple, idealistic chorus takes it all to the next level.

8. 'Vienna' (1977)

(Credit: Getty Images / Michael Ochs Archives)

"Vienna" is an extraordinarily personal ballad, from the opening classical piano nod to the advice about following your dreams. What makes it universal is that the advice is so good that everyone can relate: “Don’t you know that only fools are satisfied? Dream on, but don't imagine they'll all come true.”

7. 'Summer, Highland Falls' (1976)

Even without the lyrics, the music of “Summer,
(Credit: amazon.com)

Even without the lyrics, the music of “Summer, Highland Falls” feels like sadness or euphoria. Joel then layers the lyrics about the wild mood swings that come with love slipping away due to problems out of his control. It’s the musical definition of bittersweet.

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6. 'Big Shot' (1978)

The verses to
(Credit: Washington Post / Tom Allen)

The verses to "Big Shot" are as heavy metal as Joel gets, hard-hitting bits of strutting cool – the way the subject of the song sees himself. The chorus takes on a circus feel – the cartoonish way others see Big Shot. It’s an impressive bit of songwriting, while still getting in some good-natured jabs.

5. 'She’s Always a Woman' (1977)

The beauty of this love song – a
(Credit: amazon.com)

The beauty of this love song – a tribute to Joel’s first wife, Elizabeth – is that “She’s Always a Woman” celebrates a bond based on reality. This is about a real love that exists despite potential problems. (“She can ruin your faith with her casual lies.”) It’s honest and poignant, with specific lyrics and a universal melody.

4. 'Only the Good Die Young' (1977)

Rock and roll is about rebellion. It’s about
(Credit: AP)

Rock and roll is about rebellion. It’s about sex. “Only the Good Die Young” is rock and roll in its purest, most charismatic state.

3. 'Piano Man' (1973)

The classic sing-along is deceptively complex.
(Credit: Bruce Gilbert)

The classic sing-along is deceptively complex. "Piano Man" combines well-crafted characters, researched from the months Joel spent performing in a Los Angeles piano bar, with a memorable melody that lends itself to multiple listenings so that the song’s themes come through. And it’s a testament to the power of the song that fans are happy to put themselves in the roles of the flawed characters and Joel in the role of Piano Man.

2. 'Scenes from an Italian Restaurant' (1977)

Everything about
(Credit: Danielle Finkelstein)

Everything about "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant," the seven-minute-plus suite from “The Stranger,” is epic – from the classic piano and saxophone solos to the well-crafted characters of Brenda and Eddie to its story-within-a-story structure. However, its success isn’t in its grand ambitions, which are certainly more than fulfilled, but in its inspirational, inclusive heart. Everybody has problems, even the king and the queen of the prom. How do you survive? You do what you can to get through. Reminiscing about the good times helps.

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1. 'New York State of Mind' (1976)

There will come a time when
(Credit: Beth A. Keiser)

There will come a time when "New York State of Mind" will be Joel’s most famous song. It was always a timeless love letter to The City, one written from that unique point of view of someone who has left and returned. “I know what I’m needing,” he sings, over a piano-driven melody as memorable as Ray Charles singing about Georgia. “And I don’t want to waste more time.” But after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it took on a whole new meaning. It captured what had been lost and chronicled what remained. It was defiant. Someday, it will grow to mean something else because that is the mark of a great song. Someday, it will be associated with other singers, who will follow in the footsteps of Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett and Dame Shirley Bassey. But, for now, no other Joel song means more.

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