Underrated and Overlooked # 1: The Stranger

November 21, 2008

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So my new 2008 music recap articles will be showing up shortly. In getting mildly back into form as far as writing album reviews,  I thought I’d go ahead and kick off my thread of “overlooked and under-rated” albums that every collection should have. Sure, I like my top-rank classics, my “Abbey Road,” “Born to Run,” “London’s Calling,” “The Queen is Dead,” “Fear of a Black Planet,” “Me Against the World,” “Little Earthquakes,” “Rain Dogs,” “Plastic Ono Band,” all of those must-have ultimate classics and personal favorites. But there are also those albums that are always worth a listen yet rarely discussed , and this is the one I kicked this thread off with.

Okay, so it’s not as if this album is completely overlooked by everyone. Rolling Stone included it in their top 500 albums list,  AMG’s site gives it 5 stars and an AMG pick “check mark.” The reason it’s worth discussing and presenting as one of the all time greatest “overlooked albums” is because it’s simply incredible. Most people think of Joel simply as being an adult contemporary balladeer who also dabbles in classical music. It’s easy to forget that in his early days he was pure, amped up, balls out rock and roll. “The Stranger” is the best evidence of that.  “Only the Good Die Young” should be on every short-list of the greatest rock and roll songs of all time. Lyrically and musically, it’s a genre highlight and by far a Joel high-mark. “Just the Way You Are” is undeniably schmaltzy and unfortunately the type of song that most think Joel exclusively performed, but cheese and all it is a nice song. The sax riff alone should be enough to bring back good memories for anyone who‘s grown up listening to good rock and roll. “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” is the best hidden gem from this record in that it rarely makes the compilation discs and wasn’t a radio hit but remains a perfect song and a continuous concert requested play.

The title song, “The Stranger” is the other buried treasure here and of course the other hits that are present remain entertaining: “Movin’ Out” and “She’s Always a Woman to Me.” Granted, this isn’t deep and weighty stuff, but it does the job. It’s perfectly packaged and nicely presented pop music played with skill and written with a bit of flair. It’s not an “album’s album” in the sense of concept or narrative structure, just a  nine-song, quick, fun listen that neither aspires to greatness or insults your intelligence. Live recordings from this era of Joel’s career showcase what could have been for him: concert recordings of this album show Joel and his band working up a frenzy, rollicking in the joys of rock and roll and coffeehouse beat poetry. Sure, Joel had other good songs later in life. Unfortunately only two albums display him as a real, viable rock star. This one, and the almost-as-good “52nd Street.”

“The Stranger,” is a perfect vinyl age artifact, evidence of a time when musicians had only so much space to utilize; so the good ones cut the filler and left you with nothing to skip the needle over. They start each side strong and end each side on a strong, suitable note. In fact, I’ve only owned a vinyl copy of this album for 4 years and I’ve worn it out. So don’t do the typical artsy-music critic thing and write off guys like Joel– of course someone like Dylan is more hip, important and relevant. But people like Joel kept the radio worth turning on, and people like that are always needed.  This year, “The Stranger” was released in a special edition box set complete with re-mastered CD, SACD, and live DVD recordings of the performances from that era; it may be worth the upgrade if your copy is also scratched.

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One Response to “Underrated and Overlooked # 1: The Stranger”

  1. […] 1)    Billy Joel- The Stranger (posted on Nov. 21st, 2008) 2)    Johnny Cash – Blood, Sweat and Tears ( posted on Nov. 29th, 2008) 3)    Cee Lo – Cee Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections (posted on Dec. 6, 2008) […]

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