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Sunday, Aug. 24, 2008

Billy Joel

The Stranger: 30th Anniversary Edition (Columbia Legacy)

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  Although The Stranger became one of the best-selling LPs ever after its 1977 release, a year later Billy Joel found himself on the wrong side of the cultural chasm with the rise of punk. Associated with the chardonnay on the rocks side of rock music, Joel became terminally unhip in some circles, even as he continued to sell records and sell out concerts.

  The Stranger has been reissued in a lavish package with a 48-page booklet that inflates the album's cultural importance and inadvertently raises questions about the vagaries of hipness and the categories devised by those who write about rock (and wrote Joel out of its history). Disc One features the original LP, difficult for many of us to listen to from chronic overplay. At least two tracks still stand out, especially the edgy and enigmatic disco title track. And listen closely to "She's Always a Woman," past Joel and his piano, and it almost sounds like an early love song by the pre-electric Bob Dylan.

  The 1977 Carnegie Hall concert on Disc Two contains a few surprises with its prog rock echoes and Latin undertow. Joel occasionally comes close to the sound of early Springsteen, whose Jersey boy in the big city lyrics weren't so distant from his own bridge-and-tunnel Long Island reflections. Disc Three, the DVD, includes a 1978 performance for British television and an interesting set of recent interviews. Turns out Columbia was about to drop Joel because his previous four albums hadn't burned up the charts, just before The Stranger became the biggest seller in the label's history. Thirty-one years later an artist who didn't sell millions of "units" wouldn't have had a chance to make a second album, much less a fifth.