Obviously we can have both, but the phrase “for the sake of discussion” is one of my favourites, and so for the sake of discussion let's have it. Who is better, and what do we get from such a discussion? The point of any rhetoric here for me is to raise the critical profile of Joni Mitchell, who deserves our love even if she no longer wants it (Mitchell has officially been in painterly retirement since 2007's Shine). The love for Bob hasn't really diminished in all his long career, and indeed I share in it. Blood on the Tracks (to take only one example) is a wizened and ghost-ridden experience. Hauntingly brilliant. Joni on the other hand isn't so much underpraised as half forgotten. Her career has been codified as having produced one classic (Blue -a towering, imposingly great work) and nothing much else is discussed.
This list is my shot at airing a few more details which have somehow suffered omission down the years. It's also a punt at, if not pricking then lowering the balloon of praise which floats complacently above Dylan's fuzzy head. It perhaps seems facile to compare or oppose them in this way, but then entertaining things are often facile, and it's a good excuse to have a bit of fun with two sixties giants, while still examining some genuine contrasts between the pair. I'll leave it to readers to decode which of the following are earnest examinations versus glib frivolities:
1- Joni Mitchell is a better, and immeasurably more musical, songwriter. She writes extravagantly fluid and illustrative melodies- see the transporting high, long notes of River, or the rich honeycomb loveliness of Both Sides Now's sequence. Listen to these and then try humming a Dylan tune from memory.
2- Mitchell's songs are composed and recorded with guitars strung to unconventional tunings, to such an extent that she has a personal archivist who helps her to retune guitars for live performances. Innovations like this speak to Joni's restlessness with the forms and customs of songwriting, and they lead to truly unique harmonic pictures
3- Dylan has inspired a generation of surly, self-important male singer-songwriters. Mitchell has inspired Joanna Newsom, Laura Marling, and Prince.
4- She's not ashamed of her face, e.g. can appear in public without the necessary shield of sunglasses.
5- Dylan became a born-again Christian, like a dope
6- Vocal gulf. It may be the case that Mitchell's once spotless voice has now become aged and decrepit, but Dylan's voice was aged and decrepit back in the 60s. He's preternaturally decrepit.
7- Throughout the mid 70s Mitchell made daring collaborative albums with Jazz artists, peaking with the Jaco Pistorius driven Hejira, and the album which was Charles Mingus's last completed recording, Mingus. These successes vindicate her questing musical spirit. It's one thing to define a style successfully as Dylan has, it's another altogether to do this more than once in a career.
8- She's better at self-portraits: contrast her van Gogh inspired Turbulent Indigo album cover with Dylan's ridiculous Picasso-aping Self Portrait sleeve. In fact, if you don't like Mitchell's music, she doesn't care since she's really a “painter derailed by circumstance” these days.
9- Mitchell hasn't yet inflicted any sub-par progeny on the music world (e.g. Jakob Dylan)
10- Mitchell's songs are open-plan, questioning pieces. Dylan's are closed, pre-contained. He's predictable where Joni is anything but.
11- Dylan's surname has, thanks to his near mythic status in popular culture, been appropriated as a forename by horrible trendy people. Those who mysteriously decide to name their child “Mitchell” have never done so due to any equivalent status Joni has attained. She's not culpable.
12- Her work features elements of Jazz musicianship, harmonic chromaticism, and experimental guitar tunings, Dylan's features honking tone-deaf harmonica solos.
13- Even where you'd expect to find Dylan indomitable -his lyrics- Joni comes out on top. I defy anyone to point the way to a Dylan lyric which matches the complexity, the poetics, the ripping honesty, gravity and emotional impact of the opening lines of A Case of You. The thing even rhymes!