It may be more than 50 years since Joni Mitchell got her start in the music biz, but she's just as relevant today as she was throughout the 60s and 70s. The 77-year-old Canadian superstar has been making headlines recently with her iTunes chart domination with Blue, the new Blue 50 EP, and her naming as a 2021 Kennedy Center Honoree. If you somehow haven't heard of her until now, it's not too late to start getting into her brilliant music!
Joni hails from Alberta and is among several of the folk singer-songwriters who emerged in the wake of Bob Dylan's influence throughout the 60s. Her songs reflect on social issues and philosophical concepts, as well as thoughts around romance, womanhood, loneliness, and joy. It isn't just song lyrics she writes, but poetry.
Mitchell has 9 Grammys, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, and several other accolades to her name. In fact, Rolling Stone has credited her as "one of the greatest songwriters ever." In honor of Joni's intellectual and musical prowess, here's Live365's picks for the top 10 Joni Mitchell songs!
10. "Free Man in Paris"
"Free Man in Paris" is from Mitchell's 1974 album Court and Spark. It was crafted around Mitchell's agent, David Geffen, and his discontent with the state of the music business in the 70s.
The song addresses a desire for simplicity and transparency in art. It also talks about things like fake friends, the price of fame, burnout, and escapism. Singing from Geffen's perspective, it almost feels like Mitchell is reading from a diary entry.
Despite the depressing subject matter, this song flows beautifully through your ears with tight harmonies, happy acoustics, and blaring flutes. You'll feel like you're taking a trip through Paris just listening to it.
9. "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio"
There's something about this song that feels very teenage coming-of-age movie-esque, and we're all here for it. "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio" is a cute, delightful love song with beautiful soprano sounds and deep harmonies from Joni.
This song is one of Mitchell's earliest hits, and in 1972, she engineered this tune to be a radio bop. She revealed her genius plan in a 1972 Sounds interview:
"I decided there were some ways to make a hit, increase the chances. DJs have to like it, so you put a long part at the beginning and the end so the DJs can talk over it. Take a tender situation and translate it into commonly appealing songs for the DJs. It’d have to be a bit corny, so I wrote this little song called 'Oh Honey, You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio.'"
With guitar chords and a mellow melody that remind you of a cool day by the seashore, "Carey" is Mitchell's Blue song that was inspired by a hippie community in the village of Matala, on the Greek island of Crete. There, she met cave-dweller Carey Raditz: the titular subject of this song.
In 2014, Raditz revealed why Mitchell refers to him as a "mean old daddy." He told the Wall Street Journal:
"I had a nasty, aggressive character then, and I was feisty. I was always getting into fights at the taverna—probably losing more than I won. I suppose she hung around me after her friend left because she knew people wouldn’t dare come up to my cave without permission, so it was a haven for her of sorts, even though the cave was small—around 8 by 16 feet."
Additionally, the "Mermaid Cafe" Mitchell refers to is actually a real place called Kymata/Waves. "Carey" also mentions how Greece was under military rule at the time with the line "Let's have a round for these freaks and soldiers."
7. "Help Me"
So 70s, romantic, and chill, "Help Me" is sure to give you tingly sweet feelings. This song reached #7 on the U.S. charts and talks about Mitchell's ambivalent feelings towards a lover.
Another song off the Grammy-nominated Court and Spark, "Help Me" is considered one of Joni's most likeable songs. It earned her a Record of the Year Grammy nomination in 1974, and gives a little shoutout to Bob Seger's "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man." Glenn Frey, who helped Seger record that song, is rumored to be the subject of this song.
When you're experiencing FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), don't get anxious - be like Joni Mitchell and write a song about it. "Woodstock" manifested due to Mitchell's regret of not being able to attend the legendary Woodstock music festival in the 60s. The song is written from the perspective of someone who went.
This track is dreamy, rich, and stuffed with such vivid imagery, it makes you feel like you were actually there among the hippies. Along with how picturesque this song is, Mitchell's stark vocals will strike a chord inside you. We particularly love the line "Well maybe it is just the time of year / Or maybe it's the time of man."
5. "The Circle Game"
Before there was "The Circle of Life" from The Lion King, there was Mitchell's song "The Circle Game." Another one of Mitchell's earlier hits, "The Circle Game" is about humans' perception of time throughout life and comes off the 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon.
It's an incredibly nostalgic tune - it almost feels like it belongs in a book of nursery rhymes. It's a song created for non-musical folks; Mitchell once said during a live performance she made "The Circle Game" for "out-of-tune singing."
"The Circle Game" is also peppered with Mitchell's signature songwriting imagery. It's both happy and sad: happy because of the cheery melody and sugary adjectives, sad because it'll make you contemplate how fast life is passing by. The line "We're captive on the carousel of time" is a great thesis statement for this song.
4. "Both Sides Now"
This song comes off Mitchell's 1969 record Clouds - a record which helped her win the Grammy for Best Folk Performance that same year. Like the name of the album, this song comments on those beautiful white fluffy puffs in the sky as though you were looking up at them from the ground. The tune also talks about romance and the disillusionment that may come from it.
There are two distinct cuts of this song. There's the original studio version Mitchell released in 1969, which is very folksy and chipper. Then there's the 2000 rendition, which is so deep and jazzy, it almost feels like it belongs in a Stephen Sondheim musical.
The beauty of this song has even magnetized other well-known singers like Judy Collins, Dolly Parton, and Wille Nelson. Next time you go cloud gazing, make sure to play "Both Sides Now" in the background.
Perhaps the saddest Christmas song ever recorded, "River" is from Mitchell's 1971 album Blue and about a recent breakup. Mitchell claims she wants to escape the pain the heartbreak has caused her, singing she wished she "had a river to skate away on."
The lover Joni refers to in this tune could possibly be David Crosby or Graham Nash. Not only does the "river" come from Mitchell's desire to ease the pain of heartbreak, it also stems from homesickness. Mitchell moved to California in 1967 and continues to live in Los Angeles to this day. She spent her childhood in Saskatoon, Canada, where rivers easily freeze over in the wintertime.
Recently, Mitchell gave a shoutout to her hometown. When she was named a 2021 Kennedy Center honoree, she said, "It's a long way from Saskatoon."
2. "A Case of You"
If there was ever a Joni Mitchell song that communicated the full force of her songwriting prowess, "A Case of You" would be it. This Blue song is an ode to inescapable love, and has been covered by the likes of Prince, Tori Amos, k.d. lang, Diana Krall, and more. It also made a noteworthy appearance in the witchy 1998 film Practical Magic.
"A Case of You" is addressed to an ex-lover who Mitchell can't get out of her system. The lines of the chorus seem to say it all:
"Oh, you are in my blood like holy wine / You taste so bitter and so sweet / Oh, I could drink a case of you, darling / And I would still be on my feet."
There's something so timeless, poetic, and relatable to "A Case of You" that we know it'll never go out of style. Additionally, we love the little Canadian National Anthem reference Joni sneaks in during the first verse.
1. "Big Yellow Taxi"
Several artists have made covers of this song, including Counting Crows back in 2003, but Joni Mitchell will forever hold the crown for creating it.
Mitchell was truly ahead of her time when she penned "Big Yellow Taxi." Keep in mind - this was the 1970s she was living in. Yes, people were throwing their trash in the grass after picnics, but no one was concerned about climate change, deforestation, pesticides, or even police brutality and the dark sides of consumerism like we are today.
What makes this song so interesting is how Mitchell chooses to strum her guitar in bright cheery tones despite the heavy subject matter. Seriously...putting all the trees in a tree museum? That's a scary world to live in; we're knocking on wood it doesn't come true.
Even more, the line "Don't it always seem to go / That you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone?" is said to have inspired Jay-Z's lyrical autobiography, "December 4th." If ever there was a song to inspire us to treat the world better, "Big Yellow Taxi" is it. Shoo-bop-bop-bop-bop!
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