Top Billy Joel Songs of the '80s

Billy Joel at a piano

 Paul Natkin/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Singer-songwriter and pop superstar Billy Joel certainly had an abundance of hit songs during the '80s, but he also suffered from a significant gulf between his critical and commercial reception. That means that the quality of some hits may not be up to snuff compared to other, more complete compositions, which is why this list of top '80s songs may be shorter than expected. Nonetheless, Joel's best work has always exhibited great melodic sense, and he can be a fine, serious songwriter when he wants to be. Here's a look at the Piano Man's best tunes from the '80s, a decade of great variety for him as an artist.

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"You May Be Right"

This deserving Top 10 pop hit from 1980 certainly sounds convincing as an up-tempo, slightly edgy rocker, but it's hard to escape the feeling that Joel's portrait of an unhinged first-person narrator is a bit too calculated for its own good. After all, much of 1980's Glass Houses attempted to put to rest Joel's rather neutered soft rock image, and what better way to do so than spotlighting his rebellious, nihilistically carefree side. Perhaps that's overanalysis (imagine that on a music website) because at its most basic this song works remarkably well in terms of its new wave guitar rock sound and Joel's clever and humorous lyrics. I'm not sure exactly what "alone in your electric chair" means, but it's nothing if not interesting.

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"Sometimes a Fantasy"

As possibly Joel's finest hard-hitting rocker, this underrated '80s classic delivers a number of Joel's specific attributes in almost flawless form. After all, this is not the first or last time the songwriter deals with unstable personalities in his narrators, even if it is one of the few occasions he delves into pop music taboos like phone sex or the possible specter of stalking that lurks within the song. There's often uncertainty if not full-tilt paranoia behind Joel's lyrics, but in this case, the application of such psychological themes creates a great dramatic effect. What's more, the vocal performance, guitar foundation and busy instrumental break all work together brilliantly to forge an utterly singular sound all Joel's own.

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Following the relative silliness of a smash hit like "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," Joel must have felt he needed to get serious in order to ensure his musical legacy. He does so brilliantly here, layering some convincing, heartfelt social examination atop a strong piano foundation. Of course, Joel can't touch Bruce Springsteen in the area of fighting for the disenfranchised through pop music, but he rivals John Mellencamp's solid mid-'80s work here. There's courage in Joel's retrospective look at Baby Boomer nostalgia that unearths the bitterness and hopelessness encountered by such figures as they aged and sometimes found their livelihoods stripped away. An empathetic protest song that deserves its continuing status as important music.

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As discussed, Joel's synth part on this track from may be one of the greatest keyboard riffs of all time, a brilliant, frenetic instrumental accompaniment for the emotional powder keg of the song's lyrics. The tune also succeeds as an effective rock song with minimal guitar, which is a rare feat that Joel desperately wanted to accomplish back when he formed the ill-fated Attila. As in "Sometimes a Fantasy," Joel takes on the persona of an addled modern man struggling to cope with his emotions. It's a territory in which the singer works capably, and with the benefit of his unfailing melodic sense ("I'm sure you have some cosmic rationale"), Joel's lyrics come off as sophisticated and insightful most of the time.

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"An Innocent Man"

Though certainly another example of an oldies throwback number from the 1983 album of the same name, this song has always felt to me like a far superior effort than the wildly popular but ultimately annoying hit singles of that time like "Tell Her About It" and "Uptown Girl."404 Anchored by a haunting, moody bass line and a very solid melody, this tune features also some of Joel's finest, expressive singing, including an impressive range. Rather typically, the title takes on a mild tack of defensiveness, as if Joel must convince someone of his innocence or at least grapple with some sort of unexplained guilt. That chip on his shoulder, both real and imagined, has always enhanced the music of one of America's top '80s hitmakers.

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"Leave a Tender Moment Alone"

As much as Joel has tried desperately to attract critical acclaim, he has also been smart for other reasons to go for different sounds on each and every album. And although doo-wop and '60 soul styles have always been a part of his music, he certainly makes that comparison undeniable on the tracks. This gentle song again proves Joel to be a soulful singer capable of much passion and emotion. More importantly, this kind of music, perhaps more than any of Joel's long career, demonstrated a tremendous versatility and appeal within the pop market simply because it covered so many styles simultaneously. Still, this was most certainly a long way from Joel's ambitions to rock three years earlier.

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"A Matter of Trust"

Maybe it's a coincidence, but it is interesting to me that Joel released his last truly great single after re-establishing dominant electric guitar in his music. The rock groove of this Top 10 hit from 1986's almost ranges into a hard rock sound, but beyond that, the songwriting stands at a level surprisingly high given the relatively decreased quality of the album. Joel would go on to produce two more albums that made their primary mark during the '90s, but no songs from either would really reach the same area of transcendence found here. This song basically strikes me as one of the last times Joel put together an equal effort of lyrical, musical and conceptual brilliance in his music.