Sep 032020

‘The Best Covers Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.

best leonard cohen covers

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

Buy I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen here:
Bloomsbury | Amazon | IndieBound | Barnes and Noble | Bookshop

The list begins on Page 2.

Dec 312009

2009 will disappear into the ether in a few hours, but before it does there’s time for one last retrospective to do: The Top Covers of 2009. The Artists-to-Cover this year seemed to be Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson, though somewhat surprisingly no particularly definitive tribute to the latter has surfaced.

Speaking of tributes, anything off of our Best Cover Albums list was excluded for consideration here (you can still download those songs here though). Without further ado, let the list begin!

25. Imogen Heap – Thriller (Michael Jackson)
Any cover of this song loses something without the Vincent Price voice-over. Imogen Heap may not be the Godfather of Horror, but she’s just quirky enough to pull it off. [Buy]

24. Jason Bajada – You Are a Runner and I Am My Father’s Son (Wolf Parade)
There’s nothing harder to pull off than an acoustic-guitar and voice cover. Anyone can try – just strum the chords – but few stand out from the pack of YouTube wannabes. Bajada is one. [Buy]

23. Thom Yorke – All for the Best (Miracle Legion)
How a semi-obscure songwriter got so many A-listers for his tribute album (Yorke, Michael Stipe, Frank Black) is a bit of a mystery, but the “Idioteque”-esq blips Yorke warbles over somehow makes perfect sense. [Buy]

22. Atlas Sound – Walk a Thin Line (Fleetwood Mac)
Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox’s other band put up this tempered falsetto cover on his blog with little fanfare earlier this year. As with most things he gets his hands on, it exploded. [Buy]

21. Florence and the Machine – Addicted to Live (Robert Palmer)
Largely known for the robo-models who jerk about in the video, “Addicted to Love” gets a much-needed upgrade from blog darling Florence and the Machine whose Lungs was one of the best albums of the year. [Buy]

20. The Dead Weather – You Just Can’t Win (Them)
This list easily could have been the twenty-five best Jack White covers of the year. On the b-side to the “Treat Me Like Your Mother” single (vinyl only, naturally), White hollers like an in-the-gutter bluesman which the band emits musical sludge around him. [Buy]

19. Ben Lee – Kids (MGMT)
To anyone who thinks this song is all synth-hook, this plucked acoustic take should change your mind. [Buy]

18. Matt the Electrician – Faithfully (Journey)
The triumphal horns bring the bombast early on, before ceding the stage to a singer-songwriter and his ukulele. [Buy]

17. Joensuu 1685 – I’m On Fire (Bruce Springsteen)
Bruce Springsteen covered Suicide in 2005 and this one sounds like Suicide fighting back. The feedback frenzy of an opening lasts almost three minutes until the singing begins. And this is the short version! [Buy]

16. Anya Marina – Whatever You Like (T.I.)
I despise this song with a passion, so it’s ironic that not one but two brilliant covers were some of my most-played (the other being by Joan As Police Woman). The lyrics are as profound as ever. Shorty, you the hottest. Love the way you drop it. Brain so good, could have sworn you went to college. [Buy]

15. Eels – Girl from the North Country (Bob Dylan)
Eels’ E recorded this vulnerable piano cover for MySpace Transmissions, the sound of a man unable to mask his pain. [Buy]

14. Feist and Ben Gibbard – Train Song (Vashti Bunyan)
Indie-tastic charity comp Dark Was the Night had more new covers than many tribute albums, but was excluded for consideration from our list ‘cause it had just as many originals. However, the harmony on this semi-obscure song form 1966 cannot be ignored. [Buy]

13. John Frusciante – Song to the Siren (Tim Buckley)
Frusciante recently quit the Chili Peppers. If that enables him to make more experimental psychedelic covers like this one, thank goodness. He should have brought Flea with him. [Buy]

12. Coldplay – Fight for Your Right (Beastie Boys)
The Beastie Boys canceled a summer of high-profile festival appearance when MCA announced he had cancer. Jay-Z subbed in at All Points West, paying predictable tribute (“No Sleep Til Brooklyn”). More unexpected was Chris Martin’s brilliant minor-key piano ballad two days later. And the crowd goes wild . [Buy]

11. Town Bike – Radio Nowhere (Bruce Springsteen)
Bruce Springsteen closed his four-hour appearance on Elvis Costello’s Spectacle with a mashup of this and “Radio Radio.” Slamming it into “Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio” works too. [Buy]

10. Ben’s Brother – Poker Face (Lady Gaga)
Everyone from Weezer to Daughtry covered “Poker Face” this year, its catchy hook a natural for ironic sing-alongs. The indie-acoustic covers seemed to work best and “beta male” Jamie Hartman sings it so enthusiastically you almost don’t hear the tongue in cheek. [Buy]

9. Chromeo – I Can’t Tell You Why (The Eagles)
Electro-funk duo Chromeo seems an unlikely duo to cover the Eagles. Their effects-laden delivery beats the odds though, taking the 1979 single straight into the twenty-first century. [Buy]

8. Dex Romweber Duo ft. Jack White – Last Kind Word Blues (Geechie Wiley)
Definitely the best Geechie Wiley cover this year. Jack White produced this one for his Third Man Records label and was nice enough to add his enviable yelp to this blues stomp. [Burn]

7. My Gold Mask – Bette Davis Eyes (Jackie DeShannon/Kim Carnes)
My Gold Mask sent this one our way a couple months ago, which just goes to show you artists out there, submissions are never ignored. [Buy]

6. The Pluto Tapes – Wolf Like Me (TV on the Radio)
Just when you thought you were sick of this song, this slow-burn cover strips away the effects to bring the submerged tune to the fore. [Buy]

5. The BPA ft. Iggy Pop – He’s Frank (Slight Return) (The Monochrome Set)
Fatboy Slim (Norman Cook to his mom) created the Brighten Port Authority apparently solely to produce some killer club-funk tracks with his favorite vocalists. Iggy Pop, who these days seems to have made a career out of guest appearances, sneers his way through this unearthed gem. Biggest shock of all: he managed to keep his shirt on during live performances! [Buy]

4. The Gaslight Anthem – I Do Not Hook Up (Kelly Clarkson)
The Gaslight Anthem tend to cover Bruce Springsteen, The Band, and Johnny Cash. Did the heart-on-sleeve rock revivals finally succumb to the temptation of the ironic pop cover? Not a chance. Against all odds Brian Fallon gives a Kelly Clarkson song the emotional heft of “The River.” [Buy]

3. Elizabeth and the Catapult – Everybody Knows (Leonard Cohen)
A song so good we did a whole interview about it. [Buy]

2. Shilpa Ray & Her Happy Hookers – I Only Have Eyes For You (The Flamingos)
Nick Cave recently called this his new favorite band, which is all the recommendation one needs. Their garage-punk racket turns this innocent love song into the best stalker rocker since “Every Breath You Take.” [Buy]

1. Kings of Convenience – It’s My Party (Leslie Gore)
Pure beauty straight out of Norway, complete with a faux-trumpet solo. Nothing more to say. [Buy]

That’s it for this year. See you in 2010!
Oct 202009

Brooklyn’s Elizabeth & The Catapult exploded into indie-pop consciousness this spring with their debut release Taller Children. A high point of the record, what Rolling Stone called “the album’s finest moment,” is a funky stomp through Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” (available for download below). Cover Me caught up with the trio backstage before a sold-out Manhattan concert. We chatted with singer Elizabeth Ziman, guitarist Pete Lalish and drummer Dan Molad about the Cohen tune, the sonic potential of a foosball table, and why they should send their songs to Kylie Minogue.

Is one of you the Leonard Cohen fan of the group?

Pete: Elizabeth came to us with the song. Leonard Cohen’s someone where you’re scared of how much they’re able to offer with their mind.

Elizabeth: I came to it because it’s such a universal song, I felt like everybody can relate to it. It’s kind of timeless. I was a little nervous to record it because I love it and I wanted to do it justice but I think that we definitely came up with a sweet arrangement and it sounds pretty epic.

It’s interesting because the CD is titled Taller Children and a lot of the songs are very innocent, very childlike. But “Everybody Knows” has these mature themes of drugs and sex.

Elizabeth: “Taller Children” has the seemingly fun, innocent theme, but it’s really about the same idea. It’s about being an adult and actually facing your responsibilities. More of a chiding song. It’s about a mortgage banker who has a crisis.

There’s almost a Bo Diddley beat at the beginning with just the drums and your voice and then it builds with strings and stuff. How’d you guys come up with that arrangement?

Elizabeth: We wanted something primitive.

Dan: A lot of times Elizabeth will come to me and she’ll be like, “I hear this feel,” and she beat-boxes this thing [Dan beat boxes.] It’s kind of ambiguous and I just interpret what I think she’s trying to get at and it usually evolves from there.

Pete: We all knew that it needed some sort of percussive thing that was dramatic but not overly dramatic. You don’t want to make the song sound like it’s turning into a musical or anything. The studio that we were at had timpanis and this huge room with all these big sounds. We were like, this percussion resembles a march or something with a lot of power behind it. What we ended up finding to finish that sound that’s in the beginning was actually a foosball table. Elizabeth and I were doing that rhythm at the same time.

Like pulling the control bars into the side?

Pete: Yeah, slamming the foosball players into the wall. That’s actually predominantly part of that noise.

I was trying to listen through that wall of strings – are there guitar or bass or any rock instruments in the mix?

Dan: It has that classic Bo Diddley or doo-wop thing and we were thinking, “What are some of those records around that era?” And then of course, Phil Spector, his whole wall of sound thing. So we actually kind of tried to emulate it. Underneath this whole thing is an ominous wall of electric guitar, acoustic guitar, three basses – electric, acoustic, and another electric bass – there’s foosball, there’s a lot of clapping.

How long did it take to record all this?

Elizabeth: Three days.

Dan: I mean, it depends how you look at it. The thing about recording is that you can do something in one breath, but we tend to spread things out, take some time away from them. So, you know, it’s a few hours here, you take a day off, do a few hours again.

Pete: I think it took a span of about a weak and a half but basically it was done within that time.

I’m a big Leonard Cohen fan and this is one of my favorite songs. Were there any lyrics that particularly jumped out at you?

Elizabeth: Yeah, there’s that really powerful racial line: “Old Black Joe’s still picking cotton for your ribbons and your bows.” Each time I’m just like, “Oh my god.” There’s no way I can be thinking about anything else when I’m singing that. Even now, with Obama President, singing that song…

Pete: And we started singing that song when we had a much different President. Now, the importance of it is no different than it ever was. It remains timeless for a reason when you can relate it to so many different situations.

Do you guys do any other covers? Anything live, anything you’re working up?

Dan: Quite a few, actually. It’s kind of our common place, like where we relate ‘cause we find these songs that we all know, then we do our own rendition. Like we like to do a few Beatles songs, we do this Tom Waits tune “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” “Carry,” Joni Mitchell. It’s really just show to show. If anything it’s educational, a great way to get back to experiencing where we came from and what influences what we do.

What Beatles songs have you guys done in the past?

Pete: We do – appropriately, ‘cause this is always the song we have to do at shows where we know, the sloppier the better – we play “I’m So Tired.” It’s easy to sing that song when you’re exhausted.

Dan: We have a song that’s kind of like the sister song to it: “Tell Me in the Morning.”

Were covers an early way to relate to audiences back when you were playing Brooklyn?

Pete: You start to realize the importance of a cover for a number of reasons. It can alleviate moments of a set where you’re looking for a break. It allows everyone to regroup and have fun. It allows the audience to feel interactive. I think a lot of it is that we each wanted to show how these covers make the music that we make happen. Like the Tom Waits song. We love Tom Waits, we love people like Leonard Cohen who write beautiful lyrics. We love to have fun with the Beatles and arrange songs that way. We do a Daniel Johnston song. There’s a side of us that wants to show the audience…

Dan: It’s what we feel about the song.

Pete: Right. We want to show our version of it as a little reminder that hey, this is a great song that still feels good to do night after night. For the most part they seem to stick when you find a good cover.

Dan: It’s like playing your iPod around your friends, being like “Check this out!”

Pete: We’ve done a bunch of them and I think maybe three or four have stuck and we’ll probably keep doing them.

“I’m So Tired,” “Everybody Knows,” Tom Waits…

Pete: Yeah, and “Walking the Cow,” Dan Johnston song. Those are our go-to ones that we know will always be there. Then we’re always experimenting to see when we play this song, will it sound like a cover band or will it sound like we’re actually doing something original.

Elizabeth, you started out classically trained. Your transition to popular music was on an Ella Fitzgerald tribute tour. Was it intimidating to be singing these classic songs?

Elizabeth: It was not just that but it was intimidating because I had to be scatting for the first time. I don’t think I’ve ever really scat since. It was a lot improvisation and playing with a lot of really amazing jazz musicians. It was pretty intimidating, but it was fun.

What were some of the songs?

Elizabeth: Umm…well she did all the Cole Porter hits, and a lot of Gershwin hits.

Dan: “Cherokee,” right?

Elizabeth: We did “Cherokee.”

One final question. Now that your profile’s rising you may get requests for covers of your tunes pretty soon. Do you have any dream artists to cover any of your songs?

Dan: Kylie Minogue.

Pete: Kylie Minogue. We were talking about a lot about Kylie Minogue today. If there’s anyone to turn a song into a hit dance song, she’s the best at that.

Which song?

Pete: Probably a really sad ballad.

Elizabeth: I was thinking David Byrne.

— by Ray Padgett

Download the song!
Elizabeth & The Catapult – Everybody Knows (Leonard Cohen)

Taller Children is out now on Verve Forecast. Check out the band’s website for more info.