Joni Mitchell's Albums Ranked from Worst to Best
Her catalogue tends to be synonymous with just one classic LP — but the entire discography is nearly flawless
Published Jul 25, 2023Joni Mitchell may have the most near-flawless discography of any artist largely (and erroneously) known for just one classic LP. What makes her 19 albums, spread over 39 years, so appealing is her sense of discovery and adventure. When she got it right there was no one better; when she got it wrong, it was still completely honest and authentic.
With the upcoming release of Joni Mitchell at Newport via Rhino Records — which you can read our review of here, and decide for yourself where it fits in the ranking come Friday (July 28) — we count down her studio LPs from worst(ish) to best.
19. Dog Eat Dog (1985)
It says a lot about Mitchell's musical acumen that even her least beloved LP is still completely absorbing. Mostly produced by Thomas Dolby and largely performed by her husband Larry Klein on keyboards, Joni seems more like a guest vocalist here. Trading her acoustic guitar for glossy synths and Reganomics parables, Dog Eat Dog strives to be wholly of the moment. And what a chaotic moment it was.
Standout track: The "We Are the World"-encouraged "Ethiopia."
18. Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (1977)
Mitchell was deep into her jazz period by the time she released her ninth LP. She decided to close off her five-album deal with David Geffen's Asylum Records by playing things loose. Adding in African beats while joined by two-thirds of jazz fusion group the Weather Report, Joni can't quite get past the experimentation phase that defined this overly ambitious output.
Standout track: The 16-minute improvised piano- and orchestra-led description of Canada's Indigenous peoples' struggles, "Paprika Plains."
17. Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm (1988)
After the new wave Dog Eat Dog, Mitchell transitioned into adult contemporary territory. Duetting with both Willie Nelson and Don Henley also doesn't help her case. Joni finally seems to get a handle on this '80s thing, as she manages to incorporate synthetic sounds more organically. But "Dancin' Clown," featuring backup from Tom Petty along with an outrageous Billy Idol vocal, is simply something from another stratosphere.
Standout track: Yet another duet, this time with Peter Gabriel, Mitchell captures a Leonard Cohen-esque mood on "My Secret Place."
16. Song to a Seagull (1968)
Her debut album only gives you a glimpse of the real Joni Mitchell. After being "discovered" by David Crosby (who also produced the LP), Song to a Seagull is hampered by bizarre recording decisions, like stripping down instrumentation to just acoustic guitar, bass, piano and Mitchell's way-too-bright vocals. However, the songwriting is already closing in on perfection here — a fitting launching pad for an iconic career.
Standout track: The ideal platform for Joni's churning guitar and gently soaring vocals, as well as the first in a long list of songs about mysterious men, "Michael from the Mountains."
15. Travelogue (2002)
Just because this collection of Mitchell's catalogue – reimagined with a symphony – stands as one of her least essential recordings doesn't make it any less of an achievement. Beautifully arranged by Björk collaborator Vince Mendoza, these two hours of music seem tailor-fit for Joni's mature and intellectual fan base. Although Travelogue doesn't really offer much new material, it's nonetheless captivating.
Standout track: The sweeping, moody retake on a 30-year-old classic, "For the Roses."
14. Taming the Tiger (1998)
Although she only released three albums over the decade, the '90s were a fruitful time for Mitchell. Working with a quartet that included Klein on bass, Brian Blade on drums and Wayne Shorter on saxophone, her 16th LP is a low-key, ambient return to jazz driven by inventive tunings she derived from the Roland VG-8 virtual guitar system.
Standout track: Normally known for her naïve vocals, Joni sounds virtually sultry on "Man from Mars."
13. Mingus (1979)
After her first real misstep with 1977's Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, Mitchell doubled down with her follow-up. As a full album collaboration with jazz icon Charles Mingus, Joni's 10th LP is her most unusual, complicated and out of step. Featuring some of the genre's best — Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius, Herbie Hancock and Peter Erskine — Mingus is somehow a modest work of art.
Standout track: Mitchell shows off her jazz vocal chops best on her cover of Mingus's "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat."
12. Both Sides Now (2000)
Neil Young tried some wacky stuff and often failed. David Bowie also tried some wacky stuff but rarely failed. Joni Mitchell, however, tried some wacky stuff and mostly succeeded. Launching her musical relationship with arranger Vince Mendoza, Mitchell closed the door to her second jazz phase with orchestral renditions of standards written between 1923 and 1952, while completely rearranging her entire vocal delivery to produce this beloved suite.
Standout track: Covered by Doris Day, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald throughout the years, Joni matches the passion of 1933's "You're My Thrill."
11. Wild Things Run Fast (1982)
Mitchell began her uneven '80s run with a clean slate. Her first release on new label Geffen marked the beginning of Joni's longtime musical (and romantic) partnership with Larry Klein. Her 11th LP found her abandoning her jazz era for rhythmic, jazzy new wave heavily influenced by the Police. The results are captivating — a collision of genres that few could copy.
Standout track: The closest she's ever come to straight-up prog rock, Mitchell keeps pace with shifting rhythms on the Lionel Richie duet "You Dream Flat Tires."
10. Clouds (1969)
Just 13 months after her debut, Mitchell took a major leap with her sophomore LP. Finding her voice (and equally importantly, a good producer with Paul A. Rothchild), Clouds set the template for her first troubadour folk phase. Later albums would certainly be more iconic, gain larger critical acclaim and sell more copies, but everything you really need from Joni starts here.
Standout track: It's hard to pass over "Chelsea Morning," but there's something so simple but sophisticated about "Both Sides, Now."
9. Turbulent Indigo (1994)
Even with a Grammy for Best Pop Album and a gold certification in Canada, Mitchell's 15th LP is somehow a forgotten gem in her catalogue. Despite being a return to her folk era, these 10 tracks feature some of her most political, pointed and daring lyrics, addressing mental health, the Catholic Church and spousal abuse.
Standout track: Themes of corporate power and its connection to environmental and civil destruction sound as current as ever on "Sex Kills."
8. Shine (2007)
After announcing her retirement from recording, critics absolutely fawned over her surprise return to songwriting with her first LP of new material in nine years. Shine is a passionate and stripped-down blend of her four eras: political folk, hip jazz, new wave pop and adult baroque, Mitchell's 19th and most recent album still deserves its accolades 16 years later.
Standout track: Based on a Tennessee Williams play about a man suffering from a nervous breakdown, Joni spills empathy and charisma on "Night of the Iguana."
7. Night Ride Home (1991)
Reeling from the release of two of her weakest efforts, Mitchell went back to basics for her 14th LP. Shying away from big-name guest stars, Joni relied on her closest collaborators, Klein, Shorter and Alex Acuña, for this warm and immediate masterpiece. Setting the stage for an excellent stretch of '90s albums, Mitchell trusted her instincts and released her strongest set of songs in 15 years.
Standout track: Opening the album with the soothing tones of her acoustic guitar and the sound of crickets was a much-needed comedown from the '80s, which she delivered on "Night Ride Home."
6. Ladies of the Canyon (1970)
Mitchell's first album of her most prolific decade was also the moment where Joni turned from a folksy performer to sophisticated songwriter. You know her third LP is a feat when her most notable song, "Big Yellow Taxi," is just one in a long list of iconic tracks. From here, Joni would release another five perfect LPs — an incredible artistic run for a 26-year-old from Saskatchewan.
Standout track: Although she didn't actually make it there, Mitchell nonetheless paints a pristine image of the eponymous festival with "Woodstock."
5. Hejira (1976)
Eight years into her musical career, Joni Mitchell was enjoying her fame. Between trysts with celebrities and acting as a member of Bob Dylan's ensemble, Mitchell somehow developed a cocaine habit. This coincidently also coincided with the wildest artistic jump of her career. Bringing on bass prodigy Pastorius, Joni created a daring folk jazz masterpiece that's only grown in esteem.
Standout track: Clocking in at nine minutes, Mitchell would wholly invent a new musical language with the rubbery, angelic "Song for Sharon."
4. For the Roses (1972)
Mitchell's fifth LP cemented the fact that she was no flash in the pan. Each of the album's 12 tracks comes off perfectly, brimming with wisdom and passion. This includes "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio," a song written in jest after her label pressured her to produce a radio hit. Celebrated instantaneously, Joni proved that she was incapable of merely writing an average song.
Standout track: As beautifully simplistic and earthy as anything on Neil Young's Harvest, Mitchell proved 1972 to be the year of the Canadian folkie with "Woman of Heart and Mind."
3. The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975)
Written a year before punk broke, Mitchell's seventh LP was an incredibly challenging and intricate recording, created during a time when rock had reached its homogenized nadir. It's simply light years ahead lyrically (dealing with women's rights and expectations), musically (using loops and synths) and stylistically (a precursor to the international sounds explored by Sting and Peter Gabriel). Popular music still hasn't caught up.
Standout track: Packed with so many fertile ideas, moods and modes, seven minutes still seems impossibly too short to contain "Harry's House / Centerpiece."
2. Court and Spark (1974)
Having basically defined and perfected '70s folk three years into the decade, Mitchell would begin her transition into more adventurous sounds. To say Joni nailed this sonic shift on her first try is a gross understatement. There was simply no one more assured of their ability to craft groundbreaking music, exude confidence, and absolutely be themselves than Joni Mitchell in 1974.
Standout track: Although its striking simplicity makes it feel out of place on Court and Spark, a great song is a great song — and there are few greater than "Help Me."
1. Blue (1971)
Mitchell's fourth album has always been considered one of the best of 1971. But after it defined the singer-songwriter era, it was reevaluated as one of the greatest albums of that decade. Then, when Neil and Leonard attempted to capture (but never quite match) its level of raw honesty, it entered the conversation of greatest Canadian albums in history. Now it's just known as possibly the greatest album ever.
Standout track: Being overwhelmed with love never sounded so poetic and realistic as it did on "A Case of You."