Billy Joel is one of the most successful and accomplished songwriters of all time. He’s also unanimously loathed by pop critics (with the exception of Chuck Klosterman). Few musicians represent the disparity between popular and critical consensus better than Billy Joel.
Barring his underwhelming classical experiment from 2001, Fantasies and Delusions, Joel hasn’t released a proper album of original material since 1992’s River of Dreams (which is actually much more listenable than its awful cover art suggests). For music journalists looking to brandish their snark, Joel is the perennial low-hanging fruit, though there aren’t any new reasons to make fun of him.
Many criticisms of Billy Joel are valid, as are criticisms of virtually any artist. He has written some horrible songs, and some of those songs are his biggest hits. His attempts at portraiture are laughable (“Piano Man”; “Goodnight Saigon”), and when he plays the role of pugnacious cultural critic (“It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”), he just seems like a paranoid one-upman hell-bent on besting his imagined nemeses.
But Billy Joel is also disdained reflexively and unfairly, thanks to decades of subliminal rockist propaganda. Accusations that Joel was “inauthentic” compared to his predecessors (the Beatles and Bob Dylan) and peers (Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello) are so sanctimonious they shouldn’t even be dignified with a proper counterargument. Joel was an unabashed hitmaker, and obscurantist snobs will always regard popular art as second-rate.
It’s true that Billy Joel is ultimately a singles artist—the closest he’s ever gotten to making a consistently great record was with 1982’s The Nylon Curtain—but much of his most personal and emotionally resonant work never tore up the charts. Here are five of the best Billy Joel songs you won’t hear in the dentist’s office. You probably won’t hear them at his Portland show, either.
“Summer, Highland Falls,” Turnstiles (1976)
“Summer, Highland Falls” is one of Billy Joel’s best ballads. Joel was no stranger to depressive moods—he attempted suicide in the early ’70s by drinking furniture polish—and “Summer, Highland Falls” evokes that all-too-brief respite in a depressed person’s life when the black clouds dissipate and meaning returns to the world. Scene kids would get “It’s either sadness or euphoria” tattooed on their arms if it were a Bright Eyes lyric.
“All for Leyna,” Glass Houses (1980)
“All for Leyna” only charted as a single in the UK and Spain, but it’s a favorite among fans. Additionally, its music video—which begins with a shot of Joel rising from behind a keyboard and staring directly into the camera with an insane expression on his face—is one of the most uncomfortable music videos I’ve ever seen. On “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” the song that directly precedes “All for Leyna” in Glass Houses’ sequence, Joel criticizes musical trends of the era. This juxtaposition feels deliberate; on “All for Leyna,” with its guitar stabs and Sting-esque vocal melody, Joel tries beating the skinny ties at their own game. He succeeds, for the most part; “All for Leyna” is still more punk than “My Sharona.”
“Through the Long Night (Demo Version),” Glass Houses (1980)
The officially released version of “Through the Long Night” appears as the closing track to Glass Houses. But the demo version, which can be found on YouTube, is a much more interesting listen. Still in an unfinished state and featuring a more energetic arrangement, Joel ad-libs his way through the song—he’s settled on the phrasing and syllable count, but he’s still working out the lyrics. It’s an aperture into a brilliant pop songwriter’s creative process, and audible proof of the humanity at the core of Joel’s best work.
“Laura,” The Nylon Curtain (1982)
The Nylon Curtain is essentially an album of late ’60s Beatles homages, and “Laura” is the best of the batch. It’s a terrific and painstaking tribute, from the swirling vocal harmonies to the “banana fingers” piano to the fake George Harrison solo. An eminently relatable take on familial dysfunction, “Laura” also contains the best and most mature set of lyrics Billy Joel ever penned—and not just because he sings “fucking” in the bridge.
“Where’s the Orchestra,” The Nylon Curtain (1982)
The closing track on The Nylon Curtain, “Where’s the Orchestra” is a reflection of its composer’s tattered psyche: “Where’s the orchestra?/Wasn’t this supposed to be a musical?/Here I am in balcony/How the hell could I have missed the overture?” It’s telling that Joel concludes his best and most ornate record with a song about spiritual emptiness; he’s rich and famous, but he still hasn’t found what he’s looking for. The punchline, of course, is that the orchestra is right under his nose—“Where’s the Orchestra” features a dense mix of brass, strings, and woodwind. Terminally dissatisfied and condescendingly talented, “Where’s the Orchestra” cements Billy Joel’s status as rock’s tragic antagonist.