Billy Joel: The Hits

After listening to The Hits, you’ll either get really depressed about American masculinity, or you’ll admire the naked hustle of our sixth-biggest recording artist.

Billy Joel

The Hits

Label: Legacy
US Release Date: 2010-11-09
UK Release Date: 2010-11-16
Label website
Artist website

Billy Joel’s songs remain inescapable, at least at the grocery store, so count your blessings. They could be a whole lot blander. The guy’s two basic modes are bathetic and jerky. He’s eager to please and ready to fight. Some songs, like “Piano Man”, mix up the bathos with the jerkiness. Some, like “Allentown”, avoid both completely. If you’re forced to choose between the two, Joel’s obnoxious songs are way more interesting than his sappy songs.

So give Columbia Records credit. When forced to choose 19 songs for Joel’s first career-spanning single-CD compilation, The Hits, they went with the big shots. At nearly every opportunity, this album goes for the sarcastic jugular, neglecting the melodic salves that often charted higher. (Although, this being Billy Joel, even the sarcastic melodies are pretty great.) Joel’s 1971 debut, Cold Spring Harbor, is represented not by the ballad “She’s Got a Way”, but by the obscure Bronx cheer “Everybody Loves You Now”. (Best line: “Keep your eyes ahead and don’t look down / And lock yourself inside your sacred wall”.)

Likewise, The Hits omits “She’s Always a Woman” and “Just the Way You Are” from Joel’s existential screed The Stranger, opting instead for the anti-Catholic “Only the Good Die Young” and the anti-”ack”-word “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”. (Of the hard-working Sgt. O’Leary, Anthony says, “If he can’t drive with a broken back / At least he can polish the fenders”. It’s a perfect line of spiteful illogic.) 52nd Street is here not for “Honesty”, but for “My Life” and “Big Shot”, home of the world-historic “Dom Perignon in your hand and the spoon up your nose”. According to this compilation, the Top 10 hits “You’re Only Human (Second Wind)” and “An Innocent Man” don’t exist. That’s a world I wanna live in.

The Hits makes a convincing case for Joel as an ace stylistic shapeshifter, even adjusting his voice as he dabbles, the old Beatles trick. The throaty emoter of “New York State of Mind” is barely present in the Joe Jackson clone that whips out “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”. True, Joel’s genre exercises sometimes miss their mark. In “A Matter of Trust”, Joel’s “hard rock” band just kind of sits there, and his sweet doo-wop entry “The Longest Time” has always seemed marred by its anachronistic “I want you so bad”. But still -- how many singers would attempt both those songs, let alone write them? Try to reconcile the one-man choir of “Time” with the blowhard who bellows, “I know you’re an emotional girl!” in “A Matter of Trust”. You’ll either get really depressed about American masculinity, or you’ll admire the naked hustle of our sixth-biggest recording artist. When it comes to entertaining us, he’s shameless.

Of course, there are songs that don’t invite any shame at all. “Allentown” is sharp social commentary, with a melody as complex as its lyrical dilemmas and working-in-a-coalmine grunts borrowed from Lee Dorsey. “Pressure” is a war between Man and Synth, unresolved despite Joel’s anguished screams. And for all you yaks talkin’ smack like “Lists aren’t songs”, just TRY writing a catchy tune that rhymes “Pasternak” with “Kerouac”. If you grew up with “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, you know that hearing any of its historical name-drops is like turning over the Queen of Diamonds in The Manchurian Candidate. Only instead of assassinating people, you’re compelled to finish singing the song, regardless of whom you might annoy. In the most recent DSM-IV, this is called the Harry Truman Doris Day Trigger.

Look, in our digital world there’s little reason to buy somebody else’s compilation of Billy Joel songs, especially one that doesn’t include “It’s All About Soul” or the early-hip-hop fave “Stiletto”. Maybe you need a boss’s gift or something. Yet it’s refreshing that, on the eve of a highfalutin’ 40th-anniversary reissue campaign, Columbia chose to emphasize Joel’s impolite side.







A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Prof. Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.


The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.


Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.


Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.


HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.


Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.


Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.


'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.


'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.


Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.


DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.


JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.


​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.


Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times


Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.


How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.


Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.


Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.