More than a decade ago (years after I started this site) I wrote a buying guide for people new to Jonathan who would wonder what cds they should buy. Since I wrote the buying guide all those years ago, streaming music has become much more common - people aren't buying cds or records like they used to. So perhaps the need for a buying guide has passed (collectors will still buy physical recordings but I have always been more interested in the music than in how rare the recording is - I do include scans of covers on this site so those looking for physical copies have an idea what to look for)
I have over 200 different Jonathan Richman recordings . Not many people would have listened to as much JoJo as me. So instead of a 'buying' guide, I offer the following as a 'listening' guide. It will be pointless for those of you familiar with Jonathan (since you will know all of this already) but for those relatively new to JoJo it might be somewhat helpful.
Jonathan, as a recording artist, is a fascinating and compelling mix: at times serious and intense, at times fun and playful, at times sentimental and spiritual, and at times internationally eclectic. He has also made some very different sounding recordings; Jonathan can sound quite different from one recording to the next. This is why I think the following may be helpful: it may give you some idea of what to expect.
When I started to listen to Jonathan in the early 1990s, finding his cds was often a challenge. Following the 'Something about Mary' movie (and the increased availability of online shopping), it became a little easier for awhile. Today, in 2021, physical cds and records can be more of a challenge to find (though they are there on ebay etc if you are willing to pay). But through streaming services (Apple Music and Spotify) and places like Bandcamp, most of his catalogue can be found ('It's Time for Jonathan Richman' seems to be the exception as it is still rare).
Jonathan's songs are mainly about relationships, seasons, growing up, his vision of the good life, and events or experiences of his past. He rarely mentions anyone by name and he avoids politics and causes (except Abu Jamal and perhaps Dick Gregory). There is something I really appreciate about this approach: rather than protest against those who damage the environment (for instance), he writes songs which invite you to love the world. If more people loved walking like he does, we would burn less oil. I am not claiming he has a hidden agenda, it's just that his music pulls you in to seeing and feeling the world in a different way.
Jonathan has gone through different sounding periods/phases in his career. Often the sound of his work can be linked to the label his was with at the time (but not always). He starts in the early 1970s with a full band and plays intense loud music heavily influenced by the Velvet Underground. He then abandones that band and switches to much lighter and fun material for the last half of the 1970s to the mid 1980s. Much of this material is heavily influenced by his love of early (fifties and early sixties) rock and roll.
Then from about 1988-1998 he retreats somewhat from the intense light hearted material. Much of it is stil fun, but it is definitely more serious in tone overall. He also starts to do songs in other languages which one assumes he develops an interest in from his extensive touring. In the last 20+ years (since 1998), his music has become much more serious, sentimental (in a good way), and spiritual. He has also maintained his interest in French, Italian and Spanish, releasing songs in all three languages (sometimes these are versions of his earlier English songs, sometimes they are covers, sometimes they are original works).
Now it is tempting to think that he is changing because some of these transitions have been stark. But all of these parts to his music have been there from the start. He's always been intense, serious, childlike, fun, sentimental, and spiritual. It's just that at various points, one or more of these qualities has shown through more than the others. The difference is more in the fans and which recordings initially drew us in to his work. If listening to the intense serious sound of the early 70s made you a fan of Jonathan, the fun and playful records will be hard to take. If you, like me, were drawn in by his work from 1976-1996, the serious and sentimental side of his later work won't be as appealing (and you will be shocked by the earlier stuff). But all the sides of his interests have been there all along. The only changes I see are the recordings are better produced as he goes along, his is much better at playing guitar now than when he started, and his international interest has grown.
The more I think about it - art and painting might be a good metaphor for JoJo's work. And of course he is a painter and he sings songs about painters so it has clearly been an influence. I think he sort of paints pictures with many of his songs: he wants you to 'see' what he sings about. And it's like at different points of his career he uses different brushes: what he sings about doesn't really change but how he paints the scene changes.
- Punk (serious and intense) - to be played loud, electric, backed by a full band, mostly 'serious' material (though he has his fun moments even here)
- Ice Cream Man (fun and playful) - much quieter, much more fun, often acoustic (but he almost never does this stuff live anymore). The first time you hear this material tells the story: you will either love it right away or hate it right away. The reaction will be immediate.
- 80s/90s - a retreat from the Ice Cream period but still fun. He is moving towards a more serious stage but he is still playful here. The cds in this period are usually poorly produced
- Current - not sure about this one but latest releases are almost all serious songs, he seems to have lost some of his playfulness. The quality of the cd production is MUCH greater than anything before but oddly enough the songs aren't as interesting (at least to me). [UPDATE] I would say now that they are growing on me but this still isn't the stuff I would turn to first. JoJo is more demanding here and his work here takes more listening to appreciate
- Other Stuff
Summary and Final Recommendations
Some More Thoughts
If this material is why you like Jonathan then you are going to hate the rest of his music (at least you will wonder what happened to him). If you heard stuff from the Ice Cream Man period first then you will not want to get these recordings.
The two recordings that first came out from this period are
But if you like this stuff then the one to listen to is the one that came out in 2004
There are also three live cds in this period
Now these three are more or less identical (only a couple of songs worth of difference) but the best production job is on Precise Modern Lovers Order
So, if you like this type of music, listen to
The others are mostly duplicates that sound worse
Fun and Playful
This is my favorite of all - these are the cds I listen to the most. He is down on this period lately (in an interview in Take Me to the Plaza he says that the stuff in this period was too cute). After the Punk phase he made a lot of people mad with turn to this lighter but more fun (and better) material and it seems that he now agrees with his critics (he would often get booed on stage when he did this stuff live at the time). Jonathan pretty much ignores this stuff in his live shows these days, oh well ...
- Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers - doesn't seem to be available currently on streaming sites 
- Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers +4 - same as the above except they threw on 4 songs from the punk phase for some reason (why they didn't include some previously unreleased material instead is beyond me) - this one doesn't seem to be available on the streaming sites 
- Rock 'n' Roll With The Modern Lovers - really hard to find but rereleased by Castle (2004)
- Rock 'n' Roll With the Modern Lovers +1 - currently available (2004), same as the above. They threw on an extra version of Dodge Veg-O-Matic, the only difference is it includes a spoken intro where the band makes fun of Jonathan's car (this version also appears on the Beserkely Years compilation) - this is the one that's available for streaming 
- Back In Your Life - hard to find but Castle is rereleasing this one too
- Back in Your Life +4 - 2004 rerelease which include the b-side singles which also appear on the Roadrunner compilation - this is the one on the streaming sites 
- Modern Lovers Live - hard to find but Castle is rereleasing this one too (as a 2 disc set with a pile of prevously unreleased material) - UPDATE: they promised a 2 disc set but they ended up releasing the standard 9 song cd
All of this stuff is essential for a complete Jonathan Richman collection and all favourites of mine.
Less fun than the Ice Cream Man period, but still interesting. Lots of great songs but the material is uneven - some recordings are great, some are not so good.
- Jonathan Sings On an interview in Take Me to the Plaza, Jonathan says that he finds it hard to listen to (I am not sure why, there are a lot of good songs here but it isn't his strongest overall effort). It is like the recordings from the Ice Cream Man period but not as good.
- Rockin' & Romance - Great cd. Highly recommended. Only a couple of weak songs. This one used to be hard to find but if you go to the Twin Tone site you can order a custom burned cd (I was very happy with the one they burned for me) - I got my copy years ago but the page to order this is still up 
- (If you think the above two belong in the Ice Cream Man period, you have a point. These are definitely transitional)
- It's Time For Jonathan Richman - almost impossible to find, easily the hardest to find of all the regular releases. BUT not really worth it (of course many would disagree). Weak cd, don't pay a ton of money for this on ebay unless you are a hard core fan.
- Modern Lovers 88 - not his best effort (New Kind of Neighborhood would likely get my vote as the worst JoJo song of them all)
- These are two of his weaker recordings
- The following recordings are the core to this period - they are still fun to listen to but Jonathan is slowly moving to a more serious sound. I would rate them all about the same
- Jonathan Richman - good recording. I believe 'Cerca' is the first Spanish version he does (though what the point is of doing both an English and Spanish version of the same song on the same recording is is beyond me)
- Jonathan Goes Country - like the title says, Jonathan is exploring country music here. One of my personal favourites but if you don't like country music, you might not like this much
- Having A Party With Jonathan Richman - some of the songs are taken from live shows and others are done in the studio. Worth it just for Monologue about Bermuda (I find it ironic that it includes Just For Fun as this period in his career gets less and less fun as it goes along)
- I, Jonathan - in the Take me to the Plaza interview, Jonathan says this is one of his releases that he really likes. Good cd (except for parties in the usa)
- Te Vas A Emocionar - Entirely in Spanish. Almost all of it is Spanish versions of songs he has done before but still worth getting since it sounds better - the studio work is much improved
- You Must Ask The Heart - Includes covers of The Rose and Nothing can change this love but plenty of good stuff as well
- Surrender to Jonathan - at first this sounds weird since it is the most produced of all the recordings to this point. Good, but for me it misses the simplicity of the music with the overproduction
- The three above recordings lead the transition to the current period
Current (Tommy Larkins) Period
- In this period it seems like Jonathan has lost much of his sense of humour. The music is good but if you like the playfulness in his earlier work, you won't find it here (at least not often, it does show up a bit in the foreign language songs). The cds sound great - he is much better in the studio now than he used to be.
- I'm So Confused - Good cd. But I find I don't listen to it than much (typically, it includes remakes of a couple of songs from previous cds, he does that a lot - usually the remakes sound much better)
- Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow - again it is a good, well produced, technically skilled cd but I don't like it much. The sense of fun and playfulness is really hard to find here. He does do 4 more Spanish songs here (the best four on the cd)
- Take me to the Plaza - I know I sound like a broken record but this is like the other two, good but way too serious in the song selection for my taste. Still this is important since you do see his interaction with the audience and it is what you would likely see if you go see him live these days (2004). Also there are a few previously unreleased songs he does on the dvd (but none are that interesting)
- Not so much to be Loved as to love - Ok I didn't like it much at first but it is growing on me. Less produced than the first two in the group - the sound is simpler (more like you would hear live). A nice mix of 4 Spanish and French songs (which I will eventually get translated) in addition to 8 new songs, a new version of Vincent Van Gogh, and 2 songs that were on the Take me to the Plaza dvd. STILL little evidence he has rediscovered his sense of humour (and without that he is much less interesting). And it seems to me that he has lost his 'arrogance' (for lack of a better word) of his youth (which makes him likely a better person but the music is less interesting). This is by far the most explicitly religious cd he has ever put out (which as a religious person myself I appreciate) and his optimistic worldview is plainly stated. He has always had this side to him (Springtime, Angels Watching over me, etc.) and I like it but his best cds have always been the ones that had his humour, arrogance, playfulness, and the serious side. However, this is still his best cd in the last 8 years (since Surrender to Jonathan)
- Because her Beauty is Raw and Wild - not too much to say here, if you like the others in this period, you will like this one too
- A Que Venimos Sino A Caer? - all foreign language songs but only four new ones (the others are identical to previously released songs)
- O Moon, Queen Of Night On Earth - not too much to say again here, in the same style as the others in the period. It sounds great but a lot of sense of fun (except perhaps for my favorite track on it, Sa Voix M'Atisse)
- Ishkode! Ishkode! - really serious (But Then Ego Went Away)and well recorded. It takes more than one listen to appreciate.
- SA - again serious and spiritual. He is exploring an Indian influence here which gives it a different sound.
- The Just A Spark series - once the pandemic hit in 2020 he could no longer tour and one expects to keep from going crazy he started a series of short, 20 minute or so, recordings (he calls them 'broadcasts') which he released on Bandcamp. There were eight of them in 2020 and more are promised but who knows? He is still exploring Indian spirituality here but these are an interesting mix of all sorts of songs ('Cold Pizza' is an immediate favourite of mine)
There have been MANY Jonathan Richman compilations over the years and in my opinion NONE of them are really worth buying (unless you only want to get only one of his cds) He is a hard person to put together a decent greatest hits cd since he has gone through radically different phases but as a fan I would want a cd to cover a particular period well and throw in some previuosly unreleased material. Only a couple of the compliations have any previously unreleased material (Roadrunner and Beserkley Years). Anyway, enough on that rant ...
- Mega 20 Track Album - I found this one in a used cd store. Not really a greatest hits, it is Rock and Roll and part of Back in Your Life combined. Since both of those are now easy to find there is no reason to look for this one (though for a long time it was my only access to the Rock and Roll cd)
Punk and Ice Cream Man periods
- All of these cover the same material (and nothing from the later stages of his career)
- The Berserkely Years
- 23 Great Recordings
- Buzz Buzz Buzz
- Radio On - the only one worth getting of this bunch but if you already have the cds from the period there is really no point in buying it
- UPDATE: Roadrunner Roadrunner - Yet another collection of the Beserkeley stuff, not bad but get the cds instead (no previously unreleased material)
Punk and 80s/90s
- Roadrunner - has some stuff from all phases of his career (except the very latest) and since it is only 1 cd the choices of songs are sometimes odd. It does include Jonathan butchering Chapel of Love (which makes this cd worth it if for nothing else)
- UPDATE: The release of Back In your Life +4 includes all of the extra stuff on the Roadrunner compilation so there is no longer any reason to buy it
- There have been many many bootlegs made over the years but you have to look hard for them (and have something to trade when you find somebody with one. People have sent me bootlegs over the years but none are (of course) well produced. The studio versions are always better. There is some interesting stuff to be found but mainly you have to be a fanatic like me to like the bootlegs
- If you are looking for bootlegs remember the different stages of his career: in the early 70s the few bootlegs that exist are in the hard, intense style of his earliest recordings. From the mid 70s to the mid 80s or so he largely toured with a full band focusing on the fun and playful material (occassionally he does a set by himself). As he slowly gets more serious in the late 80s and early 90s he tours by himself usually with just an electric guitar. From sometime in the mid 90s (i don't know exactly when) he teams up with drummer Tommy Larkins and has toured ever since with him on acoustic guitar and Tommy on drums. (There are exceptions to all of this but that's been the general pattern)
CDs by Other People
These are cds with one or two Jonathan songs on them ..
- Gumby The Green Album - Includes one JoJo song, I like Gumby, great song of the Ice Cream Man phase
- Live From 6A:...With Conan O'Brien - forgettable version of Let Her Go into the Darkness
- The Inner Flame- includes Broken Promises (instrumental) which is forgetable
- There's Something About Mary (Original Soundtrack) - well if you like the title song you have to get this, but True Love is Not Nice and Let Her go into the Darkness are done much better elsewhere
- Think About Mustapha - has two songs by JoJo, Mustapha (in French I think) and Mustapha Instrumental (pretty much the same as the other but without the vocal). Nice enough but likely not essential to anyone but a fanatic (or a French fan)
- No Alternative - includes a live version of I love Hot Nights but since I don't like the song I wouldn't recommend getting the cd
- The Unreleaseable Tapes - includes Broken Promises (instrumental) which is forgetable and another French song J'Aime Paris Au Mois De Mai which is really good and worth getting your hands on
- Acoustic Café Show 118 - I don't have this. The songs are all stuff released before but it sounds like there are interview here as well so it might be interesting
- Home of the Hits - I don't have this one but it first was a sort of Beserkely greatest hits collection half of Jonathan Richman and the other half with other people. It has also come out as a dvd audio (I assume it is the same stuff). The track listing makes me doubt this is worth buying
- Wig in a Box: Songs from & Inspired By Hedwig and the Angry Inch - I was visiting my parents in the States and I saw this one on the Apple ITunes store and I downloaded the one JoJo song The Origin of Love (reprise), well worth the 99c (I am not sure it is worth buying the whole cd)
Summary and Final Recommendations
A) If you like the Punk period get the following (and skip all of the rest)
B) If you like the Ice Cream Man stage, get the following (and stay away from the punk records)
(if you want more like the above 4 but not quite as good get)
C) If you want something from the 80s/90s period get
(if the previous four leave you wanting more, get)
D) If you want the current stuff get one or more of the following (if you like the one you will likely like the others)
E) Compilations and Greatest Hits
F) Rare Stuff
- The bootlegs, cds by other people and the promos are all fine for the fanatic but mostly just for the dedicated fan.
G) So, as far as I'm concerned the really essential Jonathan Richman cds are
Some More Thoughts
Ok the more I think about it, if you are new to Jonathan, my advice is to buy
These have a good mix of the playful fun stuff and the serious material. If you listen to these and you really like the fun songs - then buy the earlier cds from the Ice Cream Man stage. If you like the more serious songs, then buy the later cds.