Leonard Cohen's 20 greatest songs
Over four decades, Leonard Cohen, one of music's greatest songwriters and poets, who died at age 82 in November 2016, released an incredible body of work during his lifetime: 14 studio albums that include enduring classics like "Suzanne," "Sisters of Mercy," and more. Cohen's influence is incalculable: His music has been covered by everyone from Judy Collins and Johnny Cash to Nina Simone and Roberta Flack, and he's influenced generations of artists who followed him, from Jeff Buckley to k.d. lang to Kurt Cobain. Even a few American Idol contestants along the way have tried their hands at perhaps his finest song, "Hallelujah."
EW is looking back on his towering body of work with our picks of just a few of his best songs.
Cohen wrote his first single — featured on his debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen — as a tribute to a friend and muse named Suzanne Verdal, with whom Cohen struck up a relationship in Montreal in 1965. Singer-songwriter Judy Collins would release a version of this song in 1966, prior to Cohen, but it is the author's own version that remains definitive. It would also establish the hallmarks of Cohen's songs: sparse instrumentation (lilting acoustic guitars, angelic backup singers, wisps of strings) and incredibly evocative storytelling about the mysteries of the human soul. "And you want to travel with her and you want to travel blind," Cohen croons. "And you know that she will trust you/For you've touched her perfect body with your mind." —Kevin O'Donnell
"Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" (1967)
Love ends for an unspoken reason in Cohen's ultimate "Goodbye" song. With gorgeous and aching resignation, he writes of a romance that came to "distances," created by forces as natural as the changes between "the shoreline and the sea." Cohen matched his gorgeous poetry to delicate acoustic guitar chords, inspiring covers by Roberta Flack and Judy Collins, along with the placement of Cohen's take in Robert Altman's 1971 film McCabe & Mrs. Miller. No song ever accepted — or, perhaps, initiated? — a breakup with more grace. —Jim Farber
"Master Song" (1967)
In a 1968 interview with the BBC, Cohen cryptically said of this song, "It's about the Trinity. Let's leave that to the scholars…it's about three people." More than four decades after its release, Cohen's fans are still parsing this song's twisty, narrative complexity, but perhaps some things — like the faith to which "Master Song" alludes — will forever remain unknowable. Buried within this elegantly strummed saga lays a little wink from the author himself: "He never once made you explain or talk/About all of the little details." —K.O.
"Sisters of Mercy" (1967)
Cohen reportedly wrote this song in a single sitting — one of the few times he completed a tune so quickly. The story goes that he had invited two stranded female hitchhikers to stay in a hotel room with him. As the two slept, he penned this delicate ode to how inspiration can strike with the most random encounters. As for what transpired in the hotel room that fateful night, Cohen has never let on — but it likely wasn't anything untoward. "We weren't lovers like that," he croons. "And besides, it would still be all right." "Sisters of Mercy" is such an enduring song in the pop music canon that Bob Dylan, perhaps America's greatest living songwriter, offered commentary on the song's greatness for a 2016 profile of Cohen in the New Yorker. "The song just comes in and states a fact," Dylan said. "And after that, anything can happen, and it does, and Leonard allows it to happen. His tone is far from condescending or mocking. He is a tough-minded lover who doesn't recognize the brush-off. Leonard's always above it all." —K.O.
"So Long, Marianne" (1967)
The song's subject was Marianne Ihlen, one of Cohen's most famous muses and with whom Cohen had a relationship in the '60s. In July 2016, Ihlen passed away due to leukemia and Cohen penned a touching tribute to his friend that read, in part, "I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine." One hopes the two are reunited in the great beyond, duetting the song's touching refrain, "It's time that we began to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again." —K.O.
"Bird on the Wire" (1969)
Another Cohen tune that was initially recorded by Judy Collins, Cohen's sparse country tune is a soul-baring plea for redemption. The song cut so deep that Kris Kristofferson reportedly told Cohen he wanted the song's first lines — "Like a bird on the wire/Like a drunk in a midnight choir/I have tried in my way to be free" — stamped on his tombstone, and it has been faithfully covered by greats like Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker, and others. —K.O.
"Joan of Arc" (1971)
Cohen was a man who never hurt for muses, but the exceptional reach and scope of this six-and-a-half-minute stunner from 1971's Songs of Love and Hate — conceived as a sort of farewell monologue for the young French martyr in the final moments of her life — seemed only fitting for the weight of its subject. (Though, German chanteuse Nico was also said to be an inspiration.) —Leah Greenblatt
A whirling weather system of syncopated guitar lines and raw lyricism, "Avalanche" is Cohen at his fiercely contained best. Only fellow prince of darkness Nick Cave was brave enough to attempt to cover it, on a 1984 Bad Seeds release. —L.G.
"Famous Blue Raincoat" (1971)
Does anything telegraph romantic desolation better than the opening line, "It's four in the morning, the end of December"? Framed as a Dear Judas letter to his rival in a love triangle and laced with both immortal phrases ("my brother, my killer") and oblique references to Scientology ("Did you ever go clear?"), "Raincoat" would go on to become one of Cohen's most beloved signatures, and cold comfort to a thousand scorned lovers. —L.G.
"Chelsea Hotel #2" (1974)
The bard was hardly at his most gallant in this gossip-generating touchstone. The lyrics kiss and tell about a real-life sexual liaison at the Chelsea Hotel between the singer and a star he later revealed to be Janis Joplin. "She wasn't looking for me. I think she was looking for Kris Kristofferson," Cohen once told an audience. "I was looking for Brigitte Bardot." Of their mutual physical appeal, he writes, "We are ugly, but we have the music." The song also refers to his partner giving him "head on the unmade bed." Years later, Cohen expressed regret for outing Joplin in his brutally honest classic. —J.F.
"Came So Far for Beauty" (1979)
It may sound like a typical country ballad, but "Beauty" has a Biblical reach. The song's narrator believes his virtue and sacrifice will lead to deliverance, only to be shunned, leading him into bitterness and vengeance. For all the turmoil, it's one of Cohen's prettiest, and most sparsely arranged pieces. —J.F.
Cohen surely never could have guessed the pop-culture afterlife his gospel-tinged dirge was destined for when he released it in 1984. Though all that followed — up to and including a now-iconic Jeff Buckley cover, and an untold number of spectacularly misguided American Idol auditions — still can't diminish its singular power. —L.G.
"First We Take Manhattan" (1987)
Ready for disco Cohen? In his most club-ready song, the bard addresses terrorism, both the literal and the psychic kind. The lyrics frighten and amuse in equal measure, while the music functions as Cohen's answer to Marianne Faithfull's "Broken English," creating a danceable vision of doom. —J.F.
"Everybody Knows" (1988)
Cohen's most cynical song also ranks as his most bitterly funny. Co-written by Sharon Robinson, the piece bounces to an appropriately cold, synth-pop beat, while the lyrics chronicle the many corruptions of the human soul. "Everybody" has become an anthem of the damned, employed by everyone from Guns N' Roses to the government of New South Wales, Australia, which used it in a public service announcement about the ruins of smoking. —J.F.
"Tower of Song" (1988)
Consider Leonard Cohen a downer? In "Tower of Song," he's both hilarious and self-deprecating. Originally titled "Raise My Voice in Song," the piece finds Cohen joking about his dark vocals ("I was born like this/I had no choice/I was born with the gift of a golden voice"). He ranks his songwriting skills "a hundred floors" below those of Hank Williams and — for a kicker — admits to the ravages of age when he sings "I ache in the places where I used to play." As proof of the song's importance, upon Cohen's admittance into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, he read its lyrics in full. —J.F.
A song on his album The Future, Cohen's most politically-attuned record, "Democracy" addresses the world after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. He wrote over 60 verses for the song, and, even in its greatly sheared final form, it lasts over seven minutes. While the lyrics seem to ironically position democracy as a new force coming to the USA, Cohen has insisted he's being sincere in the song. Ultimately, the valiant-sounding piece views America as the ultimate petri dish to study the possibilities (and pitfalls) of politics. —J.F.
"A Thousand Kisses Deep" (2001)
Leave it to Cohen to write a song about decay and defeat that has, at its core, a kiss. The lyrics refer to the joys of life as a fleeting "winning streak" that we savor "as if it's real." At the same time, the music has an erotic sense of succor. To seal the mood, Cohen featured a string arrangement by Beck's accomplished father, David Campbell. —J.F.
"Going Home" (2012)
Allow him to introduce himself to…himself: "I love to speak with Leonard/He's a sportsman and a shepherd/He's a lazy bastard/Living in a suit." A late-period beauty, "Home" brims with the rueful, hard-earned wisdom of seven-plus decades on the planet, as lived by one magnificently talented bastard. —L.G.
Ever the contrarian, Cohen answered the amped-up age of Instagram with an ode to dawdling. "You want to get there soon/I want to get there last," he drawls in this wily blues number. Penned as he neared his 80th year, the witty ditty declares his lifelong devotion to methodical thought and sensual contemplation. —J.F.
"You Want It Darker" (2016)
Going toward the light would never be Cohen's style: "Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name/Vilified, crucified, in the human frame/A million candles burning for the help that never came." The title track from his final release, sung in a baritone so low it seemed to scrape the Marianas Trench, fulfilled the pitch-black promise of its name and more. But still, there is the final grace note in that quiet refrain, "I'm ready, my lord." And he was. —L.G.