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”. As Mitchell’s material became more ambitious, and her lyrics became more provocative, 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. If Mitchell appears overly 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 the guitar conventionally, and she’s an expert in alternative tunings. While her public persona is an acoustic guitar-strumming hippie warbling her way through ‘Both Sides Now’ and ‘Chelsea Morning’, her musical reach expanded throughout the 1970s into pop and jazz. Mitchell’s run of albums in the early to mid-1970s is stunning, a peak that ranks with the greatest artists in popular music. She’s also a talented visual artist, painting most of the below album covers herself.
Mitchell’s been in the news lately – along with Neil Young she’s pulled her music off Spotify due to the platform’s promotion of Joe Rogan’s podcast. It’s tragic that a supremely talented musician has a fraction of the listeners of a medically unqualified comedian blathering on about Covid conspiracy theories. Here are Mitchell’s seventeen studio albums of originals ranked. I haven’t included Mitchell’s two albums of remakes – the 2000 standards album Both Sides Now and 2002’s album of remakes from her catalogue, Travelogue.
Joni Mitchell’s Albums Ranked
Mitchell’s only album of originals from the 21st century was incongruously released via the Starbucks coffee chain’s record label. Ecological concerns are at the forefront of Mitchell’s mind on Shine – there’s a remake of her 1970 hit ‘Big Yellow Taxi’. Often the message overshadows the music, and the music is generic compared to Mitchell’s other work – the arrangements are closer to safe adult contemporary with synths and Bob Sheppard’s saxophone. There are glimpses of Mitchell’s immense talent – there’s some percussive guitar on ‘Night of the Iguana’ and lovely piano on ‘Strong and Wrong’, while her vocals are affecting on the generic title track. But Shine is easily Mitchell’s least essential studio record.
#16 Dog Eat Dog
Mitchell dived headfirst into politics and 1980s musical technology with Dog Eat Dog. As on Shine, her intentions are laudable but she’s not enjoyable when she gets too didactic. The message dominates the music on tracks like the anti-televangelist diatribe ‘Tax Free’ and ‘The Three Great Stimulants’ (artifice, brutality and innocence!). ‘Impossible Dreamer’, with Wayne Shorter on saxophone, is a great tune where Mitchell is introspective instead of preachy.
#15 Song To A Seagull
Mitchell’s debut is different than anything else in her catalogue – instead of elegant poetry, it’s filled with wide-eyed hippie wonder. Song To A Seagull is dedicated to the 7th-grade teacher who helped Mitchell to love words, but she’d use them more impressively on subsequent releases. David Crosby, at a loose end between The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash, discovered Mitchell playing in a Florida bar and produced Song To A Seagull. Crosby left Mitchell’s music unadorned – the only other musician credited is Stephen Stills on bass on the unbearably fey ‘Night in the City’. It’s a dated period piece, although songs like ‘I Had A King’ and ‘Cactus Tree’ are tuneful snippets of Mitchell’s life.
Suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, jazz legend Charles Mingus was no longer able to play bass. His final musical project was a collaboration with Mitchell. She wrote words for four of his compositions, including the jazz standard ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’. Mitchell’s supported by a cast of jazz legends, including Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Peter Erskine, and Jaco Pastorius. Mingus has some great moments – the funky ‘The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines’ is built around a fantastic bass riff, while ‘The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey’ is haunting and atmospheric. Yet Mingus is disjointed, interrupted by brief snippets of Mingus dialogue.
#13 Taming the Tiger
Frustrated by the rigours of recreating her array of guitar tunings on stage, Mitchell started using a guitar synthesizer in the 1990s. The Roland VG8 is all over Taming The Tiger – as well as producing alternative tunings, she uses it to recreate other sounds like the marimbas of the opener ‘Harlem in Havana’. The first half of Tiger continues Mitchell’s creative renaissance of the 1990s – ‘Lead Balloon’ is the toughest rocker in her catalogue and ‘Man from Mars’ is a gorgeous jazzy ballad about a lost cat. The second half is less remarkable, however, mired in tasteful soft jazz.
#12 Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm
Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm is notable for its high number of duets – Mitchell’s vocal partners include Peter Gabriel, Don Henley, Billy Idol, and Willie Nelson. Chalk Mark has some of the same issues as Dog Eat Dog – there’s a 1980s sheen and it’s sometimes mired in politics. But there’s some great music regardless – the opening duet with Gabriel on ‘My Secret Place’, the portrait of PTSD on ‘The Beat of Black Wings’, and the tale of Mitchell’s parents meeting in ‘The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Lay Down Your Arms)’ are all standouts.
#11 Wild Things Run Fast
In the late 1970s, Mitchell was starting to overreach as she delved deeply into jazz. Inspired by hearing The Police in a Caribbean discotheque, Wild Things Run Fast is a stripped-down record for the new decade. There are still jazz musicians – Mitchell would shortly marry bassist Larry Klein, and he plays on every subsequent Mitchell record. But Wild Things Run Fast also features the muscle of Toto guitarist Steve Lukather and the pop sensibility of Lionel Richie. Some of the songs are too fluffy and trivial, but opener ‘Chinese Café / Unchained Melody’ is a masterpiece and it’s fun to hear Mitchell rock through the title track and ‘You Dream Flat Tires’.
#10 Night Ride Home
The lack of attention paid to Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm convinced Mitchell that she was no longer a commercial force. She stopped trying to stay current, and Night Ride Home is a relaxed bunch of guitar songs that recall the atmosphere of 1976’s Hejira. With a uniform sound and long tracks, it drags in places, but the standard of writing is impressive. The title track, with its cicadas in the background, the intergenerational conversation of ‘Come In From The Cold’, and ‘Nothing Can Be Done’, with music written by Klein, are all worthy additions to Mitchell’s catalogue.
#9 Ladies of the Canyon
Mitchell’s third album features some of her most widely-known tunes – ‘Woodstock’ was a hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young while ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ and ‘The Circle Game’ are singalong folk songs. None are among my favourite Mitchell recordings, but there’s a solid core of album tracks. Mitchell revisited ‘Rainy Night House’ and ‘For Free’ on her excellent 1974 live album Miles of Aisles, while ‘Morning Morgantown’ is a charming opener. Ladies of the Canyon is more lyrically nuanced than Mitchell’s early folk songs, but she’d develop further musically over her next records.
Mitchell’s second album is the strongest from her early folk phase. Unlike her debut, it features songs that she’d placed with other artists; ‘Chelsea Morning’, ‘Both Sides Now’, and ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’ had already been recorded by the likes of Fairport Convention, Judy Collins, and Jennifer Warnes. Like her other early work, Clouds is sparse – in particular, the acapella ‘The Fiddle and the Drum’ is stark and not always pleasant to listen to. But Mitchell’s songwriting is consistently strong – ‘Both Sides, Now’ is her most widely-known song, but I also adore ‘That Song About The Midway’ and ‘Roses Blue’.
#7 Turbulent Indigo
Mitchell topped Mariah Carey, Madonna (a longtime fan), and Annie Lennox for Best Pop Vocal Album at the 1996 Grammy Awards. While Mitchell made better records in the 1970s, the Grammys correctly rewarded the strongest record from Mitchell’s artistically satisfying 1990s. Using material from outside writers is a good move on Turbulent Indigo. Mitchell’s cover of James Brown’s ‘How Do You Stop’ and her co-write with David Crosby on ‘Yvette in English’ provide the record’s most memorable hooks. Mitchell was divorcing Larry Klein while making Turbulent Indigo and she provides naked autobiography on songs like ‘Borderline’, the title track, and ‘Last Chance Lost’. The standout is ‘The Sire of Sorrow (Job’s Sad Song)’, where Mitchell adapts the Biblical tale of Job into an eloquent and epic closer.
#6 Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter
After years of tightly constructed, song-based albums, Mitchell let her muse spread out on the double LP Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. Songs like the experimental rhythms of ‘The Tenth World’ and the lengthy ‘Paprika Plains’ might not have made the cut for previous records, but they’re fascinating additions to her catalogue. Don Juan sometimes veers toward self-indulgence, but it’s a continuation of her 1970s excellence. Mitchell, drummer John Guerin, and bassist Jaco Pastorius are a strong core band. The strongest songs continue the sophisticated, jazzy excellence of Hejira – ‘Talk To Me’, ‘Off Night Back Street’, the title track, and ‘Dreamland’ are all excellent. Mitchell appears three times on the front cover – most infamously as her rumoured alter ego, a black hipster named “Art Noveau”.
#5 For The Roses
It hurts to rank For The Roses fifth – it’s the overlooked album from Mitchell’s 1970s peak. It’s an important step in her development, a leap in musical sophistication after the emotionally naked Blue. Songs like ‘The Blonde in the Bleachers’ are filled with complex chord changes. Several songs address Mitchell’s recent breakup with James Taylor – ‘Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire’ is written about Taylor’s heroin addiction, while the title track is about his growing fame. It’s her last record that’s relatively unadorned, with most tracks performed by Mitchell alone on piano or guitar. ‘Judgement of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig’s Tune)’ is a strong song that would have benefited from a fuller arrangement.
#4 The Hissing of Summer Lawns
Mitchell focused on texture on 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, a more eclectic record than anything she’d released previously. ‘The Jungle Line’ is built around a sample of Burundi drumming, while ‘Shadows and Light’ is filled with airy synthesizers. But the dominant mode of The Hissing of Summer Lawns is sumptuous, provocative ballads like ‘Shades of Scarlett Conquering’ and ‘The Boho Dance’. ‘Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow’ is my favourite song from Mitchell’s impressive catalogue, with its fluid bassline and its unique texture from a dobro and congas. Prince was a fan of Mitchell and was vocal in his admiration for The Hissing of Summer Lawns.
After splitting with drummer John Guerin, Mitchell embarked on a road trip. Hejira is a journal of her travels, documenting characters like the womanising ‘Coyote’ and veteran blues-man Furry Lewis. Hejira revolves around Mitchell’s guitar and Jaco Pastorius’s fretless bass. With the homogeneous and subtle sound, it’s the most insular album of her 1970s classics, but it’s filled with gorgeous songs like ‘Amelia’ and ‘Refuge of the Roads’.
Joni Mitchell’s early work was folk-based – 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon featured singalong numbers like ‘The Circle Game’ and ‘Big Yellow Taxi’. Blue is a direct and emotionally vulnerable album that diaries her relationships with fellow singer-songwriters Graham Nash and James Taylor. It’s often hailed as her masterpiece – other Mitchell albums are more sophisticated, and it’s most noteworthy for its emotional punch. Side two is the stronger with masterful songs like ‘A Case of You’ and ‘River’, and the intense paranoia of ‘This Flight Tonight’. Mitchell plays the Appalachian dulcimer on ‘Carey’ and ‘California’.
#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 arrangements and the melodies of Court and Spark are smooth, and the singles like ‘Free Man In Paris’ and ‘Help Me’ are among Mitchell’s most approachable songs. Despite the poppy sheen, there’s still depth – songs like ‘Car On The Hill’ and ‘Down To You’ are musically and emotionally sophisticated.
What’s your favourite Joni Mitchell album?