Shameful confession: I didn’t “discover” Joni Mitchell until my twenties. They didn’t play her on the rock stations I listened to as a teenager, and as a college-age jazz student I was maybe a generation too old; nowadays musicians like Brian Blade openly cite her influence and have made it hip to dig into the textures, harmonic complexities and emotional resonance of her music. Me, I thought she was the chick who wrote that “Big Yellow Taxi” song, which was pretty clever. My roommate played “The Last Time I Saw Richard” from Blue for me once and I indeed thought it was emotionally potent, but that was about it. In general I lumped her in with other folkie singer-songwriter types of the era like Judy Collins (who, I wasn’t hip enough to know, had the earliest hit versions of Joni’s tunes), James Taylor and so on – nothing wrong with them, but that wasn’t my bag. Then, doing some research for a graduate school project, I checked out the Court and Spark album and had a “my God, where have you been all my life?!” moment. In the ensuing years, I’ve gone both forward and back in exploring her catalogue, much of which has left an indelible mark on my own musical vision. Thanks Joni, and sorry it took me so long!
These lists are always “favorites” and not “bests,” and in this case it’s particularly geared towards pointing out the stuff that has impacted me.
1 ) “Free Man In Paris” (from Court and Spark)
Who knows what would have happened if I heard Court and Spark when I was 17 instead of 23? No matter, I still heard it and it still blew my mind. The textures of this song have penetrated my consciousness deeply, never mind that it’s got the best lyrics ever written about being a record executive. And even if there were more such songs, that would probably still be true. Most songs on this record belong on this list, but if I had to pick one, then here it is.
2 ) “River” (from Blue)
Many folks, when they think of Joni Mitchell, think of solo piano or guitar plus a single voice. While that’s not necessarily true for me, that stuff is of course brilliant, and never more so than on this heartbreaking and harmonically rich performance from her seminal Blue album.
3 ) “Dreamland” (from Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter)
To say this is one of the coolest tracks that exists in music is, I suppose, not particularly useful. Manolo Badrena, Don Alias, Alex Acuna and Airto create a dense, propulsive layer of Brazilian percussion, and over that Joni sings an utterly gorgeous melody with ethereal lyrics, eventually joined by Chaka Khan. That’s the closest I can get to describing it, it’s just otherworldly, and who needs chords? I felt I could only include one voice-and-percussion song, thus bumping off her experiment with drummers from Burundi (and Moog synthesizer) on “Jungle Line” from Hissing of Summer Lawns.
4 ) “Good Friends” (from Dog Eat Dog)
Not unlike Miles Davis, fans of Joni Mitchell tend to gloss over the aesthetics of the output from the 1980s, but in both cases there are some real gems in there. This Thomas Dolby-produced album has a number of them, most notably (to my subjective ear) this gorgeous song featuring a wonderful blend between Joni’s smoky vocals and those of Michael McDonald. I’ve been grooving on this song for 15 years but I actually didn’t realize until about 5 minutes that they made a video for it, too, with some cool 1980s animation.
5 ) “Carey” (from Blue)
Also from the “Blue” album this song was technically a minor hit in 1971, but is primarily known by Joni-philes at this point. If you had told me at 15 that I would be permanently haunted by a song revolving around vocal overdubs and the Appalachian dulcimer, I would have . . . well, I actually have no idea what I would’ve said (I was a pretty open-minded young dude) but in my 20s that’s precisely what happened.
6 ) “Woodstock” (from Ladies of the Canyon)
It was probably 10 years between my getting acquainted with the hit Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young version of this song and my first time hearing Joni’s version, and frankly my first exposure was rather disorienting because I’d become so used to all those harmonies. But what a potent performance of an iconic song this really is, and I’m glad I took the time to figure that out!
7 ) “Trouble Child” (from Travelogue)
This is a great tune from Court and Spark, rearranged in an orchestral context (and in a lower key) by Vince Mendoza, making it all the more moody.
8 ) “Let the Wind Carry Me” (from For the Roses)
The For the Roses album fascinates me, particularly in that Blue and Court and Spark are the two records that have most influenced me and this album represents the transition between them. This track, featuring Joni’s piano, the lush woodwind overdubs of Tom Scott and a gorgeous, often surprising set of chords accompanying her
9 ) “Harry’s House/Centerpiece” (from Hissing of Summer Lawns)
Bassist Gary Wang, knowing I was into Court and Spark, was adamant that I needed to check out this, the follow-up album. The juxtaposition between the edgy quality of the songs and the slickness of the musicians is striking and foreshadows some of her future collaborations with Jaco Pastorius and others. This song takes the “12 bar jazz blues cover” idea from Court and Spark (where she did “Twisted” by Annie Ross) to another level, with a great version of “Centerpiece” (featuring Joe Sample’s piano solo) sandwiched amidst the ethereal “Harry’s House.” I challenge you to listen to the transitions and not feel a little disoriented . . . in a good way, of course.
10 ) “The Gallery” (from Clouds)
If Joni hadn’t evolved past the style of her earliest work, I’m not sure if I would have ended up revering her the way I do, but boy is it still lovely stuff. This haunting track from 1969 already shows a great degree of insight and sophistication.