Ranking the 5 Best Album-Openers of Billy Joel’s Career

While we wait and hope on the possibility of a new Billy Joel album, it’s always fun to look back at his esteemed catalog. This time around, we’re taking a look back at the five best songs used to give his studio albums a jump start.

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Perhaps it’s unsurprising that these five songs come from an incredible five-album stretch perpetrated by Joel from 1976-1982 (although we have to admit that “No Man’s Land” from River of Dreams in 1993 very nearly made the cut). Let’s take a look at the choices.

5. “Big Shot” from 52nd Street (1978)

Nobody has ever been any better at writing songs when angry about something or some group of people than Joel. It’s one of the reasons why he’s so beloved, as he’s always been willing to show the messiest of human emotions without prettying them up too much. On “Big Shot,” he turns his steely gaze at a social climber with a stunning lack of self-awareness. For a song that expresses so much bile, it’s amazing to realize just how fun of a listen this song turns out to be, right down to the exaggerated accent Joel uses towards the end of the song.

4. “You May Be Right” from Glass Houses (1980)

What an in-your-face way to start an album, with shattering glass that meant Joel wasn’t afraid to strike the first blow against critics, enemies, exes, whomever. But then “You May Be Right” comes on and it’s actually kind of genial in a wild and dangerous way. Joel is in a mode he has favored as a songwriter often throughout his career, that of a suitor asking a girl to have a little fun with him instead of playing it safe with somebody else. This motorcycle rider in the rain has a pretty good soundtrack behind him to make his case, including Richie Cannata’s greasy sax solo.

3. “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” from Turnstiles (1976)

Turnstiles is in the running for finest ever Joel album, even as it lacks the monster hits that some of the subsequent LPs contain. “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” is a great opener, first and foremost because of its excellence as a standalone song. Joel, who produced the album himself, nails all the Phil Spector touches to make it such a winning throwback. The song also wins points in the context of the rest of the record, as Joel really was leaving the West Coast behind in real life to return to New York, a move that seemed to do wonders for the overall quality of his music.

2. “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” from The Stranger (1977)

The Stranger was the album where Joel solidified himself atop the heap of the singer/songwriter world in terms of commercial success. He did so not by pandering, but by simply streamlining his approach a bit with bite-sized pop rock songs that still delivered heavily on melodic limberness and lyrical attitude. The attitude in “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” comes from the narrator, who just doesn’t see the wisdom in killing yourself at work just for a better house or car. It’s the kind of slice of life to which his listeners could easily relate.

1. “Allentown” from The Nylon Curtain (1982)

The Nylon Curtain occasionally shows the strain of Joel trying to consciously make a masterpiece, but only occasionally. On the whole, it really is a tour de force of a studio creation. “Allentown” acts as a perfect kickoff song, in that it establishes the prevailing somber mood. But it does so with a wonderful melody and catchy production that really lets the story of the song shine. Joel doesn’t get enough credit for his lyrics. “Allentown” is one that, in particular, feels like it doesn’t get the accolades it should, as he travels right to the heart of a wounded factory town with honesty and empathy.

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Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

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