Billy Joel’s songs, ranked: ‘Piano Man,’ ‘New York State of Mind,’ more
With Billy Joel set to reopen the renovated Nassau Coliseum on April 5 — yet another Long Island milestone soundtracked by his music — the time seems right to take a look at his entire pop music catalog.
After all, Joel, one of the rare double inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, is content with his catalog of 12 studio albums — the same number The Beatles released. His hits are legendary, considering that his “Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 & 2” has sold 23 million copies in America, the most of any album in history besides Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and the Eagles’ greatest hits compilation.
But when you take a close look at Joel’s catalog, it’s clear that there really wasn’t much he didn’t try. There were piano ballads and guitar-driven rockers, jazzy reflections and old-school soul. An argument can be made that “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is hip-hop, but let’s let that one go.
We counted songs that Joel finished and officially released either on a studio album of his own or on a soundtrack or compilation. We also counted songs that he wrote for others and then recorded himself, like “All My Life,” which was originally meant for Tony Bennett. We didn’t count demos, like “Oyster Bay” released on the “My Lives” box set, or songs that morphed into other songs, like the way “The Prime of Your Life” became “The Longest Time.” And we didn’t count covers, no matter how tempting it is to consider Bob Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love” his song.
Stephen Colbert recently asked Joel why he didn’t release new music, adding that Elton John says he should put out more albums. “Well, I told him he should put out less albums,” Joel said, without missing a beat.
It seems pretty clear his current pop catalog isn’t going to grow any time soon. So here you have all 124 Joel songs, ranked:
124. “Tomorrow Is Today” (1971) Maybe we could overlook the weird bit in the middle where Joel’s voice drops several keys for no real reason (and then wobbles back up in the space of a phrase). Maybe the way he pronounces “saw” as “sore” is fine. But add it to the quivering vocals in the rest of the song and the vaguely British accent and it becomes the rare Joel song that is a truly bad idea.
123. “Roberta” (1974) Sad songs about being unable to afford more time with a hot stripper will only take you so far.
122. “Got to Begin Again” (1971) OK, this is basically one cliché after another (“I’ve got to begin again and it’s hard”) but Joel’s sweet delivery is actually kind of endearing. “It’s been quite a while since I lifted my head and I’m sure the light will hurt my eyes,” he sings. Aww.
121. “You Picked a Real Bad Time” (1993) The B-side to “All About Soul” is an odd mix of prog rock, blues and complaints about taxation, in which Joel declares, “The only thing worth dying for is our freedom ... Someday we will all be lying on our backs, free at last from income tax.”
120. “Why Judy Why” (1971) Even Beatlesque acoustic simplicity sometimes falls short, especially in the face of rhymes like “There’s no tomorrow ’cause my dream did not last, so I live in the past.”
119. “Falling of the Rain” (1971) Using piano tinkling to signify the rain is bad enough, but the extended metaphor about rain and “the land of misty satin dreams” and “a man who painted nature scenes” is just too much like it came from Creative Writing 101.
118. “Josephine” (1973) Joel channels his inner Jerry Lee Lewis on what he calls “an old rock and roll song I wrote for an old rock and roll chick.” It’s lighthearted fun that never got released until the “Piano Man” deluxe edition.
117. “You Look So Good to Me” (1971) Could this have inspired Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”? It’s a nice bit of fluff that never quite gets into gear.
116. “Turn Around” (1971) It’s rare to hear Joel sound so naive and straightforward, but “Turn around, and I will sing for you a song” just isn’t enough to hang this story on.
115. “Long, Long Time” (1973) You can hear the promise of Joel as a songwriter here, one of his earliest ballads that he would perform around the release of “Piano Man.” It’s good, especially at the bridge, but it falls short because young, inexperienced Joel is no match for the man at the peak of his powers.
114. “You Can Make Me Free” (1971) Joel’s foray into piano-driven glam rock is a bit over the top, foreshadowing Freddie Mercury’s approach a couple of years before Queen’s debut.
113. “The Mexican Connection” (1974) This instrumental from “Streetlife Serenade” tries to join two cultures through rhythm with debatable results, though the soaring chorus is memorable.
112. “Elvis Presley Blvd.” (1982: The B-side of “Allentown” is another travelogue, capturing the feel of early ’80s Memphis with a string of references to The King that show how the mourning got a little out of control.
111. “Scandinavian Skies” (1982) Joel says the trippy rocker was based on his one experience with heroin, which freaked him out so much he never tried it again. The song simulates the arc of a trip, though the payoff isn’t quite as potent in either direction.
110. “Rosalinda” (1973) Joel has called the song “a lullaby I wrote for my mother,” but it’s frantic and starts out quite dark as he sings, “All that you have is a cat and a silent telephone.” The fact that it’s a “Piano Man”-era outtake and the sweet “Rosalinda’s Eyes” has a special place on “52nd Street” show how his feelings changed.
109. “Los Angelenos” (1974) The groove is so good and the guitar riffs so angry that it almost makes up for Joel’s disdain for Los Angeles and all the people who move there in “funky exile.” Almost.
108. “Somewhere Along the Line” (1973) This is a rare songwriting exercise from Joel that feels like a songwriting exercise in parts. The giveaway? “It’s a pleasure to be soaking in the European rain.”
107. “Christmas in Fallujah” (2007) The only song in Joel’s catalog that was initially released with someone else singing on it. Joel felt that the tale of a soldier stuck in Iraq during the holidays should be sung by someone closer in age to those fighting in the war, so vocal duties went to Rockville Centre native Cass Dillon, though Joel plays on it and it bears the marks of a big Joel rock anthem. Although it’s a bit lumbering, its heart was in the right place. Proceeds from the single went to a charity for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
106. “James” (1976) There’s a nice bit of musical showboating in the pretty piano melody Joel delivers as he addresses a childhood friend who took the well-traveled path rather than chasing his dreams the way Joel did.
105. “If I Only Had the Words (To Tell You)” (1973) When a song is this sweet and innocent, it has to be pure to keep the illusion alive. As soon as Joel mentions “tired words,” it all comes crashing down.
104. “Storm Front” (1989) So meteorological!
103. “Worse Comes to Worst” (1973) Proof that Joel could probably have had Jimmy Buffett’s career if he just followed this path.
102. “Streetlife Serenader” (1974) A lovely mishmash of pieces that approximate the life of a busker, but don’t quite hold together long enough to make a broader point.
101. “House of Blue Light” (1989) The B-side from “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is big-budget blues, the kind seen in Hollywood approximation of a blues club, though the fiery guitar solo at the end is the real deal.
100. “Ain’t No Crime” (1973) Between the gospel-influenced backing vocals and the Elton John-ish phrasing Joel adopts for most of the songs, this really could have been a standout performance back on the “Face to Face” tours.
99. “Through the Long Night” (1980) The stacked harmonies give this simple song a sense of depth and emotional heft.
98. “A Minor Variation” (1993) A wild, experimental ride that finds Joel howling and adopting Michael Jackson’s vocal punctuation over a strutting blues backdrop.
97. “Surprises” (1982) A dark trudge through regrets and inevitability that still sticks in your head. Surprise! You know.
96. “Running on Ice” (1986) Balancing “Synchronicity”-era Police verses, with a poppy chorus shows that even Joel gets swayed by the radio sometimes.
95. “Root Beer Rag” (1974) A good-time instrumental that shows off Joel’s piano-playing skills as well as his sense of humor.
94. “Travelin’ Prayer” (1973) The rollicking, banjo-riffic folk accompaniment disguises the super-sweet sentiment of the prayer just enough to maintain the appearance of cool. Lumineers, this song is calling you.
93. “A Room of Our Own” (1982) Documenting so many quirks has never sounded so freeing, thanks to the latter-day Beatles breakdowns that provide the groove.
92. “Weekend Song” (1974) Who knew train rides and workplace struggles could sound this hopeful?
91. “Getting Closer” (1986) Joel’s collaboration with one of his musical heroes, Steve Winwood, helps brighten this detailing of how he dealt with getting swindled.
90. “Stop in Nevada” (1973) Dipping his toe in rocking operatic drama, which Meat Loaf would take over the top a few years later, to tell the story of a wife fleeing a bad relationship.
89. “Rosalinda’s Eyes” (1978) Joel pays tribute to his mother’s support with this touching ballad and its poetic, jazzy flourishes.
88. “Last of the Big Time Spenders” (1974) A well-crafted piano blues number built around the idea of being rich in love while struggling economically.
87. “Get It Right the First Time” (1977) La lalala la lala la. La lalala la lala lo.
86. “Code of Silence” (1986) Cyndi Lauper’s contributions to the song — both in backing vocals and in lyrics — give it the sonic pop that busts the patterns the lyrics outline.
85. “She’s Right on Time” (1982) For years, music execs tried to get Joel to record a holiday album. He declined. Instead, he wrote this nervous, melancholy ballad about a couple reuniting at the holidays. Yet another great career decision on Joel’s part.
84. “Leningrad” (1989) An outgrowth of Joel’s historic concert tour of the Soviet Union was this tale of how the Cold War thawed, as supposed enemies met and found that they had more in common than they ever imagined.
83. “Shades of Grey” (1993) To capture the confusion that comes from realizing that the world is not as black and white as leaders would have you believe, Joel uses a backdrop that’s part heavy metal, part chiming guitar from The Police’s “Roxanne.”
82. “Everybody Loves You Now” (1971) A next-level singalong to capture that feeling when you’re trying to psyche yourself up for a coming challenge, but knowing in the back of your mind that it won’t last.
81. “Christie Lee” (1983) A saxy good time filled with double entendres and Jerry Lee Lewis-styled piano riffs.
80. “Nobody Knows But Me” (1982) Parents were no doubt thanking Joel for his swaggering, ’70s rock anthem created for the children’s rock compilation “In Harmony II.” It’s hard-rocking fun, complete with funny voices.
79. “C’Etait Toi (You Were the One)” (1980) The pretty love song is a nice change of pace, with its very European sound, even before Joel starts singing in French for a few verses.
78. “52nd Street” (1978) He may be singing about midtown Manhattan, but it sounds like what you’d hear in New Orleans just off Bourbon Street.
77. “The Great Suburban Showdown” (1974) Joel accurately captures the awkward feeling of returning home after a period of rapid change — to a place you feel you’ve outgrown, to people you don’t have much in common with any more.
76. “Nocturne” (1971) The most moving piece on Joel’s debut “Cold Spring Harbor” is this gorgeous instrumental that conjures enough elegant night imagery to live up to its name and a truly recognizable refrain.
75. “The Great Wall of China” (1993) The soaring grandeur he builds with the Beatlesque swirl of harmonies for the chorus makes the sense of sneering disappointment in the verses feel that much more crushing.
74. “The Night Is Still Young” (1985) The single from Joel’s extraordinarily successful greatest hits collection is remarkable because the verses show the absolute floor of his lower register as he battles the dreariness of life on the road, before letting his voice soar on the chorus when he sings about the hope he feels when he returns home.
73. “This Is the Time” (1986) It’s probably not a coincidence that this sounds like any number of songs heard on adult contemporary stations in 1986.
72. “Temptation” (1986) Actually, so does this.
71. “When in Rome” (1989) A great, horn-filled old-school soul song that laments how work makes relationships so tough. “It’s a fact of life, now a man and wife work full time to just get by” is even truer today.
70. “Laura” (1982) A Beatles-themed therapy session about working through a toxic relationship.
69. “Half a Mile Away” (1978) The closest Joel gets to disco is really just a four-on-the-floor beat away from a dance hit.
68. “Close to the Borderline” (1980) Joel gets his glam rock on, even with a bit of a heavy metal snarl on the choruses, as he wonders, “Don’t know why I’m still a nice guy, but I’m getting close to the borderline.”
67. “That’s Not Her Style” (1989) Joel explores myths about his life with then-wife Christie Brinkley over a fantastic, myth-building rock groove that is equal parts Robert Palmer and Rolling Stones.
66. “Easy Money” (1983) The opener of “An Innocent Man” is part James Brown, part Frankie Valli and part Elton John — an up-tempo mix that Bruno Mars has since mastered and taken for his own.
65. “Everybody Has a Dream” (1977) The setup — the soaring vocals, the gospel choir support — would suggest something epic for his dream. But Joel actually goes for something more universal: “This is my dream, my own, just to be at home and to be all alone. With you.”
64. “Stiletto” (1978) Love (and snapping fingers) has never sounded quite so dangerous.
63. “All for Leyna” (1980) The jumpy, angst-ridden new wave of the verses is always enough to pull me back into the song that is now always linked to the opening of Bon Jovi’s “Runaway.”
62. “Blonde Over Blue” (1993) The edgy, angular rock backdrop makes the verses about desperately searching for inspiration sound even more unsettled, making the safety of the chorus feel even more soothing.
61. “State of Grace” (1989) Joel doesn’t get enough credit for writing timeless pop like this that could become a hit for pretty much any singer in almost any era. Kelly Clarkson, your next hit is right here. Or maybe you want it, Luke Bryan.
60. “I’ve Loved These Days” (1976) While it could apply to any major life change, this captures the end of college pretty perfectly.
59. “All You Wanna Do Is Dance” (1976) The spiky Afro-pop guitar and world beat rhythms of this impatient, but good-natured complaint predate Paul Simon’s “Graceland” by a decade and could have made Joel a critic’s darling if he pursued this sound instead of, well, “Piano Man.” He made the right choice.
58. “This Night” (1983) A doo-wop marvel that shows the influence of The Platters and The Drifters, especially in his upper register, while remaining entirely true to his own style.
57. “The Stranger” (1977) Though most people remember “The Stranger” for the whistling and the “ooh-oohs,” it really stands out as a savvy bit of advice about allowing yourself to be vulnerable and open in a relationship.
56. “Sometimes a Fantasy” (1980) The idea that this song, which skillfully plays with the idea of real love and fantasy, was too risqué for some stations to play seems ridiculous. Of course, three decades or so from now, what we freak out about today will also seem ridiculous.
55. “All My Life” (2007) One of only a handful of songs Joel has released since “The River of Dreams” in 1993, “All My Life” is a tribute to both his then-wife Katie Lee and the great jazz classics of Tony Bennett, who Joel hoped would record the song. When Bennett didn’t, Joel decided to do it himself.
54. “You’re My Home” (1973) The sweet simplicity of “Home is just another word for you” needs no other embellishment.
53. “Careless Talk” (1983) This sly, doo-wop charmer manages to simultaneously indict tabloid culture, declare love and show us all a good time.
52. “Modern Woman” (1986) The plot from this stylish ’80s pop number really should have become a rom-com starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. It sparks a smile every time.
51. “She’s Got a Way” (1971) As introductions go, this ballad is both promising and prophetic. The first song on Joel’s debut album shows how well he can tell a personal story and serves as a harbinger of how much stronger he will become as a writer.
50. “No Man’s Land” (1993) Raging about the suburban appeal of “no major industry, just miles and miles of parking space” is both universal and very Long Island-specific, especially when he refers to Amy Fisher. Joel has written about life away from the big city many times before, but here every word is sharp and pointed.
49. “Uptown Girl” (1983): The innocence of early-’60s pop perfectly suits the pure joy of finding love against all odds.
48. “The Entertainer” (1974) A clever bit of insight into life in the music business and how execs think. Turns out Joel gets the last laugh since he has proved the line “I won’t be here in another year if I don’t stay on the charts” spectacularly wrong — something he gleefully points out almost every time he performs the song now.
47. “Zanzibar” (1978) Such a close approximation of a night in a jazz club, right down to the memorable trumpet solo from Freddie Hubbard, that you’ll swear you can see the lights and smell the smoke.
46. “Two Thousand Years” (1993) Few artists have ever been so forthcoming about their plans to step away from recording. But Joel clearly looked to sum up his career as a songwriter with this epic roundup about the world and the more personal “Famous Last Words.” It’s a testament to his songwriting how well the songs work together and separately.
45. “Famous Last Words” (1993) When Joel sang, “These are the last words I have to say,” he meant it. Using the imagery of closing down the summer house for the season, he expected it to be the final pop song he ever recorded and it has held up as an eloquent personal summary of that phase of his career.
44. “An Innocent Man” (1983) Making the argument for taking another chance on love has rarely sounded so passionate and elegant, especially as its simple, bass-driven arrangement keeps the verses moving before the knockout chorus.
43. “Souvenir” (1974) As Joel sings about how “Every year’s a souvenir that slowly fades away,” he cleverly tucks away a memento for himself in the guise of a Chopin-like introduction and close.
42. “Where’s the Orchestra?” (1982) Long before he would win a Tony, Joel offered up this poignant, well-crafted Broadway musical number about managing expectations at the theater or, you know, life.
41. “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” (1973) A charming bit of storytelling fiction, as Joel sings about notorious gunfighter Billy the Kid (though not accurately) and an Oyster Bay bartender to prove to himself that he could write a country & western song.
40. “Just the Way You Are” (1977) Yes, it’s a rare Billy Joel love ballad that is actually about being in love. For many, it’s a little to straightforwardly sweet, but, let’s be honest, a lot of people like sweetness. The song became Joel’s first Top 10 single and won Grammys for record of the year and song of the year.
39. “Honesty” (1978) As sweet as Joel sounds on this piano ballad, the sentiments are dark as he worries, “Everyone is so untrue.” Pulling off such a striking mismatch is one of his underappreciated talents.
38. “My Life” (1978) Not only does Joel deliver a catchy anthem of personal protest, but he provides generations with plenty of comebacks for those who can’t keep their disapproval to themselves.
37. “And So It Goes” (1989) Though Joel may be seen as conventional for his simple piano ballads, this one is stunningly unorthodox and raw with poignant lines like “My silence is my self-defense” and “Every time I’ve held a rose, it seems I only felt the thorns.”
36. “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” (1989) By championing Long Island’s baymen, Joel shines a light on their struggle to make ends meet, as well as broader changes in the area. When he sings, “There ain’t no island left for Islanders like me,” he’s referring to both a very specific feeling and one that remains today.
35. “All About Soul” (1993) The most Springsteen-ian of Joel’s rockers, it’s telling that the fist-pumping, guitar-driven heroics are for the hard work of keeping a relationship alive. This is stadium rock all in the name of love.
34. “A Matter of Trust” (1986) “Some love is just a lie of the heart” is a great opening line, especially for a story of looking for love until it’s just right.
33. “Baby Grand” (1986) In his entire career, Joel has only collaborated with a handful of artists outside of his band. This duet with Ray Charles makes you wish he did more of them, a stunning soulful ballad that is a fitting addition to both of their legendary careers.
32. “Pressure” (1982) No one else could turn a frantic, classically influenced synthesizer riff and lyrics about avoiding a freakout into a Top 20 pop hit.
31. “Sleeping with the Television On” (1980) Joel shows how much the influx of British new wave singer-songwriters like Elvis Costello affected him, adopting the genre’s knack for cloaking sad awkwardness in upbeat poppy melodies. Yes, this is basically Joel’s take on The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?”
30. “Leave a Tender Moment Alone” (1983) May be the simplest, most elegant love ballad in the Joel catalog, his warm vocals aided by gorgeous harmonica solos from the great Toots Thielemans.
29. “Shameless” (1989) Joel builds a country-rock ballad so grand and authentic that Garth Brooks took it to the top of the country charts with only the slightest of changes.
28. “Big Man on Mulberry Street” (1986) Using a mix of big band grandeur and intimate jazz to explain why it’s hard to give up the quest for the spotlight is an inspired bit of storytelling, adding a cinematic touch to the ballad.
27. “Until the Night” (1978) The stunning, six-minute epic is drenched in Righteous Brothers-styled drama, as it turns survival from one night to the next into a heroic effort, meticulously sculpted with strings and horns by Joel and producer Phil Ramone.
26. “The River of Dreams” (1993) Combining call-and-response gospel with African-tinged rhythms would be impressive enough, but Joel uses it as a jumping-off point to outline a Biblical quest that doubles as his quest as an artist. The fact that it became the title track of his final studio album suggests that for him, “The River of Dreams” was music.
25. “You May Be Right” (1980) What would happen if Billy Joel fronted the Rolling Stones? Well, we get a vivid approximation here, especially on the original version, where his delivery crackles with nervous energy over blues rock guitar riffs as he concedes, “I may be crazy.”
24. “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” (1976) Joel’s tribute to Phil Spector production starts at the dramatic drum opening and extends to the way he delivers “Say goodbye, my baby.” The song, which originally featured pretty strings on “Turnstiles,” has gotten considerably tougher over the years, hitting the charts in its live form, without the strings, bringing it closer to Spector’s harder-hitting work.
23. “Keeping the Faith” (1983) By using the music of his youth as an inspiration, but not a blueprint, Joel shows how to embrace nostalgia without wallowing in it. He creates something new to carry it all forward, as he warns, “The good ol’ days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”
22. “I Go to Extremes” (1989) There is something cathartic about listening to Joel scream “I don’t know why” repeatedly while his band rages eloquently behind him with a wall of rock sound, especially when it comes after he admits that he understands that his mood swings are tough to deal with.
21. “I Don’t Want to Be Alone” (1980) This may be the best song to poke holes in your Joel-hating friends’ misinformed arguments. The verses ooze Joe Jackson cool and Elvis Costello sneers, while still resolving in a hip, but memorable chorus. It’s the most organic of his new wave “Glass Houses” songs and always a great surprise for anyone whose Joel experience is limited to radio hits.
20. “Tell Her About It” (1983) Joel updates the doo-wop sound he loved growing up and injects it with modern passion and an irresistible hook. Oh, and the advice is pretty good too.
19. “Don’t Ask Me Why” (1980) The Latin-tinged tribute to going with the flow is probably the strongest example of how skilled Joel is at absorbing a genre and re-creating it in his image. It’s also a treat to hear how the Latin influence grows the longer Joel performs it live.
18. “Allentown” (1982) The working class who felt forgotten and supported Donald Trump for president already felt left behind when Joel wrote this song more than three decades ago. His documentation of the loss of a certain way of life feels as applicable today as it did then.
17. “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” (1977) Joel doesn’t really get enough credit for his storytelling abilities, but the characters here are so sharply drawn with such insightful details that you could hang an entire movie on them, or, you know, a Broadway musical.
16. “Captain Jack” (1973) At this point, we’re in the midst of the third generation of teenagers celebrating this testament to finding escapes from teenage loneliness and alienation. And every time it is rediscovered, Joel’s realistic creation makes them think that someone finally understands how they feel.
15. “Prelude/Angry Young Man” (1976) It’s a masterful bit of songwriting to combine a “Prelude” that features one of the most daunting bits of piano playing in rock music history with an anthem that champions the ordinary guy, the guy who “found that just surviving was a noble fight.” Sure, the Angry Young Man may be showier and seem more heroic. And Joel doesn’t really put him down, but he believes he’s “passed the age of consciousness and righteous rage.”
14. “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” (1976) It was supposed to be a science fiction tale about the destruction of New York City. But the resilience Joel envisions turned the song into a rallying cry following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and he even rewrote some of the lyrics in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy. “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) Joel handles the vocals and all the harmonies in this lovely tribute to doo-wop as a way to recapture his musical innocence as well as his romantic one. He sounds like he’s walking on air thanks to his relationship with Christie Brinkley, even though he is worried about getting hurt in the lyrics. But his feelings give him away.
12. “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (1989) It is a songwriting feat — condensing 40 years of history into five minutes of rhymes and images. But it’s a great song because of the chorus. And “No, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it,” says volumes about Joel’s generation and how it looks at history.
11. “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” (1980) Joel’s take on New Wave is an 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 is a gorgeous example of how less really can be more, both musically and lyrically. Songs this straightforward have to be near perfect and this one is. Written for his daughter, Alexa Ray, it does telegraph his marital troubles with Christie Brinkley that would result in divorce, but it also serves as a tender song for a child who misses her father.
9. “Goodnight Saigon” (1982) This tribute to the military (and, really, to everyone who dedicates his or her life to public service) works so well because the verses sound like actual remembrances from the Vietnam War. Then, the idealistic, singalong chorus takes the song to the next level.
8. “Vienna” (1977) The extraordinarily personal ballad reflects Joel’s life plainly, from the classical piano opening to the advice about following your dreams. The good advice is clearly personal, but also universal: “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, 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.
6. “Big Shot” (1978) Joel’s best-structured song from a songwriting standpoint gets in some good-natured jabs about celebrities, both generally and specifically. He makes the verses sound like hard-hitting bits of strutting cool — the way the song’s subject sees himself — coming close to Joel’s teenage heavy metal roots. The taunting chorus, though, takes on a circus feel — the cartoonish way others see Big Shot.
5. “She’s Always a Woman” (1977) The beauty of this love song — a tribute to Joel’s first wife, Elizabeth — is that it celebrates a bond based on reality and that real love exists despite potential problems. (“She can ruin your faith with her casual lies.”) Few singalongs are ever this honest and poignant, combining specific lyrics with a universal melody.
4. “Only the Good Die Young” (1977) 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 is deceptively complex, considering how often it has been sung at closing time at bars around the world. “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 how true the song rings 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 “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” the seven-minute-plus suite from “The Stranger,” is epic — from the classic piano and saxophone solos to the recognizable 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.
1. “New York State of Mind” (1976) Someday, “New York State of Mind” will be Joel’s most famous song. For decades, it was the 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 melody as memorable as Ray Charles singing about Georgia. “And I don’t want to waste more time.” However, 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 also defiant. Someday, it will likely be called on to represent something else because the greatest songs reflect the changing beliefs of its listeners. 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.