Joni Mitchell penned some of the most prominent and enduring songs of the ’60s and ’70s. Still, she did not initially consider herself a serious songwriter.
“I didn’t really begin to write songs until I crossed the border into the States in 1965,” she later told Acoustic Guitar magazine. Mitchell first left behind her small, rural birthplace of Fort Macleod, Alberta for Saskatoon and then Toronto before she traveled to America with Chuck Mitchell, who would become her first husband and collaborative partner.
“I had always written poetry, mostly because I had to on assignment, but I hated poetry in school: It always seemed shallow and contrived and insincere to me,” Mitchell added. “All of the great poets seemed to be playing around with sonics and linguistics, but they were so afraid to express themselves without surrounding it in poetic legalese. Whenever they got sensitive, I don’t know, I just didn’t buy it.”
Yet few got as sensitive throughout her long career. She absorbed the work of songwriters like Bob Dylan, whose “Positively 4th Street” tweaked her perspective on what poetic writing could sound like.
“When I heard that ‘You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend‘ I thought, now that’s poetry. Now we’re talking,” Mitchell told Acoustic Guitar. “That direct, confronting speech, commingled with imagery, was what was lacking for me,” she said.
With the release of Blue in 1971, Mitchell effectively crowned herself the queen of personal, introspective songwriting. “I believe to this day that if you are writing that which you know firsthand,” she argued, “it’ll have greater vitality than if you’re writing from other people’s writings or secondhand information.”
Mitchell’s music would ultimately run the gamut of sound, from lively folk to jazz swing to full orchestras. Below, we’re revisiting the most underrated songs from each album.
“Night in the City”
From: Song to a Seagull (1968)
For many years, Mitchell’s view of this debut album was less than appreciative. (She once memorably described Song to a Seagull as sounding “like it was recorded under a Jello bowl.”) Producer David Crosby chose to arrange extra microphones in the studio, which led to an excess of ambient noise on the tape and an overall nightmare in post-production. Yet Mitchell’s introduction to the recording world still captured her enthusiasm and natural talent. “Night in the City,” with Stephen Stills on bass, is jaunty and confident. It’s also an excellent example of Mitchell’s cunning but controlled vocal, as “music comes spilling out into the street / colors go waltzing in time.”
“The Song About the Midway”
From: Clouds (1969)
“The Song About the Midway” is a poignant number that’s presumably about Mitchell herself, as she admits that “I’ve lost my fire over time.” Crosby later claimed that the song was about him after they had a brief relationship in 1967. Crosby started living with an old girlfriend before their official split – and that may have inspired the lines in which Mitchell insists she saw him “cheating once or twice.” Crosby described an emotional scene in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: The Wild, Definitive Saga of Rock’s Greatest Supergroup in which Mitchell debuted “The Song About the Midway” at a party held at the home of Peter Tork of the Monkees. “It was a very ‘goodbye David’ song,” Crosby said. “She sang it while looking right at me, like ‘Did you get it? I’m really mad at you.’ And then she sang it again.”
From: Ladies of the Canyon (1970)
“This is a song about a New York sidewalk musician who plays the clarinet on the corner of 6th and 8th real good for free,” Mitchell once said to an audience while introducing this track in 1969. The real-life inspiration was “Blind Richie,” who was well-known among city locals for his informal performances. Mitchell’s song juxtaposes her circumstances (“I slept last night in a good hotel / I went shopping today for jewels) with his as “the one-man band by the quick lunch stand.” It’s a stark comparison of two people, one whose life has been lifted to great wealth thanks to their craft and one whose has not. (Crosby later titled his 2021 album after this song, and included a cover of “For Free.”)
“This Flight Tonight”
From: Blue (1971)
This ode to emotional agony has long been hailed as Mitchell’s best LP — and as one of the best singer-songwriter albums of all time. Songs like “River” and “Case of You” continue to make listeners weep, but there is palpable despair in the songs that sound deceptively more optimistic, too. Such is the case with “This Flight Tonight,” in which Mitchell regrets her decision to leave behind her lover on a flight somewhere. Mitchell’s brisk dulcimer playing belies the words she sings and the conclusion she seems to draw in her head: “Sometimes I think love is just mythical.”
“Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire”
From: For the Roses (1972)
The prevalence of heroin in the ’70s, particularly in cities like Los Angeles and New York where big-name musicians lived or frequented, cannot be understated. Mitchell struggled with an addiction to it, as did her one-time boyfriend James Taylor, who inspired many of the songs that appeared on 1972’s For the Roses. “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire” — “a real paranoid city song” as Mitchell put it — is a poetic (and jazzy) portrait of addiction, complete with a femme fatale of sorts in “Lady Release,” who lures her victim into intoxication. Mitchell eventually overcame her addiction (and so did Taylor), having experienced firsthand the grip heroin could have on a person: “Do you wanna contact somebody first? / I mean what does it really matter / You’re gonna come now / or you’re gonna come later.”
From: Court and Spark (1974)
Cover songs occasionally appear on Mitchell’s albums, and “Twisted” made the cut for an LP that ultimately became her most commercially successful. “Twisted” was composed in 1952 by Wardell Gray with lyrics by Annie Ross and had already been covered by Bette Midler on her 1973 self-titled album. “It’s a cheeky tune about a patient who firmly opposes some rather pointed psychoanalysis: “My analyst told me that I was right out of my head / but I said dear doctor I think that it’s you instead.” Mitchell had recently seen a therapist, so she “figured that I earned the right to sing it,” she told Maclean’s in 1974. Some fans, critics and even fellow songwriters had been baffled by Mitchell’s stark honesty on Blue, and “Twisted” continued those explorations as a kind of appreciative nod to her darkest days. “An artist needs a certain amount of turmoil and confusion, and I’ve created out of that,” she said. “It’s been like part of the creative force — even out of severe depression sometimes there comes insight. It’s sort of masochistic to dwell on it, but you know, it helps you to gain understanding. I think it did me a lot of good.”
From: The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975)
The smooth, jazz-meets-pop style Mitchell introduced on Court and Spark continued on The Hissing of Summer Lawns, a shift that not all of her listeners appreciated. “Harry’s House/Centerpiece” blends a piece of Mitchell’s original writing with a 1958 jazz song written by Harry Edison and Jon Hendricks. It’s an unfortunate depiction of a relationship steeped in capitalistic greed: He’s “caught up at the lights in the fishnet windows of Bloomingdale’s” surrounded in a city full of “beauty-parlor blondes with credit-card eyes,” while she wonders when he’ll finally come home. (Pop star Harry Styles, a noted Mitchell fan, would later use “Harry’s House” as the title for his third album in 2022. Mitchell said she approved.)
“Blue Motel Room”
From: Hejira (1976)
Much of this LP was inspired by a great deal of travel Mitchell did during 1975 and 1976, as she joined Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, toured behind her music and just generally hit the road, both alone and with friends. Freedom and wanderlust emerged as significant themes. In “Blue Motel Room,” Mitchell sings in a sultry, lounge-performer voice, and asks her lover if he’ll still have her when she returns to Los Angeles. She compares their pairing to “America and Russia,” two opposing forces “always balancing the power.” Hypnotically, Mitchell offers a clear ultimatum: “You lay down your sneaking ’round the town honey / and I’ll lay down the highway.”
“Off Night Backstreet”
From: Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977)
“Maybe I’m just kidding myself when I say I love you, I don’t know,” Mitchell admits at the very beginning of “Off Night Backstreet.” The album this song appears on, which depicts Mitchell in blackface on the cover, was even more experimental than the last. But there’s a slow groove to “Off Night Backstreet” that is welcome amongst the looseness of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. Ex-boyfriend John Guerin was part of these sessions as was drummer Don Alias, who Mitchell began dating in 1977. Though paired with someone new, “Off Night Backstreet” is another example of Mitchell’s disillusionment with love. “Things change so rapidly. Relationships don’t seem to have any longevity,” she told the Toronto Star in 1977. “Occasionally, you see people who have been together for six or seven, maybe 12 years, but for the most part people drift in and out of relationships continually. There isn’t a lot of commitment to anything; it’s a disposable society.”
“The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines”
From: Mingus (1979)
This was a collaborative effort with jazz legend Charles Mingus, who joined Mitchell in the months before his death in 1979 to create an eccentric and eclectic LP. One might lament some of the “noodling” and melodically challenging numbers but a song like “The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines” proves how dynamic and driving Mitchell’s voice could be, as she leaped from her low range to high falsettos. “I’ve got a big palette now,” Mitchell quite aptly said during a 1979 concert.
“(You’re So Square) Baby, I Don’t Care”
From: Wild Things Run Fast (1982)
“In my teens I loved to dance,” Mitchell told Rolling Stone in 1979. “That was my thing.” Elvis Presley was one of a few rock ‘n’ roll pioneers who Mitchell was turned on to before shifting her attention toward folk, but that didn’t mean his influence got entirely lost – as proven by “(You’re So Square) Baby, I Don’t Care,” a 1957 song which Presley recorded and also performed in Jailhouse Rock. Her enthusiastic cover reached No. 47 on the U.S. Hot 100 and stands out as a rock ‘n’ roll aside among the album’s other ’80s pop tracks.
From: Dog Eat Dog (1985)
Mitchell continued to gravitate toward a slicker sound in the mid-’80s — and Dog Eat Dog in particular offered a more electronic sonic landscape than anything she’d done before. Who better to bring things back to reality than Michael McDonald, who duetted with Mitchell on “Good Friends”? At first blush, the pair might not seem like a fitting choice, but their vocal blend comes across as sincere, even if the surrounding music feels artificial.
From: Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm (1988)
There are several surprising and enjoyable guest appearances on Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm — Don Henley, Billy Idol, Peter Gabriel and Tom Petty among them — but Willie Nelson emerges as an exceptional choice for Mitchell’s duet partner on “Cool Water,” not to mention a natural selection for a 1936 song about a wandering cowboy. “It’s an idea I’ve had for a long time, to sing the narrative and cast my characters,” Mitchell told Rolling Stone in 1988. “‘Cause the songs have a lot of ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ in them. So I thought, ‘Who would be the perfect Old Dan in ‘Cool Water’? … Then it became fun, and I just started calling people when I would think of them.”
From: Night Ride Home (1991)
There’s a good deal of personal history hidden in this album. “Cherokee Louise” stretches back to Mitchell’s childhood in Saskatoon, where one of her friends, a Cree girl, was sexually abused by her foster father. “Ever since we turned 13, it’s like a minefield,” Mitchell sings in a sorrowful indictment of wrongdoing that occurred in the very place that helped shaped Mitchell’s earliest art. The song is particularly powerful since it’s sung by a middle-aged woman with the benefit of hindsight. Years later, Mitchell struggled with plans that Saskatoon leaders had to create a physical monument for her such as a statue, a cafe or a cultural center. “I love Saskatoon. Don’t get me wrong,” she told the Star Phoenix in 2013. “I had such enjoyable teenage years there. I started to play the guitar and paint there. My gifts began there. But I cannot go through another one of these. If you want to do something, leave me out of it. Just do it.”
“The Magdalene Laundries”
From: Turbulent Indigo (1994)
Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries were Catholic-run institutions that operated from the 18th until the late 20th century as housing for what was then described as “fallen women,” a phrase that primarily referred to prostitutes. But the laundries housed — or more accurately, interned — women then deemed unfit for society, including unwed mothers, anyone considered to be promiscuous, and those who had been sexually abused, among others. Tens of thousands were forced to labor inside these facilities. Many died there. The bodies of more than 100 women were uncovered in 1991 at the former site of one laundry outside of Dublin. Mitchell was appalled after reading about it in the newspaper. “The women were overworked and underpaid if they were paid at all, and no one seemed to retrieve them,” Mitchell told CBC-TV in 1994. “So it seemed like such a poignant story and the song came of that.”
From: Taming the Tiger (1998)
Mitchell begins “Lead Balloon” with a punch. Or rather, a liquid strike: “‘Kiss my ass,’ I said – and I threw my drink, tequila trickling down his business suit.” The scene sounds like an incident that reportedly occurred between Mitchell and Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner at an awards ceremony. Mitchell was hardly a fan of the magazine, which had deemed her “Old Lady of the Year” in 1971, not long after the release of Blue. Mitchell initially described Taming the Tiger as her last album of new material, and “Lead Balloon” certainly feels like a summation on the subject of sexism in the music industry. She’d spent most of her career being compared to male counterparts, and Mitchell could see the differences: “An angry man is just an angry man / but an angry woman: Bitch.”
From: Both Sides Now (2000)
“Comes Love” arrived as part of a collection of mid-century classics done up in orchestral style just two years before Mitchell left the industry seemingly for good. Here, grand swells and an elaborate arrangement make this 1939 song from the Broadway musical Yokel Boy sound like something Mitchell could have done as a James Bond theme. By this point, she’d been working as a recording artist for more than three decades – and Mitchell felt perhaps the best way to create fresh new music was to revisit the storied past. “Instead of trying to do it myself,” she told Billboard in 2000, “let me display what I think was the best music of the century. ‘See here? Remember this? This was music.'”
From: Travelogue (2002)
Mitchell wasn’t timid about returning to her catalog, either. Travelogue found her working with composer Vince Mendoza on a project that rearranged key older songs with orchestral parts. Mitchell pulled “The Dawntreader” from her debut, making its already spellbinding quality even more prevalent. Richly layered, this re-recording became a testament to the depth of Mitchell’s original melody and phrasing.
From: Shine (2007)
“In order to write again there’s going to have to be a real shift in me,” Mitchell admitted to The Canadian Press in 2002. “Where that will come from, I don’t know.” Five years later, that shift finally happened, and Mitchell released another album of new material. Like “Big Yellow Taxi” from nearly four decades earlier, “This Place” is a pleasant-sounding number that offers a grim prognosis. Here, she laments a climate weakened by human interference: “When this place looks like a moonscape, don’t say I didn’t warn ya.”
Rock’s 100 Most Underrated Albums
You know that LP that it seems like only you love? Let’s talk about those.