Though she hasn't made a stunner of an album in two decades, Joni Mitchell looms over the pop landscape like an imposing matriarch. Lately, her songs have been covered by such absurdly disparate acts as Amy Grant and Hole, and a remixed "Big Yellow Taxi" was one of the few highlights of the Friends soundtrack. Traces of what she pioneered - setting intensely personal confessionals to atonal tunings have found their way into the music of Jeff Buckley and Tori Amos. If anyone deserves a career retrospective in this time of unasked-for boxed sets, it's Mitchell, who has finally coughed up not one but two single-disc compilations: HITS and MISSES (Reprise).
Living up to its title, Hits crams in most of her best-known radio and summer-camp favorites ("Big Yellow Taxi," "The Circle Game," "Both Sides, Now"). It's Joni for beginners, and the years and remakes haven't lessened the power of her originals one peasant-skirted iota. It's still easy to get goose bumps when her soprano soars into overdrive in "Woodstock," or to revel in the intricate fingerpicking and doleful voice of "Urge for Going" or the levelheaded giddiness of "Help Me." Before Mitchell, soul-baring female singer-songwriters didn't exist, and few Joni-come-latelys crafted vivid lines like "the sun poured in like butterscotch and stuck to all my senses" (from "Chelsea Morning," also here). The rub is that most of Mitchell's "hits" are her chirpiest ditties, so Hits tends to play up her hippie-dippiest side. The song choices are frustrating, too: FM regulars like "Coyote" and "In France They Kiss on Main Street" are missing, their space occupied by later-period album cuts like the nostalgic "Come In From the Cold."
Misses is more problematic. As Mitchell recently told Billboard, it consists "not of what I consider my best work, but things that were commercially viable" - that is, songs she feels should have been released as 45s or, for those that were, should have been hits. An intriguing idea, but, in this case, it reveals more about the singer than the songs. In the late '70s, Mitchell tired of chronicling her love life and yearned to stretch out creatively. Unfortunately, she felt the answer lay in dour, self-righteous tirades against suburban complacency, war hawks, the media, and the decline of civilization, set to anemic jazz and synth-pop. Only a genuine oddball like Mitchell could imagine the clunky sound collage "The Reoccurring Dream" as Top 40 fare. As a result, Misses is "challenging" but not especially enjoyable; only rarely, as on 1994's "Sex Kills" did she find a balance of bile and heart (and a musical hook).
In a way, these simultaneously rewarding and confounding sets make twisted sense. Ever since she renounced winsome folk rock for smoky jazz protest songs with cool, brittle singing to match, Mitchell hasn't made it easy for herself or her fans. She's made music on her own terms, shown few regrets, and dealt with the consequences (although recent interviews have revealed some bitterness toward her audience and the music business). No wonder everyone from Prince to Courtney Love admires her. On Hits and Misses, Mitchell has once again taken her own route, compiling two albums that don't fully do justice to a catalog that, at its best, still speaks to our feelings peace, love, and romantic misunderstanding. Perhaps Mitchell should release a third volume and call it Omissions.