May 032019

Go back to the beginning…

30. Lindsey Buckingham – Big Yellow Taxi

There was no major-label album tribute to Joni Mitchell until 2007, but it wasn’t from lack of trying. One tribute album was originally scheduled for 2000, but got shelved; five of its 11 songs showed up on the 2007 tribute, but that means more than half were left behind. Among the casualties was Lindsey Buckingham’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” Clearly a labor of studio love, it’s a cover that bears Buckingham’s unique stamp, coming from both the head and the heart. Sadly, two decades or so after its recording, the line “a big yellow taxi took away my whole band” turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. – Patrick Robbins

29. The Cantrells – You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio

Sometimes, when the record company demands a radio hit, it doesn’t work. (Just ask Jeff Tweedy.) But this one works on every level. Not only is Mitchell’s original a fun, catchy song that features radio-related themes (she, probably correctly, figured DJs would play songs about radios), it turned out to be Mitchell’s first US Top-40 hit. The Cantrells, a husband and wife duo based in Nashville, take the song a little further down the country road, featuring Emily’s Joni-influenced vocals over bluegrass-inflected music. – Jordan Becker

28. Herbie Hancock – Harlem in Havana

Joni Mitchell originally released “Harlem in Havana” on her 1998 record Taming the Tiger. With stream-of-consciousness lyrics, she weaves a tale of young country boys seeing a performance of black showgirls. Herbie Hancock included the cover on a special edition of his 2007 Best Album Grammy-winning Mitchell tribute album River: The Joni Letters. Hancock took this unconventional late career track from Mitchell ‒ a song with many sonic textures ‒ and reworked it into a cover that emulates two of his own classic periods. The eight-minute instrumental opens with Caribbean rhythms that echo Hancocks’s early hits “Watermelon Man” and “Cantaloupe Island.” Hancock is then joined by his long-time collaborator, saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Together, the two trade off verses and solos in a style reminiscent of their fusion jazz recordings from the 1970s. An exceptional cover of a highly unusual track. – Curtis Zimmermann

27. Sarah McLachlan – River

Several differences between Joni Mitchell’s original and Sarah McLachlan’s cover highlight the styles of these two singers perfectly. Mitchell’s original is piano-heavy, slightly faster, and hopeful in tone. McLachlan chooses simple and soft arpeggiated guitar as the main accompaniment. Her voice is soft and easy, and the slightly slower tempo gives the entire song a more wistful feeling. – Angela Hughey

26. k.d. lang – A Case of You

On her excellent 2004 covers album Hymns of the 49th Parallel, k.d. lang covers songs from her favorite Canadian artists. In doing so, she shows she is one of the few artists alive capable of hitting those high notes. The way Eva Cassidy wraps herself around a song comes to mind. – Walt Falconer

25. Natalie Merchant – All I Want

The first song on Mitchell’s classic Blue, “All I Want,” sets the scene for an album that explores her personal relationships, at least three of which are referenced in its songs. Supposedly written about Mitchell’s intense romance with James Taylor (which he denies), “All I Want” (which he plays on) is about the extremes of love – the ecstasy, but mostly the agony. Natalie Merchant released her cover of the song as the b-side of “Wonder,” the second single from her first solo album after leaving 10,000 Maniacs, Tigerlilly. It is a fairly faithful cover, and Merchant seems able to match Mitchell’s range, although you never forget which distinctive-voiced singer you are listening to. – Jordan Becker

24. Phillip Sayce – Woodstock

Even for those that know, sometimes a double-take is needed to remember that Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young did not, in fact, write “Woodstock.” While the CSNY version seems to be the more popular one, Joni released hers on March 1970, 10 days before it was included on their Deja Vu. There have been many cover versions over the years, including this guitar masterclass from blues-rocker Philip Sayce, one of the fine cover songs on the Gold 5.0 covers album celebrating the 50th anniversary of Warner Music Canada. This Hendrix-worthy boogie stomper turns the amps up to 11. – Walt Falconer

23. Nazareth – This Flight Tonight

A good song is a good song, no matter its finery, and nothing proves it like a quality cross-genre cover. There’s no way Joni could have expected “This Flight Tonight” to make the switch from hippie to heavy, but thanks to Manny Charlton’s chugging riff (which Heart’s Nancy Wilson recently admitted swiping for “Barracuda”) and Dan McCafferty’s gravel-in-the-sky vocals, the song does just that. Extra points for echoing Joni’s brief switch from acoustic to electric with their own switch from rock to boogie. – Patrick Robbins

22. Neil Diamond – Chelsea Morning

For unexplainable reasons, Neil Diamond’s cover version of “Chelsea Morning” did not make it on the iconic Hot August Night live album’s track list. Heck, it didn’t even make the subsequent Hot August Night II or Love at the Greek. Thankfully, the song finally made a live appearance on the recent Hot August Night III, complete with orchestra and stings. Remarkably, Neil’s voice voice resonates almost as powerfully on this, my go-to version of the song, as it does on his 1973 LP Rainbow where it first appeared. – Walt Falconer

21. Sufjan Stevens – Free Man in Paris

Anyone who’s listened to Illinois would instantly recognize this cover as the work of Sufjan Stevens. With shifting parts, quirky arrangements, sudden horn stabs, time signature jumps, and Sufjan’s understated vocals, he stamps his signature sound all over this song. He wrote about it, “I could not even presume to fathom the jazz voicings of the original, nor could I traverse the pronunciation of French avenues or Joni’s rollercoaster vocal lines. My approach was much more primitive: what would it sound like if David Geffen had, in fact, left the humdrum of the music industry for a fantasy weekend getaway to Paris? I decided to conjure up a party song, with strings and trumpets and trombones and vibraphones marching in a parade down the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe, all lit up with fireworks.” – Ray Padgett

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  16 Responses to “The Best Joni Mitchell Covers Ever”

Comments (15) Pingbacks (1)
  1. always liked this version of River, by Robert Downey Jr. (yes, Ironman!)

    • I agree. I love all the arrangements of his songs. As well as his voice. I bought his CD after I had heard him singing ‘River’ and was pleasantly surprised.

  2. Both Sides Now by Paul Young & Clannad
    Makes me cry every time I hear it. Breathtaking!

  3. For me is “River” by Beth Orton, on a Radio transmission =

  4. How about these?

    Legiao Urbana – Last Time I Saw Richard:

    Travis – River

    Counting Crows – Big Yellow Taxi

  5. I’m not sure that it counts as a cover (I think it does), but “Both Sides Now” by Joni herself in 2000 is stunning. Her smokey voice adds an aged weariness and insight to her younger self.

  6. For me Woodstock by Goodharvest. Magnificent And for Christ sake, it’s live:

  7. kd lang’s A Case of You is lovely

  8. You missed a real opportunity. Perhaps the best Joni cover ever is Cyndi Lauper’s cover of Carey for the same tribute as the Richard Thompson Woodstock (He also performed an excellent version of Black Crow on the same show)

  9. Gotta be Nazareth’s inspired cover of This Flight Tonight

  10. This cover stands above all others for me – stunning. Chris Thile, Aiofe O’Donovan et al.

  11. Tom Rush covered “Urge for Going” in 1966. Unequalled by anyone. Especially when he sings alone, with his guitar the only accompaniment.

  12. Just discovered a nice cover by the late George Michael of “Edith and the Kingpin” from a 2008 Christmas-themed EP. Check it out.

  13. There was an album with a woman lying in a bed of roses that had a JM cover. I think her name was something like Caroline? I can’t for the life of me figure out who that was. Maybe a cello version? From the 1980’s or 1990’s?

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