Joni Mitchell was not just another longhaired folky girl from the ‘60s. Though Mitchell did write some very influential songs during the folk revival, she pushed the boundaries of what it meant to be a female singer-songwriter—blending rock, world, jazz, and more with her folk sensibilities over the course of her four-decade career.
Deeply in tune with her artistic evolution and prone to taking creative risks, Mitchell wasn’t afraid to even sacrifice record store category, accessibility, and fans for her art. She also wasn’t afraid to share her most private emotions through her music, a style that, up until her era, was not nearly as prominent an aspect in pop songwriting. Most importantly, Mitchell is one of the first women to narrate the feminine experience honestly and truthfully through her art and share that in the public sphere. Her courage has paved the way for so many women artists of all genres, and expanded the definition of what a pop song could be.
It is truly a feat to sum up Joni Mitchell’s vast, varied, and incredible songbook, but in an attempt to do so, we’ve ranked her 16 best songs.
With spiraling, interwoven orchestration, Court and Spark’s “Down To You” rightly won a Grammy for Best Arrangement Accompanying a Vocalist in 1974. With Mitchell’s quintessentially raw self-awareness, the lyrics almost certainly seem to be a reflection on her own character and the thrill she finds in new lovers. But, like the true poet she is, she never explicitly states to whom she’s speaking, which allows listeners to insert themselves and their imaginations into the song.
Off Mitchell’s first album with Geffen Records, Wild Things Run Fast, “You Dream Flat Tires” is driven by the bass playing of Mitchell’s ex-husband, Larry Klein. A musing about the inflation and sudden deflation of love, “You Dream Flat Tires” memorably compares precious romantic feelings to a metaphorical tire. What’s more, Lionel Richie comes in to a call and response with Mitchell, creating a dialogue between man and woman that’s honestly thought provoking.
According to the book Girls Like Us, Mitchell wrote this song in response to her label’s request that she write a “hit.” Mitchell didn’t like being told what to do, but wrote this more accessible single nonetheless, adding in obvious references to radios as jabs at her label. This song is the first of many she wrote in her exasperation with fame and the inner-workings of the music business, but ironically, “You Turn Me on I’m a Radio” became Mitchell’s first American Top 40 hit in 1972.
The previous on the list being Mitchell’s first Top 40 hit, “Help Me” is her highest ranking on the Billboard Charts, at No. 7. “Help Me” is another thoughtful exploration of romantic relationships of 1974’s Court and Spark, which dives into the tug and pull between wanting to be committed to someone while also wanting to “love our freedom.” Behind a lilting melody sung by Mitchell, Tom Scott’s L.A. Express Jazz Band plays a burning arrangement, and legendary studio guitarist Larry Carlton fades it out with a stunning solo.
“Coyote” is the first track off Hejira, Mitchell’s 1976 album. It features the masterful electric bass player Jaco Pastorius, and Mitchell’s uncanny ability to write long, lyric-filled passages that sound both musical and natural. Mitchell often goes on lyrical tangents, but then brings them all back around at the end to bolster the overall meaning of the song. For instance, she takes a whole half-verse to describe a burning farmhouse on the roadside, a seeming-diversion that ends up underscoring the other themes in the song. Many artists have tried to imitate this well-crafted, poetry-loaded lyric style, but none seem to achieve it with the same ease.
“I Had a King,” the very first song on Mitchell’s 1968 debut album, Song to a Seagull, is also one of its most poignant. Looking back on a lost love, she sings of a king who has “swept with the broom of contempt / and the rooms have an empty ring.” It was the first of many indications—not including, of course, the hits she had already written for other artists by the time she recorded Seagull—that Mitchell could wring a deep sense of introspection and complexity from just a few chords and a lilting melody. In this case, her failed marriage to musician Chuck Mitchell provided the material she needed to open one of the most storied recording careers in folk-music history.
Like “You Turn Me On I’m A Radio,” “Free Man in Paris” is about Mitchell’s disillusionment with the music industry. “Everyone’s in it for their own gain,” she sings, “You can’t please them all.” And laters she continues, “There’s a lot of people asking for my time / Trying to get ahead / Trying to be a good friend of mind.” Travel is an escape for Mitchell, a place for her to be anonymous. And, as the verse climbs to the chorus—“I was a free man in Paris”—the music, too, releases, with short spurts of lyric becoming sustained notes. It’s like a held breath is suddenly released.
This song hits right in the gut. Another piece of literary genius from Hejira, “Amelia” uses the life and disappearance of solo woman traveler Amelia Earhart as a metaphor for Mitchell’s own wanderlust and search for meaning. The result is a tome of a song full of wisdom. Take the line, “People will tell you where they’ve gone / They’ll tell you where to go / But till you get there yourself you never really know.”
The cheerful, bright guitar accompaniment and Mitchell’s youthful, lilting voice personify a sunny morning in Chelsea, her New York neighborhood at the time. It’s the perfect vignette of a seemingly unimportant moment, a snapshot of Mitchell’s ability to freeze time and paint with sound. Mitchell, who went to art school, considers herself a painter first and a musician second. This song is the perfect blending of the two skills—a still life set to sound.
An introspective reflection, “Trouble Child” is autobiographic and gives the listener a window into Mitchell’s personal challenges, especially her mercurial nature at the center. Although written in second person, her self-reflection takes on a more general tone, as well, helping listeners see themselves in Mitchell’s self-revealing. This is one of the biggest strengths of Mitchell’s music: by sharing her own struggles, she brings out the humanity in us all.
The saddest Christmas song ever written, “River” captures a flipside to the season. “River” is off the transcendent Blue, which broke ground as one of the most emotionally raw albums ever recorded at that point. The candor of songs on the album like “River” was scary to many record executives, who warned Mitchell that she was sharing too much. But luckily, she didn’t listen. To this day Blue is one of the most beautiful examples of the strength in vulnerability, and by extension, femininity.
According to a recent article in NPR, “Carey” was a friend Mitchell met on a trip to Crete in the early ‘70s. Cary Raditz worked at a taverna in town and became close with Mitchell during her trip, and the song was a present to Raditz from Mitchell on his 24th birthday. Like most of the tracks on Blue, “Carey” is driven by Mitchell’s quintessential dulcimer playing, and metaphorically weaves together Mitchell’s travelogue with her search for direction and belonging.
“Circle Game” is the song that put Mitchell on the map. In the late ‘60s, two prominent artists, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Tom Rush, recorded the song on their albums. This exposure led Mitchell to her first record deal. Exploring the cyclical nature of life, “The Circle Game” explores one boy’s growth into adulthood. The particular genius of this song, too, is its music box quality, and the repetitious chord structure that always ends up back where it started. Again, the Mitchell’s lyrics combined her thoughtful musical composition underscore the song’s overall poignancy.
“Woodstock,” is Mitchell’s melancholy tribute to the music festival and the greater hippy movement that defined her generation. Mitchell was forced to miss the festival because of an engagement on The Dick Cavett Show and mourned missing out on the experience by writing this the song in her hotel room. It is one of the anthems of the event, so perfectly capturing Woodstock’s greater significance, and Mitchell didn’t even attend.
Arguably the most vulnerable song on Blue, “A Case of You” is an intimate window into Mitchell’s personal life. In 1979 Rolling Stone interview, Mitchell said, “The Blue album, there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period in my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes.” Said to be inspired by her breakup with Graham Nash, “A Case of You” is yearning and raw. And interestingly, that’s James Taylor on guitar in the back, Mitchell’s love interest at the time.
If Mitchell’s career was devoted to encapsulating life’s journey in one perfect song, she did it with 1969’s “Both Sides Now.” Inspired by a passage about clouds from the 1959 Saul Bellow novel, Henderson The Rain King, “Both Sides Now” has become one of Mitchell’s best-loved songs. The original version was recorded when she was only 26, but at 57, she recorded the song again with a full orchestra. That 2000 version is the pan-ultimate recording of the song: the strings swoon in the back, as Mitchell sings in the smoky, warbled voice, of a woman wizened to both sides of life.