Leonard Cohen turned to making music when his attempts at being a novelist failed. He had been known as a great poet in Canada for years, but there’s not much money in poetry. There is money in music. It’s hard to classify Cohen’s music – soft rock, alternative rock, folk or perhaps indie before indie became an official category. Leonard Cohen described his singing voice as “the glory of the monotone”, which explains why he didn’t make the mainstream until a few years before he died. In his life, he left a body of music that takes a lifetime to fully explore. Here are the 10 best Leonard Cohen albums.
# 10 – Live in Dublin
This album serves not only a concert album, but a greatest hits compilation. It’s the most listenable of Leonard Cohen’s live albums and has a distinctive groovy feel missing from his other live albums. Leonard Cohen is finally completely comfortable on stage and seems amazed by all the applause. This was recorded in 2013, a year before the album’s release. Songs include four discs of fan favorites. A standout track is “Who By Fire”, which departs from the original track with an enhanced opening, a more chilling arrangement and softer harmonies. Leonard Cohen’s aged voice also better suited the lyrics, based on an old Hebrew prayer spoken on Yom Kippur, when God decides the fate of every soul for a year.
# 9 – Songs From a Room
Leonard Cohen’s second album from 1969 doesn’t exactly sound like they were recorded in one small room as the title suggests. This is a full-on studio production, with soaring strings and bouncy Jews’ harp to accompany Leonard Cohen’s voice and guitar. Rock legend David Crosby did a little of the production work and country legend Charlie Daniels contributes some fine fiddle work. Songs include the classic “Bird on a Wire” and the chilling “The Story of Isaac.” A very dark but lovely album deserving of any 10 best Leonard Cohen albums list.
# 8 – Songs of Love and Hate
Love and hate are two sides of the same coin, which are reflected in the songs here. Tracks include the oft-covered “Famous Blue Raincoat”, the searing dialogue between Joan of Arc and the fire that kills her in “Joan of Arc”, and a live track from 1970, “Sing Another Song, Boys.” Leonard Cohen and his guitar are backed by many instruments this time, as well as women background singers. The arrangements never threaten to overwhelm the songs or Leonard Cohen’s voice. The album originally was released in 1971 and was remastered in 2007.
# 7 – Various Positions
Although Leonard Cohens; voice is not the best here, and the choice of electric keyboards is at times strange, the songwriting is still as strong as ever. Tracks include fan favorite “Dance Me to the End of Love”, the country-flavored “Coming Back to You” and the song Leonard Cohen is best known for, the immortal “Hallelujah.” This album was released in 1983.
# 6 – Thanks for the Dance
Leonard Cohen’s final album was released in 2019, three years after his death. These were song sketches and works deemed not good enough for You Want It Darker. Cohen’s son and many fine musicians like Daniel Lanois, Beck and Jennifer Warnes worked on this labor of love as a tribute to Leonard Cohen. The result is as darkly beautiful as a raven’s wing at midnight. The poetry is as strong and vibrant as ever, as if Leonard Cohen returned to the source from which he sprang.
# 5 – New Skin for the Old Ceremony
This album balances Leonard Cohen;s middle-aged voice with a blend of background harmonies and just the right amount of arrangements. It’s also full of what are now considered Leonard Cohen classics such as the haunting “Who By Fire”, the satirical “A Singer Must Die” and “Chelsea Hotel #2”, Leonard Cohen’s recount of a tryst with Janis Joplin. The original cover depicting two crowned angelic beings having sex was banned for a while in America. What was shocking in 1974, when the album appeared, is considered ho-hum today.
# 4 – Popular Problems
There’s always been the problem of just what to do with Leonard Cohen’s singing voice – or lack thereof. As Leonard Cohen aged, his voice became much better, especially when he ditched singing and did a white-man’s rap. It’s like the poetry readings of his youth, set to really cool music. Popular Problems is the first album with Leonard Cohen’s last vocal style. It’s full of his usual unusual poetry, such as in “Almost Like the Blues”, where he sings, “There’s torture and there’s killing/ And there’s all my bad reviews/ The war, the children missing, Lord/ It’s almost like the blues.” The album has lots of blues influences, Biblical references and the usual background chorus of women. It came out in 2014.
# 3 – Songs of Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen’s debut album was a hit with musicians and the critics but not with the public. It’s only been with the benefit of hindsight that it has been recognized as a true classic in modern music. Many of the songs have sparse arrangements that contrast strangely to the more fleshed-out arrangements Leonard Cohen would do in his live shows. Many of the songs on this album have been covered by countless artists, especially the opening track, “Suzanne.” Other songs include, “Sisters of Mercy,” “That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”, and “So Long, Marianne”, inspired by his long-time lover and muse, Marianne Ihlen. Leonard Cohen would die only a few months after Ihlen. Leonard Cohen plays guitar in this album in his then-unusual Greek-influenced fingering style. In an interview, he claimed that his guitar teacher committed suicide before one of his lessons, but it is unknown if this story is true.
# 2 – You Want It Darker
Leonard Cohen’s penultimate album appeared a mere 17 days before Leonard Cohen died in 2016. Cohen was very aware that he was dying and wanted to make this his final thoughts on love, God and life in general. Cast-offs from this album would go to makeup Leonard Cohen’s final album, Thank You for the Dance (2019.) Leonard Cohen managed to fuse his enchanting poetry with some memorable tunes such as the title track, “Treaty” and “On the Level.” The stand-out track is “Traveling Light”, which is a farewell to his career, his loves and his life in general. His growl of goodbye is framed with cheerful background vocals from women. Leonard Cohen’s severe health problems made it impossible to go to a “proper” studio, so most of his vocals were recorded in his living room.
# 1 – I’m Your Man
This 1988 album sits at the top of our ten best Leonard Cohen albums list for eight reasons – each of the eight songs on the album. Each one would become fan favorites and would often be performed by Leonard Cohen for the rest of his performing life. Although each Leonard Cohen album is special in its own way, none hold such strong songs for an entire album. These include the title track, “First We Take Manhattan”, “Ain’t No Cure for Love”, “Everybody Knows” and “Tower of Song.” Do yourself a favor and give this a listen today.
10 Best Leonard Cohen Albums article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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