(Pictured: Billy Joel and his accordion, 1977.)
Billy Joel’s album The Stranger is not one I’m going to consciously pull down from the shelf and put on these days. But I used to. For several years after it came out in 1977, I played it as much as any record in my collection. I bought the super-deluxe CD/DVD reissue in 2008, listened to it a couple of times, and then put it away again. But it’s on the memory stick I keep in the car, and when it came up the other day, I listened to it more closely than I had in years. Take it down off the shelf and listen yourself while I rank the tracks.
9. “Only the Good Die Young.” Not long ago I wrote that I need never hear this again. In the summer of 1978, however, having just had my heart broken by a girl who got religion, its strong anti-good-girl vibe was right in my wheelhouse.
8. “She’s Always a Woman.” Billy’s attitude toward women on The Stranger is sometimes toxic. (See #9.) To the extent that “She’s Always a Woman” makes any sense, he’s calling his girl a bitch goddess. The tune is pretty, though.
7. “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song).” This is one of Billy’s best lyrics. For years, I chased after a version I remembered hearing on the radio in 1978, without the sound effect of a noisy car pulling out at the end. A while back, I found it. It’s way better. The best version, however, might be this one.
6. “The Stranger.” Every time I do one of these rankings, some song I like gets pushed down the list because are other songs I like better. “The Stranger” is one of the more compelling songs Billy Joel ever did. The whistling theme that opens it, and that reappears at the end of the album, may be a little bit too on-the-nose, but I like it. Back in 1978 and 1979, as a solitary and self-dramatizing figure walking across campus on dark and chilly nights, I may have whistled it to myself a few times.
OK, every time.
5. “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.” Of all the Billy Joel songs in the world, this the Billy Joel-iest, stuffed with Long Guyland-isms. The first scene is so evocative that you can almost see the checkered tablecloths and smell the pasta sauce. When it was a separate song, the original title of the second scene was “Things Are OK in Oyster Bay.” The third scene is populated by characters easy to conjure up in detail. It doesn’t all work, though. The honkin’ New Orleans saxophone is cheesy and overblown in the second scene, and in the third one, about “Brender and Eddie,” Billy gets a lyric badly backward: “Brenda you know that you’re much too lazy / And Eddie could never afford to live that kind of life.” In 1977 Long Guyland, surely Eddie would have been the provider people had doubts about and Brenda the high-maintenance spouse who deserved better. But (see #8 and #9) Billy’s gotta Billy.
4. “Get It Right the First Time.” Four singles were released from The Stranger, and this could have been the fifth.
3. “Vienna.” For a song that features an accordion solo, “Vienna” is pretty non-cheesy. And when Billy sings, “Slow down you crazy child / And take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while,” it’s one of my favorite moments on the album.
2. “Everybody Has a Dream.” This might be the purest thing the man ever did. He’s not snide, he’s not contemptuous, and he doesn’t do any of the other things that make Billy Joel haters hate Billy Joel. He sings it like he’s channeling Ray Charles.
1. “Just the Way You Are.” This is plush like shag carpet—you can sink into it. Joel’s Fender Rhodes piano is beautiful; the sax, by all-world alto player Phil Woods, sounds as effortless as breathing. And while Billy comes off a bit of a jerk—don’t change your hair, don’t try to talk, and don’t be surprised if I fail to acknowledge you—you can tell what’s in his heart even as he blunders around with the wrong words. And the glorious arrangement more than makes up for it.
The Stranger moved something like 10 million copies. Rolling Stone ranked it at #70 on its list of the 500 best albums of all time. Its place in history is secure, as it its place on my digital shelf. It’s not coming down like it used to, but I don’t mind hearing it now and then.