A Beginner’s Guide to the music of Joni Mitchell

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Joni Mitchell beginner's guide

Though she had her share of setbacks—one of which was very early on when she contracted polio as a child—Joni Mitchell is one of the biggest names in the music industry. Not only known for her catchy, touching, original, and enduring music, Ms. Mitchell’s lyrics have been celebrated for their deep emotional meaning and poetic verses. Even if you have never listened to her original versions, you have definitely heard one of her songs before.

I was first introduced to the songbook of Joni Mitchell by my mother when I was starting high school. She kept all the CDs in two black cases stored by the stereo. I used to pick albums randomly, mostly classical, but I would always pass over the grouping of Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro. One day, I decided to actually try one of these CDs. I don’t remember exactly which one, but there’s a good chance that it was Ladies of the Canyon (1970) or Blue (1972). At the time I didn’t really like them that much. However, when I played Court and Spark (1974), my whole mindset was changed. That’s the beauty of Joni Mitchell’s music, from folk to pop to jazz and everything in between, she’s done far too much to be summarized with just a single album. And as such, I compiled a guide to getting started with the Canadian troubadour’s large and rewarding catalog.

beginner's guide Joni Mitchell Court and SparkCourt and Spark

(1974; Asylum)

Unlike Blue or Ladies, Court and Spark isn’t an album where certain songs overshadow the whole. My advice would be to listen to the track “Help Me” first. A hit for her in the ’70s, it still remains a favorite among fans and critics. A departure from previous five albums, Court combines her traditional pop-folk style with jazz influences. Other highlights include “Car on the Hill,” “Free Man in Paris,” “Just Like this Train” and “Raised on Robbery.” Not only do these songs combine upbeat guitar and vocals (among other instruments), but they are sincerely personal songs that also feature observations on society and inner struggles of the everyperson.

Listen/Buy: Tidal | Merchbar (vinyl)

beginner's guide Joni Mitchell hissing of summer lawnsThe Hissing of Summer Lawns

(1975; Asylum)

If you like “Help Me,” you might try my second favorite song, “In France They Kiss on Main Street” from The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Though the pace is a tad slower, there is an intensity that Joni Mitchell brings whereas lesser artists would have left it feeling a bit flat. One thing about Mitchell’s albums—the pacing is always impeccable, with a good mix of slow and upbeat songs. The slow songs here aren’t always the draw, though that is not to say I do not enjoy them when I’m in the mood for something more atmospheric, like the exquisite “Edith and the Kingpin” or even the title track.

Listen/Buy: Tidal | Merchbar (vinyl)

best Joni Mitchell albums BlueBlue

(1971; Reprise)

Said to be her best album by the majority of critics and listeners, Blue is indeed a very good album. You have undoubtedly heard “River” which its faux “Jingle Bells” accompaniment, and “Carey” is a lively tune that gets you in the groove. Although other artists have done “region songs” (James Taylor: “Carolina on My Mind” and Carole King: “Back to California”),  Mitchell’s “California” really bares her desire to head home and get out of the limelight. Catchy, confident, and sincere, this track has it all and really exemplifies the tender-tough music that defines Joni Mitchell.

Listen/Buy: Tidal | Merchbar (vinyl)

ladies of the canyon best joni mitchell albumsLadies of the Canyon

(1970; Reprise/Warner Bros.)

Seen as a transitional period from her earlier folky sound to a more pop-jazz, or pop-rock style, some of her best songs spring up on Ladies of the Canyon. The noted canyon is Laurel Canyon in California, known for its counterculture affiliations and home to many other famous musicians. The singles “Woodstock” and “Big Yellow Taxi” are naturally significant and well-known, however, “Conversation” and “Circle Games” once again display her lyrical tendencies and her musical sophistication. Ms. Mitchell is sure to impress anyone with her words, her sense of sound that runs with such lovely care and precision as to make any poet cry. Although it was Bob Dylan who won the Nobel for his lyrics, I feel Mitchell is a far superior candidate. No other artist, other than perhaps Paul Simon, has the ability to merge language and instruments in such a beautiful, touchingly tender way. Mostly on guitar, Joni Mitchell really brings out the small voice of the inner mind in the meditational songs in a big way.

Listen/Buy: Tidal | Turntable Lab (vinyl)

Also Recommended: After my making my way through her ’70s repertoire, I listened vaguely to her first album: Song to a Seagull (1968; Reprise). Though one can tell she is a new artist, the genius is there. Tracks like “Michael from Mountains,” “Cactus Tree” and “I Had a King” were certainly standouts, mainly because they broke from a traditional sound, exploring odd melodies or using unique combination of instrumentals and vocals. You can always tell Joni Mitchell from her coevals like Carole King, Laura Nyro, or Carly Simon by her expressive wailing that works well with her type of emotional-invested lyrics. She talks of “the gamble being worth the price” in the context of finding a lover, or she considers the fact that “you love your loving but not as much as your freedom.” Mitchell is always just a step ahead of her contemporaries, musically and lyrically.

Advanced Listening: Always pushing forward, Joni Mitchell doesn’t wait for what the critics have to say. She is at her best when she shows off her jazz influence. Yes, many songs are soft and slow—which I still love—yet she means the most to me when she is moving the beat along. Songs like “Coyote” from her 1976 album Hejira (which means “journey”) or “Number One” from Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm (1988) or “Ladies Man” from her 1982 album Wild Things Run Fast or “Lead Balloon” off Taming the Tiger (1998). Long-gone are the mellow worries of love in her 1970 “Conversation,” and now there appears a more war-conscious and hardened version. However, they still capture the listener’s ear, but it is a different sound, a different tone.

Do not rush into any of these albums head-on. Take your time to get to know her—her voice, her feelings, her guitar technique. Joni Mitchell leads you on an unforgettable journey that you will always remember wherever you go.

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View Comments (20)
  • Joni Mitchell cannot possibly be summed up in a “this is good, this is ok, this is bad” review. Everything she wrote is of immense merit. There is no one else like her in her enormity. How can you possibly say what is better or worse in her work. It is all triumphant. You merely express your total lack of understanding here. I am sorry you are so ignorant and banal.

    • Never ceases to amaze me how a well-intentioned article recommending starting points for an artist that some people might not be familiar with somehow invites this level of unwarranted hostility.

  • I was hooked on Joni and Jaco pastorius with hejira. I was about to graduate from high school and dying to journey away from the small town. Someone put music to that!

  • Loved reading this. My first Joni experience was my Court and Spark 8-track in college and I was instantly hooked. I really think it is still my favorite. One of the best lines – ‘everything comes and goes…pleasure moves on too early and trouble leaves too slow’.

  • The best road trippin album is Heijira hands down.
    In fact, the entire album was written on one of Joni’s road trips across the country and this album takes you on her journey with her.

    • I Love ‘Hejira!’ And, the title track is one of the Most Beautiful songs I have ever heard…

    • Agree with you, but I did listen to Court and Spark about 30 times when driving cross-country back in the 1980s. That’s a good road trip album too!

  • Jaco Pastorius on Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter is my all-time favourite. Grew up listening to each of her albums as they were released. Also listened to the short-lived Laura Nyro.

  • I have to say that Joni Mitchell is one of my favorite Artist/Lyricist/Vocalist/Composers, if not my favorite. I am in Love with how she designs and plays with the vocals and the music in her songs. Joni doesn’t simply sing, she takes you on a journey and weaves an in depth story as she welcomes you to take her hand and come along with her. I have her entire collection, with the exception of one or two albums, and I have to say that there’s not one song by her that I don’t like. Yes, there are some that top my list of Joni Mitchell tunes, ‘Help Me,’ ‘A Case Of You,’ ‘Hejira,’ ‘Cold Blue Steel, Sweet Fire,’ ‘Boho Dance,’ ”Unchained Melody,’ to name a few, but I enjoy and appreciate her entire catalog. There is no one that writes as poetically as she does and being a poet/writer myself, I respect that in Joni. There’s hardly a day that I don’t listen to her. Her buttery-smooth voice takes me to a Beautiful Place. I have a true Love Affair with Joni and I always say, ‘Joni is one Woman that I would love to meet and get to know.’ (Definitely would have dated her in her younger days!) So, if you are one that hasn’t delved into the Beautiful Music of Joni Mitchell, I recommend that you take a dive and get lost in her. Take your time to absorb all that she offers. You won’t regret it…

  • I’ve heard all of Joni’s music and your album picks are impeccable, right down to the largely forgotten Song to a Seagull.

    Hejira seems to be fan lifers’ favourite album, but it was the beginning of the end for me. What a snooze. Many interesting moments after though.

  • Your choices are good ones to begin to dive into Joni’s work and get to know her, but Hejira is, in my opinion, the best single album she ever did. I am not sure that any of the songs were big popular hits (Amelia and Coyote did make the airwaves, and Furry Sings the Blues is a great song about Beale Street) but the lyrics are incredible on every song and the music is more intensely jazz influenced and less beholden to any popular styles or past influences. The whole album goes seamlessly together dealing with escape and being on the road, and is to me the first that is entirely her. The last stanza on the album from the song Refuge of the Roads illustrates her way with words which is evident in every song, but the music really makes these words sing.

    In a highway service station
    Over the month of June
    Was a photograph of the earth
    Taken coming back from the moon
    And you couldn’t see a city
    On that marbled bowling ball
    Or a forest or a highway
    Or me here least of all
    You couldn’t see these cold water restrooms
    Or this baggage overload
    Westbound and rolling taking refuge in the roads

    • It’s a bit of a travesty to leave out Hejira, which is an astounding musical achievement. All of the album’s mentioned are great but Hejira stands at the top of Joni’s catalog. The basslines are so compelling; the songwriting so brilliant. A songwriter and performer at the Apex of her career!

      • I agree 100%. IMO Hejira is the absolute peak of her career. The lyrics and the music melts together and create something that can only be described as synergy.
        Still, after listening to the album for more that 40 years, I still find it new and fresh and the lyrics always make my mind wander off to strange places with it’s wonderful imagery.

  • I’ve loved her music since she started. My favorites are Blue and Court and Spark. The first two albums are underrated. I learned about altered tunings from her, David Crosby,Richard Thompson, and Martin Carthy. However, as someone who listens to a lot of folk music, I must say that her music has nothing to do with folk music. It is a self created absolutely original work of art.. People think that if people play acoustic guitars that means folk music. Wrong.

  • I always fett that Court and Spark was an anomoly — her only purely commercial recording. But as such, its the best place to start listening to her stuff.
    From there, go back to Ladies of the Canyon, and move forward chronologically, to Blue and For the Roses– and listen again to Court and Spark.

    That is to be followed by the three “peak Joni” albums. Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira, and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.

    IMO, DJRD is Joni’s best album, at least in artistic terms. And from that point, you should probably go back to the beginning — the first (Joni Mitchell aka Song to a Seagull) and second (Clouds) albums.

    Then proceed to Mingus — I know people who love this album, but for me, its an over reach. The rest of her albums can be listened to in any order, really. They’re all very good, but there is no longer any sense of the artistic progression that her earlier albums had. And none of them reach the peak that the three post -Court and Spark albums did.

  • I took a road trip, also, listening the the then-new Hejira (Shreveport, LA to NYC), and while living in the City for a year, buying Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. Rolling Stone let some know-nothing kid review Hejira and he trashed it. It is not the review you will find on RS website now, but one that is far more appreciative. I have listened to Blue most recently, and would not argue with anyone who likes it (of her catalog) the best. I plan to listen to The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Travelogue next, because i heard a recent review of these last 3 albums by 2 critics (male & female) interviewed by a female fan. The latter double LP, which did not meet with critical or commercial success, received unanimous accolades by those 3 people. (https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-mojo-innovators-podcast/id1467195603?i=1000444829273)

  • Joni and Jaco were spectacular together in all they did. Jaco was soooo good…Joni is one of the BEST. We are so lucky to have their collections forever.

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