Billy Joel’s ‘The Stranger’ is a NYC state of mind classic

Legacy Recordings is all about preserving and cherishing a legacy of great music, which doesn’t mean each of its releases is truly great. But a new 30th anniversary edition of Billy Joel’s breakout album, The Stranger, is great enough.

They say to write what you know, and that’s what Joel did. Still struggling to break out of the pack as a singer, songwriter, pianist and performer, he was on the verge, but sort of stuck in that mode. Back when albums, not just individual tracks, truly mattered, The Stranger launched him into orbit.

This album certainly had the hits (Just the Way You Are, She’s Only a Woman, Movin’ Out), along with an artful cover and an epic sweep. Its songs were unified by Joel’s passion and feel for his native New York, as epitomized in the song Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.

The album charted for two years and made Joel a superstar. And now it’s back with new remastering, a new booklet with photos and liners, and a bonus disc featuring one of Joel’s three sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall in June of 1977, just before he hit an NYC studio to make The Stranger. (A limited edition deluxe box set also includes, among other extras, a DVD with a one-hour BBC concert form 1978, two promotional videos and a half-hour of interviews with Joel and producer Phil Ramone.)

The concert CD is impeccably recorded, and it has two songs which Joel would try out for his audience before they’d ever heard them, since the songs were destined for The Stranger sessions. One is Just the Way You Are, with a slightly lighter lilt, and the other is Scenes From an Italian Restaurant, which always blows me away, but even more so here.

More artists should record live material before laying down what will become overly familiar tracks in the studio and then having to live up to them. Jackson Browne did it for perhaps his best album ever, Running on Empty. And Joel offers a taste of it here.

Imagine hearing Born to Run by Springsteen in concert before you’d ever heard it on record. With me now? There’s such a heady sense of discovery and spontaneity that way. So savor The Stranger in all its original glory, but don’t neglect to savor its two songs whose evolution began on stage before he ever hit the studio. They give new dimensions to an album whose greatness has stood the test of time.

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