Joni Mitchell once said “I’m a painter first. I sing my sorrow and I paint my joy.” Considering her status as one of the most respected singer-songwriters of the 20th century, it might seem strange that she considers herself a visual artist before a musical one. But then again, Mitchell has never been easy to define. During the late ’60s and late ’70s, she came to fame alongside the likes of James Taylor and Crosby, Stills & Nash with stripped-back, socially conscious songs like Woodstock and Big Yellow Taxi. But unlike some of her peers who never transitioned beyond their original sound, Mitchell was a shapeshifter, moving from folk to experimental jazz and experimental jazz to avant-garde and synth-pop. Not all of her experiments worked, but even her most forgettable albums have their moments of glory, and all, whether regrettable or not, have a role to play in her discography. Here’s how we rank all the Joni Mitchell albums, from worst to best.
19. Dog Eat Dog
As Far Out Magazine says, Joni Mitchell’s worst album could likely have been another artist’s best. Even so, there’s no denying that Dog Eat Dog is her weakest effort. The ’80s were a tough time for everyone, least of all singer-songwriters. It’s a brave attempt to keep up with the times, but the abundance of synths, samples, and studio slickness on display simply don’t suit Mitchell’s style.
18. Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm
An artist of Mitchell’s caliber doesn’t need other people to make an album. Yet on 1988’s Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm, she invited a bunch of them along for the ride. Peter Gabriel, Billy Idol, Tom Petty, Don Henley and Willie Nelson are all here, but none of them manage to save the album from drowning a watery disco death. Unfocused and unmemorable, it was a lackluster end to a lackluster decade for Mitchell.
17. Taming the Tiger
Taming the Tiger has plenty of gorgeous lyrical reflection, but it’s a confusing affair. The layered voiceovers, meandering melodies, and almost sterile professionalism rob the songs of their passion. It’s by no means a bad album, but it does make you miss the days when the voice and the lyrics were what mattered the most on a Joni Mitchell album.
16. Turbulent Indigo
Joni Mitchell didn’t often get as topical as the rest of her peers in the ’60s or ’70s, but on 1994’s Turbulent Indigo, she makes up for lost time with a collection of songs about everything from Aids and global warming to the Catholic church. There’s also the usual scattering of reflective compositions about love and relationships for good measure. But while she’s not at a loss for things to sing about, she’s not singing about them in an engaging enough way to keep our attention. For an artist known for her brilliance with words, here, the lyrics fall short. The opening track, Sunny Sunday, is sublime, but the rest of the album fails to hit its mark.
Mingus is the kind of album you either love or hate. Jazz isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but after dipping her toes into the genre on Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, here, Mitchell dives into it headfirst. Made in collaboration with Charles Mingus and featuring a wealth of jazz musicians, it’s a world away from the folk sounds of Mitchell’s earliest days. It’s very slick, very polished, and, in some people’s eyes, just a little too lifeless to be essential listening. Still, it performed reasonably well commercially, peaking at No. 17 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart on its release in 1979.
14. Wild Things Run Fast
After getting experimental with jazz in the late 70s, Mitchell made a return to pop in 1982 with Wild Things Run Fast. She’s since said her influence for the album came from bands like Steely Dan, Talking Heads and The Police, with The Police, in particular, inspiring her sound. “Their rhythmic hybrids, and the positioning of the drums, and the sound of the drums, was one of the main calls out to me to make a more rhythmic album,” she’s said. Released in October 1982, the album reached No. 25 on the US Billboard 200 and No. 32 on the UK Albums Chart.
13. Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter
For 1977’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, Mitchell recruited the same group of jazz musicians she’d worked with on Hejira the previous year. The result isn’t as good as its predecessor, but you can’t fault its artistry. The problem is that while the creativity is there, the spontaneity isn’t. As Mitchell has said, “Sometimes it flows, but a lot of times it’s blocked by concept.” It’s also far too long, both in terms of the album itself (which is a double LP) and the songs, one of which (the sprawling Paprika Plains) drags on for a full 16 minutes.
For a while, Travelogue was intended to be Mitchell’s last studio recording. It didn’t work out that way, but if it had been, it would have been a fine album to bow out on. As Paste Magazine notes, the album consists of gussied-up versions of tracks taken from throughout her career. Hejira, Woodstock, Amelia, The Circle Game, and other old favorites are seen from a new perspective with the addition of swelling orchestral arrangements from composer Vince Mendoza.
Five years after calling Travelogue her last ever album, Mitchell was back with her nineteenth album, Shine. The minimalist, jazz-inflected arrangements hark back to her mid-70s era, but the lyrical content is heavier and more topical than anything she’d attempted in her heyday. It’s a little heavy-handed in parts, but it’s still a lovely affair, with Bad Dreams and Night of the Iguana standing out as particular highlights.
10. Both Sides Now
Both Sides Now is a concept album that charts a relationship from its heady start to its bitter end. It’s a little pretentious in parts, but it’s still likable. Its shining glory is the title track, a song Mitchell first recorded when she was just 26 years old. Here, she sings it with the smoky, age-weathered vocals of a 56-year-old woman who truly has looked at life from both sides.
9. Night Ride Home
The ’80s wasn’t kind to many singer-songwriters who’d risen to fame in the previous decade, and Mitchell was no exception. In 1991, she rebounded with Night Ride Home, an album that combined her smokey, jazz-inflected vocals with a more mature outlook on her old folk-pop sound. It’s a soft, almost tender album, with an easy-going appeal and enough lyrical reflection to keep her listeners satisfied.
8. For the Roses
For the Roses is something of a transitional record, occupying the space between Mitchell’s early folk-leanings and her later experiments with jazz. It’s an intoxicating mix, particularly on standout tracks like the top 40 single, You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio. Elegant and refined, this is very much the sound of an artist stretching their legs and discovering just how much power they have. Even the elements of soft rock sound invigorating.
7. Song to a Seagull
In 1968, Mitchell released her debut album, Song to a Seagull. It’s a little bit tentative, very folky, and save for some support on bass from Stephen Stills, it’s very much just Joni with a guitar, a piano, and a mic. As it turns out, that’s really all you need to make a minor masterpiece. She would go on to make better songs in the future, but everything that would come to define those songs – the introspection, the complexity, the lilting melodies – are already out in force. An astonishing debut by anyone’s standards, and an extraordinary introduction to one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the 20th century.
6. The Hissing of Summer Lawns
If there was any question about who the most creative singer-songwriter of the ’70s was before 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, there wasn’t after it. Mitchell’s shift away from folk-pop and towards the avant-garde can take a little getting used to, but the maturity and sophistication of the album are obvious from the very start. Dreamy and refined, it takes risks, gets adventurous, but still keeps Mitchell’s heavenly songwriting at the forefront. Unquestionably one of her most cinematic works, and one of the smartest pieces of pop ever made.
Within just a year of releasing her debut, Mitchell was already on her second album. Much like its predecessor, Clouds is built almost wholly around Mitchell’s voice, guitar, and piano. The crucial difference is the songs. Both Sides Now and Chelsea Morning were the hits, but the deep cuts like Roses Blue, I Think I Understand and Tin Angel are just as mesmerizing. Understated it may be, but if you’re looking for some of the most spellbinding compositions of Mitchell’s career, this is where you’ll find them.
4. Ladies of the Canyon
Mitchell’s first two albums were sparse, minimalist affairs built around Mitchell’s voice, piano, and guitar. On her third album, 1970s Ladies of the Canyon, she gets more adventurous with the sound, adding intricate layers of arrangements and fuller production. Rather than swamp her compositions, the richer sound enhances them. The fact that those compositions include the likes of Woodstock, The Circle Game, and the title cut didn’t exactly harm its chance of becoming a classic either.
As The Guardian says, Hejira is definitely an album for the road, “evoking a hunger for movement, a sense of yearning and restlessness, that permeates every track.” Like the previous year’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, it’s a very jazz-oriented album. Unlike its predecessor, however, it utilizes jazz pros instead of rock musicians, resulting in a much more finely nuanced piece. Complex, challenging, and hauntingly beautiful, it’s unquestionably one of Mitchell’s finest albums.
2. Court and Spark
As ultimateclassicrock.com explains, after taking her first break since her 1968 debut, Mitchell returned in 1974 with a new album and a new sound. Court and Spark still leans toward folk, but it’s been given a glossy jazz makeover. The textures are fuller, the lyrics are more mature, and the songs are as phenomenal as ever. It became her most successful album to date, reaching No. 2 in the US, No. 1 in Canada, and certifying double platinum by the RIAA.
Mitchell would make more ambitious albums than Blue. She’d make higher-selling albums. But she’d never make a better one. Released in June 1971 as her fourth studio album, Blue was where everything she’d been working towards came together. Written following the end of her relationship to Graham Nash, the album is home to her finest compositions, from the catchy Carey to the beautiful River. Introspective, deeply personal, and hauntingly elegant, it’s the ultimate coming-of-age album that everyone needs to listen to at least once. A milestone moment that’s just as miraculous today as it was 50 years ago.