John Denver (1943-1997) was one of the iconic pop culture figures of the 1970s, but for those of us who were around at the time, he may evoke a mixture of nostalgia and pity... Not pity because he died in a plane wreck, but because in the 1970s he attained such a high level of fame and yet often seemed like such a caricature of himself. A good-natured, soft-hearted, environmentally-conscious folkie superstar who epitomized a certain bland brand of touchy-feelie New Age-iness, Denver was tailormade to become a national joke, and yet, the guy was so guileless and harmless. What's to make fun of? Admittedly, I love the story about how Charlie Rich (of all people) threw a hissy fit when asked to introduce John Denver as Entertainer Of The Year at a Country Music Association award ceremony (Rich burned the envelope, rather than announce Denver's name... He was shocked, simply shocked that someone like John Denver could win a country award!!) It's a silly, charming tale that illustrates how Denver was caught up in the questionable countrypolitan ethos of the time... a trend that Rich himself was the poster child for. Anyway, for me John Denver does qualify as a guilty pleasure, though other than "Thank God I'm A Country Boy" and the other hits I heard on the radio as a kid, I've never delved that deep into his work. Here's a quick look...
John Denver "Greatest Hits, Volume 1" (RCA, 1973)
One of the biggest-selling albums of the 1970s, this includes a bunch of the biggies -- "Rocky Mountain High," "Take Me Home, Country Roads," "Sunshine On My Shoulders," his own version of "Leaving On A Jetplane" -- as well as some "sleeper" songs, like the gentle, subtle "I Guess He'd Rather Be In Colorado" that you may have forgotten about. But if you want "Annie's Song" and "Fly Away," you have to pick up Volume Two, which came out a few years later.
John Denver "Greatest Hits, Volume 2" (RCA, 1977)
Ah! There they are: "Annie's Song," "Fly Away," "Thank God I'm A Country Boy," and a few of his twangier country tunes, such as "Back Home Again" and "Grandma's Feather Bed" that are kind of nice to hum along to. The rest of the songs, whether they were hits or not, I find rather dreary and dated, dreadfully twee sunshine-folk tunes like "Farewell Andromeda," "My Sweet Lady," and "Calypso," that are the kind of stuff that made many '70s music fans grit their teeth and snarl every time they heard them eating up air time on Top 40 radio. A mixed bag: longtime fans will luxuriate in the groovy vibes, while listeners in search of music with more bite might want to skip this one. Except for Thank God I'm A Country Boy," of course: that's a great song.
John Denver "VH-1 Behind the Music: The John Denver Collection" (RCA, 2000)
This is actually a fine best-of drawn from his studio work (not a concert album), and is probably even a better set than the standard-issue best-ofs listed above. Fly away...!!
John Denver "The Essential John Denver" (RCA/Sony-BMG Legacy, 2007)
Guilty pleasure... sorry! John Denver was part of the musical aether when I was a kid, and his hit songs like "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," "Rocky Mountain High" and "Take Me Home Country Roads" are burned into my DNA. Heck, I even like the super-sentimental "Annie's Song," as sappy a ballad as you'll ever hear... This 2-CD set gathers all those chart-toppers, along with dozens of other tracks taken from Denver's career... There are even rarities that include collaborations with opera legend Placido Domingo, French pop star Sylvie Vartan (!) and country-rock pioneer Emmylou Harris... All that's missing is his work with Sesame Street's Muppets! Although Denver's crunchy-granola faux-hippieism became something of a pop culture punchline during the 1970s, he proved a durable artist, working in a mellow folk-pop mode... This collection should fill the bill for longtime fans and newcomers alike... Personally, I'm just glad I can cuddle up with "Annie's Song" again, in the privacy of my own home. (Don't tell anyone, though!)
John Denver "The RCA Albums Collection" (RCA, 2012)
Or, if you just want to get it all over with in one fell swoop, this massive twenty-five CD box set pretty much has it all: every John Denver released for the RCA label between 1969-86, PLUS his fabled, self-released 1966 debut albums. No Muppets albums, but that's still a lot of John Denver, kids!!
The (Chad) Mitchell Trio "Beginnings: John Denver With The Mitchell Trio" (Mercury, 1974)
This set draws on the first two albums Denver recorded with the newly-rechristened Chad Mitchell Trio, back in the mid-1960s... The albums are also available on the twofer collection below.
The (Chad) Mitchell Trio "That's The Way It's Gonna Be/Violets Of Dawn" (Collector's Choice, 1965)
The Mitchell Trio "That's The Way It's Gonna Be" (Mercury, 1965)
The Mitchell Trio "Violets Of Dawn" (Mercury, 1965)
John Denver "John Denver Sings" (1966)
Denver's first solo album was, apparently, a private pressing made for family and friends... Thanks to digital reissues, that select audience has been expanded to include anyone with a good Internet connection. I think this is also available in CD form, but only as part of the mondo box set RCA put out, listed above. He sings a bunch of Beatles covers, some folk scene standards and a little bit of bluegrass -- including a plunky cover of Django Reinhardt's gypsy jazz classic, "Minor Swing" -- but you can also hear Denver moving from the perky topical, typical folk singing of the Mitchell Trio into the more introspective singer-songwriter/soft pop style that made him a mega-star of the '70s. Maybe for hardcore fans only, but still kind of interesting.
The Mitchell Trio "Alive" (Reprise, 1967)
John Denver "Rhymes & Reasons" (RCA, 1969)
John Denver "Take Me To Tomorrow" (RCA, 1970)
John Denver "Whose Garden Was This" (RCA, 1970)
John Denver "Poems, Prayers & Promises" (RCA, 1971)
(Produced by Milt Okun & Susan Ruskin)
A pivotal album in Denver's career, including the #2 Pop hit, "Take Me Home, Country Roads," written by folk-husband-wife pop duo of Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert, as well as "Sunshine On My Shoulder" and another Danoff-Nivert classic, "I Guess He'd Rather Be In Colorado." Although Denver was well-known already, this was the record that established him as one of he major hitmakers of the early 1970s. Denver's band for this album included multi-instrumentalist Eric Weissberg (of "Dueling Banjos" fame) as well as the Danoffs, singing harmony. A landmark of '70s folk-pop.
John Denver "Aerie" (RCA, 1971)
John Denver "Rocky Mountain High" (RCA, 1972)
John Denver "Farewell Andromeda" (RCA, 1973)
John Denver "Back Home Again" (RCA, 1974)
John Denver "Windsong" (RCA, 1975)
John Denver "An Evening With John Denver" (RCA, 1975)
John Denver "Rocky Mountain Christmas" (RCA, 1975)
Fans will be thrilled to see this one back in print... with added bonus tracks, no less! This is a very conventional Christmas set, with Denver singing his heart out on numerous standards such as "Silver Bells," "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Away In A Manger," as well as a couple of country-specific offerings such as a cover of "Please Daddy, Don't Get Drunk For Christmas" and "Christmas For Cowboys," written by a member of Denver's backing band. Denver himself adds "Aspenglow" to the holiday canon, a flowery folk-pop offering typical of his albums of the time. He also delves deep into some older, fairly obscure English carols, including some that date back as far as the 1500s. If you're one of those folks who couldn't stand John Denver when he was riding high in the charts, this album will not win you over or change your opinion of his work... But if you're a fan, or just someone looking for a soft, elegant, super-mellow holiday set, this just might fill the bill. (For other country Christmas records, see my Hillbilly Holiday section.)
John Denver "Spirit" (RCA, 1976)
John Denver "Live In London" (RCA, 1976)
John Denver "I Want To Live" (RCA, 1977)
John Denver "John Denver" (RCA, 1979)
John Denver & The Muppets "A Christmas Together" (RCA, 1979)
John Denver "Autograph" (RCA, 1980)
John Denver "Some Days Are Diamonds" (RCA, 1981)
John Denver "Seasons Of The Heart" (RCA, 1982)
John Denver "It's About Time" (RCA, 1983)
John Denver & The Muppets "Rocky Mountain Holiday" (RCA, 1983) (LP)
John Denver "Dreamland Express" (RCA, 1985)
John Denver "One World" (RCA, 1986)
John Denver "Higher Ground" (Windstar, 1988)
John Denver "Earth Songs" (Windstar, 1990)
John Denver "The Flower That Shattered The Stone" (Windstar, 1990)
John Denver "Christmas Like A Lullaby" (Windstar, 1990)
This was pretty late in the game for old John Boy -- his voice had thickened with age, and may not be instantly recognizable, even to his devoted fans. The song arrangements are predictable florid, but I gotta say... His heart seems in the right place, and if I were really searching for this sort of softcore holiday pop, this album would be high on my list. They could have gone a little lighter on the tinkling wind chimes, though.
John Denver "Different Directions" (Windstar, 1991)
John Denver "The Wildlife Concert" (Legacy, 1995)
John Denver "The Best Of John Denver Live" (Legacy, 1997)
John Denver "All Aboard!" (Sony, 1997)
John Denver "Forever, John" (RCA, 1999)
John Denver "Live At The Sydney Opera House" (RCA, 1999)
John Denver "Christmas In Concert" (RCA, 2001)
John Denver "The Harbor Lights Concert" (RCA, 2002)
John Denver "Live In The U.S.S.R." (AAO, 2007)
John Denver "Live In Cedar Rapids" (Collector's Choice, 2010)
Various Artists "TAKE ME HOME: A TRIBUTE TO JOHN DENVER" (Badman Recording Co., 2000)
Various Artists "THE MUSIC IS YOU: A TRIBUTE TO JOHN DENVER" (ATO, 2013)
A hipster-delic tribute to an unlikely icon, this album makes a surprisingly strong case for John Denver's continued relevance lo, these decades after his hippie-era heyday. With his back-to-nature, aw-shucks, wholesome-living image, Denver was an easy target for satire and derision back in the good old days, but in cover versions by artists such as Lucinda Williams, Old Crow Medicine Show, Emmylou Harris and Kathleen Edwards on the Americana side, and Train, Evan Dando and Blind Pilot on the indie-rock tip, Denver's songs emerge out of their 1970s shadows and reveal themselves to be pleasantly durable and resonant. Of course, not all the songs were written by Denver: Amos Lee delivers a nice rendition of "Some Days Are Diamonds," a great song composed by country auteur Dick Feller...) Album highlights include My Morning Jacket's ethereal, haunting version of "Leaving On A Jet Plane," as well as Mary Chapin Carpenter singing "I Guess He'd Rather Be In Colorado" and "Take Me To Tomorrow," covered by Dave Matthews, two performances I hardly expected to be drawn into... There are a few tracks on here that cleave too closely to the twee folkie sensibility that made John Denver a cultural caricature -- I actually like the original "Rocky Mountain High" a lot, but thought that Allen Stone's bland acoustic-soul version here and Brett Dennen's gooey impression of "Annie's Song" were both missed opportunities. Overall, though, this is a very strong, very rewarding record, one that could cause a few of us cynics to reassess our old opinions of the late, great John Denver.
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