Today is Joni Mitchell’s 70th birthday, and although the prolific singer-songwriter has not released an album of new material in six years, it’s impossible not to recognize her indelible contributions to music in her decades-long career. At times an accomplished poet who identified with nuance the emotional inner workings of romance, and at other times a generation-defining figure who broke free of the trappings of a female folk singer, Mitchell’s oeuvre is a ripe with honest reflections on the human experience. In celebration of her large body of work, here’s a ranked list of Mitchell’s 30 greatest songs.
30. “In France They Kiss on Main Street” (The Hissing of Summer Lawns)
On her seventh studio album, Mitchell fully embraced a jazz-rock sound, and this fully formed opening track kicked off a new experimental phase for the singer-songwriter (and features backing vocals from her folk-rock contemporaries, James Taylor, David Crosby, and Graham Nash).
29. “Raised on Robbery” (Court and Spark)
A groovy number from her most successful album finds Mitchell offering a toe-tapping, at times hilarious ballad.
28. “Furry Sings the Blues” (Hejira)
This charming little song is about a meeting with jazz musician Furry Lewis, who later expressed his anger about the way Mitchell depicted him against his wishes.
27. “Chinese Cafe / Unchained Melody” (Wild Things Run Fast)
The opening track from her 11th album saw Mitchell ditching her jazz stylings for a more pop-focused sound (inspired by the work of Steely Dan and Talking Heads), without abandoning the self-reflective lyrics of her earliest songs.
26. “Woman of Heart and Mind” (For the Roses)
Like most songs from Mitchell’s early records, this track concerns a failing / failed relationship with a man for whom she clearly cares but ultimately comes to resent.
25. “Chelsea Morning” (Clouds)
Mitchell’s first success as a songwriter came when Judy Collins recorded her version of “Chelsea Morning,” which Mitchell wrote during her coffeehouse days in New York. She later recorded it herself for her second album.
24. “I Don’t Know Where I Stand” (Clouds)
The innocence of Mitchell’s young voice stands out in this track about early infatuation and the confusing nature of courtship.
23. “Carey” (Blue)
On one of Blue’s lighter moments, Mitchell reflects on a relationship with a man she knew abroad, feeling affection for both him and her long-lost home.
22. “The Ladies of the Canyon” (The Ladies of the Canyon)
The title track from Mitchell’s third album is a devotional to the female companionship she found after her move to Laurel Canyon.
21. “Down to You” (Court and Spark)
Mitchell often reflected on courtship, relationships, and romantic failures, but on the expansive and experimental “Down to You,” she examines those familiar subjects in a broader sense.
20. “California” (Blue)
A sense of place was a frequent feature of Mitchell’s songs, and this love letter to her adopted home state — written from the perspective of a visit to Paris — is exemplary of her songwriting accomplishments.
19. “Free Man in Paris” (Court and Spark)
A robust composition, the song allowed for Mitchell to drop her typical self-reflection and focus on a different subject — in this case, her friend and onetime roommate, agent and record executive David Geffen.
18. “Song for Sharon” (Hejira)
At nearly nine minutes, the epic “Song for Sharon” is the first of Mitchell’s longer jazz compositions, yet it stirs up the conflicts between settling down and freedom explored in her earlier works.
17. “Court and Spark” (Court and Spark)
The opening track to Mitchell’s most commercially successful album was an introduction to a more mature voice and sound, one that infused Mitchell’s folk-rock roots with elements of jazz.
16. “Blue” (Blue)
The title track from Mitchell’s most deeply affecting album is as gorgeous as it is unsettling, combining dark imagery and awkward pacing with Mitchell’s crystal-clear, beautiful vocals.
15. “My Old Man” (Blue)
It’s not just a love song — it’s an affectionate ode to a generation’s acceptance for less formal relationships defined by the lyric, “We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall / keeping us tied and true.”
14. “Little Green” (Blue)
Years before she publicly admitted she’d given birth to a child and put her up for adoption, Mitchell recorded this sad ballad about the daughter she gave away.
13. “Conversation” (The Ladies of the Canyon)
Taylor Swift is set to play Mitchell in the Girls Like Us film, which seems appropriate if you consider “Conversation,” a song in which Mitchell pines for a man who is in a seemingly disastrous relationship with another woman, to be a direct predecessor to Swift’s “You Belong With Me.”
12. “Woodstock” (The Ladies of the Canyon)
Famously covered by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, “Woodstock” is Mitchell’s nod to a generation-defining moment (despite the fact that she did not actually attend the titular music festival).
11. “The Last Time I Saw Richard” (Blue)
Perhaps Mitchell’s most heartbreaking and bitter song about romantic disappointment, it’s rumored to be inspired by her brief marriage to Chuck Mitchell.
10. “For Free” (The Ladies of the Canyon)
It’s rare to get a sincere and self-aware song about the nature of fame and success, but it’s not a surprise that Mitchell would be the one to write it. Here, she contrasts herself with a street performer who she spots after a day of shopping and preparing for a headlining gig.
9. “Big Yellow Taxi” (The Ladies of the Canyon)
This oft-covered song is perhaps Mitchell’s most recognizable, yet its popularity only serves as proof that she struck a major nerve with her reflections on life’s little, ironic disappointments.
8. “River” (Blue)
With an interpretation of “Jingle Bells” introducing the track, “River” has become a contemporary Christmas song — which seems unlikely given its depressive nature. Like the majority of Blue, “River” is about feeling unwelcome in one’s scene and the need for escape.
7. “Help Me” (Court and Spark)
While Mitchell released For the Roses in between Blue and Court and Spark, this single from the latter album seems like the natural follow-up to Blue: it’s an optimistic, yet cautious, ode to a romantic prospect in the aftermath of a failed relationship.
6. “Amelia” (Hejira)
The entirety of Hejira is centered on the theme of travel, and Mitchell described this song about Amelia Earhart as “reflecting on the cost of being a woman and having something you must do.”
5. “The Circle Game” (The Ladies of the Canyon)
Now a modern folk-rock standard, this song — a reflection on the cyclical nature of life — features all four members of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young on backing vocals.
4. “You Turn Me On I’m a Radio” (For the Roses)
When asked to write a radio-friendly hit, Mitchell turned in this cheeky song about listening to the radio. The trick worked: it was her first Top 40 hit.
3. “Cactus Tree” (Song to a Seagull)
A standout track from Mitchell’s debut album, “Cactus Tree” is an ode to the freedom and inhibitions exemplified by a generation of women whose opportunities extended beyond settling down with a male companion.
2. “A Case of You” (Blue)
Perhaps Mitchell’s most bittersweet song about romantic failures, “A Case of You” perfectly captures the notion of lost love and regret with the line, “I could drink a case of you and still be on my feet.”
1. “Both Sides, Now” (Clouds)
Though she rerecorded her classic song in 2000, with a full orchestra and in a jazz style (a version made famous in a somber scene in Love Actually), you just can’t beat the original version from Mitchell’s second album. Despite the song’s solemn reflections on the nature of love, there’s a hint of youthful optimism in Mitchell’s tender voice. There’s a reason this song has been recorded by such a wide range of artists, from Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby to Tori Amos and Carly Rae Jepsen: there’s a universal truth at play that transcends genre and time.