Joni Mitchell's albums – ranked!

Joni Mitchell's albums – ranked!

Mitchell in 1968. Photograph: Jack Robinson/Getty Images

On the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, we celebrate the supernatural folk and bold jazz experimentation of the groundbreaking artist whose famous song captured the spirit of the festival – even though she didn’t go

by Kat Lister

Main image: Mitchell in 1968. Photograph: Jack Robinson/Getty Images

19. Dog Eat Dog (1985)

Joni Mitchell is a non-conformer – which is why this is such an uncomfortable listen. She is virtually unrecognisable here, subsumed by a homogenised 80s sound that leaves you pining for the astral lifelines of her earlier work.

18. Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm (1988)

It’s hard to get to grips with this one. Joined by guest artists Billy Idol, Tom Petty, Don Henley and Willie Nelson, this is very much a record of its era. And, like Dog Eat Dog, sounds unremarkable when compared with her other work.

17. Wild Things Run Fast (1982)

There are some things – such as Mitchell’s decision to jazzily segue into the Righteous Brothers’ Unchained Melody – that will remain for ever baffling. Is any Mitchell fan truly comfortable with her 80s output? That is a rhetorical question, of course – please don’t tweet me.

16. Turbulent Indigo (1994)

What begins promisingly (opening track Sunny Sunday is a reminder of her 70s work) soon disappoints with rhymes as basic as “And the oil spills / And sex kills.” That said, it won a Grammy for best pop album. Make of that what you will.

Mitchell in the early 70s.
Mitchell in the early 70s. Photograph: GAB Archive/Redferns

15. Both Sides Now (2000)

A sumptuous concept album that lacks, perhaps, her supernatural edge. There is a smoothness to Mitchell crooning standards that seems slightly at odds with the artist we know and love. That said, it is a pleasant listen and her reworking of the title track, which she first recorded on 1968’s Clouds, is a sage reclamation of a classic.

14. Taming the Tiger (1998)

The meandering melodies and layered voiceovers can be discombobulating. But there is enough lyrical reflection to keep the mega fans happy.

13. Mingus (1979)

If jazz – and, in particular, Joni’s jazz – is a challenge, this isn’t the album for you. Recorded in the months before Charles Mingus’s death, Mitchell’s 10th studio album is a total submersion. Pre-Mingus, Mitchell said she was just dipping her big toe into the lake of jazz. When she met the jazz giant, he pushed her in.

12. Night Ride Home (1991)

It may not be as compelling as Hejira, but there is still a lot here to admire. The percussive rhythms and jazz inflections are there – but the melodies are softer and her vocals are tender. More self-assured and at ease with where she is.

11. Shine (2007)

After the release of 2002’s Travelogue, Mitchell announced her retirement, only to return five years later with what many perceived to be a return to 70s form. Said to be inspired by environmental catastrophe and the Iraq war, Blue-era piano on its opening track, One Week Last Summer, gave fans exactly what they were waiting for.

10. Travelogue (2002)

Revisionist albums tend to fail miserably. Not this one – her orchestral reworking of her earlier classics soar with ascending strings and bittersweet tenderness. Stand-out tracks are Hejira and Amelia – stirring, soulful retellings of introspection and exploration that wash over you.

9. Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977)

Even compared with Hejira from the year before, this double album is a leap ahead in terms of abstraction and improvisation. And although not everyone is a jazzed-up Joni fan, it is impossible to listen to the epic Paprika Plains (all 16 minutes and 21 seconds of it) and not marvel at the breadth and scope of her ambitious transformation.

In the beginning … Mitchell, 1968.
In the beginning … Mitchell, 1968. Photograph: Jack Robinson/Getty Images

8. Song to a Seagull (1968)

Mitchell once remarked that her chords are depictions of emotions, that there is always a question mark to be found within them. To understand what she means, begin with her searing debut – a record that questions far more than it answers. The opening track, I Had a King, is an ethereal lament that depicts her disastrous marriage to Chuck Mitchell with devastating lyrical honesty. “I can’t go back there any more / You know my keys won’t fit the door,” she sings. “You know my thoughts don’t fit the man / They never can.”

7. For the Roses (1972)

You Turn Me On I’m A Radio was meant to be a sarcastic joke for her manager, David Geffen, who challenged her to write a hit. The joke was on Mitchell – it became her first top 40 hit in the US. Which aptly sums up this outing. It is a record that can’t quite let go of its classic folk roots, but features enough experimental jazz flourishes to remind us that this is a metamorphosing artist who won’t compromise. And she is on the move.

Hejira. Photograph: PR Handout

6. The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975)

Mitchell’s follow-up to Court and Spark might have received a bit of a kicking from Rolling Stone at the time of its release, but is now considered a classic. There is a reason why Prince referenced it as a major influence in the 80s. You can’t pin it down. Rejecting the traditional structure of her previous work, Mitchell continued to embrace a fuller band sound, exploring a wild and roaming jazz score that finally severed ties with her folk past. If you want a real adventure, check out Mitchell’s jarring synths and tribal drums on The Jungle Line. It doesn’t mess around.

5. Court and Spark (1974)

See-sawing between folk-rock and jazz experimentation, with a pop sensibility that soars, there is a driving power and momentum to Mitchell’s double platinum offering that sets it apart from her previous work. It is a confident and celebratory break-out. Yet, despite the melodic abandon, it is a record that still wrestles with core Mitchell themes: alienation and isolation; transient relationships; the need for love; the desire to escape. “We love our lovin’,” she sings on Help Me. “But not like we love our freedom.”

4. Ladies of the Canyon (1970)

Like her masterpiece, Blue, Mitchell’s third offering shows just how rich and luscious her piano-driven arrangements can be – mournfully played, yet always seeking the light. Equal parts forlorn and hopeful with Rainy Night House and For Free, its lilting title track is a glorious – and unashamedly romantic – tribute to the magical hillside of Hollywood’s Laurel Canyon. Oh, and there’s a little-known track called Woodstock thrown in there, too.

Mitchell in 2007 at the launch of her album Shine.
Mitchell in 2007 at the launch of her album Shine. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/WireImage

3. Hejira (1976)

This is definitely one for the road, evoking a hunger for movement, a sense of yearning and restlessness, that permeates every track. According to Mitchell, the album was written driving across the United States between Maine and Los Angeles. Amelia reflects upon the juxtaposition of concrete and skies after a break-up (an ode to the wild wings of Amelia Earhart – the urge to belong, the impulse to break free), whereas the album’s title track redirects us inwardly with the haunting, spine-tingling work of jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius.

Blue. Photograph: PR Handout

2. Clouds (1969)

Taut, sparse and exposed, listening to Clouds is a magical, immersive experience. Mitchell’s second studio album weaves a strange and off-kilter landscape with rippling guitars, hypnotic vocals and a mysticism you can’t quite define. It is worth noting that she produced nearly all of the album’s songs, roping in the guitar skills of Stephen Stills to add depth to the instrumentation. And although Clouds is best known for the hit songs Chelsea Morning and Both Sides Now, the lesser known Roses Blue and Tin Angel are spellbinding creations worth lingering on.

1. Blue (1971)

When Mitchell packed her bags and headed to Europe, she sent her lover, Graham Nash, a letter that read: “If you hold sand too tightly in your hands, it will run through your fingers.” A diaphanous line that painfully encapsulates the record she released the following year – a psychic masterpiece of melody, rhythm and lyricism that pulls us into Mitchell’s interior world using the urgent pulsations of an Appalachian dulcimer. Widely considered to be the greatest relationship record of all time (if not the greatest record of all time), Blue expresses a refined truthfulness that permanently etches itself on to the listener, to quote Mitchell, like a tattoo. “Ink on a pin / Underneath the skin,” she sings on the album’s title track. “An empty space to fill in.”

Quick guide

The best of 'Ranked!'