In May 2021, during an interview with Clive Davis, Joni Mitchell reflected on negative reviews she’s received over the years. “I thought, why is it that people are so hard on this stuff? Well, I guess it’s because it’s different,” she said. “It doesn’t fit into a genre. You can’t say it’s folk music or jazz; it’s somewhere in between.”
Categories don’t apply to Joni Mitchell, and they never have. She became famous in the early Seventies as the ultimate confessional singer-songwriter, but she’ll go down as maybe the greatest formal innovator in modern pop. Where so many of her contemporaries built on familiar folk or rock & roll models, Mitchell devised her own musical language, one that could encompass songs as intimate and plainspoken as “River” or as imaginative and epic as “Paprika Plains.”
She began writing songs in the early Sixties, after growing tired of the territorial Toronto folk scene, in which performers would stake claims on traditional tunes and forbid others to play them. Her early triumphs, poetic and preternaturally wise efforts like “The Circle Game” and “Both Sides, Now,” found fame before she did, via covers by Judy Collins, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and others. But from the time of her first album, 1968’s Song to a Seagull, Mitchell showed that her plaintive, dazzlingly clear delivery was as unique as her writing.
What followed in the Seventies was a staggering string of masterpieces, starting out spare — as on the epochal Blue, home to indelible songs like the buoyant “All I Want” and the somber title track — and growing increasingly involved across albums like Court and Spark, which yielded her biggest hit in the crazy-in-love anthem “Help Me.” By the time of Hejira, with roomy, formally dazzling songs like “Amelia” and “Song for Sharon,” she was firmly on her own terrain, and she would stay there through the Eighties and Nineties, as she modernized her sound without compromising her signature complexity and laser-focused eye for detail. Her later-era social critiques like “Sex Kills” were as trenchant as her earlier, more autobiographical material.
During the past two decades, Mitchell’s output has slowed — since 1998, she’s released just one new album of original songs. But her influence has only grown, with everyone from Taylor Swift to Herbie Hancock (whose Grammy–winning 2007 Album of the Year, River: The Joni Letters, featured mostly her songs), Björk, and Phoebe Bridgers citing her as a beacon of radical honesty and fearless originality. Here, we look back at 50 of her greatest songs.