Sep 032020

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30. Roberta Flack – Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye

Roberta Flack’s cover of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” needed three years and a featured spot in Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me before it became a smash hit. People who ran out to buy her debut album First Take got that song and found an equally extraordinary cover immediately before it. “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” which also features Flack’s piano playing (later sampled in Li’l Kim’s “Queen Bitch”), proved a great way for her to say hello. It’s gossamer light, warm as this side of the pillow, and imbued with a romantic’s heart. – Patrick Robbins

29. Kid Harpoon – First We Take Manhattan

I listened to this cover dozens of times before I was all that familiar with Cohen’s original. As a result, Cohen’s original lyric in one place still sounds wrong to me. It’s the line about “the monkey and the plywood violin.” But Kid Harpoon, then a folk-rock hustler years before he went on to be a major pop songwriter for Harry Styles and others, changes the line to “pirate violin.” A wonderful image, and one very much in keeping with the Kid’s raggedy wastrel sound. – Ray Padgett

28. Boys Noize & Erol Alkan ft. Jarvis Cocker – Avalanche (Terminal Velocity)

The songwriting chops of any artist can be tested when their music is filtered through the confines (or lack thereof) of another genre of music – especially when it’s the polar opposite of the original. “Avalanche” stands that test with Boys Noize and Erol Alkan’s techno reworking.

The two producers first teamed up for an instrumental cover a year before asking Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker to rework their rendition into a spoken word. They loved Cocker’s take on the song so much, they decided to reshape the music around what Cocker had done. The result is an atmospheric dance track, with builds and beat drops that allow the lyrics to take the limelight. The song alternates between dark long piano chords and full-on dance party techno beats, tied together by Cocker’s voice. It’s like taking MDMA at a goth club where Britpop’s been transposed over Joy Division, and someone keeps opening the door to the rave taking place next door. But it works. – Jay Honstetter

27. Emmylou Harris – Stranger Song

It is no easy task to attain the same level of concentrated energy as Cohen’s original “Stranger Song,” to keep the attention at that same pin drop. Emmylou has the voice, for sure, no question, the emotion cracking through her tones convincingly, but it is Daniel Lanois’ production that adds the real killer touch. More restrained than elsewhere on Harris’s Wrecking Ball, reining in some of his trademarks, here Lanois rests the song in a pair of slow-weaving electric guitars, subtle background bass and, eventually, gloriously, some pipe organ. For a song where Cohen’s less was so much more, to hear Lanois attempting his version of less is also a triumph. – Seuras Og

26. Father John Misty – One of Us Cannot Be Wrong

Father John Misty’s recent Anthem + 3 EP, whose proceeds are all going to charity, is half Leonard Cohen covers. This one has a similar guitar style to Cohen, but adds heavier horns and percussion to round out the sound. Father John Misty’s big voice isn’t drowned out, though, occasionally breaking into a restrained yell. No one wants to take on the whistle/recorder combination from Cohen’s original, but at least Father John Misty continues the yelling through the end. – Sara Stoudt

25. Jasper Steverlinck – In My Secret Life

Belgian singer and guitarist Jasper Steverlinck has a ridiculously beautiful voice. If you enjoy the singing of Freddie Mercury or Jeff Buckley (and who doesn’t?), you would be well advised to check out his catalog, both with his alt-rock band Arid and as a solo artist. Steverlinck’s live and acoustic take of “In My Secret Life” strips away the sheen of the original and offers up only its beautiful bones. It’s mournful, stark and soul-crushingly sad in the best possible way. – Hope Silverman

24. John Cale – Hallelujah

“Hallelujah” is Leonard Cohen’s most-covered song. But, in a way, it’s also John Cale‘s most-covered song. As I detail in my aforementioned book, Cale’s was the first version Jeff Buckley heard – and, thus, the version from which all other “Hallelujah”s were born.

Cale first heard “Hallelujah” in concert several years after Cohen released it on record; Cohen’s record label had refused to even release it in America. Not knowing the words when trying to record it for I’m Your Fan, Cale asked Cohen to send him the lyrics. Cohen faxed him 15 entire pages worth of verses. Cale chose different verses than found on Cohen’s original recording – he said he picked out “the cheeky verses” – and Cohen later used those old-new words himself in live performances.

Without John Cale, and without I’m Your Fan bringing his cover to Buckley, there’s a good chance few of us would know “Hallelujah.”

The amazing thing is, even with the weight of all that history on it, Cale’s “Hallelujah” still holds up in its own right. The next time you hear some melismatic singer wringing every bit of life from the song, perhaps while accompanying a Donald Trump fireworks display, return to Cale’s simple piano ballad to rediscover the song’s beauty. – Ray Padgett

23. Amanda Shires – I’m Your Man

Amanda Shires is such a big Leonard Cohen fan that she has a verse from “Hallelujah” tattooed on her arm and a verse from “Take This Waltz” tattooed on her back. Amanda Shires is such a big Leonard Cohen fan that she wrote a song called “A Song For Leonard Cohen,” which imagines the two of them sharing a drinks, and a walk, and meaningful conversation. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that Shires has covered Cohen. This version of “I’m Your Man” was recorded specially for Amazon, and features only Shires singing while accompanying herself on the ukulele, rather than her more usual fiddle, and is powerful in its simplicity. – Jordan Becker

22. Jackson Browne – A Thousand Kisses Deep

Game recognizes game is about the only way to describe the reason that Jackson Browne ended up performing a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “A Thousand Kisses Deep” on the bill of a 2006 tribute album recorded in Barcelona called Acordes Con Leonard Cohen. One of the few acts on the bill that sang in English, Browne shows off his flamenco guitar skills as he takes the listener into uncharted Browne territory with a menacing tone that is about as far from Laurel Canyon as is humanly possible to go. Boogie Street might not be Doheny Drive, and this song might have made more sense if Warren Zevon would have covered it, but this is one heck of a version by an artist unafraid to go outside his comfort zone. – Walt Falconer

21. Lloyd Cole – Chelsea Hotel

I am willing to bet that there is no other hotel or motel in the world that has inspired more songs than lower Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel, long identified as a place for artists, performers, writers and musicians to live and work, which probably explains its popularity in song. And probably the most popular song about the Chelsea (although not my personal favorite), is Cohen’s ribald, yet tender “Chelsea Hotel #2.” Cohen later regretted “outing” Joplin as the subject. Lloyd Cole took on the song for I’m Your Fan, speeding up the tempo and using a tight band that included the great underrated guitarist Robert Quine. – Jordan Becker

The list continues on Page 5.

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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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