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Joni Mitchell: Favourite Five Albums

Joni Mitchell Clouds

Joni Mitchell emerged at a time when the women’s rights movement was still building steam, and had to fight for recognition as a serious artist. Her image was often defined in terms of whom she was dating – a Rolling Stone article dubbed her “The Queen of El Lay”, and her famous boyfriends included David Crosby, Graham Nash, James Taylor, and Jackson Browne. As her material became more ambitious, and her lyrics became more questioning of society, she was abandoned altogether by Rolling Stone, who gave 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns a lukewarm review and named it as the worst album title of the year. So if she often appears a little self-promotional in interviews, ranking herself alongside Bob Dylan as the great solo artist of her generation, she’s generally justified, reacting to the sexism she encountered in her prime.

Mitchell’s a wonderful singer, songwriter, and guitarist; a childhood bout of polio left her unable to play guitar conventionally, and she’s an expert of alternative tunings. While her public persona is an acoustic guitar strumming hippie singing ‘Both Sides Now’ and ‘Chelsea Morning’, her musical reach expanded throughout the 1970s into pop and jazz. Towards the end of the 1970s, her albums became too insular for me to follow, but her run of albums in the early to mid 1970s is stunning, a peak that ranks with the greatest artists in popular music.

Here’s my ranking of Joni Mitchell’s best five albums.

#5 – For The Roses

1972
Joni Mitchell For The RosesIt hurts a little to rank For The Roses fifth – it’s always felt like the overlooked album from her 1970s peak. It’s also an important step in her development, a big leap in musical sophistication after the emotionally naked Blue. Seemingly straightforward songs like ‘The Blonde in the Bleachers’ are filled with complex chord changes that showcase Mitchell’s musical sophistication. Her arrangements are fuller than before, with more guest musicians, but it’s still centered around Mitchell’s acoustic guitar and piano. A lot of these songs concern Mitchell’s recent breakup with James Taylor.


#4 – The Hissing of Summer Lawns

1975
Joni Mitchell Hissing of Summer LawnsThe Hissing of Summer Lawns marks where Mitchell focused on texture, a much more eclectic record than anything she’d done previously. ‘The Jungle Line’ is built around a sample of Burundi drumming, while ‘Shadows and Light’ is filled with airy synthesisers. But the dominant mood of the album is sumptuous, feminist ballads like ‘Shades of Scarlett Conquering’ and ‘The Boho Dance’. Prince was vocal in his admiration for this record, and ‘Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow’ is my favourite of Mitchell’s songs, with its fluid bass line and dobro textures.


#3 – Hejira

1976
Joni Mitchell HejiraAfter splitting with drummer John Guerin, Mitchell embarked on a road trip. Hejira is effectively a journal of her travels, documenting characters like the horny protagonist of ‘Coyote’ and veteran blues-man Furry Lewis. Texturally, the album revolves around Mitchell’s guitar and Jaco Pastorious’s fretless bass. With the homogeneous sound, it’s perhaps the most difficult of the albums on this list to access, but it’s filled with gorgeous songs like ‘Amelia’ and ‘Refuge of the Roads’.


#2 – Blue

1971
Joni Mitchell BlueJoni Mitchell’s early work was often folk based – 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon featured singalongs like ‘The Circle Game’ and ‘Big Yellow Taxi’. But she took a more direct approach with 1971’s Blue, a stripped back, emotionally vulnerable album that diaries her relationships with Graham Nash and James Taylor. Side two is the stronger half with masterful songs like ‘A Case of You’ and ‘River’, and the intense paranoia of ‘This Flight Tonight’. Blue features Mitchell’s work on the Appalachian dulcimer.


#1 – Court and Spark

1974
Joni Mitchell Court and SparkAll of Mitchell’s studio albums between 1971 and 1976 are strong, but my favourite is the smooth jazzy pop of Court and Spark. Mitchell recounts; “Nearly every bass player that I tried did the same thing. They would put up a dark picket fence through my music, and I thought, why does it have to go ploddy ploddy ploddy? Finally one guy said to me, Joni, you better play with jazz musicians.” The sound and the melodies are smooth, and the singles like ‘Free Man In Paris’ and ‘Help Me’ are among her most approachable songs. But there’s still plenty of trademark romantic insecurity on songs like ‘Car On The Hill’ and ‘Down To You’.


Honourable Mentions

1977’s double album Don Juan’s Restless Daughter has lots of great moments, and it’s a little overlooked in her catalogue. 1969’s Clouds is the best of her early folk-oriented work, with gorgeous songs like ‘That Song About The Midway’. Miles of Aisles is a very good live album from the Court and Spark tour that features full-band remakes of earlier material and a great solo acoustic set.

Do you have a favourite Joni Mitchell album? Or song?

For a more detailed analysis of Joni Mitchell’s work, please visit https://albumreviews.blog/reviews/joni-mitchell/

34 thoughts on “Joni Mitchell: Favourite Five Albums Leave a comment

  1. Great to see Court and Spark at the top. It still sounds as good today as it did back then, Just Like This Train particularly. Brief love affair over, but she has loved and she’s okay. She’s got this berth and this roll-down blind, she’s got this fold-up sink. And these rocks and these cactuses going by. And a bottle of German wine to drink.
    Clouds hit me as a soulful teenager and although it contains some brilliant stuff, feels a bit intense now.
    Ladies of the Canyon, although almost as old, somehow feels cooler, with some fantastic atmospheres (you could make a film out of Rainy NIght House).
    Blue never really registered with me for some reason.
    But Hejira – wow. Coyote is typical Joni: romantic fool recalls bittersweet episode and regrets nothing. And in Blue Hotel Room she’s anticipating it, because it’s happened to her so often.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve been meaning to write something about Hissing Of Summer Lawns for an age. Melodically it’s just all over the place but still manages to be whistlable. And thanks for reminding me of For The Roses which reminds me of my big sister doing homework.

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  3. I’ve got ‘revisiting the Joni catalogue’ noted for some point further down the line, as I just don’t really enjoy it. Though maybe the point isn’t to enjoy it… Some really striking music there and lots to admire, but I just haven’t felt any connection to it.

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  4. Good on you for being able to list her albums in an order of favourites. Many has been the time I’ve wondered if I must turn in my Canadian card when I say I’m not actually a fan of her stuff. I’ve tried, I swear. It was only recently when 1537 sent me Blue on vinyl that I even got close to that record at all…

    Well done, I’ll use this as a list of stuff to try next time I feel up to giving her music another go!

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  5. Joni Mitchell is one of these artists I’ve been aware of literally for decades but sadly never really explored, so I’ll be sure to check out your top picks.

    This morning, I chatted with a dear friend who I believe is a true Mitchell expert. He recommended her 1980 live album “Shadows And Light,” especially the title track. I listened to it right away, and it gave me goosebumps! The remainder of that album is great as well!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve never actually heard Shadows and Light – track-wise it looks like it’s a pretty good summary of her 1974-1979 albums, so if you like it you’ll probably like that era – most of my favourite Joni stuff is in that era.

      Like

  6. I’m surprised to see so many people say they like Shadows and Light. I think it’s really inferior to her other live album Miles of Aisles. Actually Miles of Aisles is my fourth ranked of her albums. On two sides of it she does the songs from her first album up through Blue, and they are so Superior to the original versions. Never would have known that Last Time I saw Richard was a great song if I’d only heard the version on Blue. She sings it in her new lower voice, and it’s a real knockout. In fact all the songs from Blue are much better on Miles of Aisles. She sings them ten times better. And sometimes with a full band. Same with the songs from ladies of the canyon. 10 times better on miles of aisles because of her singing and the band. When I want to hear the song from ladies of the canyon, I reach for Miles of Aisles. Best of all is Rainy Night House. It’s awesome.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like Miles of Aisles a lot, and I agree that the Ladies of Canyon material sounds a whole lot better there. I don’t generally include live albums on lists like that, but Miles of Aisles is probably about my 6th favourite Joni disc . Good performances, and enough differences from her studio versions to be worthwhile.

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  7. Here’s how I would rank them. Not too different from yours actually, with the exception of Blue.

    The Hissing of Summer Lawns
    Court and Spark
    For the Roses
    Miles of Aisles
    Hejira

    Liked by 1 person

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