Little Green, Blue and a Big Yellow Taxi
IN THIS PHOTO: Joni Mitchell/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Joni Mitchell at Seventy-Five: Her Eight Most Essential Albums
I might have another Joni Mitchell piece in me…
IN THIS PHOTO: Joni Mitchell in April 1983/PHOTO CREDIT: Laurie Lewis
but I wanted to say, first, a happy seventy-fifth birthday to her – so let’s get the ball rolling by collating together her eight finest albums! That might seem like an arbitrary number but I feel there is tough competition regarding her back catalogue and many people often assume her with the one album, Blue. Mitchell has suffered ill health in the past – which I might investigate in a later piece – but I know the Queen of Folk and music icon is loved by millions and everyone hopes she will be able to recover and record another album.
As we mark the special birthday of one of music’s finest poets and figures; I have brought together seven albums that display Mitchell’s exceptional talents and show why she is one of music’s true treasures. For each, I have brought together a little background; a critical review and highlighted the standout track – and put the full album available via Spotify. Have a look at the rundown and assembly and get involved with some magnificent Joni Mitchell gold! As we all raise a glass to the legendary songwriter; here are some wonderful albums that are a perfect introduction…
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
TO a true and peerless icon.
ALL ALBUM COVERS: Getty Images
Number-One: Blue (1971)
Release Date: 22nd June, 1971
Producer: Joni Mitchell
“Despite the success of her first three albums and songs like "Woodstock", January 1970 saw Mitchell make a decision to break from performing. In early spring 1970, she set off on a vacation around Europe. While on the island of Formentera, she wrote some of the songs that appear on Blue. This journey was the backdrop for the songs "Carey" and "California". Some of the songs on Bluewere inspired by Mitchell's 1968-1970 relationship with Graham Nash. Their relationship was already troubled when she left for Europe, and it was while she was on Formentera that she sent Nash the telegram that let him know that their relationship was over.The songs "My Old Man" and "River" are thought to be inspired by their relationship” – Wikipedia
“1971's Blue is possibly the most gutting break-up album ever made. After Mitchell's relationship with Nash dissolved, she headed to Europe to lose the tether of her fame, eventually taking exile in a cave on the Greek island Crete. The trip would inspire the how-Joni-got-her-groove-back ditties "Carey" and "California". The album is suffused with melancholy for all that is missing: her daughter ("Little Green"), innocence ("The Last Time I Saw Richard"), and connection ("All I Want"). Mitchell bleeds diffidence and highlights it with spare notes plucked out on her Appalachian dulcimer. While her pals Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, and Laura Nyro were also pushing the singer-songwriter genre forward, none of them managed to stride the distance that Mitchell did here in a single album” – Pitchfork
Standout Track: Blue
Number-Two: Ladies of the Canyon (1970)
Release Date: March 1970
Producer: Joni Mitchell
“The album is notable for its expansion of Mitchell's artistic vision and its varied song topics (ranging from the aesthetic weight of celebrity, to observation of the Woodstock generation, to the complexities of love). Ladies of the Canyon is often viewed as a transition between Mitchell's folky earlier work and the more sophisticated, poignant albums that were to follow. In particular, "For Free" foreshadows the lyrical leitmotif of the isolation triggered by success that would be elaborated upon in For the Roses and Court and Spark. The sparse, alternate-tuning laden sound of later records comes to the forefront on "Ladies of the Canyon" (one of those "ladies" supposedly being female underground comix pioneer Trina Robbins)” – Wikipedia
“Songs here take many moods, ranging from the sunny, easygoing "Morning Morgantown" (a charming small-town portrait) to the nervously energetic "Conversation" (about a love triangle in the making) to the cryptically spooky "The Priest" (presenting the speaker's love for a Spartan man) to the sweetly sentimental classic "The Circle Game" (denoting the passage of time in touching terms) to the bouncy and vibrant single "Big Yellow Taxi" (with humorous lyrics on ecological matters) to the plummy, sumptuous title track (a celebration of creativity in all its manifestations). This album is yet another essential listen in Mitchell's recorded canon” – AllMusic
Standout Track: Woodstock
Number-Three: Court and Spark (1974)
Release Date: 1 January, 1974
Producers: Joni Mitchell, Henry Lewy
“1973 was the first year since she began recording that Mitchell did not release a new album. Her previous offering, For the Roses, was released in November 1972 to critical and commercial success, and Mitchell decided to spend the whole of the next year writing and recording a new album that revealed her growing interest in new sounds—particularly jazz. During 1973, her stage appearances were fewer than in previous years. She performed in April in a benefit concert at the Sir George Williams University Auditorium and then appeared live again in August, twice at The Corral Club, accompanied by Neil Young.
Mitchell spent most of 1973 in the recording studio creating Court and Spark. Mitchell and producer/engineer Henry Lewy called in a number of top L.A. musicians to perform on the album including members of The Crusaders, Tom Scott's L.A. Express, cameos from Robbie Robertson, David Crosby & Graham Nash and even a twist of comedy from Cheech & Chong” – Wikipedia
“Lyrically, Mitchell is at her sharpest—and occasionally wittiest—on tracks such as the album’s jaunty first single “Raised On Robbery,” the light n’ jazzy “Free Man In Paris” (long said to be about record exec David Geffen) and the aforementioned “People’s Parties.” Whether she’s ruminating on love found and lost (capturing the quagmire of emotions with one simple line: “Laughing and crying/You know it’s the same release”) or the pitfalls of her newfound celebrity (she would continue to rally against “the star-making machinery behind the popular songs” throughout her career), Mitchell is, with Court and Spark, represented at the peak of her talents for crafting song-stories that are simultaneously inventive, intricate, and unfailingly melodic. And while many of today’s artists have exhibited shades of such talent, not many—of either gender—have been able to match such a dizzying height. Thus, also taking into consideration its mid-‘70s California dreaminess, Court and Spark is not only the best soundtrack to a Sunday morning ever made, it’s also an essential, timeless artifact of an era when pop could be both popular and personal, and would be rewarded critically and commercially for such qualities” – SLANT
Standout Track: Free Man in Paris
Number-Four: Clouds (1969)
Release Date: 1 May, 1969
Producers: Joni Mitchell, Paul A. Rothchild
“After moving to New York City and signing to Reprise Records in 1967, Mitchell recorded her 1968 debut album Song to a Seagull with producer David Crosby. The album was a mostly acoustic set of songs, some of which were subsequently covered by more successful singers. Consequently, Mitchell received more outside exposure and began to earn a strong cult following.
Mitchell recorded Clouds at A&M Studios in Hollywood and played acoustic guitar and keyboards; she was joined by Stephen Stills on guitar. She produced all of the album's songs, except "Tin Angel", which was produced by Paul A. Rothchild. She also painted the album's cover artwork—a self-portrait.
Two songs, "Chelsea Morning" and "Both Sides, Now", had already been recorded by other singers by the time Mitchell started work on the album. Mitchell wrote "Both Sides, Now" after reading Saul Bellow's 1959 novel Henderson the Rain King on a plane and drawing on a point in the novel where the protagonist is looking at clouds from a plane. The coincidence inspired the song's lyric about looking at clouds from both sides as a metaphor for life's ambiguities and mysteries, as she explained in a 1967 interview, "I dreamed down at the clouds, and thought that when I was a kid I had dreamed up at them, and having dreamed at the clouds from both sides as no generation of men has done, one should be able to accept his death very easily."” – Wikipedia
“Clouds (1969) is the introduction to Mitchell's real deal, shaking folk tradition and giving off a little humor and spirit. The album sounds casual. Lyrically, she was transitioning from the era's de facto hippie sensualism (colors! the weather! vibes!) to the classically prosodic style (Keats! Cohen!) she'd become known for. The album's biggest signs of life are two of her most famous songs-- the kicky "Chelsea Morning", which is about as straightforward as Mitchell ever got, and "Both Sides Now". Though she'd known burden and heartache plenty by her still-tender age (she'd borne a child alone and in secret after dropping out of art school and married singer Chuck Mitchell in order to make a family; he changed his mind a month later and she put the baby up for adoption) she sounds a bit too young and chipper to be singing about disillusionment. Still, Clouds was a landmark, and she landed a Grammy for Best Folk Performance” – Pitchfork
Standout Track: Both Sides Now
Number-Five: For the Roses (1972)
Release Date: November 1972
Producer: Joni Mitchell
“It is perhaps best known for the hit single "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio", which Mitchell wrote sarcastically out of a record company request for a radio-friendly song. The single was indeed a hit, reaching #25 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, becoming Mitchell's first top 40 hit released under her own name (as a songwriter, several other performers had had hits with songs that she had written). "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" — a menacing and jazzy portrait of a heroin addict — and the Beethoven-inspired "Judgment of the Moon and Stars" were also popular.
Some of the songs were inspired by Mitchell's 1970-1971 relationship with James Taylor. Despite his difficulties, Mitchell evidently felt that she had found the person with whom she could pair-bond in Taylor. By March 1971, his fame exploded, causing friction. She was reportedly devastated when he broke off the relationship. By November 1971, he had taken up with Carly Simon, whom he married a year later” – Wikipedia
“On For the Roses, Joni Mitchell began to explore jazz and other influences in earnest. As one might expect from a transitional album, there is a lot of stylistic ground explored, including straight folk selections using guitar ("For the Roses") and piano ("Banquet," "See You Sometime," "Lesson in Survival") overtly jazzy numbers ("Barangrill," "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire," and hybrids that cross the two "Let the Wind Carry Me," "Electricity," "Woman of Heart and Mind," "Judgment of the Moon and Stars"). "Blonde in the Bleachers" grafts a rock & roll band coda onto a piano-based singer/songwriter main body. The hit single "You Turn Me on I'm a Radio" is an unusual essay into country-tinged pop, sporting a Dylanesque harmonica solo played by Graham Nash and lush backing vocals. Arrangements here build solidly upon the tentative expansion of scoring first seen in Ladies of the Canyon. "Judgment of the Moon and Stars" and "Let the Wind Carry Me" present lengthy instrumental interludes. The lyrics here are among Mitchell's best, continuing in the vein of gripping honesty and heartfelt depth exhibited on Blue. As always, there are selections about relationship problems, such as "Lesson in Survival," "See You Sometime," and perhaps the best of all her songs in this genre, "Woman of Heart and Mind." "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" presents a gritty inner-city survival scene, while "Barangrill" winsomely extols the uncomplicated virtues of a roadside truck stop. More than a bridge between great albums, this excellent disc is a top-notch listen in its own right” – AllMusic
Standout Track: For the Roses
Number-Six: The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975)
Release Date: November 1975
Producer: Joni Mitchell
“The first track, "In France They Kiss on Main Street", is a jazz-rock song about coming of age in a small town in the 1950s rock & rollera. (The song was released as the single from the album and reached number 66 on the Billboard charts.) "The Jungle Line" uses a field recording from Africa of the Drummers of Burundi (called 'warrior drums' in the credits), onto which are dubbed guitar, Moogsynthesizer and the vocal line. The lyrics pay homage to the works of the French Post-Impressionist painter Henri Rousseau. Mitchell blends details of his works with imagery of modern city life, the music industry and the underground drug culture.
"Edith and the Kingpin" marks a return to jazz in a story of a gangster's new moll arriving in his home town. "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow" is an acoustic guitar–based song with stream-of-consciousness lyrics, focused on women standing up to male dominance and proclaiming their own existence as individuals. "Shades of Scarlett Conquering" is an orchestral-based piece about a modern southern belle basing her life and self-image on the stereotypes of the Scarlett O'Hara character from Gone with the Wind” – Wikipedia
“Joni Mitchell evolved from the smooth jazz-pop of Court and Spark to the radical Hissing of Summer Lawns, an adventurous work that remains among her most difficult records. After opening with the graceful "In France They Kiss on Main Street," the album veers sharply into "The Jungle Line," an odd, Moog-driven piece backed by the rhythms of the warrior drums of Burundi -- a move into multiculturalism that beat the likes of Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, and Sting to the punch by a decade. While not as prescient, songs like "Edith and the Kingpin" and "Harry's House -- Centerpiece" are no less complex or idiosyncratic, employing minor-key melodies and richly detailed lyrics to arrive at a strange and beautiful fusion of jazz and shimmering avant pop” – AllMusic
Standout Track: In France They Kiss on Main Street
Number-Seven: Shine (2007)
Release Date: 25th September, 2007
Labels: Hear Music, Universal
Producer: Joni Mitchell
“In 2002, Joni Mitchell famously left the music business. The public first learned that she had returned to writing and recording in October 2006, when she spoke to The Ottawa Citizen. In an interview with the newspaper, Mitchell "revealed she's recording her first collection of new songs in nearly a decade" but gave few other details.
Four months later, in an interview with The New York Times, Mitchell said that the album was inspired by the war in Iraq and "something her grandson had said while listening to family fighting: 'Bad dreams are good—in the great plan.'"
The Sunday Times wrote in February 2007 that the album has "a minimal feel, a sparseness that harks back to her early work," adding that "rest and some good healers" had restored much of the singer's vocal power. Mitchell herself described Shine as "as serious a work as I've ever done."
The album was launched at the Sunshine Theater on Houston Street, New York City, on September 25, 2007, with a film of the Alberta Ballet performing The Fiddle and the Drum, a ballet devised by choreographer Jean Grand-Maître in collaboration with Mitchell that had premiered in Calgary on February 8 that year. The ballet uses a selection of Mitchell's songs, including "If I Had a Heart" and "If" from Shine, along with images from her art installation Flag Dance, which are projected as a backdrop. The album cover features a scene from The Fiddle and the Drum.
Shine is only the second Joni Mitchell album never to have been distributed by Warner Music Group, the first being Night Ride Home, which was released by Geffen Records after the company was sold to MCA” – Wikipedia
“War and ecological blight are the twin evils that preoccupy Shine. Mountains are levelled, 'babbling cellphone zombies' crowd the malls, earth has become 'a funeral pyre'. On 'Strong and Wrong' Joni names the guilty party: 'Men love war, that's what history is for, his story...'
Mitchell's despondence may be understandable, but for a mistress of the muse, this is desperately simplistic stuff, as if she's just noticed that the bombers didn't turn into butterflies. A new version of 1970's 'Big Yellow Taxi', wisely kept close to her original, reminds us she's been here before - and how much more deftly.
It isn't all doom. The opening track, 'One Week Last Summer', is a joyous instrumental for a perfect North Pacific day. 'Night of the Iguana' distils Tennessee Williams's acclaimed play, and 'If' improbably recycles Rudyard Kipling's homage to the stiff upper lip.
Best is the title track, a roll call of compassion that embraces the darkness of 'Frankenstein technologies' and the hope of 'a safe place for kids to play/ bombs exploding half a mile away'. Both sombre and defiant, it's Mitchell at her finest” – The Observer
Standout Track: Night of the Iguana
Number-Eight: Hejira (1976)
Release Date: November 1976
Producer: Joni Mitchell
“According to Mitchell, the album was written during or after three journeys she took in late 1975 and the first half of 1976. The first was a stint as a member of Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue in late 1975. During this time period, she became a frequent cocaine user, and it would take several years for her to kick the addiction.
In February 1976, Mitchell was scheduled to play about six weeks of concert dates across the US promoting The Hissing of Summer Lawns. However, the relationship between Mitchell and her boyfriend John Guerin (who was acting as her drummer on the string of dates) soured, possibly due to Mitchell's fling with director Sam Shepard during the Rolling Thunder Revue. Tensions became so fraught that the tour was abandoned about halfway through.
The third trip came soon after when Mitchell traveled across America with two men, one of them being a former lover from Australia. This trip inspired six of the songs on the album. She drove with her two friends from Los Angeles to Maine, and then went back to California alone via Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. She traveled without a driver's licence and stayed behind truckers, relying on their habit of signaling when the police were ahead of them; consequently, she only drove in daylight hours.
During some of her solo journeys, Mitchell donned a red wig, sunglasses, and told the varying strangers she met that her name was either "Charlene Latimer" or "Joan Black."Despite the disguise, Mitchell was still sometimes recognized” – Wikipedia
“It is to Joni Mitchell’s credit that she comes to no glib conclusions. The conflict between freedom for art’s sake and the need for love forms the basis of most of her songs, and it is her uncertainty, the alternating warmth and chill, which is most fascinating. But if Mitchell is not always inviting, she is never complacent. With Hejira she redefines the elements of her music with as much courage as when she scrutinizes her aims and motivations. And despite the songs of love lost and plans changed, despite the urgent, often stark consciousness of mortality and the absence of comfortable solutions, Hejira is a curiously optimistic album. In “Black Crow,” Mitchell sings, “In search of love and music/ My whole life has been/ Illumination/ Corruption/ And diving, diving, diving, diving…,” her voice swooping and spiraling on the repeated word. That is what Hejira is about: it is not the answers that are most important but the search itself” – Rolling Stone
Standout Track: Coyote