I came fairly late to the party with Joni. Of course I was always familiar with songs like Both Sides Now and Big Yellow Taxi, and I was dimly aware of certain of her mid-period albums receiving critical acclaim, but it was only much later that I became aware of (a) how her style went through various stages of evolution, and (b) just how excellent most of it was.
Gradually I have acquired nearly all her studio albums, meaning that I probably now have more albums by Joni than by any other artist or band. (I'll have to do a count sometime and verify that.) There are only a handful that I don't care for.
I'm not sure how this thread will evolve. I may end up reviewing some particular albums in detail, a la Crazy Horse, but for now I'll just give a potted history of her career with my own impressions.
I group Joni's career into four eras. I only list albums of new original material, not compilations or live albums.
(1) Folky period
(2) Jazz influences becoming more prominent
- 1972: For the Roses
- 1974: Court and Spark
- 1975: The Hissing of Summer Lawns
- 1976: Hejira
- 1977: Don Juan's Reckless Daughter
- 1979: Mingus
(3) Trending more to pop/rock
(4) Later period: much less of a pop sound with a return to the earlier folk and jazz influences
In listing the albums that define each era, naturally there is transition rather than a sudden shift from one style to another. For example, Blue sits comfortably alongside For the Roses, but the latter is where she was starting to sound less like a folk singer and incorporate more of a jazz sound. This reaches its peak on The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, and of course Mingus, which is really a Joni Mitchell/Charlie Mingus collaboration album and is authentically jazz.
There is an abrupt change with the next album, Wild Things Run Fast. This is a pop record, almost from start to finish, and as such it's probably my least favourite release of hers. there are some OK songs on here; there are others where I think "Hmmm, right, she can do this style, but why does she bother?" The following two albums are better, though in more or less the same vein; Dog Eat Dog has some filler, but several standout tracks, while Chalk Mark has the brilliant "The Beat of Black Wings", a harrowing tale of a Vietnam war veteran reflecting on his experiences.
Turbulent Indigo was, in my opinion, a "return to form". I would describe it as a melding of the styles from her first and second periods. It has a stunning cover of the song "How Do You Stop", originally recorded by James Brown. Taming the Tiger is fairly similar in style, but for some reason the songs did not hold my interest as much as those on the preceding album. With Shine she seemed to almost come full circle; many of those songs would not sound at all out of place on Song to a Seagull. I was really surprised how good it was, and if it's her finale - which, given her recent illness, looks to be the case - then it's a worthy end to her career. It is quite a depressing album if you listen closely to the lyrics, but she seems to sound a faint note of hope on the final two songs.
OK, so here are my favourites:
Song To a Seagull. I love all her work from this period, but this is my favourite. the opening track, "I Had a King" pretty much says "This is the kind of singer I am"; it's as good a summation of her early period as you could get.
For the Roses
Court and Spark
The Hissing of Summer Lawns. These three are from my favourite Joni period, but "Hissing" just edges out the other two to make it probably my favourite Joni album. There is a kind of concept here, most of the songs are to do with the dysfunctional nature of the traditional relationship between a man and a woman. It culminates in the song "Harry's House", a song with a slightly sinister air, whose storyline I still have not quite figured out.
Albums I am not so keen on:
Mingus (I am just not enough of a hard core jazz fan to appreciate it)
Wild Things Run Fast (some very ordinary songs here)
Dog Eat Dog (I have it, but there are really only three tracks on it that that I call essential)
Chalk Mark In a Rainstorm (don't have it, but probably almost worth it for the aforementioned Black Wings track)
Taming the Tiger (it's OK, but a slightly disappointing follow-up to Turbulent Indigo).
I left it right to the end to mention Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. This is a very strange album. Some of the songs sound like vintage Joni, while others do not sound like Joni or like anybody else I can think of. There is one track "The Tenth World" that is all percussion; there is another, "Paprika Plains" that takes up about a quarter of the album and is largely Joni singing over free-form improvised piano, moving through several different stages or movements; think of "A Day In the Life" gone mad. I bought this album on spec, and initially I was a bit taken aback by it, but I have found myself returning to it. It's definitely her most experimental album, and I wouldn't recommend it as an entry point, but it has grown on me.
It's one of my regrets that Joni is an artist I have never got to see perform live, and it looks very unlikely now that I will ever have the chance. Still, even if she never records or sings again, she has cemented her place in popular music. Allmusic suggested that she may be the most influential female recording artist of the 20th century. Personally I don't have much doubt about that.