In 1967, a little-known band called Big Brother and the Holding Company took to the stage at the Monterey Pop Festival and blew the world away. Or rather, their singer, Janis Joplin, did. With her electrifying stage presence and powerful rasp, Joplin was like no other singer around. Over the course of four studio albums (two with the Holding Company and two as a solo artist), she proved herself to be one of the most distinctive recording artists to emerge from the ’60s, as capable of handling tender ballads as hard rockers. In 1970, Joplin died at the age of just 27 years old from a heroin overdose. No one knows what direction her music would have taken had she lived, but based on what had come before, it would have been extraordinary. Here’s how we rank all the Janis Joplin albums for worst to best.
4. I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!
Joplin’s debut solo album (and the only solo album to be released during her lifetime) is I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! Freed from Big Brother and the Holding Company, Joplin recruited the Kozmic Blues Band along with guitarist Sam Andrew of the Holding Company to provide the instrumentation, added a brass and horn section, and abandoned the psychedelic hard rock of her previous recordings for more soul and R&B driven material. While brave, the change in direction didn’t prove entirely successful. Joplin’s vocals are as strong and gutsy as ever, but the backing band plays too great a role, sometimes to the cost of Joplin’s own performance. As All Music notes, the shortage of quality original compositions doesn’t help either, particularly given the erratic nature of the cover selections. The album isn’t without its merits, however, with both Try and Little Girl Blue standing out as two of her best solo pieces. Released on September 11, 1969, the album certified gold within two months of its release. It’s since been certified platinum after reaching sales of over 1 million units.
3. Big Brother & the Holding Company
Big Brother & the Holding Company was recorded in just three days during December 1966. It was released the following summer, just a short time after Joplin’s electrifying performance at the Monterey Pop Festival thrust the band into the spotlight. When the band signed to Columbia in 1968, the label re-issued the LP with two extra tracks (Coo Coo and The Last Time) and Joplin’s name on the cover. Commercially, it fared reasonably well for a debut, reaching number 60 on the album chart. Critically, it was a mixed bag. The performances are respectable enough, and Joplin’s vocals are as fiery as ever. But the songs are let down by the uninspired, rushed-sounding production. Coo Coo and The Last Time from the Columbia re-release are both spectacular, with a gritty intensity that the album’s more laid-back tracks are sorely missing.
2. Cheap Thrills
Big Brother and the Holding Company’s last album with Joplin as lead singer is Cheap Thrills. The band had originally intended to call it Sex, Dope and Cheap Thrills, but understandably enough, the title didn’t go down well with Columbia. What did was producer John Simon’s decision to incorporate recordings of crowd noise, an addition that gives the album the feeling of a live recording, adding to the already electrifying quality of the tracklist. The album became a massive hit: released in the summer of 1968, it hit the number one spot on the Billboard 200 and stayed there for eight weeks. By the end of 1968, it had sold almost a million copies to become the best-selling album of the year. At the time, the critical reception was mixed, with Rolling Stone saying it lived up to its title with the scathing review: “What this record is not is 1) a well-produced, good rock and roll recording; 2) Janis Joplin at her highest and most intense moments; and 3) better than the Mainstream record issued last year.” In the years since, the reviews have become much kinder, with The Rolling Stone Album Guide praising it for epitomizing acid rock “in all its messy, pseudo-psychedelic glory” and Rolling Stone magazine naming it to their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In 2013, it was added to the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress for its cultural and historical significance. Of all her albums, few showcase Joplin’s powerhouse vocals quite so magnificently. Even in the quieter moments such as the beautiful rendition of George Gershwin’s Summertime, her control and emotional range are startling. Joplin left the Holding Company while the album was still at the top of the charts, her status as one of rock’s most distinctive voices already fully established.
Joplin died in 1970 at the age of just 27 years old. At the time of her death, she’d released just three studio albums, two with Big Brother and the Holding Company and one as a solo artist. Her second solo album, Pearl, was posthumously released three months after her death in January 1971. It was recorded alongside the Full Tilt Boogie Band, the touring unit that had accompanied her on the Festival Express the previous summer, with Paul A. Rothchild, who at that point was best known for his work with The Doors, serving as producer. Rothchild stripped away the overblown arrangements that had bogged down her past recordings, giving Joplin’s signature rasp the chance to shine. The song list is superb, and certainly one of the most consistent of all her albums, alternating between funky rockers and tender ballads with ease. Of all the tracks on the album, Buried Alive in the Blues – which she was scheduled to complete the day after her death – is the only one not to feature her vocals. Its writer, Nick Gravenites, was invited to sing it as a tribute to Joplin, but when he turned the offer down, the song was added in its original form as an instrumental, inviting the question of what Joplin could have achieved had she lived. The album peaked at number one on the Billboard 200 and number 20 in the UK, subsequently certifying 4 x platinum and silver in each country respectively.