Sep 032020

Go back to the beginning

50. Bob Dylan – Hallelujah (Live in Montreal 1988)

The relationship between Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan is probably best described by Leonard himself, in a quote that recently appeared in Dylan’s tour program: “I loved Dylan’s stuff as soon as I heard it. I was living, in a sense, in the same kind of universe that he was living in, so that when I heard him, I recognized his genius, but I also recognized a certain brotherhood in the work. And we have since become… acquaintances. I might even say friends. There is some kind of communion between us.”

Leonard’s admiration for Dylan’s work extended to albums that had not been warmly received by the press, and he was particularly incensed when he read a review of Dylan’s 1981 effort Shot of Love that criticized the album for containing “only one masterpiece.” “Does this [critic] have any idea what it takes to produce a single masterpiece?” Cohen is said to have responded.

We don’t know if Dylan was made aware of Cohen’s opinion at the time, but he later returned the compliment by covering Leonard’s then-overlooked “Hallelujah” seven years later, in Cohen’s hometown of Montreal. It’s a ragged, jagged performance, but Dylan delivers all of Leonard’s words with the conviction of a man who believes them to be true. – Tim Edgeworth

49. David Ford – Everybody Knows

David Ford is a complex fella. No mean songwriter in his own right, he also loves a good cover. Indeed, he has regularly performed all-covers shows, often for charity benefit gigs – in-person for years, live-streaming these days – dubbed “Milk and Cookies.” Generally he likes to find something a little different, “Everybody Knows” being a case in point. And while others have covered this song in any genre you could name, Ford’s is probably the first in such a flippant and almost throwaway fashion.

The instrumentation is almost cartoon-like, and the backing vocals cheesy to say the least. But the vocal still manages to convince, with a sense of urgency adding to that conviction, like a witness pleading for his side of the story to be believed. This song came as the b-side of a 2008 single, which, like much the rest of Ford’s work, seems to have bypassed the wide audience his talents deserve. This and other failed endeavors are described well in his book I Choose This: How To Nearly Make It In The Music Industry. – Seuras Og

48. Madeleine Peyroux – Dance Me to the End of Love

I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only one who generally prefers Cohen covers to originals, because I don’t enjoy the way he sings (sorry), while with covers, I can appreciate the songwriting craft without being distracted by the vocals. Madeleine Peyroux, on the other hand, has a voice that I love, and her cover of “Dance Me to the End of Love” has been a favorite since I first heard it back in 2004, when she included it on her album Careless Love. The original is heavy on violin and accordion, and has a vaguely klezmer feel – appropriate for a love song that is really about the Holocaust. Peyroux, who is often compared with Billie Holiday or Edith Piaf, does a jazzier version, heavy on piano and bass. One critic referred to Peyroux’s version as “undoubtedly one of modern music’s brightest highlights”; Allmusic’s review of the album, on the other hand, thinks that “it’s questionable as to whether it works.” The first critic is right. – Jordan Becker

47. Beck – Master Song

In 2009, Beck launched Beck’s Record Club, a short-lived series where he and a rotating group of musicians would cover an entire album in one day. The second album Beck tackled, accompanied by MGMT, Devandra Banhart, and more, was Songs of Leonard Cohen. The covers they produced veer all over the place, but none surprises more than “Master Song.” In defiance of good taste, they decide to cover it as an early hip-hop song (“Rapper’s Delight” is an obvious touchstone). It’s absurd on many levels, but with so many Leonard Cohen covers taking themselves very seriously, it’s refreshing to hear a group of friends using Cohen lyrics as an excuse to goof off in the studio and make things up as they go along. – Ray Padgett

46. Stephanie Rearick – Democracy

Cohen gets political on this track from 1992’s The Future, as army drums pair with an almost electronic harmonica sound. Stephanie Rearick’s version starts on the deep keys of the piano. Her almost monotone delivery matches the pacing of the original and hints at the deep, almost grumbling, of the original vocals. The deep piano continues rumbling, but Rearick’s voice changes up from its intentional flatness at the beginning to add some brightness, and some hope, as the song continues. – Sara Stoudt

45. The Smoking Flowers – Chelsea Hotel

Once you find out that the Smoking Flowers are an Americana husband and wife duo from Nashville, this call-and-response response version of the song purportedly about Cohen’s quick fling with Janis Joplin seems to make perfect sense. With Kim Collins opening up the proceedings by singing the money line against a simple acoustic guitar accompaniment and Scott joining in, keyboard in tow, mid-song, the chemistry is palpable. Far different from the original, we are left with two old flames trying to find the long lost spark. This time, they do. – Walt Falconer

44. Dead Famous People – True Love Leaves No Traces

When I interviewed Dons Savage, frontwoman of Flying Nun indie-pop band Dead Famous People, she said something unique among the I’m Your Fan artists: She didn’t like Leonard Cohen. “I think he was a bit dreary for us,” she told me. She said so at the time too, writing in the liner notes, “He makes me glad I am not as miserable as he is. We covered this song because it was the only one that didn’t make us want to slit our wrists.” That line earned her a jovial response from Cohen, when an interviewer asked him about it: “I’m glad that I could serve my colleagues as an awful warning. Sometimes I’m glad, sometimes I’m sad. But my black image is well established, although I still fight against it.”

For Dead Famous People’s cover, Savage selected the Cohen song that sounded the most pop to her (“poppiness” not being a quality Cohen was known for): “True Loves Leaves No Traces.” She upped the tempo and tried to make it more like a Beatles song. Covering an artist you don’t even like rarely works out well, but in this case, it did. – Ray Padgett

43. Anna Calvi – Joan of Arc

Leonard Cohen is widely deemed one of the best lyricists of the 20th-into-21st centuries. Maybe the best. So what’s with an instrumental making it into this list? (Editor’s Note: The first of a couple, in fact.) This eccentric excursion around the melody, played solo electric guitar and not a jot else, starts distinctly strangely, like a harp, or a lyre even, ahead of slipping into the chorus refrain, echoes of Hank Marvin now to the fore. From there it slips and slides around, adding even a snatch of Bill Frisell meanderings to the mix. Shockingly, it works.

Anna Calvi is the guitarist, a feisty UK singer songwriter in the mold of PJ Harvey, with a run of well-received records to her name. However, she is also an extremely accomplished guitarist, the guitar being her first voice, as she describes it, ahead of realizing she could sing too. That explains her ability to hold a tune with the notes, rather than a show off her technique. – Seuras Og

42. Bettye LaVette – In My Secret Life

Ever since her spectacular comeback two decades ago, Bettye LaVette has established herself as one of the premiere cover artists in the business, putting her own definitive stamp on songs by the likes of Sinead O’Connor, Jagger/Richards, Lennon/McCartney, Joan Armatrading, and countless others. Despite drawing from such a wide variety of sources, Bettye’s first Leonard Cohen cover only arrived in 2017, when she performed “In My Secret Life,” off of Leonard’s 2001 album Ten New Songs, at a tribute concert held to mark the anniversary of Cohen’s passing.

As she so often does, LaVette – backed by an orchestra that included members of Leonard’s faithful 2008-2013 touring band – managed to make this intimate, personal song even more intimate and personal, adapting it to her soulful style while remaining faithful to Cohen’s original. The big question is: when will Bettye release an album of Cohen covers, like she recently did Dylan? – Tim Edgeworth

41. Buck 65 ft. Jenn Grant – Who By Fire

Most of this cover is a straightforward acoustic duet between rapper Buck 65, doing some sing-speaking here a la Cohen himself, and Canadian folk singer Jenn Grant. But Buck’s hip-hop background pokes up its head halfway through with an instrumental breakdown that starts dubstep before veering orchestral. Bonus points for the best music video for any Leonard Cohen cover, which must be watched to be believed. – Jane Callaway

The list continues on Page 3.

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  12 Responses to “The Best Leonard Cohen Covers Ever”

Comments (12)
  1. I’m not sure how one gets through the top 50 covers of Leonard Cohen and misses Rufus Wainwright’s “Hallelujah”. It’s like the Jeff Buckley version, but with all the weird rough edges I personally dislike sanded off and polished over.

  2. To not include Tori Amos’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” is criminal.

  3. I hate to quibble with someone else’s choices, but it’s boggling to me that Concrete Blonde’s cover of “Everybody Knows” isn’t on this list. It’s not quite superior to the Cohen original, but it’s neck-and-neck.

  4. Not one nod to Rufus Wainwright? Jennifer Warnes?
    This, not criticism. Simply further recognition.

  5. Thank you for this list. One error you might want to fix: the beginning of Glen Hansard’s “Who By Fire” cover (#36) is not “a Yiddish folk song” but the Unetaneh Tokef, the Hebrew prayer central to the most solemn moment of the Jewish year, which “Who By Fire” is a loose adaptation of (which makes the error kinda disappointing). As I see it, the prayer’s tone and text add extra gravitas for the subsequent song to play with (‘who for his greed/who for his hunger’ seems reverent, ‘who shall I say is calling?’ less so).

  6. To include Judy Collins’ “Suzanne” is obvious, given that if “Both Sides Now” hadn’t made her bones, “Suzanne” likely would have. But her live cover of “Joan of Arc” is astonishing, {“Living,” 1971) as much as Joe Cocker’s version of “Bird On A Wire” is gut-wrenching. In fact, the absence of any covers of “Bird” on this list calls its’ completeness into question. And Richie Havens’ take on “Priests,” a song Cohen never released on any of his recordings, and that Collins also recorded beautifully, is sublime, with two single note acoustic guitars soloing throughout, each playing in singular syncopation both before and after the beat, with Havens’ voice providing the rhythm, and his usually driving strummed guitar spare and occasional. It’s really a masterpiece and a testimony to his under appreciated brilliance..

  7. Really good list. Lots of unusual but excellent versions.
    There are always the ones you expected that didn’t make it and mine is Jennifer Warnes – Famous Blue Raincoat.
    Also not much of a fan of the Nick Cave at No. 1. I liked the later version better and would have had Jeff Buckley at No.1.

  8. you missed the best version of Chelsea Hotel (Regina Spektor)

    Her version of Hallelujah is also phenomenal:

    Otherwise, amazing list

  9. A minor correction:
    The superb “Avalanche Quartet” has recorded stuff in Switzerland, but the gang is from the Netherlands

  10. A Cohen cover that deserves attention is by an obscure 90s San Francisco band called Bomb. Their take on Suzanne is sinister, disturbing, and bloody brilliant. As is their album called Hate Fred Love, that it was recorded for. So go ahead and look it up. You’ll understand.

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