I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! (Columbia, 1969)
Pearl (Columbia, 1971)
In Concert (Columbia, 1972)
Greatest Hits (Columbia, 1973)
Farewell Song (Columbia, 1982)
Janis (Columbia/Legacy, 1993)
18 Essential Songs (Columbia/Legacy, 1995)
Box of Pearls: The Janis Joplin Collection (Columbia/Legacy, 1999)
Super Hits (Legacy, 2000)
Love, Janis (Columbia/Legacy, 2001)
Essential Janis Joplin (Columbia, 2003)
½ The Woodstock Experience (Columbia/Legacy, 2009)
with Big Brother and the Holding Company Big Brother & the Holding Company Featuring Janis Joplin (Mainstream, 1967)
Cheap Thrills (Columbia, 1968)
Janis Joplin With Big Brother and the Holding Company: Live at Winterland '68 (Columbia/Legacy, 1998)
Her legend began at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival—redefining grace, sex appeal, and popular singing, the Texas vagabond shrieked and staggered over fevered but formless blues riffing by Big Brother and the Holding Company, whom she'd soon outgrow. Nonetheless, there's a genuine innocence about the group's self-titled, almost folksy debut (featuring "Bye, Bye Baby" and "Down On Me") that makes it easier to swallow today than the histrionic screeching and numbing acid rock of the major label bow (and commercial breakthrough) Cheap Thrills. Joplin rises above the din—just—on the volcanic "Piece of My Heart," and the band exercises a certain welcome restraint on the slow burn cover of "Summertime," but you'll mercifully find both of those highlights on Greatest Hits.
Curiously, Live at Winterland '68—which captures a concert recorded right before Cheap Thrills—while ostensibly of interest only to hard-core fans, is the easiest to swallow document of Joplin's Big Brother period; you get the best of both albums: Joplin in powerhouse form, and the band, if not exactly tight, at least freshly inspired from its first trip to the East Coast, making for an enjoyable psychedelic trip without the headache. That said, Joplin's raw delivery shocked even more effectively when backed by crack R&B players, as evidenced by her first "solo" album, the horns-and-soul-drenched I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! Adding quivering heart to the sturdy pop skeleton of the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody" and thunder to Jerry Ragovoy's "Try," Joplin was now balancing a Big Mama Thornton fervor with an Aretha Franklin sense of timing.
Pearl, the album that bore Joplin's nickname, found her moving easily and naturally into country, with the definitive take on Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee"; she also does right by Bobby Womack with "Trust Me," drips blood on Ragovoy's "Cry Baby," and flashes her sense of humor in "Mercedes Benz," introduced with tongue in cheek as "a song of great social and political import." From start to finish, Pearl was her finest hour, and her last. Joplin died shortly before its completion; ironically, the album's "Buried Alive in the Blues" is the only song she didn't record a vocal for in time.
Of the numerous anthologies and compilations that have been issued posthumously, the lean-and-mean Greatest Hits remains the one to beat—a filler-free distillation of a promising career cut short before its time. The two-disc Essential Janis Joplin offer a bigger picture without necessarily saying more, while the soundtrack to the play Love, Janis, which intersperses songs with an actress reading some of Joplin's letters to her mother back home, is a novelty at best. The three-disc Janis box set, however, is a treasure trove, collecting not only all of her essential recordings but 18 previously unissued tracks ranging from curio to historic (such as the Big Brother performance of "Ball and Chain" at the Monterey Pop Festival that first ignited Joplin's buzz like wildfire).
The two original Big Brother albums, Kozmic Blues, Pearl, and Greatest Hits have all been reissued with bonus tracks. Box of Pearls collects the first four albums and adds a fifth, EP-length disc of rarities.
The Woodstock Experience, part of a slew of CDs released to commemorate Woodstock's 40th anniversary, features Joplin's entire ten-song performance at the concert, plus a remastered version of Kozmic Blues. It's not essential, but the set rocks, with an energized Joplin sounding terrific and spitting fire.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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