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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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“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.