One of the greatest lyricists of all time, Joni Mitchell stretched musical boundaries further than most of her contemporaries. With her output ranging from folk and rock to jazz, pop and beyond, the Canadian singer-songwriter makes it difficult for others to emulate her sound. Even her most ardent fans, however, like to branch out. Still, if you love Joni, you may very much like these songs by other artists.
Suzanne Vega — "Marlene on the Wall" (1985)
Vega's ultra-literate lyrics inspired Rolling Stone to call the New York folkie "almost dauntingly intelligent." Don't let that put you off: Vega appends those smart words to catchy melodies and tricky chords, over which she applies her unusual, vibrato-free voice. That combo helped spur the resurgence of female singer-songwriters in the late 1980s and early '90s. One of her first singles, "Marlene on the Wall," features Vega's birdlike vocals floating atop a musical bed that wouldn't be out of place on Mitchell's sixth album, Court and Spark (1974).
Elliott Smith — "Waltz #2" (1998)
After starting out as an alternative rocker, Smith found his voice once he started recording solo acoustic songs. His whispery vocals feel intimate — as if he's confiding secrets to one listener at a time. Smith's countermelodies hauntingly evoke Mitchell, who likewise loved to play with structure and expectations.
Aimee Mann — "Save Me" (1999)
Mann had a big hit early on when her original band, 'Til Tuesday, brought out "Voices Carry" in 1985. Mann went solo in 1992 but struggled until director Paul Thomas Anderson asked her to write a song for his offbeat film Magnolia (1999). Mann came up with "Save Me." The song not only closed the film, but also — unlike the movie — proved hugely popular.
Fiona Apple — "Paper Bag" (1999)
Few artists in popular music have been as unpredictable as Apple. After making tons of money in her teens, she turned her back on pop stardom to follow her own quirky muse. (Exhibit A: Apple's second album has the longest title in rock history — 90 words.) "Paper Bag" may be a melodically jazzy shuffle, but its lyrics are brutally confessional. Just the sort of genre melding Joni pioneered.
Neko Case — "Maybe Sparrow" (2006)
Fellow Canadian Neko Case has relentlessly explored her own art, becoming a darling of the critics but not her banker. Case in point: "Maybe Sparrow," where the songbird uses birdsong as a metaphor for wild things that can't be tamed. It's a countryish ballad featuring mandolin, fiddle and tenor guitar (the latter has only four strings), but the singer's rough vocals are closer to those of a blues belter — or a latter-day Joni Mitchell.
Feist — "My Moon My Man" (2007)
Leslie Feist's insanely catchy ditty "1234" was everywhere for a few months in 2007, from iPod ads to Sesame Street. But the song that best captures her Mitchellesque chops is "My Moon My Man": Her vocals flit over the music, unpredictably but unerringly landing on the perfect note every time.
Kathleen Edwards — "Empty Threat" (2012)
Another Canadian singer-songwriter, Edwards can find beauty in bleakness. In "Empty Threat," for example, she makes the possible death of a relationship feel impossibly rejuvenating — precisely the type of startling juxtaposition that Joni mastered four decades earlier. Like Mitchell, Edwards has moved away from her initial genre (in her case, alternative country rock) into something more moody and atmospheric, but every bit as melodic. Through it all, she has stayed true to her own distinctive voice — I guess you could say she's covered both sides now.
Also of interest: 10 fun songs from the '70s.