Readers' Poll: The Best Billy Joel Songs of All Time - Rolling Stone
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Readers’ Poll: The Best Billy Joel Songs of All Time

Selections include ‘Vienna,’ ‘Captain Jack’ and ‘Goodnight Saigon’

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Billy Joel hasn’t released a new album in nearly 20 years, but he hasn’t been inactive. He’s earned the equivalent of the gross national product of a medium-sized country by playing his old hits at basketball arenas. The rock critics of the 1970s and 1980s have been proven wrong: his songs have endured, and Joel gets more and more respect as the years roll on. Few men alive have written more famous songs, and we expected a huge response when we asked our readers last week to vote for their favorites. Seventy separate songs got votes, even if “James,” “You’re My Home” and the nonexistent title track to Cold Spring Harbor all got a single vote. Click through to see the top 10. 

10. ‘Goodnight Saigon’

Billy Joel did not fight in the Vietnam War. He thought about fleeing to Canada when the draft lottery came around, but he snagged a very high number and didn’t wind up getting called. “A lot of my friends did go,” he said. “I felt bad. I disagreed with the political reasons for that war.”

A few years after his friends came home, he had some beers with them and they told their war stories and encouraged him to write a song. “They said, ‘We’ll tell you what happened to us and you write a song about it,'” Joel recalled. “I realized you don’t have to have lived it as long as you researched it and talked to people that were there.” He didn’t want to write an anti-war song, opting instead to talk about the experience of soldiers. The result was “Goodnight Saigon” from his 1982 LP The Nylon Curtain. The single never rose above Number 56 in America, but it’s since become one of his most popular songs in concert. 

9. ‘Summer Highland Falls’

When Turnstiles hit shelves in the spring of 1976, Billy Joel was looking dangerously like a one-hit wonder. “Piano Man” was three long years in the past, and his subsequent releases all stiffed. “Summer Highland Falls,” one of the standout tracks from the album, nicely sums up his emotional state at the time. It was a period of highs and lows – or “sadness and euphoria,” as the song states. It’s a beautiful song that Joel has often cited as one of his favorite all-time compositions. Even the piano intro is wistful. The best version of the song is found on Billy’s 1981 live album, Songs in the Attic

8. ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’

The 1950s are often considered a period of peace, tranquility and blandness. Billy Joel, who grew up in the 1950s, wanted to disprove that notion with a song that went methodically through the era, highlighting all of the crazy things that went on. The song was a surprise hit, and tons of kids who knew nothing about Liberace, Nasser and Roy Cohn memorized every single word. It made history class much more interesting, too: “Oh, THAT’S the ‘trouble in the Suez!'” and “‘Edsel is a no-go’ is about a car!” However, Billy Joel has said that he doesn’t love the song due to its lack of a strong melody. 

7. ‘Just the Way You Are’

It’s easy to understand why Billy Joel refused to play “Just the Way You Are” for so many years: it’s a moving tribute to his ex-wife, Elizabeth Weber. In the song, he pledges his undying love, regardless of what trouble they may hit down the road. He even promises to love her forever.

They split five years later, though he foolishly let her brother, Frank Weber, stay on as his manager. He’d pay dearly for the mistake. The song was the first of many hits from The Stranger, and by the 2000s, enough time had passed that he put it back into his setlist. It took him a little less time to start playing “Uptown Girl” again after divorcing Christie Brinkley, but not much. 

6. ‘Vienna’

Billy Joel’s 1977 album The Stranger forever changed his life. It spawned five hit singles that have stayed in constant rotation on radio for decades. “Vienna” is not one of those songs. Stuck between “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” and “Only the Good Die Young,” the song didn’t get a lot of love back in the day. Today, Billy Joel says it’s one of his two favorites, alongside “Summer Highland Falls.” Many fans now agree.

Billy’s father spent much of his life in Vienna, and the song was inspired by many of Joel’s visits to the city. He found the pace of life there different, and he wanted to convey that in his music. 

5. ‘Captain Jack’

“Captain Jack” was never a single, but it’s one of the most important songs in Billy Joel’s catalog. A live performance of the song that was taped at a Philadelphia radio station received a lot of local airtime in 1972. It got the attention of Columbia Records, who signed him to their roster.

Joel wrote the song in 1971 as he looked at a housing project across the street from his Long Island apartment. Teenagers were buying heroin from a drug dealer named Captain Jack. He wrote the tune from the perspective of a lost, depressed kid. It may well be the greatest pop song in history to use the word “masturbate.” 

4. ‘Only the Good Die Young’

“Only the Good Die Young” has one of the all-time great opening lines in history: “Come out, Virginia, don’t let me wait/ You Catholic girls start much too late.” That alone was enough to get some radio stations to ban the song back in 1977. The song was inspired by Billy’s real-life crush on a Catholic girl named Virginia. As usual, the controversy around the song only helped sell more copies of it (on The Stranger).

In many ways, the song is a nice companion piece to Bruce Springsteen’s 1973 classic “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight.)” In both cases, bad boys are trying to get a young woman out of her house against the will of her strict parents. 

3. ‘New York State of Mind’

Billy Joel is one of the most famous Long Islanders of all time but, in the mid 1970s, he spent three years in Los Angeles. His time there inspired one of his most famous songs (“Piano Man”), but he never really felt at home. Many of the songs on Turnstiles detail his joy to be leaving Los Angeles. He began writing “New York State of Mind” on an actual Greyhound bus on the Hudson River Line. It’s since become an unofficial anthem for the city – or at least, it was until Jay-Z released “Empire State of Mind.”

2. ‘Scenes From an Italian Restaurant’

“Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” is one of Billy Joel’s longest songs and one of his most beloved – even though it was never a single. The song tells the tale of high school sweethearts Brenda and Eddie. It’s a familiar story of a couple that couldn’t survive the pressures of the real world, but Joel makes it very vivid by describing their “deep pile carpets” and their “couple of paintings from Sears.” They were the kind of people everybody knew.

For years, fans wondered which exact Italian restaurant he was singing about, and he recently revealed it as Fontana di Trevi in New York. A waiter there said, “A bottle of white, a bottle of red, perhaps a bottle of rosé instead?” It set off a spark in Billy’s mind. 

1. ‘Piano Man’

In late 1972, a new piano player calling himself Bill Martin began playing regularly at the Executive Room bar in Los Angeles. Few people there knew he was a New Yorker named Billy Joel who had released his debut album, Cold Spring Harbor, the previous year. He only stayed around the bar for a few months, but it was enough time to find the inspiration for the song “Piano Man.” He says the characters were drawn from real life, but Davy from the navy and Paul the real estate novelist have yet to step forward.

The song became his first hit, and he’s closed out countless concerts with it over the years. In 2006, he tried to flip things around and open the show with it. It didn’t work, and the next night, it was back in his standard slot. 

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