Thirty years ago, Billy Joel released what he said would be his final album, The River Of Dreams.  A lot of artists announce “final” albums. Billy Joel actually stuck with it…at least as of now.

He’s released a handful of new songs in the years since. Recently, Joel released the moving ballad “Turn the Lights Back On.” He then returned to the stage at the Grammy Awards for the first time in 30 years and performed his new song. The Piano Man was met with a standing ovation. 

While there have been some fans who want more new music from him, Billy seemed to be aware that he’d said everything he wanted to say: In “Famous Last Words,” the last song on The River of Dreams, he sings, “And these are the last words I have to say/It’s always hard to say goodbye/But now it’s time to put this book away.”

The lack of new material hasn’t slowed him down as a performer. He still headlines arenas and stadiums, and is now wrapping up his years-long residency at Madison Square Garden, where he’s been playing a show per month (not including during the pandemic) since January 2014.

RELATED: Billy Joel Doesn't Get Why People Hate 'We Didn't Start The Fire' So Much

Fans also got the chance to experience The Piano Man’s residency from the comfort of their own home. CBS aired Billy Joel: the 100th — Live at Madison Square Garden on April 14, 2023. However, things went awry when the special first aired, because it began a few minutes later due to The Masters golf tournament. The special was suddenly cut short by CBS, which led to fan backlash and the network issuing an apology.

The final show of the MSG residency has been officially set for July 25, 2024. During a June 2023 press conference about the end of his residency, “I’m kind of flabbergasted that it lasted as long as it did. My team tells me that we could continue to sell tickets, but ten years … 150 shows — all right already!”

But his twelve albums have an embarrassment of riches: he’s had over thirty top 40 hits. But his album tracks and deep cuts have some true jewels as well.

So here, we’re attempting to rank his best songs: some of the bigger singles didn’t make our list. But some deep cuts did: if you’re not familiar with them, check them out now, and thank us later.

(BI)=Written by Brian Ives
(EB)= Written by Erica Banas

  • 20. “Big Shot (live)” from ‘Kohuept’ (1987)

    All these years later, “Big Shot” still remains one of rock’s most scathing songs. Its aggressive opening riff from Steve Khan certainly sets that tone, and you can feel that jolting electricity in the live version from Kohuept. The inspiration behind it being about Bianca Jagger after Joel went on a date with her turned out to be an urban legend. However, the Piano Man would later say he was inspired to write the song after having dinner with Bianca and Mick Jagger, and he wrote it from the perspective of Mick singing to Bianca. After all, she did love herself some Halston. (EB)

  • 19. “Vienna” from ‘The Stranger’ (1977)

    It was awfully clever of Joel to write a song about the wisdom and grace that comes with age that has seemingly gotten better with time since its release in 1977. It’s a song many should revisit with purpose from time to time, because it helps you fully realize the privilege of being able to age. Some people don’t get that opportunity to grow old. Never forget that that truly is a gift. (EB)

  • 18. “Goodnight Saigon” from ‘The Nylon Curtain’ (1982)

    The heft of “Goodnight Saigon” can still be felt decades after the Vietnam War. Frankly, it’s a song that will always resonate with every person fighting on any frontline. These soldiers might be listening to something different from “our Doors tapes” and will be entertained by a different version of Bob Hope’s U.S.O., but all of the other emotions remain universal. It’s another reminder that war is hell and that this country still needs to get its act together about how we treat veterans when they come home. (EB)

  • 17. “To Make You Feel My Love” from ‘Greatest Hits Volume III’ (1997)

    The rest of this list features songs written by Billy Joel; we didn’t use his covers, although he has some fun ones, from Sly & the Family Stone’s “Dance To The Music” to the Beatles’ “Back in the U.S.S.R.” “To Make You Feel My Love” was written by Bob Dylan but doesn’t count as a cover. That’s because Billy’s version, from this ‘Greatest Hits Volume III’ album came out a few weeks before Dylan’s own version on ‘Time Out Of Mind.’ Columbia Records wanted a new song to help sell the hits collection, but Billy didn’t have any outtakes or new songs. The label’s president, Don Ienner, reached out to Bob Dylan’s camp to see if they had any songs that would work for Billy Joel. Ienner played it for Billy, who told David Letterman that when he heard it, “My hair stood up on my arms.” Besides Dylan, the song has been recorded by Garth Brooks, Adele and Neil Diamond. Billy Joel’s version, the first to be released, is surely one of the best. (BI)

  • 16. “The Entertainer” from ‘Streetlife Serenade’ (1974)

    An underrated use of juxtaposition, “The Entertainer” laments the challenges of being a rock star within a jaunty, upbeat song. Never has playing the game of trying to remain successful and making money for people other than yourself sounded so lighthearted and whimsical! (EB)

  • 15. “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” from ‘The Stranger’ (1977)

    “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” is essentially a dig at hustle culture before hustle culture was even a thing. Of course, hustle culture back in the ‘70s meant trying to obtain aspirational luxuries like that house out in Hackensack or that Cadillac-ac-ac-ac-ac-ac. Now, it means simply trying to survive as the rich get richer and the working class just seem to never make similar gains. One constant still remains true: If your life is all work and no play, then what’s the point? (EB)

  • 14. “The Longest Time” from ‘An Innocent Man’ (1983)

    The album ‘An Innocent Man’ was a tribute to Billy’s pre-Beatles favorites, and the title track was a homage to Ben E. King and the Drifters. And it has a very “Stand By Me” vibe to it. The narrator tries to convince a potential lover not to blame the behavior of her ex on him. “I know you’re only protecting yourself/I know you’re thinking of somebody else/Someone who hurt you.” But Billy’s ready to put in the work: “But I’m not above making up for the love/You’ve been denying you could ever feel/I’m not above doing anything/To restore your faith if I can.” (BI)

  • 13. “Allentown” from ‘The Nylon Curtain’ (1982)

    “Allentown” is a complicated song. While it name-checks the Pennsylvania city and Bethlehem Steel, it’s really about any blue collar town in America. In fact, current Allentown mayor Matt Turek can’t stand the song. He recently told NPR, “It’s so wrong. It’s like – I don’t know how it felt in 1982 (Turek was only seven when the song was released), but it doesn’t feel like that now. Like I honestly have a hard time saying, it’s getting hard to stay. Like, it’s not hard to stay. It’s hard to leave.” (EB)

  • 12. “Sometimes A Fantasy (live)” from ‘Koheupt’ (1987)

    Billy Joel’s historic 1987 Russian concerts didn’t all go smoothly. He famously had a meltdown at one of his shows during “Sometimes a Fantasy,” but not on the version included on the album. Billy and the band sound like they’re having a blast here, especially when they throw in a bit of “Be-Bop-A-Lula.” (BI)

  • 11. Tony Bennett and Billy Joel - “New York State of Mind” from ‘Playin’ With My Friends: Bennett Sings The Blues’ (2001)

    Billy wrote the song when he was in the process of moving from Los Angeles to New York. It seemed like an instant “Great American Songbook” entry when the original studio version was released on ‘Turnstiles’ in 1976. There are other great versions of the song. The live version from “The Concert For NYC” was a classic.  So was Billy’s live version, with Tony Bennett on Billy’s ‘Live At Shea Stadium’ album, recorded in 2008. But “New York State Of Mind” isn’t really a stadium jam. The subtle version recorded for Bennett’s 2001 album is the best one that we’ve heard. (BI)

  • 10. “Prelude/Angry Young Man (live)” from ‘Kohuept’ (1987)

    The “Prelude” section allows Billy (and his band) to show off their chops; the piano part was a tribute to surf guitar players. “Angry Young Man,” originally released in 1976 on ‘Turnstiles,’ seems to predict the punk rock explosion by a year: “He refuses to bend/He refuses to crawl/He’s always at home with his back to the wall.” The narrator – an older guy – looks at the angry young man with some empathy, but feels that his anger won’t amount to much: “I believe I’ve passed the age of consciousness /And righteous rage/I found that just surviving was a noble fight/I once believed in causes too/I had my pointless point of view/And life went on no matter who was wrong or right.” (BI)

  • 9. “An Innocent Man” from ‘An Innocent Man’ (1983)

    The album ‘An Innocent Man’ was a tribute to Billy’s pre-Beatles favorites, and the title track was a homage to Ben E. King and the Drifters. And it has a very “Stand By Me” vibe to it. 

    The narrator tries to convince a potential lover not to blame the behavior of her ex on him. “I know you’re only protecting yourself/I know you’re thinking of somebody else/Someone who hurt you.” But Billy’s ready to put in the work: “But I’m not above making up for the love/You’ve been denying you could ever feel/I’m not above doing anything/To restore your faith if I can.” (BI)

  • 8. “The Stranger” from ‘The Stranger’ (1977)

    Undoubtedly one of the best whistle solos ever, “The Stranger” also boasts one hell of a riff from Hiram Bullock. The song itself, though, is still pretty mysterious after all of these years. Then again, most people are pretty mysterious, too. We all have different versions of ourselves that not everyone sees, even those closest to us. (“Did you ever let your lover/See the stranger in yourself?”) These multiple faces are often created out of necessity, but that doesn’t mean it still isn’t a struggle to juggle them all. (EB)

  • 7. “Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway)(live)” from ‘Songs In The Attic’ (1981)

    Billy has said that he wrote this song while living in Los Angeles and reading about New York City’s financial problems. He then imagined a future apocalyptic New York where the narrator “watched the mighty skyline fall.” As the title alludes, the song takes place in Miami in the then-distant future (2017!). The narrator is telling his grandchildren about what he saw when New York was destroyed. The imagery is so vivid, it’s almost surprising that no one has made a feature film (or a Broadway musical) about it. Joel did a stirring version of the song at Madison Square Garden at The Concert for New York City shortly after 9/11, but this version, from MSG in 1980, is still the definitive one. (BI)

  • 6. “Captain Jack (Live April 1972 at Sigma Sound Studios, WMMR)” (1972)

    Featured on Joel’s 1973 album Piano Man, the lore of “Captain Jack” really starts with this live rendition from a radio concert at Sigma Studios in Philadelphia that aired on WMMR. The song was a massive hit with the station’s listeners and was so popular many stations in New York wanted their own copy of the track to play on the air, even though it hadn’t been released on a proper album yet. It was the track that essentially led to Joel to sign with Columbia Records. Of course, it should be noted that the song is sort of like Joel’s version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” The way people think “Born in the U.S.A.” is a patriotic song is how people think “Captain Jack” glorifies drug use when it’s actually a cautionary tale. (EB)

  • 5. “Piano Man” from ‘Piano Man’ (1973)

    Billy’s first single, it sounds like something that you’d hear in a ‘70s piano bar. Which, of course, is what inspired it: Billy was working at bar playing piano and the characters in the song were based on people that he met there: John at the bar, Paul, the “real estate novelist,” the waitress practicing politics. Like many of his best songs – and the best songs in general – it resonates because it rings true. “They’re sharing a drink they call loneliness/But it’s better than drinkin’ alone” is probably what keeps bars in business. (BI)

  • 4. “The Ballad of Billy The Kid (live)” from ‘Songs In The Attic’ (1981)

    Leave it to Billy Joel to find a sense of romance for Old West legends and tying them to a local bartender. “The Ballad of Billy The Kid,” of course, is a loose tale about the infamous American outlaw, with the song’s final verse actually referencing a bartender he knew on Long Island. The live version on Song In The Attic is has a unique bombast to it that just elevates the whole song to another level. (EB)

  • 3. “Only The Good Die Young” from ‘The Stranger’ (1977)

    Joel reflected on this hit in a March 2023 interview with the Los Angeles Times. He said, “It’s occurred to me recently that I’m trying to talk some poor innocent woman into losing her virginity because of my lust. It’s kind of a selfish song — like, who cares what happens to you? What about what I want?” However, he does admit, “But on the other hand, it was of its time. This was written in the mid-’70s, and I was trying to seduce girls. Why bulls— about it?”

    You have to respect his honesty, and you have to respect the perfect structure of “Only the Good Die Young.” Also, shout out to drummer Liberty DeVitto for one of the best drum fills of all time at the start of the song. It’s truly “chef’s kiss.” (EB)

  • 2. “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” from ‘Songs In The Attic’ (1981)

    The song was a musical tribute to Ronnie Spector, and the production style of her ex-husband, the notorious Phil Spector. It sounds more than a little like “Be My Baby.” Ronnie liked it so much, she covered it (backed by Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band!). Her version helped to launch her comeback. (BI)

  • 1. “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” from ‘The Stranger’ (1977)

    It’s one of his biggest hits but was never released as a single. That’s understandable: it’s seven and a half minutes and really sounds like three different songs.  It start sets the scene… at an Italian restaurant. Two friends are about to meet to talk about old times. The second part of the song sees them catching up – “Things are okay with me these days/Got a good job, got a good office/Got a new wife, got a new life/And the family’s fine.” And then they get to the nitty gritty, talking about whatever happened to Brenda and Eddie.” The music is incredible, but the lyrics show Joel’s eye for narrative detail, which we first saw in “Piano Man.” (BI)

Sign me up for the MMR VIP email newsletter!

Get the good stuff sent straight to your inbox, and be the first to know: concert presales, exclusive contests, and behind the scenes photos and video.

By clicking "Subscribe" I agree to the website's terms of Service and Privacy Policy. I understand I can unsubscribe at any time.