Folks, I decided to revisit the discography of one of my favorite artists of all time, the Piano Man himself, Billy Joel. I shouldn’t say that I revisited his works; I listen to at least one Billy Joel song every day. My Spotify playlists are rife with his compositions. In fact, my Spotify Unwrapped said that Billy Joel was only my third most-played artist behind Bob Dylan and a-ha, and I felt attacked.
You know songs like “New York State of Mind” and “We Didn’t Start The Fire” and “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant”, because those have become part of the American music canon. If you go on TikTok, you may have heard “Zanzibar” in videos of teens bandwagoning onto a dance meme. But every Billy Joel album has a song that no one calls their favorite, no one adds to a playlist, and no one has heard live because even Billy himself doesn’t perform them at his Madison Square Garden concerts.
I will now list out the most underrated and overrated songs on each Billy Joel studio album. For good measure, I’ll throw on the most not good song on each album as well. I won’t call a song bad; I’ll just say that it’s “not good”. Keep in mind that choices are partially if not mostly based on personal bias and have no scientific merit.
Cold Spring Harbor (1971)
Underrated song: “Falling of the Rain”
The fifth track on Billy’s debut album shows off his fast skills and classical training on the piano. And while the fantasy-tinged lyrics didn’t stick as a theme throughout his career, the words of “Falling of the Rain” rank among his best.
Overrated song: “She’s Got A Way”
Every compilation album includes the recording of “She’s Got A Way” as featured on Billy’s 1981 live album Songs In The Attic. When Billy’s old record label re-released Cold Spring Harbor in 1983 to milk more money, “She’s Got A Way” was released as a single. This means that everyone associates Cold Spring Harbor with this song, and it’s a shame because there are much better tracks on the record.
Not good song: “You Look So Good To Me”
You’ve got dreamlike opuses like “Falling of the Rain” and furious dissertations about the trappings of fame such as “Everybody Loves You Now” on Cold Spring Harbor, and then you have Donny Osmond schlock like “You Look So Good To Me”. It’s like Billy tried to channel David Cassidy, but Cassidy could do his shtick so much better.
Piano Man (1973)
Underrated song: “Ain’t No Crime”
During the Piano Man era, Billy was playing clubs out in Los Angeles where he was living at the time. I can’t imagine that he played this one much live since it wasn’t a big hit on the radio, but I can imagine a whole crowd of drunken Angelenos jamming along. It’s a little bit gospel, a little bit hard rock, a whole lot of balls-to-the-wall fun. Honorable mention: “Travelin’ Prayer”
Overrated song: None
I won’t call any song on this album overrated, because all of the tracks deemed hits deserve that label. Even “Piano Man”, which some folks would call overplayed and a dirge, still slaps every single time in my book. But there are still songs that are not good, as you’ll read below.
Not good song: “If I Only Had The Words (To Tell You)”
This song is so sappy you could wring it out, stuff the sap with sugar, and pour it on your pancakes. If “You Look So Good To Me” was channeling David Cassidy, “If I Only Had The Words (To Tell You)” imitated Barry Manilow. Also, I’m against any song with a title that uses unnecessary parentheses.
Streetlife Serenade (1974)
Underrated song: “Weekend Song”
Much like “Ain’t No Crime”, this is a party banger. Maybe I just like Billy’s bar band tracks. This has a high-octane ragtime beat that punctuates the kind of energy you’ll want going into a Friday night. It’s all about getting your hard-earned money, revving the engine of your old car, and throwing caution to the wind. Honorable mention: “Root Beer Rag”, “Roberta”.
Overrated song: None
Again, there are no overrated songs, but that’s because either songs deserve to have their success or are just mediocre enough to earn their obscurity. I’ll fight anyone who calls “The Entertainer” overrated. I made good money playing that song as a busker. In fact, an older lady once slipped me a twenty dollar bill after listening to me cover “The Entertainer” and said “I once came on to Billy when he was playing at the Executive Lounge back in ’73.” That’s a story for another time.
Not good song: “The Great Suburban Showdown”
Sure, it captures the drag of going back to your tired old hometown. The downside of “The Great Suburban Showdown”, however, is that it sounds too much like a drag.
Underrated song: “James”
Though understated and a little slow, this is actually a beautiful ballad which Billy said was about people he knew who were dissatisfied with their lives. Considering Billy’s own situation in the mid-Seventies – dealing with a messy relationship, an awful record deal, problems with drugs and alcohol – “James” might be about himself as well.
Overrated song: “New York State Of Mind”
Billy wrote this song upon returning to New York from Los Angeles, and it became one of the songs that defined his career. I think the song is overrated for totally personal reasons. It was the first of Billy’s songs that I nailed on the piano when I was growing up. It became the song that everyone in my family wanted me to play for guests. I like the song, but every time I hear it, muscle memory makes me play along.
Not good song: “All You Wanna Do Is Dance”
This wouldn’t be Billy’s last foray into reggae, but man alive was this a misfire. It’s essentially the same vibe lyrically as “It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me”, so consider this track a prototype.
The Stranger (1977)
Underrated song: “Get It Right The First Time”
This deep cut has just the right amount of funk and proto-disco, and has some pretty solid lyrics as well. It has all the properties of an earworm, and after a listen you’ll understand why this song gets my vote as most underrated.
Overrated song: “Just The Way You Are”
I’m gonna get killed for this. My parents got engaged to this song. I know lots of folks who got married to this song. This is the pinnacle of Billy’s love ballads. And yet, it’s not one of his best songs. I think everyone’s enjoyment of this song comes from sentimentality.
Not good song: “Everybody Has A Dream”
Billy wrote this one back in the Cold Spring Harbor era. I’ve listened to the original demo; it’s a barn burner that leans more proto-emo than gospel. But to commemorate a decade since the hell year of 1968 and the death of MLK, he retooled “Everybody Has A Dream” into a slow spiritual. It doesn’t pack the same punch in 3/4 time.
52nd Street (1978)
Underrated song: “Half A Mile Away”
Another track in the series of bar bangers! “Half A Mile Away” is all about getting done with work and skipping off to the bars or music halls to let loose. It’s got a big band beat that doesn’t hold back and a cast of characters that might as well be folks held over from “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant”.
Overrated song: “Honesty”
It’s a bit of a slog, but it gets a lot of live play and seems to be one of the more popular tracks from the album. Again, maybe this is me remembering all the times I played the song as a kid. It was easy enough; not too much to it technically, just a bunch of major and minor-seven chords in plodding 4/4 time.
Not good song: “52nd Street”
This song is meant as an album ender, so there isn’t much to remember about it. Of the title tracks in Billy’s repertoire, this is among the bottom of the list.
Glass Houses (1980)
Underrated song: “Sometimes A Fantasy”
A song about phone sex shouldn’t slap. And yet “Sometimes A Fantasy” has an infectious hook and blistering beat that rises to – well – a climax. There’s an uncut version online that features the band going absolutely nuts in a two-minute post-song jam, with Billy channeling Ringo Starr at the end of “Helter Skelter” screaming “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!” Honorable mention: “Sleeping With The Television On”, “All For Leyna”
Overrated song: “Don’t Ask Me Why”
When Billy tries to dip into the cultural appropriation barrel, it doesn’t really work. “Don’t Ask Me Why” has a Latin tinge that just comes off awkward. And yet, it was a #1 single, Billy plays it at almost every concert and it’s on every greatest hits record. I don’t get it; I think “All For Leyna”, the first single released to promote the record, is a lot better and one-hundred percent should’ve gotten more recognition.
Not good song: “C’etait Toi (You Were The One)”
He recorded a song partially in French. The English parts are pretty rough too. Every time Billy mentions Glass Houses in an interview he seems to bring up how much he wishes he didn’t record this track.
The Nylon Curtain (1982)
Underrated song: “Scandinavian Skies”
The Nylon Curtain has a lot of new wave influences, and “Scandinavian Skies” is not shy when it comes to those. Lots of twelve-tone composition, a full orchestra, and some epic moments make this song an interesting listen.
Overrated song: None
This album is another one where the songs are either surefire hits, hidden gems, or reasonably forgotten. You could convince me that “Allentown” is overplayed, but I like it too much. The train sound effects alone get me every time.
Not good song: “She’s Right On Time”
It’s a Christmas song, technically. It’s a cute one if a little strange lyrically. I think the music video is hilarious, though. This was the era of Billy adapting to the MTV generation, and he was trying just about anything to relate to the youths as a neurotic 33-year-old man. In future interviews, Billy would regret this.
An Innocent Man (1983)
Underrated song: “Christie Lee”
I maintain that An Innocent Man is Billy Joel’s mid-life crisis captured in music; it’s a man entering middle age paying homage to the songs of his childhood. On top of this, Billy was getting remarried, and to Christie Brinkley of all people. Put all of this together and I don’t think you can blame the guy for wanting to write a cute little number for his supermodel bride-to-be. It would be cringe if the song wasn’t good, but “Christie Lee” unironically slaps.
Overrated song: “The Longest Time”
Every single year in my barbershop club in middle school we would do a hackneyed arrangement of “The Longest Time”. If you also were part of a barbershop or a capella group in your youth – or at any time in your life, frankly – I can’t imagine that you didn’t also sing “The Longest Time”.
Not good song: “Careless Talk”
I’ll admit that I like every song on An Innocent Man, even if I think that “The Longest Time” is overrated and have dark memories of trying to sing “Uptown Girl” at a Discovery Zone karaoke machine when I was eight years old. But “Careless Talk” just kind of exists on the record. It’s not a bad homage to Sam Cooke, but against all of the other tracks on the album, it doesn’t have as much oomph.
The Bridge (1986)
Underrated song: “Big Man On Mulberry Street”
I love the big band sound on this track. Billy was very much leaning into his dad-rock phase, blending in all the jazz and blues he could muster into this slammer of a song. It goes hard from beginning to end; you can hear some nods to the blues royalty Ray Charles, who performs on the track “Baby Grand”, in this song as well.
Overrated song: “This Is The Time”
A lot of folks claim this song is the best on The Bridge, but I can’t get behind it. Very synth-heavy, incredibly sappy, clearly a try at an 80s love ballad to Christie Brinkley. Cheesy as hell, but you know what? Billy married a supermodel. I think I can say this song did its job.
Not good song: “Getting Closer”
The Bridge suffers from some forgettable songs near the end. At least the song “Code of Silence” has a Cyndi Lauper cameo. But as the last song on the album and the third of three mediocre tracks in a row, “Getting Closer” draws the shortest straw every time.
Storm Front (1989)
Underrated song: “Storm Front”
Storm Front has plenty of sailing references, as this was a time when Billy was dreaming of giving up music and taking his life out onto the sea. The title track of the album is a driving metaphor that sort of parallels “I Go To Extremes”; the themes of aging and trying to hold onto youth are there, and the heavy beat captures the imminent danger ahead of Billy. Of course, the imminent danger refers to his forties. I myself am but ten years from my forties. God help me.
Overrated song: “We Didn’t Start The Fire”
Obvious choice here. Even Billy is on record disliking this song. But you’re gonna tell me that you don’t sing along every time you hear “We Didn’t Start The Fire” in the wild? You don’t bop your head and start muttering “Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray,” etc.? Come on.
Not good song: “Shameless”
I’m not a fan of Garth Brooks’ 1991 rendition of this track, but then again, the source material isn’t terribly A-plus either. Billy once introduced this song saying that he wanted to write a song that sounded like Jimi Hendrix. Puzzling, because while I hear the Hendrix influence, in Billy’s voice it sounds more like a Bryan Adams track. (Too much?)
River of Dreams (1993)
Underrated song: “The Great Wall of China”
I happen to think this song is a lot of fun. It ebbs and flows, twists and turns, rises and falls, kind of like the actual Great Wall of China. You can hear all of Billy’s emotions of that time in his life in this song: Bitterness over his failing marriage, despair for his star fading, hope for some kind of positive future.
Overrated song: “River of Dreams”
I can’t go on record saying that I like “River of Dreams” all too much. A lot of old white men were trying to pull off a Paul Simon’s Graceland back in the late Eighties and early Nineties – Peter Gabriel, for sure – and Billy was jumping on the craze of inserting African and world music into his own. The best part of this song is that Billy cut off his own performance of it at the 1994 Grammy Awards, in protest of Frank Sinatra’s lifetime achievement award speech getting cut off earlier in the evening. We stan whoever has the cajones to kick back against the Academy.
Not good song: “A Minor Variation”
In 1992, Billy wrote a song for the album that would become River of Dreams called “You Picked A Real Bad Time”. It made it through the original recording sessions, was re-recorded, mixed, mastered, and released as the B-side to “All About Soul”. The question for me is why that song, which is a jam, got nixed from the main album in favor of “A Minor Variation”. While both songs dabble in bitterness and depression, “A Minor Variation” doesn’t have the same grit.
One last song: “Famous Last Words”
To close off this list, let’s just give an honorable mention to “Famous Last Words”, the final track on River of Dreams as well as Billy’s last pop song ever released. (I don’t think you can count “Christmas in Fallujah” or “All My Lives” as pop songs.) This was meant to be Billy’s last opus, his farewell to the music industry, a tip of the hat before casting off into the ocean and searching for Moby Dick or whatever. Of course, that never came to pass, as Billy would continue to tour and sell out Madison Square Garden for the next thirty years, give or take. Yeah, do the math there: Billy said “Peace out” almost three whole decades ago, and yet he’s still rocking out with the band. He will continue to rock until he can’t no more, and frankly I respect the grind.
But would it kill Billy to bring out “Keeping The Faith” more in his live shows? I love that song.