Joni Mitchell turns 75: 12 of her greatest songs
Graeme Ross revisits his favourite tracks by the era-defining artist who masterfully fused folk, rock and jazz
Joni Mitchell, one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the rock era, turned 75 this week. The milestone birthday was celebrated over Tuesday and Wednesday in Los Angeles and featured an all-star cast including Graham Nash, Emmylou Harris, Rufus Wainwright, Diana Krall and Kris Kristofferson, who performed songs from Mitchell’s storied career that began more than 50 years ago in her native Canada.
She first made her name as a songwriter, with early classics such as “The Circle Game” and “Both Sides Now” attracting covers from major artists in the 1960s folk movement, and it was as a sweet-voiced folkie that she first came to prominence as a recording artist. Beginning with 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon, she then rode the vanguard of confessional singer-songwriters in the first half of the Seventies, with landmark album Blue defining the entire genre.
Mitchell wrote from the heart, her work was truly autobiographical, with her life and loves an open record. Like fellow Canadian Neil Young however, she refused to be pigeon-holed and her subsequent albums gradually became more complex and ambitious.
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After another fine album, 1972’s For the Roses, and at the height of her commercial success with the assured sophistication of 1974’s Court and Spark, Mitchell chose to take a left turn into jazz with a brace of stunning records, The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Hejira bringing to a close one of the greatest sequences of albums of the time.
Mitchell’s subsequent work couldn’t match these peerless recordings, although there are some worthy attempts, so this playlist reflects the classic period of this essential artist. Her influence on a host of songwriters and musicians, male and female, is legendary. Her body of work stands comparison with any of the great artists of the rock era. There are just 12 songs on this playlist. It could easily be a hundred or more. Enjoy.
12. The Circle Game (Ladies of the Canyon, 1970)
“The Circle Game” had already attracted a definitive cover by Tom Rush, one of the best of the first era of 1960s singer-songwriters by the time Joni got around to recording it, but her version is pretty special too. Inspired by fellow Canadian Neil Young’s bittersweet “Sugar Mountain” written when he was just 19, Mitchell was moved by the fact that Young was already lamenting for his lost youth at such an early age. “The Circle Game”, with its nursery rhyme quality, was Mitchell’s own more hopeful coming of age reply, beautifully invoking the motion of a carousel to capture a child’s journey to adulthood.
11. The Boho Dance (The Hissing of Summer Lawns, 1975)
Suffused with the jazzy textures that would inform her future direction, first hinted at in the previous year’s mainstream breakthrough album Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns alienated critics and lost Mitchell much of her fan base who expected more of the former’s accessibility. However, the album that saw Mitchell move away from introspective love songs as she aimed some sharp barbs at the mores and values of western society is now recognised as one of her greatest achievements and Prince for one, loved it. It’s an album that needs to be heard as a whole for its free-form fluidity, but if I had to cherry pick one song, it would be this one, which boasts a great Mitchell vocal. “The Boho Dance”, like earlier songs “For Free” and “For the Roses”, explores a common theme in Mitchell’s work – the dilemma of reconciling commercial success with artistic integrity.
10. You Turn Me On I’m a Radio (Miles of Aisles, 1974)
A rare concession to commerciality, somewhat reluctantly written to order by Joni after manager David Geffen requested a hit single from her. He got it with this country-tinged beauty which was as radio-friendly as its knowing title would suggest despite the sexual and bite-the-hand-that-feeds-me metaphors. The effortless original from 1972’s For the Roses is great but give the live version of “You Turn Me On I’m a Radio” on Miles of Aisles a try, if only for Mitchell’s ethereally soaring vocals at the song’s climax.
She didn’t play at the 1969 festival but struck by its impact, Mitchell eulogised the event in song – the ultimate hippie anthem. There’s been numerous cover versions of “Woodstock” – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young recorded a rocked up version and Matthews Southern Comfort had a surprise No 1 in the UK with their version, but it is the composer’s original that best captures the idealistic optimism of a generation seeking to “get back to the garden”.
8. Carey (Blue 1971)
Seeking refuge from broken relationships and the demands of her early fame, Mitchell decamped to a hippie commune in Crete in early 1970 where she met the roguish “mean old daddy” Carey of the title. Composed on her dulcimer on the island, the opening line of Carey – “The wind is in from Africa” – sets the scene for one of Mitchell’s most loved songs, the carefree, buoyant quality of which is at odds with the soul-baring intensity of the rest of the Blue album from which it came. However, look closely at the lyrics of “Carey” and “California”, the other song she wrote during her Crete sojourn, and it’s clear that Mitchell was also experiencing a sense of displacement and a longing for home, despite the undeniable charms of Carey and the Mermaid Cafe.
7. Amelia (Hejira, 1976)
Hejira (meaning journey) was written by Mitchell as she drove alone on a road trip across America and bookended the remarkable series of Seventies Mitchell albums that began with Ladies of the Canyon. An undoubted highlight of Hejira was “Amelia”, described by Mitchell as a message “from one solo pilot to another”. Mitchell draws parallels between Amelia Earhart, the pioneering aviator who mysteriously disappeared over the Pacific in 1937 and her own journey in life, in particular her most recent broken romance. Beautiful and haunting with evocative imagery – “A ghost of aviation / She was swallowed by the sky / Or by the sea like me / she had a dream to fly / Like Icarus ascending / On beautiful foolish arms / Amelia, it was just a false alarm”, “Amelia” is Mitchell at her most poetic and the ultimate example of her own own restless spirit.
6. Free Man in Paris (Court and Spark, 1974)
A masterly fusion of rock, jazz and folk, with Tom Scott’s LA Express providing the light jazzy backdrop to Mitchell’s glorious melodies, wonderful arrangements and pointed, observational lyrics, Court and Spark was a huge commercial and artistic success. Side one on the old vinyl format has a running time of just 14 minutes and 25 seconds but constitutes one of the greatest sides of music of in rock. Track three of this seamless suite of five songs, “Free Man in Paris”, is told from the perspective of Mitchell’s friend and record label boss David Geffen bemoaning the demands the record business places on him as he reflects on how liberating it was to be a “Free Man in Paris” after holidaying there with Mitchell. And is there a more heart-stopping moment in all of Seventies rock than the lilt in Mitchell’s voice at one minute 48 seconds on that wander down the Champs Elysees?
5. River (Blue, 1971)
A touchstone recording of the singer-songwriter era, Blue is routinely placed near the top of best ever album lists, and with 10 wonderful songs, deservedly so. “River” is the saddest song on Blue and this playlist, and has gained a reputation as a Christmas song thanks to a melancholy piano arrangement of “Jingle Bells” and the opening and closing verses – “It’s coming on Christmas / They’re cutting down trees / They’re putting up reindeer / And singing songs of joy and peace”. According to Mitchell’s official website, “River” has been covered 630 times but just as It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t really a Christmas film, “River” isn’t really a Christmas song. Like much of Blue, “River” is about heartbreak, loss and longing, in this case over the breakdown of Mitchell’s love affair with Graham Nash and boy, does she invest all of those emotions into her stellar performance.
4. Help Me (Court and Spark, 1974)
Joni’s in love again and that’s good news for the rest of us as we luxuriate in the swooning, achingly romantic “Help Me”, although perhaps not for her as she inevitably voices her usual doubts about falling for “a smooth talking ladies man”. A surprise hit single which reached the top 10 in the US, “Help Me” exemplifies the more mature sound found on Court and Spark and has arguably Mitchell’s best ever vocal, featuring her gorgeous trademark lilt as she concludes that although she and her beau love being in love, they love their freedom even more.
3. Both Sides Now (Clouds, 1969)
The song that more than any other brought attention to Mitchell as a songwriter thanks to Judy Collins’ hit version in 1968, before Mitchell released her own version on her second album Clouds, which took its title from the line “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now”. Ranked number 171 in Rolling Stone’s greatest songs of all time, “Both Sides Now” quickly became a standard, the wise-beyond-her-years lyrics with clouds as a metaphor for life itself, as Mitchell ruminates on love and loss – themes she would return to again and again. It’s Mitchell’s most covered song and she herself poignantly and masterfully revisited it in 2000, her weathered voice suggesting that only now after a life well-lived did she know clouds, love and life.
2. Big Yellow Taxi (Ladies of the Canyon, 1970)
Probably her most famous song with arguably her most famous line (“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”), behind the sheer exuberance of “Big Yellow Taxi” lies a serious and prescient environmental warning. A surprise hit single in the UK peaking at number 11 in the early summer of 1970, Mitchell’s genius was to place such an important message within such a catchy song. The message is – don’t take nature for granted (“you don’t what you’ve got till it’s gone”) and is obviously even more relevant today as when she composed “Big Yellow Taxi” nearly five decades ago.
1. A Case of You (Blue, 1971)
I wonder how many poets and songwriters have wished that they could have written the lyrics to this transcendent proclamation of love since it first saw the light of day? What would they have given to come up with the line “Oh you are in my blood like holy wine”? How many souls would be sold for just a fraction of the talent that penned the song’s most memorable lines – “Oh I could drink a case of you darling / And I would still be on my feet”? Variously reported as being about Graham Nash (like several of Blue’s songs), James Taylor (who contributed acoustic guitar to the track) and Leonard Cohen – in the end it doesn’t matter too much. “A Case of You”, Joni Mitchell’s greatest song, touches souls just like the love it describes.