The Stranger (30th Anniversary Edition)
To my ears, Billy Joel's artistic hot streak lasted two years, 1977 and 1978, when he released far and away his best LPs: The Stranger and 52nd Street. (For the record, I think 52nd Street wins by a nose as the top Joel album). The rest of his discs are marked by a few good songs and a handful of great ones, surrounded by average material (and early on, at least, substandard production).
Sony has seen fit to issue this 30th Anniversary Edition 31 years after the fact in a three-disc box set that includes a remaster of the original album, a previously unreleased 1977 concert from Carnegie Hall and a DVD that includes a making-of doc and a 1978 live show culled from the BBC program The Old Grey Whistle Test.
According to the documentary, Joel was on the precipice of being dropped by Columbia for the slack sales of his first four albums (although, unlike Bruce Springsteen, who found himself in a like situation, Joel was unawares). Knowing he needed an able producer, the piano man first talked with George Martin, who wanted to surround him with studio musicians. Phil Ramone, on the other hand, advocated using Joel's band, which sealed the deal.
It may come as a surprise — it did to me — but The Stranger was recorded almost exclusively live in the studio, with Joel singing with the band (as opposed to dubbing vocals later). And although the production is built around a slick pop model, the vocals and playing sound lean and immediate. Suffice to say that the performances exude a palpable honesty.
Ultimately, The Stranger lives and dies with the songwriting. While "Just the Way Your Are" and "Always a Woman" sound a bit treacly these days, they remain prime examples of classic American balladry (the disc's remaining ballad, "Vienna," sounds fresh and vigorous.) "Only the Good Die Young," "Get It Right the First Time" and "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)" retain their timeless exuberance. "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" stands as one of the better multi-movement songs in pop annals. And "The Stranger" is about the closest Joel has ever come to profundity.
There's a tendency with historic records such as this to apply some sort of unifying theme. I don't hear it. Billy Joel was a pop craftsman in the mold of the Tin Pan Alley and Brill Building tunesmiths who came before him. Each one of his songs stood on its own, and in the case of The Stranger, they stood very, very tall. —Eric Snider
The Very Best of Little Richard
It's been more than a half century since Little Richard Wayne Penniman and Specialty Records producer Bumps Blackwell went to New Orleans and made rock 'n' roll history. Blackwell had clean lyrics fitted to Little Richards' bawdy stage number "Tutti Frutti, Good Bootie," and the singer recorded it with Crescent City session stars like drummer Earl Drummer and saxophonist Lee Allen at famed Cosimo Studio (Fats Domino, Professor Longhair) in 1955. The resulting "Tutti Frutti" reached No. 2 on Billboard's Black Singles chart the following year (No. 17 on the Pop singles survey) — and influenced virtually every young musician who heard it, especially The Beatles. Little Richard cut several dozen more juiced-up jump-blues numbers for Specialty that played an integral role in defining the rock 'n' roll era. Less than two years after joining Specialty, after nearly dying in airplane crash, Little Richard refused to continuing making "the devil's music." He would return to secular sounds but never with much success, although he remains a popular concert draw (and ad pitch man) to this day. Listening to fireballs like "Long Tall Sally," "Jenny Jenny" and "Good Golly, Miss Molly" — with cleaned up sound — is by no means just a history lesson. It's moving, joyous, sexy music that still resonates, especially below the hips. Since 1991, the essential Little Richard CD was the 25-track Georgia Peach. The 25-track Very Best of Little Richard bests it thanks to superior fidelity and more informative liner notes. 4 stars —Wade Tatangelo