The 25 Greatest Billy Joel Songs of All Time

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The 25 Greatest Billy Joel Songs of All Time

It’s rare that, in 2024, you can still go out and watch one of the greatest performers in rock ‘n’ roll history do their thing. We still have the Stones, but Elton John played his “final show” last summer. Billy Joel, however, is in a class of his own, as he has maintained a live reputation that nearly outpaces his own musical catalog. Joel released 12 albums between 1971 and 1993, beginning with Cold Spring Harbor and ending with River of Dreams, and it’s one of the most impressive runs of artistry the industry has ever seen. And to think that, after dropping River of Dreams in 1993, Joel elected to refrain from making more records (unless you count his 2001 album of classical compositions, Fantasies & Delusions) and opted to just tour relentlessly. He’s played Madison Square Garden almost 150 times alone.

Most rock legends usually have a giant pot of duds they have to avoid when compiling their nightly setlists, but Joel’s track record is pretty stellar. Of course, not every album he’s made is on-par with the quality of The Stranger, but I don’t think he has a catastrophic misfire in his discography. His music has found fans in every generation, and he continues to sell out arenas across the country and will do so until he finally calls it quits (if he ever does). To pay tribute to one of the best entertainers to ever do it, one of New York’s greatest sons and one of my favorite musicians of all time, I’ve ranked the 25 greatest Billy Joel songs of all time, from “My Life” to “Vienna” to, yes, “Piano Man.”


25. “An Innocent Man” (An Innocent Man, 1983)

The older I get, the less in love with An Innocent Man I am. But it’s an important album for Billy Joel, both critically and commercially—as it went on to go 14x platinum across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. The title track is one of Joel’s better ballads, as he stands firm in his homage to the doo-wop and soul music he grew up on. And I won’t lie, when he hits that falsetto on the chorus, it stirs something deep within me. While the album boasts some gimmicky tracks like “Uptown Girl” and “Tell Her About It,” a track like “An Innocent Man” is bulletproof.

24. “Streetlife Serenader” (Streetlife Serenade, 1974)

The sort-of title track from Streetlife Serenade, “Streetlife Serenader” is a real gem from the one Billy Joel album that, to me, often gets lost in all of the noise. It was his first big swing post-Piano Man, and the punches likely would have landed had he drummed up a single as generational as “Piano Man.” But “Streetlife Serenader” is the kind of piano-pop rock joint that stands the test of time. It’s five minutes long and could have likely used a trim there, but the song is a perfect continuation of the “Piano Man” story, a lament of an entertainer who’s traveled around, peddled a few LPs and is still working himself to the bone just to get by.

23. “Prelude/Angry Young Man” (Turnstiles, 1976)

One of my favorite intros in all of Joel’s discography, those opening middle-C key hits on “Prelude/Angry Young Man” just absolutely rip. It’s one of the funkiest songs he ever made, and the drums were done as an homage to “Wipe Out” by The Surfaris.” While the prelude lasts about a minute and 43 seconds, the other near-four minutes of the track is Joel’s delightful portrait of young rebellion in the eyes of a gnawing failure. “I believe I’ve passed the age of consciousness and righteous rage,” he sings. “I found that just surviving was a noble fight.” “Prelude/Angry Young Man” reminds me a lot of Elton John’s “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”—just two monumental, orchestrally epic rock numbers that punctuate a specific vibrancy that has never been replicated since.

22. “Stiletto” (52nd Street, 1978)

An overlooked and underrated yet crucial part of 52nd Street, “Stiletto” is a great R&B track that deserves more credit. It’s a tough-as-nails vocal performance from Joel, as he animates the song into a larger-than-life portrait of a woman who’s so gravitational and powerful that anyone would torture themselves just to get one look from her. “She cuts you out, she cuts you down, she carves up your life, but you won’t do nothing” is a gut-punch of a line, and what’s great is this song is packed to the brim with jabs like that. When I think of big-attitude Billy Joel tunes, my mind wanders to “Stiletto” immediately. And that brief jazz interlude at the three-minute mark, where Joel does a swift piano run like fire is coming out of his fingertips, is unforgettable and resilient.

21. “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” (Glass Houses, 1980)

Look, a #1 hit is a #1 hit—and there’s no arguing with a song like “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” one of Billy Joel’s most commercially successful tracks. It’s certified 2x platinum for a reason. While I don’t think it’s anywhere close to the best song on Glass Houses, it is a satirical take on genres that were either making a breakthrough or having a revival at the time, like new wave and rockabilly. With Joel’s sharp tongue and his ability to—alongside producer Phil Ramone—conjure up masterclass arrangements, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” manages to critique the music industry while also getting in on the joke. “Nowadays you can’t be too sentimental” still cuts deep 40+ years on, as music continues its cyclical stylings.

20. “Big Shot” (52nd Street, 1978)

Sure, Billy Joel’s take on hard-rock isn’t necessarily “hard-rock.” It’s more power-pop than that, but it’s still got all of the piano-centric jazz fusion that we know and love from the guy. “Big Shot” is full of kicked-in-the-teeth attitude and sassy grandeur, and it’s one of the few times that Joel gets melodramatic without flirting with the boundaries of corniness. It’s great when our heroes push themselves into new territory, and Joel wanted to simmer in his own finesse and sarcasm for four minutes—and I don’t blame him. “Big Shot” peaked at #14 on the Hot 100 and wound up with a gold certification. Not too shabby, considering it’s the opening track on an LP that won an Album of the Year Grammy Award.

19. “Captain Jack” (Piano Man, 1973)

The second-best song from Piano Man, “Captain Jack” wasn’t even a single—which amazes me, since tracks like “Travelin’ Prayer” and “Worse Comes to Worst” were teasers that failed to chart higher than #77 on the Hot 100. “Captain Jack” gets a nod here because it’s one of Billy Joel’s best live songs. I prefer the more familiar and timelessly recognizable brutality of this track more so than that of something like “Goodnight Saigon,” as Joel sings about the titular heroin dealer and laments a fractured neighborhood. In the liner notes of Songs in the Attic, Joel wrote about “so many friends shoveled under the Long Island dirt. The miracle of modern chemistry killed them if Vietnam didn’t.” While lines like “you just sit at home and masturbate” and “still your fingers gonna pick your nose” were doomed from the jump, that “Captain Jack will get you high tonight and take you to your special island” chorus is one-in-a-million massive.

18. “Leave a Tender Moment Alone” (An Innocent Man, 1983)

Joel released seven singles from An Innocent Man, and many of them overshadow the real treasure of the record: “Leave a Tender Moment Alone,” the sixth single. One of the sweetest songs Joel ever recorded, “Leave a Tender Moment Alone” has a small lick of country in it, but it’s the R&B and pop vocalization that puts it over the top for me. Wherever you stand on An Innocent Man, you can’t argue with how good Joel’s singing sounds on it—and I’d argue that he’s at his very best on “Leave a Tender Moment Alone.” Toots Thieleman puts up an absolutely euphoric, all-time harmonica performance here, too.

17. “Just the Way You Are” (The Stranger, 1977)

I’ve seen Joel’s concerts enough times at this point that I cannot begin to express how frustrating it is when he tasks his audiences with choosing between “Just the Way You Are” and “Vienna.” Why can’t we have both, Billy? “Just the Way You Are” was the second single from The Stranger and it has become one of Joel’s most critically acclaimed songs ever. It won Grammys for Song and Record of the Year in 1979, and it peaked at #3 on the Hot 100—and it later garnered 2x platinum status here in the States. While its smooth jazz instrumental is a counterpoint to many of Joel’s greatest arrangements, there’s no denying that “Just the Way You Are” is one of the best soft rock ballads of its era. And to think that, if it hadn’t been for Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow—both of whom encouraged Joel to keep it on the final mix of The Stranger—we might not have ever heard this gem. It’s funny how things work out that way.

16. “Piano Man” (Piano Man, 1973)

It’s hard to argue against “Piano Man”; it’s Billy Joel’s most popular and best-known tune for a reason, right? While it remains the track that helped Joel make it into the mainstream, he went four years before scoring another Top 25 hit. “Piano Man” went 5x platinum (7x overall) and remains our beloved pianist’s signature song. If you’ve ever been to one of Joel’s concerts, you’re already aware of just how euphoric it is singing the chorus with thousands and thousands of fans. “And the waitress is practicing politics as the businessmen slowly get stoned. Yes they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it’s better than drinkin’ alone” remains one of my favorite verses in the American songbook. Few tunes have such an important staying power in the zeitgeist, but “Piano Man” isn’t like other tunes.

15. “The River of Dreams” (River of Dreams, 1993)

While most of River of Dreams is a big miss, I can’t deny that the title track (plus a “The”) is one of Billy Joel’s most buoyant compositions ever. And when he plays it live, Joel just unlocks something in the song that the recorded version just never could capture. Lately, he’s been performing the song with the inclusion of a “River Deep – Mountain High” interlude, and it only adds to just how magical all of it sounds. “The River of Dreams” features one of my favorite singing performances from Billy, as well as one of the sweetest string of harmonies in any of his albums—which is led by Crystal Taliefero and features Wrecia Ford, Marlon Saunders, Frank and George Simms and B. David Witworth. Released into an era being dominated by soul-pop, alt-rock and hip-hop, the charm of “The River of Dreams” managed to still break through and reach #3 on the Hot 100. It marks the last great, unimpeachable moments of brilliance from Joel before he stopped putting out albums and opted to focus on touring exclusively. Hats off to a legend.

14. “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” (The Stranger, 1977)

My favorite opening track in all of Joel’s catalog, “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” sets such an incredible tone for all of The Stranger. It, immediately, puts the listener on notice. This is not the same Billy Joel. This is not the broke piano man slumming it at the bar for scraps. “Movin’ Out” finds Steve Khan and Hiram Bullock trading electric guitars, while Richie Cannata lays down a merciless saxophone medley. It’s the type of song that can rope any listener in, as it’s grandiose and meteoric without the bombast of some glittered rock anthem. No, “Movin’ Out” makes its headway being this epic pop rock masterpiece, and it’s Billy Joel at an apex.

13. “I Don’t Want to Be Alone” (Glass Houses, 1980)

I love, love, love when musicians mimic each other. On “I Don’t Want to Be Alone,” Billy Joel does his best Elvis Costello impression and nails the assignment. Joel was really taking great dives into the new wave world on Glass Houses, and “I Don’t Want to Be Alone” is a very gracious turn towards that. With Richie Cannata’s slight sax solo at the 2:30 mark and David Brown’s lead guitar work, the song is incredible, funky and sublime.

12. “Zanzibar” (52nd Street, 1978)

“Zanzibar” has everything I could ever need from a rock song: sports figures, sex metaphors and jazz fusion. “I’ve got the old man’s car, I’ve got a jazz guitar, I’ve got a tab at Zanzibar. Tonight, that’s where I’ll be” is one of Joel’s catchiest choruses, too. With two trumpet solos by Freddie Hubbard, there’s such a ferocious amount of brazenness running through this song’s DNA. There’s a shuffle rhythm in the introduction and mythical keyboard arrangement washed aglow with lush tones playing across the bridge, making “Zanzibar” one of Joel’s most ambitious and eclectic instrumentals ever—and it’s what helps make the track sing so loudly. Perhaps it’s not good policy to weigh the legacies of his songs against how good they sound live, but “Zanzibar” remains one of those tunes that, no matter the audience and no matter the venue, will always bring the house down.

11. “Sometimes a Fantasy” (Glass Houses, 1980)

I didn’t have enough appreciation for “Sometimes a Fantasy” until I heard it live and, I mean, how many folks can write a song about phone sex as catchy as this one? But the truth is, Joel is trying to examine loneliness more than lust, and it does work. “Sure it would be better if I had you here to hold me,” he sings. “Be better baby, but believe me, it’s the next best thing. I’m sure there’s many times you’ve wanted me to hear your secrets, don’t be afraid to say the words that move me.” It’s a real foray into hard-rock-inspired synth-pop, as Dave Brown and Russell Javors both employ electric guitar parts that mesh with Joel’s synthesizers perfectly. It’s one of the few songs of its era that doesn’t sound as terminally affixed to the era it was made in. It goes without saying, “Sometimes a Fantasy” is one of Billy’s best melodic rockers ever.

10. “New York State of Mind” (Turnstiles, 1976)

While many consider “Piano Man” to be Billy Joel’s signature song, I would genuinely argue that it’s “New York State of Mind.” Joel had spent three years living in Los Angeles and then relocated back home to the Big Apple, and Turnstiles is largely about that cross-country move. You can hear in every note just how much he loves the city he was born in, and “New York State of Mind” is one of the most tender and endearing love-letters in all of rock ‘n’ roll. “I’ve seen all the movie stars in their fancy cars and their limousines, been high in the Rockies under the evergreens,” Joel sings. “But I know what I’m needing, and I don’t want to waste more time. I’m in a New York state of mind.” For all of the reasons Turnstiles is one of Joel’s greatest albums, “New York State of Mind” is the superstar turn that you need from the guy who’s played Madison Square Garden nearly 150 times. This is the soundtrack for the greatest city in America.

9. “My Life” (52nd Street, 1978)

A Top 3 hit and a platinum record, “My Life” is one of two tracks that helped usher in the commercial successes of 52nd Street—and what a quintessentially Billy Joel song it is. It contains, quite possibly, one of the greatest opening verses in rock history (“Got a call from an old friend, we used to be real close / Said he couldn’t go on the American way / Closed the shop, sold a house, bought a ticket to the West Coast / Now he gives them a stand-up routine in L.A.”) and one of the coolest guest harmony performances ever (Peter Cetera and Donnie Dacus from Chicago sing “Keep it to yourself, it’s my life”). I’m not usually the type to immediately agree that the most commercial songs on a record are the very best, but it’s hard to argue with “My Life.” It’s catchy, badass and full of all of the jazz-infused pop-rock that makes Billy Joel so beloved. Big hooks and good mood food, it’s a recipe only the sharpest can spin into success over and over.

8. “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” (Turnstiles, 1976)

The bass on this song outweighs Joel’s voice, which isn’t a good thing—but hot damn if “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” isn’t an absolute screamer live. That’s the crux of Billy’s work, sometimes. But what else would you expect from one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest performers ever? The battle between Los Angeles and New York City is alive and well in this song, as Joel goes to bat for his beloved Big Apple with a tongue made of arsenic—and by goodness do we love him for that. “Moving on is a chance that you take every time,” he sings out. “You try to stay together, say a word out of line and you find that the friends you had are gone forever.” If “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” was recorded with even a fifth of the quality of anything on The Stranger and beyond, this might’ve been the track that stole the whole show.

7. “Only the Good Die Young” (The Stranger, 1977)

It didn’t hit the charts with the same magnitude as “Just the Way You Are,” but “Only the Good Die Young” did crack the Top 25 and go 2x platinum in the States. Joel sings from the perspective of a young man who wants to fuck a Catholic girl who is uber-religious and staunchly against premarital sex, and attempts to censor the song on the grounds of anti-Catholicism helped its commercial popularity soar (Joel has since disputed that it’s pro-lust, not anti-Catholic). The piano intro on “Only the Good Die Young” is among the most recognizable in all of pop-rock history, and the boogie instrumental catalyzed by Richie Cannata’s organ remains undefeated—as does the line “Ant they say there’s a Heaven for those who will wait / Some say it’s better, but I say it ain’t.”

6. “The Stranger” (The Stranger, 1977)

The whistle intro earns “The Stranger” a spot on this list alone, but it doesn’t hurt that the song is also pretty damn good after the fact, too. When I was a novice Billy Joel fan, I never found as much to love about the track as others did, but with age comes grace—and it’s easy to understand why it’s such an incredible riot. “Well, we all fall in love, but we disregard the danger” is one of my favorite Joel lyrics, and Hiram Bullock’s electric guitar work is full of face-melting funk. Title tracks are very hit or miss in the Billy Joel canon (“Piano Man” is good, “Storm Front” is not), but “The Stranger” just far-and-away is a liberating cut of vibrant, heavy rock ‘n’ roll. For all of the moments where the album finds Joel retreating to the comforts of his piano-and-microphone suave (and he does so in impeccable fashion, by the way), “The Stranger” is an outlier where he takes a big, big swing and lands them all with perfect accuracy. This song being the third-best entry on The Stranger is, to me, an unimaginable feat.

5. “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” (Turnstiles, 1976)

2017 has come and gone, but “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” will always endure—or at least I hope it does. Joel wrote the tune amid the cultural decay of New York City in the mid-1970s, and it’s a rather apocalyptic song about his beloved home collapsing into the Hudson. But what’s particularly striking about it is that Joel comes to the story not from a place of condemnation, but from a place of hope—that, even if New York were to fall apart, there would still be someone around to tell its story. “There are not many who remember. They say a handful still survive,” he sings, “to tell the world about the way the lights went out and keep the memory alive.” It may seem archaic that, once upon a time, the world believed New York wasn’t going to survive. But “Miami 2017” is the type of documentation we need to preserve, if only so we can look back at art made for the sake of someone pouring love into a home of theirs that may crumble.

4. “Vienna” (The Stranger, 1977)

I think, by all accounts, “Vienna” is Billy Joel’s prettiest song. I mean, it’s just lovely from start to finish and full of the kind of whimsy that balances out all of The Stranger’s bravado and sugar-sweet balladry. It’s here where Joel arrives really questioning the meaning of life while staring down the barrel of a future. “Slow down, you’re doing fine” sounds particularly entrancing when Dominic Cortese’s accordion comes waltzing in soon after. “Vienna” features one of my favorite vocal performances from Joel, who sings with such a whiskey-soaked vigor and gritty sense of perspective. Instead of asking his listener to go full-speed ahead, Joel reassures us all that our own pace is good enough. “Vienna” has a certain type of romantic magic to it, and the fact that it has maintained such a crucial reverence in Joel’s catalog (despite not being released as a single) only proves just how quintessential it remains.

3. “You May Be Right” (Glass Houses, 1980)

“You May Be Right” might have been the opening track on Glass Houses, but it’s been Billy Joel’s encore closer for years now—and for good reason. It’s the type of big-attitude rock song he was aiming for on “Big Shot,” but completed with such an urbane and generous levity that you don’t often get at the dawn of a pianist’s seventh solo album. But there’s such an intense and melodic flair to Joel’s performance on “You May Be Right” that it’s actually mythical, to me, that this track even exists in the first place—and it’s a great argument for why Glass Houses might just be his best album. And, while Joel’s showmanship wasn’t as technicolor as that of Elton John, “You May Be Right” is an immediate example of just how capable he is of making a stone-cold rock anthem.

2. “Sleeping With the Television On” (Glass Houses, 1980)

Pour one out for the Billy Joel song that should’ve been a massive critical and commercial success. “Sleeping With the Television On” wasn’t a single, nor was it a hit, but it’s easily one of the best tracks he ever made. The defining moment on Glass Houses, it is impervious, deftly catchy and boldly melodic. Joel is having one of his best singing performances here, as he distills a level-headed cadence over a romping instrumental with the kind of subtle finesse that a chart-topping, Grammy-winning living legend just understands how to do. It’s massive yet air-tight, as Joel makes a sublime foray into pop music with relentless gusto. Joel himself has called it an “obscure song” at his shows. It’s quintessentially the opposite, so long as I have anything to say about it.

1. “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” (The Stranger, 1977)

A seven-and-a-half-minute odyssey of music, “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” is a collection of vignettes transposed into an operetta—and it’s the best thing Billy Joel has ever written (and his longest). Hearing it played live is a gift like no other. Peter Gambaccini, in his book Billy Joel: A Personal Life, called it a “careful and considerate juxtaposition of different musical idioms,” and I’d say that’s a pretty damn good way of explaining just what the magic of this song is. “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” is a portrait of perspective done in three parts. It’s about Brenda and Eddie, it’s about high school sweethearts who married young and divorced quickly. It’s about two lovers reuniting and catching up on lost time. As Joel and his band maneuver through blues, rock, jazz and pop, “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” amuses and awes. “A bottle of red, a bottle of wine, whatever kind of mood you’re in tonight. I’ll meet you anytime you want in our Italian restaurant” remains one of the sweetest closing verses in all of rock ‘n’ roll, but not before Richie Cannata lays down one final saxophone solo. It’s a transcendent experience, one that not too many musicians can claim to have conducted.


Check out a playlist of these 25 songs below.

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