Joni Mitchell began her career singing folk songs and writing lyrics that would be performed by musicians like Judy Collins and Fairport Convention. When she began to make albums of her own, her verses became more pointed and her music expanded, growing to incorporate the jazz she had long adored. Even toward the end of her career, Mitchell continued searching for new directions: In 2007, her “One Week Last Summer” won a Grammy for — of all things — Best Instrumental Performance. Here are 10 essential tracks from her half-century of recording.
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 was 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.
When “Both Sides, Now” first became a hit, Joni Mitchell was known as a songwriter but hadn’t yet recorded an album of her own. Judy Collins opened both sides of her 1967 Wildflowers with covers of Mitchell’s songs, and a year later her recording of “Both Sides, Now” became a Top 10 pop hit. Mitchell herself recorded it on her second album, 1969’s Clouds, and it remains her most enduring song: a meditation on personal ambition and the distance between illusion and reality, with a melody as thoughtful and heartbreaking as its lyric.
The opening track of 1977’s Hejira introduced a new element to Mitchell’s records: jazz musician Jaco Pastorius, whose fretless bass pirouettes and somersaults around her open-tuned guitar strumming. (“To get enough meat to hold his sound, I doubled the guitar,” she later explained.) “Coyote” has long, tricky, rattling verses; it seems to be about a romance with a womanizing man whose life is very different from the narrator’s. The song had already been a highlight of Mitchell’s live repertoire for several years when she recorded it — she’d performed it at the Band’s 1976 farewell concert The Last Waltz.
Another of the pieces that established Mitchell as one of the leading songwriters of the late-Sixties folk scene, “Chelsea Morning” is a portrait of happy Bohemian life, performed by artists including Judy Collins, ” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>Fairport Convention and Jennifer Warnes before the author recorded her own version. Mitchell variously attributed the “rainbow on the wall” it mentions to a mobile that she and her friends built out of bits of colored glass and to a set of stained glass windows she bought from an old building. Bill and Hillary Clinton named their daughter after the song — which also apparently inspired Chelsea Manning’s chosen name.
Mitchell’s highest-charting single — it went to Number Seven pop and topped the easy-listening chart — “Help Me” was the first song she recorded with the jazz-fusion group Tom Scott and the L.A. Express for her 1974 album Court and Spark. As direct as its lyric is (“We love our lovin’/But not like we love our freedom”), it’s an unusually complicated piece of music, even by Mitchell’s standards. “The harmonic structures that she used – it was so unique,” bassist Max Bennett remembered. “She was really good at producing herself.” L.A. Express ended up becoming Mitchell’s backing band for the tour documented on Miles of Aisles.
Mitchell wasn’t certain if “The Circle Game” was among her best work when she taped a demo recording of it for folksinger Tom Rush in 1966. “As long as kids grow up,” Rush told her, “that song will be relevant.” He recorded it as the title track of his breakthrough 1968 album (which also included two other Mitchell songs), and Mitchell herself recorded it for 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon. It was one of her first songs to catch on with other musicians — Ian & Sylvia and Buffy Sainte-Marie both recorded memorable early interpretations.
When Mitchell’s managers David Geffen and Elliot Roberts started their label Asylum Records, she signed up with them to record 1972’s For the Roses, and Geffen tried to convince Mitchell that she should write a hit single for herself. The result was “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio,” a DJ-friendly two-and-a-half-minute string of radio-broadcasting metaphors. (“It was almost kind of making fun of my attempt for her to write a hit record,” Geffen later said.) It did, in fact, become a minor hit, but as Mitchell told Vogue, “I was an albums artist, not a singles artist. And that’s got nothing to do with the hit parade.”
“At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses,” Mitchell told Cameron Crowe in Rolling Stone of the era when she recorded Blue, whose centerpiece is the exquisite breakup song “A Case of You.” “But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either.” Mitchell’s lyric has an intimately conversational tone. It’s genuinely funny in places (she even breaks into a bit of the Canadian national anthem), genuinely sad in others and remarkably complicated: The song’s central conceit is one kind of communion (“You said, ‘Love is touching souls'”) becoming another, the lover’s blood as “holy wine.”
Written on a trip to Hawaii during which a gigantic parking lot harshed Mitchell’s mellow, “Big Yellow Taxi” is a song about environmentalism that conceals a song about a failed romance (take note of the one place in the song where its title appears). The original Ladies of the Canyon recording — part folk song, part girl-group goof, with a delicious ending in which Mitchell shows off both extremes of her vocal range and then bursts into giggles – was her first single to dent the pop charts. A live recording from 1974’s Miles of Aisles reached Number 24.
Mitchell’s slowest-breaking hit was just another track from her gorgeous 1971 album Blue until it appeared in a string of movies three decades later, notably Almost Famous and Love Actually. Over the course of the 2000s, “River” has become a Christmas standard for a generation whose feelings about the holidays are conflicted at best. It’s also now the second most-covered of Mitchell’s songs (after “Both Sides Now”) and only two of the 453 covers listed at JoniMitchell.com were recorded before 1990. Fun fact: “River” expresses more or less the same sentiment as Irving Berlin’s original lyrics to “White Christmas.”