Top 10 Billy Joel Songs

Billy Joel Songs

Photo: “Billy Joel – ACC – April 20th 2007” flickr photo by Samira Khan https://flickr.com/photos/samirakhan/466801975 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Billy Joel stands as one of the greatest singer songwriters of all time. From 1973 to 1993, the songwriter released twelve wonderful studio albums of original popular music inspired by the likes of the Beatles, Beethoven, Gershwin, and so on. However, regardless of the stylistic arrangements or production of each Billy Joel album, the common factor exhibited throughout Joel’s catalog was the consistently prodigious caliber of songwriting. This list is just a sampling and celebration of some of his greatest work. “Piano Man,” may be Billy Joel’s most popular song, but it is not included in this list for the simple reason that there is really nothing left to be written about the song that has not already been published. The intent of the list below with a few exceptions, is to examine some of Billy Joel’s lesser known work, and to introduce the material to a younger generation that has yet to discover the hidden gems of the Billy Joel catalog.

10. New York State of Mind 

Every songwriter’s dream is to write a standard. Most of the world’s most beautiful songs that have become standards were written from the start of the twentieth century to about the end of the nineteen sixties. Songs like, “Autumn Leaves, As Time Goes By, All of Me, Summertime,” and “Night and Day,” have all been covered hundreds of times by the greatest singers in modern music history. The turmoil of the 1960’s and the emergence and popularity of the various forms of rock and soul music brought the era of standards to an end. With the exception of songwriters like Burt Bacharach, Carol King, Jimmy Webb and a few others, standards disappeared from the radio on all the mainstream stations.

When “Just The Way You Are,” was released as the first single from The Stranger album, there was talk that Billy Joel had written a new standard. However, the popularity of The Stranger  album fueled an interest in Joel’s previous work that most new fans had yet discovered. “Just the Way You Are,” would not stand as Joel’s first standard.  The Turnstiles album contained a song that would become a far more important and impressive part of Joel’s songbook. Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” is Joel’s great standard. Even though the song targets specific New York landmarks and newspapers, the real central theme of the composition is the joy of coming home.

So many standards of the 1930’s and 1950’s focused on the coming home of soldiers after the World Wars. The “Home Sweet Home concept would lay a lyrical foundation for many great songwriters. Joel tapped into the theme of home presented on the grand stage of the streets of New York., The song sounds like it was written for Frank Sinatra. Fittingly so, “New York State of Mind,” was eventually covered by Tony Bennet. The song was also covered by such legendary artists as, Barbara Streisand, Mel Torme, Shirley Bassey, Oleta Adams, Diane Schuur, and so many more.  Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” is a song of pride, of returning home, and of coming to a realization that where you start out in life can set the standard in so many ways.

 9. Zanzibar

In the mid-seventies there was a plethora of pop albums being released that employed some of the finest musicians from the jazz world. The band Steely Dan led the way with the release of albums like “The Royal Scam,” and “Aja.” These were records that featured the work of session musicians such as guitarist Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour. Jazz legends like Wayne Shorter and Tom Scott also played on the Steely Dan records. The Dan records might have influenced Joel in the way they used legendary and well-respected jazz artists on those recordings.

On Joel’s “Zanzibar,” the writer hired legendary trumpet player Freddie Hubbard to perform the two song solos. The addition of Hubbard was a brilliant move because it gave the track an instant jazz credibility. Nonetheless, the song itself was a well written and enjoyable piece of music that towed the line between pop sensibility and jazz earnest. In recent years, Joel has performed the song often in concert leading one to believe that the singer has recognized the song as one of his most brilliant pieces of music.

8. All About Soul

“All About Soul,” was the second single released from 1993’s River of Dreams, album. Produced by Danny Kortchmar, The River of Dreams was a slight departure from Billy Joel’s previous albums in terms of the sonic soundscape created by Kortchmar. The album had a heavier and darker feel than any of Joel’s earlier recordings. Great producers interpret the material and mold the sound of a recording to artistically represent the songwriter’s intentions. Kortchmar’s production on the song “All About Soul,” interpreted a performance of a song that served as a bridge between the darkness of side one and the optimism and beauty of side two.

Sandwiched between the songs “Shade of Grey,” and “Lullabye (Goodnight my Angel),” Joel’s “All About Soul,” conveyed a message of hope and faith found in the beauty of a certain female individual. It erased the uncertainty of “Shades of Grey,” while introducing the beauty of “Lullabye.” The song’s driving rhythm and soulfully emotional tagline represented the work of a brilliant artist delivering one of his final hit singles. It also happened to be one of his best.

7. Honesty

One of Billy Joel’s most beautiful ballads appeared as the third track on the 52nd Street album. The single “Honesty,” contained the common appeal that every couple searches for in a relationship. Once again Billy Joel touched on subject matter that he deemed personal yet universal. Billy Joel’s classical training influenced a subtle yet striking introduction to the piece. The chord changes are wonderfully written and reminiscent of a Chopin ballad.

Billy Joel’s “Honesty,” is not only one of his most beautiful compositions, it also exhibits one of his most impressive vocal performances. One of Joel’s greatest musical moments occurred at the end of the song as he sustained the last vowel sound of the final verse into the beginning of the last chorus. It was a chilling moment that cemented the ballad “Honesty,” as one of his finest songs and performances.

6. All for Leyna

Billy Joel has often spoken about how the Beatles and Beethoven were a dominant force in his musical influences.[1]  Songs like “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant, Angry Young Man/Prelude, Nocturne, etc.. all echo the various movements of a Beethoven sonata or symphony.  The melodic lines of “She’s Right on Time, Laura, Through the Long Night,” were inspired by the song structures and melodic lines of various Beatles songs[2].  Nonetheless, artists the caliber of a Billy Joel develop their own styles and ideas over time as they then become the artists that inspire future generations of songwriters.

Billy Joel’s “All for Leyna,” sounds like Billy Joel inspiring Billy Joel. “All for Leyna,” is the quintessential Billy Joel song. The fierce angry lyrics represented by a soaring wide ranging sweet melodic line driven by a hard fist pounding back-beat defined the Billy Joel sound. Simply put, it’s a great rock and roll pop song. Beyond the composition and arrangement, is a killer vocal and heartfelt, passionate playing. “All for Leyna is all about Billy Joel being Billy Joel.

[1] Andrew Goldman, “Interview with Billy Joel,” New York Times Magazine, April 23 2013.

[2] Bordowitz, Hank (2006). Billy Joel: The Life and Times of an Angry Young Man. Billboard Books. p. 39

5. Keeping the Faith

Fittingly so, “Keeping the Faith,” was the last song on Billy Joel’s “Innocent Man,” album. As the final album track, the song represented a seemingly last word of encouragement to the listener. Billy Joel’s message of hope and faith, “The good old days weren’t always good. / And tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems,”[1] ran parallel to his celebration of red hair girls, Chevrolet’s, Lucky Strikes cigarettes, pompadour hairstyles and other 1950’s pop culture references. The music itself featured a Buddy Holly style shuffle rhythm. Closing out an album that featured references to some of the greatest musical artists of all time, it seemed that Joel’s message of faith was fueled by his belief in the power of rock and roll and its saving grace.

[1] Billy Joel “Keeping the Faith,” in An Innocent Man, Columbia Records,1983.

From the Innocent Man Album

4. The Great Suburban Showdown

“The Great Suburban Showdown,” is another one of those rarely performed Billy Joel compositions. The song depicts the history of suburban life for teens growing up in the 1960s and 70s. During that time period there was a great wave of migration from the cities to the suburbs. For city kids, the transition was a nightmare due to the boredom and quiet of the suburban neighborhoods when compared to the hustle and flow of the city streets.

The monotony of watching one’s father cut the lawn, and the dreariness of sitting around watching TV defines Joel’s sensitivity to the subject. Joel has always crafted his songs to appeal to a mass audience in referencing cultural issues. With a beautiful melody and heartfelt vocal, Joel’s “The Great Suburban Showdown,” is one of his most underrated compositions.

From the Streetlife Serenade Album

 3. Laura

With a classical theme oriented piano introduction followed by harmonies and chord changes heavily influenced by the Beatles, Billy Joel’s “Laura,” stands as one of Joel’s most interesting and passionate songs of his career. When asked who Laura was by an audience member during his college seminar tour at Hobart and Williams colleges, Joel responded that Laura was, “anyone that knew how to push your buttons.”[1} As Joel attempted to perform the song, he struggled at remembering the lyrics and chord changes.[2] What was telling about the performance was how it seemed Joel had disregarded one of his greatest songs. Laura is a song that Joel has not performed often throughout his career.

It’s a shame that the song has been ignored because it contains all of the greatest elements of rock and roll music that seems to have inspired Joel’s career. Rage, rebellion, and frustration lyrically fuel a melody driven by a powerful four on the four kick drum rhythm. Ingenious chords changes and a soaring Beatlesque melody stand at the root of an angry, loud pure rock and roll vocal. Undeniably, “Laura,” was Joel at his heaviest, and stands as one of his greatest recordings.

[1] http://www.billyjoel.com/news/new-billy-joel-qa-who-was-laura-and-what-did-she-do-you

2. Ibid.

From the Nylon Curtain  Album

2. Captain Jack

In the early to mid-1970s, storytelling influenced the lyrical content of many mainstream musical artists. Singer songwriters like Harry Chapin, Joni Mitchell, Jim Croce, Bobby Gentry, etc… all had success filling the airwaves with cinematic storytelling framed within the three and a half minute pop/folk song. Billy Joel’s Piano Man album was heavily influenced by the storytelling musical genre of the early 1970s. Piano Man may have been the AM radio hit single, but Captain Jack was the popular cut played heavily on FM radio album oriented rock.

Captain Jack’s storyline about a depressed lonely individual that finds solace in a bottle of Jack Daniels resonated with the public. The concepts of sorrow and redemption are brilliantly showcased by the use of a minor key verse that transcends into a bombastic major key chorus. The song also contains one of pop music’s all time most candid and embarrassing lines centered around the main character’s sister’s Saturday night date. Billy Joel has written so many wonderful and successful songs throughout his career, but Captain Jack has always been one of his most honest and compelling compositions.

From the Piano Man Album

1. Scenes From an Italian Restaurant

Ask any piano player the name of the most requested songs they are asked to play, and they will tell you “Piano Man,” and “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” Both of these songs are so ingrained in pop culture that they have become synonymous with cabaret and restaurant performances. Piano players cannot escape from the shadows of these iconic songs. In essence, Billy Joel tapped into mainstream culture within the lyrics of “Scenes from An Italian Restaurant.” Joel explored the themes of high school sweethearts, marriage and divorce.

We all knew Brenda and Eddie somewhere along the line. Joel’s gift of storytelling is that he knew we were all part of the story. Nonetheless, the music of Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” is what made the song so iconic. You could almost hear the wine pouring as Joel sang the opening notes. Joel’s transitions are based on a dazzling mastery of scales and chord inversions which Joel creatively used to present a cinematic masterpiece of suburban adventure, frustration,and eventual heartbreak.

Almost 40 years after the song was released, young piano students still struggle learn to how to play it, and fans still want to hear it. One of the greatest Rock and Roll /Pop songs ever written, Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” stands as the singer greatest achievement. A pure Rock and Roll masterpiece.

From the The Stranger Album 

3 Comments

  1. Jenny August 22, 2015
  2. Ed Gould April 2, 2020
  3. Cyril Wilkinson Carnew, Co.Wicklow Republic of Ireland June 15, 2020

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