Billy Joel often gets derided by music critics as a lesser Elton John or worse, and those critics are not completely off-base. However, I think it is easy to associate Mr. Joel solely with his big, ubiquitous, soft-rock radio hits, and I think in doing so, a person gets an incomplete idea of his work. I’m not going to use this essay to defend his cheesy love songs (Just The Way You Are), his clunky attempts at grand political statements (Goodnight Saigon), or his now only-listened-to-in-history-classes hit (We Didn’t Start The Fire), but I’m also not only going to write about the songs ignored by the radio, because some of his most successful songs are deserving of that success.
I’m not going to pretend this is an unbiased account. I asked my mom for Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits Vol. 1 &2 cassette when I was 7, because I had worn out a read-along book/cassette combo based on Disney’s “Oliver & Company” that included Joel’s “Why Should I Worry” at the end.
This is not one of the songs that I’m going to include in my sixteen-song thesis arguing for a reevaluation, but it is important I mention it for the personal aspect of this essay. I think all the name-checking of New York City locales, like Central Park, the Bowery, the Chelsea Hotel, et cetera, along with using words and phrases I didn’t understand (but sounded cool) like “syncopated” and “savoir-faire,” all seemed exotic to a kid growing up on a farm in rural Wisconsin. The mythology of New York City was already starting to form in my mind thanks to Billy Joel, the televised Macy’s Day Parade, and the recent release of Home Alone 2, all making me wonder what it would be like to wake up and look out my window and see skyscrapers instead of silos. Although I did not actually see “Oliver & Company” until years later, I knew that Joel was singing as Dodger: the shaggily-cool, sunglasses-wearing, streetwise dog, which I’m sure only added to his appeal. I think I probably thought that if Joel was voicing this character it must have been an animalized-version of his actual persona, and I think that’s always been how Billy Joel has seen himself.
Which I think gets to the heart of what is both most endearing and most frustrating about Billy Joel. He’s like that friend who is always trying really hard to be cool and earn your respect by doing the things he thinks will help him achieve that, but gets so much closer to realizing those goals when he isn’t. Five years ago, Joel released a box-set called “My Lives,” which he seemed to think would finally garner the critical acclaim he thought he deserved. In the liner notes, Joel wrote, “People who just know Billy Joel from Top 40 singles may not like Billy Joel, and I can’t say I necessarily blame them. I don’t think that really represents the sum and substance of my work.” As stated above, I agree with him. However, instead of going through all his albums and b-sides and paring that down to one disc of his best overlooked songs, he uses it to dump echo-y demos, uninspired covers, and a few (mostly terrible) songs from his early rock bands: The Lost Souls, The Hassles, and Attila.
“My Lives” is probably great for die-hard fans who always wanted to hear these things, and get a sense of the trajectory Joel’s music took, but instead of acting as a defense to the current critical recognition of his work, it turns out to be (mostly) a validation of it. It’s another attempt by Joel to make a grand statement, but Joel is not good at making grand statements. He’s at his best when capturing small moments about things he knows without too much extraneous commentary through songs influenced by Tin Pan Alley songwriters, old Phil Spector records, or The Beatles.
In Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s review of Joel’s album, “The Nylon Curtain,” Erlewine writes, “Joel is naturally inclined to write big melodies like McCartney, but he idolizes Lennon, which makes The Nylon Curtain a fascinating cross between ear candy and social commentary.” The melodicism part is spot-on, and Joel does sometimes attempt to write the kind of social commentary Lennon often tried his hand at. However, I think the comparison is a more apt one than Erlewine lets on. Lennon suffered from a similar problem as Joel, his political songs were not very good. Lennon’s were often idealistic without any real solutions or insights offered, or were reactionary and shallow. Lennon tried to be Bob Dylan, but failed miserably. Joel tried to be Lennon, and largely succeeded in that, but in doing so, still generally failed to write good political songs.
But enough has been written and said about Billy Joel’s weaknesses. Let’s get to his strengths by going directly to his songs. I have compiled a 16 song mix that I believe makes a good case for Joel. It probably won’t sway any haters, or anyone who doesn’t like 60s-70s pop music, but I think by focusing on his actual strengths as opposed to what he thinks his strengths should be, a much more accurate assessment of his talent emerges.
I chose to skip Joel’s first three studio albums, “Cold Spring Harbor,” “Piano Man,” and “Streetlife Serenade,” because they are very hit and miss (mostly miss) and I don’t think Joel had found his voice yet, in songwriting or singing. Yes, that does mean I am skipping over the title track from “Piano Man,” potentially his best-known song, not because it isn’t good, the melody is great, I just don’t think it’s one of his sixteen best.
1. Say Goodbye to Hollywood
“Say Goodbye to Hollywood” opens “Turnstiles,” Joel’s first truly great album, with a renewed sense of purpose. Joel had spent the previous three years living in Los Angeles, and hated it. In 1975-1976, he moved back to New York, and “Turnstiles” was a celebration of that. “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” is a kiss-off to Los Angeles with a great Phil Spector-influenced sound. The version I have posted above is actually a live version from Joel’s 1981 album “Songs In The Attic,” because I think the energy is higher and the vocals are better.
2. New York State of Mind
“New York State of Mind” is a relaxed, feels-good-to-be-home song, also from “Turnstiles.” Listening to it is like slipping into a comfortable robe, and drinking your morning cup of coffee while watching all the black and white shots of New York from Woody Allen’s “Manhattan.”
3. Summer, Highland Falls
Another track from “Turnstiles,” “Summer, Highland Falls” is a lovely nostalgic ballad. It’s almost ruined by the horns that come in around the 1:52 mark, but it was the mid-seventies, so I forgive him for not just playing that section on his piano, people were putting strings and horns in all sorts of places they didn’t belong, and Joel wasn’t immune to that.
4. I’ve Loved These Days
The last “Turnstiles” track I’ve included on this list. The melody for this one is simple but effective, potentially my favorite of Joel’s melodies. The arrangements on this one are nice, the 70s strings are there, but they’re subdued, not distracting. The vocals sound great. The lyrics to this one aren’t my favorite, basically stating “we’ve been living the high life, and though that’s obviously not sustainable, boy if it wasn’t fun while it lasted!” But what a killer melody!
5. The Stranger
This and the next four tracks all come from Joel’s 1977 album, “The Stranger.” It’s the first of Joel’s records produced by Phil Ramone who continued to produce all of Joel’s records until 1989′s “Storm Front.”
6. Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)
In middle school, I tried getting one of my friends who had grown up listening to the harder side of 60s and 70s rock into Billy Joel. It never fully caught on, and I remember the “heart attack-ack-ack” part of this song being one of the aspects he singled out as a reason he could not fully embrace Joel’s music, although I don’t know how it’s much different than The Who stuttering out muh-muh-muh-muh generation, and he never took issue with that.
7. Only the Good Die Young
This is another ubiquitous Billy Joel song, but it remains one of my favorites. Having never heard the saying the title takes its name from when I first heard it at the age of seven, it scared me a little; being a relatively well-behaved Catholic kid with an prematurely high sense of his own mortality. However, it eventually drew me in with the hand-claps and tough guy posturing.
8. She’s Always A Woman
Some people have complained about a latent streak of misogyny running through this track. And there sort of is one, however, after enduring the unbelievable schmaltz of “Just The Way You Are” four songs earlier on “The Stranger,” a little latent misogyny is welcome because at least Joel sounds like he means what he’s singing on this track, and it’s not saturated with bad saxophone, just a brief flute buried deep in the mix.
A song about not giving up on your dreams, using Vienna as a sort of Shangri-La. With a great accordion break at the two minute mark, accentuating the dreamy European feel of the song.
I’ve also decided to bypass Joel’s 1978 release, “52nd Street,” because although it did produce some hits, I don’t think any of them are as good as the other songs in this defense.
10. You May Be Right
“You May Be Right” opens the album with the sound of breaking glass. This is supposed to be an indication that Joel did throw the stone at the glass house he was standing in front of on the cover. It is also supposed to signify that this is a new Billy Joel, a harder-edged one. “Glass Houses” is Joel’s response to the popularity of punk rock and new wave. Though it never gets close to actual punk rock, it contains some of Joel’s harder songs. However, the hard rock edges are often sanded down by Joel’s big poppy melodies and clean arrangements, but you cannot fault a man for doing what he does best. “Glass Houses” may not have achieved exactly what Joel was going for, but it did turn out to be one of his most enjoyable records.
11. It’s Still Rock & Roll to Me
Another track from “Glass Houses,” “It’s Still Rock & Roll to Me” was my favorite song when I was eight. The ironic thing about this song is that it was obviously more influenced by new wave/punk than old rock & roll, sounding more Elvis Costello than Elvis Presley. Although a more apt comparison might be the poppier songs from Joe Jackson’s “Look Sharp!,” released the previous year.
12. Don’t Ask Me Why
In some ways, “Don’t Ask Me Why” is an average breezy pop song, but there are a few flourishes that elevate it to something a little more interesting: The bridge from 1:06-1:25 improves upon the relatively ho-hum melody of the rest of the song, the instrumental break from 1:54-2:14 with Joel’s always excellent piano-playing, a quietly strummed acoustic guitar, a ratchet, well-placed hand-claps, and the vocal oohs from 2:32-2:40 add nice texture to the song, resulting in one of my favorite Joel arrangements.
13. She’s Got A Way
“She’s Got A Way” was originally released on Joel’s first record, 1971′s “Cold Spring Harbor,” but due to some mixing issues, and the overall spottiness of that record, most Joel fans did not hear it until he included a live recording of it on his excellent live album, “Songs In The Attic,” ten years later. “Songs In The Attic” takes songs from his pre-”The Stranger” output that people may have missed out on. Earlier, I included the “SITA” version of “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” because it’s a stronger performance than the studio cut. The same can be said for most of the songs included on the album. Some of the pre-”Turnstiles” material still suffers due to some of Joel’s lyrical missteps and clumsy attempts at different musical genres, but the version of “She’s Got A Way” is an understated performance of a sweet, simple, love song; and the songs from “Turnstiles” all get really nice re-workings in a live setting with a little more warmth and vigor.
“Allentown” is the opening cut from 1982′s “The Nylon Curtain,” the troubles of which I touched upon earlier. “The Nylon Curtain” was supposed to be Billy Joel’s ambitious, mature, and politically aware record, but as mentioned earlier, those things do not match up with his strengths as a songwriter. “Allentown,” however, is easily Joel’s best political song. Equal parts baby-boomer angst and the disenfranchised feeling of living in a rust belt town in the early 1970s when factories started closing, the war in Vietnam was still raging, and the promise of the American Dream was beginning to seem more elusive every day. The song’s realism is aided by the lack of “All You Need Is Love”-esque idealism in the lyrics, and a chugging melody supplemented with anvil percussion echoing the sounds of factory work.
“Laura” is the second song on “The Nylon Curtain,” and the only other track on the album I believe worthy of defending. It’s a Beatles-esque tune about a relationship (perhaps familial) that is no good for him, but he can’t break. It’s one of those songs that get to the core of who Joel’s musical persona is. He wants to be loved and respected, and he tries his best to get those things, but it generally doesn’t work out for him. It’s an angry song: some vocals that get as close to screaming as Joel ever does and his only song to use a certain strong expletive, but also a resigned one: ending the song with, “How do you hang up on someone who needs you that bad?” and the return of the timid, tiptoeing piano riff from the song’s start.
16. Tell Her About It
After “The Nylon Curtain” was not as well received as previous efforts, Joel decided to make his next record a fun one. “An Innocent Man” was just that. “Tell Her About It” is a catchy, soulful, peppy tune that embodies the best qualities of the album as a whole and distills it into a a four minute pop song. I first heard this song at a very young age and took, what I thought to be, the message to heart. Which resulted in awkward situations where I told girls how I felt about them too soon a few too many times between middle school and the first couple years of college. I don’t know why I thought it was a good idea to take relationship advice from someone whose relationships never seem to work out, but live and learn.
On the downside, although “An Innocent Man” proved very popular, it was the beginning of the end for Joel, and where I’ve chosen to end this essay. I’ve decided not to include anything post-”An Innocent Man.” The albums afterwards (“The Bridge,” “Storm Front,” and “River of Dreams”) all have at least one highlight, but I don’t think any of them would be of any use in swaying someone who didn’t already like Joel’s music, because they are mostly mired in the trappings that Joel often falls into, whether that means trying to make grand statements, attempting styles that don’t work, or lyrical clumsiness.
However, I believe in this 16-song selection, and I’ll stand on Elton John’s coffee table in my Chuck Taylors and say that. Sure his output started off a little shaky, and ended the same way, but he’s hardly alone in that. Many other musicians whose careers have followed similar trajectories have somehow managed to maintain much more positive critical standings, and I don’t think that’s very fair. I think it’s time we reevaluate Billy Joel, focusing not on his shortcomings, but on his strengths, I think he deserves at least that.