Stream Joni Mitchell’s Complete Discography: A 17-Hour Playlist Moving from Song to a Seagull (1968) to Shine (2007)

In “Fear of a Female Genius,” a recent essay on Joni Mitchell, Lind­say Zoladz explains why “one of the great­est liv­ing artists in pop­u­lar music still isn’t prop­er­ly rec­og­nized.” If you’re think­ing that has some­thing to do with gen­der bias, it does. But there’s so much more to Mitchell’s com­plex sto­ry. Those who ful­ly embrace her are an eclec­tic group with lean­ings, like Mitchell, toward folk, jazz, clas­si­cal, and instru­men­tal music world­wide: some­times all at once. Despite occa­sion­al breezy plain­spo­ken­ness, she nev­er makes for easy lis­ten­ing.

Her albums take us on wind­ing jour­neys through pecu­liar­ly evoca­tive lyri­cal tableaus, rich with unex­pect­ed, even jar­ring, images. Even the most acces­si­ble songs—for exam­ple, Court and Spark’s Burt Bacharach-like “Help Me”—spin like ver­ti­go-induc­ing roller coast­ers, lit­tle gyres pow­ered by bound­less cre­ative ener­gy. Her most pop­u­lar tunes glow with a world­ly-wise inten­si­ty all their own. Hear them all, from 1968’s Song to a Seag­ull to 2007’s Shine, in the 18-hour Spo­ti­fy playlist below. Or access it direct­ly here.

The idio­syn­crat­ic beau­ty of Mitchell’s music, woven from shim­mer­ing tonal pat­terns, shift­ing polyrhythms, and odd tim­ings and tun­ings, defies the labels we might apply. “I think when you lis­ten to Court and Spark,” says Bar­ney Hoskyns, edi­tor of a new anthol­o­gy of writ­ing about Mitchell, “you can’t real­ly sit there and say, ‘Well this is just pop music.’ You have to think of it on a lev­el with the great­est art that’s been done in the last hun­dred years.” If Bob Dylan “is sort of Shake­speare,” Hoskyns says, “then Joni Mitchell is Mil­ton… or Dante,” two writ­ers whose labyrinthine verse often pos­es sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges for read­ers.

These kinds of “crass analo­gies,” as Hoskyns terms it, might seem off-putting and pre­ten­tious. But if it seems like Mitchell’s name appears more in the com­pa­ny of famous men than women, it’s an asso­ci­a­tion she made her­self.  “Most of my heroes are mon­sters, unfor­tu­nate­ly,” she has said, “and they are men.” Pablo Picas­so, Miles Davis, Charles Min­gus, whose sur­name Mitchell took for the title of her tenth album…. “This kind of male-hero wor­ship,” writes Zoladz, “has made Mitchell a dif­fi­cult fig­ure to some fem­i­nist crit­ics.”

Indeed, there is some­thing “inter­net-proof” about Mitchell—her “unruli­ness” and unwill­ing­ness to remain in one place, to play the roles assigned her, to adopt hip stances, pan­der, or deny her­self the free­dom to move in unfa­mil­iar artis­tic direc­tions, mak­ing dis­cov­er­ies and risk­ing mis­steps more cau­tious artists would avoid.

Chuck Mitchell, the estranged ex-hus­band and musi­cal part­ner who seemed to resent her incred­i­ble tal­ent, called her odd tun­ings “mys­ti­cal.” But she resists the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of her play­ing as strange. “How can there be weird chords?” she asks; “these chords that I heard inside that suit­ed me—they feel like my feel­ings.” As much as her work has emerged from her admi­ra­tion of male heroes and col­lab­o­ra­tors, it has also been defined by escape from the restric­tions men in her life might place on her, from Mitchell to Gra­ham Nash, whose mar­riage pro­pos­al she declined. “As much as I loved and cared for Gra­ham,” she remem­bered lat­er, “I just thought, I’m gonna end up like my grand­moth­er, kick­ing the door off the hinges, you know what I mean? It’s like, I bet­ter not.”

Albums like Heji­ra—her ver­sion of an Ara­bic word mean­ing some­thing like “jour­ney to a bet­ter place”—and The Hiss­ing of Sum­mer Lawns, with its night­mare vision of domes­tic­i­ty, doc­u­ment Mitchell’s release from the snares of mar­riage. But it has been dif­fi­cult for the 21st cen­tu­ry to come to terms with her for oth­er rea­sons. Her casu­al appro­pri­a­tion of cul­tur­al tropes and her deci­sion to appear in lit­er­al black­face, not only at a Hal­loween par­ty but on the cov­er of 1977’s Don Juan’s Reck­less Daugh­ter, have been called marks of poor taste, at best. Her albums became increas­ing­ly exper­i­men­tal in the late 70s, show­cas­ing a pas­tiche of influ­ences and guest musi­cians over­lay­ing her already unusu­al musi­cal­i­ty, and alien­at­ing many of her fans.

As she left behind the “con­fes­sion­al” voice of albums like 1971’s crit­i­cal­ly-vaunt­ed Blue and head­ed into weird­er ter­ri­to­ry, she lost lis­ten­ers and crit­ics, who sav­aged abstract projects like The Hiss­ing of Sum­mer Lawns, only to find, forty years lat­er, that these were essen­tial works of art pushed aside by the weight of expec­ta­tion. Mitchell had been push­ing against that weight her entire life. Like some oth­er unique­ly tal­ent­ed guitarists—Django Rein­hardt, Tony Iommi—her style devel­oped around a dis­abil­i­ty, in her case a left hand weak­ened by the polio she had as a child in Cana­da. “So she invent­ed her own way of play­ing,” writes Zoladz, and invent­ed her own way of being in the music busi­ness and the world at large. “For good and at times for ill, Joni Mitchell believes she is a genius.” Spend some time with her discog­ra­phy and you may find it hard to dis­agree with her.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear the 150 Great­est Albums by Women: NPR Cre­ates a New Canon of Albums That Puts Women at the Cen­ter of Music His­to­ry

For Joni Mitchell’s 70th Birth­day, Watch Clas­sic Per­for­mances of “Both Sides Now” & “The Cir­cle Game” (1968)

Vin­tage Video of Joni Mitchell Per­form­ing in 1965 — Before She Was Even Named Joni Mitchell

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Greg says:

    The discog­ra­phy missed “urge for going”

  • Karl Reitmann says:

    Leonard Cohen last week; the wan­ton tor­ture of humankind should’ve stopped there. Now it’s Joni Mitchell as well, ramp­ing up human suf­fer­ing.. Spo­ti­fy has no lim­its to its cru­el­ty.

  • MovieJay (@MovieJay) says:

    @Greg: “Urge For Going” nev­er appeared on her stu­dio albums (or the two live ones). Spo­ti­fy has all her com­pi­la­tion albums though and you can find it on one or two of these: “Hits”, “Miss­es”, “The Begin­ning of Sur­vival”, “Dream­land”, “Songs of a Prairie Girl”, “Love Has Many Faces”.

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