There are few artists with a legacy as broad and enduring as Joni Mitchell. Never afraid to speak her mind, and bravely following her muse to places her contemporaries dared not tread, Mitchell's vast discography still stands up as some of the finest popular music of the 21st Century.
Roberta Joan Mitchell was born in Alberta, Canada in 1943. She relocated to the United States in 1965 and like many of her contemporaries such as Carole King and James Taylor, got her start penning folk hits for other singers. In 1968 she released her debut album Song to a Seagull, and though it was a tentative, somewhat hesitant beginning, it was the start of what would eventually be a long, dizzyingly complex and unimaginably influential career.
Mitchell started off as a folk singer, in line with other artists such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and fellow Canadian Neil Young, but her experimentation with unusual tunings and song structures quickly set her apart. By the mid-1970s she had begun to absorb jazz, soul and other genres from all around the world into her distinctive and heady brew, giving her a longevity that is not matched by many artists.
Here, in chronological order are a selection of Joni Mitchell's finest songs that encapsulate her incredible contribution to the music of the 20th Century. This is just a taste of her brilliance; there is so much more waiting to be discovered, re-discovered, remembered and treasured.
"Both Sides, Now" (1969)
Mitchell first released her version of the classic "Both Sides, Now" on her second album Clouds, which was the point at which her music fully crystallised into her own unique style. The song gained popularity a couple of years earlier with a version recorded by Judy Collins, but Mitchell's version stripped back the airy affect of Collins' version for something stark and heartbreakingly honest. "I've looked at life from both sides, now / From win and lose, but still somehow / It's life's illusions I recall / I really don't know life at all," Mitchell sang, and those lyrics took an even more poignancy when Mitchell re-recorded the song on her 2006 collection Both Sides, Now. Her voice, caked with years of experience and cigarette smoke, extracted every piece of wisdom and beauty from the words.
"A Case of You" (1971)
Speaking to Cameron Crowe for Rolling Stone in 1979, Mitchell reflected that at the time she wrote the songs that made up Blue (arguably her finest record) she "felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world, and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong." "A Case of You" is immediately striking for the unusual harmonies produced by Mitchell's idiosyncratic guitar tuning. The song is both cosmic and earthy at the same time; in its opening line Mitchell addresses an estranged lover "Just before our love got lost you said / 'I am as constant as the northern star'." Despite its intensely personal nature, though, the song's central metaphor is something to which we can all relate: "I could drink a case of you, darling / and I would still be on my feet."
"Help Me" (1974)
Hyper-sexual pop-funk renegade Prince quoted this song on his beguilingly strange 1987 song "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker," demonstrating the enormous reach that Joni Mitchell's music had. Her 1974 album Court and Spark is the point where her preoccupation with jazz came the fore, and the result was some of her lushest, most tender songs. In branching out from the folk-pop that had made her name, Mitchell won new fans and admirers. "Help Me" is nominally a love song, but it is knotty and complex. Mitchell is sending out an S.O.S. because she is falling for a man who is no good for her; "you're a rambler and a gambler and a sweet talkin' ladies' man" she tells him. With the assistance of gorgeous backing vocals, a muted, murmuring horn section and some of her finest, most observant lyrics, "Help Me" performs a balancing act between romance and repulsion that works beautifully.
The gorgeous "Amelia" appears on the strange, rangy, unbearably beautiful album Hejira. Against a backdrop of interweaving, shimmering guitars and bass accented with gentle chimes that come and go with the breeze, the song seems to break free of the need for a song to have any identifiable rhythm or structure. Its chord changes are unpredictable and its melody slippery, but the sound is so lush and Mitchell's voice so alluring that it doesn't matter. The enigmatic lyrics tell of a surreal travelogue where time and space seem to compress to fit into the narrator's frame of view. With its lack of verses and chorus, any kind drums or other signifiers of rock and pop music, the ghostly "Amelia" seems to transcend the physical realm completely.
"Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" (1977)
None other than Björk named the album Don Juan's Reckless Daughter as one of her favourite records of all time. It may not have been a hit with many critics at the time (and it was the last Joni Mitchell album to achieve Gold status sales), but it remains an intriguing, often brilliant, sometimes frustrating listen. The sprawling double album is largely notable for the 16-minute travelogue "Paprika Plains," but the title track is the true star. Its upbeat rhythm recalls country music, but Mitchell's vocal, alternately strident and sensual, along with the persistent, hiccuping bass accompaniment and thick, full production make it a distinctive part of the Joni Mitchell canon. The song displays not only Mitchell's talents as a composer, but also as a storyteller. The song's free-wheeling discourse hones in on small details and stunning descriptions to tell a story that is as rich and fully realised as any novel or film.