Song of the Day, May 1: Amelia by Joni Mitchell

mitchellhejiraameliaToday’s song is a remarkable journey. Joni Mitchell’s 1976 album Hejira is a high point in her catalog and one of her most personal recordings. The songs were mostly written during a car trip from Maine to Los Angeles, reflecting the physical and emotional journeys of the time. The standout — and one of her finest moments — is Amelia.

The song, like the album, has at least two origins: a drive through the desert and Mitchell’s breakup with drummer John Guerin. Pondering her personal travels caused Mitchell to think of aviator Amelia Earhart. She wound up “addressing it from one solo pilot to another… sort of reflecting on the cost of being a woman and having something you must do.”

The result is spectacular, featuring some of her finest imagery. Spare and lean, it relies on her acoustic guitar, a wonderful electric lead guitar from Larry Carlton, and subtle vibes from Victor Feldman. The lyrics loop like the long journey, with each section ending “Amelia, it was just a false alarm.” Mitchell even works in some sly references to her own work — including the songs Woodstock, Cactus Tree, and Both Sides Now — another wonderful reference to her own journeys.

Enjoy this enchanting song today.

BONUS: Amelia is one of Mitchell’s personal favorites and featured in many of her live shows. This wonderful performance shows of its spare power nicely.


Song of the Day, April 21: You Can Close Your Eyes by Linda Ronstadt

ronstadtwheeleyesToday’s song is a multifaceted musical collaboration. James Taylor wrote You Can Close Your Eyes in 1970. He calls it a “secular hymn”, a touching meditation on loss and separation. The track appeared on his 1971 album Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon and as the b-side of his #1 hit You’ve Got A Friend (written by Carole King). He has acknowledged that he wrote the song about his short, tumultuous affair with Joni Mitchell. The references to singing and sight are natural and poignant.

Linda Ronstadt included a cover of the song as the closing track of her finest album, Heart Like A Wheel. It’s a smart choice, and she makes the track her own. With a bittersweet delivery, she offers a sad farewell as she wraps up the disc. It’s a fine recording, nicely produced by Peter Asher and Andrew Gold, and a standout in her substantial catalog.

Enjoy this lovely song today.

BONUS: Enjoy this stirring version recorded by Taylor and Mitchell for the BBC.

Song of the Day, January 6: Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell

mitchelltaxiliveToday’s song has appeared in many versions, including three by its writer. Joni Mitchell wrote Big Yellow Taxi while staying in Hawaii. She was enchanted by the beauty, but horrified by the intrusion of modern life, later recalling:

I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart.

She wrote a smart lyric of environmental concern, adding in a dash of romantic disappointment, all tied together with the observation “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” The song was included on  her third album, Ladies of the Canyon, and it became her first U.S. single, peaking at #69. Around the same time, vocal pop group Neighborhood also charted with their version, taking it to #29.

Mitchell loves the song, regularly featuring it in her live shows. For her first live album, recorded with jazz backing band L.A. Express, she captured a smart take and released it as another single. This time she bested Neighborhood, going to #24. Over the years many artists have covered the song, including minor chart hits by Amy Grant and Counting Crows with Vanessa Carlton. Janet Jackson and Q-Tip sampled the track for their #36 hit Got ‘Til It’s Gone, featuring a new vocal line from Mitchell.

Mitchell herself revisited it again on her most recent album, 2007’s Shine, fitting it in with the social and environmental concerns of the disc.

Enjoy all three Joni Mitchell versions of this wonderful song today: the studio original, the live hit, and the charming reinvention.

Song of the Day, December 12: Talk to Me by Joni Mitchell

mitchelldjrdtalkToday’s song is a moment of brilliance from a fascinating hodgepodge. Joni Mitchell’s tenth album, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, is a sprawling mess. A double-album composed largely of experiments, it continues her exploration of jazz fusion but lacks the pop smarts and careful focus of her best work.

The standout track is Talk to Me, a recitation of romantic frustration. Mitchell acknowledges her tendency to “talk too open and free” as she addresses a lover who “spends every sentence like marked currency.” She proves her point by pouring out words in an almost uncontrolled flow. Her phrasing is flawless, providing just the right level of tension as a counterpoint to the flow of thoughts and ideas. With her band providing smart support, the final package is an anxious little miracle, a skeptical celebration of words from a master writer.

Enjoy this delightful song today.

Song of the Day, July 1: Dida by Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell

BaezMitchellDidaToday’s song is a beautiful folk-jazz pairing. Joan Baez wrote Dida for her Spanish-language protest album Gracias A la Vida. It’s a lovely, wordless track that explores emotion through music rather than language. Baez asked fellow folk musician Joni Mitchell to join her on the track, and their voices blended well. The song stuck with her, and when she began recording her most successful album, Diamonds & Rust, she decided to revisit it.

Working with a talented array of jazz musicians, she changed the tone of the song, making it more upbeat and celebratory. Mitchell’s growing interest in jazz fit the new style perfectly, and her improvisational vocals wind sinuously around Baez’ beautiful lead. The result is a highlight on a powerful album, a magical partnership, and a delightful burst of musical joy.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Album of the Week, March 27: Robert’s Desert Island Discs

RBHSJDIDBadgeToday’s entry is something a little different. As I was looking over the almost 200 albums I have featured over the years, I asked myself the question that drives the famous BBC Radio 4 show Desert Island Discs: If I were stranded on an island, which discs would I be sure to have with me?

The task proved more daunting than I imagined, so I established a few guidelines and started over. These parameters made the selection a little bit easier.

  1. Original, legitimate releases only: no bootlegs, re-issues with bonus tracks, or any other chicanery to pad the offerings.
  2. Enjoy every track: If this is all I ever get to listen to, it had better be great. A perfect test case is Rubber Soul: it’s an unquestionably brilliant album, but if I had to listen to Michelle or Girl more than once a month, I’d throw myself into the shark-infested waters.
  3. Balance, balance, balance: I tried to embrace the breadth of my tastes and represent a good cross-section of the artists I love.
  4. When in doubt, favorite artists win: My collection includes several acts represented by one great album. In order to represent the artists whose whole catalogs I appreciate, I dropped the one-only artists. That included the hard decisions to eliminate Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, London Calling, Rumours, Blood On the Tracks, and I Am A Bird Now.
  5. Greatest hits: I pondered banning these as a corallary to rule 1, but decided to take them on their own merits. As it turns out, I didn’t wind up with any of these on the list, although I looked closely at a couple. In the end, rule 2 trumped them.

I set my album allowance at 13. Why that number? I could say that it represents the bad luck of being stranded on a desert island, but honestly trying to get to eight — the BBC number — was maddening. My list, my rules, so if this Gilligan-adjacent experience includes a weatherproof sound system, it has room for 13 discs.

Without further ado, here they are, in the order in which I finalized their placement on the list.

Richard & Linda ThompsonShoot out the LightsHIGH RESOLUTION COVER ARTShoot Out the Lights (1982, Hannibal) Richard & Linda Thompson
Surprising no-one, I’m sure, this was my first choice — brilliant lyrics, stellar playing, solid band, two of my favorite artists on one disc. Harrowing but hopeful, it captures the human spirit better than anything else for me. Linda delivers some of her best vocals and Richard some of his finest solos. If I had to pick 25 songs to take to the island (please, no!), at least four of them would be from this album.

DifferentKindofLoveSongA Different Kind of Love Song (1983, Appleseed) Dick Gaughan
Another easy choice for me, with some of the best protest music ever written. Gaughan is in fine voice and his guitar work is impeccable. It’s a collection of often dark songs with a shining heart beating at its core. The title track sums things up brilliantly, and inspired me to write an essay for Michael’s blog on the importance of looking at the darkness if we want to get to the light.

AbyssiniansAbyssinians (1983, Topic) June Tabor
June Tabor had to be on the list, but picking the album was tricky. This is my favorite by a narrow margin, and includes a stunning cover of a Waterson song, so it won the day. As Elvis Costello has famously observed, if listening to June Tabor’s voice doesn’t move you, give up music. (Bonus fact: She has worked as a librarian and restaurateur, so she covers the bases of my passions nicely…)

Robyn_Hitchcock_-_I_Often_Dream_Of_TrainsI Often Dream of Trains (1984, Hannibal) Robyn Hitchcock
Another artist I had to have on the island, but a tougher choice. The Soft Boys’ Underwater Moonlight and the Egyptians’ Element of Light are co-equal with this disc for me. It came down to the essence of the album. The spare setting of Trains lets Robyn shine through in all his eccentric glory.

LastWordThe Last Word (1992, RNA) Gregson & Collister
Another nice package, with two of my favorites on one album, both at the height of their powers. Clive Gregson’s observations about life and love are timeless, and this set includes a couple of tracks written with Boo Hewerdine, another favorite. Christine Collister has a wonderful voice that sometimes gets over-emphasized on her solo discs. Here, the production is flawless.

MitchellC&SCourt and Spark (1974, Asylum) Joni Mitchell
One of the few commercial successes on my list, it’s a little jazz, a little pop, a little folk, all tied together by the singular talents of Joni Mitchell. It also features her finest vocals, not as airy and bright as her earlier work and not as Cohen-adjacent as her later. All of that, and songs about David Geffen and James Taylor! What could be finer?

Til_Tuesday-Everythings_Different_NowEverything’s Different Now (1988, Epic) ’til tuesday
A sentimental favorite, this is an album I play when I’m feeling lost. It’s a powerful look at relationships and how they go wrong — and right. It landed at just the right time for me, providing insight and outlet as I worked through my own issues. Aimee Mann found her lyrical voice, presaging her later solo work. The band is crisp and smart, lending power to the songs. This is as close to flawless as 80s pop gets.

yaz-you_and_me_bothYou and Me Both (1983, Sire) Yaz(oo)
Speaking of 80s pop… A quick look at my Songs of the Day reveals my fondness for the music of my teen years. As I’ve aged, my favorites tend to be the more obscure music, especially synth-pop and smart dance tracks. Alison Moyet and Vince Clarke perfected both. Their brief collaboration as Yazoo (Yaz in the States) turned out two fine albums. This is the better of the pair by a safe margin. Creative synth work, good lyrics, and Alison Moyet’s rich, wonderful voice — magnificent!

FogelbergInnocentThe Innocent Age (1981, Full Moon / Epic) Dan Fogelberg
Not quite the first album I ever bought — an honor that goes to Helen Reddy’s Long Hard Climb — I consider this the launch of my serious music collecting. It’s also a great collection of songs, singer-songwriter magic at its most compelling. Fogelberg gets pigeonholed as an AC balladeer, but his songs could rock, jig, or soar as well. This beautiful song cycle, created as a cradle-to-grave series, shows off all his talents to great effect. A sentimental and musical favorite, packed with hits.

watersonlOnceinaOnce In A Blue Moon (1996, Topic) Lal Waterson & Oliver Knight
The only reason the extended Waterson family shows up this late is that it was nearly impossible to pick one album. While a stay on Waterson:Carthy island would be delightful, Rule 3 demanded a choice. In the end, a dash of Rule 2 combined with the fact that Lal Waterson is one of my favorite songwriters ruled the day. A brilliant set of songs told in her distinctive style with sympathetic support from her talented son, it’s one of the rare albums that I’ll sometimes put on repeat. As an added bonus, Some Old Salty wraps up the album with a good old family sing-along, sneaking some talented relatives onto the island. Family runners-up included Martin Carthy, Bright Phoebus, Norma Waterson, and Red Rice.

Fairport_Convention-Liege_&_Lief_(album_cover)Liege & Lief (1969, A&M) Fairport Convention
Another tough choice. Fairport belonged on the list (although the Richard Thompson double-dip almost got them cut), and What We Did On Our Holidays is my favorite of their albums. This is a close second, however, and Rule 3 brought it home. A pioneering disc, creating the trad-rock genre, it shows the band at the peak of their powers and adds more traditional British music to my island mix.

FearingIndLulIndustrial Lullaby (1997, True North) Stephen Fearing
Another Rule 3 decision, made with great difficulty. I encountered three very different modern folk talents in the same year (1993) and they form a musical trinity for me. Stephen Fearing, Patty Larkin, and Ellis Paul have unique voices but could easily share a stage. (I’d pay to see that!) Since they weren’t here to play rock-paper-scissors, the decision came down to the sheer poetry — lyrical and musical — of Fearing’s album and its astounding cohesion.

TriffidsCalentureCalenture (1987, Island) The Triffids
I had five albums left on my list, and the Triffids dark masterpiece won the final spot. This album is the least like anything else on the list (with Yaz coming in a close second), a strong rock sound with a uniquely West Australian perspective. Urgent and compelling from start to finish, it’s one of the strongest Rule 2 albums in my collection. It didn’t hurt that the title refers to hallucinations caused by too much time at sea.

There you have it, my island playlist is complete. Before I close, I’d like to acknowledge the many amazing artists that bring me musical joy who stayed safely on dry land: The Bats, Peter Blegvad, Nick Drake, the Finn Brothers in all their incarnations, Jethro Tull, the extended McGarrigle – Wainwright family, Stephin Merritt and his many projects, Oysterband, R.E.M., Spirit of the West, those mentioned above, and many more. I’m VERY glad that I don’t have to make this choice as anything but an interesting exercise.

Finally, a note of farewell to my Album of the Week feature. I truly enjoy writing these pieces — and there are certainly more albums to explore — but the limits of my time, collection, and budget demand closure. It seemed fitting that I bookend the regular features with two Richard & Linda Thompson albums and close out these posts as my Jukebox celebrates its fifth anniversary. I will continue my Song of the Day every weekday and Saturday Time Capsules; I may also add an album now and then as inspiration strikes.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, the music of my island is calling…

Song of the Day, December 25: Nexus by Dan Fogelberg

FogelbergNexusToday’s song is Nexus, the opening track from Dan Fogelberg’s magnum opus The Innocent Age. A soaring anthem to higher powers and self-determination, the song provides a perfect entrée to his song cycle about life and the passage of time. Fogelberg’s lyrics flirt with mysticism yet remain grounded in earthly practicality, a nice balance that shows off his strength as a songwriter. The musical backdrop is stirring rock grounded in 70s folk-pop traditions. Fogelberg’s vocals are clear and bright; guest Joni Mitchell provides a lovely descant that ties the whole package together.

Enjoy this magical song today.

Song of the Day, September 29: That Song About the Midway by Joni Mitchell

MitchellCloudsMidwayToday’s song is That Song About the Midway from Joni Mitchell’s lovely second album, Clouds. A huge leap in sophistication, this disc set the tone for the rest of the first major phase of her career. Midway is a brilliant story song, narrated by a woman suffering the aftershocks of a charming rogue. Lacking a chorus, it relies on the complex structure of each verse to move the story forward. Changes in meter trigger shifts from metaphor to narrative to reflection as the singer treats us to an engaging dissection of a compelling but ultimately doomed romance. The use of the fair as a backdrop gives the story weight and lends itself to nicely turned analogies. Mitchell is in fine voice, using her full range and great sense of phrasing to best effect.

You were betting on some lover, you were shaking up the dice
And I thought I saw you cheating once or twice, once or twice
I heard your bid once or twice
Were you wondering was the gamble worth the price

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

BONUS: The talented Bonnie Raitt turned in a flawless cover of the song on her fourth album, 1974’s Streetlights. She captures Mitchell’s energy while making the song distinctly her own.

Song of the Day, April 11: Down to You by Joni Mitchell

JoniDownToday’s song is Down to You by Joni Mitchell, a particularly lovely song from her masterpiece, Court and Spark. Demonstrating her continued growth as a musician and songwriter, it’s a complex meditation on life and love. Like most of the album, it works both on the personal, confessional level and as a universal observation. That tension makes the whole disc work and is particularly evident here.

With a strong, clear vocal and a quietly sympathetic band, Mitchell ponders the ups and downs that make up a typical life. She also weaves in a “constant stranger,” a figure of both attraction and confusion. It’s a splendid mix and remains one of her finest moments.

Enjoy this lovely song today.

Song of the Day, October 24: Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell

Joni_Mitchell-Both_Sides_NowToday’s song is Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell; she wrote it in 1967. Like many of her early compositions, it was recorded by other artists before she made her own version. Fairport Convention — early fans of her writing — recorded a demo in 1967. Judy Collins included perhaps the most famous cover on her 1967 album Wildflowers. She released it as a single, reaching #8 on the Hot 100 and #3 on the Easy Listening charts and winning the Grammy for Best Folk Performance. Mitchell included her first recording of the song on her 1969 album Clouds.

Mitchell was inspired to write the song while reading Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King on a plane ride.

early in the book Henderson the Rain King is also up in a plane. He’s on his way to Africa and he looks down and sees these clouds. I put down the book, looked out the window and saw clouds too, and I immediately started writing the song.

A wistful, deceptively simple song about the passage of time and the impact of aging on perception, Both Sides Now has become a standard. Rolling Stone ranked it #171 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs. It has been recorded by so many artists that its covers have their own Wikipedia section. Artists ranging from Frank Sinatra to Leonard Nimoy, from Carly Rae Jepsen to Dolly Parton, have tried their hand at this wonderful song.

The Collins and Mitchell versions from the 60s are amazing and certainly lead the pack. The finest version, however, is Mitchell’s cover of herself. In 2000 she recorded the album Both Sides Now, mostly consisting of her take on some jazz standards. She included two of her own songs in new versions, A Case of You and the title track. While her older voice, literally smoky at this point, doesn’t work well with much of her earlier material, it’s a perfect fit for this song. At an age more fitting to the wistful reflections, Mitchell masters the song and reclaims it from decades of interpreters.

Enjoy this wonderful rendition of a classic song today.


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