Billy Joel's 12 best songs of all time, ranked

8 May 2019, 17:51 | Updated: 10 May 2019, 09:33

Billy Joel
Picture: Getty

By Tom Eames

Billy Joel is one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time, thanks to his inspirational, beautiful and catchy songs.

It's a pretty difficult task picking just 12 of his greatest, but here is the perfect Billy Joel starter pack:

  1. 'It's Still Rock and Roll to Me'

    Taken from his 1980 Glass Houses album, this song is a cynical take at the music industry at the time.

    Billy sings about a manager begging an artist to stay 'hip' for the younger crowd, but the character refuses to change, as his music will stay relevant despite his appearance.

    The song was written in response to various music genres at the late 1970s (such as punk, funk, and new wave). It was inspired by Joel after reading a review about an unnamed band, and realising that he had no idea what their music sounded like.

  2. 'The Longest Time'

    From the 1983 album An Innocent Man, this track follows the theme of the album in paying tribute to Joel's influences, and is sung in the style of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.

    It only reached number 25 in the UK, but it has gone on to become one of Billy Joel's most popular songs.

  3. 'This Night'

    You might not have realised, but this song's chorus uses the second movement of Beethoven's 'Pathétique Sonata', and the classical composer is credited as one of the song's writers.

    Billy has said that the song was written about his brief relationship with supermodel Elle Macpherson, who he dated song before his second wife Christie Brinkley.

  4. 'Goodnight Saigon'

    Billy Joel wrote this song after talking to some friends who fought in the Vietnam War.

    Having not fought in the war himself, rather than pursuing an anti-war song he chose talk about the experience of soldiers.

    "A lot of my friends did go," he said. "I felt bad. I disagreed with the political reasons for that war." A few years after his friends came back home, they told him their war stories and encouraged him to write a song.

    "They said, 'We'll tell you what happened to us and you write a song about it,'" he recalled. "I realised you don't have to have lived it as long as you researched it and talked to people that were there."

  5. 'New York State of Mind'

    While Billy Joel is one of the most famous Long Islanders of all time, in the mid-1970s he spent three years in Los Angeles.

    However, he never truly felt at home while living on the West Coast. He wrote this song on a bus back to New York, as he was travelling along the Hudson River line, and it later became an unofficial anthem for the city.

    The song was famously performed at The Concert For New York City in October 2001 as part of a benefit for the New York City Fire and Police Departments and the loved ones of families lost during the 9/11 attacks.

  6. 'Only the Good Die Young'

    "Come out, Virginia, don't let me wait/ You Catholic girls start much too late." That is quote the opening line.

    Unsurprisingly, some radio stations banned the song back in 1977. However, the controversy around the song only helped sell more copies.

    The song was inspired by Billy's real-life crush on a Catholic girl named Virginia. 

  7. 'Scenes from an Italian Restaurant'

    Even though this is one of Billy's longest and most beloved songs, it was never released as a single.

    The song tells the tale of high school sweethearts Brenda and Eddie, a relatable couple who couldn’t survive the pressure of the real world.

    For years, his fans wondered which exact Italian restaurant he was singing about, and he eventually revealed it as Fontana di Trevi in New York.

  8. 'My Life'

    This song first appeared on Billy's classic 1978 album 52nd Street, and reached number 3 in the US and 12 in the UK.

    Fun fact: Chicago members Peter Cetera and Donnie Dacus performed the backing vocals on the song, and sang along with Billy during the bridge ("Keep it to yourself, it's my life").

  9. 'A Matter of Trust'

    This song featured on Billy's 1986 album The Bridge. It achieved particular attention in the Soviet Union at the time, as part of a state-sponsored TV promotion of Joel's songs ahead of his 1987 USSR concerts.

    In the music video, his then-wife Christie Brinkley appears while holding their baby daughter, Alexa.

  10. 'She's Always a Woman'

    This is a love song about a so-called 'modern woman', or more specifically Billy Joel's then-wife, Elizabeth Weber.

    In the song, the man falls in love with the woman for her quirks as well as her flaws. At the time, Elizabeth had taken over management of Billy's career, and put his financial affairs in order after he had signed some bad contracts.

    She proved to be a tough negotiator who could "wound with her eyes" or "steal like a thief", but would "never give in". While her tough-as-nails negotiating style was thought of as "unfeminine" in the eyes of many businessmen at the time, to Billy Joel, she was always a woman. 

  11. 'We Didn't Start the Fire'

    QUIZ: How well do you know the lyrics to 'We Didn't Start the Fire'?

    One of the best history lessons in pop history?

    The lyrics for this US number one hit feature rapid-fire references to over 100 headlines between 1949, the year of Joel's birth, and 1989, the year of release.

    The song was a surprise hit, thought Billy himself has said he doesn’t rate the song due to its lack of strong melody. Apparently.

  12. 'Uptown Girl'

    Speaking to Howard Stern, Billy had originally titled the song 'Uptown Girls' and it was written after he was surrounded by Christie Brinkley, Whitney Houston and his then girlfriend Elle Macpherson.

    It ended up being about his soon to be wife, Brinkley, and was inspired by the music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.

    The song was a huge hit, and gave Billy his only UK number one in 1983.

  13. 'Just the Way You Are'

    This love song was Billy Joel’s first US Top 10 and UK Top 20 single, and earned him two Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Song of the Year in 1979.

    The track was written by Billy as a tribute to his ex-wife, Elizabeth Weber.

    In the song, he pledges his undying love, despite what trouble they may hit down the road. Sadly, they split five years later and Billy didn’t perform it for many years after. 

  14. 'Piano Man'

    The Story of... 'Piano Man'

    This was Billy Joel’s first single and it's still his greatest.

    It has since become Billy Joel’s signature song, and is based on his time playing piano at the Executive Room bar in Los Angeles, and all the familiar faces he saw there, except he was calling himself Bill Martin at the time.

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