Sep 032020

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20. Anita Lester – You Want It Darker

“You Want It Darker,” from the 2016 album of the same name, is indeed dark, maybe even one of the darkest, even by Leonard Cohen standards. The song opens with background chants that seem to be coming from the bottom of a well, immediately followed by a propulsive bass line that moves the song forward. In the capable hands of Melbourne Australia’s Anita Lester, the singer, songwriter, and artist who has been described as a female Nick Cave, the song starts to drift into a parallel universe that is slightly less dark, but in some ways even more startling. Where the original carries the same metronome-worthy meter through much of the song, with her version Lester increases the pace mid-song careening downward darker still until the flame is extinguished for good. – Walt Falconer

19. Judy Collins – Suzanne

In her cover of “Suzanne,” Judy Collins delivers a tune that has hints of the melancholy of Cohen’s version while maintaining a lightness to it. The song is quite wordy, but Collins’ voice flows like the river that she’s singing about, a torrent of words moving quickly but never rushed. The fingerpicked guitar bubbles in the background as a counterpoint. It’s a beautifully peaceful experience. Collins’ version of the song actually came out the year before Cohen’s debut album, making it a pretty definitive cover and an introduction for many to Cohen’s music. – Mike Misch

18. Andrea Ramolo – My Oh My

I might have to retroactively recall our Best Cover Albums of 2018 list. Somehow I missed one of the year’s absolute best – doubly inexcusable because it was a Cohen covers album and I was preparing to write a book about Cohen covers. But that always happens. Even we can’t catch every great cover song or album that comes out, so we’ll settle for giving Andrea Ramolo some two-years-delayed love here. Her version of 2014’s barely-ever-covered “My Oh My” is a standout, but honestly any song on her Homage album could have made our list. Don’t miss the stormy-guitar “Who By Fire” too. – Ray Padgett

17. Joe Cocker – First We Take Manhattan

Saying that Joe Cocker knows his way around a cover song is a bit like saying Vincent Van Gogh knew how to handle a paintbrush. After all, this is the guy that slew “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” and completely enveloped himself in the spirit of “The Letter.” On 1999’s No Ordinary World, Cocker takes Leonard Cohen’s synth-heavy anthem “First We Take Manhattan” in the blink of an ear from a forced march to breaching the lines and taking Berlin. With a building intensity and propulsion lacking in the original, the song quickly overcomes a bit of a false start with an out-of-place place piano introduction to deliver a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts. It stands right up there alongside “With A Little Help From My Friends” as one of the maestro’s best covers. – Walt Falconer

16. Elton John – I’m Your Man

The title track from his 1988 album of the same name, “I’m Your Man” is Cohen at his best – melancholic and soft and tender, with a slower and gruff delivery. This is stoic machismo, with Cohen convincing the listener that he is the man for them. Elton John’s cover has turned this stoicism into almost egotism with an upbeat cover full of bright tones and a foot-stomping beat. This man is solid and strong; he knows it, and he’s going to tell the world about it. – Brendan Shanahan

15. Lera Lynn – I Tried to Leave You

“I Tried To Leave You” is not one of Cohen’s most famous songs, but nevertheless is an interesting portrait of a clearly ambivalent man who, despite trying to leave “at least a hundred times,” stays and continues “working for your smile.” Cohen’s original is a quiet meditation featuring, among other things, muted brass and an almost honky-tonk piano. Lera Lynn, who included the song on her 2011 debut album Have You Met Lera Lynn?, performs it as a slow country blues stomp. – Jordan Becker

14. Christina Martin – Tonight Will Be Fine

The original “Tonight Will Be Fine” is a resigned, almost spoken-word song with simple plodding bass and a little chaotic trill of another string instrument. This version more yearns to be fine tonight, rather than being secure in the fact. There is smoother guitar playing, but the background music is more in your face. As with Father John Misty (#26), we don’t get the quirky whistle + recorder combo in the end, but we do get a full sound and more melody throughout. – Sara Stoudt

13. Diagrams – Famous Blue Raincoat

Listening to 1971’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” is somehow both emotionally draining and absolutely life affirming. One of Leonard Cohen’s finest compositions, it seems to be a letter to an unnamed rival in love with the same woman as the song’s protagonist. Despite the fact that the woman, Jane, is back in the latter’s arms, the specter of her affair and the truth it exposed continues to weigh oh-so-heavily on everyone and everything. Or does it? In 1994, Cohen himself said that “it was a song I’ve never been satisfied with. I’ve always felt that there was something about the song that was unclear.” The fact that it remains highly interpretable and inscrutable is actually part of its brilliance.

UK band Diagrams, led by Sam Genders, turns the stark ballad into a wonderfully eerie pop waltz resembling some long-lost cousin of The Stranglers’ “Golden Brown.” Built on a bed of ominous choral vocals, the result is utterly hypnotic and topped with a particularly handsome coda that might possibly make you want to get up and spin around. – Hope Silverman

12. ANOHNI – If It Be Your Will

ANOHNI could wring the emotion out of the back of a cereal box. Combine her voice and delivery with the words of one of modern music’s greatest songwriters and you’ve got the ingredients for a transcendent experience. At various points in this song, ANOHNI’s voice jumps out and hits you right in your core. With the prayerful lyrics and the slow, continuous crescendo provided by an amazing group of live performers, there’s something of a religious experience that happens here. The video from the documentary I’m Your Man is powerful, but if you enjoy it, it’s worth your time to seek out the higher quality audio from the soundtrack. – Mike Misch

11. Elizabeth & The Catapult – Everybody Knows

Starting off sounding like an austere protest song featuring just voice and percussion, Elizabeth & The Catapult’s cover of “Everybody Knows” suddenly takes flight in a whirlwind of soaring keyboards and plucked strings. Although the dry humor of Cohen’s version is notable by its absence this time around, Elizabeth and company make up for it with a genuine sense of longing for a simpler, less complicated time. – Tim Edgeworth

The list continues on Page 6.

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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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