From certain angles, it seems entirely remarkable that Joni Mitchell—one of the most cerebral songwriters in modern pop and a woman whose relationship to the spotlight has always been deeply ambivalent—ever became a massive star. From other angles, her ascension seems inevitable. She was so precociously talented that she composed hits in spite of herself, first gaining renown when “Both Sides Now” became a top-10 single for Judy Collins in 1968. Mitchell, who was 25 years old, had only just released her first record. Two years later, her third album, Ladies of the Canyon, closed with the troika of “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Woodstock,” and “The Circle Game,” three of the most iconic songs of a generation, rattled off almost as an afterthought. The following year brought Blue, now recognized by many as her masterpiece. This summer—almost half a century later—Blue topped NPR Music’s list of “The 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women,” compiled by a panel of nearly 50 contributors.
“Blue remains the clearest and most animated musical map to the new world that women traced, sometimes invisibly, within their daily lives in the aftermath of the utopian, dream-crushing 1960s,” wrote the NPR music critic Ann Powers, who helped conceive the top-150 project. Powers called attention to the discomfiting audacity of Mitchell’s creation: “It is a record full of love songs, of sad songs; but more than that, it is a compendium of reasonable demands that too many men in too many women’s lives heard, in 1971, as pipe dreams or outrageous follies.” Indeed, upon its release, Blue—an abrupt turn away from the counterculture-soaked Ladies and toward something both more personal and more elusive—was met with confusion in many quarters. It would not be the last of Mitchell’s releases to provoke such a response. By the mid-’70s, her compositions had grown so complex that she was performing almost exclusively with jazz musicians. L.A.’s rock session players were no longer able to figure out her chords.