In 1977, Joel’s fifth and best album replaced Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water as Columbia Records’ top seller to date, establishing Joel as a titan of adult contemporary — America’s answer to Elton John. The Stranger also marked the beginning of Joel’s long-term collaboration with producer Phil Ramone, who distilled the Piano Man’s music to its essence: a hook-packed blend of AM-radio pop rock and glistening dollops of Broadway schmaltz. The hit single was the gooey “Just the Way You Are,” but there’s impressive variety here: contemplative ballads (“Vienna”), impressionistic epics (“Scenes From an Italian Restaurant”) and pop’s greatest paean to deflowering Catholic schoolgirls (“Only the Good Die Young”), written in a style that recalls Tin Pan Alley.
Joel’s melodic genius invites comparisons to Paul McCartney, but Joel is a much nastier guy, always pissed off at someone, usually female: “She’s Always a Woman” has a lovely, lulling tune, but listen to the words: “She’ll carelessly cut you and laugh while you’re bleeding.”
This 30th-anniversary reissue includes a bonus DVD featuring two live promotional videos from The Stranger, as well as Joel’s 1978 appearance on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test, which only aired once on the U.K.’s BBC2. But the real gem is the bonus live CD of a Carnegie Hall performance from 1977. It’s a reminder that Joel was a distinctly regional artist: the poet of the Parkway Diner, who captured the pugnacious attitude and garish local colors of the New York suburbs.