Billy Joel is my favorite musical artist of all time. I’ve enjoyed his music literally longer than I can remember, and I still do. There’s a Billy Joel CD in my car’s CD player. That’s not to say he’s always been my “current favorite” — I’ve fallen in love with plenty of other bands and artists, and even had a few challenge Joel for the top spot. But none ever have, and I’d be lucky if any ever did.
I suppose this could serious harm my credibility as a music fan. After all, the AllMusic entry on Billy Joel begins with “Although Billy Joel never was a critic’s favorite, the pianist emerged as one of the most popular singer/songwriters of the latter half of the ’70s.” From that, you can infer the high-minded consensus on Joel is dismissive of his artistic merits.
Still, I love his music, and it’s largely shaped many of my musical ideologies and tastes. His strengths and weaknesses run in my DNA at this point; any music I encounter will be evaluated subconsciously on a scale of what Billy Joel taught me to care about in music.
But before I track his solo career arc from beginning to end with a series of reviews, I wanted to share eight overall elements that define why his music is meaningful to me:
1. He was the first artist I loved
It’s unlikely but possible that another artist may one day surpass Joel atop my pantheon of favorite artists. But nobody will ever take this trophy away from Joel.
Many critics dismiss Billy Joel as formulaic, cookie-cutter pop, and they’re right from time to time. But it was through Billy Joel that I learned that formula. Simple things — like falling in love with a beautiful ballad (She’s Got a Way, live version), discovering rockers that changed tempos (Scenes From an Italian Restaurant), and savoring the marvelous flavor that a great instrumental solo can add to a song (I Go To Extremes) — I can only take for granted because Mr. Joel taught me how.
Billy Joel released nine albums in the decade spanning 1973-83, and in my eyes, every one of them except Streetlife Serenade (1974) is at least “great,” if not “classic.” All nine albums feature at least one “classic” track, and only a handful of the several dozen songs on those nine albums is worse than “good.”
3. Nobody writes better pop hooks
Billy Joel is one of the kings of pop tunes. In all earnestness, I believe that only maybe Lennon-McCartney has created a more impressive catalog of fantastic melodies. Others come close (Oasis, U2, Elton, Jacko, Journey, Elvis, among others), but none top him. His balance between immediate and substantial hooks results in easy listens that you can revisit indefinitely.
4. There’s a aching, incessant longing and loneliness in his lyrics
Headlined by the pitch-dark Piano Man album, Billy Joel has a certain desolation in his heart that he could never quite quench until 1983 with An Innocent Man, and even that respite was short-lived.
His nonstop search for meaning and connection gives the his music a meaningful center with plenty of satisfying moments when he finds small victories (Just the Way You Are).
Writers and critics give plenty of crap to Joel for being derivative and simplistic and cold. They somehow missed the gaping depths of Joel’s genuine aching. He’s not a poet on the level of complexity of a Springsteen, but the emotions and ideas he encapsulates in his music are no less palpable.
5. His career is complete; he hasn’t lapsed out of retirement
When Joel released River of Dreams in 1993, he sounded like a tired old man who had lost his edge but still had enough left in the tank to shine from moment to moment. It’s a clunky album, something like a former ace throwing a 5.5 ERA at 36 years old during a farewell season where he still throws a few memorable gems.
Joel himself knew more than anyone that he was losing his game, so he called it quits — “These are the last words I have to say,” he sings in the closing song.
And somehow, even with the prospect of millions of dollars of revenue, he’s resisted reneging on that retirement promise. He’s released no new studio albums since then, and claims to have written only one lone song since (All My Life in 2007).
It’s pretty tough to think of anyone else who has gone from releasing a #1 hit album to immediate retirement without much reason except for maintaining artistic integrity, and then never looking back.
6. His musical sense has aged gracefully
And yet, he still sounds spry. By many measures, his live collection 12 Gardens Live from 2006 isn’t just his best album in decades, it’s his best album ever. His vocal cords have maintained impressive tenacity for a sixty-year-old.
7. There’s just enough variety in his discography
While he uses only a handful of chord progressions as his main tools, the crafts themselves have been pretty diverse.
From two-minute lamentations (Souvenir) to eight-minute elegies (New York State of Mind), from panoramic narratives (Scenes from an Italian Restaurant) to searing confessions (Honesty), from operatic sound-pictures (Big Man on Mulberry Street) to stripped-down refrains (She’s Got a Way), Billy Joel’s output is as diverse as it is prolific.
8. His music is fun and enjoyable to listen to
He’s not particularly silly, rarely clever, and hardly cool in the way his contemporaries like Elvis Costello are. And yet, in my eyes, his gift of melody, composition, and performance make his work more pleasurable and worthwhile than any “style” could be in the long run. “Cool” changes every day; well-crafted melodies and lyrics full of longing and hard-earned emotion never date.