Break my heart if you must: the best of Billy Joel

A few days ago I castigated Sting for trying too damn hard, but Billy Joel wouldn’t be Billy Joel unless he tried hard; the chip on his shoulder is his muse, for better or worse. When he gets defensive and sings in that pissed off millionaire’s voice, he’s a menace, which explains why many of his evergreens didn’t make the list below (“Big Shot,” “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” “I Go to Extremes”).

Given Joel’s expert instinct for baby boomer rue, I’m surprised to admit that nostalgia doesn’t suit him; the Songs Of My Childhood approach to writing An Innocent Man produced obnoxious material (go away, “Uptown Girl” and “The Longest Time”). At his best his no-bullshit approach is a blessing: I can imagine Neil Young singing “Allentown” but few other male American singers certified multiplatinum. And the choice to sing the conflicted (other critics will say “risible” for its refusal to acknowledge the war’s obscenity) “Goodbye Saigon” in the guise of a spooked soldier coincides with the range, physical and emotional, of his upper register; it works too. So does 1989’s “The Downeaster ‘Alexa.’ Like many transitional albums, The Bridge has fascinating material: a Police number written four years after the band peaked (“Running on Ice”) and a Cyndi Lauper co-write called “Code of Silence” as fascinatingly coy about revealing its secret as Madonna’s contemporaneous “Live to Tell.” I’m a fan of the knock-kneed groove of “A Matter of Trust,” which goes over well on karaoke nights.

But this list isn’t for fans who love The Stranger or who made An Innocent Man a massive hit in the period when boomer taste was about to go global. I wrote for readers who admire or even love a few tracks, appreciating his unimpeachable ear for hooks and strong nose for prime rib. Yet those of us who thought after River of Dreams that we’d be dealing with the guy until he went undead were wrong: twenty-four years without new material, a record unsurpassed by Bowie, Cohen, and Kate Bush, with a cover of Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love” no more somnolent than Garth Brooks or Bryan Ferry’s. And we thought he didn’t understand his limits.

P.S. The discovery? “Captain Jack,” boasting as many perversities as “Walk on the Wild Side.”

1. Allentown
2. Don’t Ask Me Why
3. A Matter of Trust
4. Leave a Tender Moment Alone
5. Get It Right the First Time
6. River of Dreams
7. Shameless
8. An Innocent Man
9. Code of Silence
10. Captain Jack
11. That’s Not Her Style
12. She’s Right on Time
13. Baby Grand
14. The Downeaster “Alexa”
15. Keeping the Faith
16. My Life
17. Sleeping with the Television On
18. Miami 2017
19. The Night is Still Young
20. And So It Goes

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