In 1971, Joni Mitchell was primed for a breakthrough. Having initially rode the wave of the folk music boom in the mid-1960s, Mitchell had established herself through the art of songwriting, with artists like Judy Collins and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young all covering her material. She also had three albums of her own, the latest of which, 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon, featured some of her most contemporary and accessible work to date, like the three-chord pop of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ or the indelible singalong nature of ‘The Circle Game‘.
Despite her success and momentum, Mitchell wasn’t in a particularly joyous state of mind. Her past relationship with Graham Nash was still informing her material, as was her current relationship with James Taylor, who had been going through heroin addiction and a newly blossoming career following his Sweet Baby James album. Additionally, the loss of the daughter she gave up for adoption still weighed heavy on her mind, as did her separation from her newfound spiritual and physical home in California.
As a result, her new album was set to take on themes of longing, escape, depression, loss, and nostalgia. Of course, it wouldn’t be without its moments of joy and levity, but Blue was largely a portrait of an artist in crisis. At this time, Mitchell famously compared herself to cellophane: completely transparent, with nothing to hide.
One of the last records of her initial folk period, Blue is an album of a singular vision: written and produced exclusively by Mitchell, and largely performed solo, the album is the pure, unaltered thoughts of a songwriter working at the absolute peak of her powers. Mitchell would go on to experiment in different genres and styles like pop, jazz, and world music, making as much of an impression through her arrangements and guitar work as she did through her lyric writing. Still, if you want the clearest distillation of Mitchell’s unparalleled songwriting ability, Blue is the album to go to.
Despite its weighty themes and darker introspection, Blue was a major critical and commercial success. Released as the singer-songwriter era of pop music had reached its height, Mitchell was rightfully seen as an unparalleled talent who conjured poetic images and emotional insights that other singers or songwriters just couldn’t touch. Part of the allure of Blue involves the songs’ autobiographical nature, but its enduring appeal comes from the universality of her writing.
The lasting influence of Blue is best illustrated by the artists who have found inspiration in its stories. Prince was famously an avowed Mitchell fanatic and would return to ‘A Case of You‘ frequently over his long career. Artists as diverse as Herbie Hancock, The Supremes, and Taylor himself have all taken their own respective swings at some of Blue‘s material. But the real legacy of Blue, and Mitchell herself, is in the trailblazing path she set for women in music. Cat Power, Sarah McLachlan, k.d. lang, Björk, and Brandi Carlile are just a few names who have paid tribute to Mitchell, and the list of musicians who are indebted to her would be a mile long and worthy of an entirely separate retrospective.
Today, in honour of the seminal album’s 50th anniversary, we’re ranking all ten songs on Blue. I will fully admit that I already disagree with my own premise: every song on Blue is a 10/10, an irreplaceable and unimpeachable pillar that is essential to the overall impact of the album as a whole. You can’t replace or disturb any part of Blue. It’s just not possible.
Still, rankings are fun, and so are having opinions, so it seems like as good a way as any to celebrate one of the greatest albums of all time. Which songs I gravitate to changes every time I listen to Blue, which is admittedly close to a bi-monthly occurrence for me (Mitchell is easily one of my favourite artists of all time, and I’m a big sap, leave me alone), but that’s part of the albums beauty: each replay is a brand new experience, just like the first time you hear it.
Ranking the songs on Joni Mitchell’s Blue from worst to best:
Blue would undoubtedly start to sag under its own weightiness if there weren’t moments of levity and fun sprinkled in with the moroseness. ‘Carey’ is the lightest and most carefree cut on the album, recounting a trip to Greece where Mitchell befriended a red-haired rogue and spent nights dancing at the Mermaid Cafe. Infectious in its merry energy, ‘Carey’ nonetheless feels slightly out of place within the overall tone of Blue.
Any other day I would argue that this is a necessary break, especially between the heaviness of ‘Little Green’ and the album’s title track, but this time around, it felt a little too incongruous for me. How can I think about putting on my finest silver while laughing and toasting to nothing after having just recovered from a heartbreaking tale of losing your only child? On the other hand, ‘Carey’ is a fantastic track to listen to outside of the context of Blue, and that’s usually where I prefer to hear it, like on Mitchell’s Hits compilation.
9. ‘All I Want’
What I’m learning very quickly is that I’m gravitating towards the darker moments of Blue this time around, of which there are plenty. Album opener ‘All I Want’ is not a love song: it’s a song about longing for an ideal relationship in the face of one that is less than perfect.
“I hate you some/ I love you some/ I love you when I forget about me.” For a long time, I thought that one of the crucial lines went, “When I think of your kisses, my mind sees stars”, but it’s actually “my mind see-saws”, encapsulating the uncertainty of a relationship in constant flux. Mitchell wants more than she actually has in ‘All I Want’, which of course, is the point: despite the love she clearly feels, she’s still travelling a lonely road.
If ‘Carey’ and ‘All I Want’ are the lowest-rated songs here, it should only go to show how amazing Blue is since these songs would be high watermarks for just about any other artist. For Mitchell, they’re the siren songs that pull you into the depths that the rest of the album explores with haunting detail.
8. ‘This Flight Tonight’
Mitchell gets heaps of praise for her songwriting, producing, and singular singing ability, but there’s another facet of her talent that shouldn’t be overlooked: she is one of the most inventive and creative guitarists of all time. Pioneering alternative tunings, each Joni Mitchell song has a different sonic quality due to the unorthodox chords she producers through her idiosyncratic guitar and piano playing.
‘This Flight Tonight’ has low rumbling bass strings that expand the tonal possibilities of what a standard guitar can sound like, and the descending progression perfectly matches the tale of regret that comes with leaving a lover.
Even as the love in question is the grounding force here, it’s still shrouded in anxiety and doubt: “darkness, darkness, dragging me down.”
7. ‘My Old Man’
The relationship between Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash has inspired some of the greatest songs of the hippie era.
Mitchell’s longing to experience the peace and love festival that Nash was attending lead to the writing of ‘Woodstock’, while her infatuation with even his shortcomings is evident in ‘Willy’. Nash, of course, found his own inspiration in the relationship, most notably on ‘Our House’.
‘My Old Man’ is about as straightforward as Blue gets: the couple doesn’t need to be married to prove their love, she feels the oppressive loneliness of his absence when he’s gone, and everything gets better once he returns. It’s as idealized as Mitchell allowed herself to be about love on Blue, and it works equally well as a tribute to Nash as it does as a universal indicator of what true love can do to get you through the blues.
Canadian by birth, Mitchell found her spiritual home out west when she moved to California in the late ’60s. A famous resident of Laurel Canyon, the area, provided a utopian solace for Mitchell, and she longed for it any time that she had to leave. Since she was in constant motion, ‘California’ takes the form of a travelogue, a songwriting style that Mitchell would later perfect on Hejira.
‘California’ is the necessary exuberance of Blue at its best: major chords, lilting melodies, goofy lyrical wordplay that actually posits her ever-present longing as a good thing, more of a desire for something better than a sorrowful rumination on something lost.
As a result, ‘California’ is as essential to building Mitchell’s mythos as any other song in her vast catalogue.
5. ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’
One of the most impressive aspects of Mitchell’s songwriting is how specific she gets in her stories. No detail is spared in ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’, the recitation of a character who chastises the narrator over their perceived naivety, only to end up a victim of the same fate they’re describing. Richard doesn’t buy his wife a coffee machine; it’s a coffee percolator. They don’t meet somewhere in the ’60s; it’s in Detroit in ’68.
These details are not only essential to getting lost in the song but to fully illustrate the world that Mitchell builds through her deliberate choice of words. Also essential is Mitchell’s rebuke: she’s blowing the candle out, spreading her wings and flying out of the dark cocoon that the dark cafe represents.
For all the heaviness of Blue, Mitchell ends the album by escaping the gloom that she’s built up around her, unwilling to let the depths of her darkness consume her.
The album’s title track and thesis statement, Mitchell describes ‘Blue’ as an ode to the feelings of depression and desolation while touching on the ways people can numb the pain: “Acid, booze, and ass/ Needles, guns, and grass/ Lots of laughs”. But there are no laughs to be had on ‘Blue’. When there’s nothing left but sadness, sometimes it’s all you can turn to until you start to form a bond with it and depend on it. “Blue, I love you”.
Certainly, the lowest that the album gets emotionally, ‘Blue’ resonates with a stark gravity that can be all-consuming, but also cathartic and cleansing, like exorcising a demon or purging darkness out of you. Mitchell has talked about Blue, the album and the song, as a means to cope with the unhappiness she was feeling in a healthy way.
In that sense, ‘Blue’ is actually the album’s most uplifting track: it confronts melancholy and sorrow while still coming out whole on the other side.
Incorporating the familiar chimes of ‘Jingle Bells’ into its piano melody, ‘River’ has become something of a right of passage for Joni Mitchell fans to prove their own level of devotion. Sam Smith, Barry Manilow, Ellie Goulding, and Olivia Rodrigo have all covered the song as it continues to transcend time and place into its home as a somewhat bizarre Christmas classic. Bizarre, in the sense that ‘River’ is not cheery or merry.
Instead, it’s the best example of nostalgia and longing on Blue, reaching back for happier times among the ruins of a shambolic current state of mind.
The lines talk specifically about Mitchell’s own intentions (“I’m gonna make a lot of money/Then I’m gonna quit this crazy scene”) but extends beyond the specificities so that anyone listening can long for their own river to skate away on.
2. ‘Little Green’
In early 1965, Joni Mitchell gave birth to a daughter named Kelly Dale. Lacking any ability to properly care for her, she reluctantly put the child up for adoption. With no other way to express the immense sorrow and guilt that came with the event, Mitchell wrote a song about the experience: ‘Little Green’.
The story has a happy ending. Mitchell was reunited with her daughter, now named Kilauren Gibb, in the late ’90s. But in the 30 years between, Mitchell channelled all of her conflicting emotions into her art, and it never came out as raw and beautiful as it did on ‘Little Green’. The father who sends a poem instead of a paternal commitment, the child with a child of her own, the sadness that refuses to lapse into shame — it all creates a vivid portrait that can only come from such a personal and traumatic event.
Kilauren also plays a wider part in Mitchell’s career. After reuniting with her daughter, Mitchell claimed that she lost interest in songwriting, citing the loss of her daughter as the impetus for her desire to express herself musically and lyrically. Once that open space was filled, the circle closed. It’s a fitting conclusion to a career full of yearning and desire, and to know that Mitchell has some kind of peace makes the pain of ‘Little Green’ feel purposeful and worthwhile.
1. ‘A Case of You’
In spite of its constant grappling with the darker themes, Blue is ultimately a document of perseverance, determination, and acceptance overcoming the weight and oppression of depression, sadness, and sorrow. Through even the coldest recesses of her thoughts, Mitchell can still find the light that keeps her going and keeps her from sinking permanently into the blue.
‘A Case of You’ is the ultimate triumphant celebration of joy and infatuation, of life and love, of resilience among loss. Even though the circumstances come as the last embers of a relationship are burning out, what runs through is thicker than any outside force could shake. “You’re in my blood like holy wine/ You taste so bitter and so sweet/ I could drink a case of you/ And I would still be on my feet.”
The peak of Mitchell’s abilities as a songwriter, performer, producer, and arranger, ‘A Case of You’ is stripped down and subtle, with just Mitchell and an Appalachian Dulcimer, of all things, giving the purest and most stirring performance of her entire career. Every brief pause, every running vocal line, every small detail is perfect.
The emotional impact is weighty and intense, but the way it’s presented is still filled with hope and possibility. For someone who built their reputation as a songwriter for hire, ‘A Case of You’ is the one song that no one else could cover, no matter how esteemed or talented they are. There’s only one person who can imbue the proper sense of desire, longing, and exhaltation that the song requires, and that person is Joni Mitchell.