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Tags: / Credit: Joni Mitchell

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.

Comments (41)
  1. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  2. Hejira’s a fine album but I don’t see how it makes it to #1. There’s a reason Blue is (almost) everybody’s favorite JM album – it’s just a perfect thing, haunting and unforgettable. It’s also one of the very best records of the 70′s IMHO. I’d say Blue and Court & Spark are the best starting points for anyone not familiar with her music (FWIW, I dismissed her for years as flaky and annoying, then I went out with someone who had all of her records and realized how completely wrong – and sexist! – I was).

  3. Well, for Stereogum, Blue is not the warmest color.

  4. Skipped right ahead to see if Blue was #1 and was very surprised to see that it wasn’t.

  5. Haven’t heard Hejira in a while, probably gonna give it a play today

  6. I was hoping for ‘Elliott Smith Album’s From Worst to Best’. Maybe that’s somehow inappropriate given the anniversary?
    That Pitchfork article on him was an absolute beast by the way. Sorry ‘gum, but they blew the socks off of your little piece.

    Oh, and BLUE.

  7. i was surprised to see this article here. and i fucking love that it is. but where the mother fuck are all the female writers at Stereogum? and what the hell?

  8. Add guitarist to your list of ways in which she’s underrated, and unique. I can’t think of anyone of comparable success who is fluent in as many styles, tunings and effects. Her guitar tech Joel Bernstein wrote a series of album songbooks with details on the gear and accurate tabs, and it’s fascinating if you are into that kind of thing.

  9. Move Mingus up a few notches, and I’m in total agreement with this list. Nice work!

  10. I’d move Clouds up by a couple notches, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter down a bit, and I’d put Blue at #1. I thought Blue was pretty much universal consensus–I’m actually kind of blown away.

    I’m pretty unknowledgeable about any of her work from the 80s onward. Looks like there’s a few things I’ll be seeking out.

    Hey, how about doing one of these worst to best for Smog/Bill Callahan?

  11. Top 5 seems about right but I can’t get into Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter at all. I guess it really is a grower. Also, those shots you took at Radiohead were super cute!

    • I’m really glad he took s shot at OK Computer from the get-go because now I know to ignore all of his musical opinions. Apparently, there really is nothing to working for this site. I guess they just throw crumpled resumes into a hat, and sometimes they get someone who knows what s/he is talking about and sometimes they don’t.

    • It was a completely unnecessary dig in that it highlighted nothing but the writer’s dislike for Radiohead.

      What the hell has this writer’s dislike for Radiohead got to do with an assessment of Joni Mitchell’s discography?

    • Where did he take shots at Radiohead?

    • What kind of crackpot doesn’t like Radiohead? To quote Shakespeare:

      “The man that hath no Radiohead in himself,
      Nor is not moved with concord of OK Computer,
      Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
      The motions of his spirit are dull as night
      And his affections dark as Erebus:
      Let no such man be trusted. Mark the Radiohead.”

      Just joshing―to each his own, I guess. Honestly though.

  12. Hejira’s my fave, but I understand the popular sentiment for Blue and Court and Spark. Might put Hissing Lawns at #2, and For the Roses at 3 – maybe.

  13. Wow. I never expected to see Hejira beat Blue. Gutsy, but completely deserved. I’ll forgive not paying too much attention to the other two Jaco tracks. The scare vibrato dual tones in the title track, the wolf tones at the beginning of Coyote. His unashamed creativity (“it ain’t braggin’ if you back it up”) has inspired many, and hopefully this list will send one or two newbies his way.

  14. long time listener, first time caller. i never comment on sites, but wanted to say thank you for showing queen joni some love. BUT #1 really is wrong. not only should blue be #1 on this list, but i happen to think that it is the GREATEST ALBUM OF ALL-TIME.

  15. Does anybody else feel that Hissing Lawns should be number one? What an incredible record.

  16. The Marie Antoinette reference in the introduction is incorrect. She most likely never said “let them eat cake”, but if she did, it wasn’t an exercise of wit, but a demonstration of ignorance.

    “The peasants have no bread to eat.”
    “Then let them eat cake.”

    The point is, she thought the peasants were just being picky when they were actually starving.

    The Hissing of Summer Lawns is my number one.

  17. Wow, just found the subtle attack on OK Computer.

    Some people.

    • Yep. It’s embarrassingly immature at best. Way to go man!

      Also sucks because I largely agree with the list but I want to invalidate his opinion just to spite him! It would have been out of place and petty regardless of what band it was!

      • Wow, people really do click on hyperlinks!

        Anyway, I’d hardly call it an “attack.” I was merely likening two popular albums that just happen to have certain qualities–in this case, frostiness and narcissism–in common. It wasn’t meant as a ‘dig,’ merely a point of reference. Have you heard Turbulent Indigo?

        • I don’t think it was an attack, it was just a pointless dig that really didn’t add anything to the discussion and I have heard it and think they are remarkably different. It didn’t really make any sense contextually either, and seeing as you could have disposed of the last sentence entirely without compromising your argument was entirely superfluous. You did a really good job with the write up as a whole, so I’m not really that angry, but come on.

        • You described the albums negatively. Calling something narcissistic is not an innocuous, and describing those albums with that word only serves to expose you as someone who doesn’t understand what he is hearing. By the way, while a frosty album is not necessarily a bad one (and there is plenty of emotion to be found in both works), the idea of someone listening to Exit Music and calling it frosty is completely ridiculous. I would guess that only a narcissist could be that oblivious to others’ emotions.

          • “innocuous remark”

          • Ha! Seriously, dude, your indignation here is humorous; a writer can disagree with you and still “understand what he is hearing.” Why be so quick to judge a writer you (probably) don’t even know? I thought the hyperlink was funny–an aside to wink at readers paying attention. And a “dig” on Radiohead is not a dig on Radiohead’s fans. Something tells me Thom Yorke can take it.

            Re: this conversation, though, I would agree that Radiohead is narcissistic–I mean, I doubt the band would even deny that if they were being honest–AND I think there’s absolute merit to the notion that “Exit Music” is frosty. I think that’s the point, and I this it’s gorgeous for all its sort of postmodern flatness.

  18. ‘Love Gun’ came out in ’77.

  19. I love that this list exists, No. 1.

    Secondly, it’s hilarious that so many people got their knickers in a twist that the author dare call Radiohead narcissists. Ya think?

    As for Joni, I guess I really need to re-examine Hejira. I’m unfamiliar with most of her stuff starting with the ’80s, but I feel confident saying that Ladies of the Canyon deserves much higher billing and that Song to a Seagull might be folkie and “naive,” but it’s beautiful music of its era and I think entirely genuine and would easily make my top 5. Yes, I like her hippie-era stuff. Sue me.

  20. Blue is inarguably her best album so this list is grade-A bull sh*t. Don’t try to be ‘alt’ and pick a different album as #1. Give in to the beauty that is Blue and get over yourself.

  21. Kind of surprised that Hejira was #1 given her past musical triumphs. However, saying that, Hejira is the only Joni album I own, mainly because of Jaco. He only played on 4 songs, though it’s not a coincidence those are the best songs on the album. Her arrangements and voice + his playing are just magical. I’ve listened to live versions of her with other bassists playing those songs and it’s just not the same. I really love “In France They Kiss On Main Street” from Shadows and Light. Jaco’s bass elevates that song to the next level. Far superior to the studio version.

    I think Joni is brilliant. She’s a superb musician and a top notch recognizer of talent. She really gave wider exposer for Jaco, Pat Metheny and Michael Brecker, guys that are now musical legends. And can’t forget Lyle Mays and Don Arias who are also brilliant.

  22. So subjective – but I guess that goes without saying. Don’t agree with the panning of Turbulent Indigo, it has several masterful tunes and the sparseness is beguiling. While technically not studio albums, the exclusion of Shadows and Light, and to a lesser extent Miles of Aisles, is unfortunate. The former is truly a desert island album, with masterful performances by some of the greatest musicians on their respective instruments of…wait for it…ALL TIME. (e.g. Jaco, Pat Metheny, and Michael Brecker). Joni’s inspired re-interpretations of masterful works like Black Crow, Ameila, Dry Cleaner from Des Moines are truly breathtaking.

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