Sep 032020

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40. Weekend Dads – The Future

Written during the fall of the Berlin War and the 1992 Los Angeles riots for the album of the same name, Cohen’s outlook for humanity is bleak on “The Future.” With late-80s guitar tones and a tight snare drum snap, he pines for the simplicity of the old days among his changing world. His cries of “repent” near the end of the track cement its soul and gospel influences. Punk band Weekend Dads take this dark tone and turn into a song of rage. The haunting lyrics work nicely with punk’s live-fast-die-faster attitude. “I’ve seen the future baby, and it’s murder” sounds like it was written for this hard and fast sound. – Brendan Shanahan

39. Avalanche Quartet – Here It Is

You’re going to see certain songs come up again and again on this list. We’ve got four “Hallelujah”s plus three “So Long Marianne”s, “First We Take Manhattan”s, and a few more. But the beauty of Leonard Cohen covers is – artists dig deep. Who even remembers “Here It Is,” off Leonard’s 2001 pre-comeback album Ten New Songs. The Swiss group Avalanche Quartet do, turning it into a high point of their phenomenal 2007 album Leonard Cohen Songs. – Ray Padgett

38. Hailey Tuck – That Don’t Make It Junk

Tuck’s jazzy style vocals contrast the original’s gravelly vocals, but she gets at a similar swing despite coming from a different direction. While maintaining the muted percussion to keep the beat, she swaps out the easy-listening piano of the original with an electronic piano with a touch of synth. She isn’t accompanied by any smooth “ooh”s of background singers like Cohen is, but she brings her own smoothness to the delivery. – Sara Stoudt

37. Elske de Wall – Dûnsje my de leafde út

The Frisian language is spoken by approximately 500,000 people, which makes them the only 500,000 people able to fully appreciate 2008’s In Frysk earbetoan oan Leonard Cohen: Cohen in het Fries (which translates as A Frisian Tribute to Leonard Cohen: Cohen in Frisian). Thankfully, however, the album has plenty to offer the non-Frisian speaker as well, with an excellent selection of pared-down classics that highlight Leonard’s overlooked talents as a melodist. The opening track is a stunning cover of “Dance Me to the End of Love” (or “Dûnsje my de leafde út”) by Elske DeWall, whose passionate take on the song serves as a reminder that Cohen truly is adored all over the world. – Tim Edgeworth

36. Glen Hansard – Who By Fire

Glen Hansard, the ex-Frame turned sensitive singer-songwriter, courtesy his starring role in the movie Once, has made quite a thing of “Who By Fire,” with there being several versions available on YouTube, all in live settings, either especially filmed for TV or captured by audience cams. He has acquired no small gravitas in Ireland, his homeland, for being the man to commit to tributes to other serious minded poets, Nick Drake being another he has covered the songs of in special concerts.

Several versions, like this one, find him enlisting Javier Mas, Cohen’s own guitarist for live shows, as much showcases for Mas’ extravagant playing as for Hansard. Sometimes too much. Which is why I prefer the extraordinary version above, from Israeli TV, where the song starts seemingly with a Yiddish folk song, before gradually dropping back to allow Hansard to cut in. This seems to emphasis the paradox of Cohen, his songwriting drawing both on his own Judaism and his fascination with the imagery of Christianity. – Seuras Og

35. Zaki Ibrahim – Show Me the Place

2012’s “Show Me The Place” is a heartbreaker to be sure, a pleading prayer made all the more poignant by Cohen’s whispered vocal. Zaki Ibrahim’s warm voice imbues the song with genuine soul. With its quickened tempo, punched up harmonies and sweet strings, her version resembles a typically majestic Sade anthem running over the closing credits of an imagined tearjerker. – Hope Silverman

34. Mia Dyson – In My Secret Life

Despite coming out in 2001, Cohen’s “In My Secret Life” has an ‘80s vibe. Cohen’s co-writer Sharon Robinson performs on the track. The juxtaposition between their vocal styles makes it quite the duet. Dyson brings the folk style back to this song. Her smoky voice is a nice blend of the two original voices, and her simple acoustic guitar accompaniment keeps us focused on the song’s story. It’s a heartfelt, back-to-basics cover. – Sara Stoudt

33. Delicate Steve – Hallelujah

I don’t envy anyone who put together a tribute show after Leonard Cohen died in 2016. What do you do with “Hallelujah”? A song every bit as great as its reputation, to be sure, but also one that has been covered to death. Even Leonard said he was getting sick of it by the end.

The producers of the tribute at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg, subsequently released as the album Sincerely, L. Cohen: A Live Celebration of Leonard Cohen, came up with a clever idea: Open the show with “Hallelujah,” and play it instrumentally. Guitarist Delicate Steve turns it into a soaring fuzz-rock epic. It’s a different version of the same approach ukulele giant Jake Shimabukuro did on his also-great instrumental version. The melody is stunning in its own right, and dropping the words, at least for a few minutes, is one way to make the song feel fresh again. – Ray Padgett

32. Bill Callahan – So Long Marianne

Callahan’s vocal style is a good fit for Cohen’s songs; he’s got a no-nonsense, even delivery with a frills-free voice. His singing is pleasant, though, and it carries this song, stripped of the original’s dominant backing vocals. The addition of noodling electric and steel guitars gives the feel of a triumphant ride off into the sunset. The song builds again and again over the course of five minutes, so that when the final guitar slides out, it’s almost a surprise. – Mike Misch

31. Aaron Neville – Ain’t No Cure for Love

“Ain’t No Cure For Love” first appeared on Jennifer Warnes’s sublime Cohen tribute album Famous Blue Raincoat in 1987 and then the following year featured on Cohen’s own I’m Your Man. While there are some lyrical differences between the two versions, they are united and forever timestamped with unmistakably ’80s productions, all keyboard whooshes and, in Cohen’s case, a particularly ostentatious opening sax. Yet, despite the arrangements, both still manage to convey the heartbreak present in the lyrics in a pointedly poetic way, thanks to some handsome vocalizing.

On his cover, Aaron Neville accentuates the heartbreak even further in the most logical way possible: by turning “Ain’t No Cure For Love” into a country song. It’s jarring to hear if you’re used to the two more famous versions, but it’s also an absolute joy. With its heavy pedal steel, kingly Floyd Cramer-style piano, and Neville’s heavenly voice, it sounds like a country chart-topper from an alternate universe. – Hope Silverman

The list continues on Page 4.

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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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