Album #49: “The Stranger” — Billy Joel (1977)
I was genuinely surprise to see the competition for this next slot. There was never any question “The Sound of Sight” would be on this list, or that it would kick off the countdown, so this position was the last opening for those records on the bubble. Should I pick Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” the angsty rock opera with mind-bending album art by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, or another favorite with an iconic cover: Electric Light Orchestra’s “Out of the Blue.” Or do I choose another high concept album, Thomas Dolby’s “The Golden Age of Wireless,” whose forlorn reverb kept me company many a late night in the studio during art school.
Finally, I decided to go with Billy Joel’s breakthrough album, “The Stranger.” You have to understand, while I always enjoyed Joel’s lounge act just fine, he was THE all-time favorite of my brother the pianist. (In fact, in a famous bit of family lore, my parents had to talk Brent out of quitting school and running off to New York to play piano in a bar just like Billy Joel did!) Even if Billy Joel’s singles weren’t ubiquitous in the Top 40 at the time, he was in heavy rotation in our house. Of all of his albums, “The Stranger” finds Joel at his pop-music best, before his high-minded ambitions outstripped his song-writting abilities in the 1980s. And as an awkward eighth grader trying to figure out girls, I greatly appreciated the double-sided coin of “Vienna” and “Only the Good Die Young” Joel tossed to listeners.
While I eventually grew tired of rock operas, even the very idea of rock operas, I still love the pop operetta Joel serves up in his “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.”