Joni Mitchell's 10 greatest songs, ranked
7 November 2023, 17:16 | Updated: 8 November 2023, 13:29
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She's one of the most vital female artists of all time.
Blending aspects of folk, jazz, pop, and rock into her bewitching musicianship, Joni Mitchell rose to prominence during the countercultural era of the late 60's, and in many ways as defined it since.
That seismic cultural shift was soundtracked by numerous artists flowing out Laurel Canyon's fertile creative scene, though Joni's lyrical intelligence and musical fearlessness saw the singer-songwriter far outgrow her peers.
What elevated the vibrancy and emotional depth of her music however was her voice, a voice that progressed from a kind of angelic optimism to one weary with wisdom and a breadth of life experience.
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Throughout her lengthy and illustrious career, Joni Mitchell strived to create unconventional but heart-piercing music with her starkly personal songwriting - likely why she's been the recipient of various accolades over the years including ten Grammy Awards and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Testament to her creative spirit and expression as a musician and visual artist - who painted the most part of her album covers - the entire music world celebrated when she made her long-awaited return to live performance in 2023, after suffering a brain aneurysm in 2015 and astonishingly re-learning to sing.
Frequently mentioned within "best of all time" lists, it's a difficult task to narrow down Joni's music into ten songs, but here goes:
'Free Man In Paris'
Joni Mitchell - Free Man in Paris (live, 1979)
Released on Joni's 1974 jazz-influenced album, Court And Sparks, the subject matter of 'Free Man In Paris' is music mogul David Geffen.
The pair rose up the ranks of the music industry together and became dear friends when Joni released 1972 album, For The Roses, and having divulged the extraordinary pressures he was under, Joni wrote the song about Geffen being a "free man".
Joni convinced him otherwise and was correct: the song reached No.22 in the US charts and has since becoming one of her most beloved songs.
'California' (LIVE) - Joni Mitchell (BBC In Concert, 1970) - Joni playing dulcimer.
Joni's saccharine ode to the Golden State is now synonymous with the star and even the state.
Proving to be a continued source of inspiration for Mitchell, it was the absence of 'California' in her life which compelled her to write the song.
On tour in Europe and in the midst of a painful break-up from Graham Nash, she wanted nothing more than to return to her home of Laurel Canyon.
Joni Mitchell - Blue (Live, 1974) Rare HD
The title track from Joni's seminal 1971, 'Blue' sees Joni at her most raw and regretful.
Widely considered to be about then-boyfriend James Taylor and his escalating addiction to heroin, she directs her lyricism right at him: "Here's a song for you".
The lamenting centrepiece for her iconic album, Joni was demanding more honesty and vulnerability from herself, which she laid bare throughout the entire album.
"I was demanding of myself a deeper and greater honesty, more and more revelation in my work in order to give it back to the people where it goes into their lives, and nourishes them, and changes their direction, and makes lightbulbs go off in their heads, and makes them feel,” she said in a 2003 interview.
Her instincts were correct - the album is lauded as her defining masterpiece.
A story of a love-triangle where Joni relays the predicament of the third woman, 'Conversation' typifies Joni's songwriting - tragedy and yearning disguised in a buoyant melody.
Detailing a woman pining after a man who is themselves unhappy in their relationship, the narrator knows he'll never leave the woman for her, singing: "She only brings him out to show her friends/I want to free him."
Unconfirmed whether or not it was autobiographical, Joni suggested it could be during a 1967 concert in Philadelphia when she introduced 'Conversation':
"Sometimes a best friend won’t tell a best friend really anything near the truth because they don’t know it themselves."
Joni Mitchell - Amelia (Live 1979)
Finding a kindred spirit in Amelia Earhart, Joni name-checked the pioneering aviator during a period of travelling alone when she wrote her 1976 album, Hejira.
In 1996 she recalled: "I wrote the album while traveling cross-country by myself and there is this restless feeling throughout it... the sweet loneliness of solitary travel."
As the 1970's progressed, so did Joni's experimental songwriting tendencies which many critics believed outshone her magical lyricism.
In many ways, 'Amelia' bookmarked the of Joni's golden era of songwriting, and it's a soaring song befitting its titular character.
'Big Yellow Taxi'
Big Yellow Taxi - Joni Mitchell
No artists matched Joni Mitchell's knack of merging meaningful themes with floating melodies that pervaded the pop charts.
'Big Yellow Taxi' is precisely that - a wide-eyed environmentalist plea that doubles as an anti-capitalist anthem against corporate greed.
A song that bemoans people taking things for granted until they've slipped through their fingers, Joni wrote the song on a trip to Hawaii.
She could see the country's verdant surrounds through her hotel window, only to look down to see "a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart... this blight on paradise," she revealed in a 1996 interview with the Los Angeles Times.
It's Joni at her poppiest, which is arguably why it's her most recognisable song still.
Joni Mitchell - Woodstock (Isle of Wight, 1970)
The song which mythologised the very movement she was a part of, Joni crystallised the enduring optimism of counterculture with 'Woodstock'.
Based on the festival - for which she couldn't actually attend due to scheduling conflicts - she wrote the song on the account of David Crosby and Stephen Stills who performed with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
Watching coverage of the festival from her hotel room, the song depicts Woodstock as a utopia, a heartfelt message to the youth of the era who were inspired to make change by musicians.
"Woodstock, for some reason, impressed me as being a modern miracle, like a modern-day fishes-and-loaves story," Joni later recalled.
"For a herd of people that large to cooperate so well, it was pretty remarkable and there was tremendous optimism. So I wrote the song 'Woodstock' out of these feelings."
'A Case Of You'
Joni Mitchell - A Case Of You (Live London 1983)
'A Case Of You' from Joni's 1971 album Blue depicts herself, a strong woman solemnly drinking heavily at a bar, whilst taking accountability for the mistakes she's made in a previous relationship.
In a 1994 interview she said: "I think men write very dishonestly about breakups. I wanted to be capable of being responsible for my own errors," and she was with devastating effect with this song.
So much so, that the catalyst for the heart-wrenching number - Graham Nash - believed it to be her finest ever composition.
When asked what his favourite song of hers was it was this, replying: "There are so many brilliant songs. I tend to go towards a simple song, and one of my favourites is 'A Case Of You.' I think it's an unbelievably beautifully recorded, simple folk song. It's beautiful."
Joni Mitchell - River (Official Music Video)
Technically a Christmas song - the opening piano notes are lifted directly from 'Jingle Bells' - 'River' mourns the festive season rather than celebrating it.
Featuring on Blue, Joni was still coming to terms with breaking up from Graham Nash, and she was dreading the upcoming Christmas due to having to spend it alone without him.
"I wish I had a river, I could skate away on", she sings, pining for a get-out from the emotional ties she still had to her previous partner.
Whilst holidaying in Crete, Joni telegrammed Nash to tell them their relationship was over, and she can't stop blaming herself for losing "the best baby I ever had."
It's Joni at her most shimmering and shattering, likely why it's become both a Christmas standard and one of her most covered songs.
'Both Sides Now'
Joni Mitchell - Both Sides Now (2021 Remaster) [Official Audio]
Both Sides Now
'Both Sides Now' was originally a hit for folk singer Judy Collins, offered to her by Joni whilst she was still finding her feet as an artist, with Collins going on to win the Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance.
The story behind the song is far more tragic however - Joni wrote it after giving birth as a young woman, and without being able to support the child gave them up for adoption.
She released her own version in 1969 on her album, Clouds, but it had already become a standard by then, with Frank Sinatra singing his own rendition in 1968.
In a masterstroke, Joni transformed the gorgeous song into an evocative retrospection, covering the song again in 2000 at the age of 57 when she'd become far more battle-scarred by life.
With typically thought-provoking lyrics, melodic mastery, and a renewed perspective from later in life, 'Both Sides Now' is undoubtedly Joni Mitchell's greatest songwriting achievement.