Leonard Cohen is the definition of a songwriter’s songwriter, the kind of artist you’d seldom hear on the radio, but was revered by countless musicians as one of the greatest lyricists in the world. An accomplished poet and novelist before he ever recorded an album, Cohen’s songs were vivid and literary, full of politics, dark humor, and frank sexuality.
Though classic rock icons like Billy Joel and James Taylor have covered him, and Pentatonix has moronically attempted to make “Hallelujah” into a Christmas standard, Leonard Cohen’s legacy has grown more when he’s been covered by artists who share Cohen’s subversive edge or name-checked in songs like Nirvana’s “Pennyroyal Tea.” November 7 marks the 5th anniversary of the Canadian legend’s death in 2016, so here’s a look back at 10 of the best Cohen covers by indie and alternative artists.
10. Pixies – “I Can’t Forget”
The Leonard Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan was released a week after Trompe Le Monde in September 1991 and featured one of the last new Pixies tracks before the band’s breakup. “I Can’t Forget” (originally from 1988’s I’m Your Man) has also been covered excellently by Jarvis Cocker, but there’s something special about hearing Black Francis and Kim Deal sing Cohen’s lyrics over roaring power chords.
9. Buck 65 (feat. Jenn Grant) – “Who By Fire”
Nova Scotia rapper Buck 65 has slowly expanded his sound far beyond hip hop since his career began in the ‘90s. And on his 14th album, 2011’s 20 Odd Years, he and frequent collaborator Jenn Grant covered their fellow Canadian, faithfully interpreting “Who By Fire” from Cohen’s 1974 New Skin For The Old Ceremony.
8. Nick Cave – “Suzanne”
“Suzanne” kicked off Leonard Cohen’s career as a widely covered songwriter when Judy Collins released her version a year before it became Cohen’s debut single in 1967. Eventually, Nick Cave — a Cohen devotee who’s covered several of his songs — sang “Suzanne” in the 2005 documentary, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man.
7. Beck – “Winter Lady”
In 2009, Beck began Record Club, a project for which he’d gather an ensemble of musicians in the studio to cover an entire album in one day. The second album in the series was Cohen’s 1967 debut, The Songs of Leonard Cohen, with Devendra Banhart and members of MGMT assisting. Some of the Record Club renditions, like the hip-hop take on “Master Song,” were playfully irreverent, but Beck played it straight on “Winter Lady” with lovely results.
6. Lana Del Rey – “Chelsea Hotel No. 2”
Leonard Cohen’s songwriting was so far ahead of its time that “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” — a song he wrote in 1974 about a tryst with Janis Joplin — couldn’t have sounded more natural being sung by Lana Del Rey in 2013.
5. Thalia Zedek Band – “Dance Me to The End of Love”
“Dance Me To the End of Love” from 1984’s Various Positions was both one of Cohen’s biggest radio hits in Canada (and perhaps his most romantic song) and covered by everyone from Sting to The Civil Wars. But Thalia Zedek, formerly of the Boston bands Come and Uzi, restored some welcome grit to the song on her 2001 album, Been Here And Gone.
4. The Jesus And Mary Chain – “Tower Of Song”
Jim and William Reid were at the peak of their powers when The Jesus And Mary Chain recorded a muscular, fuzzed-out cover of “Tower of Song” for the Scottish band’s Rollercoaster EP in 1990. But “Tower of Song” has been sung by a huge variety of artists, including Marianne Faithfull, Tom Jones, U2, and a 2017 live performance with Willie Nelson, Chris Martin, Peter Gabriel and Celine Dion.
3. Lee Ranaldo – “Famous Blue Raincoat”
A few months after Leonard Cohen’s death, artists including Richard Thompson and Joan As Police Woman came together for a New York concert that produced the live album Sincerely, L. Cohen: A Live Celebration of Leonard Cohen. One of the highlights of the night was Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo’s hushed, emotive rendition of “Famous Blue Raincoat” from 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate.
2. R.E.M. – “First We Take Manhattan”
“First We Take Manhattan” introduced Leonard Cohen’s synth-driven new sound on I’m Your Man. But 3 years later (on the aforementioned I’m Your Fan tribute album), R.E.M. cranked up the amps for one of the few electric rockers from the band’s largely acoustic Out of Time/Automatic For The People era.
1. Jeff Buckley – “Hallelujah”
Arguably the most important cover of “Hallelujah” is the one by the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, which introduced the song to Jeff Buckley and featured the first recording of verses that Cohen had only included in live performances. But as overexposed as the version on Buckley’s 1994 debut, Grace, is, and as many unnecessary covers as it inspired, it’s hard to find fault in the sensitivity of his rendition and the unadorned beauty of his vocal.