Joni Mitchell at 75- The Iconic Songstress’ Ten Greatest Albums

It hardly seems possible that the golden-haired waif who represented the innocence and purity residing at the core of all ‘60s sensibilities turns 75 on November 7th. Joni Mitchell was — and still is — the quintessential folk goddess whose songs provided a soothing serenity during otherwise tumultuous times. They guided the way towards a higher plain where hope and happenstance found common ground and allowed listeners to hang on to their dreamy-eyed desires even when conflict and struggle threatened to intrude.

Not that everything always went well for Ms. Mitchell herself. Dashed romance and her initial insecurity made her a fragile figure in a realm dominated by men. Her recent struggles with the illness have caused fans to worry about her health and wellbeing. Likewise, at this point in her life, it seems doubtful that she’ll ever record or perform again.

Fortunately, we can take comfort in the records she released during the prime of her career, and know that their soothing sounds will always offer us an easy embrace.

10. Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, 1977
Arguably Mitchell’s last great masterpiece, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter was an uncommonly experimental effort that allowed Mitchell to indulge her penchant for creativity. Surreal in style, it relied mostly on ambiance and ingenuity to see it through to fruition. Several of the songs — “The Tenth World” and “Dreamland” in particular were so daring they defied comparison to anything she had done before. The instrumentation found her stretching the parameters of her usual song style and creating instead obtuse soundscapes that forced observers to lean in and listen. It’s no less challenging even today.

9. Night Ride Home, 1991
Mitchell took on a variety of topics with Night Ride Home, her first record recorded for Geffen Records and a seemingly dramatic departure from anything she had done before. Sexual abuse (“Cherokee Louise”), a lawsuit filed against her by a domestic employee (“The Windfall (Everything For Nothing”) and the transition from childhood to middle age (“Come In From the Cold”) dominated the proceedings, but it was the lovely and evocative title track that provided its wistful repose.

8. The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, 1975
By the time The Hissing Of Summer Lawns was released in November 1975, Mitchell was finding herself fully fascinated by jazz and the atmospheric ambiance that accompanied it. The songs were less defined and the meanings behind them more obtuse, and yet that only added to its allure. Inspired by literary intrigue and a certain stream of consciousness, Mitchell was finding new direction through material that was evocative and yet circumspect all at the same time. The album garnered Mitchell a Grammy nomination for Best Female Vocals, but overall it wasn’t a commercial triumph. Still, it remains one of Mitchell’s most alluring entries and an album that serves her legacy well.

7. Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm, 1988
One of Mitchell’s most diversified efforts to date, Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm took its cue from the cerebral sounds of Peter Gabriel, a certain rock and roll revelry, and a diverse array of special guests, among them, Tom Petty, Billy Idol, Don Henley and Willie Nelson. Mitchell accommodated those contributors by varying her template, even as she focused on an array of specific themes — war, consumerism, pollution, and the plight of Native Americans. As a protest record, it works quite well, and although it only reached the middle reaches of the pop charts, it holds up well in retrospect.

6. For the Roses, 1972
Sandwiched between her two greatest commercial successes of her early era — Blue and Court and Spark — For the Roses had a high bar to meet and match. Though critically acclaimed, it spawned only one song that can be considered an enduring classic, that being the somewhat cynical “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio,” which she reportedly wrote to satisfy her record company’s demand for a hit single. It achieved that goal, and the album as a whole was deemed enough of a success to earn placement in the Library of Congress, her only album to do so. Two of the players on the album — Tom Scott and Wilton Felder — would stick with her for the long haul, precluding her transition into fusion and jazz.

5. Hejira, 1976
Written during a road trip from Maine to L.A., Hejira evokes the imagery of desolate plains, snowy settings and surreal environs, all of which inspired her most imaginative imagery yet. Jaco Pastorious played a major role in the recording, his dense bass playing adding a rich underbelly to the proceedings. The album signaled the start of Mitchell’s complete commitment to jazz, and yet its tangled tapestry indicated the music would still be beholden to her fertile and intuitive imagination. With “Coyote,” “Furry Sings the Blues” and “Amelia” serving as standouts, Hejira is an atmospheric outing like no other, one that’s as evocative and intriguing now as it was when first released.

4. Clouds, 1969
Garnering a Grammy for Best Folk Performance, Mitchell’s sophomore set quickly elevated her stature and established the fact she had rapidly become one of the most proficient singers and songwriters of her generation. She not only produced the album herself, but also painted the cover image, and played every instrument on the album except the bass and guitar that were handled courtesy of Stephen Stills. Many of the songs in the set were destined to become classics, –“Chelsea Morning,” “I Don’t Know Where I Stand, “Songs To Aging Children Come,” and “Both Sides Now” in particular, the latter of which remains the most enduring song in her repertoire.

3. Ladies of the Canyon, 1970
By the time Ladies of the Canyon appeared in April,1970, Mitchell was clearly on a roll. One of its keynote songs, “Woodstock,” had already become a hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young,” while other entries such as “Willy” (written for her lover, Graham Nash), “For Free,” and “Big Yellow Taxi” rank among the most memorable and enduring songs of her catalog, melodies flush with optimism, idealism and a reflection of an idyllic time that would soon come to its conclusion. And seriously, if “Circle Game” does bring a tear to your eye or a lump to your throat, your stoic stance may have turned you to stone.

2. Court and Spark, 1974
A number two album on the American charts and number one in her native Canada, Court and Spark was not only a huge critical success but also the album that helped Mitchell ascend to new heights of commercial credence. Robbie Robertson, David Crosby, Graham Nash, the Crusaders and Tom Scott’s LA Express all made cameo appearances, but it was Mitchell’s craft and confidence that were the real factors responsible for the album’s obvious achievement. “Help Me, “Free Man in Paris” and “Raised on Robbery” are among the standout selections, indicative of Mitchell’s momentum as she moved closer to a more freewheeling finesse.

1. Blue, 1971
Considered by many to be one of the greatest albums ever made — and certainly, one of the most expressive — Blue exemplified a stripped down approach long before the term “unplugged” came into being. With only piano, acoustic guitar and dulcimer to bolster the arrangements, it finds Mitchell at her most articulate and vulnerable as well. Several songs — “Carey,” “This Flight Tonight,” “A Case of You,” and “My Old Man” among them — refer to the tumultuous relationships she was involved in at the time, initially with Graham Nash and later with James Taylor. Still, its beauty remains absolutely incandescent and the material is still utterly affecting even now. “River” alone is well worth the price of admission.

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