Joni Mitchell: favorite songs from each album

Joni Mitchell best albums

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JONI MITCHELL

As I’ve done before for Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Lou Reed, Stevie Wonder and Bonnie Raitt, I am currently sharing a song a day, on Facebook, from each Joni Mitchell album (in chronological order). I will be compiling the videos here, adding each one after it is posted online.

I will include tracks from some (but possibly not all) of Mitchell’s compilations and live albums.

I’m not making the argument that each selection is the “best” song from that album; it’s just my favorite, or something that I felt like sharing that day. I also won’t allow myself to choose a song twice, so if I have already chosen a song, it will be out of contention if it reappears in the same or different form on another album.

So here are the videos, along with an embedded Spotify playlist, at the bottom of the page, for all the songs. Enjoy!
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Mitchell released her debut album, Song to a Seagull, in 1968, with David Crosby, post-Byrds and pre-CSN, producing. In retrospect, “Cactus Tree” in particular seems like the perfect launching pad for Mitchell’s career, as she sings, beautifully, of a woman and various men whom “she thinks she loves.” But “they will lose her if they follow,” she sings of them: No matter what they do, “she’s so busy being free.” The title of the song only makes sense when you get to the end: In a perfect metaphor, her heart is “is full and hollow, like a cactus tree.”

Mitchell’s second album, 1969’s Clouds, contained signature songs “Both Sides, Now” and “Chelsea Morning,” but I’ll go with “I Don’t Know Where I Stand,” a complex, bittersweet love song where the singer seems to want to rush headlong into a relationship, but holds back, not sure if her feelings are being reciprocated.

Mitchell’s third album, Ladies of the Canyon (1970), included gems such as “Woodstock” and “The Circle Game,” as well as “Big Yellow Taxi,” a high-spirited and sometimes humorous (“They took all the trees, put ’em in a tree museum/And they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em”) protest song that has become one of her most-covered works.

Many Mitchell fans consider Blue (1971) her best album. I’m not one of them — I’d go with Court and Spark, by a mile — though I can’t deny the wide influence of Blue and the role it played in making singer-songwriter music one of the dominant genres of the ’70s. Here is “A Case of You.”

For the Roses (1972) combines the diary-like introspection of its predecessor, “Blue,” with hints of the jazzier approach that would surface on Mitchell’s next album, Court and Spark. It’s very serious in tone, though some playful lightness does sneak in via its hit single, “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio” (which lasts just two minutes and 39 seconds, with a surprisingly abrupt ending). Memorable couplet: “You don’t like weak women, you get bored so quick/And you don’t like strong women, ’cause they’re hip to your tricks.”

Court and Spark (1974) is, to me, the perfect storm of Joni Mitchell albums: Musically adventurous, lyrically evocative, catchy enough to grab you on first listen but deep enough, in countless ways, to make you want to replay it over and over. It also yielded the only Top 10 hit of her entire career, “Help Me.”

Mitchell’s 1974 double live album Miles of Aisles featured her both solo, and backed by the jazz-fusion band L.A. Express (saxophonist/clarinetist Tom Scott, guitarist Robben Ford, pianist Larry Nash, bassist Max Bennett, drummer John Guerin). Here they are taking “Woodstock” in a totally different direction from Mitchell’s previous solo version or the hit CSNY and Matthews Southern Comfort covers.

The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975) yielded just one minor hit, “In France They Kiss on Main Street,” but is widely considered one of Mitchell’s best. I particularly like “Harry’s House/Centerpiece,” an epic portrait of a doomed suburban marriage, with devastating lines such as “Battalions of paper-minded males talking commodities and sales/While at home their paper wives and paper kids/Paper the walls to keep their gut reactions hid.” Mitchell’s take on the jazz song “Centerpiece” (co-written by Harry Edison and Jon Hendricks) appears in the middle as a flashback to the early, now-lost passion of the couple’s marriage, with some sparkling piano playing by Joe Sample.

Hejira (1976) is a theme album about travel adventures. Its longest and, I think, most mesmerizing song is “Song for Sharon,” addressed to an old friend and full of memorable phrases (e.g., “There’s a wide, wide world of noble causes and lovely landscapes to discover/But all I really wanna do right now is find another lover”) and ethereally beautiful backing vocals overdubbed by Mitchell herself.

Mitchell’s 1977 double album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter ranks among her most experimental efforts, though it’s far from her strongest in the songwriting department. Her approach pays off on the beguiling, rhythmically compelling “Dreamland,” though, on which she is backed by jazz/world music percussionists Alex Acuña, Don Alias, Manolo Badrena and Airto Moreira, plus Jaco Pastorius on cowbell (instead of his usual bass) and guest vocalist Chaka Khan, with no other instrumentation.

Mitchell performed a three-song set with The Band at the group’s 1976 farewell concert at the Winterland in San Francisco, dubbed “The Last Waltz”: “Coyote” and “Furry Sings the Blues” (both from Mitchell’s then-new Hejira album) as well as “Shadows and Light.” Their mesmerizing performance of “Coyote,” a song that is widely believed to be about Mitchell’s affair with the playwright Sam Shepard, was included in the concert’s film and triple album, both released in 1978.

Mingus (1979) — on which Mitchell is joined by stellar musicians such as Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius and Herbie Hancock — featured songs written by Mitchell in tribute to jazz titan Charles Mingus (who died about five months before the album’s release) as well as songs featuring music by Mingus and lyrics by Mitchell. One of the latter is “A Chair in the Sky,” a free-form evocation of Mingus’ thoughts near the end of the life (the chair is his wheelchair) that manages to be both profound and playful. Mitchell sings: “Processions of missing lovers and friends/Fade in and they fade out again/In these daydreams of rebirth/I see myself, in style, raking in what I’m worth/Next time I’ll be bigger!/I’ll be better than ever!/I’ll be resurrected royal!/I’ll be rich as Standard Oil!”

Mitchell’s second live album, 1980’s Shadows and Light (a double album, like Miles of Aisles, released six years earlier), was recorded in 1979, when she was touring in support of her Mingus album. And it features her with an amazing jazz fusion band, including guitarist Pat Metheny, bassist Jaco Pastorius, drummer Don Alias, keyboardist Lyle Mays and saxophonist Michael Brecker. Check out Brecker in particular on this fast, bracing version of “Black Crow” (from Hejira), a song in which she compares herself to a ragged bird. “In search of love and music/My whole life has been illumination, corruption/And diving, diving, diving down to pick up on every shiny little thing,” she sings.

Wild Things Run Fast (1982) found Mitchell, after the challenging experimentation of her last two studio albums (Mingus and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter), going for a sleeker, more radio-friendly jazz-pop sound. She has said The Police in particular were an influence. The album didn’t yield any hits, but holds up well 40 (!) years later. Here’s “You Dream Flat Tires,” which features some duet vocals by Lionel Richie, who was just embarking on his solo career after leaving The Commodores.

Dog Eat Dog (1985) didn’t make much of an impact at the time, and hasn’t aged well. Working with several co-producers (including Thomas Dolby), Mitchell tries out a chilly electronic-pop sound and topical lyrics, doing neither particularly well. “Shiny Toys,” at least, is catchy and musically engaging, even though it falls flat as an attack on shallow consumerism.

Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm (1988), like the preceding Dog Eat Dog, found Mitchell trying her hand at a contemporary, highly produced sound, with mixed results. A high-profile, diverse parade of guest stars (including Peter Gabriel, Tom Petty, Billy Idol and Willie Nelson) fails to add much excitement to the project, though I do like “Snakes and Ladders,” a sweet-and-snarling attack on social climbing that features Don Henley on duet vocals.

The laid-back Night Ride Home (1991) features a stronger batch of songs than its two predecessors (Dog Eat Dog and Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm) but lacks the musical experimentation and soul-searching depths of Mitchell’s best work. Still, “Come In From the Cold” boasts a melody that ranks among her post-’70s best, and was a Top 40 hit in Canada (her last Top 40 hit anywhere).

“Not to Blame,” from 1994’s Turbulent Indigo, is a song about domestic abuse that got a lot of attention at the time because some people believed it was written about Jackson Browne. Mitchell denied it, saying “This is a song about batterers of women. It’s dumb to reduce the song to a portrait of an individual.” Anyway, it’s vividly written and passionately sung, with some great, mournful soprano sax playing by Wayne Shorter. A great line: “Six hundred thousand doctors/Are putting on rubber gloves/And they’re poking/At the miseries made of love.”

Mitchell anthologized her work for the first time in 1996, with two albums, Hits and Misses. The former contained her best known material; the latter, more obscure songs that hadn’t, in most cases, even been released as singles. Hits marked Mitchell’s first release, on an album, of “Urge for Going,” a gorgeous autumnal ballad that she wrote early in her career. It had been recorded by Tom Rush in 1966, and later covered by David Crosby & Graham Nash, but Mitchell had previously released it only as the B-side of “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio,” in 1972.

Mitchell’s forlorn love song “Man From Mars” first appeared in the 1996 movie “Grace of My Heart” and its soundtrack (with Kristen Vigard singing) but Mitchell released her own version on 1998’s Taming the Tiger, with a distinctively atmospheric arrangement.

The Chieftains’ 1999 album Tears of Stone featured a series of female guest vocalists, including Bonnie Raitt, Sinead O’Connor, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Mitchell, who was recruited to sing her own Ireland-set Turbulent Indigo song “The Magdalene Laundries” (with backing vocals by Screaming Orphans). The album is dominated by traditional material, and The Chieftains’ stately acoustic instrumentation makes Mitchell’s song fit right in.

There may have seemed to be a wise-beyond-her-years quality to Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” when she wrote it in her early 20s. But that made it a perfect song for her to re-record, with orchestral backing, on her 2000 album of the same name (devoted mostly to pop and jazz standards). When she sings a line like “I’ve looked at life from both sides now,” it’s poignant in a way her original recording couldn’t possibly be.

The triple album for the all-star 1976 concert “The Last Waltz” was released in 1978, but in 2002, The Last Waltz came out again as a four-CD boxed set, containing almost all of the music played in ’76. The boxed set included Mitchell’s entire three-song set: not just “Coyote,” which was on the triple album, but also “Shadows and Light” and “Furry Sings the Blues.” Neil Young plays harmonica on “Furry Sings the Blues,” just like he did on the song’s original release, on Hejira.

The double album Travelogue (2002) featured orchestral versions of songs from throughout Mitchell’s career. Few of these songs, honestly, are improved in the process. I did, though, enjoy the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the poetic and imaginative “The Dawntreader,” whose original incarnation was on her 1968 debut album, Song to a Seagull.

Herbie Hancock’s 2007 album River: The Joni Letters was a tribute, featuring contributions from Tina Turner, Norah Jones, Leonard Cohen and others, including Mitchell herself, who sang “Tea Leaf Prophecy,” from her 1988 album Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm. As he does throughout the album, Hancock leads a sharp quintet featuring Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Lionel Loueke on guitar, Dave Holland on bass and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums. The album won the Album of the Year Grammy in 2008, beating out releases by Kanye West, Foo Fighters, Amy Winehouse and Vince Gill.

A highlight of Mitchell’s last studio album, 2007’s Shine, was “Bad Dreams,” a delicate ballad with an uncompromisingly harsh environmental message. Mitchell sings:

Everyone’s a victim
Nobody’s hands are clean
There’s so very little left of wild Eden Earth
So near the jaws of our machines
We live in these electric scabs
These lesions once were lakes
No one knows how to shoulder the blame
Or learn from past mistakes

The 2009 two-CD set Amchitka documented a 1970 Greenpeace benefit concert that took place in Vancouver and featured Mitchell, James Taylor and Phil Ochs. Here is Mitchell in light-hearted mode, seguing (around the 2:10 mark) from her own “Big Yellow Taxi” to a rocking solo acoustic cover of Larry Williams’ 1957 hit, “Bony Moronie.” “It’s one of my favorite songs from those YMCA dances I used to go to, back in Saskatoon,” she says.

In 2020, Mitchell launched the “Joni Mitchell Project,” devoted to previously unreleased recordings from throughout her career. Among the 119 (!) tracks of the five-CD boxed set Joni Mitchell Archives — Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963–1967) were songs recorded in concert at the Canterbury House, Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1967. The Canterbury House songs were also released separately, on vinyl only, as a triple album, Live at Canterbury House — 1967. Here is one of the Canterbury songs: A luminous version of “Conversation,” which Mitchell would later record for her third album, Ladies of the Canyon, in 1970.

Joni Mitchell Archives — Vol. 2: The Reprise Years (1968–1971), released in November 2021, is a five-CD boxed set combining concert, TV and radio performances with demos and studio outtakes. Here is Mitchell singing James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes” with Taylor, at the Paris Theatre in London in 1970; the show was also broadcast on BBC Radio. Taylor, who released the song on his 1971 album Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, has said he wrote it about Mitchell when they were romantically involved in 1970.

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