Billy Joel's 10 greatest songs, ranked

2 February 2024, 12:57

Billy Joel is one of the world's best-selling musicians of all time.
Billy Joel is one of the world's best-selling musicians of all time. Picture: Getty

By Thomas Edward

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The one and only 'Piano Man'.

It's the nicknamed bestowed to Billy Joel almost immediately as soon as his career in music started.

Since then, the New York City citizen went on to become one of the most celebrated musicians of the past half of a century.

Remarkably, Joel is the fourth best-selling artist of all time in his native United States, selling over 160 million records worldwide.

Amongst his accolades are six Grammy Awards - including Album Of The Year for 1978's 52nd Street - and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999

That's despite having only released two new singles since 1993, which Joel rectified with the release of 'Turn The Lights Back On' in early 2024.

He must have some body of work to sustain his adoring fanbase for so long without any new material, and to prove it, we've ranked his top ten best songs from top to bottom:

  1. 'Goodnight Saigon'

    Billy Joel - Goodnight Saigon (Official Video)

    Though Billy Joel never fought in the Vietnam War, the fallout from needlessly losing so many young men rippled throughout the entire United States for the following decade.

    'Goodnight Saigon' was what Joel wrote when asked by a veterans' group, a rare political song for an artist who generally veered away from such subjects.

    Featuring on his 1983 album, The Nylon Curtain, Joel himself is in the shoes of unnerved soldiers stationed in the Vietnamese city. The result was one of the most evocative and poignant compositions he penned.

  2. 'Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)'

    Billy Joel - Movin' Out (Anthony's Song) (from Old Grey Whistle Test)

    On 'Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)', from 1977 album The Stranger, Joel skewered the set path that working-class men of his era were sold.

    It was deemed that working yourself to the bone to buy flash cars, a house in the suburbs, or under the idea you'll be a provider was the key to happiness.

    Joel lamented that his friends were wasting their creative talents to chase the "American Dream", saying in 2014: "I see people wasting their lives, not putting their talent to that purpose so they could have stuff: you get a Cadillac and then you're fine."

  3. 'Uptown Girl'

    Billy Joel - Uptown Girl (Official Video)

    'Uptown Girl' was undoubtedly Billy Joel's biggest global hit, reaching the top spot on the UK charts and peaking at number three on the US Billboard charts too.

    Inspired by his love for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, 'Uptown Girl' became associated to Joel's future wife Christine Brinkley.

    She starred in the video as the object of his affection, though Joel was in fact dating another star when he wrote it: supermodel Elle MacPherson.

    Regardless of who technically inspired 'Uptown Girl', it remains his most memorable hit, and one of his best-selling.

  4. 'We Didn't Start The Fire'

    Billy Joel - We Didn't Start the Fire (Official HD Video)

    Despite the birth of rock 'n' roll and teenage culture, the 1950s are often seen as a forgettable decade. Not to Billy Joel, who grew up during that era.

    Proving how influential those years were to popular culture, Billy Joel wrote 'We Didn't Start The Fire', which became a history lesson of sorts for his fans.

    Released in 1989 from his album Storm Front, the song became a huge hit for Joel becoming his third number hit in his native US, though he had to explain it wasn't a defence of the baby boomer generation.

    "What does the song really mean? Is it an apology for the baby boomers? No, it's not. It's just a song that says the world's a mess. It's always been a mess, it's always going to be a mess."

  5. 'An Innocent Man'

    Billy Joel - Innocent Man (from A Matter of Trust - The Bridge to Russia)

    Drawing from his personal experiences and musical influences from Ben E. King and The Drifters, Billy Joel penned 'An Innocent Man' in 1983.

    The title track from his album from the same year, the song was unusual for a notoriously meticulous Joel, who takes his time when writing songs to ensure they're up to his standard.

    An homage to his own teenagedom, Joel later revealed: "Usually I agonise over every note, but this time the songs came pouring out of me."

    He got the rewards for trusting his instinct - 'An Innocent Man' was a top ten hit for Billy Joel on both sides of the Atlantic.

  6. 'Just The Way You Are'

    Billy Joel - Just the Way You Are (Live 1977)

    1977 single 'Just The Way You Are' was undoubtedly when Billy Joel hit the big time, scoring him a top ten hit in the UK and the US, as well as two Grammys.

    He wrote the gorgeously sentimental piano ballad as a birthday gift to his then-wife Elizabeth Weber Small, as a touching expression of true love.

    However, only they later divorced in 1982, with Joel believing his talents were cursed when he involved his lovers.

    In a later interview after a total of three divorces, Joel admitted: "Every time I wrote a song for a person I was in a relationship with, it didn't last. It was kind of like the curse. Here's your song - we might as well say goodbye now."

  7. 'New York State Of Mind'

    Billy Joel - New York State Of Mind (from Old Grey Whistle Test)

    New York City coursed through Billy Joel's veins, and after relocating to Los Angeles for several years in an attempt to make it big, it couldn't get his beloved hometown out of his mind.

    During that stint on the opposite side of the US, he penned 'New York State Of Mind'.

    Influenced by the style of Ray Charles - who he'd later duet with - the 1976 song is now an unofficial anthem for the city, and is a favourite of his fans and Joel alike as it "became a standard" he later revealed.

    "Sort of like Hoagy Carmichael's 'Stardust' or 'Georgia On My Mind'. It became one of those songs."

  8. 'Scenes From An Italian Restaurant'

    Billy Joel - Scenes from an Italian Restaurant (Official Music Video)

    'Scenes From An Italian Restaurant' featured on Billy Joel's breakthrough album The Stranger, though was never released as a single.

    Despite that, it's widely adored by Joel himself and his dedicated fanbase, a song about the people he's crossed paths with who peaked too early in life.

    Inspired by a now-closed Italian restaurant across from Carnegie Hall, the New Yorker also drew inspiration from The Beatles in what is Joel's longest-ever recorded track.

    ""I had always admired the B-side of Abbey Road, which was essentially a bunch of songs strung together by (producer) George Martin," he later revealed.

    What happened was The Beatles didn't have completely finished songs or wholly fleshed-out ideas, and George said, 'What have you got?' John [Lennon] said, 'Well I got this,' and Paul [McCartney] said, 'I got that.' They all sat around and went, 'Hmm, we can put this together and that'll fit in there.' And that's pretty much what I did."

  9. 'Piano Man'

    Billy Joel - Piano Man (Original Video)

    Given it has been Billy Joel's nickname for his entire career, it would be a fair shout to dub 'Piano Man' his greatest song as in many ways it's his signature hit, though it just misses out on the top spot for us.

    After his 1972 debut album Cold Spring Harbor tanked, Joel found himself playing at The Executive Room for six months straight, a piano bar in Los Angeles.

    It'd prove to be one of his greatest inspirations inadvertently, and it was also where he'd meet his first wife Elizabeth, the "waitress practising politics" as he sings in 'Piano Man'.

    Billy Joel himself can't comprehend why it became a hit however, and is still a highlight of his concerts today where he'll allow the crowd to sing the chorus.

    "I have no idea why that song became so popular. It's like a karaoke favourite," he later admitted. "The melody is not very good and very repetitious, while the lyrics are like limericks. I was shocked and embarrassed when it became a hit.

  10. 'She's Always A Woman To Me'

    Billy Joel - She's Always A Woman (from Old Grey Whistle Test)

    Billy Joel's most beautiful song has to be 'She's Always A Woman', given how it continues to resonate for generations of new fans, though it wasn't a major hit after its initial 1977 release.

    His source of inspiration was again his first wife, who became his manager after marrying and would frequently be on the end of disgruntled industry professionals who attempted to belittle her.

    Joel wrote 'She's Always A Woman' as an attempt to defend his wife - in the style of his musical hero Gordon Lightfoot - expressing in the song that he's besotted with her quirks as much as her beauty.

    Though, in what became a trend for Joel's love songs, he refused to play 'She's Always A Woman' after he and Elizabeth divorced in 1982, claiming he couldn't deliver it with any passion once they'd split.

    After only playing it a handful of times across twenty years, he reintroduced the fan favourite into his concerts once again, sardonically quipping at the song's conclusion: "and then we got divorced."