by Nicholas Tristan, Features Editor
19. Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm (1988)
God, I hate this album. Joni’s Geffen Records period is regarded well by some (Wild Things Run Fast is often considered fairly high in her canon, for instance), but I hate it. And I’m someone who likes people’s embarrassing 80s period, usually! The idea for Joni Mitchell to do a fucking duets album is so fundamentally far from her central appeal, but the choices for her duet performers are even more off-base: Don Henley? Who the fucked wanted that? Don’t bother.
18. Dog Eat Dog (1985)
We continue on with the tired, unappealing slog of Joni’s Geffen period. It’s not as actively loathsome as some Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm is, but we’re pretty far from the genius of her 70s period. While the album’s lyrics are often pointed and political, musically it goes from being a mixed bag to utterly awful. Pass.
17. Night Ride Home (1991)
Night Ride Home was hailed by most contemporary critics as a return for form for Joni when it was first released, but: eh. It’s certainly better than the two albums preceding it, with interesting songs like “Cherokee Louise” and the rumbling “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” populating the track listing. But sadly, the album is emblematic of Joni’s 90s years: competent, but wholly inessential.
16. Taming the Tiger (1998)
Made in response to the unexpected success of her restrained Turbulent Indigo, Taming the Tiger is more of the same: soft, gentle lyricism accompanying gorgeously engineered songs. If you ever wanted Joni Mitchell to be an adult contemporary artist, you got your wish. Of course, years later, she would perfect the form with Both Sides Now.
15. Shine (2007)
As of the writing of this article, Shine is Joni Mitchell’s final studio album. It’s a touching finale, loaded with the most original material since 1998’s Taming the Tiger. That being said, it’s not particularly good. The positive outweighs the negative, sure, but it’s hard to listen to Shine and not be struck by how the magic seemed to had left Joni’s songwriting by this point. There are some good cuts (“If I Had A Heart” and the title track), but overall it’s not one of the strongest entries in her canon.
14. Song to a Seagull (1968)
Mostly forgotten, Joni’s studio debut Song to a Seagull is classic 60s folk, with only a few flashes of the brilliance that would come to pass on her next record, Clouds. Produced by David Crosby, who was one of Joni’s largest boosters in her early years, Song to a Seagull showcases Joni Mitchell as an exciting new talent without her fully bursting out onto the scene. But she would.
13. Wild Things Run Fast (1982)
Joni peaked early during her Geffen years. While I’m not as jazzed on the record as other critics are, Wild Things Run Fast at least manages to entertain and rise above its dire 80s counterparts. The album, all chilly LA pop, does feature a few strong cuts: “Chinese Cafe”, “Be Cool”, and “You Dream Flat Tires”. The album was her first collaboration with bassist and producer Larry Klein (to whom she was also married for a time), and definitely marks the start of Mitchell’s decline, from which she never fully recovered.
12. Turbulent Indigo (1994)
Turbulent Indigo is a record with its passionate defenders and its haters, but beneath the controversy it’s mostly unremarkable. Despite a few good cuts (“Sex Kills”, “How Do You Stop?”, and “The Sire of Sorrow”), it’s another one of those “prestigious” 90s records, where a respected artist sings under lush production. The album also marked a bit of a commercial and critical comeback for Mitchell, who ended up winning a Grammy for Best Pop Album for the record.
11. Travelogue (2002)
Travelogue is the second of Joni Mitchell’s two collaborations with conductor, arranger, and orchestrator Vince Mendoza, and while it’s the weaker of the two it still manages to end up being strong overall. Mendoza writes big, really really big; his orchestrations take on near-Wagnerian proportions. While some songs definitely didn’t need the full treatment, others soar to new heights (“The Dawntreader”, from her debut Song to a Seagull, has never sounded so lovely). The new arrangements, accompanied by Mitchell’s lush, rich voice bring out new depth to old favorites. It’s hard to hear beautiful new renderings of “For The Roses”, “Amelia”, and “Hejira” and not feel deeply, profoundly moved.
10. Mingus (1979)
Joni Mitchell is one of America’s finest jazz singers, even if she only ever released two albums that could really qualify: 2000’s take on the standards album Both Sides Now, and the cagey, canny tribute album Mingus. If you haven’t guessed yet, Mingus is a collaboration with, and a tribute to, monumental jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus. Several of the songs are adaptations of previous Mingus compositions, given new lyrics by Mitchell: “A Chair in the Sky”, “Sweet Sucker Dance”, the excellent “Dry Cleaner from Des Moines” (with some phenomenal horn arrangements by Jaco Pastorius), and the classic “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”. Mingus isn’t a perfect album, short audio clips of Mingus hanging out with friends and family don’t enhance the album so much as bog it down, but Mingus is a fitting end to Mitchell’s brilliant 70s run: gorgeous, wild, experimental, and occasionally transcendent.
9. Clouds (1969)
Clouds is, in many ways, Mitchell’s proper debut. While there’s nothing wrong with 68’s Song to a Seagull, it’s conventional and workmanlike in a way that Clouds is not. Clouds produced several of Joni’s best known songs: “I Don’t Know Where I Stand”, “Chelsea Morning”, and of course “Both Sides Now”. The record feels alive and organic, Mitchell’s voice is a shrill at times but always finds the depth of the lyrics. Joni Mitchell would only improve as a musician, a singer, and a lyricist, but Clouds shows the beginning of her amazing journey.
8. Both Sides Now (2000)
Both Sides Now has the utterly bizarre distinction of being the best adult contemporary standards album ever made. No, really. An ostensible concept album that combines jazz standards with a couple of Joni’s old tunes, it tells a story of loss, of aging, and of deep sadness. It’s a tough listen at times, with Joni’s beautifully aged voice pouring out her deep, dark desires onto the record. In some ways, it’s the second act to Blue, but takes existing material and transforms it beautifully.
7. Ladies of the Canyon (1970)
A sophisticated record musically and lyrically, Ladies of the Canyon is the perfect follow up to the sweet, naive folk of Clouds. The album ends with as perfect a three song run as any artist has managed: “Big Yellow Taxi”, “Woodstock”, and “The Circle Game”. The three songs show how perfectly Joni can juggle cynicism, social commentary, optimism, oblique poetry, and beautiful literalism. Ladies of the Canyon is Joni’s arrival as a major lyrical and musical force, and it’s the undisputed beginning of her miraculous 1970s run.
6. Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977)
Yes yes, this is the album where Joni dons blackface on the cover. Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter is an oddity, but it’s a...goodity. It’s also a rarity in the world of modern music: a short double album. Joni Mitchell uses the double album format masterfully, to preserve “Paprika Plains” as an entire side. The album also puts forward some stone cold classics: “Otis and Marlena”, “Dreamland”, and the criminally underrated “Jericho”. The album also heralds the end of Joni’s perfect 70s run, with Mingus usually not being included as it’s a bit of a break from what preceded it. Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter manages to avoid being a messy double album, which is an impressive feat.
5. Hejira (1976)
Hejira is one of the most beautiful albums ever recorded, it’s is almost perfect. And here it is, at #5! Welcome to the brilliance of Joni Mitchell, folks. Hejira is Joni at her most poetic, her most introspective, and her most oblique. Not that the album is dour and joyless, “Coyote” is one of her groovier tunes, bolstered by the impeccable Jaco Pastorius on the bass. “Amelia” features some of Joni’s strongest lyric writing, intertwining Joni’s daydreams with Amelia Earhart: “Maybe I’ve never really loved, I guess that is the truth. I’ve spent my whole life, in clouds, at icy altitudes.” Damn, Joni.
4. For The Roses (1972)
Following the surprisingly massive success of 1971’s Blue, For The Roses landed with a bit of a thud. It takes Blue’s direct melancholy and wraps it up in a series of lyrically complex songs. Aside from “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio”, the album is full of oblique masterpieces, each one more challenging than the list. Thankfully, the album has aged incredibly well, and is today regarded as one of her most mature and deliberate records. Plus, she’s naked on the inside cover! That’s fun.
3. Court and Spark (1974)
Court and Spark, after all the years, remains the commercial peak for Joni Mitchell. After For the Roses’ disappointed, Joni Mitchell took time to write her most accessible, surprisingly rocking album. Inspired by the smooth rock sounds coming out of LA at the time, Joni created a masterpiece of musicality and form. “Help Me” and “Free Man In Paris” remain fan favorites, and lesser known tracks like “Raised on Robbery” and “People’s Parties” show off Mitchell’s exceptional range. Court and Spark is so good, so confident, that sometimes it’s hard to remember how exceptional it truly is.
2. Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975)
Upon its release in 1975, Rolling Stone gave the album half a star, and called it “the anthesis of music”. How blindingly wrong they were. The true beginning to Joni’s “jazzy period”, Hissing of Summer Lawns is a brilliant as it is bold. True, it lacked a marketable single (“In France They Kiss On Main Street” being the closest”), but the album’s strength comes in its consistency. Even Joni wailing over a blues standard, “Centerpiece”, becomes transcendent in the larger context of the record. The original Rolling Stone review fundamentally misunderstands the dynamics of the record: the harmonic richness of “Edith and the Kingpin” only enhances its gorgeous, Film Noir-tinged story, and the pulsating, pounding rhythms of “The Jungle Line” echo its savage poetry. The album is a masterpiece, start to finish.
1. Blue (1971)
“Blue songs are like tattoos.” I have spoken extensively about this record on my podcast Concepts, but my God: it’s flawless. The album is a concept album about being caught between worlds, about travel, about being grounded or about escaping, about loss. It’s as magnificent a thematic statement as any artist has ever made in the history of popular music. It’s also the perennial favorite breakup album, with Joni baring her raw emotions to create gorgeous, eminently listenable music. I could write an entire novel on Blue, so I’ll stop, but it’s perfect. If Joni Mitchell had recorded this one record, she still would have been one of the finest voices in modern folk.