“Music is the emotional life of most people.” — Leonard Cohen
There are few artists as deeply entrenched in the beautiful blossoming moments of their own work as the esteemed and gifted songwriter, poet and all-round hero Leonard Cohen. Undoubtedly one of the finest songwriters of the 20th and 21st century ever had the pleasure of enjoying, Cohen’s contribution to music will be a long-lasting legacy, emboldened by the power of a gifted writer and his unwavering pen.
Leonard Cohen was a poet and novelist before finally releasing his debut album in 1967 at the ripe old age of 33, after being inspired by catching a glimpse of a couple having sex. From then on, the singer-songwriter would traverse the pitfalls of the music industry and keep creating his art right up until his death, even releasing one posthumous studio album that showed he was always at the top of his game. But, if you’re new to Cohen and have fifteen studio albums to choose from, where do you start?
We’ve got you covered as we put Cohen’s albums in order of greatness. While literally every note of Cohen’s work has some stupendous value in one guise or another, whether they be individual songs or indeed even lyrics, there simply has to be a spectrum of greatness for his albums and below, we think we’ve nailed it.
From his debut Songs of Leonard Cohen right up until last year’s release, You Want It Darker, Leonard Cohen’s music and lyrics have always been extremely potent and artistically driven. Above all else, Cohen respected his craft, and his intolerance for mediocrity was sensational, meaning not many of the fifteen studio albums below are bad records but held up to Cohen’s high standards, and we may have an issue.
Leonard Cohen’s albums from worst to best:
15. Popular Problems (2014)
What more do you want for your 80th birthday than to release your thirteenth studio album by way of Popular Problems? Of course, the record would receive widespread praise when it was released, acting as proof that Cohen’s mind was as potent and powerful as ever, despite his growing age.
‘Did I Ever Love You’, however, may be one of the worst moments in Cohen’s long career and for that reason, we’ve had to bump the album way down the list. The faux-country swing feels so far away from Cohen that it has tainted the rest of the record (which is actually pretty decent).
Take a listen for yourself and let us know how wrong we got it.
14. Recent Songs (1979)
When you consider that Recent Songs, the record which followed his work with Phil Spector and saw Cohen turn away from the golden pop joy and return to his folk roots, is one of Cohen’s worst albums, it really acts as a testament to his talent.
For many, this album would be right up there as their finest work—for Cohen, less so.
Following his time with Spector, Cohen refocused on returning to his past, a place where he was more comfortable. The only issue is that Cohen’s safe place seemed to stifle his creativity. The album, therefore, is one of his more clumsy efforts, convoluted by many different styles and vibes. It speaks volumes that during his final years, Cohen rarely touched any track on the album live.
13. Old Ideas (2012)
In 2012, Cohen took himself back in time and turned out a brand new record filled with ‘the old Leonard’ as he ditched his spoken-word delivery and abrasive music for something that would fit very comfortably with his mid-’70s output. However, what those songs were missing that this album has in bucket loads is experience.
There’s a certain wisdom to Cohen’s writing on this LP, and it makes songs like ‘Going Home’ absolutely pop. While to think of this record as a bad one would be a serious mistake, to think it one of Cohen’s most forgettable albums is probably about right.
There is much better out there.
12. Ten New Songs (2001)
Cohen’s tenth studio album came over thirty years after his first one which is no mean feat when you consider most artists will put out ten albums in ten years nowadays. The album is rich in Cohen’s most abundant trait—music for the midnight hour.
In that regard, Cohen does incredibly well to keep things feeling smooth and joyful even if he had just returned from spending a decade in a Buddhist monastery. It affects his work too. While he can usually be visceral and cutting about the human race and the society around him, now it was tinged with a sense of reconciliation and patience.
11. Various Positions (1984)
If an album contains arguably your most famous song of all time the more likely than not there will be calls for the said album to be regarded as one of their best.
If we were to apply the same theory to Leonard Cohen then 1984’s Various Positions would be way up this list just for the fact it contained ‘Hallelujah’. However, we’re a little tougher here at Far Out.
Of course, the album is more than just ‘Hallelujah’, Cohen’s track ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’ is one of his finest—but there is a lack of any real meat on these bones. It feels as though this album was the final record in a long cycle which had seen Cohen perhaps reach his creative trough. It wouldn’t be long until he was back on his feet.
10. Songs From a Room (1969)
The tricky second album reared its ugly head for Cohen on 1969’s Songs From a Room. The album wasn’t near the standard of his debut but that’s not to say its a bad album by any stretch of the imagination. After all, the album’s opening track is the unequivocally beautiful ‘Bird on a Wire’.
There are some notable moments on the record, whether it is the biblical ‘Story of Isaac’ or the simply gorgeous ‘The Partisan’ or indeed ‘The Butcher’, but the record is a little ropey after that.
If you haven’t heard the album in a while, then we’d strongly suggest putting it back on; you may find some gems we’ve missed.
9. Thanks for the Dance (2019)
The fifteenth and final studio album from Leonard Cohen arrived a few years after the singer sadly passed. The album has a somewhat patchwork feel to it and includes feature musicians including Daniel Lanois, Beck, Damien Rice and Leslie Feist. Described as a “continuation” of Cohen’s 2016 record, You Want It Darker, it struggled to match the previous LP.
The album is certainly one of Cohen’s most poignant records, and the idea that the music is coming from somewhere not of this earth does add a little extra gravitas.
The songs on the record were sketches left by Cohen and fully rendered by his son Adam, for that moment of connection between father and son, this LP is a powerful moment.
8. New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974)
If you were to put Cohen’s huge career into sections or chapters, this is certainly the end of act 1. If you’re trying to grab this at your local record fair, be prepared to fight tooth and nail to walk away with it—it’s one of Cohen’s most rare efforts. Musically it captures Cohen in transition and sees the singer pursue a larger arrangement and ensemble for his songs.
Previously, tracks had been personal moments and were kept relatively simple. On New Skin, the songs get a degree or two bigger. The album includes some big-hitting tracks too.
As well as ‘Is This What You Wanted’ and ‘Field Commander Cohen’, there is the stupefyingly brilliant ‘Chelsea Hotel No. 2’. As an album, it’s largely overlooked, but no more. Get this one in your ears ASAP.
7. Dear Heather (2004)
When Leonard Cohen returned to the music industry with this album in 2004, nobody really knew what to expect.
The singer had spent the better part of a decade rejecting everything that wasn’t morally sound within him, so what was the new sound he had to offer; what more could be said? It turns out, quite a lot. This is Cohen’s experimental record.
One of the more underappreciated LPs from his arsenal, the disc is empowered with some big-hitting songs like ‘The Faith’, ‘Nightingale’ and ‘Morning Glory’. The album sees Cohen chance his arm and reinvigorate his artistic interest with aplomb.
6. The Future (1992)
Leonard Cohen would desert the music industry in the nineties. Instead, he turned his attention inwards and took himself to a Buddhist monastery to realign himself. If the final album he produced before doing so is anything to go by, we think he may well have needed it. The Future is most certainly one of Cohen’s darkest LPs.
Some of the songs to feature on it, however, were shining examples of just why Cohen is so widely adored. Perhaps one of the best tracks on the album, and right up there contending for the top spot of Cohen’s best song ever is ‘Anthem’.
The song featuring the famous line, “There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in”, was once described by Cohen as “the closest thing I could get to credo.”
5. Death of a Ladies’ Man (1977)
If you’re reading this list and the inclusion of Death of a Ladies Man so high up on our list truly irks you, then we suggest you take a moment to revisit the LP—without bias. Looking back at the album Cohen created with the infamous, murdering producer Phil Spector it can be easy to chastise the LP. The album, after all, isn’t exactly in keeping with the rest of Cohen’s output. But to do so would be missing the point.
The album may be imbued with Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ and is certainly as close to ‘crooner’ as Cohen has ever got, but there are moments of pure bliss on the LP. The title track to close out the album is brilliant, but Cohen’s trip down memory lane on ‘Memories’ is also stupendous.
The stories surrounding the record are legendary, even including Spector putting a gun to Cohen’s throat, but that shouldn’t destroy what is a fantastic LP forevermore. So take our word for it and put the album back on for a spin; you won’t be disappointed.
4. I’m Your Man (1988)
‘First We Take Manhattan’ is the opening track on I’m Your Man, and if you’ve never seen the title of the album on the name of the sleeve, you may have been forgiven for turning this off, assuming it wasn’t Cohen at all. But as soon as his vocal lands, it all becomes clear once more. Forget the finger-picking acoustic guitars; Cohen has gone headfirst into the decade of synths and provides his scything lyrics of a wobbly bassline.
Cohen described the opening track: “There’s something about terrorism that I’ve always admired. The fact that there are no alibis or no compromises. That position is always very attractive. I don’t like it when it’s manifested on the physical plane – I don’t really enjoy the terrorist activities – but Psychic Terrorism.”
This is the crux of this album. While Cohen was certainly packaging himself in a brand new way, he wasn’t changing the medicine his lyrics provided; now, they just came in a new chewable format. As well as the opening track, the album can also boast Cohen’s self-effacing beauty, ‘Tower of Song’ as another reminder of his talent and everybody else’s while he is at it.
3.You Want It Darker (2016)
Released just 19 days before Cohen’s sad death, his fourteenth studio album showed one thing and one thing only: the world would sorely miss Leonard Cohen. On the album, he is just as fantastic lyrically as he ever was. He also still possessed the dynamic charisma which made him so beguiling in the first place.
Personally, Cohen seemed well aware of his faltering health and the need to work quickly, with the window of opportunity closing on him. While physically, he was suffering a great deal of pain, mentally, he was just as agile and engrossing as he always had been.
In fact, Cohen said the ailments had helped him to focus, “In a certain sense, this particular predicament is filled with many fewer distractions than other times in my life and actually enables me to work with a little more concentration and continuity than when I had duties of making a living, being a husband, being a father”.
The album is widely regarded as one of his finest and sees Cohen conduct himself with grace and gratitude as he meets face to face with the ideas of God, love, humour and life. It’s every reason we loved Cohen to begin with.
2. Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)
Releasing your debut album is always difficult and to do it when you’re 33 is almost unheard of. Cohen finally decided to ditch the pens and notebooks for a guitar when he finally turned his attention to songwriting in earnest. What transpired was one of the most unique and original voices finally finding a worthy platform.
It is worth remembering that before Leonard Cohen, nobody had written a song like him before. Bob Dylan had turned the music world to write about their personal experiences rather than ones they hoped to have, but the songwriter did something different. On this album, he proved that poetry and music were the same… if done correctly.
On Songs of Leonard Cohen, his dense songs filled with a glistening poeticism were given the space they deserved. Meaning songs like ‘Suzanne’, ‘So Long, Marianne’ and ‘Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’ are all given their debut here. Aside from these huge tracks, there’s not a terrible moment on the album—it confirms his debut as one of the finest records he’s ever made.
1. Songs of Love and Hate (1971)
There can only be one, and we’re sure that almost every different Cohen fan will have a different version of this list—exactly the way it should be. But for us, this album, Cohen’s 1971 record Songs of Love and Hate, is all-round better than the rest. Not only is it conceptually sound, but the songs included are also astounding.
The album is split into songs about Love and Hate, as one might imagine, and the love songs are simply beautiful. It focuses on loves lost and fractured, moments in time that will never be achieved again and the burning passion of lust. Tracks like ‘Let’s Sing Another Song, Boys’, ‘Joan of Arc’ and, of course, perhaps his finest song of all time ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’.
Naturally, the ‘hate’ side of the album is equal parts powerful to the more tender moments on the ‘love’ side of the record. It sees the artist at his most forlorn and depressing, with tracks like ‘Avalanche’ and ‘Last Year’s Man’ ranking particularly highly in the sad stakes; this album really does have it all.
While some records are full to the brim with this and memorable moments, Songs of Love and Hate instead feels like ‘an experience’. It is an album to listen to in one sitting whenever possible, to feel the full brute force of the songs, of Cohen’s writing, of life itself.