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Joni Mitchell Albums From Worst To Best   Print

by James Jackson Toth
Stereogum
October 22, 2013

It might seem ludicrous to use the word "underappreciated" when discussing an artist with as many accomplishments and accolades as Joni Mitchell. In addition to having sold millions of albums, Mitchell is the recipient of eight Grammy awards among many nominations (as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002); she is also a Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inductee and a member of the Order Of Canada. She remains the default reference point for every unimaginative music critic confronted with any female vocalist not working within the genres of hip-hop or metal. But visit a college campus today and asked a random student to name five Joni Mitchell songs. Even if one of them could sing you the chorus of "Big Yellow Taxi" (covered by artists ranging from Amy Grant to Counting Crows and prominently sampled on Janet Jackson and Q-Tip's 1997 almost-hit "Got 'til It's Gone"), chances are pretty good they won't know it by name. You know... it's the one about the parking lot.

As a lyricist, Mitchell, at her best, holds her own against matchless wordsmiths like Dylan and Leonard Cohen, though she is rarely evoked in such conversations. She has ably produced and arranged most of her own richly idiosyncratic albums, but she is almost never name-checked alongside Brian Wilson or Quincy Jones as one of pop music's great arrangers. Given her improbable collaboration with curmudgeonly jazz legend Charles Mingus or her wholehearted embrace of nascent sampling technology as early as 1975, you'd expect she'd be credited as an intrepid musical daredevil on par with Neil Young and Lou Reed, but, again, no. Though Mitchell would claim, correctly, to have more in common with Schubert than any folk singer, in 1968, Rolling Stone condescendingly called her "the penny yellow blonde with a vanilla voice." The rippling effect of such faint praise has a way of damning even the most prestigious of pop stars.

We are speaking relatively, of course. After all, Joni Mitchell is a household name, which is more than you can say for Laura Nyro, Julie Driscoll, Rickie Lee Jones, or Judee Sill. But just as artists with appeal that initially seemed marginal or esoteric have with time been roundly and rightfully recognized for their trailblazing genius - Lou, Patti, Iggy - canonized artists like Mitchell are, perhaps as a result, often taken for granted, evoked but rarely celebrated. While informally polling some music-enthusiast friends of mine about this piece, no fewer than four admitted they weren't familiar enough with Mitchell's oeuvre to comfortably weigh in. Even rock-reverent publications like Mojo and Uncut, allies to cutting edge artists and dinosaur acts alike, have yet to publish a Joni Mitchell cover story.

Why is this? Well, negative connotations, for starters: Publicly, Mitchell can come off as pretentious and privileged, traits that occasionally spill over into, even pervade, her music. Note, for example, the forced, mirthless laughter at the end of "Big Yellow Taxi," a phony-sounding chortle one could easily imagine following Marie Antoinette's quip about the peasants and their cake.

Also, like Van Morrison, Mitchell frequently sounds intoxicated by her own genius, openly reveling in the meticulous perfection of her own creations; it's not hard to imagine music fans reared on the Ramones (or Green Day) bristling at what they might reasonably perceive as boomer megalomania. Add pompously setting Yeats poems to music, appearing in blackface, and publicly criticizing admitted disciples like Madonna and Alanis Morissette, and you're left with an artist than can be pretty difficult to defend. Q-Tip may have said it best: Joni Mitchell never lies.

We must also briefly acknowledge the elephant in the room: sexism. And while it is best to dispense with prosaic and idiotic discussions about Mitchell's place within some market-constructed canon of "female artists," to deny the unquestionable femininity of Mitchell's writing voice is to do the work an equally grave disservice. In her songs, Mitchell is never "one of the boys," nor is she the token beauty among the beasts; rather, her work exists as a deviation from an androcentric narrative perspective that persists among songwriters of both genders even to this day. This point of view has always seemed more natural than nurtured; there is little capital-f Feminism to be found in Mitchell's music, and yet, within these shrewd, unapologetic and passionate songs, she posits empowerment not as philosophy, but as self-evident truth. This cannot be overstated. For context, consider that when Mitchell released the ambitious Don Juan's Reckless Daughter in 1975, rock and roll had yet to experience riot grrl or even Lilith Fair; other albums released that year were titled Love Gun, Cat Scratch Fever, and Hard Again.

Attempting to codify the nineteen albums that make up Joni Mitchell's discography was difficult, and I submit this list not as any sort of authoritative final word, but as a primer for those looking for an entry point beyond the ubiquitous "Big Yellow Taxi" or "Woodstock." Despite the rankings, it is important to note that Mitchell's great work continues well beyond her extraordinary peak period between 1971 and 1979.

The Countdown begins here.

19. Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm (1988)

Peter Gabriel, Don Henley, Wendy & Lisa, Tom Petty, Willie Nelson, and Billy Idol. No, it isn't the starting lineup of the Farm Aid charity softball team. It's the list of guest stars on Joni Mitchell's 1988's Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm, released in the midst of her contract with Geffen and concomitant artistic nadir. The music of Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm never really catches fire, even with the more upbeat numbers sounding like a team of cyborgs wearily traipsing through the Dagobah System. While the album's melodies fail to leave much of an impression, the lyrics, as luck would have it, do not to follow suit. Mitchell uses these songs as a forum to bitterly sermonize like a political shadowboxer in the midst of a primal scream. On "The Reoccurring Dream," samples of disembodied, morally impoverished voices of television commercials sound as dated as the countless industrial bands who employed the same trick; taken out of context and presented without comment, these slogans are meant to be provocative, but the result is an Adbusters billboard masquerading as a song. The aggressively slick "My Secret Place," a duet with Gabriel, is as tacky as it is turgid. Worst of all is the pandering, war-whooping "Lakota," practically a minstrel piece. Albums padded with guest stars have historically indicated a paucity of ideas, but to Mitchell's credit, that is not the case here. On the contrary: Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm is full of ideas -- bad ones.

18. Both Sides Now (2000)

Ostensibly a concept album that uses preexisting songs (mostly covers) to tell the story of a love affair -- a commendably original idea -- Both Sides Now teams Mitchell with an orchestra conducted by Vince Mendoza. Conceptually, it's pretty neat: the album begins with songs dealing with initial attraction (the flirtatious puppy love of "You're My Thrill," the stirring "At Last") and ends with a song of resignation and hard-earned wisdom (Mitchell's own "Both Sides, Now"), bookending a suite of songs that ably reflects the emotional highs and lows in the life of a relationship. If only it were interesting to listen to. Mendoza's mawkish arrangements leave Mitchell sounding sluggish and senescent; his dull, languorous renderings highlight not the beauty in these songs, but the banality. Lacking both the canny experimentalism and the kinetic exuberance that makes Mitchell's original work so arresting, Both Sides Now becomes like an ornate theatrical prop: gussied up, but empty in the center.

17. Turbulent Indigo (1994)

Turbulent Indigo was pitched as Mitchell's comeback album. Technically speaking, this is accurate, marking as it does the conclusion of a brief hiatus. But the use of the word "comeback" as a euphemism granting Turbulent Indigo superiority over either Mitchell's previous or subsequent albums (Night Ride Home and Taming The Tiger, respectively) is highly suspect. The truth is that Turbulent Indigo is an unwelcoming album as opaque as the oil paint used on the Van Gogh-inspired pieces, painted by Mitchell, that adorn the booklet. By now, Mitchell's ability to write songs that detail moral or spiritual transformation is second nature, but her lyrics have grown cheerlessly polemical. While the political songs are mostly bluster and rage, almost everything else sounds vanquished and impersonal. Even the titles suggest a bleak worldview, with references to killings, sorrow, and lost last chances. Only during the populist "How Do You Stop" do the clouds part a bit, and it's revealing that it's the only song on the album not composed by Mitchell (P.S: it's also lousy). Turbulent Indigo inexplicably remains a fan favorite, and even claimed a Grammy for Best Pop Album of 1994. It would be three years before such a frosty, narcissistic album would again garner such undue praise.

16. Dog Eat Dog (1985)

Released to deservedly withering reviews upon its release in 1985, Dog Eat Dog finds Mitchell floundering. Like so many of her boomer contemporaries, Mitchell found the eighties especially unkind, and was not immune to the struggle of trying to remain relevant as a musical mass-cult embraced synths and MIDI en masse. On the Thomas Dolby-produced Dog Eat Dog, Mitchell duets with Michael McDonald on the saccharine "Good Friends" (actually one of the album's better songs), abides palm-muted guitar licks that sound like they were donated by White Lion or the BulletBoys, and nobly attempts to get with the program(ming), orchestra hits and all. But close listening reveals Mitchell's discomfort and unwillingness to fully embrace the plastic, homogenous sounds of the day; she often sounds unsteady and coerced. "Fuck it!" she sings on the unbearable "Tax Free," "Tonight I'm going dancing/ with the drag queens and the punks/ Big beat deliver me from this sanctimonious skunk." If only she'd allowed some of those colorful characters to wield some musical influence over this frigid, desultory album.

15. Shine (2007)

In 2002, Joni Mitchell announced her retirement, citing dissatisfaction with the music business (actually, she called it a "cesspool.") Five years later, Mitchell pulled a Jay-Z and announced that she wasn't retiring after all, and that she'd signed to Starbucks' in-house label Hear Music; Shine was the result of this unholy union. It would become Mitchell's best-selling album since Hejira, no doubt the result of impulse buys by boomers stopping off for a soy mocha latte between spa treatments and key parties. Beginning brazenly with the instrumental "One Week Last Summer," the serious-sounding album contains songs inspired by Kipling poems and Tennessee Williams plays; Mitchell has never exactly been a madcap, but rarely has she sounded more didactic. Still, even when it is lecturing about deregulated capitalism (it's bad), war (also bad), and pollution (she still prefer her apples the way nature intended, thank you very much), Shine is proof that Mitchell has lost none of her imagination: Several songs pit a delightfully incongruous pedal steel guitar against chamber jazz atmospheres and Mitchell's trademark percussive acoustic playing; it's as if Mitchell had heard her own "No Apologies" from 1998's Taming The Tiger and concluded, correctly, that her tendency toward musical pluralism is one of her most attractive assets. The zesty "If I Had A Heart" and the rich, spectral title track brim with the old Mitchell magic, while "This Place" may provide the single greatest distillation of Blue and the experiments produced in its wake. Mitchell's stern social commentary may become grating and tiresome over the course of the album's 47 minutes, but Shine is rarely dull. Tellingly, the album's only truly Olympian failure is an unforgivably lame cover of one of her own songs.

14. Wild Things Run Fast (1982)

Looking back at the eighties, it's hard not to feel some degree of sympathy for David Geffen. His brand new label, launched in 1980 following his dismissal from Warner Brothers, seemed cursed to inherit flagship 60s and 70s artists just as they were losing the plot (see Neil Young, John Lennon, Elton John). Joni Mitchell's run of albums on the label is mostly consistent with this hex: Of the four albums Mitchell released during her nine-year tenure with the label, only the last, 1991's Night Ride Home, could be considered in any way estimable. Mitchell's Geffen debut, 1982's Wild Things Run Fast isn't the worst of the batch, but it is frustratingly uneven, short on good ideas and long on cheerless diatribes and garish production choices. It is not, however, without a few gems: "Chinese Café" is a minor masterpiece, and one of Mitchell's most enchantingly autobiographical songs; it segues, cleverly, into "Unchained Melody." "Ladies Man," too, is worthwhile, with Mitchell proving that Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel weren't the only ones who knew their way around a Fairlight. Throughout, husband Larry Klein's flexuous, superhuman-sounding bass playing almost rivals former bassist Jaco Pastorius -- no small feat. Most of the album, however, finds Mitchell's reach uncharacteristically exceeding her grasp. At the time, Mitchell admitted to feeling a musical kinship with The Police, and Wild Things Run Fast does, in places, seem indebted to that band's particular brand of palpitant dub pop. But Mitchell has almost always been better served by inspirations existing outside, rather than inside, the musical realm. Affectation is beneath an artist like Mitchell, and Wild Things Run Fast proves this again and again; could the generic cock-rocking guitars heard on the title track and "You Dream Flat Tires," for instance, sound any more ridiculous? Wild Things Run Fast has its defenders, but this MOR identity crisis is best remembered not as a chapter in the Joni Mitchell story, but a footnote.

13. Travelogue (2002)

Joni Mitchell started smoking at age nine. "Everyone should be forced to smoke," she told biographer Michelle Mercer, citing cigarettes as "a focusing drug." Perhaps as a result, Mitchell's voice appears to gradually drop an entire octave over the course of her career, and it is fun to compare the pristine, bell-like instrument heard in early footage to the husky contralto that steers Travelogue, a double CD comprising orchestral arrangements of some of her greatest hits. In contrast to 2000's Both Sides Now, which found Mitchell covering her favorite songs in this manner (including two of her own), Travelogue is made up almost entirely of Mitchell's own compositions, and though few of its versions match the power of the original readings, they reflect Mitchell's view of her songs as living entities, subject to growth, expansion, and reassessment. Mitchell has never been confined by her arrangements: Compare the original recording of the tremulous "Woodstock" to the live versions found on 1974's Miles Of Aisles (bouncy enough to be a roller skating jam) and 1980's Shadows and Light (elastic, dreamlike), and then to the hypnotic, triumphal version heard here. Like Dylan, Mitchell's ability to completely and fearlessly transform a song is remarkable. Throughout Travelogue, Mitchell sings behind the beat like Sinatra, emphasizes lines she seems especially pleased with, and generally allows herself to revel in the tonal colors of the orchestra. It is a credit to the evergreen nature of these songs that, more often than not, they transcend arrangements that are occasionally, perhaps expectedly, gauche. No song is done a particular disservice by the airbrush treatment, and a handful of dark horses -- "Sex Kills," "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" -- are even improved by it. Mitchell's voice, however, has begun to fail her: Years of unchecked indulgence in a certain "focusing drug" have left her sounding slightly weathered, weary. As a result, songs like "The Circle Game" and "Refuge Of The Roads" begin to inadvertently function as memento mori; imagine if Marianne Faithfull had ended Broken English with a cover of "My Way."

12. Song To A Seagull (1968)

The naïve formalism of Joni Mitchell's debut album, Song To A Seagull, is easy to forgive in light of the string of masterpieces to come. In fact, despite its hopelessly dated folk sound, the album telegraphs many of the aesthetic and stylistic preoccupations that would go on to haunt the perimeters of every subsequent Joni Mitchell album. Consider that the album is tellingly divided not into "sides," but "parts," suggesting that Mitchell's affinity for conceptual frameworks was already well established. The lyrics, too, already portray her as more fatalist than fantastic, favoring narratives and firsthand accounts to metaphorical woolgathering. Mitchell has always written from the inside out, and not the other way around. Her songs caution that wisdom and enlightenment are hard-won rewards, and the attendant struggles to attain these cannot be expressed in empty rhetoric or platitudes. Think about it: Has there ever been a pop star less reliant on aphorisms? Still, Song To A Seagull is an album that's more enjoyable to discuss than to listen to. David Crosby's workmanlike production is thankfully inconspicuous, though his Hollywood hippie persona can certainly be heard cruising and thrumming beneath the surface on some of the better songs here, like the lulling "The Dawntreader" and the gorgeous, Sandy Denny-sounding "Sisotowbell Lane."

11. Mingus (1979)

"When an irresistible force such as you/ Meets an old immoveable object like me/ You can bet, as sure as you live: something's gotta give." These wise words were written by Johnny Mercer and sung by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Ella Fitzgerald, but they'd have made great ad copy to promote Mingus, an ambitious album that paired the hotheaded, brilliant, and notoriously difficult Charles Mingus with Joni Mitchell, no stranger to reading her name preceded by those same epithets. The idea was that Mitchell would add lyrics and vocal melodies to Mingus' arrangements, which he would write especially for the project. Unfortunately, Mingus died before the album could be completed, leaving Mitchell the unenviable task of not only having to finish the album herself, but to now also ensure that such an album would stand as a final work befitting a jazz legend. Luckily, Mingus is an appropriate farewell: Despite the odds, the album does the ungentle giant justice. Lester Young tribute "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," the only Mingus piece whose writing predates the album, is as sinewy and sinuous as Mingus's most accomplished work; the razzing "God Must Be A Boogie Man" is irresistible fun; the eerie and experimental "The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey" finds Mitchell pawing at her acoustic guitar, which rings dissonantly, while wolves cry in the background. Loop thirty seconds of this and release it on cassette and you might even fool a noise dude. Best of all is the reading of Mingus' "A Chair In The Sky," which fuses lush ECM-isms to Mitchell's adventuring vocal lines that climb, dive and flutter like any great saxophone solo. The band is mostly made up of members of Weather Report, including Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Don Alias, Peter Erskine and Jaco Pastorius, the latter of whom proves to be an ideal, if daring choice; after all, Pastorius may have been the only bassist more arrogant that Mingus himself! Interspersed between the songs are several "raps," but if you're expecting MC Wayne Shorter to grab the mic and drop science, prepare to be disappointed. Rather, these raps comprise conversation snippets, informal group singing, and jive-y studio patter; as such, they coincidentally predict at least one future hip-hop trend: the interlude. In one such rap, Mingus even casually discusses his funeral, foreshadowing Biggie's morbid (and unfortunately accurate) soothsaying on Ready To Die. Unfairly dismissed as a noble but failed experiment, Mingus is, on the contrary, a rather exceptional and rare kind of success, one that reflects the unique qualities of its two dominant voices in widescreen Technicolor; this music is as strange, brilliant, flawed and irascible as its principle creators. With all due respect to Wise Up Ghost, Mingus remains one of pop music's most rewarding unlikely collaborations.

10. Clouds (1969)

Mitchell's second album was a major leap forward, with a new emphasis on rhythm, sophisticated arrangements, elaborate harmonies and complex, unusual chord voicings. In other words, the "Joni Mitchell sound" as we know it begins here. The strident "Chelsea Morning," written prior to the recording of her first album, was a hit for Judy Collins, but Mitchell's version laps it, dispensing with Collins' dreamlike interpretation and replacing it with a taut, confident gallop. Elsewhere, Mitchell's liquid phrasing on songs like "I Don't Know Where I Stand" and the "The Fiddle And The Drum" is artful and effortless. The album concludes with the magnificent "Both Sides, Now," still one of Mitchell's finest songs. The argument has been made that the subject matter of "Both Sides, Now" would have been more convincing sung by a woman at least twice Mitchell's age (judge for yourself), but I'd suggest it is Mitchell's youth (she was 24 at the time) that makes this world-weary song about independence, choices, and a resignation to "life's illusions" all the more striking. The beauty of this original version lies in the same precocious wisdom that more than one critic has confused with conceit: its youthful narrator isn't showing off, but merely beginning, cautiously, to grow up.

09. Night Ride Home (1991)

Night Ride Home begins with the sound of crickets and Mitchell likening a Hawaiian dusk to a surrealist Fourth of July. It's a beautiful start to one of Mitchell's most empathetic and assured latter-day entries. It also captures Mitchell in particularly fine songwriting form: "Cherokee Louise" takes a distressing tale of child abuse and renders it sharp, vivid and beautiful; the elegant "Come In From The Cold" features one of Mitchell's most striking vocal performances; and "Passion Play (When The Slaves Run Free)" and "Two Grey Rooms" almost reach the vaunted peaks of Hejira for atmosphere and ethereal complexity. Night Ride Home isn't perfect -- "The Windfall (Everything For Nothing)" is petty, and "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," on which Mitchell pretentiously sets a Yeats poem to music, overreaches -- but it's Mitchell's last truly great album before settling into a career of comfortable elder statesmanship, a career which, based on albums like Night Ride Home, she has more than earned.

08. Ladies Of The Canyon (1970)

In her songs, Mitchell can be caustic, even accusatory, but to her credit, she has never spared herself these same biting critiques. On Hejira's "Furry Sings The Blues," she valorized bluesman Furry Lewis while poking fun at her own lame, ignorant whiteness; on The Hissing Of Summer Lawns' "Edith And The Kingpin," she ridiculed Bohemia's bourgeois gentilhomme while acknowledging that the very vantage point that allows her to do so belies her place within their ranks. The recurring theme of complicity and guilt about her own fame and fortune is first explored on "For Free," one of many excellent songs on Mitchell's third album, Ladies Of The Canyon. The lyrics find Mitchell briefly ignoring her to-do list -- shopping for jewels and sleeping in her fancy hotel room -- long enough to sanctify the clarinet-playing guttersnipe on the corner "playing real good, for free." The painfully earnest "The Circle Game," a rebuttal to fellow Canadian Neil Young's "Sugar Mountain," is doused in the harmonies of friends Crosby, Still and Nash, and, like most of Ladies of the Canyon, the song bears their mark. Elsewhere, "Willie" is an uncharacteristically light ode to then-boyfriend Nash, while the Gaia-crazed "Big Yellow Taxi" foregrounds the sort of probing, percussive acoustic guitar thwacking that would soon become a Mitchell trademark. The album's greatest song is the crepuscular "Woodstock," a secondhand dispatch (Mitchell wasn't at the festival) abetted by a haunting Wurlitzer piano and eerie, resounding harmony vocals. Time has not diminished the grandeur of this great song, nor rendered it any less riveting.

07. Taming The Tiger (1998)

Taming The Tiger would be Mitchell's last album of original material until 2007's Shine; in between, Mitchell's albums would rework previously released material and interpret the songs of other songwriters. Released in the wake of a renewed interest in Mitchell's music following the confounding success of Turbulent Indigo four years earlier, Taming The Tiger is that album's exact opposite; it is a record so wide open and capacious, it seems to defy gravity. Previous flirtations with nascent digital technology made Mitchell sound outmoded and alienated, but here, Mitchell sounds very much at home inside the glossy sheen of digitally processed sounds. Everything about Taming The Tiger is layered and lush: guitars seem to exhale spindrifts beneath Mitchell's voice, while gauzy piano lines chart their ballet-like melodies in shadowy charcoal. Closing instrumental "Tiger Bones" recalls nothing so much as the Durutti Column, while Greg Leisz's reverb-thick pedal steel on "No Apologies" should satisfy Baeleric-minded Krautrockers looking to relax after a hard day's motorik. This mood is maintained throughout, and the spell of icy, immaculate ambience never breaks. This does result in the songs themselves getting occasionally subsumed by the undertow, but this small complaint can be assuaged by repeat listens, during which melodies begin to grow bolder, eventually becoming indelible. Taming The Tiger shares its spectral qualities with other growers like Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden, Arthur Russell's World of Echo, and, more recently, Destroyer's Your Blues. Like these, Taming The Tiger demands patience, but rewards it, too; it's a taste worth acquiring.

06. Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (1977)

Among trivia-crazed music fans, there are few arguments more predictable or exhausting than the revisionist claim that a band's double album would have been better as a single. I won't argue the merits of double albums in general here, but I will submit Joni Mitchell's Don Juan's Reckless Daughter as one of the great ones, because it does what double albums are supposed to do: it overwhelms. The album was not well received; in fact, record store lore has it that Don Juan's Reckless Daughter is the most "returned" LP of all time. The album's gatefold cover features a photomontage of Mitchell in various disguises, including a character she calls Art Nouveau, portrayed in blackface. There is one song that lasts an entire side, and another that features only indigenous-sounding percussion and vocals. Am I selling you on this yet? Stick it out and Don Juan's Reckless Daughter's lofty ambitions bear fruit: the songs that initially sound the most abstruse and difficult are the ones that will eventually win you over. By now, Mitchell's previous dalliances with jazz have bloomed into full-blown romance, and the result is, like Hejira before it, a kind of aggregated post-jazz, abetted by such heavy talents as Wayne Shorter and Larry Carlton. From the luminous and dizzying "Cotton Avenue" to the loose and breezy "Jericho" and the growling and grumbling "Off Night Backstreet," each piece is filigreed with a subtlety and nuance rarely found in rock music. "Paprika Plains" uses the entirety of side two to relay a story that may or may not have to do with nuclear war, alcoholism, or the plight of Native Americans. As it unfurls, we are sent spinning, as if on a theme park ride, through multiple sections encompassing jazz fusion, orchestral bombast, and freeform piano ruminations. Like many sprawling double albums, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter revels in its untidiness. It's the sound of Mitchell expressing herself with verve, poise, and, above all, joy. In the past, Mitchell's grandiloquence has always suggested a poverty-stricken sense of humor, but here, she's uproarious: "I didn't know I drank such a lot/ Till I pissed a tequila-anaconda." Only a killjoy would deny her such excesses.

05. For The Roses (1972)

Challenged by her friend David Geffen to write a hit song, Mitchell turned in a glossy bit of pop confection called "You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio"; far worse things have resulted from dares. Though blatantly commercial and not well regarded by Joni diehards, the song is a fitting microcosm for For The Roses, an album that showcases Mitchell's growing strengths as a melodist and architect of unpredictable, byzantine arrangements. The real feat of For The Roses, however, is in how its sophisticated time signatures and lilting, acrobatic melodies become imprinted on the psyche despite their intricacy. Elsewhere, the ominous "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" (which boasts an actual, bonafide guitar riff!), with its knotty acoustic guitars and jutting polyrhythms, sounds like Big Sur's answer to Pentangle, while the stately "Banquet" and the melancholy "See You Sometime" retain some of the torch song tendencies of Blue. For The Roses sits between two masterpieces, and, as a result, tends to get overlooked.

04. Court and Spark (1974)

Reminiscent of the arch Sophist pop of Steely Dan or their English equivalent 10cc, Court and Spark is a dense, elaborately constructed suite of songs whose breezy, sun-dazed arrangements belie the album's predominant theme of liberation at any cost. No escape route is unconsidered, with everything from sex to suicide presented as viable ports in a gathering storm. The album's copious background vocals, woodwinds, and saxophones courtesy of Mitchell's jazzy new backing band the LA Express might have endeared its single, "Help Me," to Easy Listening stations (it would become Mitchell's only top ten hit) but the song's lyrics are hardly elevator-appropriate. Critic Jon Landau wrote of Court and Spark that "the freer [Mitchell] becomes, the more unhappy she finds herself," and many of the themes of Court and Spark would seem to confirm this. The Woodstock generation's imperative was "if it feels good, do it!" but a half decade later, Mitchell's quizzing of a lover who's just danced with a lady "with a hole in her stocking" reads as judgmental and jealous: "Didn't it feel good?/ Didn't it feel good?" Themes of freedom and its complications continue on "Free Man In Paris," about a man (David Geffen) who feels "unfettered and alive" but spends an inordinate amount of time listing the things that prevent him from being so; you get the feeling Mitchell is pointing out that perhaps the overworked mogul doth protest too much. Elsewhere, the darkly captivating "Car On A Hill" details a black evening that followed being stood up by none other than James Taylor, while the funky "Raised On Robbery" details the life of a barfly prostitute with daddy issues. The album's glinting, lustrous arrangements imbue each deceptively doleful song with a vibrant, dreamlike aura comparable to little else in Mitchell's catalog -- or anyone else's.

03. The Hissing Of Summer Lawns (1975)

By 1975, a distinct strain of disenchantment had become a recurring theme in Mitchell's work. Only four years earlier, she sang "They won't give peace a chance/ that was just a dream some of us had," but this disillusionment is crystallized on 1975's The Hissing of Summer Lawns, an album that attempts to reconcile the Joni Mitchell of Ladies Of The Canyon with a character that is decidedly more vengeful, critical, and needle-sharp. "The Boho Dance" cynically considers the trappings of bourgeois cooptation, while "Edith And The Kingpin" follows a Luciferian lothario who seduces both disco dancers and plainclothes police alike, and whose women "grow old too soon." The latter song's lyrics are Fagan-worthy ("Sophomore jive/ from victims of typewriters/ the band sounds like typewriters") while a captivating arrangement contains delicate, almost imperceptible variations, like a jazz standard broken down into molecules and reassembled into strange new shapes. Even better is "The Jungle Line," a song that brilliantly manages to use a work by enigmatic post-Impressionist painter Henri Rousseau to describe the trappings of highbrow white Bohemia, ridiculing jazzbo affectations while conceding an attraction to the irresistible, exotic quasi-primitivism that inspires them. The ekphrasis alone is commendable enough -- there are not nearly enough songs inspired by paintings -- but it is the music of "The Jungle Line" that really stuns. Mostly comprised of a clipped, heavily distorted sample of Burundi drumming, some field recordings, and the sort of thick, funky Moog that wouldn't have sounded out of place on The Chronic, "The Jungle Line" still sounds ahead of its time, blending jazz, musique concrete and what would soon unimaginatively become known as "world music" (the song beats My Life In The Bush of Ghosts by six years, Graceland by eleven). Experimental, funky, and sophisticated, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns is the ideal gateway drug for any music fan that still insists on associating Mitchell with capos and coffeehouses.

02. Blue (1971)

"We had to lock the doors to make [Blue]," Joni Mitchell is quoted saying in Sheila Weller's Girls Like Us. "Nobody was allowed in. If you looked at me, I would weep." Though Mitchell has, throughout her career, assiduously and vehemently rejected the use of the term "confessional" to describe her songwriting, these naked, seemingly autobiographical odes to love and disillusionment have been inspiring over-sharers with pianos ever since. The buoyant and soulful "Carey" was written about Cary Raditz, a stern and adamantine cave-dweller who romanced Mitchell during her time spent slumming with a hippie cult in the Greek village of Matala; the song is, along with "My Old Man," one of the few on Blue to heedlessly celebrate a love affair despite its imperfections. But Raditz was not the only inspiration discovered on Mitchell's European adventures, nor was he the only one that would become immortalized on Blue: somewhere along the way Mitchell purchased an Appalachian dulcimer, a lithe, meek sounding instrument that would foreground many of the album's songs. On "River," Mitchell bemoans a California Christmas, and a "crazy scene" from which she desperately wants to retreat. The performance is masterful; you can almost see the frost misting over the piano keys, emitting icy vapor with each hammered strike. The roving "A Case Of You" was reportedly written about Leonard Cohen, and its amphibological title is merely the tip of an ambiguous iceberg: When Mitchell likens the subject to liquid -- "I could drink a case of you/ and still be on my feet" -- is it a come-on or an insult? Blue is full of such magnificent moments; it is the rare album that, like a philosophical epiphany or some pivotal life event, contains the power to change the way you experience the living world. It is no coincidence it remains Mitchell's most beloved, revered and enduring album.

01. Hejira (1976)

Following her romantic split with jazz drummer John Guerin, Mitchell took a head-clearing road trip and began writing the album that would be called Hejira. Tellingly, its Arabic-derived title translates to a verb meaning "to run away honorably" or, more specifically, Mohammad's flight from the danger of Mecca, where he was to be assassinated, to the safety of Medina. This bold, and brilliant album daringly re-contextualizes disparate elements -- jazz, poetry, ambient, folk -- in real time; the result is fusion not in the traditional sense, but more literally defined, perhaps closer to the way we might now apply the word to cuisine. Then there's Jaco. Tales of legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius's ritual of lubricating his fingers with fried chicken grease are probably apocryphal, but listening to his playing on Hejira, which sounds less like an electric bass than the groaning, growling accompaniment of a singing whale, you almost begin to smell the Extra Crispy. No wonder Pastorius, who played by ear rather than using charts, spoiled Mitchell for other bassists: on the evidence of Hejira, the two were born to play together. Jaco's visceral, melodic lines purr at each high-wire vocal melody, lending these songs of escape and insignificance both their counterpoint and their crucial tension; they're practically duets. The rest of the albums hangs together by soft threads that seem to float in some alien, borderless, narcotic space all its own. It's telling that though Jaco appears on only four of Hejira's nine songs, his presence is felt even during those on which he does not appear. As for the songs themselves, they are each, in their own way, perfect. "Amelia" begins with Mitchell likening six plumes of jet engine smoke to the strings on her guitar, an observation that leads her to compare herself to the doomed pilot of its title, who, like Mitchell, is vexed by the unrealized promise of salvation -- a "false alarm." On the jazzy "Blue Motel Room," Mitchell is charming as she proposes armistice, likening a cold lover to the Cold War. Hejira's songs may appear, at first, to lack structure, but in fact it is only Mitchell's disregard for conventional structure that allows these carefully constructed modal meditations to exist. Note how the title track modulates back and forth between the keys of B and D major, never settling on one, or how "Black Crow" and "Furry Sings The Blues" place single-line refrains where a chorus might be expected. Everything is by design; like Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Hejira's greatest success is its ability to sound like improvisation when it is anything but. The album culminates with the throbbing, exquisite "Refuge Of The Roads," a song that contains some of the most personal and beautiful poetry to ever spill from Mitchell's pen: "In a highway service station/ over the month of June/ was a photograph of the Earth/ taken coming back from the moon/ And you couldn't see a city/ or that marbled bowling ball/ or a forest of a highway/ or me here least of all." These are songs that prove that solitude needn't succumb to isolation; that aloneness does not always mean loneliness. As with Blue, to reduce Hejira to a mere collection of songs defeats its purpose. If there's ever been an album that demanded to be heard as a complete work of art on its own terms, it is Hejira; not a day goes by that I'm not glad it exists.

 

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