I’ll admit that as an 80’s baby, I got to know Billy Joel primarily through his compilation of “Greatest Hits”, rather than individual albums. I didn’t miss much off of The Stranger, however, because 6 of its 8 songs are considered “greatest hits”. Still, when I had the chance to pick up the brilliant LP secondhand, I didn’t think twice. I’ve been surprised how listening to a smaller collection of songs from a prolific artist can be a good limitation; I find myself seeing connections between the songs and listening more intently to the less-loved tracks.
(Quick tangent: how hard is it to shorten this man’s name? I simply cannot refer to him either by his first or last name, and certainly not his initials!)
I’ve had this record for probably 4 years, but for whatever reason, The Stranger has made it on to the regular vinyl rotation, along with Piano Man, this past month. Today I had my breakfast to Side A, and did some dishes to Side B, and now it’s back on as I write some thoughts out.
The Stranger is as much a collection of stories as it is one of songs, because Billy Joel is as much of a storyteller as he is a songwriter. Appropriately the album begins with “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”, a story of working class New Yorkers spending their lives making money to move up in class, but having no time or life left to enjoy.
The title track comes next, and ties together the slightly creepy image on the record cover with lyrics like, “they’re the faces of the stranger, but we’d love to try them on,” and “did you ever let your lover see the stranger in yourself?” The song is bookended by a slower, melancholy melody, both whistled and played on the piano. I think we are being invited to imagine the truths and secrets of the characters we meet on the album, who, although they can be familiar, are perpetual strangers, much like most of our interactions with others.
Even if you have never heard Billy Joel’s name before, it is certain that you’ve heard “Just the Way You Are” at approximately 74% of weddings you have attended, being the classic, earnest, and well-written love song that it is. Phil Woods’ sexy saxophone solo also doesn’t hurt. I doubt that Bruno Mars will get half as much play as this does 30 years from now. Yet, at the moment, its placement on the record following “The Stranger” is causing me to call its sincerity into question. If anything, I love “Just the Way You Are” that much more.
“Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” would have been reason alone to buy this LP. This is such a great song – probably my favorite Billy Joel song of all. Three “scenes” are painted for us, beginning and ending in the same place: our Italian restaurant. The longest section known as the ballad of Brenda and Eddie was originally written as its own track, before being inserted into this epic piece that speaks of young love, old familiarities, and common cycles of love and life. The whole piece is speckled with soulful sax lines and playful clarinet solos that punctuate a piece of music that is constantly driven by a forceful rhythm section. “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” works for me on the level of a Symphony, where I am listening for what connects these movements to one another, while at the same time, trying to appreciate them individually.
I can often digest the first side of this record on its own, nearly as an album in and of itself, simply because of the feeling of completion that “Scenes” brings. Sometimes that’s how I feel the album should end – with the storyteller sitting at that familiar table at the Italian Restaurant, waiting to see if he would be joined by his old flame.
But, this is not the end of the album, and the record’s Side-B takes turns playing sweeter ballads (ie. “Vienna”), and foot-stomping, rock-and-roll tunes (ie. “Only the Good Die Young”). I can’t help but notice that the side begins with a song about not waiting passively for your dreams to come true, but that they (embodied by Vienna) are waiting for you to come find them, and it ends with a MLK inspired gospel tune, repeating that “Everybody Has a Dream”. Side-B is perhaps revealing a more positive aspect of The Stranger. We might be lying, cheating, sneaking, beasts, but whatever our mask may be, and no matter how well we know someone, there is more to a person than we think.
Billy Joel rounds out the philosophy of “Vienna”, with the practical theology of “Only the Good Die Young”; live life now, because nothing is certain about whatever comes next. In this song he also offers one of the best tunes for doing any kind of chores to, because it’s both danceable and sing-along-able. However, seeing as life is short, I don’t really want to do the dishes…
Good thing I love to sing-along to “She’s Always a Woman to Me” as well, or I wouldn’t know what to do with the dramatic shift in pace. I remember thinking at a very young age, that it was a stupid song. Is he worried that she’s going to instantaneously become a man? or a toad? However, eventually I gave the song another chance, and found it to be one of my favorite Billy Joel songs. In this love song to his wife at the time, He affirms that her woman-hood does not stem from particular “lady-like” or feminine qualities, but the fact that she is indeed, a woman. An independent one at that, and he loves her. Well, loved… he divorced that particular wife in 1982. Don’t think about that though.
The album ends with two songs not considered “greatest hits”, but although they were never singles, are still great songs in the context of The Stranger, showing how deep the well of Billy Joel’s talent for song-writing really is. “Get it Right the First Time” is a blast – it’s nearly as fun as “Only the Good Die Young” to do dishes to. And “Everybody Has a Dream” shows off Joel’s gospel chops, which organs, and choirs, and vocal ad lib (oh my!), before closing the album with a reprise of “The Stranger” motif on whistling lips and piano. Which of course, just makes me want to start the whole album again, but I’m not sure my housemates feel the same way. 😉
I have a bone to pick. I can’t completely decide who it’s with exactly, but contenders include Rolling Stone magazine, music critics in general, and the culture of popular music.
Perhaps you would like a bit of context. Some of you may know by now that I am a bit of a list-o-phile. Usually I like my lists to be specific enough to make sense, but open-ended enough to have to make tough decisions, such as the greatest ______ of a particular genre or time period. But every once in a while I love to spend some time in the vast lists that Rolling Stone enjoys dropping. Recently a coworker and I made a competition out of seeing whose iTunes library included more of their “500 Greatest Songs of All-Time”. (By the way, I won the competition, so this is not the response of a bitter loser). The list was not nearly as sweeping as it claimed, completely ignoring anything before 1957 and barely entering our present decade or the one before it. I won’t even bother with that list here, but it did get me curious about their similarly titled list of albums, which I quickly found some issues with.
Out of 500 albums spanning from the 1950’s to now, and across the genre spectrum from Country to Rap, Soul to Psychadelic Rock, those with female participation in bands or as solo artists make up 13%. If I were to add only those by either solo female artists and bands with front women, it would be below 10% with 45 artists. 45! out of 500! See the whole thing HERE.
Now, I recognize that Rolling Stone magazine is about as sausage-festy as magazines get, but it is also one of the most well-respected publications in popular music, and is, at the moment, the driving force in writing our pop music history. So, is it the fault of listeners and buyers of music that success is only given to male solo artists, or all-male bands? Or, is it the fault of these panels of judges, who write articles and best-of lists, painting our perception of greatness with a brush of testosterone?
And so I’d like to lead you on a scavenger hunt for great albums by female artists that seem to be missing from Rolling Stone’s list. Seeing as I have a tendency to specify lists in some way, we’ll look at one genre at a time. First of all, is there anything missing from the world of jazz and blues, music that has indeed paved the way for all modern pop music? Miles Davis is there, John Coltrane is there, even Frank Sinatra showed up for the party! Then, surely Ella will make an appearance, even if only alongside Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holiday should be expected at some point with a live recording or a best-of! I dare you to try to find either of their names anywhere. With the possible (but not justified) argument that Ella and Billie were not writing or producing their albums, an even more stark omission is Nina Simone, who wrote music for more than 40 albums in her lifetime, and continues to be constantly quoted, referenced, covered, and sampled all over the place in hiphop and pop.
Those are just the obvious, but in a list of 500 I might also expect to see Mahalia Jackson, one of the greatest gospel voices to hear on vinyl, or Bessie Smith the “Empress of Blues” who inspired all of the above, and who also inspired many blues artists (male and female) who did make the list. I would also implore consideration of Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchindananda, one of a few jazz records where the front woman is not a vocalist, but a pianist and harpist. Still, it’s possible that we know of her by the celebrity of her husband. Newer women of jazz and blues could include Norah Jones, Cassandra Wilson, or Natalie Cole.
R&B/Soul is represented relatively well on this list by the likes of some expected (ie. Aretha, Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis and Diana Ross & The Supremes) and some surprises (ie. TLC, Whitney Houston, and Mary J Blige). I’m not going to lie, I loved the fact that Janet charts with both Rhthym Nation and Velvet Rope. Many additions I would make would have more to do with a need for updating (the list was published in 2003), to include newer records such as Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, Janelle Monae’s Archandroid, or nearly anything by Sharon Jones. At this point I might even venture to suggest Beyonce’s 4, but are you really surprised? Still, others cannot be excused by time, because 3 years is certainly enough to recognize the force and beauty of Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, which is nowhere to be found in the 500. Not to mention the mature and smouldering Lover’s Rock from british beauty, Sade, that came out the same year. Others that I wouldn’t mind seeing on the list might be Roberta Flack’s First Take or legendary Killing Me Softly, Gladys Knight’s Imagination, something from Jill Scott, or Tina Turner without the abusive Ike on Private Dancer.
I’m sure I could go on, but we’ll take a break and move along to Country and Folk. I don’t have a lot to say about Country music in general, and when it comes to albums, the few female-made records I would expect are here: collections of Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, and Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. I do however, notice a lack of certain folk singer-songwriters. Joni Mitchell has some representation with Blue and Court and Spark, but I would add Hejira, For the Roses and maybe Clouds (If Randy Newman can chart with 3 albums, I think Joni Mitchell is entitled to at least one more). The Joans (Baez and Armatrading) are both missing entirely along with two incredibly prolific poets, Ani DiFranco and Kate Bush. They would have been well represented in my opinion by Not a Pretty Girl and Hounds of Love respectively, although they each have many additional album contenders. Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes should probably be included, and maybe her Strange Little Girls as well. As singer-songwriters go, Tori offers not only well-written individual songs, but album contexts that invite us to find relationship between the songs.
Moving on to the genre that Rolling Stone loves most: good old Rock ‘n Roll. This genre makes up an overwhelming majority of the list, and is littered with multiple albums of The Beatles (with 11), The Rolling Stones (with 10) and Bruce Springsteen and The Who (with 8 each). I have no problem with classic rock – and I’ll freely admit to having a lot of this music, either on vinyl or mp3 – but it becomes overkill when a list so clearly wants to promote one kind of album to greatness, without considering albums that are the products of imagination and a desire to move the culture of pop music in a new direction. It also suggests to me a “golden age” of music (7 of the top 10 are from the 60’s), that doesn’t consider other influences and movements enough.
That being said, this rant is really only worth writing if it is true that there are indeed women making music as well as men. So who can replace an extraneous 60’s or 70’s British rock band record? I have a few suggestions.
Patti Smith finds herself in the top 50 (at #44) with Horses, but I would love to also see her more conceptually driven Easter, which fearlessly explores themes of the religious holiday, such as death and resurrection. I was certainly expecting some of my favorite female rockers, especially Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart with Dreamboat Annie. “Crazy on You” was equally snubbed from RS’s 500 Greatest Songs, in my opinion, so I suppose we shouldn’t be shocked. I found myself scanning for either Pat Benatar or Joan Jett, who may have done more with singles, but so did a lot of men on the list. For some 90’s representation, I would have thought Sheryl Crow’s Tuesday Night Music Club could hold its own, having won Crow the first 3 of her 9 Grammys.
Annie Lennox shows up for the first and only time on the list at #500, and even then, only with the Eurythmics. I’m not entirely sure what that’s about, but wonder if the editors of Rolling Stone have heard album giants Diva and/or Medusa. Medusa is full of great songs written by men, many of which they consider to be “all-time greats”. Perhaps they feel threatened that a woman does these tracks so thoughtfully and originally.
Another one-hit-wonder on the list is Bjork, whose accessible Post is at #373, but her brilliant electronic masterpiece, Homogenic is left out. Homogenic is considered by many to be the best of electronic music, yet can’t even scrape into the top 500 albums of all time. If this is not an offense to women, it is an offense to the genre. As we’ve already moved into the world of pop, I can’t help but wonder about Mariah. In 2003, did we still love to hate her so much that we couldn’t take seriously anything she did in the 90’s? If so, it’s unfortunate. Say what you want about Mariah, but she has a more impressive range than nearly anyone on the list, and although it’s pop, she’s writing her own material. All the while in heels and a mini-skirt. Broadway divas such as Barbara Streisand and Judy Garland are also ignored, although each has at least one album that has been recognized by a Grammy.
Finally, let’s take a minute to talk about rap music. I will admit, there are not enough women in rap in general. However, there is only one woman recognized: Lauryn Hill at #312 with her Miseducation and #477 on The Fugee’s The Score, so even though they chose the best, they keep her above 300. I understand that there is not exactly a plethora of solo female rap artists putting out fantastic albums (and RS was probably patting themselves on the back for including any rap at all), but I seriously hoped for a bit of Missy Elliott, and crossed my fingers for a taste of Salt-n-Pepa. If they revisit the list, I would be floored if they fail to include M.I.A.’s Kala.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of women in music, but I hope it at least it reminds us that women are making music, even if male-critics like those at Rolling Stone don’t seem to recognize it. In the mean time, check out some of the artists I’ve mentioned. I made it easy to get started: all the pictures (and some of the words) link to performances on youtube.