Top 10 Leonard Cohen Songs
Leonard Cohen was many things to many people, a poet, songwriter, and a man of great insight. His style or writing, in music and especially in lyrics, was truly his own take on the art form. What Cohen lacked in sweet vocal tone, he more than made up for with the pure and real. “I was born with the gift of a golden voice,” he slyly sang in the classic “Tower of Song.”
Many of his songs became standards in the hands of other artists like Judy Collins, Johnny Cash, Nick Cave, and Jeff Buckley. Cohen’s recorded legacy is as close to flawless as one might ever hope to attempt, with highlights running throughout his career, right up to his final LP, 2016’s You Want It Darker.
During the recording of that album Cohen seemed to know his time was almost up. “Uh, I said I was ready to die recently,” he told Billboard upon the album’s release. “And I think I was exaggerating. I’ve always been into self-dramatization. I intend to live forever.” Sadly, he did pass on Nov.10, 2016.
One of a kind and truly unique, the music and words Mr. Cohen has left behind will, hopefully, ring on forever. Here are a mere 10 of his best.
“Who by Fire”
A gem from the 1974 album New Skin for the Old Ceremony, “Who by Fire” begins our list of the Top 10 Leonard Cohen songs. It is, perhaps, a lesser known track, but its power and beauty are as strong 40-plus years on as the day it was recorded. Acoustic guitar, bass guitar and minimal strings are the only backing while Cohen and a female vocalist harmonize.
“Bird on a Wire”
First found on his 1969 album Songs From a Room, “Bird on a Wire” is not only one of Cohen’s signature songs, but one of his most covered. Joe Cocker, Jackie DeShannon, Tim Hardin, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson all tried their hand at it and while each and every one put their own stamp on it, the definitive version remains Cohen’s original. Songs this beautiful don’t fall from the sky every day.
“You Want It Darker”
The title cut of his 14th studio LP makes our list of the Top 10 Leonard Cohen Songs and shows the man still had that certain something in his final days. His tones are more gravel than golden, but the spirit and the spit are still fresh. Awaiting his final day above ground, Cohen sings, “Hineni Hineni / I’m ready, my Lord.” In an interview with Billboard, Cohen called it “a declaration of readiness, no matter what the outcome, that’s a part of everyone’s soul.” Til his dying day, Cohen was on his game.
“Sisters of Mercy”
His 1967 debut, Songs of Leonard Cohen, is a perfectly formed debut. The songs and the style which they are delivered is at once simple and complex. “Sisters of Mercy” builds as it moves along, adding one instrument after another until an almost carnival-like atmosphere is created. It is still one of Cohen’s most enduring, and genuinely beautiful songs.
“Diamonds in the Mine”
Cohen’s third album, 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate, is another LP fully stocked with great songs, but his delivery of the tune “Diamonds in the Mine” pushes this one to the front of the line. Cohen’s voice is battered and bruised and full of swagger and venom as he spits out the chorus, “And there are no letters in the mailbox /
And there are no grapes upon the vine / And there are no chocolates in the boxes anymore / And there are no diamonds in the mine.” Rarely has he sounded so unhinged. He should have gone there more often.
“Chelsea Hotel #2″
1974’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony continued his winning streak of albums. Among the many highlights is this beautiful “Chelsea Hotel #2.” Written about a fling he had with Janis Joplin, with Cohen’s frank lyrics in stark black and white. “I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel / You were talking so brave and so sweet / Giving me head on the unmade bed / While the limousines wait in the street.” Ending the song, he is simply dismissive, “I don’t think of you that often.” Cohen never shied away from who the song was about, but in a BBC interview in the ’90s, he expressed regret for being so blatant.”If there is some way of apologizing to the ghost, I want to apologize now, for having committed that indiscretion.”
Perhaps Cohen’s most famous song, “Hallelujah” has taken on a life of its own through the years. The original, found on his 1984 album Various Positions, was fairly lackluster and swamped by ’80s production techniques. John Cale stripped the song to its core with his solo piano and vocal take in 1991. A few years later, Jeff Buckley would transform the song into something genuinely stirring and powerful. Since then, there have been dozens of versions of the song and it has become a staple of popular music.
“So Long, Marianne”
Another key track on Cohen’s 1967 debut is “So Long, Marianne.” Written for and about his girlfriend and muse, Marianne Jensen, Cohen unrolls verse after verse telling their tale. “It’s time we began to laugh and cry, and cry and laugh about it all again.” Its somewhat Bob Dylan-esque arrangement was suitably balanced between folk, pop and rock circa 1967, but it is nothing less but pure Cohen.
“Tower of Song”
By 1988, Cohen had found a new generation of fans, among them the likes of Nick Cave, U2 and the Jesus and Mary Chain, all of whom would try their hand at this Cohen classic. Tom Jones and Marianne Faithfull also gave it a shot along the way. Found on the 1988 LP I’m Your Man, Cohen dishes out what could well be his life story. “Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey / I ache in the places where I used to play / And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on / I’m just paying my rent every day in the tower of song,” is one of the brilliant verses in this classic, which tops our list of the Top 10 Leonard Cohen Songs. Cohen himself felt a strong attachment to the tune, reciting the lyrics to this classic as the bulk of his acceptance speech into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.