It’s hard to quantify an artist like Joni Mitchell. She is a complex character who has seemingly found herself residing in one of the more unusual music world spots. Joni Mitchell is a timeless and masterful composer, creating songs that will ring out into the aeons of eternity with their soulful message and attainable context. Equally, she is a serial innovator, never wanting to rest on her laurels and continuously pushing herself to enact the aforementioned vision of sharing universal truths with the utmost of ingenuity.
It has led the singer to be regarded, quite rightly, as one of the founding members of pop music as we know it. A Queen in the folk world, Mitchell really gained fame for her ability to effortlessly sew genre, style and sentiment together into a tapestry of beguiling songs that will continue to enrich your soul forevermore. If there’s a singer-songwriter with more devotion to her craft, then we haven’t met them yet. Therefore, ascertaining Joni Mitchell’s ten greatest songs of all time is quite a difficult prospect.
Largely because she’s given us so many. Across an incredibly gilded career, Mitchell has delivered songs of such high-quality time and time again that reducing her canon to merely ten songs feels borderline masochistic. However, in doing so, we find that Mitchell’s catalogue is as rich and textured as any of her counterparts that flourished during the sixties and seventies. While many of those fell by the wayside in later years, Mitchell maintained an aura of artistic integrity and rarely gave anyone credence to doubt it.
Mitchell possessed one of the few things her contemporaries were blessed with — a truly stunning vocal. While she may have made her name initially as a searing songwriter, it became clear very quickly that her vocal tone was unlike anything on the music scene at the time. As angelic and ethereal as the passing of a comet, Mitchell’s singing voice became a signature moment of the sixties, and it allowed the dark truths of her lyrics to be delivered in a more balanced way.
Mitchell has always shown herself to be the perfect blend of tradition and innovation across her ginormous career. She wrote songs for the masses from the most personal places in her soul. If there’s a better description of the ultimate singer-songwriter, we’ve yet to find it.
Joni Mitchell’s 10 best songs:
10. ‘Turbulent Indigo’
Starting her career in the sixties alongside Dylan and Baez, Mitchell suffered a similar fate in the eighties. With attention drawn to the new wave sounds being made through synths and drum machines, the music world disowned the folk clique which had laid so many foundations before them. It meant that Mitchell spent some years in the wilderness of modern pop.
By 1994, she had hit the jackpot as she not only returned to her roots ut won a Grammy for Pop Album of the Year with her 15th studio record, Turbulent Indigo. It’s an album of bubbling heat and serious direction as Mitchell not only takes on an ex-lover but also Ireland’s homes for “fallen women”. Her talent’s best distillation comes from ‘Turbulent Indigo’, the title track.
It’s a surreal lullaby, taking inspiration from her favourite artists Vincent Van Gogh and imbued with the strong songcraft that Mitchell is best known for.
9. ‘I Had A King’
Though Joni Mitchell had been travelling around the world writing and singing her songs for some time, for many people, the first song on Joni’s first album Songs from a Seagull was their introduction to the talented singer. Introductions don’t get much better than ‘I Had A King’.
Mitchell displays all of the poetic qualities and pop sensibilities that would make her music not only wholly unique but utterly captivating. It was the first shape of Mitchell’s writing coming into focus.
As she takes on the role of the observer, narrating the collapse of men, Mitchell paints her imagery with a feathered touch and a gilded intent. Using her own experiences to guide her hand, Mitchell became one of the most authentic artists around.
The track is a wildly popular classic. It’s been recorded more times than any other of Mitchell’s compositions, having been recorded over 432. That said, nothing can really match the tender vulnerability that Mitchell brings to the song. It might well be something to do with ‘River’s origination.
The singer is in deep longing to escape her emotional bonds as they grow too painful to her about the recent breakup of a romantic relationship. The song is thought to be inspired by Mitchell’s relationship with fellow musician Graham Nash.
By the end of 1970, Mitchell and Nash’s relationship had begun to deteriorate beyond recognition. Equally, at the same time, the singer was struggling to reconcile with her musical output. It culminated in one of the finest Christmas songs of all time. But while the songwriting is perfect, Mitchell’s vocal performance is utterly beautiful.
One of the more famous songs on this list, ‘Coyote,’ was written about Sam Shepherd as the duo shared a brief relationship during the Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Revue, of which they were both a part. It sees Mitchell lament their “different sets of circumstances” and how difficult it is for her to maintain a fruitful relationship when living in a creative world.
It’s one of Mitchell’s most sexually aggressive songs, and sees the folk singer struggling to align her past values with her new life. To illustrate this, the continuing use of juxtaposing visuals of nature and urbanisation offers up every piece of Mitchell’s conflict both with and without Shepherd.
It’s a masterful piece of writing that showcases Mitchell’s growing talent as she recognised and perfected her unique viewpoint.
6. ‘The Circle Game’
One track saw Mitchell pen a tune about an old buddy from Canada. In Toronto back in 1964, a young Joni Mitchell was a member of a tiny but growing folk scene. Another member of that scene was Neil Young, and the two performers met in 1964 at the Fourth Dimension folk club at the University of Manitoba.
Mitchell would take her talents towards songwriting and began penning some of the decade’s anthemic folk music. She composed songs for Gordon Lightfoot and Judy Collins and a bunch of other hits, including a track about her then-21-year-old friend Neil Young. The track pictured a man scared of growing old—a recurring theme in Young’s own work. ‘The Circle Game’ was written in response to Young’s own track, ‘Sugar Mountain’, a song written when he was just 19 years of age and lamented adolescent loss.
Introducing the song in 1968, she said: “This is a song that’s been recorded by a couple of friends of mine, so maybe you know it a little better than the other ones. And if you do – if you know the chorus, wow – just sing along, cause it’s a chorus about people and growing old and growing young and carousels and painted ponies and the weather and the Buffalo Springfield.”
5. ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’
When Joni Mitchell released her seventh studio album The Hissing of Summer Lawns she perhaps reached the peak of her talents. While the album isn’t quite as highly regarded as the aforementioned Blue or the upcoming Hejira, it saw Mitchell’s songcraft soar and her arrangements improve too.
One of the singer’s most musically rich albums is perfectly demonstrated in the title track of the LP. Over the lush decadence of the music sings some of Micthell’s most visceral lyrics, providing a simple and effective darkness that does well to balance the album and this track too.
It’s a purely brilliant song that surmises everything that’s great about Mitchell.
If there’s one thing that Mitchell had developed over her career by the time she approached the 1976 album Hejira it was a sharp tongue. Through a series of condemnations, Mitchell had gathered a reputation as the lonely wanderer and in Hejira she embraced it.
With no rules and only the road ahead of her, Mitchell delivered one of her finest albums of all time.
“I’m porous with travel fever, but you know I’m so glad to be on my own,” she sings on the title track of the album. With it she yet again proved that out on her own Mitchell was the ultimate singing bard, a poet, a charmer and an unstoppable force of creative power. It’s an insistent moment of her career and one we’re more than happy to listen to over and over with the signature clarinet gilding everything with a touch of joy.
3. ‘Both Sides Now’
‘Both Sides Now’, originally released in 1969, is one of Mitchell’s unstoppable anthems. Touching and emboldened by potent emotion, the song has become a mainstay of her canon. But perhaps an even more revealing version of the song came in 2000 when Mitchell covered her own song.
The difference between the versions of the songs is massive. While the original is angelic at times and innocent at others, Mitchell approaches the song in 2000 with a heavier heart and lungs.
A smoking habit has given her vocal a heavy gravelled tone, and her gathered wisdom now casts a sneering glare over the 26-year-old who wrote the track. “I really don’t know life at all,” she growls both to her audience in the new millennium and herself in the past.
2. ‘Big Yellow Taxi’
It’s hard to ignore a song as anthemic as ‘Big Yellow Taxi’. However, it is equally difficult to imagine the song with a fresh mind’s eye. ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ has become a universally adored song for its hopeful message of humanity eventually triumphing over its own greed. Whether or not we feel any closer to such a triumph over 50 years after the song was released is by the by.
The track is brimming with Mitchell’s intellect, cunning songwriting style and her undoubted ear for a tune. Many of Mitchell’s songs have similar messages but few are as easily digestible as ‘Big Yellow Taxi’. Think of it as the chewable multivitamin your mother used to give you — sweet, powerful and with a strong message of health.
The environmental angle is upfront for everyone to see and hear but scratch the surface, and the song will reveal the failed relationship at its crux. As with everything Mitchell does, there is no singular way forward. The song will be perhaps best remembered not for Mitchell’s impeccable range but her voice-breaking giggle.
1. ‘A Case of You’
Mitchell was never scared to share a piece of herself in her music, and on ‘A Case of You’, she wrote the defining confessional track. Whether or not it is Mitchell herself in the smoke and mirrors of the lyrics is up for debate. However, what she brings in the song’s vocal performance is about as close to putting one’s heart on a plate as you can get.
“The Blue album, there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals,” Joni Mitchell once said of her masterpiece. The song is a view on a blossoming relationship after it has begun to wilt in the sun. The track’s beginning is a poetic nod to the past and a resounding picture of life after love, “Just before our love got lost, you said, ‘I am as constant as a northern star,’ and I said/’Constantly in the darkness – where’s that at? If you want me, I’ll be in the bar.’”
One line, in particular, has always risen above the rest when considering ‘A Case of You’ – “I could drink a case of you, darling/Still I’d be on my feet”. It has always largely been lauded as a signal of Mitchell’s devotion to her protagonist, but when considering this from the singer’s point of view, it is more likely a testament to the man’s inability to sweep Mitchell off her feet.
“One of my main interests in life is human relationships and human interactions,” Mitchell once told interviewer Malka Marom. “I really believe that individuality, the maintenance of individuality, is so necessary to what we would call a true or lasting love, that people who say ‘I love you’ and then begin to do a Pygmalion number on you are wrong, you know. Love has to encompass all the things that a person is.”