63: The Stranger (Billy Joel)

Album: The Stranger
Artist: Billy Joel
Year: 1977

1. Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)
2. The Stranger
3. Just the Way You Are
4. Scenes from an Italian Restaurant
5. Vienna
6. Only the Good Die Young
7. She’s Always a Woman
8. Get It Right the First Time
9. Everybody Has a Dream

Earlier in his career, Joel wrote a song called The Entertainer, where he bemoans how the record industry stifles talent. One of his complaints is that artists get pressure to cut the length of their songs so it can be made to fit onto tight radio segments. One example of this is Scenes from an Italian Restaurant. It’s epic, seven and a half minutes long, a layered, lyrically interesting song. But it got left off the radio in favor of easy fluff like She’s Always A Woman.  

Thankfully, the album is laden with solid music. Movin’ Out is a great track-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack. The Stranger might be my second favorite on the album, less so for the lyrics than the eerie whistling at the beginning and end. Another pleasant surprise for me is Vienna. The album’s weakest song is the final one–a near-gospel–which is never a good idea, but at least it isn’t terrible.

I think Joel is a great songwriter, but he’s not that great at love songs. I think that might be because the women he sings about in his songs sound incredibly obnoxious, thus I can’t identify with his feelings for him. But his melodies are generally easy enough that I can muscle through them and enjoy his stronger offerings. The Stranger is certainly one of them.

17 thoughts on “63: The Stranger (Billy Joel)”

  1. My earliest experiences with BJ was from his Greatest Hits albums. Years later, a friend introduced me to Vienna, and I was shocked that such an awesome song didn’t make it onto his Hits, but then it was only released as a B-side, and Hits albums are usually composed entirely of A-side singles. Still, this is my favorite BJ album.

  2. This is certainly on my hypothetical list. Scenes is awesome enough that I don’t really have anything to add here.

    a near-gospel–which is never a good idea

    Ray Charles did near-gospel style songs almost exclusively, and he’s awesome. I think you just have to work within your strengths.

    I think Joel is a great songwriter, but he’s not that great at love songs. I think that might be because the women he sings about in his songs sound incredibly obnoxious

    Well, he was married to a model for twenty years, or whatever. There’s a good chance that his main frame of reference was obnoxious. As a guy who saw the first 12 or so seasons of America’s Next Top Model, I feel justified in making that sweeping statement…

    1. That was a poorly punctuated sentence. I meant putting the worst song as the last one is never a good idea. But yeah, Joel’s gospel like tunes have never done much for me.

  3. Very good album. Movin Out and Only the Good Die Young are always fun to sing along with. I like Scenes as well. The eerie whistling of Stranger is interesting, but never really cared for the rest of the song.

    I disagree that She’s Always a Woman is fluff. To me it speaks of the complexity of women and how you see your special girl for more than that other person sees on a simple level or at a glance. That’s what I got from it anyway. But I’m not big on interpreting people’s works.

    Scanning through his song lists, I don’t see much for great love songs either, especially not in the “I’m singing this to you” variety. The idea behind Just the Way You Are could be, but its sound is dated and playing it in jazz band added to the cheese factor and mostly ruined it for me. I think She’s Got a Way is a great one and for a different kind of love Lullaby is excellent.

    1. Yeah, Lullaby might be his best.

      I think your opinion of She’s Always A Woman is probably what Joel was going for. But I think its pretty generic, saying that people are not black and white and could apply to every human out there. But what’s up with the line, “she’ll carelessly cut you and laugh while you bleed?” That’s how I’d describe my first girlfriend, and I know you didn’t like her either.

      1. Lol. Oh Katie. Found some background on the song. I was kinda on the right track.

        He is singing about his then wife, Elizabeth Joel (Elizabeth Weber). She was his manager at the time, and was known to be a tough, fierce, and determined negotiator. She had earned a degree from UCLA in business (not sure if it was an MBA or not). She was instrumental in getting Billy’s affairs in order after he had signed some bad contracts early in his career. There was an article about her management skills and style in a magazine at the time, maybe Business Week, I can’t remember, called “They Were Maulin’ Her Man.” He gave her alot of credit for getting things back on track.

        Joel told USA Today July 9, 2008: “Some people said, ‘Oh, he’s a misogynist, look what he says about this woman. He wrote this song called She’s Only a Woman.’ Which always cracks me up every time I read that. To me, it’s a very simple understandable lyric. ‘She may be that to you, but she’s this to me.'”

        Billy no longer plays this in concert. On one of his college tour shows, Billy said that it was about his first wife, who he didn’t really want to be singing about in the first place. He also said that while he was singing it, he would start thinking about what meal he would eat after the show. No passion whatsoever, so he dropped it.

  4. I love Movin’ Out and Italian Restaurant . . . actually, I’d be hard put to find a BJ song I didn’t like, I stll listen to them quite often

  5. I had two Billy Joel albums back in the day (River of Dreams and Storm Front) and I listened to them a lot. They wouldn’t make my top 75 list, I don’t even have them anymore, but I still consider myself a fan of BJ.

    1. Storm Front came close to making the countdown as I love Downeaster Alexa and Leningrad, but the rest of the album was too weak for me.

  6. This is one of my favorite albums, too. I found it on your top 75 list.

    I always loved his love songs. Perhaps what’s unsettling about them is that they’re about flawed people. And that’s what we are…flawed.

    1. Indeed we are, and I certainly prefer that to pie-in-the-sky love songs. But the women he sings about seem borderline abusive to me.

      And welcome! Glad you’re enjoying this list.

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