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Best Joni Mitchell Songs: 20 Mesmerising Masterpieces
© Joel Bernstein 1970
List & Guides

Best Joni Mitchell Songs: 20 Mesmerising Masterpieces

Painting pictures in sound, the best Joni Mitchell songs see the artist making bold decisions – and even bolder statements.

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If choosing the best Joni Mitchell songs has taught us anything, it is that she has a mesmerising catalogue of music – and that whittling down so many brilliant works is a serious task. Such is Mitchell’s incredible gift for songwriting, you could set any number of people the same task, and they would all have wildly varying lists. So if you don’t see your favourite song in this carefully curated list of Joni Mitchell’s finest moments, just know that we probably agonised over whether to add it or not.

You will notice an absence of choices from her earlier albums. That’s because, firstly, while they are brilliant records, Joni Mitchell really came into her own in the 70s; and, secondly, her later albums merit far more respect and coverage than they receive.

Listen to the best of Joni Mitchell here and check out our 20 best Joni Mitchell songs, below.

20: Free Man In Paris (from ‘Court And Spark’, 1974)

If Free Man In Paris sounds like something Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young would have been proud to put their name to, that’s no surprise, as both David Crosby and Graham Nash feature on backing vocals – to brilliant success. One of the best Joni Mitchell songs, this glorious tale of the free man able to stroll around the city unfettered by work and constant pestering is set to a languid Laurel Canyon sound. Written about powerhouse producer David Geffen and a trip Joni took to France with him and The Band’s Robbie Robertson, this is a brilliant slice of what Joni does seamlessly: a twisting, detailed narrative given a sunshiney chord structure.

19: The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Lay Down Your Arms) (from ‘Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm’, 1988)

Eighties synth sounds would feature on a few of Joni’s records, and while those albums may not attract as many fans as her earlier work, The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Lay Down Your Arms) shows that Joni’s lyrics were as effective as ever (“Molly McGee gets her tea-leaves read/You’ll be married in a month they say/‘These leaves are crazy!/Look at this town, there’s no men left!/Just frail old boys and babies/Talking to teacher in the treble clef’”). The song is an echoey wonder, tracing the life of a woman against a backdrop of war and despair. It also features Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman of Prince’s Revolution on backing vocals, on an album that also sees appearances from Willie Nelson, Peter Gabriel, Tom Petty, Billy Idol and Eagles’ Don Henley.

18: Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (from ‘Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter’, 1977)

Jaco Pastorius brings his whomping basslines to the title track of Joni’s 1977 album. For those who enjoy Hejira, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter is the next logical step, but is often overlooked for being too experimental. One of the best Joni Mitchell songs of the late 70s, this has shades of Hejira’s opening track, Coyote – so much so that it feels they may be directly linked, as if Joni wasn’t quite done with the subject. It’s also another perfect example of her lyric-writing: “What strange prizes these battles bring/These hectic joys, these weary blues/Puffed up and strutting when I think I win/Down and shaken when I think I lose.”

17: Sex Kills (from ‘Turbulent Indigo’, 1994)

Sex Kills appears on 1994’s Turbulent Indigo – a stellar record that features a self-portrait on the cover, with Joni presenting herself like Vincent Van Gogh in Self-Portrait With A Bandaged Ear. Here, Joni’s unusually blunt delivery gives the song gravitas, while her wordplay stops it from becoming crass. Lamenting a host of ills, including “The jackoffs at the office/The rapist in the pool/The tragedies in the nurseries/Little kids packin’ guns to school”, it’s exasperation, disgust and debate done perfectly.

16: The Jungle Line (from ‘The Hissing Of Summer Lawns’, 1975)

The Hissing Of Summer Lawns kicks off Joni’s jazz period, which would see her move away from the folkier sounds that defined her early work and towards experimenting with different textures, arrangements and instruments. For The Jungle Line she brought in The Royal Drummers Of Burundi, and is credited for being one of the first – if not the first – mainstream artists to use sampling in a track, looping those sensational rhythmic drumbeats throughout the song while adding Moog synthesiser on top. Marking an exciting change in her music, it reminds us that the best Joni Mitchell songs pushed the envelope like no others. Some of her most exhilarating and impressive creations would follow.

15: Passion Play (When All The Slaves Are Free) (from ‘Night Ride Home’, 1991)

Lyrically, this is perhaps one of Joni’s most abstract songs. It features on 1991’s brilliant Night Ride Home but, musically, wouldn’t feel too out of place on Hejira, rolling along as it does with its elastic, repetitive rhythm, as Joni sings questions on top: “Enter the multitudes/In Exxon blue/In radiation rose/Misery/Now you tell me/Who you gonna get to do the dirty work/When all the slaves are free?” The themes are biblical – with lines including “Thy kingdom come/Thy will be done” and “The killer nails”, and depictions of a physician and days spent in the wild – but are beautifully blurred with concerns for the environment and the state of the planet. A perfect example of Joni’s gift for poetry.

14: Bad Dreams (from ‘Shine’, 2007)

Shine marked Joni Mitchell’s 19th album, and, issued in 2007, is her most recent collection of new material. It’s a glorious affair, with Mitchell, inspired by the Iraq War, reflecting on the passing of time and the state of the world. The poignant Bad Dreams doesn’t sound that far removed from something you’d find on Blue, and is all the better for Joni’s deep voice, which gives gravitas to lines such as “Everyone’s a victim/Nobody’s hands are clean/there’s so very little left of wild Eden Earth/So near the jaws of our machines”. A line from the chorus, “Bad dreams are good in the great plan,” was, according to Joni, based on something her grandson said. It certainly provided the flint for a true fire of a song on an album that is far too often overlooked.

13: Judgement Of The Moon And Stars (Ludwig’s Tune) (from ‘For The Roses’, 1972)

Judgement Of The Moon And Stars (Ludwig’s Tune) is the beautiful song that closes 1972’s For The Roses, and, with its simple piano and vocals, isn’t dissimilar to some of the songs on the previous year’s classic, Blue. One of the best Joni Mitchell songs of the early 70s, its lyrics and title refer to the German composer Ludwig Van Beethoven, with Joni singing, “Condemned to wires and hammers/Strike every chord that you feel/That broken trees/And elephant ivories conceal.”

12: Nothing Can Be Done (from ‘Night Ride Home’, 1991)

When Joni put together her best-of compilations in 1996, she decided on two albums: Hits and Misses. It was a funny thing to do, but it also justified a belief that some of the best Joni Mitchell songs hadn’t had the attention they deserved – in this instance, Nothing Can Be Done, from 1991’s Night Ride Home. The music was written by her long-term collaborator Larry Klein, while Joni provided lyrics that, again, focus on ageing – of being neither young nor old – and of love and desire: “Must I surrender/With grace/The things I loved when I was younger/Sweet embrace/Must I remember your face/So well/What do I do here with this hunger?”

11: Chinese Café/Unchained Melody (from ‘Wild Things Run Fast’, 1982)

While 1982’s Wild Things Run Fast wasn’t a big commercial seller, its finest moment still stands among the best Joni Mitchell songs. Apparently inspired by The Police and Talking Heads, the album also saw Joni move to a more synth-pop sound that would shape many an 80s album. On Chinese Café/Unchained Melody, the central character (which may well be Joni herself) laments the passing of time – of being “middle class, middle aged; wild in the old days” – and of the state of the world they’ve found themselves in (“Uranium money… booming in the old home town…”). As a study of the changing landscape, it recalls Big Yellow Taxi, but with a sigh of disappointment rather than the bewilderment that characterises the earlier song. This is set against the chorus, with its reflections of spending time in the titular café, while the song also features snippets of The Righteous Brothers’ Unchained Melody (“We’d be playing ‘Oh my love, my darling’ one more time”). Joni would revisit Chinese Café/Unchained Melody again for 2002’s Travelogue, with lush orchestration and her older voice giving it even more poignancy.

10: Paprika Plains (from ‘Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter’, 1977)

Clocking in at 16 minutes and taking up all of Side Two of the original vinyl, Paprika Plains was a bold inclusion on the double-album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter – but who is Joni Mitchell if not someone who makes bold choices? With her unmatched lyricism, this song sounds like a short story, a captivating tale of indigenous peoples of Canada; of an evening spent in a bar before moving outside to experience rainfall and to dream about childhood and adulthood. Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter had a looser sound than anything Joni had worked on before, as she created something vast and less structured than on previous albums. Jaco Pastorius, who had appeared on 1976’s Hejira, returned, bringing with him members of the jazz fusion group Weather Report. On Paprika Plains, their sound, along with a full orchestra and Joni’s improvised piano playing, makes for a cinematic soundscape. The song would also pique the interest of legendary jazz artist Charles Mingus, who contacted Joni and asked her to work with him after he heard it. She agreed, and so 1979’s Mingus was born. Paprika Plains is your go-to for a fully immersive, demanding listen – for staggering, sweeping instrumental sections and the majesty of Joni Mitchell’s storytelling.

9: Love Puts On A New Face (from ‘Taming Of The Tiger’, 1998)

Love Puts On A New Face features on arguably the most overlooked of Joni’s albums: 1998’s Taming Of The Tiger. A jazzy, romantic number with gorgeous flutters of saxophone throughout, the song considers the changing of relationships and the multifaceted personalities we all have (“But in France they say/Everyday/Love puts on a new face/Love has many faces”). She also covers mental health – much like she did on the title track of her previous record, Turbulent Indigo, which was written about Van Gogh and his struggles with his creativity and health. Here, Joni sings, “He said, ‘Why can’t you be happy?/You make me feel helpless when you get this way’/I said, ‘I’m up to my neck in alligators/Jaws gnashing at me/Each one trying to pull a piece away’/Darling, you can’t slay these beasts of prey/Some bad dreams even love can’t erase.” It’s a gorgeous song on a richly rewarding album.

8: The Magdalene Laundries (from ‘Turbulent Indigo’, 1994)

Perhaps the most thought-provoking song in Joni’s career, The Magdalene Laundries, from Turbulent Indigo, is about the Irish Magdalene Laundries, run by religious orders as homes for “fallen women” – originally meaning sex workers, but a term which extended to any women who didn’t conform to societal expectations or who had children outside of wedlock, with an estimated 30,000 women being forced to live and work there during the 19th and 20th centuries. Mitchell released Turbulent Indigo in 1994, a year after a mass grave for the women was discovered in Dublin. Mitchell’s song is written from the perspective of a woman in the laundries, singing, “I was an unmarried girl/I’d just turned 27/When they sent me to the sisters/For the way men looked at me/Branded as a jezebel/I knew I was not bound for Heaven/I’d be cast in shame/Into the Magdalene laundries.”

7: Coyote (from ‘Hejira’, 1976)

Kicking off Hejira – and a fruitful working relationship with bassist Jaco Pastorius – Coyote moves just like the animal itself: from a shuffle into a bound. The song was written during Joni’s time as part of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, when a gaggle of musicians, poets and artists toured the North East of America in 1975. The event was documented (originally intended for a film) by the playwright Sam Shepard, with whom Joni reputedly had a brief relationship, which in turn inspired this song. The heat and sexual energy of Coyote is palpable – it’s a song of lust, desire and mismatched personas drawn to each other; the coyote, who “picks up my scent on his fingers/While he’s watching the waitresses’ legs”, has “got a woman at home/He’s got another woman down the hall/He seems to want me anyway”. Thrown together on the road – “a prisoner of the white lines on the freeway” – among cocaine, alcohol and hotel rooms, the pair are drawn to each other, regardless of their differences – of the urban or rural lives each one has left behind but must return to. Shepard, when writing The Rolling Thunder Logbook, wrote a page solely on Mitchell, saying, “Her music’s nothing outrageous, but her word manoeuvrings tend to verge on uncanny.” It’s a perfectly pithy way to sum up this entry among the best Joni Mitchell songs. If you need proof, the way Joni sings the word “ego” remains one of her best vocal deliveries on record.

6: River (from ‘Blue’, 1971)

How best to set a scene? That would be River. The song begins with a melancholy nod to Jingle Bells, slowed down and played on piano before Joni sings the memorable lines, “It’s coming on Christmas/They’re cutting down trees/They’re putting up reindeer/And singing songs of joy and peace/Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.” Joni turns the traditional notion of a merry Christmas on its head – here’s the holidays for those who have fallen out of love; who are living somewhere that’s draining their spirit; who need an escapism that isn’t forced fun and festivities. Does she want to be alone? Does she want to chase after the man who left her broken-hearted? She wants to be anywhere else, is the sense you get. Putting something so seasonal on a straight record is a bold move, but it’s also and effective one.

5: A Case Of You (from ‘Blue’, 1971)

One of Joni’s most successful songs, A Case Of You, from 1971’s Blue, has been covered by a huge range of artists, including Prince, Diana Krall and kd lang, and rumours still persist over who the song is about, with Leonard Cohen, Graham Nash and James Taylor all being possible inspirations. With its Shakespearean reference points (“I am as constant as a northern star”, a reworking of a similar line from Julius Caesar), the song is a standout on an album of standouts. Speaking about Blue, Joni Mitchell once said, “There’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals,” and A Case Of You is perhaps the best example of that. She sings of someone “so bitter and so sweet”, and perfectly displays how difficult love can be. Do you interpret the lines “Oh, I could drink a case of you, darling/Still I’d be on my feet/Oh I would still be on my feet” as romantic? That it’s a love she can’t get enough of and that can’t unsteady her? Or is it a sign that things aren’t working, that no matter how much love there is to give, it’s never enough, and it fails to make her feel intoxicated? Joni leaves you to decide, with such a perfect lyric you’ll never tire of hearing it.

4. Both Sides, Now (from ‘Both Sides Now’, 2000)

Joni wrote Both Sides, Now circa 1966, and the first recording of it was released by Judy Collins, who turned the song into a commercial success. Joni then recorded it herself for her second album, Clouds, released in 1969. While that version makes it a contender among the best Joni Mitchell songs, the re-recording she made for her 2000 album, Both Sides Now, is really something special. The record was framed as a concept album and featured Joni’s take on romantic standards such as You’re My Thrill, At Last and Stormy Weather, in a chronology that showcased a relationship as it developed from blossoming flirtation to demise. The 31 years between the two versions of Both Sides, Now does wonders for its effect. Here is Joni Mitchell, her voice gravelly and deep – far removed from the delicate folky sing-song of the 60s. When she says she has seen both sides of love, you believe her. Her voice and the passing of time give the song a deeper impact and a sorrow that stops you dead in your tracks.

3: Song For Sharon (from ‘Hejira’, 1976)

Another example of Joni’s unmatched gift for storytelling, this winding tale of chasing love and the dream of marriage plays out like a letter to her friend. The song opens with the lines, “I went to Staten Island, Sharon/To buy myself a mandolin/And I saw the long white dress of love/On a storefront mannequin,” and it was reputedly during the ferry ride back to New York City from an actual trip she took to purchase the instrument that Joni began writing Song For Sharon. There’s no bridge or chorus – a bold decision, but one that pays off hugely, creating a wistful confessional that never once becomes tiresome across its nine minutes. An absolute masterpiece.

2: The Last Time I Saw Richard (from ‘Blue’, 1971)

The third track from Blue to make it into the Top 10 of our best Joni Mitchell songs, The Last Time I Saw Richard was inspired by a conversation Joni had with fellow musician Patrick Sky, who told her, “Joni, you’re a hopeless romantic. There’s only one way for you to go. Hopeless cynicism.” Patrick, much like Richard in the song, went on to marry a figure skater. The song features some wonderfully unusual phrasing, with Joni sounding as though she is tumbling over her words, like she can’t get them out fast enough – particularly effective when she sings, “I’m gonna blow this damn candle out/I don’t want nobody comin’ over to my table/I got nothing to talk to anybody about.” The song bursts at the seams with its densely packed lyrics and moody sound, and is a darkly comic, bittersweet way to see Blue to a close.

1: Amelia (from ‘Hejira’, 1976)

Topping our list of the best Joni Mitchell songs is Amelia, from Hejira. Both the song and much of the album were written while Joni took a trip across the US, which led her to think about Amelia Earhart, the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean – among many other successes – but who disappeared on 2 July 1937, aged 39, while flying over the Pacific. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Mitchell revealed that she wrote the song “addressing it from one solo pilot to another, sort of reflecting on the cost of being a woman and having something you must do”. It is is a perfect intertwining of Joni’s thoughts on Amelia, “a ghost of aviation, swallowed by the sea”, to whom Joni speaks about love while she embarks on a long solo drive, leaving behind a failed relationship – “a false alarm”. It’s a mesmerising song and some of Joni Mitchell’s finest writing – which, in a career such as hers, is really saying something.

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