I first heard Billy Joel back in the early 1980s, when he released his An Innocent Man album. While I have heard some of his earlier work over the years, my list tends to focus more on the timeframe between An Innocent Man and River of Dreams, which is approximately a ten year span of Billy Joel’s career. For this list, I will be featuring the songs in chronological order of release to the best of my ability.
Just the Way You Are (from the 1977 album, The Stranger): This is the only one of Billy’s songs from the 1970s to make my list. There are a couple of other songs of his from the 1970s that I like, but they just didn’t quite make my top ten list. “Just the Way You Are” is one of his most classic 1970s songs, and he even recorded a version of it for Sesame Street with Oscar the Grouch. It’s a very sweet song with a timeless message of liking someone for who they are.
Allentown (from the 1982 album, The Nylon Curtain): “Allentown” tells the story of a town where their main industry is disappearing and the depressed livelihood of those who are affected. Specifically, the song deals with the decline of the steel industry in the areas of Allentown and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. It’s an issue song that is able to convey the story and the feelings of the people in the area. Billy tried to do this again a few years later with “The Downeaster ‘Alexa,'” on the Storm Front album, by doing a song about the demise of the fishing industry. While “The Downeaster ‘Alexa'” wasn’t a bad song, it just didn’t quite capture the issue the same way that “Allentown” did.
Tell Her About It (from the 1983 album, An Innocent Man): This was the song that first sold me on Billy Joel back in the 1980s. This is such a fun and upbeat number, that it’s not too surprising that it grabbed me back when I was a kid. Now that I’m older, I can really hear the Motown influence in the song. The lyrical theme is actually quite simple; the speaker of the song is trying to convince a young man to tell a woman how he feels about her before he misses his chance.
An Innocent Man (from the 1983 album, An Innocent Man): This was the third single from the album. While it has a pop sound, it also sounds a little haunting. Musically, it is an homage to Ben E. King and the Drifters. But the song is probably best known for the high note that Billy hits during the chorus. Lyrically, this song has always intrigued me. It’s definitely a song about loneliness, but there are sections of the song that could be seen in different ways. It’s this mix of the music and the lyrics that make “An Innocent Man” one of my top ten favorite Billy Joel songs.
The Longest Time (from the 1983 album, An Innocent Man): This was the fourth single from the album. It’s a doo-wop sound, and features Billy Joel on the lead and all fourteen background tracks. The doo-wop and the layering of all of Billy’s vocal parts, along with the theme of the song, make this one of Billy’s all-time classics.
Keeping the Faith (from the 1983 album, An Innocent Man): This was the final single from the album. I’ve always loved this song lyrically, about how Billy is waxing nostalgic for his youth in the 1950s and the 1960s. And having the song sound like it came from that era really adds something to the nostalgia factor for the song. One of my favorite lines from the song has always been: “You know the good old days weren’t always good / And tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”
A Matter of Trust (from the 1986 album, The Bridge): This was the second single from the album, and I remember seeing the video for this song somewhat regularly on MTV at the time. I have always loved the lyrics for this song, and I really like how this song works musically with the lyrics. The overall theme of the song is that, at the end of it all, relationships always come down to being “a matter of trust.”
We Didn’t Start the Fire (from the 1989 album, Storm Front): This was the lead-off single for the album, and it serves as a history lesson for the years between 1949 and 1989; unfortunately, the 1970s are boiled down to just two concepts: “Watergate” and “punk rock.” This song always fascinated me, due to how Billy took all of these historical references, put them in chronological order, and made a song out of them… and the song wasn’t boring. Surprisingly, this became a number one hit on the pop chart, and the song and video were licensed for use for social studies curriculum in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
I Go to Extremes (from the 1989 album, Storm Front): This was the follow-up single to “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” This is one of those songs where Billy Joel demonstrates how he got the nickname “Piano Man.” During the bridge of the song, he really uses the piano as a percussion instrument. The lyrics, combined with Billy’s piano playing, make this a fun song to listen to.
The River of Dreams (from the 1993 album, River of Dreams): This was the lead-off single for the album. I’ve always appreciated how Billy was able to bring a gospel sound to a pop song and not have it sound cheesy. I like to think that this was one of the songs that helped to plant a “spiritual seed” in me and lead me toward becoming a Christian a few years later.