Over our time tracking cover songs (13 years this month!), we’ve written about hundreds of new tribute albums, across reviews, news stories, and, when they’re good enough, our best-of-the-year lists. We also have looked back on plenty of great tribute albums from the past in our Cover Classics series. But we’ve never pulled it all together – until now.
‘The Best Covers Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.
Last week, Donald Trump gave his headlining speech at the Republican National Convention. Right after, fireworks exploded over the Washington Monument, soundtracked by a cover of “Hallelujah.” A few minutes later, a second singer covered “Hallelujah” while the entire Trump family watched. Both covers were unauthorized, and Leonard Cohen’s estate quickly said they are exploring legal action. (It must also be said that the covers weren’t very good – you won’t find either one on this list.)
Though hardly a shining moment in the history of Cohen covers, this event speaks to the cultural ubiquity of his work, and of “Hallelujah” in particular. For an artist who never sold that many records, Cohen has become about as iconic as icons get. Humble to the end, he would no doubt object – politely, of course – to that statement. But it’s true. His songs transcend his albums, they transcend his performances, they even transcend Leonard Cohen himself.
There’s never a bad time to talk about Leonard Cohen covers, but they’ve really been on my mind the past couple years. Why? Because I’ve been writing an entire book on the subject, which is out today. It’s in the 33 1/3 series of small books on specific albums. The album I selected? The 1991 tribute album I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen. Without it, you probably wouldn’t even know “Hallelujah”… but we’ll get to that later.
In the book, I explore not just that one tribute album, but the entire history of Leonard Cohen covers generally. It’s a long and fascinating story, but suffice to say here that Cohen wouldn’t have had anywhere near the reach he did without others covering his songs. Covers gave him his start – Judy Collins’s, in particular – and resurrected his career more than once.
There are far too many great Cohen covers to fit in a list like this (and our Patreon supporters will soon get a bonus list of 100 more of them). But we all dug deep to pull the highlights, both the best of the totemic covers as well as brilliant but lesser-known interpretations. The covers span his entire catalog too. Plenty of “Hallelujah”s, of course, and versions of the ’60s songs that made him famous, but also covers of deeper cuts from albums throughout his recording career, up to and including his very last. We hope you’ll discover some new favorites, and maybe be able to listen to the classics you already know in a fresh light.
– Ray Padgett, Editor-in-Chief
The list begins on Page 2.
Hi! Ray Padgett here, founder of Cover Me. Excuse the self-promotional interruption from our usual flow of content, but I imagine it’s a self-promotional interruption that anyone reading a site about covers might actually be interested in.
Some of you may have read my first book, Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time. This new one is a successor of sorts. Not a sequel, exactly. More like a distant blood relative you only see on holidays.
It’s about tribute albums.
It’s part of the 33 1/3 series of short books on classic albums. I used one tribute album, 1991’s I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, as an entry point to talk about the strange history of tribute albums more broadly.
Why pick I’m Your Fan out of all the possible tribute albums? Well, for one, you wouldn’t know the song “Hallelujah” without it. It’s one of only a couple tribute albums that has had that concrete an effect on music history (here’s the very brief overview). The entire album has a fascinating story, too: Two French fanzine editors with zero industry connections somehow convinced R.E.M., Pixies, John Cale, and more to record Leonard Cohen songs at a time when Leonard was at his most uncool. In doing so, they resuscitated a fading legend’s career.
I’m Your Fan also serves as a perfect example of the tribute album phenomenon more broadly. If you have a favorite tribute album, chances are it comes up in this book. If you have a least favorite, it probably does too. I interviewed the artists and creators of dozens of tributes, including the late, great Hal Willner, who basically invented the format single-handedly. (His first words when I called him up: “Is it all my fault?”)
The book comes out September 3. If it sounds of interest, pre-ordering it would really help, especially because no one’s going to be stumbling across it on bookstore shelves next month. Here are some links:
PRE-ORDER ‘I’M YOUR FAN’:
Barnes and Noble
A bonus for Cover Me readers: if you pre-order the book and email me some sort of proof, I will send you a private mixtape I made of my favorite other cover of every Cohen song on I’m Your Fan, all newer versions that came out after this album. Think of it like a bonus track to the book. Or, in this case, many bonus tracks.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for our Best Leonard Cohen Covers Ever countdown coming in a few weeks.
Ray Padgett is the founder of Cover Me, the largest blog devoted to cover songs on the web, and author of Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time (2017) and the 33 1/3 book I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen (2020). His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, SPIN, The AV Club, Vice, and MOJO, and he’s been interviewed as an expert on cover songs by NPR, The Wall Street Journal, SiriusXM, and dozens more. He also runs the email newsletter Flagging Down the Double E’s, essays inspired by live Bob Dylan shows from yesteryear. He lives in Burlington, Vermont and works as a publicist for Shore Fire Media.
I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen
Release Date: September 3, 2020
Bloomsbury Publishing “33 1/3” Series
Ray Padgett’s deeply-researched, passionately written book did what the very best tribute albums do: Recontextualized and deepened the source material. In the same way that John Cale made listeners hear “Hallelujah” anew, this book made me hear tribute albums like I’d never heard them before.
– David Marchese, Columnist, New York Times Magazine
A smart and lively look at a project that was oddly significant in Leonard Cohen’s career – but, beyond that, a long-overdue examination that (partly) redeems the much reviled format of the tribute album.
– Alan Light, author of The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”
“I’m Your Fan” uses a specific tribute album to explore multiple aspects of music fandom and record culture—how artists channel their influences, how a song’s meaning can change over time, the way formats shape our understanding of music history. A marvelous entry in the 33 1/3 series, even for those who’ve never heard the album in question.
– Mark Richardson, former Editor-in-Chief, Pitchfork
Using the famed Leonard Cohen covers collection as its jumping-off point, Ray Padgett’s I’m Your Fan digs into the weird, ever-expanding world of the tribute album. We get a detailed account of how I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen came together via revealing interviews with its curators and performers. We learn how the album kickstarted Cohen’s then somewhat-flailing career and—for better or worse—helped turn the then obscure “Hallelujah” into the ubiquitous standard it is today. We discover that Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ version of “Tower of Song” originally clocked in at over a half-hour. It’s all great stuff. But even more interesting are the various side-trips Padgett takes the reader on: like a chat with the late/great tribute album pioneer Hal Willner (“It’s all my fault isn’t it?” he asks wearily); or a lengthy digression with Juliana Hatfield, a tribute album mainstay who doesn’t really like tribute albums. Like most of the 33 1/3 books, I’m Your Fan is a quick read, but you’ll want to savor this one.
– Aquarium Drunkard
When I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen hit stores in 1991, Leonard Cohen’s career had plummeted from its revered 1960s high. Cohen’s record label had refused to release his 1984 album Various Positions–including the song “Hallelujah”–in the United States. Luckily, Velvet Underground founder John Cale was one of the few who did hear “Hallelujah,” and he covered it for I’m Your Fan, a collection of Cohen’s songs produced by a French fanzine. Jeff Buckley adored the tribute album and covered Cale’s cover in 1994, never having heard Cohen’s still-obscure original version.
In 2016, Stereogum labeled the tribute album “possibly the most universally derided format in pop music.” However, without a tribute album, you wouldn’t know the song “Hallelujah.” Through Buckley through Cale, “Hallelujah” is now one of the most often-performed songs in the world–and it wouldn’t be without this tribute album. I’m Your Fan thus offers a particularly notable example of a much broader truth: Despite all the eye-rolling they inspire, tribute albums matter. They can resuscitate legends’ fading careers, or expose obscure artists who never had much of a career to begin with.
Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs
of All Time
Release Date: October 3, 2017
“One of the best multi-subject music books to come down the pike in years.” – Variety
“His research adds fresh context and intriguing background to many of these songs, even to those possessing well-tread origin stories, and his astute ruminations on evolving cultural perceptions of the cover’s place in the music canon is persuasive enough to move purists to softer and less reflexive cringes at such songs before hitting shuffle.” – AV Club
“A wonderful book with a lot of history and a lot of music” – Paste
“Padgett tells cracking good stories… Cover Me is a gift, for it encourages us to reflect on what cover songs mean to us” – No Depression
“A fascinating window into the craft, and business, of making music” – The Rumpus
From the creator of the popular website covermesongs.com comes the perfect book for music fans: the inside stories behind iconic cover songs and the artists who turned them into classics.
A great cover only makes a song stronger. Jimi Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” The Beatles rocking out with “Twist and Shout.” Aretha Franklin demanding “Respect.” Without covers, the world would have lost many unforgettable performances. This is the first book to explore the most iconic covers ever, from Elvis’s “Hound Dog” and Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help from My Friends” to the Talking Heads’ “Take Me to the River” and Adele’s “Make You Feel My Love.” Written by the founder of the website covermesongs.com, each of the 19 chapters investigates the origins of a classic cover—and uses it as a framework to tell the larger story of how cover songs have evolved over the decades. Cover Me is packed with insight, photography, and music history.
Contact Ray Padgett: firstname.lastname@example.org
In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!
Leonard Cohen was known for being something of a perfectionist. “Hallelujah,” for example, was apparently whittled down from around 80 verses, while “Anthem” was the product of ten years’ arduous rewriting. With this in mind, it’s safe to say that Cohen took the same considered approach on the rare occasion that he covered a song. Not the type of person to hastily record a cover to fill up space on an album, each one of Cohen’s covers appear to have been chosen and performed with a great deal of care.
Many musicians, unable to go on the road, have taken to performing concerts in their home in the past week. Personally, I have spent a huge amount of time watching various these live streams. The performances have been moving and powerful, an unusually intimate way to see some of your favorite musicians.
Many such shows have included covers, songs that feel right to sing right now, like John Lennon’s “Isolation” or Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” So I decided to round up some of my favorites below.
Unfortunately, many live stream platforms don’t archive the content, so if you miss it live, it’s gone (another reason to watch these streams!). But plenty of great covers have remained online. Check ’em out below, and let us know in the comments what others we shouldn’t miss.