May 032019

Go back to the beginning…

10. Dolly Parton – The Circle Game

In the mid-70s, country sweetheart Dolly Parton hosted her own syndicated variety show aptly called Dolly! During one episode, she lip-synced to her own acoustic recording of “The Circle Game.” Performing in front of a carousel, Parton infused the song with her signature blend of aw-shucks sweetness. Though never released commercially, the cover is a perfect example of Parton at the height of her Dolly-ness. – Curtis Zimmermann

9. Kevin Jenkins – Cherokee Louise

“Cherokee Louise” is one of the more obscure songs in the Joni Mitchell canon, from 1991’s Night Ride Home. Here, from the album She: A Tribute To Joni Mitchell, Kevin Jenkins tackles the heavy subject of child abuse with a bluesy approach that makes the lyrics even more powerful. – Walt Falconer

8. Fairport Convention – I Don’t Know Where I Stand

When Fairport Convention formed in 1967, all of its members but one were teenagers, and they were clearly besotted by the emerging American folk music scene. And like many music-obsessed teens, they loved the new and the obscure. Fairport’s self-titled debut album included two Joni Mitchell songs, neither of which had yet been released by Mitchell herself: “Chelsea Morning,” which became better known when Judy Collins, and later Mitchell, released their versions, and “I Don’t Know Where I Stand,” which is more of a “deep track” (although it has been covered by Barbra Streisand). Producer Joe Boyd had connections at Warner Brothers and was able to access Mitchell’s demos. Mitchell’s original is not much more than a demo, in fact, with her on vocals and guitar, and Stephen Stills in support. Fairport, though, plays it as a folk-rocker, with Judy Dyble’s pretty vocals (Sandy Denny would replace her on the next album) and teenaged Richard Thompson flashing his brilliance on electric guitar. – Jordan Becker

7. Hole – Clouds [Both Sides Now]

Hole ended their debut album Pretty on the Inside (released a week before Nevermind, if you’re keeping track) with a cover of “Both Sides Now.” That would not have been evident without a look at the credits, or a close, lacerating listen to the song’s lyrics. Retitled “Clouds,” the song loses its thoughtful contemplation to a grate of noise, as Courtney Love shrieks out the words, delivering what Rolling Stone called a “spectacular goring.” Any first-time listener has to come away from this reworking thinking, “I really don’t know ‘Clouds’ at all.” – Patrick Robbins

6. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – Woodstock

Well, someone had to post this warhorse, the transformation of the wistful ballad to the barnstormer, all incandescent harmonies and jagged guitars. Hell, nearly 50 years on it still makes me grin like a loon. At the peak of the band’s game, this finds the feuding four firing on all cylinders, a better album opener unavailable anywhere. The music is mighty fine, too, with a big shout out for the cheesy undercutting of the Hammond organ (Stills, I’m guessing). If this doesn’t cut your mustard, turn it up, and if that ain’t enough, well, my friend, you are dead. And fer chrissakes, unlike Joni, they were actually there. – Seuras Og

5. Rufus Wainwright – All I Want

If an artist can have only one masterpiece, Joni Mitchell’s would be Blue. That album starts with “All I Want,” which features Mitchell “looking for something, what can it be.” Rufus Wainwright keys directly into that line in his cover, sounding not so much meandering as restless. He doesn’t miss the song’s romance either, sounding like he knows that giving everything will free his paramour from everything. Not an easily won piece of knowledge, but Rufus sounds like he knows it deep and that really comes across. – Patrick Robbins

4. James Blake – A Case of You

I’m pretty sure I first heard this on Cover Me, the best-ever cover version by Anohni, if not actually by Anohni. I love the near delay and mismatch between the chiming piano and the lost-sounding vocal, hanging onto each other by a fingernail, stopping the second the grip relaxes. Any longer and the stay would be less welcome; any shorter and the attention would still be searching. Enough then to both entrance and to satiate. – Seuras Og

3. The Sheepdogs – Raised on Robbery

Hailing from Joni Mitchell’s hometown, when they were asked to provide a song for Gold 5.0, a tribute album celebrating the 50th anniversary of Warner Music Canada, the choice was easy for The Sheepdogs. With plenty of Rock and Roll already in the DNA of the song, the 1970s-rock touch added takes the tune from a laid back story about a random meeting in an out-of-the-way bar to a booty call in the blink of an ear. – Walt Falconer

2. Austra – Woodstock

In 1970, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young broke apart Mitchell’s “Woodstock” template. In doing so, they set a new form for the song that has been followed on most covers that came since. In 2011, Canadian electropop band Austra broke the “Woodstock” template apart yet again. Eschewing both Mitchell’s quiet folk approach or CSNY’s rootsy rock, Austra slowly builds a new electronic world. Ironically, it sounds more like a James Blake cover of Joni than Blake’s actual cover (#4) does. Though the subject of the song seems incredibly of-its-moment – especially with the current Woodstock 50 mess – Austra’s cover proves the melody and message remains timeless. – Ray Padgett

1. Beth Orton – River

I think “River” is my favorite Joni song, even without my being especially familiar with the original. It is through the flood of covers out there that I know it so well, this undoubtedly the best. Beth seems here a whole lot more fragile a beast than Joni, the frailty almost overwhelming in her wavering voice, that very fragility itself enough to convey the yearning within the narrative, absent often in the more forthright vocals available. The understated strings offer a majesty to the plea, the sitar at the entry almost more to grab attention, which it does. Simply beautiful. (Years earlier, Orton did an inferior solo radio broadcast version that becomes, in that setting, just another Joni copy.) – Seuras Og
Check out more installments in our monthly ‘Best Covers Ever’ series, including the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Radiohead, and Pink Floyd.

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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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