Ticket-holders and future radio contest winners can, we’re sure, expect the usual — “Only The Good Die Young,” “Uptown Girl,” “Piano Man.” And that’s okay. But there are the people who know all the words to “We Didn't Start The Fire,” and then there are Billy Joel Fans.
The song is fine, we’re just making a point.
While River of Dreams, Storm Front, and An Innocent Man are still entertaining, listenable albums, his earlier stuff is just unmatched. Lyrics covered self-righteous men, spoiled and haughty women, bars, baseball, and cocktail waitresses, while the music, from jazzy tunes to narrated ballads, was just good, exciting, heartfelt 1970s pop. Joel’s first half-dozen records were some real jewels — and there are definitely hidden gems.
So put down that essential Billy Joel collection. Here are five of his most underrated songs.
“Zanzibar” (52nd Street, 1978)
52nd Street is easily Joel’s jazziest (and best) record. The double-Grammy-winning album was the first of his albums to start topping Billboard charts and starts with three big tracks — "Big Shot," "Honesty," and "My Life."
“Zanzibar” follows as the fourth track, but it's arguably the best song. You won’t see it on any of his greatest hits albums, even the multidisc ones, despite having two solos from jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. The lyrics are Billy Joel-simple as he closes out his last album of the 1970s, referencing the New York Yankees, a dark bar, and of course, a sought-after waitress. Rock biographer Mark Bego said it best: "If 52nd Street is Billy's tribute to jazz, then 'Zanzibar' is its centerpiece."
“Ain’t No Crime” (Piano Man, 1973)
Joel’s many hangover songs are always enjoyable, but “Ain’t No Crime” has to be the most fun. Its gets overshadowed, as it follows “Piano Man” on the album with the same name, but it definitely helps pick up the record from the dramatic title track. It’s soulful church rock, almost goofy.
It certainly speaks to Joel fans who can relate to lyrics about 9 a.m. coming out of nowhere. “You say you went out late last evening / Did a lot of drinkin', come home stinkin' / And you went and fell asleep on the floor.” We’ve all been there, and it affects our relationships and life, as the song goes on to tell us, upliftingly. “It’s just human nature,” Joel soothes in his jangly piano rock way, “happens all the time. It ain't no crime.” Some decent perspective for a breakthrough album.
“Prelude/Angry Young Man” (Turnstiles, 1976)
This is a go-to for anyone who needs confirmation that Billy Joel is, in fact, a talented pianist. Though technically two songs, “Prelude/Angry Young Man” has never been separated as two tracks. That’s because they do pair perfectly. "Prelude" is nearly two minutes, starting as an ultra-fast, staccato-style piano tirade grooving into other jaunty melodies. It’s known as an effective show-starter.
"Angry Young Man" almost comes out of nowhere (I've heard it countless times but it can still surprise me) and goes on to tell the tale of an entitled dude’s shoulder under the world’s heaviest chip. The track switches a third time, turning autobiographical, with Joel expressing his boredom with cause-driven rageaholics. “I believe I've passed the age / Of consciousness and righteous rage / I found that just surviving was a noble fight." The lyrics might not transfer well to today’s political climate, but man, that intro still murders.
“Everybody Loves You Now” (Cold Spring Harbor, 1971)
Almost every song on Cold Spring Harbor is underrated, but “Everybody Loves You Now” is the most biting. It escapes the young Joel schmaltz to take a shot at some uppity chick. He exposes the local girl getting famous and losing touch as one of his first roast tracks.
But the mocking lyrics are set to some brisk, sprightly piano playing. Of course, the speedy key tapping slows to let through some of the words’ sting. The way it builds to “Ah, you know that nothing lasts forever / And it's all been done before,” to make a path for the almost-sad “Ah, but you ain't got the time to go to Cold Spring Harbor ... no more,” is the best part of the song. It’s often goosebump-inducing for those with of a soft spot for this high-pitched debut album.
“Sleeping with the Television On” (Glass Houses, 1980)
Joel welcomes the 1980s with Glass Houses. Tracks go in a heavy pop direction with “You May Be Right” and “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.” But an overlooked song if ever there was one is “Sleeping with the Television On.”
Opening with that old National Anthem, late-night television routine, this is a three-minute, finger-snapping jingle about keeping a woman (Diane) keeping her standards too high (you can almost picture Shelley Long). Being an ice queen might be your style, but “tomorrow morning you'll wake up with the white noise.”
And toward the end, a totally obvious Elvis Costello-esque keyboard solo feels more like a sign of the skinny-tie times than a rip off. You can almost picture yourself in Wayfarers belting the chorus behind the wheel of a Ford Pinto.
Billy Joel. 8 p.m. Saturday, March 9, at Chase Field, 401 East Jefferson Street; 602-514-8400; mlb.com/dbacks/ballpark. Tickets are $49.50 to $149.50 via Ticketmaster.