30. Ronnie Spector & The E Street Band – Say Goodbye to Hollywood
Billy Joel had the Ronettes on his mind when he recorded “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” in 1976 – the opening drumbeat is a direct homage to the iconic girl group’s “Be My Baby.” So it was only natural that Ronnie Spector herself would choose to cover this song when she launched her solo career the following year. For a backup band, she enlisted none other than Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, who were available due to Bruce’s legal troubles preventing him from recording at the time. With Steve Van Zandt handling production duties, the track, which features a tour-de-force sax performance from Clarence Clemons, makes you wish that Spector had stayed on E Street to make a full album. It wasn’t to be, but Ronnie did reveal to Rolling Stone that she was “pretty sure that Bruce would still have some other unreleased tracks.” Here’s hoping! – Tim Edgeworth
29. The Forms – We Didn’t Start The Fire
Though known best for his Story Songs, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is Billy’s biggest flex with a different type of tune: the List Song. Featuring a cavalcade of one hundred and eighteen Important Proper Nouns, “Fire” goes big — shunning the specificity of other iconic List Songs, and evoking nothing less than the 20th Century at-large. The song’s big insistence is endearing in some way, but “We Didn’t Start the Fire” also suffers for its unabashed bluntness. (From a musical standpoint, too, Billy J. even once decried his own melody writing in the song as “like a dentist’s drill.”) Thankfully, art-rock ensemble The Forms are brave enough to rescue “We Didn’t Start the Fire” from its own smoldering blaze. The cover feels immediate and anxiously personal, as if it were being played live from a crammed basement studio — charged vocals, jagged guitars, boomy drums, floor-shaking synths. The Forms also ground their cover of “Fire” in a scrambled, oddly powerful triple meter, trading the song’s usually straight-ahead pulse for something far more primal and involving. – Ben Easton
28. Paul Anka – I Go To Extremes
In his later years, Paul Anka has made a mini-career out of big-band jazz covers of pop hits, from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to “Mr. Brightside” (the high point is “My Life,” where Anka sings Bon Jovi’s lyric “Like Frank said, I did it my way” – a wink when you realize Anka himself wrote “My Way”). They’re almost novelty records, only a very small step from Richard Cheese. But, despite themselves, sometimes they work. On “I Go To Extremes,” Anka avoids all the obvious Joel songs to jazz up, picking a rocker to warp in his own, old-timey image. – Ray Padgett
27. José James – Just the Way You Are
“Just the Way You Are” is Billy Joel’s most covered track. There are more than 260 known covers listed on Second Hand Songs, including versions by Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson, and Kenny Rogers. That does not even begin to account for all the renditions that have been performed by second-rate wedding and bar bands in the decades since its release. Jazz singer José James took Joel’s too-corny-for-its-own-good original and injected it with a much-needed bit of ‘70s soul. Released on his 2020 album No Beginning No End 2, James’ arrangements channelled both Bill Withers with his soulful delivery and George Benson with jazz guitar stylings. From his opening words, “Don’t go changing,” you just want the groove to go on forever. – Curtis Zimmermann
26. MAX & Phony Ppl – New York State of Mind
MAX & Phony Ppl bring a cool camaraderie to “New York State of Mind.” Recorded on a residential rooftop in NYC, the cover is built on a savvy arrangement that showcases Phony Ppl’s signature blend of art-rock, jazz and funk. The vibe is humbler than the original, but pop crooner MAX offers a vocal take that keeps the song feeling just as scaled-up and glistening. “New York State of Mind” is among Billy Joel’s most ubiquitous tunes, so it’s a joy as well to see MAX & Phony Ppl dance dexterously around its familiar passages and small details. (One of my favorite musical winks here is the transformation of all the post-chorus transitions into a recurring 007 tease.) Watching the players revel in each others’ company — hanging on a roof together, having the time of their lives — is its own inspiring New York state of mind. – Ben Easton
25. Nerve – Uptown Girl
Punk and ska covers often occupy an odd place in the covers pantheon, the uncertainty of how far tongues are in cheek a frequent concern. For all I know, Nerve are seriously hatchet-faced, bondage-trousered spiky buzzcuts who could rip out your lungs as soon as eat you. But I doubt it. Uncertain even if Nerve are the New Yorkers on a never-ending Russian and East European odyssey or the Scottish bar band bruisers, all I know is that this made me smirk. The vocals, especially in the o-o-o-o-o bit, are so fabulously inept and so all over the place that it can’t but endear itself. I’d like to see them take a go on Joel’s cheesy video too, wondering who could play the Christie Brinkley part. – Seuras Og
24. Ariana Grande – Vienna
In 2011, Grande was only one year into starring on her first Nickelodeon show. Not only had she not released an album yet, she hadn’t even been signed. So what does any wannabe pop star do to get attention around then? Post covers on YouTube! It worked, and Republic Records signed her off those videos. One of those, mixed in with the more obvious Mariah, Whitney, and Adele, was Billy Joel’s “Vienna.” I don’t know if you’d think “future chart-topping pop star” hearing it, but it’s clear this kid’s got one hell of a voice. – Ray Padgett
23. Ramon Garcia – All for Leyna
Jazz pianist and bandleader Ramón García assembled an inspired full-length Billy Joel tribute record in 2012, interpreting a wide range of tunes from the B.J. songbook. But the most brilliant and serene among the bunch is, by far, his bossa nova interpretation of “All For Leyna.” García and his small ensemble take practically the inverse approach of Billy’s original cut, letting their cover froth around with a subtle, dreamy evening elegance. Hints of the song’s vengeful energy are discretely present, with many of the iconic full stops and percussive stabs still intact. But with a lithe vocal lead and numerous jazz flute breaks, it’s clear that García has romance in mind — whisking Billy, and “Leyna,” away into a quiet, starry night. – Ben Easton
22. Braid – My Life
Well, this made me smile. Sort of how Cake might have taken it, were they louder, brattier, and punkier. I am no fan of the unctuously syrupy original, but I find this cover respecting both those who might like it and the naysayers like me. Well crafted, even the hit or miss BVs work, the clatter of the drums and the scratchy guitars a wonderful tonic. OK, it may not become a constant go-to on repeat, but it is the best BJ I have heard in eons. Who are Braid? Art-punk emos from Illinois, I learn, the core of the band from Champaign, famous otherwise as being the birthplace of both Alison Krauss and REO Speedwagon. This comes from a compilation, Movie Music, Volume 2, which also contains a brace of Smiths covers and, perhaps no coincidence, “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You,” as covered also by Ms. Krauss. Somewhat differently. – Seuras Og
21. The Creak – Sleeping with the Television On
In their catchy cover, The Creak somehow mellows the Billy Joel original, toning everything down with acoustic instruments and vocals low in the mix, while also infusing a pulsing beat that feels extra funky. This is a cover that makes you want to jump around, but in a low-key way. The violin and lead acoustic drive the song along, giving it a bounce that will have you dancing. – Mike Misch
The list continues on Page 4.
I’ve always liked Copeland’s version of She’s Always A Woman.
we need a new we didn’t start the fire
Jose Jose – Just The Way You Are
Joel is 200 times the talented artist Springsteen is. His range and versatility beat the repetitive, strident whining of a disaffected malcontent any day.
For me, the greatest Joel cover ever is Dianne Schuur’s reinvention of “New York State of Mind” from her 1984 LP “Deedles.”
Dave Grusin produced.