From Nina Simone to Nick Cave: The 10 greatest Leonard Cohen covers of all time
Leonard Cohen is an artist so unbelievably influential that, like the very notion of time itself, it is incredibly hard to grasp and even harder to control and utterly impossible to recreate—but that hasn’t stopped people from trying to replicate the same truth and authenticity he brought to all his work.
The poet and singer may have begun to find fame with his songs in the mid-to-late-sixties but his influence on the counter-culture movement was being felt from the very moment he put pen to paper. Yet it was with his songs that he became a wide-ranging influence.
When Cohen passed away in 2016, Aussie rocker Nick Cave led the tributes saying: “For many of us Leonard Cohen was the greatest songwriter of them all.” He added that Cohen was “utterly unique and impossible to imitate no matter how hard we tried. He will be deeply missed by so many.”
Cohen’s ability to feel both connected, attainable and “one of us” was perfectly counterbalanced by his seeming inimitable tone, his otherworldly presence and his ethereal ability to open minds with his words.
So while we could sit here and tell you all the different ways in which the iconic poet and singer, Leonard Cohen was hero, what we’ll do instead is bring you 10 artists who have tried to do the impossible and imitate the great man himself—and what’s more, ‘Hallelujah’ is on the list three times.
10 of the greatest Leonard Cohen covers of all time:
10. ‘Everybody Knows’ – Concrete Blonde
Scored as the end credits music for Christian Slater’s teen film Pump up the Volume, Concrete Blonde gives Cohen’s ‘Everybody Knows’ an early ’90s make-over as the classic hum of alt-rock permeates every note.
Somehow it works well with Cohen’s apocalyptic vision and turns the end credits of the film into the main attraction.
9. ‘Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’ – Roberta Flack
Cohen’s view is so often deeply entrenched in a sort of pseudo-machismo that when a female singer uses his words it translates the track into a brand new language.
Roberta Flack’s 1969 interpretation of ‘Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’ is one of the best moments of this and shows off Cohen’s work in a brand new light. Flack’s vocal is, of course, far superior to Cohen’s and this song benefits form the makeover.
8. ‘Bird On A Wire’ – Joe Cocker
‘Bird On A Wire’ was once famously covered by Johnny Cash but, for us, this 1969 cover from none other than Joe Cocker is the finest. Cocker brings the track down to an unparalleled level as he adds the heavy weight of the chorus with delicacy.
Cocker is a master of covers, after all, his version of The Beatles’ ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ is arguably better than the original. Here he proves it as he manipulates the song as he sees fit and delivers a cracker because of it.
7. ‘Joan of Arc’ – Anna Calvi
Much of the fandom for Leonard Cohen circles around his incredible lyricism. The poet transferred his highly-regarded poetry into song during the sixties and never really looked back. But while his writing should be applauded his musicianship was top class too.
Here, the wonderful Anna Calvi strips away the words of the past and delivers a tuneful joyride through the mind of Leonard Cohen. Calvi herself is cut from a similar mercurial cloth and it shows in this charged cover.
6. ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ – Tori Amos
One of Cohen’s most adored songs is one of his saddest. ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ hasn’t had many takers over the years thanks to Cohen’s own command of the track making it feel impossible for anybody else to sing it.
However, Toris Amos as part of a tribute album in the mid-nineties took on the track and pushed it into a brand new realm. While she may not connect directly with the lyrics she does offer a sensational vocal that makes this cover a contender.
5. ‘Hallelujah’ – John Cale
Now, John Cale’s version of the track is being given a top 10 spot largely because of his overall contribution to Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece. The Velvet Underground man trim down the once-epic track from 15 verses to the captivating colossal it is today.
Originally sung by Judy Collins before Cohen could add his own grumbling vocal to proceedings, one of our favourite moments comes from Nina Simone’s emboldened performance back in 1969. It’s easy to see Cohen approving of this one.
With her effervescent personality, Simone delivers a rounded performance that not only hints at the insecurities in the song but lets her open up emotionally across the track. A highly underrated cover that adds grandeur to the ethereal figure of ‘Suzanne’ and humour to her adorer.
3. ‘Chelsea Hotel No.2’ – Lana Del Rey
Many of Leonard Cohen’s stalwart fans may feel a little bit aggrieved by the inclusion of Lana Del Rey. But despite her popstar image, the L.A. answer to Nico has always had a deep affection for the mercurial poet. On this 2013 cover of one of Cohen’s most famous numbers, sees her ascend into the otherworldly level of Mr. Cohen.
Whether it is the arpeggiated guitar or the electronic tone added over the top of the track or indeed the novelty of a Del Rey’s gender changing the scape of the song’s original conception, this cover truly is among some of the greatest we’ve ever heard.
Cohen purists will likely not appreciate the elevated position of Del Rey’s cover but to ignore her talent on this cover, especially, is a move motivated by nothing but nostalgia.
2. ‘I’m Your Man’ – Nick Cave
The title track from a feature film all about Leonard Cohen’s life needed a true fan and artist to sing it. Step up, Nick Cave. The Aussie rocker is a lifelong Cohen fan and once said, “Leonard Cohen was the first one I discovered by myself. He is the symbol of my musical independence. I remember these other guys that came to my friend’s house that thought Songs of Love and Hate was too depressing. I’ve realised that this ‘depression’ theory was ridiculous. “
Cave added: “The sadness of Cohen was inspiring, it gave me a lot of energy. I always remember all this when someone says that my records are morbid or depressing.”
Below, Cave gives the cover of ‘I’m Your Man’ gurgling swathes or idiosyncratic vocal tone, deliberate cadence, and, above all else, a connection with the song. It’s a truly sumptuous cover and one we’re hoping Cohen heard before his sad death in 2016.
1. ‘Hallelujah’ – Jeff Buckley
When picking our favourite Leonard Cohen cover of all time we had a pretty healthy debate here in the office. The debate didn’t really hang on which song would be top of the pile but whether picking it was the right thing to do. That’s because wherever possible we like to try and offer up the road less travelled. But sometimes you have to take the direct route.
Jeff Buckley’s cover of ‘Hallelujah’ is the definitive version of the song and if you cannot connect with humble grandeur Buckely imbues the song with on his sumptuous vocal then the chances are you’re just being ‘cool’. This performance from his homecoming show in Chicago is about as close to perfection as one can get.