Greatest Hits: The best Leonard Cohen songs

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best Leonard Cohen songs

There’s probably no fact more important to understanding Leonard Cohen than that he began his career as a writer, not as a musician. It was only after spending most of his twenties going nowhere as the former that he’d end up pursuing the latter. He released two novels before picking up a guitar and recording his 1968 debut, Songs of Leonard Cohen, and even after he’d commit full-time to songwriting and performing, he’d still release collections of poetry. In fact, his music could best be described as melodic poems—many of his best-known songs began as poems, and there are few moments throughout his discography that don’t showcase a vast depth and complexity of meaning, just waiting to be picked apart and unraveled. You could teach master’s level classes on Cohen’s lyricism; just the idea of trying to encapsulate his incredible songs into 100-word blurbs feels intimidating even though that’s exactly what I’m doing here. James Jackson Toth of Wooden Wand once said, “Trying to put into words the magic of Cohen’s art is like trying to play a guitar solo about Jimi Hendrix.” Here’s me giving it the old college try.

The name of this feature series is Greatest Hits, but Leonard Cohen isn’t remembered for being a chart topper. The Canadian singer/songwriter didn’t write songs that catered to the trends of the moment. That did happen a few times—with the mixed disco experiment and Phil Spector collaboration of Death of a Ladies’ Man in 1977 and the synth-laden adult contemporary of Various Positions in 1984 (I’m Your Man is almost too weird to put in an ’80s context). Yet even when the production of his music didn’t seem to match up, there’s no mistaking the depth and beauty of a Cohen song. No amount of Casio cheese could ruin one of his best.

After Leonard Cohen’s passing last week at age 82, it seemed only right to celebrate his greatest musical moments. So today we offer a two-disc-length roundup of his greatest songs. As with all entries in this series, they’re presented not in ranked form, but as a compilation playlist meant to flow in a listenable sequence. It should also be noted that while these are my picks for the 21 best Leonard Cohen songs, it meant excluding another twenty or so that were just as essential (in other words, start here, but keep digging deeper—it’s worth the journey). Listen and read as we honor the late singer/songwriter with the 21 best Leonard Cohen songs.

Disc One

best Leonard Cohen songs live in London“Dance Me to the End of Love” (6:20)
from Live in London (2009)

It might seem strange to begin this compilation of Cohen’s greatest moments with a live version of one of his mid-period tracks, but coming from a visceral, personal place, it was the only option. It was the first Cohen song I had ever heard, the 1994 Cohen Live version playing on a friends’ parents stereo when I was in junior high. I didn’t know what to make of it at the time, but it intrigued me. It’s become a live staple for Cohen since its 1984 release, typically a set opener at his lengthy concerts of the 21st century, perhaps the best version of which can be heard on 2009’s Live in London. It’s an utterly essential piece of music from Cohen, combining his eclectic musicality (the song follows a Greek “hassapiko”) and lyrical depth. On first glance, it’s a dirge seemingly as romantic as anything he’s ever released. Peer between the blinds, however, and there lies a narrative about the Holocaust. “Dance me to your beauty, with a burning violin,” he sings, evoking string quartets that would perform while people were being marched to their death. Indeed, we need to begin here, because without understanding Cohen’s mixture of darkness, history, spirituality and eroticism, there’s no understanding Cohen.

best Leonard Cohen Songs I'm Your Man“First We Take Manhattan” (6:01)
from I’m Your Man (1988)

When Cohen released I’m Your Man in 1988, it must have seemed utterly bizarre to longtime listeners. Bathed in synthesizers and Badalamenti-style jazz touches (there’s surely a cut of Twin Peaks soundtracked by this album somewhere), the album found Cohen adapting to a new era by simultaneously adopting the trends of the time and turning them into something wholly his own (and super weird, naturally). “First We Take Manhattan,” the album’s leadoff track, is one of the most danceable he’s ever released, with big drum-machine beats and pulsing bass, and a lyrical statement of what Cohen referred to as “psychic terrorism.” It’s hard to know just what he has planned when he sings, “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin,” but it sounds radical.

best Leonard Cohen songs Songs of“Suzanne” (3:46)
from Songs of Leonard Cohen (1968)

In a way, it would seem appropriate to have started here—with the leadoff track from Cohen’s debut album (I’m aware that the first four tracks in this sequence are all opening tracks, but it works, stay with me here). It’s a simple and beautiful folk song, and one that introduces Cohen’s songwriting elegantly. Cohen had many muses throughout his career, this one being Suzanne Verdal, the girlfriend of another artist. The two weren’t romantically entangled, though, and the song describes their platonic rituals, walking down by the river and having tea and oranges. There’s something profound about their connection, though it’s not a sexual one. Whatever the nature, it became a relationship for the ages.

songs of love and hate“Avalanche” (5:07)
from Songs of Love and Hate (1971)

The leadoff track on 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate sounds like an avalanche. Cohen’s finger-picked guitar carries a tense gallop that creates a claustrophobic atmosphere from the get-go, made all the more intense via the slow swell of strings that rises up underneath. That it carries so much weight musically is testament to Cohen’s musical ability in addition to his lyrical prowess; the song literally began as a poem (“I Stepped Into an Avalanche”) but became something so much more powerful when paired with this chest-crushing arrangement. It’s a visceral statement—his words carry weight but it’s in the delivery and the vessel that his statement of depression, defeat and internal horror really land. Though Cohen’s original doesn’t have the stinging abrasion of Nick Cave’s 1984 cover of the song, it has the capacity to gut the listener with its lethal grace.

best Leonard Cohen songs New Skin for the Old Ceremony“Chelsea Hotel #2” (3:09)
from New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974)

To return to one of the themes in the first entry here: Eroticism. “Chelsea Hotel” is about a sexual encounter, in its simplest sense. In a much more complicated reading (and writing: It began in a Miami restaurant and was finished in Ethiopia), it’s about processing grief. Cohen wrote the simple, beautiful song about Janis Joplin, with whom the encounter actually took place. But it’s a weird memory for him to grapple with, given that their tryst was fleeting, and not long after that she’d die at 27 years old. Rather than over-romanticize, he treats the encounter for what it was: One good night. And he’s content to let that be all it was: “I remembered you well in the Chelsea hotel/ That’s all, I don’t think of you often.”

best Leonard Cohen songs Old Ideas“Darkness” (4:31)
from Old Ideas (2012)

In his later years, Cohen became more prolific than he had in the entire decade prior, releasing three albums in the five years leading up to his passing. One of them, Old Ideas, features this bluesy standout, which is one of his simplest and most immediate songs, yet one that put him in a class with artists like Tom Waits, who continue to grow more interesting and darkly compelling as they grow older.

Popular Problems“Nevermind” (4:40)
from Popular Problems (2014)

Speaking of later Cohen triumphs, “Nevermind” is a pretty spectacular one. Produced by Patrick Leonard, who is best known for working with Madonna, “Nevermind” is a highlight of the generally strong Popular Problems from 2014. It pairs Cohen’s knack for wordplay with some pulsing electronic production, which makes it one of the catchiest things he’s recorded, well, pretty much ever. It also features kirtan singer Donna DeLory who gives the track an extra layer of spiritual mysticism. It’s a strong example of the kind of risks that Cohen would take late in his career, which often paid off well.

best Leonard Cohen songs New Skin for the Old Ceremony“Lover Lover Lover” (3:24)
from New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974)

Before recording fourth album New Skin for the Old Ceremony, Leonard Cohen spent some time in Ethiopia, which kind of inadvertently influenced the arrangements on the record. In the book “Leonard Cohen: A Remarkable Life,” the album’s producer, Jon Lissauer, said he wanted more of a cinematic effect for the music, and pursued a sound that pulled from African musical styles. So while, as is often the case, Cohen’s lyrics provide a thought-provoking focal point, what’s even more compelling is the overall sound. Lissauer’s background was in jazz, and that ear for improvisation and experimentation shows in this, one of Cohen’s most vibrant recordings.

songs of love and hate“Famous Blue Raincoat” (5:16)
from Songs of Love and Hate (1971)

Songs of Love and Hate doesn’t have hits. Not that any of his albums did, necessarily, not in the traditional sense. But this album in particular comprised bleak, defeated dirges of depression, suicide and other atrocities. “Famous Blue Raincoat” is perhaps the best known song from the album, a ballad written in the form of a letter to an unnamed person who had an affair with his lover. And in that sense, it’s just as sad as any other song on the album, though not as harrowing as “Dress Rehearsal Rag” nor as manic and apocalyptic as “Diamonds In the Mine.” Yet it has a glimmer of hope and grace in that it carries a simple wish to forgive, his own struggle with the emotions at hand quietly devastating itself against a stark and gloomy acoustic arrangement.

best Leonard Cohen songs From a Room“Bird on a Wire” (3:24)
from Songs from a Room (1969)

The unfortunate thing about 1969’s Songs from a Room is that it’s sandwiched between Cohen’s two best albums: 1968’s Songs of Leonard Cohen and 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate. (Arguments accepted for I’m Your Man, but that opens up a whole new can of worms.) Songs from a Room is not anywhere near the bottom of the list of Cohen’s albums, but it also is stronger on a song-by-song basis than as a whole. “Bird on a Wire” is one of those songs, a simple and beautiful opener that feels like a hymn. Inspired by an actual bird that Cohen sighted in Greece, it’s a song about making amends and healing wounds. It’s a simple song with a simple message, and one of his best for that very reason.

best Leonard Cohen songs Songs of“One of Us Cannot Be Wrong” (4:21)
from Songs of Leonard Cohen (1968)

The intricate and surreal nature of some of Cohen’s best songs feel like hallucinations. Sometimes, they actually are. At an Isle of Wight concert in 1970, Cohen said the song was written after coming down from an amphetamine high while in pursuit of a blond lady in a Nazi poster at the Chelsea Hotel. Get all that? Yeah, we didn’t either, but the imagery—of a green candle and filmmaking Eskimos—paints a cryptic yet poetic portrait that’s a marvel simply for the language itself. Melodically, it’s a simple song, though the ascent near the end with distant vocal cries and whistles would suggest Neutral Milk Hotel borrowed a few tricks from Cohen.

Disc Two

Leonard Cohen You Want It Darker review“You Want It Darker” (4:44)
from You Want It Darker (2016)

It’s hard to listen to “You Want It Darker,” from the album of the same name, and not think Cohen was aware of what was coming. It’s one of his most ominous recordings, with spooky organ and ghostly backing vocals, and a portentous refrain: “You want it darker—we kill the flame.” He combines a litany of atrocities in what appears to be a conversation with God, culminating in a cry of “Hineni, Hineni,” which translates from Hebrew to “here I am.” That he died only weeks later proved it prophetic, much like David Bowie’s Blackstar from earlier this year. That it happened after the disappointing and potentially catastrophic result of a long and ugly election in the U.S. offers the possibility that it’s also prophecy for more darkness that we’ll endure still.

leonard_cohen_-_songs_from_a_room“The Partisan” (3:25)
from Songs from a Room (1969)

This one is a bit of an anomaly. Leonard Cohen didn’t write “The Partisan,” a French song about the World War II resistance movement, originally titled “La Complainte du Partisan.” It features backing vocals in French, which adds a touch of authenticity to his interpretation of the song. And that’s an important word to use here, because it’s not a cover, per se. Cohen takes the elements of the song and repurposes them into something wholly new, in folk tradition, and as such it’s one of his most powerful early tracks.

best Leonard Cohen songs love and hate“Dress Rehearsal Rag” (6:06)
from Songs of Love and Hate (1970)

Cohen’s first two records, Songs of Leonard Cohen and Songs from a Room, established him as a singer/songwriter with a knack for eloquent lyricism and warmly endearing folk melodies. Songs of Love and Hate wasn’t the same kind of album. Steeped in themes of depression, suicide and overall hopelessness, Songs of Love and Hate initially was met with poor reception due to how apocalyptically defeatist it is. That said, for as harrowing as it is, it’s perhaps his best album overall. And the reason for that is in its rawness, tapping into a visceral anguish that set it apart as a unique collection within an already strong early career. “Dress Rehearsal Rag” is one of the bleakest moments, a nightmarish narration of a face-to-face interaction with himself in the mirror on the verge of slashing his wrists: “Why don’t you try unwrapping a stainless steel razor blade?” It’s not a comfortable listen, but between the lyrical darkness, the eerie backing vocals and the dramatic strings that back him, it’s as triumphant a moment of defeat as you’ll ever hear.

best Leonard Cohen songs Dublin“I’m Your Man” (5:54)
from Live in Dublin (2014)

Like with “Dance Me to the End of Love,” my first experience with “I’m Your Man” was a live version from his 1994 album Cohen Live, which is still not the strongest version of the song, though one with more life and grace than the studio version from the album of the same name 1988. The best version is arguably that of Cohen’s 2014 live album Live in Dublin, which is the end result of three decades of continually building up a strong but curiously produced track from a darkly poetic curiosity into a passionate and intense torch song that sounded its strongest in Cohen’s 80th year. A bluesy vamp on the mysteries of love, and one man’s inability to unlock what it’ll take to win over a woman, it’s romantic and desperate, tormented and tense. It’s a testament to Cohen’s artistry that the song essentially continued to evolve over 28 years, his own muse as restless and mysterious as the unnamed woman he pledges his mutable devotion to.

Death of a Ladies Man“Death of a Ladies’ Man” (9:20)
from Death of a Ladies’ Man (1977)

Collaborating with Phil Spector in 1977 proved to be a mixed bag for Cohen, as was often the case for his work with established artists after the 1960s (see: The Beatles, The Ramones). Yet it wasn’t wholly unsuccessful, even if the experience itself was a notorious study in the general instability of Spector himself, who apparently pointed a gun at Cohen during the recordings and said, “I love you, Leonard.” Despite the dangerous, charged atmosphere, a lot of the album is over-reverbed and steeped in disco cheese. But then there’s the title track, a Homeric epic of eroticism and lush beauty. At its heart the song is essentially a simple one, about a doomed love affair. Then again, the ones that work out generally don’t inspire a tragic saga.

best Leonard Cohen songs The Future“Anthem” (6:09)
from The Future (1992)

Cohen’s least prolific period was the ’90s, though what he did release still holds an important place in his catalog. His 1992 album The Future pivots slightly from the synth-driven weirdness of I’m Your Man toward a sort of classic balladry, albeit with a fair amount of that album’s bizarro gospel sound. And while the title track for the album is one of Cohen’s most bleak visions (“I’ve seen the future…it’s murder”), “Anthem” is kind of its zen counterpart, a message of accepting what will come and making peace. “There is a crack in everything,” he sings. “That’s how the light gets in.” In a month like this, let alone a year like this, those are powerful words to take to heart.

New Skin for the Old Ceremony“Field Commander Cohen” (4:04)
from New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974)

On an album full of colorful and rich arrangements, “Field Commander Cohen” isn’t as dense or urgent as some of the other highlights from New Skin for the Old Ceremony, but where it evades the groove of a song like “Lover Lover Lover,” it makes up for it in intricate songwriting, changes in mood and tempo, and a remarkable narration. In 1973, Cohen volunteered to assist Israel in the Yom Kippur War and was assigned a kind of official role of wartime entertainer, boosting troops’ morale with his songs. This song was inspired by the experience, Cohen referring to himself in the third person in account that’s seemingly about one thing but comprises just about everything. It’s only four minutes long, but it’s a journey, beginning with a military march and floating into the ether with the haunting but all too brief repetition, “Oh my love… oh my love…

best Leonard Cohen songs Songs of“So Long, Marianne” (5:36)
from Songs of Leonard Cohen (1968)

The Marianne in “So Long, Marianne” is Marianne Ihlen, whom Cohen met in Greece and described as the most beautiful woman he’d ever met. Appropriately, he parlayed that into one of the most beautiful songs he’d ever written. With a sprightly waltz and some vibrant female backing vocals, Cohen paints a portrait of a woman for whom he has a deep affection, and who “held on to me like I was a crucifix as we went kneeling through the dark.” Ihlen would be a fixture in Cohen’s art long after, her photo appearing on the back cover of 1969’s Songs from a Room and a muse for many of his writings. She died in July of this year, and shortly before her passing Cohen wrote to her, “Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.” It’s hard not to imagine them reuniting in some far off, unknown place.

best Leonard Cohen songs live in London“Hallelujah” (7:19)
from Live in London (2009)

The rare song in which the definitive version isn’t actually Cohen’s own, “Hallelujah” took on a new life in 1994 when Jeff Buckley covered it on his debut album Grace. Since then, the song’s been worn out and abused by countless other covers from American Idol to Glee to whatever other desecrations I’ve overlooked. And yeah, I contemplated leaving it off for the sole reason that it simply needed to be left alone for a while. Not Cohen’s fault of course—it went almost entirely unnoticed upon its release, during Cohen’s worst period commercially. The song, which reportedly took two years to write, suffered initially from its cheesy ’80s production, and as such it seemed fated to never have a recorded version to do the actual songwriting justice. Live versions from the past decade have rectified that, particularly the powerful version from Live In London, which reveals it for what it truly is: One of the greatest gospel songs ever written about sex.

I'm Your Man“Tower of Song” (5:38)
from I’m Your Man (1988)

I was born like this, I had no choice,” sings Cohen on “Tower of Song,” the lounge-blues closer to his 1988 album I’m Your Man. “I was born with the gift of a golden voice.” Never let it be said that Leonard Cohen didn’t have a sense of humor. In fact, though he may not necessarily be wrong here—his gift has always been his songwriting rather than his singing ability, but there’s definitely something about that voice—his self-congratulatory burden is still one that carries a wink. But “Tower of Song” isn’t necessarily all fun and games. The humor’s there, particularly in the keyboard preset rhythm and doo-wop backing vocals, but this is a song about aging and mortality, the loneliness of being a wandering performer and the legacy he’d leave behind. But he’ll be in good company when he goes, crossing paths with Hank Williams in the Tower of Song.

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