May 032019

Go back to the beginning…

20. Cat Power – Blue

There is a late-night noir vibe to this Cat Power cover. Slowed down from the original, if that’s even possible, Chan Marshall completely envelopes herself and brings out the song’s fragility. – Walt Falconer

19. Christy Moore – The Magdalene Laundries

Moore is one of those singers who can sing almost anything, instantly bestowing his own self over any memory of the writer. Here it helps that he is singing from a point of reference closer to the core material, closer perhaps than Mitchell herself. A quiet guitar, simply picked, and his soft blanket of a voice sounds like a song you’d expect to be credited “Trad. Arr.” Delightful. Tragic. – Seuras Og

18. Darlingside & Heather Maloney – Woodstock

As great a songwriter as Joni Mitchell is, it is interesting that (at least) two of her songs are best known through covers. And in some ways, her song about the Woodstock Festival is itself a “cover” of sorts; she wasn’t there and wrote about it based on what she saw on TV and what Graham Nash told her. Yet, it is a tribute to Mitchell’s talent that this secondhand account captured the event in a way that continues to inspire 50 years later. Heather Maloney and Darlingside, who separately emerged from the Northampton, MA music scene a decade ago, teamed up for an EP which included this cover that splits the difference between Mitchell’s ethereal version and CSNY’s more rocking interpretation (maybe leaning a bit more towards Joni), with Maloney singing lead, and the members of Darlingside harmonizing and playing violin, guitar, bass, and banjo. This cover actually had an entire New York Times article devoted to it. – Jordan Becker

17. Amy Grant – Big Yellow Taxi

Amy Grant’s “Big Yellow Taxi” cover plays very similarly to the original, with the addition of some fuller harmony parts and extra rock band instrumentals for a poppier effect. Joni and Amy both have crystal-clear voices, but Joni’s original performance is much more cheeky, especially at the end where she flies from soprano down to a silly masculine-sounding “put up a parking lot.” Both singers manage to mask the lyrical melancholy with the upbeat and cheery melody and accompaniment. – Angela Hughey

16. Adrienne Young & Little Sadie – Free Man in Paris

Mitchell wrote this song about her friend and label head David Geffen based on a trip they made to Paris with Robbie and Dominique Robertson. It is one of my personal Joni Mitchell favorites, and that was true before I started writing for another blog named after one of the lyrics. “Free Man” was a hit for Mitchell (although not as big a hit as “Help Me,” the first single from the great Court and Spark album), and features José Feliciano on guitar, who was working on a project in the same studio. The original takes full advantage of Mitchell’s swooping and soaring vocals, while this fully-realized cover by Adrienne Young, a Nashville-based musician and her band Little Sadie, takes a more straightforward approach vocally, while fusing bluegrass, country and rock for some effective jam-band style meandering. – Jordan Becker

15. Annie Lennox – Ladies of The Canyon

This magical mystery tour psychedelic version from the Annie Lennox Medusa album will take you right back to Laurel Canyon. Close your eyes and the song will put you on that couch between Graham Nash and Stephen Stills on CSN’s debut album cover. – Walt Falconer

14. Okkervil River – The Blonde in the Bleachers

Will Sheff, frontman and primary songwriter for Okkervil River, must really like this song. In 2007, the band released their fine album Stage Names. Included on the album is “You Can’t Hold the Hand of a Rock and Roll Man,” which is a lyric from “The Blonde in the Bleachers.” Moreover, a bonus track, “Love to a Monster,” includes the phrase “the blonde in the bleachers.” Later that year, Okkervil River put out a free download-only album featuring this cover of the song that inspired their own. Mitchell starts off accompanying herself on piano, but her recording adds instrumentation toward the end (including a Stephen Stills electric guitar solo). Okkervil River plays the song simply on guitar, and while no one will confuse Will Sheff’s quavery voice for that of Mitchell’s beautiful instrument, his version of this song about the downside of fame is nevertheless affecting. – Jordan Becker

13. Tracey Thorn – River

“River” is one of those songs written with such a solid foundation it’d be hard to totally ruin. But with so many pretty-good covers out there, it can be equally hard to stand apart. Tracey Thorn does so by keeping some parts of the song intact – the melody, tempo, plaintive wail – and wildly reinventing others. Instead of the song’s typical piano or orchestral backing, she surrounds her vocals exclusively with a horn combo. This bold arrangement makes fresh an oft-played holiday chestnut (for when you’re not feeling so merry). – Ray Padgett

12. Richard Thompson – Woodstock

In 2000, TNT aired “An All Star Tribute to Joni Mitchell,” which featured Joni watching from an opera box as artists played her songs. “I’ve played before the Queen of England, and it’s not so intimidating,” quipped Elton John. One of those artists was supposed to be Stone Temple Pilots, but Scott Weiland had sung for seven of the previous 24 hours, at three different gigs, and blown out his voice. It also blew a hole in the lineup when the band bailed. Richard Thompson agreed to step in last-minute, despite his lack of familiarity with “Woodstock,” the song STP was scheduled to play. “I had one hour to learn the song,” Thompson said later, “so I had to make some quick arrangement decisions.” Result: A performance that restored the song’s gravitas and visibly transported Mitchell to another place. – Patrick Robbins

11. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – Both Sides Now

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: “So what’s Joni Mitchell known for? Beautiful lyrics sung beautifully? Let’s get rid of all that”. This is presumably the conversation that happened between all the members and guest musicians on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s album Will the Circle be Unbroken, before Randy Scruggs laid down this gorgeous guitar cover of Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” On an album chock full of bluegrass and country choices, the selection of this song, the last of the 38 tracks on the album, feels significant. The choice to make this a solo guitar instrumental, rather than compete with Mitchell’s delivery, allows the beauty of the melody to shine through. At just over two minutes, it serves as a peaceful coda to a massive album and a wonderful tribute to Mitchell’s original. – Mike Misch

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  16 Responses to “The Best Joni Mitchell Covers Ever”

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  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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