Janis Ian‘s most recent album, 2022’s The Light at the End of the Line, is, according to the artist, the last she’ll ever make. So there couldn’t be a better time to look back at her catalogue, with albums issued across seven decades. Ian began recording in her mid-teens and was classified as a folk artist. But right from the start, a vast array of other influences was audible in her music. Indeed, by the time of the jazzy experimentalism of her third album, the “folk singer” tag must have seemed reductive. Even Ian’s first single, “Society’s Child”, which caused controversy with its story of a relationship frustrated by racist expectations, was written, arranged, and produced in an innovative way that positioned her somewhere outside straight-up acoustic folk music.
Ian stepped away from the entertainment world before her teens were over. She returned in style with “Jesse” and “At Seventeen” in the mid-1970s. There was another retreat at the outset of the 1980s. By the time she returned again in the early 1990s, she’d lived several lifetimes’ worth of adversity. Ian had left an abusive husband, been reduced to penury owing to an accountant’s malpractice, and come out of the closet. Since then, she’s remarried, written a riveting memoir, recorded fairly regularly, and toured abundantly.
Ian is a tremendous pianist and acoustic guitarist, though physical problems in the 1990s compromised the former talent. Quite early on in her career, she learned how to arrange for the orchestra. At its best, her singing voice is remarkably plaintive and ductile. Her sizeable back catalogue is one of the finest in the singer-songwriter sphere. Her touching, emotionally revealing lyrics burst with memorable turns of phrase and the kind of telling details that lift a song from competence to greatness. Ian’s discography is vast, and there are albums that almost made this list. 1978’s Janis Ian included two pivotal songs, “Silly Habits” and “Hopper Painting”, but suffered from oddly listless production by Joe Wissert. Perhaps someone should go back to the multi-tracks to create a new mix because a brilliant album is in there. But the point is, you can’t go wrong with any of her works. Even the angsty, high-tech, post-disco surprise Uncle Wonderful (1986), a mix of artful ballads and dance-orientated tracks, is worth acquiring.
10. God and the FBI (Windham Hill, 2000)
Ian kept busy after her early 1990s comeback. By 2000, she was on a major label again (Windham Hill, a BMG subsidiary) and working with British producer/guitarist Jim Cregan. If any of her second comeback-era albums had the power to break through, it was this one. The title track was inspired by Ian’s family’s tanglings with the FBI. Her activist parents organized social gatherings in the 1960s that caught the bureau’s attention. The exquisite ballad, “She Must Be Beautiful”, sounded like one of the high points of 1979’s Night Rains. “On the Other Side”, sung from the viewpoint of souls in the afterlife, came with elaborate choral interludes and a memorably intricate arrangement.
9. The Secret Life of J Eddy Fink (Verve, 1968)
An odd, moody, experimental jazz album, Ian’s unsung third LP from the late 160s has a haunted, restless, paranoid/schizoid character to it – so much so that the only pop song, “Friends Again”, seems slightly out of place (and might have been better off replaced with B-side, “Lady of the Night”). Ian made the album at a strange juncture in her life, living in hotels and struggling to complete the album when her producer proved elusive. Coming to her aid was the under-appreciated guitarist, Carol Hunter, who would make a solo album of her own in 1973. The result was unlike anything else in her catalogue. It paints a bleak but compelling picture of sudden fame and its aftermath.
8. The Light at the End of the Line (Rude Girl, 2022)
Ian’s last album? So she says. If so, she’s gone out on fighting form – no one hearing the clever, biting, blues-rock of “Resist”, the record’s wild card and most thrilling track, could conclude otherwise. With its caustic lyrics and storming arrangement – grinding electric guitar, horns, organ – it’s hands down the best #metoo era protest song. This is as political an album as her first – indeed, the two LPs make for fitting, complementary bookends. “I’m Still Standing”, “Stranger”, “Wherever Good Dreams Go” and her Covid-era song, “Better Times Will Come”, are all delights.
Though she’s a much more tentative, economical pianist than in the 1970s and 1980s, it’s great to hear her play the instrument here and there, especially on “Nina”, her elegy to Nina Simone. It has a subtle beauty recalling the stunning “Hopper Painting” from 1978. “Summer in New York” is reminiscent of Ian’s celebrated Brooks Arthur period. The Light at the End of the Line is not just a good one – it says goodbye by linking the different phases of Ian’s career. There’s the clever, caustic political bent of her earliest work, the reflective, sophisticated pop of her CBS years, the folk-orientated styles of her 1990s Nashville comeback, and where she stands today. It’s all here.
7. Miracle Row (Columbia, 1977)
At the height of her success, Ian followed up her smash Between the Lines with 1976’s Aftertones. It was an album she was urged to complete quickly and had a feel of artistic water-treading. For Miracle Row the following year, she started afresh, embracing the Latin sounds she heard in Harlem, most notably on the single, “Let Me Be Lonely”. It was the right call and resulted in a much stronger album – dynamic, attention-grabbing, and romantic. “The Sunset of Your Life” was a stark, desolate sketch of an abandoned elderly woman left to wither in a care home, visited by family only grudgingly.
There was a memorably jaundiced look at nightlife excess in “Party Lights”. Then there’s the stunning finale of “Miracle Row/Maria”, a two-part theatre-rock love letter to a charismatic street-walker. Divesting herself of the elaborate orchestral arrangements of the previous three albums, Ian worked with her touring band to create an urban, muscular sound perfect for an album with such a distinctive New York flavor. An under-appreciated classic.
6. Breaking Silence (various labels, 1993)
The second comeback. Ian went old-school, recording to analogue tape, capturing sound so exquisitely, that Breaking Silence has been an audiophile favorite ever since. It’s been reissued scads of times in various luxury packages but didn’t break through to the extent it deserved at the time of its release. Still, it kickstarted the longest phase of Ian’s career; she proceeded to record regularly for the following 13 years. This album caught her doing what she does best – probing social and historic flashpoints, from domestic abuse to the holocaust. The title track is a stunning set-piece, sung from the viewpoint of a child abuse survivor. It’s exceptional work, with some of the most finely wrought, subtle performances of Ian’s entire career and, of course, the unforgettable “Some People’s Lives”, recorded by Bette Midler two years earlier but even more arresting when performed by its writer.
5. Stars (Columbia, 1974)
The start of the first comeback, if you don’t count the anomalistic Present Company (Capitol, 1971). Stars wasn’t just a dress rehearsal for Between the Lines but a terrific album in its own right. It marked the beginning of Ian’s three-album collaboration with producer Brooks Arthur, with whom she forged one of her most fruitful artistic relationships. Though not a hit for Ian, “Jesse” restored her fortunes as a songwriter thanks to Roberta Flack‘s version. Joan Baez would record it a couple of years later. The title track was a folk epic about the psychological and social tolls of fame. The cool, skittering single, “The Man You Are in Me”, which Ian performed on The Midnight Special, deserved more acclaim. Stars is an album that saves some of its best for last – “Applause Applause”, with a glittering orchestral arrangement by Ian, is a dazzling nightclub show-stopper.
4. Janis Ian (Verve, 1967)
Was something in the water in late 1960s New York? How did two teenagers, Janis Ian and Laura Nyro, develop such authoritative, weighty, intelligent songwriting styles at such tender ages? Of the two, Ian was the more overtly political. On her first album, she surveys society with perspicacious and unsentimental eyes, making the trenchant observations you’d expect of someone much older. Produced by Shadow Morton, Janis Ian included the breakthrough, “Society’s Child”, a folk-pop song with ornamental production. It recounted a fictional interracial romance, sabotaged by the white party’s reluctance to rock the boat. Elsewhere was an embarrassment of melodies and instantly memorable characters – “Mrs. McKenzie” (a bored, reluctant mother), “Janey’s Blues” (a cri de coeur for a neglected child), “Hair of Spun Gold” (the plight of a teenage mother). A folk landmark.
3. Who Really Cares (Verve, 1969)
Ian’s collaboration with Charlie Calello, who’d just produced Laura Nyro’s second album, was the least successful but most wholly satisfying of her four Verve albums. Not only was her singing becoming fuller and less reedy, Who Really Cares an all-out embracing of the pop sensibility that had appeared in fits and starts on the earlier albums. It’s a pity Verve wasn’t willing to push this fine LP, since it was the most commercial thing she’d done up to that point, with a luscious, cordial, melodic personality. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that something like “Sea and Sand” or “Do You Remember” could have succeeded on radio. Calello provided the same kind of intense, ebullient orchestral arrangements that he had for Nyro and they’re partly what makes the album such a thrilling listen. An undeservedly obscure album that’s start-to-end brilliant.
2. Between the Lines (Columbia, 1975)
This US #1 smash has become the Janis Ian album – her Tapestry. It’s Between the Lines that restored Ian’s fortunes, already on an upswing after Stars, and took her to the Grammys. And no wonder. “At Seventeen” is a true evergreen; few are unmoved by its remarkable, plainly stated reminiscence of adolescent anguish. Its plaintive melody, stepping up a dramatic gear for the poignant “and those of us with ravaged faces” section, is hard to shake. The album it comes from is hands down the strongest of Ian’s Brooks Arthur period. From the cabaret-jazz of “Bright Lights and Promises” to the world-weary consolation of “Tea and Sympathy”, each song successfully creates its own, immersive universe.
1. Night Rains (Columbia, 1979)
Ian ended her comeback decade in radiant, sophisticated form. Night Rains may be her most commercial album, but it’s not the kind of commerciality that smacks of compromise or pandering. Though overlooked in the US, Night Rains was popular in other markets, including the UK and Europe. Ian’s collaboration with Giorgio Moroder, “Fly Too High” – not disco, but a shuffling, urban jazz-pop – was an international hit. She was in her finest-ever form as a vocalist and pianist, with brilliant digital calisthenics on “Memories” and “Jenny (Iowa Sunrise)”, the latter featuring Chick Corea. “Photographs” and “Here Comes the Night” remain two of the most moving songs she’s ever committed to vinyl.