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Joni Mitchell: 50 Essential Songs

From “Chelsea Morning” to “Coyote” and beyond, we survey the legendary singer-songwriter’s defining statements

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In May 2021, during an interview with Clive Davis, Joni Mitchell reflected on negative reviews she’s received over the years. “I thought, why is it that people are so hard on this stuff? Well, I guess it’s because it’s different,” she said. “It doesn’t fit into a genre. You can’t say it’s folk music or jazz; it’s somewhere in between.”

Categories don’t apply to Joni Mitchell, and they never have. She became famous in the early Seventies as the ultimate confessional singer-songwriter, but she’ll go down as maybe the greatest formal innovator in modern pop. Where so many of her contemporaries built on familiar folk or rock & roll models, Mitchell devised her own musical language, one that could encompass songs as intimate and plainspoken as “River” or as imaginative and epic as “Paprika Plains.”

She began writing songs in the early Sixties, after growing tired of the territorial Toronto folk scene, in which performers would stake claims on traditional tunes and forbid others to play them. Her early triumphs, poetic and preternaturally wise efforts like “The Circle Game” and “Both Sides, Now,” found fame before she did, via covers by Judy Collins, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and others. But from the time of her first album, 1968’s Song to a Seagull, Mitchell showed that her plaintive, dazzlingly clear delivery was as unique as her writing.

What followed in the Seventies was a staggering string of masterpieces, starting out spare — as on the epochal Blue, home to indelible songs like the buoyant “All I Want” and the somber title track — and growing increasingly involved across albums like Court and Spark, which yielded her biggest hit in the crazy-in-love anthem “Help Me.” By the time of Hejira, with roomy, formally dazzling songs like “Amelia” and “Song for Sharon,” she was firmly on her own terrain, and she would stay there through the Eighties and Nineties, as she modernized her sound without compromising her signature complexity and laser-focused eye for detail. Her later-era social critiques like “Sex Kills” were as trenchant as her earlier, more autobiographical material.

During the past two decades, Mitchell’s output has slowed — since 1998, she’s released just one new album of original songs. But her influence has only grown, with everyone from Taylor Swift to Herbie Hancock (whose Grammy–winning 2007 Album of the Year, River: The Joni Letters, featured mostly her songs), Björk, and Phoebe Bridgers citing her as a beacon of radical honesty and fearless originality. Here, we look back at 50 of her greatest songs.

From Rolling Stone US

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“Amelia” (1976)

Hejira starts strong with the playful “Coyote,” but Mitchell’s mid-Seventies masterpiece really hits its jazzy, reflective stride with track two. She’s alone again by now, lost in her own thoughts on a long drive through the desert, when she spies a squad of jets in the sky above her. A few years earlier, when she wrote “Woodstock,” a similar sight made her think of butterflies; this time, she considers a couple of poetic symbols (“It was the hexagram of the heavens/It was the strings of my guitar”) before shaking her head: “Amelia, it was just a false alarm.” That would be Amelia Earhart, the pioneering solo aviator whose story reminds Mitchell that soaring above everyone else can be a lonely job and that life is full of mirages. “Maybe I’ve never really loved/I guess that is the truth/I’ve spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes,” she sings, in another masterful reference to the early creative triumphs that have left her feeling disillusioned in her thirties. —S.V.L.

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“Song for Sharon” (1976)

This 10-verse, no-chorus stunner from Side Two of Hejira begins as a postcard from New York addressed to Sharon Bell, a close friend from Mitchell’s childhood in small-town Saskatchewan who chose a more traditional path for her adult life. Mitchell, nursing her wounds after a breakup, has headed east to the big city to find the album’s core questions staring back wherever she looks: “I went to Staten Island, Sharon/To buy myself a mandolin/And I saw the long white dress of love/On a storefront mannequin.” Is it possible to find romantic fulfillment while also pursuing artistic immortality? Is that happy ending even something worth window-shopping for? Mitchell wanders New York’s five boroughs, visits a skating rink and a psychic (“She lit a candle for my love luck/And 18 bucks went up in smoke”), tries to weigh the pain that relationships can cause against the ache of being without one. She ends on a note of tentative hope: “You sing for your friends and your family/I’ll walk green pastures by and by.” —S.V.L.

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“Dreamland” (1977)

Along with peers like Jackson Browne, Mitchell began pivoting her songwriting from the personal to the political, and her music from radio-friendly to more experimental. This highlight from one of her most demanding albums, 1977’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, is a trancelike meditation on, in part, the slave trade: “Walter Raleigh and Chris Columbus/Come a-marching out of the waves/And claim the beach and all concessions/In the name of the suntan slave,” she sing-chants over a bare-boned percussion arrangement. With the song, Mitchell staked her own claim to pursuing whatever interests commanded her, no matter what impact they might have on her popularity or record sales. —D.B.

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“Paprika Plains” (1977)

A genuine epic, running a full 16 minutes — the entirety of Side Two in the original double-LP incarnation of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter — “Paprika Plains” has its genesis in an offhand remark Bob Dylan made to Mitchell at the wrap party Paul McCartney threw on the Queen Mary after completing the recording of Venus and Mars. Alone with Mitchell for a moment, Dylan asked her what she would paint of the room they were in. She said, “I’d paint the mirrored ball spinning, I’d paint the women in the washroom, the band.” This later came back to her in a dream, and she strung these impressions together with fevered reminiscences of childhood. Mitchell’s sketches in the opening verses seem familiar enough, but then they start to elongate and finally the music descends into an elaborate, orchestra-backed instrumental passage, cut together from four separate sessions. Listen closely and it’s possible to hear the orchestra wobble out of tune, something Charles Mingus brought up to Mitchell in his first meetings with her ahead of their 1979 collaborative album. But the bassist loved the composition — it was the first song that suggested to him he was a kindred spirit with the maverick singer-songwriter. —S.T.E.

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“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (1979)

From her decades-long partnerships with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter to the band she led with Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny, Mitchell’s serious, sustained engagement with jazz artists has made her almost unique in the rock and pop sphere. It’s safe to say that no one else could have made Mingus, her collaboration with the titular bass legend, as he was suffering from ALS and unable to play. In addition to giving her new compositions to pen lyrics for, he also asked her to take a shot at one of his signature tunes, his deep-blue 1959 elegy for tenor-sax legend Lester Young. Riffing on the melody and saxophonist John Handy’s solo on the original version and backed by an all-star band including Hancock, Shorter, and Pastorius, Mitchell memorializes Young not just as “the sweetest singing music man” but as an artist plagued and demoralized by racism: “A bright star/In a dark age/When the bandstands had a thousand ways/Of refusing a black man admission.” “[Ironically], it’s a more natural form of music for me as a singer than my own music because you have such creative liberty within the bar,” she told Rolling Stone’s Ben Sidran at the time of working with Mingus. “After this, rock & roll is like a metronome.” —H.S.

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“Love” (1982)

Fresh off the completion of his debut film, Diner, director Barry Levinson approached nine female artists to create short films about the subject of love. Mitchell jumped at the chance, reviving her pimp persona Art Nouveau — a controversial relic from the Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter era — for a 10-minute movie she wrote and directed. Levinson’s project never materialized, but Mitchell’s short generated “Love,” one of her most enduring songs of the 1980s. Based on the biblical verse 1 Corinthians 13, “Love” speaks neither to romantic or sexual love — the elements Levinson was interested in exploring — but rather to the nourishing nature of kindness and generosity. Mitchell took liberties with the verse she found in a hotel-room Gideons Bible. ”I eliminated some of the archaic verses and images of the body being burned, of resurrection and the return of Christ, and did some shuffling to get rhymes and half rhymes,” she said at the time. “And I changed the ‘charity,’ in ‘faith, hope and charity,’ to ‘love,’ because nowadays charity has come to mean tax shelters.” The alterations added ambiguity to otherwise precise language, a trick that gave “Love” lasting power. —S.T.E.

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“Ethiopia” (1985)

Designed as a clanging, impassioned protest against the Reagan era, 1985’s Dog Eat Dog found Joni Mitchell embracing the electronic production of the mid-1980s, going so far as to bring in synth-pop pioneer Thomas Dolby as a production consultant. “She felt that the guitar twang was not the right way to frame what she was feeling about the times,” Dolby recalled to Mitchell biographer David Yaffe. “She needed to use the tools of the times to throw it back in their faces.” Buried deep within the record lay the spare, haunting “Ethiopia.” A blunt, unflinching portrait of a country ravaged by famine, “Ethiopia” sounds suspended in time even if it was about a particular crisis of the moment. “Ethiopia” earned an unexpected fan in Nina Simone. Mitchell bumped into the iconic singer-pianist while shopping at the Beverly Center in L.A. Simone swept Mitchell off her feet and said only: “Joni Mitchell! ‘Ethiopia!’” —S.T.E.

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“My Secret Place” (1988)

Larry Klein, who Mitchell married in 1982, played on So, Peter Gabriel’s moody 1986 blockbuster, beginning an association that led to Mitchell heading to Gabriel’s Ashcombe House studio to record Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm. A fast bond with Gabriel developed, and he duetted with her on “My Secret Place.” The pair sing as if they’ve been partners for a while, weaving between and completing each other’s phrases. “It’s a love beginning song,” Mitchell said at the time of the balmy, blissed-out track. “The song’s about the threshold of intimacy. It’s a shared thing so I wanted it to be like the Song of Solomon, where you can’t tell what gender it is. It’s the uniting spirit of two people at the beginning of a relationship.” —S.T.E.

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“Come in From the Cold” (1991)

Taking her from a sock-hop party of her youth to more skeptical middle age, this single from 1991’s Night Ride Home finds Mitchell grappling with the dreams of the Sixties and the realities of several decades later: “We had hope/The world held promise,” she sings, before adding, “But then absurdity came over me/And I longed to lose control.” As she said at the time, “The question now is whether people can enjoy the singing of a middle-aged woman, even though the consensus is that if you don’t evoke wet dreams, you’re in trouble.” The sinuous track conjures the folk roots of Michell’s early years but adds a dollop of world-music syncopation and a deeper, slightly throatier voice. A modest hit in her native Canada, it didn’t do nearly as well in the States and deserved a better commercial fate. —D.B.

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“Night Ride Home” (1991)

Unabashedly romantic, “Night Ride Home” captures a specific place in time. “That’s a sweet song that was written in Hawaii when Larry [Klein] and I were driving along on the Fourth of July to this house we had rented,” Mitchell recalled to Mojo in 2019. “There was this big moon and the clouds moving across the island so quickly. Everything looked so magical … even the white line on the highway. It was as if someone had sprinkled fairy dust all around.” Mitchell cut the song late into her marriage to Klein — the pair would divorce in 1992 — but at that point it was a few years old; she performed it under the title “Fourth of July” during the supporting tour for Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm. Appropriately, the song seems to exist somewhat out of time, a vivid yet subdued document of a hushed, special moment. —S.T.E.

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“Sex Kills” (1994)

Mitchell was always an expert observer, and on “Sex Kills,” she panned out and examined society as a whole. Singing atop a brooding electro-pop soundscape, complete with squalls of noise guitar, Mitchell surveyed early-Nineties America and painted a picture that now seems depressingly prophetic: “All these jack-offs at the office/The rapist in the pool/Oh, and the tragedies in the nurseries/Little kids packin’ guns to school.” Each verse lands on the blunt statement that “sex sells everything, and sex kills.” The song was inspired not just by what Mitchell was seeing around her but the music she was hearing. “I think there is more ugliness,” she said at the time. “I think it’s on the increase. Especially towards women. I’ve never been a feminist, but we haven’t had pop songs up until recently that were so aggressively dangerous to women.” —H.S.

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“The Magdalene Laundries” (1994)

In 1993, news broke that 155 bodies of so-called “fallen women” had been found buried in a mass grave in Dublin on the site of one of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, asylums run by the Catholic Church starting in the 18th century. Mitchell happened upon the story in a newspaper and turned it into this suitably heartbreaking ballad from her excellent 1994 album, Turbulent Indigo, sung from the perspective of a Laundry resident sent there against her will after being “branded as a jezebel.” “Why do they call this heartless place/Our Lady of Charity?” she asks, showing that she was just as incisive in her critiques of religion as in matters of the heart. —H.S.

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“Man From Mars (Piano Version)” (1998)

Allison Anders hired Larry Klein as the music supervisor for Grace of My Heart, a musical period piece set during the glory days of the Brill Building, centered on a character who loosely recalled Carole King. Klein approached Joni Mitchell to write a song of heartbreak reminiscent of her Blue period. Mitchell initially balked at writing a song on spec, claiming she couldn’t conjure feelings she wasn’t currently experiencing. Then, her cat Nietzsche went missing. As she recalled, she yelled at Nietzsche after he “peed all over a couple of chairs,” so she threw him out and he disappeared for more than two weeks, an interim which allowed her to summon sadness that flows through “Man From Mars.” In its demo form, heard only on the initial pressing of the film’s soundtrack, it evokes the early 1970s, but she dressed up the song and softened it for her version on 1998’s Taming the Tiger. Underneath the gloss, the sorrow is still apparent, but it’s on the demo version where Mitchell channels the spirit of her early masterpieces. —S.T.E.

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“One Week Last Summer” (2007)

In her later years, Mitchell revisited songs she’d recorded much earlier, but also continued to experiment with new ways of writing and recording. Her last studio album to date is 2007’s Shine, recorded five years after she had declared that she was quitting music. Its opening track is this elegantly winding instrumental, built around the unmistakable sound of Mitchell’s piano playing. “One Week Last Summer” won the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance in 2008, the same year that Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters, a collection of Mitchell covers, won Album of the Year. —D.W.

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“Night of the Iguana” (2007)

This track from Mitchell’s most recent album of new material, Shine, shares a title with Tennessee Williams’ play for a reason. As Mitchell said at the time, “This is loosely based on the film of the same name” — about a defrocked priest accused of statutory rape — and she added that it fit in “with the theological/ecological theme of the album.” Arriving roughly 40 years after her debut, the song demonstrated that Mitchell could remain a commanding presence on record. Both the lyric and the song’s blend of electronic and acoustic accompaniment also made it clear that pushing herself — and ignoring her audience’s expectations — remained on her creative front burner. —D.B.