Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
I should probably start this with a pop music true confession: the first Joni Mitchell album I ever bought and listened to in full was 1974’s Court And Spark, and the sole reason I purchased it was because I’d heard Prince, whom I was obsessed with (this was the early ’80s), say that he loved it and thought she was a genius (or something to that effect). Basically, if the person who made my #1 favorite album (Purple Rain) with my # 1 favorite song (“I Would Die 4 U”) loved her, there had to be a reason, and I needed to know what that reason was. I bought the album, and by the time I’d finished playing it, like most humans upon exposure to Joni, I’d been transformed into a complete devotee, snarfing up every album and playing them endlessly forever. That Prince, he knew what he was talking about.
Court and Spark remains the ideal entry point for the nascent Joni fan, even more so than her most lauded album, the legendary Blue, which I sadly suspect the ’80s new wave teen me would’ve found too heavy and meandering. In the most simplistic terms, Court and Spark was Joni’s first full-blown pop album, at once gloriously melodic and accessible, yet inherently Joni: somewhat cryptic and full of both pointed observation and articulate self flagellation.
This is the album where Joni officially “fattened” her sound, utilizing jazz-pop-sessioneer extraordinaires LA Express as her backing band; they in turn created a full, gorgeously widescreen backdrop for every one of these complex and wondrous pop songs.
Released in January of 1974, the album got as high as #2 in U.S. pop charts, ultimately going platinum and spawning what is shockingly the only Top Ten hit of her career, “Help Me.” But Joni is one of those artists where sales statistics are irrelevant. As David Crosby said recently, “She’s the best singer-songwriter there is, man. There isn’t anybody close. I don’t think there’s anybody who can touch her.”
Norah Jones – Court and Spark (Joni Mitchell cover)
While Herbie Hancock’s handsome 2007 Grammy Award-winning Joni tribute album The Joni Letters features an array of soulful guest vocalists, it is as much about the virtuosic instrumental interludes as the singing. As a result, most of the tracks feature lovely but invariably lengthy jazz passages that tend to overshadow the vocal performances. Norah Jones’s version of Court and Spark‘s title track on the Hancock album is good, but her live take at the Joni 75 birthday tribute show in 2018 is an even better showcase for her smoky, lowdown vocal delivery. In this version, less is more; the pop of the original is reinstated, and the whole thing truly shuffles and shines.
kd lang – Help Me (Joni Mitchell cover)
There are a lot of covers of this, Joni’s biggest hit, but none are as gorgeously delivered as kd’s. Her vocal positively soars, somehow managing to be both delicately reverential and steamrolling. It’s easily one of the finest Joni covers ever, and stands as an unequivocal highlight of the 2007 multi-artist release A Tribute to Joni Mitchell. As an aside, back in 2004, kd released an album of songs by her favorite Canadian songwriters titled Hymns of the 49th Parallel, which contained another ridiculously beautiful Joni cover, “Jericho,” that comes as close as any living being has ever managed to rivaling the original.
Neil Diamond – Free Man in Paris (Joni Mitchell cover)
“I felt unfettered and alive.” Has there ever been a better description of freedom in any song ever? The song’s famed subject matter, Joni’s then-record label boss David Geffen, didn’t want Joni to include it on Court And Spark because of the allusion to his sexuality within the lyrics. While it’s a subtle reference within an love letter of a song that seems tame now, in the early ’70’s admissions like this were still regarded as career suicide, with inevitable repercussions, and that’s what the up-and-coming music biz star Geffen was concerned about. Of course, he acquiesced in the end, and the world was blessed with a song widely regarded as one of Joni’s true classics.
There have been some pretty high-profile and entertaining covers of “Free Man,” most especially the faithfully fabulous Elton John , the camp and vocally virtuosic Rufus Wainwright, and the off-kilter fun-shine of Sufjan Stevens. They are all great, but Neil Diamond’s unhinged disco-rock-Broadway version from a 1977 episode of Soundstage is so earnest, weird, and awesome, so far from the sound of the original, that it has to be both heard and seen to be believed.
Jeff Buckley – People’s Parties (Joni Mitchell cover)
In this live solo performance dating back to around December 1995 (at Sin-é in NYC), Jeff Buckley turns the light acoustic styling of the original “People’s Parties” into something spare and bluesy with a vocal that makes this song, about all the veneers and foibles Joni was observing at the myriad of early ’70s Hollywood parties she was then attending, sound absolutely sensual.
cuzhero -The Same Situation (Joni Mitchell cover)
By 1973 Joni was, for all intents and purposes, a wanted woman, a rock star. This allowed her entry into the high-rolling and glamorous Hollywood party scene mentioned earlier. That shiny moment in time is no better encapsulated than by her brief involvement with quintessential Hollywood playboy Warren Beatty. “Same Situation” allegedly describes the power struggle and insecurity that threaded through their brief encounter. This cover forsakes all that; it’s an instrumental with a beautiful rainy-day vibe that shines a light on the melodic complexity of the actual tune.
Spaceship – Car on a Hill (Joni Mitchell cover)
While as catchy and melodic as both “Help Me” and “Free Man,” “Car On A Hill” has never garnered the same attention afforded to those tracks, and it remains the true sleeper of Court and Spark. It’s said to be about Joni’s tumultuous relationship with Jackson Browne, but to put into simpler terms, it’s also about getting stood up. There are actually two exceptional versions of this one: a soulfully faithful and pretty take by Joe Moe that really captures the finer points of the original, and this, a synth-y, hornless, plaintively sung one by the appropriately named Spaceship, which exudes longing from its every pore.
Brandi Carlile – Down to You (Joni Mitchell cover)
2019 has been a helluva year for Brandi Carlile. She won three Grammys, headlined MSG, and released an acclaimed, best-selling album with her country supergroup The Highwomen. And this past October, she also found time to perform Joni’s Blue album in its entirety at a special show in LA. The Blue show wasn’t her first foray into the world of high-profile Joni cover events; she was also part of the aforementioned Joni 75 show, where she offered an absolutely stellar version of Court and Spark‘s centerpiece and arguably finest song, the darkly resigned yet hopeful “Down To You.” Carlile lets her gigantic voice fly free on a few of the verses and… well, it’s pretty damn beautiful.
Joshua Thomas – Just Like This Train (Joni Mitchell cover)
If you are a Joni fan, it’s definitely worth acquainting yourself with a certain Joni superfan. Singer-songwriter Joshua Thomas has done quite a few really fine Joni covers over the past 15 years, touching upon her early years as well as her latter-day excursions and hitting everything in between, including full performances of both the Blue and Hejira albums. In fact, Joni herself, famously critical of covers of her songs, was quite taken with his version of “A Case of You,” which of course is the ultimate stamp of approval. His version of “Just Like This Train” abounds with acoustic warmth and sweetness.
Kathleen Edwards – Raised on Robbery (Joni Mitchell cover)
Kathleen Edwards has released four exceptional, acclaimed albums of eloquent, melodic folk-alt country since coming onto the scene in 2003. Her last album, 2012’s Voyageur, featured her then-partner Justin Vernon of Bon Iver on co-production and landed her in both the U.S. and Canadian charts, as well as earning her a nomination in that year’s prestigious Polaris prize competition. While she’s taking a musical break right now, she still occasionally does the live thing, and in 2017 at a Juno Awards event she delivered a genuinely fun, rough & ready version of Court and Spark‘s most rockin’ tune, “Raised on Robbery.”
Rebecca Barnard – Trouble Child (Joni Mitchell cover)
Simply put, there aren’t a lot of covers of “Trouble Child” out there, which is kind of a shame (hint hint, y’all). Lyrically dark (depression, hospitalization, erratic and disappointing relationships with the world) yet melodically upbeat, it deserves a lot more attention than it’s received thus far. That said, this version by Rebecca Barnard is pretty cool, with a vocal that hints at Lucinda Williams and nice laid-back acoustic accompaniment.
Annie Ross – Twisted
We are going to turn the cover theme on its ear for this one. The one track on the album not composed by Joni, Annie Ross and Wardell Grey’s “Twisted” is a bit of a polarizer. After all the lush melody, seventies LA ennui and introspection on display, the sound of this, the last track, can be an extremely jarring experience (and the Cheech & Chong cameo doesn’t help). Fact is, some people hate it, especially critics back in the day, but in a way it’s the perfect closing curtain to all the pathos in the songs preceding it, a smiling shoulder shrug, a nudge and a wink.
Annie Ross was part of the fabled Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, masters of vocalese (singers putting words to instrumental passes and solos within jazz songs) whom Joni has eternally referred to as “my Beatles.” This version features Annie with Count Basie accompanying her on piano, getting twisted at a Mad Men/Oceans 11-style “dinner party” on the Playboy’s Penthouse TV series. It swings and oozes 1959 coolness and the audience includes both Hugh Hefner (obviously) and Tony Bennett (yeah, okay) grooving and grinning on what was probably a fabulous divan (that’s ’50s speak for sofa).
Which Joni Mitchell album is the greatest? It depends on who you ask. Bjork loves Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. Annie Clark aka St. Vincent loves Hejira. Prince loved Court and Spark and Hissing of Summer Lawns. Everyone loves Blue. I’m going to leave it to Sean Nelson, writer of the mighty fine book about Court and Spark for the 33 1/3 series: “As we all know, the best Joni Mitchell album is the one that’s playing right now.” It’s up to you, but Court and Spark remains an awesome place to start.