Ranking Joni Mitchell’s albums in order of greatness
The fact that Joni Mitchell’s legacy remains largely untainted is not only a testament to a life lead in the devotion of her craft but also a sincere and searing talent that underpins everything she does. When most artists continue to create their work through the decades, never taking time to slow down or cancel the trip altogether, chances are there will be a couple of duds. When you span a career over five decades and never truly slow down your output, you’d expect there to be countless musical missteps. But, for Joni Mitchell, those missteps are few and far between as the list below will prove.
As lockdown continues to keep us all at home and the chance to explore a new artist rears its head once more, we thought it was also the perfect time to truly appreciate the singers and bands that have become iconic mainstays of the music scene and, therefore, have a canon of work the majority of which is largely forgotten. One such artist whose huge catalogue of songs dwarfs those that the general public could recall is the esteemed Joni Mitchell. Below, we’re ranking her albums from worst to best so that you know where to start.
Joni Mitchell may well be known as the ultimate confessional songwriter, but it took her some years to even get noticed. In the early stages of her journey, she travelled across Canada with a touring ensemble, putting on folk shows for university students. Following that stint Mitchell got out of North America and made her way to Europe, selling a few songs to established acts like Judy Collins along the way. However, being a faceless songwriter was never going to work for Joni Mitchell, least of all because her material was so extremely personal.
Never before had a female folk singer put so much of themselves into their work. Of course, Collins and other singers like Joan Baez had been longtime pivotal members of the folk scene, but they often relied on others’ work for their songs. Mitchell, however, was devoted to creating and cementing her own expression. As time went on, and Mitchell’s star began to rise, the singer had the opportunity to retract a little part of her soul from the music and make some more universal anthems. Of course, that would never do.
An artist like Joni Mitchell cannot simply turn off the tap and start writing music for the masses. Instead, she would curate her creativity and cultivate her audience, ensuring that across the decades she has remained a well-supported and deeply influential artist. With 19 studio albums under her belt, Mitchell has rightly become one of the members of the esteemed pantheon of 20th-century artists and beyond.
Below, we’re ranking those albums in order of greatness so that you know where to start when exploring the wondrous world of Joni Mitchell.
Joni Mitchell’s albums ranked from worst to best:
19. Dog Eat Dog (1985)
Joni Mitchell’s worst album could likely have been another artist’s best but, there’s no doubt that 1985’s Dog Eat Dog is at the bottom of the pile. The eighties were a tough time for the entire rock clique who made their name in the swinging sixties. The decade was too obsessed with modernism not to see these stars ditch their previous style for something a bit glossier.
As such, Mitchell is a disguised artist on this record. Unrecognisable as the singer who had crafted such a unique vision, the LP is full of homogenised eighties sounds that can make a purist baulk.
18. Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm (1988)
When you’re an artist that has thrived on creating purely singular sounds and expressions that speak largely to one’s own emotions, it’s unfathomable to think of an album so full of feature spots. But, Mitchell’s Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm is jam-packed with guests.
The LP welcomes artists such as Billy Idol, Tom Petty, Don Henley and Willie Nelson but that doesn’t do much to lift the record out of the disco mire it finds itself in. Another record of the age, it’s as forgettable as Dog Eat Dog, even with the heavyweight stars.
17. Wild Things Run Fast (1982)
You may have noticed a theme here; the eighties were not Joni Mitchell’s best moments. It’s widely held that Mitchell lost her way during the decade and albums like this only add fuel to that fire.
There really isn’t much of note here to share about the record. Much like the previous two entries, the record is filled with supermarket plastic noises that feel oddly familiar yet cold and unrelenting — like a kids chair at a fast-food restaurant. Mitchell’s version of the classic ‘Unchained Melody’ is particularly unworthy of her name.
16. Turbulent Indigo (1994)
Featuring one of Joni Mitchell’s greatest opening songs of all time, ‘Sunny Sunday’ is about as perfect as they get, Turbulent Indigo falls off from there. The opener is a hint of her shining seventies self but the rest of the album remains in the shadows.
It may have won the Grammy for best pop album but among the esteemed canon of Mitchell, the album feels pretty simplistic. Mitchell made a name for herself with curiously brilliant lyrics and so the rhymes on this LP feel pretty basic.
15. Taming the Tiger (1998)
At this point in our list, we start to hear the very essence of Joni Mitchell come to the fore. We are also nearing the point where any record mentioned would rank highly among another artist’s canon. Simply put, Mitchell’s worst is most people’s best.
On 1994’s Taming the Tiger the singer expertly weaves layer upon layer of melody and voiceover to create a rich and intriguing proposition. It may grate those who wish to get lost in Mitchell’s lyrics but it shines brightly enough to keep most fans happy.
14. Mingus (1979)
Jazz music isn’t for everyone, and if you’re someone that struggles to cope with the kind of infiltration the genre has become known for, then this record may not be for you. Joni Mitchell has never been recognised as a jazz musician but much of her work is flecked with the non-conformity that entices so many people to jazz.
This, her 10th studio album, was composed in tribute to the great Charles Mingus, the influential player who, Mitchell says, pushed her deep into the pool of jazz — previously she had only dipped a toe or two.
13. Night Ride Home (1991)
As an example of the jazz influence we were talking about, 1991’s Night Ride Home is the perfect blend of Mitchell’s unique vision littered with the jazz affectations of the day. Mitchell isn’t quite in her domineering mood, instead choosing a softer approach to make her point.
That’s not to say that Mitchell struggles, quite the opposite. Her choice to turn up the tenderness is actually a sign of just how comfortable Mitchell is in this mode. As with many Mitchell LPs, this record is guaranteed road trip fodder, allowing the listener to drift across the highway without a thought.
12. Shine (2007)
Despite her roaring popularity seemingly never ready to wane, Mitchell has often threatened to quit music. One of those threats came after her 2002 record Travelogue and it seemed very likely that the 21st century was too much for Mitchell to care for. But, she soon returned and with one of the albums of the year.
2007’s Shine saw Mitchell once more hit the heights of her seventies output. Inspired by the environmental wreckage left behind during the Iraq war, ‘One Week Last Summer’ saw the singer return to her trusted sound and fans rejoiced because of it.
11. Both Sides Now (2000)
There’s something truly inspirational about an artist revisiting their own catalogue for a brand new century. In fact, we’d bet only Joni Mitchell would and could pull it off. Taking on the standards of old, Mitchell has a smoothness that wasn’t present in her previous work.
‘Both Sides Now’ is arguably the standout moment of the entire LP as Mitchell reflects on the track she first sang back in 1968. She adds a silkiness and a sultriness that could only come with age and shows that Mitchell was always set to be an artist who truly soared.
10. Travelogue (2002)
If Both Sides Now set out the blueprint for revisiting her past work, on Travelogue Mitchell nails it with the consummate ease of a professional. This time choosing to take her songs into the orchestral room, Mitchell uses the talent at hand to create something truly magical.
Joni Mitchell has always operated ona different plane to the rest of us but with this albums she felt truly ethereal. The reworking of ‘Hejira’ is a particular treat and one which deserves revisiting at every possible occasion.
9. Song to a Seagull (1968)
As we break the top ten and continue to reach the heights of Joni Mitchell’s incredible output we are now approaching the albums that deserves special attention. The kind of record you should sit with, contemplate on and listen to again and again. 1968’s Song to a Seagull is certainly one of those records.
Having once said that she uses chords to accurately capture her emotions at the time of writing, there’s a lot here to unpack. ‘I Had A King’ is another Mitchell classic which highlights the lowlight of being married to Chuck Mitchell, and in typical Joni style, eviscerates their love with searing and brutal honesty within her lyrics.
8. Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977)
There was nobody as potent as Joni Mitchell was during the seventies. The singer had found her niche of confessional songwriting and wasn’t afraid to show it. While many artists would have rested on their laurels and churned out record after record of similar sounds, Mitchell chose to explore her creativity.
Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter is one of the singer’s most experimental albums and relies heavily on jazz to keep the tempo and the intrigue going. The fact that within the double LP Mitchell encapsulated a 16-minute behemoth in ‘Paprika Plains’, is a testament to her skill and craft.
7. For the Roses (1972)
Joni Mitchell had found her feet by 1972 when she released For The Roses. The album acts as one of the singer’s most commercially driven releases and, while that would damage the output of most artists, for Mitchell it all worked out. ‘You Turn Me On I’m A Radio’ is a testament to that.
A song written with sarcastic intent after Mitchell’s manager David Geffen charged her with writing a chart-topping hit, the track ended up being her first top 40 hit in the US. The LP toys with the past, never truly saying goodbye to Mitchell’s folk roots, but opens up the future with the soaring jazz inflexions that permeate proceedings.
This is Mitchell nearing her peak.
6. The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975)
Lambasted at the time of release, The Hissing of Summer Lawns is now rightly revered as one of Mitchell’s greatest works. The album has become an influential behemoth with time and even saw The Purple One, Prince — an avid Mitchell fan — cite the record as inspiration for his domination of the eighties pop chart.
It’s a record that sees Mitchell continuing to stretch her muscles and grip her toes in the sand. Unmoved by her audience’s wish for her to remain still, Mitchell embraced a full band sound and continued to push herself creatively. ‘The Jungle Line’ and the title track are the most noteworthy moments on the LP.
5. Ladies of the Canyon (1970)
It was this album that began the singer’s dominance over the seventies. Mitchell may well have made her name as a guitar-slinging folk artist but on Ladies of the Canyon, we got a taste of the future as Mitchell sat behind the piano and let go of some of her most tender compositions.
The title track is rich and luscious while ‘Rainy Night House’ and ‘For Free’ act as a perfect balancing act. It’s hard not to be romanced by this record and feel a little blushed after hearing it.
When you add to the album, the iconic song ‘Woodstock’, you truly have an album worthy of topping anybody else’s list. But, not so for Joni Mitchell.
4. Court and Spark (1974)
We are now reaching the upper echelons of this list and therefore the very heights of music as we know it today — and that’s no exaggeration. A double-platinum record is always likely to be loved but there’s something extra special about this album.
It was the moment Joni Mitchell truly broke free of her previously-held perceptions and forged a new path all of her own creation.
Naturally, Mitchell still retains her thematic crutches on the record, using the themes of isolation and forgettable love to bolster her attack. But there’s no doubt that the album is a change of pace and sees Mitchell’s pop sensibility begin to reach the surface as she charges, headfirst, towards a brand new era of her career.
3. Clouds (1969)
For all our talk of championing a new sound, it’s hard not to be completely beguiled by Mitchell’s early output. There’s something beautiful about her simple and ethereal delivery that makes her early work soar. On Clouds, she uses this sound to share her true vulnerabilities and expose herself to her audience.
There’s a mythical quality to the record, largely added to by the sparse arrangements, that comes straight from the creative mind of Joni Mitchell.
The artists produced the majority of the songs on the album, occasionally asking Stephen Stills to step in on guitar, and showcased the command of her art that would define her work forevermore. Obvious hit son the LP include ‘Both Sides Now’ and ‘Chelsea Morning’ both of which are gilded with the sunshining sensibilities of the sixties.
2. Hejira (1976)
Though many of the albums on our list could be seen as the making of Joni Mitchell, it’s hard to look past the experimental joy that is Hejira as the defining moment of a career that refuses definition.
The album, according to Mitchell, was written as she drove between Maine and Los Angeles during the seventies rock scene. As well as hits like ‘Coyote’ and ‘Amelia’ the album hangs largely on Mitchell’s continued introduction of jazz to her unique sound.
It’s a record that welcomes re-listening and a concentrated devotion to listening to it. Though such a request was an established seventies rock trope, Mitchell upped the ante with her insightful lyricism. With ever listen of Hejira one finds new moments to be entranced by and new songs to fall in love with.
1. Blue (1971)
There are two prominent motifs that run through Joni Mitchell’s iconic 1971 record Blue — two profound themes are a perfect summation of Mitchell as a songwriter, firstly her intent to share herself more than ever before on this album and secondly to do it while using the often forgotten instrument the dulcimer.
“I was opened up,” Mitchell reflected. “As a matter of fact, 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. In pockets of the Orient, it would be considered a shamanic conversion.” The album is seen as one of her most personal and even encouraged Kris Kristofferson to plead with Joni to “saving something for yourself.”
Mitchell picked up her first dulcimer in 1969 at the Big Sur Festival and instantly began playing it, though she admits speaking with Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers that she never really knew how to play one. “I had never seen one played,” remembered Mitchell. “Traditionally it’s picked with a quill, and it’s a very delicate thing that sits across your knee. The only instrument I had ever had across my knee was a bongo drum, so when I started to play the dulcimer I beat it. I just slapped it with my hands.
“Anyway I bought it, and I took off to Europe carrying a flute and this dulcimer because it was very light for backpacking around Europe. I wrote most of Blue on it.” Some of the album’s best songs were composed on the instrument including ‘A Case of You,’ ‘All I Want’ and ‘California’. The instrument permeates the entire album as does Mitchell’s veracity, neither seem attainable sounds and neither feel wholly of this earth. With Blue, Joni Mitchell laid down the foundations of pop music as we know it today and the album should always be considered her best if not one of the best ever made.