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.