Billy Joel is perhaps the most “human” of the singer-songwriters to have emerged in the rock era. In his songs, he didn’t hold back from lashing out, acting defensive, or seeming like an unrepentant crank. The result was songs that sounded a lot like all of us act when we can’t summon our better selves, which is about 98 percent of the time. That he was able to prettify all that with unerring melodic catchiness made it all go down so smoothly that even his harshest critics couldn’t help from singing along. You know the hits; here are 10 album cuts that tell as much, if not more, of the Billy Joel story.
1. “Why Judy Why” (1971)
Joel’s 1971 debut Cold Spring Harbor suffered from a mixing goof that made his voice sound positively prepubescent in places. That takes the edge out of some tracks like “Everybody Loves You Now.” But it actually works well on this song of innocent heartbreak. Joel, never one to shy away from his influences (and always refreshingly honest about admitting them), expertly plays off Beatles weepers like “For No One” and Paul Simon’s quieter stuff for this early, forgotten winner.
2. “Summer, Highland Falls” (1976)
The breakthrough Piano Man in 1973 — with its self-defining title cut — was followed by the tepid Streetlife Serenade the following year. A return to his New York stomping grounds seemed to inspire him for what is easily his most underrated album: Turnstiles. His songwriting took giant leaps, and, by producing the album as well, he did the material proud. He has admitted that listening to Jackson Browne inspired this beauty, but it transcends homage, to become a sensitive masterwork all his own.
3. “Vienna” (1977)
Megastardom arrived with The Stranger, as producer Phil Ramone’s expert stewardship and a dialed-in set of songs combined for a massive album. The hits are indelible (“Only The Good Die Young,” “Movin’Out (Anthony’s Song),” “Just The Way You Are”); “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” became a signature song, but this track that kicked off Side Two might just top them all. Joel could come off like a know-it-all in his lyrics, but here it comes from a position of empathy. And the music, soaring from the classical intro to an emotional chorus, is perfection.
4. “Stiletto” (1978)
Joel kept right on rolling with 52nd Street, adding more of a rock edge amidst the sure-shot ballads. He often got heat for what people viewed as sexist lyrics, and this song could conceivably be accused of that as well. Part of the problem with that view is that it automatically assumes that Joel and the narrators are one and the same. Anyway, the main draw of this song is the music, with that unforgettable piano riff hooking you immediately and then returning to the scene when needed most.
5. “Sleeping With The Television On” (1980)
Glass Houses found Joel slipping into New Wave with typical ease (even as he bristled at the label, also typical). The colorful music contrasted the lyrics of many of the songs, which detailed a single guy out on the prowl, usually coming up empty but nonetheless articulate in defeat. This bouncy number features hooks aplenty, a fun Farfisa solo, and Joel’s exhortations to a fellow lonely heart (and to himself in the process) to get over the fear of rejection and give romance a shot.
6. “Laura” (1982)
The Nylon Curtain was Joel going for broke, spending oodles of time in the studio to create a sonic experience that even his critics couldn’t deny. Many were suspicious anyway, but the album stood the test of time just to spite them. The Beatles’ influence is strong with this one: the woozy chords, the Ringo-esque drum fills, the sighing backing vocals. Just as John Lennon couched his dissatisfaction with the Maharishi in “Sexy Sadie,” the consensus is that Joel was disguising his frustrations with his demanding mother here. It’s bitter but eloquent, and the music is a fever dream.
7. “Christie Lee” (1983)
While the rest of the music world went hurtling into the MTV era searching for modernity, Joel turned back the clock on 1983’s An Innocent Man and still triumphed, wearing his influences on his sleeve all the way. This ripping story-song borrows the name of his soon-to-be-wife Christie Brinkley. You might snicker now at the fact that the tale of a musician undone by a femme fatale turned out to be a little too on the nose in this case, but you can’t deny that Joel does Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis proud as well.
8. “Big Man on Mulberry Street” (1986)
Joel’s run of hit singles and albums finally hit a snag with 1986’s The Bridge. Whether he couldn’t quite reconcile with the newest sounds or just had a case of writer’s block is hard to say. What’s clear is that the best material here are those songs that are furthest removed from pop and rock: the touching duet with Ray Charles (“Baby Grand”) and this expertly-rendered big band-style track. Who knew that this antiquated musical setting would jibe so well with Joel’s introspection?
9. “Leningrad” (1989)
The fact that the albums were appearing with greater hiatuses in between should have been an indication that Joel was winding down. Storm Front, released after three years away, was a bit of an improvement on The Bridge, although the two biggest hits (“We Didn’t Start The Fire” and “I Go To Extremes”) were somewhat annoying. Much better was this story about a man who met Joel on his tour of Russia and left a lasting impression. It probably bites off more history than it can chew, but the personal moments are touching.
10. “Famous Last Words” (1993)
Joel deserves everlasting credit for the way he ended his recording career. For one, he kept it a secret that he was hanging it up, at least studio-wise. In addition, he stuck to it, although it would be wonderful if he surprised us with a comeback album. Nonetheless, if that was it, this song is a great way to go out. He promises, “There will be other words some other day,” but he also talks of changing seasons and cleaning up old messes. It’s one more wonderful tune for the road.
Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns