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Best Joni Mitchell Albums: 10 Essential Records That Redrew The Boundaries For Songwriting
Philippe Gras / Le Pictorium
List & Guides

Best Joni Mitchell Albums: 10 Essential Records That Redrew The Boundaries For Songwriting

The best Joni Mitchell albums chart not only their creator’s artistic journey, but also the development of songwriting as an art form.

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There’s no question that Joni Mitchell is an albums artist. Though she has enjoyed some success with singles, notably Big Yellow Taxi and Help Me, it’s the longer form where her complicated ideas can fully breathe. Both lyrically and musically, Mitchell’s music offers challenges; yet she still channels enormous warmth that draws worldwide devoted audiences. As the best Joni Mitchell albums prove, she can be accessible and mind-bendingly difficult; she can be pared-back and multi-layered; she can be folk, rock, jazz and every waypoint between.

“People thought that it was too intimate,” Mitchell said in 2022, in conversation with Elton John. She was looking back at her earlier albums and how she was viewed. “I think it upset the male singer-songwriters,” she continued. “I think it made people nervous.”

Mitchell has never worried about making people nervous. She revels in unexpected – and even uncomfortable – listening experiences. “I thrive on change,” she once said. “That’s probably why my chord changes are weird, because chords depict emotions. They’ll be going along on one key and I’ll drop off a cliff, and suddenly they will go into a whole other key signature. That will drive some people crazy, but that’s how my life is.”

Here, then, are the best Joni Mitchell albums – records that track those changes, and which cement their creator’s place among the best songwriters of all time.

Listen to the best of Joni Mitchell here, and check out our best Joni Mitchell albums, below.

10: ‘Song To A Seagull’ (1968)

A folk album from someone who resented being called a folk singer, Song To A Seagull was Mitchell’s assured debut. She was already an experienced songwriter and performer by the time of the album’s release, and on Song To A Seagull she is tugging at the frayed edges of folk music. She has described the album as “scratched, like an old silent movie negative”.

Lyrically, though not as complex as subsequent entries among the best Joni Mitchell albums, there is already a questioning, deep quality to her work; relationships are represented in nuanced and often confrontational terms. The original 1968 release of Song To A Seagull was, however, plagued by bad luck, with production work by an inexperienced David Crosby flattening out its sound, and poor cropping of the artwork obscuring the title. However, 2021 saw a Mitchell-approved remaster, and the foundation stone for one of music’s most complex mavericks can now be heard in its original vision.

Must hear: Cactus Tree

9: ‘Shine’ (2007)

With 2002’s Travelogue – orchestral re-recordings of some of the best Joni Mitchell songs – Mitchell announced she would release no further new material. Plagued by health issues and disillusioned with the music industry, she returned to painting (her first love), and fans got used to basking in her incredible back catalogue. But, five years later, Mitchell surprised everybody when she returned with Shine, a truly great album that meditates on the state of the world.

“One day I was sitting staring out to sea at my house in Canada and just feeling so grateful to have such a beautiful place,” Mitchell said in 2007. “I ran in and I played this piece on the piano which is the first cut on the album.” Further songs followed, some inspired by contemporary conflicts such as Iraq, others by the climate crisis. The gravity of the themes is reflected in the minimalist approach to the music, which also features guest appearances from singer-songwriter James Taylor and bassist and Mitchell’s former husband Larry Klein.

Must hear: Hana

8: ‘Turbulent Indigo’ (1994)

Many of Joni Mitchell’s own paintings were used as album covers, and with a framed self-portrait of herself as Van Gogh on the sleeve, Turbulent Indigo is the finest album of Mitchell’s later recording career. It came from a place of anger and dissatisfaction; the record features a lot of barely-suppressed rage that had only featured briefly before (such as on 1972’s Woman Of Heart And Mind). There’s a nihilism, almost, to this entry among the best Joni Mitchell albums; there’s dark matter of domestic abuse and the lack of justice in life. Mitchell also felt that, as an older artist in an industry focused on youth, her current work wasn’t being taken seriously in the way her younger work had been, and this frustration also permeates the album.

By this point, Mitchell’s voice had decisively altered, too. She was no longer someone who could “sing soprano in the upstairs choir” (a lyric from Rainy Night House, on the Ladies Of The Canyon album). Mitchell’s lower tones, which suited the material on this album, were the result of decades of cigarettes and a blasé attitude to her own health. “She was just incorrigible when it came to taking care of herself on the road,” said Larry Klein. “Knowing that she had a tough time going to sleep every night, she would still drink cappuccino after the gigs, and of course was smoking from the moment that she woke up to the moment that she fell asleep.”

Must hear: Sex Kills

7: ‘Ladies Of The Canyon’ (1970)

An underrated aspect of Joni Mitchell’s artistry is how skilled she is at evoking place and environment. Later in the 70s, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns would conjure images of a dystopian Los Angeles, but on this earlier album (Mitchell’s third) she was more celebratory of her then homestead: LA’s Laurel Canyon.

Containing three of her best-known songs (Big Yellow Taxi, The Circle Game and Woodstock), Ladies Of The Canyon is probably the most commercial the best Joni Mitchell albums ever got. It also finds Mitchell in her most big-hearted mood, with tributes to her neighbours on the title track; the belief in people-power on Woodstock; the optimism of Morning Morgantown; and, of course, the pioneering ecological anthem Big Yellow Taxi.

Must hear: The Priest

6: ‘Court And Spark’ (1974)

Released at the start of 1974, the Court And Spark album caught a moment in time. It walked a delicate balance between folk, soft rock and jazz; almost accidentally, Mitchell had made a zeitgeist record, and it was her biggest seller up to that point. Moving decisively away from the intimacy of 1971’s Blue and the hard emotional injustices of that record’s follow-up, For The Roses, Court And Spark was bigger and mellower than both of them. Its expansive vision is realised by a wide variety of crack LA musicians, many of whom had jazz chops, which was starting to become a serious Mitchell interest.

At the time, Mitchell said that Court And Spark was an emotional release for her. Coming through a period of difficult mental health, she said in 1974 that, “Yes, it has to do with my experiences. I feel I want to go in all directions right now, like a mad thing.” Easily sitting among the best Joni Mitchell albums, this record, with its dizzying range of styles, from the light-hearted to the intensely earnest, finds that whirligig in full flow.

Must hear: People’s Parties

5: ‘Mingus’ (1979)

Ending the 70s is Joni Mitchell’s most unusual collaboration, and the final album of her most audaciously experimental period. One of the greatest jazz musicians in history, bassist Charles Mingus had instigated the partnership, and though Mitchell was flattered at being asked to work with him, she was initially unsure whether this musical relationship would work. The project had a particularly tough theme, too: exploring the jazz icon’s state of mind at the end of his life. She stated in the sleevenotes to the Mingus album that it was “a difficult but challenging project” on which she “was trying to please Charlie and still be true to myself.”

Just as Mitchell predicted, the relationship was stormy at points, Mitchell resisting certain directions Mingus wanted to take her in. Yet both persisted and the result was elegiac, lyrically unusual, with spoken-word “rap” segments that directly include Mingus’s voice. Mingus became the last album that Charles Mingus worked on (he died five months prior to its release) and also became one of the most spectacular sonic explorations among the best Joni Michell albums.

Must hear: A Chair In The Sky

4: ‘The Hissing Of Summer Lawns’ (1975)

The Hissing Of Summer Lawns is Mitchell’s take on bloated, monied LA culture. Released just as rock music was becoming radio-friendly (and when many previous folk rebels were smoothing out their sounds for airplay), Mitchell casts a cynical eye on how this commercialism can become a prison. Dubbed “dark yacht rock”, the album spotlights the weeds shooting up under those carefully manicured lawns.

It followed the huge-selling Court And Spark, yet sounds very little like its predecessor. Mitchell knew she was sabotaging her own potential sales with The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, both in its lyrical content and in the more challenging musical styles she employs (including an early form of sampling, on The Jungle Line). She openly talked of “moving away from the hit department to the art department”. And she never went back.

Must hear: Harry’s House/Centrepiece

3: ‘Blue’ (1971)

Blue, Joni Mitchell’s most obviously confessional album, was written in harsh personal circumstances. “We had to close the doors and lock them while I recorded [Blue], because I was in a state of mind that in this culture would be called a nervous breakdown,” she said in 1996. The album is, emotionally, a tough listen. Mitchell never encourages you to feel pity for her (“I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad,” she confesses on River), yet her longings, whether for romantic relationships, for home, or for the daughter she gave up for adoption (on Little Green) are all too human.

Musically, the album introduced new elements to Mitchell’s sonic palette. May of its songs were written on a mountain dulcimer, which Mitchell had bought at the 1969 Big Sur Folk Festival. Blue is also the sound of Mitchell’s piano, which had grown from tentative experimentation, on Song To A Seagull, into a profound vehicle for her art only a few short years later. One of the best Joni Mitchell albums of any era, Blue highlighted Mitchell’s restlessness – a quality that would soon be supercharged as the 70s ticked on.

Must hear: The Last Time I Saw Richard

2: ‘Clouds’ (1969)

Mitchell’s second album, and her first as a truly confident artist, Clouds was named after the recurring metaphor in the song Both Sides, Now: things that get in the way, things you project dreams on to, things you have to understand from different perspectives and, ultimately, a stop on the journey to wisdom. All of these things could be said of Mitchell’s narratives on this record. Nothing is simple here, and there is danger in a single story. Clouds is sadder than her first record, despite the glee of its classic opener, Chelsea Morning.

Released at the end of the 60s, it also captures the tense mood in North America at the time and anticipates the failures of hippie idealism. Fragile mental health, Vietnam, the difficulties of romantic relationships in a superficial world – all are covered by Mitchell’s unforgiving lyrics, which exemplify her status as one of the truly gifted songwriters whose work also stands as poetry. Clouds was also a landmark in terms of Mitchell’s artistic control. After an unhappy experience with production on her first album, and a false start with a house producer on this record, Mitchell took charge of production herself, setting the foundations for all of her future projects. “A producer is a babysitter if you don’t know what you’re doing,” Mitchell has said. “A producer is an interior decorator. I decorated my own house. I don’t need a decorator.”

Must hear: The Gallery

1: ‘Hejira’ (1976)

“To me, the whole Hejira album was really inspired,” Mitchell said in 2019, of the release that tops this list of the best Joni Mitchell albums. She believes that no one else alive could have written the songs on Hejira, and she is right.

Written at a time of great personal and practical flux – road trips, truncated tours, relationship endings and new sonic explorations into jazz – Hejira’s title reflects this wildness. Mitchell had previously written songs on the lure of escape, from the early composition Urge For Going to wishing for a river “to skate away on” on Blue, but nowhere before or since would Mitchell feel so desperate for change.

The songs themselves are complex in structure and brilliant in their execution. Unlike her earlier work, which foregrounded relationships and found Mitchell using her life as narrative (however unconventional that narrative may be), Hejira takes a more modernist approach. Sentimentality is banished, but meaning remains clear. Song For Sharon is a perfect example of this: the Sharon of the title is a friend of Mitchell’s from childhood, but the song isn’t about Sharon, or their relationship. It considers past and present, mixing up truth and conjecture, all interpreted by the looping musical accompaniment.

Hejira may not have been Mitchell’s top seller but, over the years, its reputation and power has grown. “It’s like the opposite of AWOL,” Mitchell said of the album’s title, in 2022, while talking to the crowd at her surprise Newport Folk Festival appearance. “It’s running away from something but without blame. With honour.”

Must hear: Song For Sharon

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