Top 10 Billy Joel Songs
To his credit, Billy Joel never really stayed where he was supposed to. As a New York-based singer-songwriter in the early '70s, he cut his first record, which nobody heard. He then relocated to Los Angeles, rebooted, had a minor hit and then returned home, where he built a career on two great pop albums with jazz undertones. He then shifted gears again, releasing a string of records -- a rock 'n' roll one, a politically conscious one, one that paid tribute to the music he grew up on -- before halting his recording career following the release of his fourth No. 1 album. Our list of the Top 10 Billy Joel Songs focuses on his defining decade between 1973-83.
Joel was living in Los Angeles when he wrote "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)," but by the time it was released, he was back in his hometown of New York City. It was written as sort of a fable, a futuristic look at a metropolis inching toward total collapse. After Sept. 11, the song took on whole new meaning.
Early in his career, Joel wrote a lot about what he knew -- which was basically himself (see No. 1 on our list of the Top 10 Billy Joel Songs). He also penned lengthier and more ambitious narratives back before he began winning Grammys. "The Ballad of Billy the Kid" wraps both of these in a five-and-a-half-minute epic about the legendary gunslinger. The last verse brings it all around to present day, and even though Joel has denied that he's the kid from Long Island here, the facts say otherwise.
After his debut album tanked in 1971, Joel retreated while problems with his record company were sorted out. He found inspiration and fresh perspective during his break, writing some of his most complex and personal songs -- many of which ended up on his second album (see No. 1 on our list of the Top 10 Billy Joel Songs). The seven-minute "Captain Jack," which caps the Piano Man LP, was written in New York about a neighborhood drug dealer. It's one of Joel's earliest triumphs.
One of Joel's toughest rockers kicked off his 1980 album Glass Houses, his second No. 1 and first LP to be recorded after he reached superstar heights (he wasn't yet a proven star when he made 1978's 52nd Street). The rest of the record tries a little too hard to break from Joel's singer-songwriter and jazz-inflected previous work; "You May Be Right" is the one song that gets it completely right.
Joel's "pro-lust" song isn't exactly subtle ("sooner or later it comes down to fate, I might as well be the one"), but it is his most playful hit. Powered by hand claps, shuffling acoustic guitar and one of Joel's most winning vocals, "Only the Good Die Young" broke down some of the levity surrounding The Stranger. But that didn't stop Catholic groups from calling for a widespread radio ban.
After the heaviness of 1982's The Nylon Curtain (see No. 3 on our list of the Top 10 Billy Joel Songs), Joel lightened up with a collection of new songs that paid tribute to his formative years. 'An Innocent Man' included musical homages to doo-wop, the Four Seasons and '60s R&B among its sweet-tooth nostalgia. "Tell Her About It"' the album's best song and Joel's second No. 1 single, nods to Motown, complete with sunshine horns, in-step backing singers and a monster hook.
Following 1980's back-to-rock-n-roll-basics album Glass Houses, Joel took a more purposeful turn on his eighth LP, steering The Nylon Curtain into more musically adventurous territory. He also went deeper with his lyrics, tackling everything from Reaganomics to working-class struggles to -- in the album's best cut, "Goodnight Saigon" -- the Vietnam War.
The most ambitious song on Joel's breakthrough 1977 album The Stranger unspools as a seven-and-a-half-minute, three-part suite patterned after the Beatles' side-two Abbey Road medley. It also serves as a bridge of sorts between the longer story songs Joel wrote pre-fame and the more tightly focused numbers that anchored his pop career. Either way, it's one of his greatest musical and lyrical achievements.
Six years and five albums into his career, Joel finally landed a Top 10 hit with this quintessentially '70s ballad. It immediately pegged him as a classic singer-songwriter and made him a star. It remains one of the most perfectly constructed songs in Joel's catalog, a valentine to his then wife and business manager -- even though he was never all that fond of it (and even less so after they divorced).
After Cold Spring Harbor was released, and bombed, in 1971, Joel took comfort by playing piano at a lounge in Los Angeles, where he had relocated from New York to record his debut album. Night after night he'd see the same characters, many of whom would show up in his first single a couple years later. "Piano Man" reached only No. 25, but its stature grew over the years, as Joel became a bigger star. It's been his signature song ever since.