Top 10 Leonard Cohen Covers

leonardcohen1Ah, Dear Leonard has been gone a few weeks now, leaving a hole in popular culture that still aches like a bandaged wound. At first I thought this would be a daunting task but as it turns out there aren’t as many Leonard Cohen covers out there as I thought there would be. I guess some artists are intimidated by the intensity of Cohen’s lyrics and choose to back away from the challenge. Thank goodness the following artists had the courage to give it a go, the results speak for themselves.


10. Concrete Blonde – Everybody Knows (1990)

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This one makes the list because it is one of the rare Leonard Cohen covers that actually made the charts, riding on the underground success of the Christian Slater movie Pump Up The Volume. It’s a brilliant bit of songwriting destined to last through the ages. Concrete Blonde and Christian Slater, not so much.


9. Tom Jones – Tower Of Song (2012)

I’ve always found this to be one of Leonard’s most compelling metaphors, my mind’s eye has always pictured a gargantuan, miles-high, noisy M.C. Escher-type building filled with all of humankind’s music. His typical modesty about his own place in the tower is compellingly re-told here, especially if you watch the video, by a guy who has always known how to fully commit to a great song.


8. Beck – Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye (2009)

Beck breathes new life into one of Leonard’s oldest songs with this cheeky but still loving treatment. Beck and his musical friends covered the entire Songs Of Leonard Cohen album in one day as part of his Record Club project, baking the old chestnuts from Leonard’s debut album into Folk, Country, EDM and even Rap numbers. Imagine how good it could have been if he spent more time on it.


7. The Pixies – I Can’t Forget (1991)

People talk of Cohen’s mastery of the lyric, but I think his music writing is underappreciated. This song’s got some beautiful little chord changes in the chorus that ramp the whole thing up. The Pixies are another one of Leonard’s spiritual heirs in Rock, and musically and lyrically, this could easily be a particularly well-written Pixies original.


6. Serena Ryder – Sisters Of Mercy (2006)

I think the density of Leonard’s lyrics encourages some singers to take a too-solemn approach to their interpretation. I love the way the Canadian songstress brings such a light but still respectful touch to the song, which made even more sense when we discovered the song was actually inspired by an aborted ménage-a-trois in 1967 with two teenage groupies in an Edmonton hotel room.


5. R.E.M. – First We Take Manhattan (1991)

A fabulous cover that fits right into R.E.M.’s wheelhouse, since Michael Stipe shares with Cohen a penchant for finding a crack of light in the darkness, which is really one hell of a penchant. This was the best track off the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan, coming right around when R.E.M released Out Of Time, and you can tell it’s a band that was hitting its peak form.


4. Johnny Cash (1994), Willie Nelson (1995) – Bird On A Wire (Tie)

I tried choosing between these two versions and its like choosing which of your children you love best. Talk about bringing a lifetime of experience to a song’s meaning, these two men fought for their personal and artistic freedom long before Rockers made it standard practice, and they kept it up their entire lives in their own inimitable ways.


3. Nick Cave – I’m Your Man (2006)

It’s no surprise that Nick Cave revered Leonard Cohen, calling him “the greatest songwriter of them all.” Meanwhile Cave scooped out his own flavors of darkness, and told French TV in 1994 that “the sadness of Cohen was my inspiration, it gave me a lot of energy. I always remember this when someone says that my records are morbid or depressing.” Need proof? This cover is bloody thrilling.


2. Nina Simone – Suzanne (1969)

I’ve written before how the combination of one of Cohen’s very best lyrics with Nina Simone’s transcendent voice, not to mention the brilliantly original musical arrangement, makes for one of the most powerful recordings I have ever heard. People say she brings joy to the song, but I only hear the deep ocean of bittersweet that Mr. Cohen presumably intended.


1. Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah (1994)

People are often surprised to discover that this song was an obscure album track from Leonard’s obscure 1984 album Various Positions. The track was destined to wallow undiscovered until the mercurial Jeff Buckley recorded a version for his game-changing debut album Grace, opening the floodgates for more than 100 versions and counting. Cohen himself called for a moratorium on any more new versions, and yet singers keep grinding it out. Please stop, everybody. This is the only version anyone ever needed.


Other Great Leonard Cohen Covers Include:

Joe Cocker – Bird On A Wire
Civil Wars – Dance Me To The End Of Love
Lana del Ray – Chelsea Hotel #2
John Cale & Suzanne Vega – So Long, Marianne
James – So Long Marianne
Jesus And Mary Chain – Tower Of Song
Father John Misty – One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong
Lemonheads – Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye
Nick Cave – Tower Of Song

So, what’s your favorite Leonard Cohen cover?

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