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30 Great Covers of Leonard Cohen Songs (That Aren’t “Hallelujah”)

on November 11, 2016, 12:00pm
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This feature originally ran in 2012. We’re reposting it today in celebration of Leonard Cohen, who passed away yesterday.

“You moved in slow degrees/ A sudden memory/ You’re a Leonard Cohen song”

 –Better Than Ezra, “Under You”

“But I was caught, like a fleeting thought/ Stuck inside Leonard Cohen’s mind”

–Mercury Rev, “A Drop In Time”

“Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld/ So I can sigh eternally”

–Nirvana, “Pennyroyal Tea”

It’s almost unbelievable now to think that we almost never heard Leonard Cohen, the singer. A well-regarded poet from the late 1950s through the mid-’60s, it was Judy Collins who encouraged the middle-aged Canadian writer to try his hand at performing his own songs, and the rest is history. She also had a successful cover of Cohen’s “Suzanne”. Nearly half a century and more than a dozen albums later, Cohen is one of the most celebrated and critically acclaimed artists of the era. He’s also one of the most covered songwriters, with songs like “Suzanne” and “Hallelujah” registering several hundred different recordings alone. To celebrate Cohen’s lifetime of contributions to art and music, we’ve collected 30 great covers of his songs for your listening pleasure, a project the man himself would have likely enjoyed.

Whenever I hear anybody do one of my songs, my critical judgments go into immediate, suspended animation. I’m just knocked out when anybody does a cover of mine … First of all, I’m happy that someone has heard the song and is moved to cover it. Second of all, it gives me a completely fresh take on the song, and I can then enter it into my own judgmental process … I think there are songs that are better done than I have done them.”

–Leonard Cohen

Please feel free to share your favorites in our comments section.

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“Avalanche”

Who: Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds

Where: From Her to Eternity (1984)

What: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds recorded a grim cover of “Avalanche”, which became the very first track on their debut album. Not losing a beat after the collapse of Cave’s former band, The Birthday Party, From Her to Eternity was as powerful a release as anything he had put out. (Cave has a number of Cohen covers to his name, including an excellent “I’m Your Man” from the soundtrack album of the same name, and a raucous version of “Tower of Song” on the I’m Your Fan tribute record.)

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“Bird on a Wire”

Who: Johnny Cash

Where: American Recordings (1994)

What: Producer Rick Rubin revitalized Johnny Cash’s career with his first American album. Despite his status as a country icon, Cash was unable to find an audience for his new recordings. Rubin set up a studio at Cash’s home and recorded an acoustic set with him, which showcased the emotional power of his famous baritone voice on a combination of Cash originals and cover songs, Cohen’s classic “Bird on a Wire” among them.

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Who: Willie Nelson

Where: Tower of Song: The Songs of Leonard Cohen (1995)

What: Tower of Song was a mid-’90s tribute album that featured contributions from an all-star cast including Elton John, Bono, Sting, Billy Joel, Don Henley, and Peter Gabriel. Nelson’s countrified cover of “Bird on a Wire” is a highlight among the bunch. (Nelson also covered “Hallelujah” on his Ryan Adams-produced album, Songbird.)

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Who: Fairport Convention

Where: Heyday: The BBC Radio Sessions, 1968-1969 (recorded in 1969, released in 1987)

What: As its title spells out, Heyday was a collection of live radio recordings from early in Fairport Convention’s career. Early supporters of Cohen’s, the English folk rockers covered several of his songs in the late 1960s.

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“Chelsea Hotel #2”

Who: Lloyd Cole

Where: I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen (1991)

What: The ex-Commotions singer was in the studio working on his second solo album, Don’t Get Weird on Me, Babe, when he recorded this cover, which sounds like it could have been a B-side from his group’s breakout debut, Rattlesnakes. (Cole also performed a nice cover of “Famous Blue Raincoat” on KCRW, which appears on their Rare on Air, Vol. 2 compilation.)

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“Everybody Knows”

Who: Concrete Blonde

Where: Pump Up The Volume Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1990)

What: The soundtrack for the Christian Slater pirate radio film Pump Up The Volume acts as a great time capsule for the era of college rock that immediately preceded Nirvana’s Nevermind, featuring tracks from Sonic Youth, Henry Rollins, the Pixies, and Soundgarden. While Cohen’s version was featured in the film – as the theme song for Slater’s radio show, no les – Concrete Blonde’s cover was included on the soundtrack and released as a single.

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Who: Rufus Wainwright

Where: Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man (2006)

What: Rufus Wainwright performed this excellent bossa nova-inflected rendition of “Everybody Knows” in the Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man documentary/concert film. There’s a long history of friendship between the Wainwright and Cohen families—Cohen’s daughter Lorca is the mother of Wainwright’s child, Cohen is name-dropped in the song “Want”, and Wainwright and sister Martha are all over the I’m Your Man concert film. Wainwright also counts a superb version of “Hallelujah” amongst his covers of the older poet’s work.

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Who: Julee Cruise

Where: The Art of Being a Girl (2002)

What: The first album from David Lynch’s musical muse in nearly a decade, The Art of Being a Girl marked Cruise’s split from the director of the weird and his long-time musical collaborator, Angelo Badalamenti. The album was a far stylistic leap from the spooky, ethereal dreampop with which she’d made her name, and included this strange, trip-hop cover of “Everybody Knows”.

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“Famous Blue Raincoat”

Who: Tori Amos

Where: Tower of Song: The Songs of Leonard Cohen (1995)

What: In the year between the hit albums Under the Pink and Boys for Pele, Tori Amos contributed this beautiful piano cover of the popular Cohen song to the all-star tribute album Tower of Song. (Amos has also worked “Suzanne” into her live set at several points over the years.)

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Who: Marissa Nadler

Where: Folk Off! (2006)

What: The Boston-based folkstress contributed this somewhat spooky cover of Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat”, a regular piece of her live setlist, to this two-disc compilation that pitted North American and British artists against each other in a good-natured competitive “folk off.”

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“First We Take Manhattan”

Who: R.E.M.

Where: I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen (1991)

What: R.E.M. fans still in mourning can seek comfort in the large number of rare tracks and obscurities the band left behind. Among those is a cover of “First We Take Manhattan” from the I’m Your Fan Cohen tribute album, which was also included as a B-side on the U.K. single for “Drive”.

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“Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”

Who: The Lemonheads (featuring Liv Tyler)

Where: Varshons (2009)

What: The Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes spent years passing mix tapes to The Lemonheads’ Evan Dando, who later paid tribute by recording an album of covers consisting of songs from those tapes. Varshons includes perhaps the most surprising appearance on this list, when Dando duets with actress Liv Tyler (!?) on “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”.

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“I Can’t Forget”

Who: Jarvis Cocker

Where: Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man (2006)

What: Highly lauded for his own lyrical skills, the Pulp frontman and solo artist performed this sincere cover of “I Can’t Forget” in the tribute documentary I’m Your Man. (Cocker provides a spoken-word, slight re-interpretation of Cohen’s “Avalanche” lyrics for the Boys Noize and Erol Alkan dance track, “Avalanche (Terminal Velocity)”.)

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Who: Pixies

Where: I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen (1991)

What: The Pixies were nearing the end of their recording career when they recorded this poppy cover of “I Can’t Forget” for a tribute album originally commissioned by French music mag Les Inrockuptibles. (Black Francis cited Cohen’s I’m You Man as one of his all-time favorite albums in the 33 1/3 volume on Doolittle.)

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“If It Be Your Will”

Who: Antony

Where: Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man (2006)

What: Antony Hegarty’s one-off performance in the I’m Your Man tribute documentary manages to make Cohen’s lyrics sound even more heartbreaking than on his original version. (Antony & The Johnsons also performed a great cover of “The Guests” live on BBC4 during the same year.)

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“Joan of Arc”

Who: Anna Calvi

Where: B-side to the “Desire” single (2011)

What: British singer/shredder Anna Calvi paid tribute to Leonard Cohen by subtracting the thing he’s most famous from the song: his lyrics. Calvi found the song’s lyrics so atmospheric that she was inspired to write her own instrumental piece that followed the story that unfolds in Cohen’s verses.

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“Lover, Lover, Lover”

Who: Ian McCulloch

Where: Mysterio (1992)

What: Singer Ian McCulloch included this very new wave-y cover of “Lover, Lover, Lover” on his second post-Echo and the Bunnymen solo album. (McCulloch must be a big-time Cohen fan, judging by his additional covers of “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”, “Suzanne”, and “There Is A War” appearing on various compilations.)

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“Master Song”

Who: Beck, Devendra Banhart, and MGMT

Where: Record Club: Songs of Leonard Cohen (2009)

What: Beck’s all-star covers/jam side project took on the entirety of Cohen’s debut album for their second outing. With the help of Devendra Banhart and MGMT, they transform “Master Song” from a tender, acoustic song-poem to a vulgar, old-school hip-hop joint.

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“One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong”

Who: Harvey Milk

Where: Courtesy and Good Will Toward Men (1996)

What: The Athens, GA stoner rock group Harvey Milk unplugged for a quiet (uncommon, for them) rendition of “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong” on their sophomore album. (Their cover of “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy” is included on the Japanese limited edition of Life… The Best Game in Town.)

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“So Long, Marianne”

Who: James

Where: I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen (1991)

What: The British band covered “So Long, Marianne” for an early alternative-era Cohen tribute album. At the time primarily known only in the U.K., it would still be two years before they released their breakout hit single “Laid”.

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Who: John Cale and Suzanne Vega

Where: Bleecker Street: Greenwich Village in the 60’s (1999)

What: Cale’s much more famous, of course, in the Cohen covers world for his sublime recording of “Hallelujah”, but his take on this track from Cohen’s debut record came almost a decade later and also features vocals from Suzanne Vega (of “Tom’s Diner” fame).

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“Suzanne”

Who: Pearls Before Swine

Where: Balaklava (1967)

What: The first side of Tom Rapp’s surreal, heady sophomore album with Pearls Before Swine served as the singer/songwriter’s unsettling but powerful rail against the Vietnam War. The second side was perhaps more bizarre (if a bit less effective), beginning with this cover of “Suzanne” and ending with the Lord of the Rings-inspired song “Ring Thing” (for which Tolkien was given a joint songwriting credit).

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Who: The Flying Lizards

Where: Top Ten (1984)

What: Known best for their bizarre new wave cover of “Money (That’s What I Want)”, The Flying Lizards’ cover of “Suzanne” is even further removed from the source material, featuring icy-cold synths, robotic drumming, and spoken word vocals. This is perhaps the second strangest cover on this list, after Beck’s Record Club entry.

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Who: Nina Simone

Where: To Love Somebody (1969)

What: Clumped onto a rushed-out album that also contained three Bob Dylan tunes and two Bee Gees covers, Nina Simone’s cover of “Suzanne” is as bright and cheery as they get.

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Who: Roberta Flack

Where: Killing Me Softly (1973)

What: The closing track to Roberta Flack’s Grammy Award-nominated album Killing Me Softly was a cover of the Cohen staple. Flack added orchestral flourishes and lingered on every lyric to create an extensive, nearly-10-minute rendition of the famous song.

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Who: Neil Diamond

Where: Stones (1971)

What: While Neil Diamond’s Stones did contain his popular songs “I Am… I Said” and “Crunchy Granola Suite”, many of the tracks on the record are actually covers. Paired up with songs originally performed by Randy Newman and Joni Mitchell, it’s Diamond’s lush, pastoral Leonard Cohen cover that’s a standout.

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“Who By Fire”

Who: Coil

Where: Horse Rotorvator (1986)

What: The name of the British industrial/experimental group’s landmark second album comes from a dream in which the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse tear out their steeds’ jawbones and graft them together to build a plow that will tear up the world. The cover of “Who By Fire” included there isn’t as terrifying as one might expect from such an album, but the atmospheric backing vocals are pretty haunting.

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Who: The House of Love

Where: I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen (1991)

What: The House of Love may not be as beloved a band to come out of Creation Records as, say, The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, or Oasis, but their self-titled debut record really holds up as a great piece of pre-Britpop British indie rock. Their cover of “Who By Fire” was the lead track on the U.K. edition of I’m Your Fan.

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“Winter Lady”

Who: Palace Songs

Where: Hope EP (1994)

What: Will Oldham, the man of many changing names, released this EP under the Palace Songs moniker. Chronologically part of a spurt of singles and EPs released between Days in the Wake and Viva Last Blues, it’s more in tune with the full band sound he’d use more in his Bonnie “Prince” Billy days than much of the Palace era. This startling cover is included among Oldham originals.

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“You Know Who I Am”

Who: Mama Cass Elliot

Where: Dream A Little Dream (1968)

What: The final Mamas & the Papas single, “Dream a Little Dream of Me” became the first Mama Cass solo single after label execs wagered on Elliot being the group’s breakout member. Their bet was good, as the song became a smash hit for the singer. Most of the album’s material was written by Elliot’s friends and Laurel Canyon neighbors, but there’s a sweetly-sung version of Cohen’s “You Know Who I Am” that’s quite pretty, despite a few overbearing psychedelic effects.

 

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