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
It 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
The 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
After 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
Joni 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
All 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’.
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/