Our 10 Best Covers of Leonard Cohen Songs looks at one of Canada’s most beloved songwriters. His songs were infused with deep emotions and powerful poetry. However, Leonard Cohen was not the best singer. His voice arguably kept him from being a household name. His songs were so beautiful that they excited many other singers with better voices. Here are the 10 best covers of Leonard Cohen songs.
# 10 – Buffy Sainte-Marie: God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot
We start our 10 best covers of Leonard Cohen songs with a cover of a Leonard Cohen poem. Leonard Cohen was known for being a poet before turning to songwriting. He was even the subject of a Canadian documentary in 1965, two years before the release of his first album. Cross-genre singer-songwriter Sainte-Marie put music to the poem and gave it a psychedelic twist. She begins and ends the songs with trippy vocal distortions, making her words sound like footsteps. It first appeared on her album of 1969, Illuminations. She is quoted as saying that this was the quickest tune she ever wrote.
# 9 – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Tower of Song
Love them or hate them, the quirkiness of Nick Cave’s 1991 version of Tower of Song must be mentioned in any top 10 list of Leonard Cohen covers. It’s vastly different from Leonard Cohen’s silky-smooth original, which first appeared on his 1988 album, I’m Your Man. This buzzsaw from punk rock to spoken-word poetry to country-fried funk. It also includes lyrics not in the original. This song appeared on the 1991 Cohen tribute album, I’m Your Fan. Yes, the pun was intentional.
# 8 – REM: First We Take Manhattan
REM’s covers tend to be pretty faithful to Leonard Cohen’s original version. However, REM took Cohen’s 1986 song about a political terrorist and made it more disturbing with jarring guitars, layered vocals and feedback. The funny thing about First We Take Manhattan is that it originally appeared as a cover version by Jennifer Warnes in 1986 before Leonard Cohen himself finally recorded a version a year later. REM’s version appeared on I’m Your Fan.
# 7 – Suzanne Vega: The Story of Isaac
Cohen was well known for blending the sacred and the secular in his songwriting. The Story of Isaac takes the Biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac and ads a dash of anti-war protest. Cohen’s version appeared on his 1969 album, Songs from a Room. Vega’s version, flavored with a sad Spanish guitar, sparse synths, and matter-of-fact vocals, is more chilling than the original in that it seems to take the story of a father willing to murder his son into an everyday event. Vega’s version deserves a place on any top ten list of Leonard Cohen covers. It appeared in the 1995 Leonard Cohen tribute album, Tower of Song.
# 6 – Jennifer Warnes: The Ballad of a Runaway Horse
This cover version deserves special note in a list of top ten Leonard Cohen covers because it changes not only some lyrics and arrangement but the song’s title. This is a cover version of Cohen’s The Ballad of the Absent Mare, which first appeared in his 1979 album, Recent Songs. Longtime friend and backing vocalist Jennifer Warnes asked permission of Cohen to change the song so it could be sung from a woman’s point of view. She also added a fiddle-heavy hoe-down of an ending. It can be found on the 20th-anniversary album of her popular 1986 all-Leonard Cohen cover album Famous Blue Raincoat.
# 5 – The Neville Brothers: Bird on a Wire
Although there have been seemingly as many cover versions of this song as there are grains of sand on a beach, the Neville Brothers version stands out for taking this borderline weepy song into an anthem of joy. This has multi-layered vocals, a happy saxophone, and lively synths. And how can you beat Aaron Neville’s voice for bringing out the real spirit in any tune? This version came out on the Neville Brothers’ 1990 album, Brother’s Keeper.
# 4 – Peter Gabriel: Suzanne
This is another Leonard Cohen song often covered since it was first released as a cover song in 1966 by both The Stormy Clovers and Judy Collins. However, Gabriel’s version stands out in two respects. First, it is far more haunting than the original, echoing just how haunting memories can be. Secondly, for a short time, it blends both male and female vocals. In interviews, Cohen himself said he thought the song worked best with a woman’s voice, even though it is clearly written from a man’s point of view. Cohen’s staccato version appeared on his 1967 debut album.
# 3 – Jennifer Warnes & Leonard Cohen: Joan of Arc
Admittedly, we cheated a little bit by adding this item to a list of top ten Leonard Cohen cover song. Unlike most cover songs, the guy who did the original version appears. He duets with Warnes as the voice of the fire that burns Joan of Arc to death. It makes for a powerful and unforgettable duet, where Joan of Arc talks to the thing that will kill her. This was arguably the highlight of Warnes’s 1986 album of Leonard Cohen covers, Famous Blue Raincoat.
# 2 – Jennifer Warnes: A Singer Must Die
Yes, Jennifer Warnes turned Leonard Cohen covers into an art form. This also appeared on Famous Blue Raincoat. Unlike the original, which was basically Cohen and a guitar with some brass, this is completely a cappella. Warnes backs herself up with a small choir, making the song more heartbreaking than even Cohen’s cynical and defiant version, which appears on his 1974 album New Skin for the Old Ceremony.
# 1 – Jeff Buckley: Hallelujah
Ah, you know this was going to be the inevitable number one in our list of top ten Leonard Cohen cover songs, didn’t you? Although there have been several critically acclaimed cover versions of Hallelujah (K. D Laing’s cover was hard to keep off of this list), the ill-fated Buckley’s version caught popular attention and brought the music of Leonard Cohen to many thousands. It also helped encourage Cohen to start touring again. For more about the “biography” of this song, check out the book The Holy Or the Broken by Alan Light.
10 Best Covers Of Leonard Cohen Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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Updated November 23, 2023