Billy Joel is the complete artist. A wonderful vocalist, a brilliant lyricist, an exceptional musician, an absolutely astounding pianist and an incredible performer. He is, quite literally, one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th Century and his breakthrough 1977 Phil Ramone-produced album, 'The Stranger', is widely regarded as his finest moment in music. Although I believe that, given his talent, there are other strong contenders for that honour, I can certainly understand why this album is rated so highly. Like any truly classic release, you can listen to 'The Stranger' from start to finish and it is like listening to a greatest hits package. In fact, nearly all of the tracks on this album can be found on the better Joel compilations and with good reason - it's a masterpiece.
'Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)' kicks the album off, a ballsy song about leaving the rat race which is full of characters working too damn hard to improve their lives against a vividly-painted New York backdrop ("Sergeant O'Leary is walkin' the beat/At night he becomes a bartender/He works at Mister Cacciatore's down on Sullivan Street/Across from the medical centre"). The title track follows, introducing itself with a gentle piece of pretty piano music accompanied by a whistled melody line. This proves to be a false start as the song itself is an electric guitar-heavy rock song about recognising how you and everyone you are close with can be an emotional stranger, something that I'm sure most people will be able to connect with.
'Just The Way You Are' is the first ballad of the album, a bossa-nova style song with an interesting, almost 'backwards', drum rhythm, during which Joel implores his loved one (it was written as a birthday gift to his then wife, Elizabeth) to never change. Always his harshest critic, Billy has gone on record saying that he dislikes this composition and that it was very nearly left off the album. He's entitled to his opinion, of course, but I think that the popularity of it amongst his fans (not to mention the two Grammy awards) proved him wrong.
The next song, 'Scenes From An Italian Restaurant' is truly remarkable. It tells the story of two people getting together over a couple of bottles of wine, reminiscing about their early years, about Brenda & Eddie, the king and queen of the prom who evidently peaked too early in their lives. It's the human detail in this song ("Do you remember those days hanging at at the village green?/Engineer boots, leather jackets and tight blue jeans"... "Well they got an apartment with deep pile carpets/And a couple of paintings from Sears") coupled with the genuinely stirring and moving music which makes this one of the best songs Billy ever wrote and recorded.
'Vienna' would have been the first song on what they used to call 'side two' and, to this day, remains one of my favourite songs of all time. It is ballad written as a piece of advice for someone who wants everything all at once ("Dream on but don't imagine that they'll all come true/When will you realise Vienna waits for you?") and is a truly beautiful piece of music. The next song is the rather amusing but controversial rock shuffle 'Only The Good Die Young' which sees Billy attempting to get a Catholic girl, Virginia (very subtle, eh?), into bed with him. This extremely enjoyable song got banned by many radio stations which only aided its popularity and was defended by the author as being "pro-lust" instead of anti-Catholic - a stance that I'm sure that many young men could testify to.
Continuing on, the beautiful 6/8 time Gordon Lightfoot-inspired ballad, 'She's Always A Woman', tells the story of a man who loves a woman for all of her flaws and perceived cruelty. The album then moves upbeat with 'Get It Right The First Time', a catchy near-disco number which betrays the era a little and finishes with the powerful, emotive gospel of 'Everybody Has A Dream' which has echoes of Billy's early albums. At nine tracks and just over 42 minutes of music, 'The Stranger' has no excess, no flab and is up there with amongst the greatest albums ever made. As essential as any album could ever be.