Leonard Cohen turned 79 over the weekend, and if you’ve been lucky enough to see him play live on his most recent tour, you’ll know he has lost exactly none of his genius. He’s arguably our greatest living songwriter, and over the course of a 50-year career has produced some of the most beautiful and memorable lyrics that anyone’s ever written. In celebration of the great man’s birthday, then, our resident Cohen obsessive, Tom Hawking, has chosen his 79 favorite Cohen songs. Click through to count down to #1 and then let us know if you agree.
79. “A Singer Must Die” Artists are rarely viewed with any warmth by the establishment, and although Cohen is a decorated elder statesman of music these days, there were times in the past when he was less the critical darling. This song deals with negative reactions to our hero’s work, and although screw-the-critics songs are rarely highlights of a musician’s career, Cohen handles the subject with characteristic grace and subtlety.
78. “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On” People hate this song, and not entirely without reason. But while it’s not exactly amongst the pantheon of Cohen’s greatest moments, it has its own ribald charms. And come on, the idea of Leonard Cohen trying to melt down a red-hot boner in the rain? It’s hilarious!
77. “The Gypsy Wife” The narrator’s wife is sleeping around, and he’s not happy. This is a strangely conservative song in its own way: “There is no man there is no woman who can’t be touched/ But you who come between them you will surely be judged.”
76. “Hunter’s Lullaby” A quietly beautiful moment off Various Positions about an absent father.
75. “The Land of Plenty” The last track off Ten New Songs, and a gentle conclusion to the story of our hero’s return from the Buddhist retreat on Mount Baldy into the modern world, with all its warts and imperfections. It’s interesting to compare and contrast the view of the world in this song with that of The Future, Cohen’s previous record — where that album was full of fire and disgust, this is far more calm and serene, expressing a simple wish that “the lights in The Land of Plenty… shine on the truth some day.”
74. “Lady Midnight” Honestly, there really aren’t any writers who could make getting rejected by a woman and refusing to take “no” for an answer — in a non-rapey way, I hasten to add — sound so poetic.
73. “True Love Leaves No Traces” Death of a Ladies’ Man deals pretty much exclusively with dysfunctional love affairs, and its sentiments are summed up pretty effectively by the title of this song, which also echoes the old saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
72. “Come Healing” One of the more delicate moments on Old Ideas, a sort of latter-day hymn for peace and understanding. The lyrics are simple and beautiful, a fine example of the way that Cohen’s songwriting has moved toward elegant simplicity as he’s gotten older.
71. “There For You” More delicate simplicity, and a quietly effective piece that sits beautifully on the second side of Dear Heather.
70. “Sing Another Song, Boys” … this one has grown old and bitter. Songs of Love and Hate is divided into a “Hate” side and a “Love” side, and this song, curiously, features on the latter. The reason why, perhaps, is revealed in the last lines: “Let’s leave these lovers wondering why they cannot have each other/ And let’s sing another song, boys/ This one has grown old and bitter.”
69. “The Old Revolution” Songs for a Room is full of under-appreciated songs, and this is one of them, a pretty effective portrayal of war weariness and political disillusionment: “I fought in the old revolution/ On the side of the ghost and the king/ Of course I was very young, and I thought that we were winning/I can’t pretend that I feel very much like singing/ As they carry the bodies away.”
68. “Field Commander Cohen” Frankly, I’d love to be at a party where Leonard Cohen has slipped acid into the punch.
67. “Ballad of the Absent Mare” Recent Songs is the sound of a man treading water — it’s not bad, but you do get the impression that Cohen returned to quiet acoustic balladry after the grand Phil Spector experiment of Death of a Ladies’ Man for want of any better ideas. Still, the album has its moments — particularly this closing track.
66. “Love Itself” Our hero lies in bed, looking at the sun coming through the window and meditating on the nature of existence and the transience of life and love. Its imagery of dust flecks floating in the sun is beautiful, and also an evocation of the idea that we go from dust to dust.
65. “Show Me the Place” The first single off Old Ideas, and one that does sound like an old idea — not in a bad way, of course, but this is a song that could have come from any of Cohen’s earliest albums, a nearly religious declaration of love that would nestle beautifully alongside the likes of “If It Be Your Will.”
64. “I Tried to Leave You” He’s been doing this as his final encore at his shows of late, which is amusing.
63. “The Traitor” Folk-influenced music has always been part of Cohen’s oeuvre, and this sounds almost medieval, with its gentle acoustic arrangement and archaic-sounding language. Of course, Cohen being Cohen, there’s a darkness behind the beauty, with the lyric dealing with the betrayal of love.
62. “Dance Me to the End of Love” The Leonard Cohen song your mom loves — unabashedly romantic, adorned with the sound of a fiddle and an arrangement that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of those Best Love Songs Ever albums. Except, wait, it’s not that at all — it was actually inspired by the Holocaust.
61. “Iodine” Phil Spector’s production does make it sound awfully like Leonard Cohen’s Christmas Album!!!, but still, once you get past the weirdness of it all, there’s a lot to like about the perpetually underrated Death of a Ladies’ Man. Its best songs are still to come, but this is a neat summation of the album’s themes: the end of a love affair, and a pervasive feeling of inadequacy.
60. “You Have Loved Enough” Cohen’s Buddhist perspectives inform much of Ten New Songs, and the idea of serene acceptance and surrender certainly infuses this song: ” I am not the one who loves/ It’s love that seizes me/ When hatred with his package comes/ You forbid delivery.”
59. “Anyhow” “I’m naked and I’m filthy and there’s sweat upon my brow/ And both of us are guilty anyhow.” L. Cohen, ladies and gentlemen. He’s just turned 79.
58. “Teachers” Buried toward the end of the second side of Cohen’s debut, this is one of his bleakest songs, a description of searching desperately for meaning in an empty-seeming life. And “Some girls wander by mistake/ Into the mess that scalpels make” is one of the most quietly sinister lines you’ll ever hear.
57. “Coming Back to You” A bit of a hidden gem — Various Positions is really just known as the album with “Hallelujah” on it, and it was something of a transitional record, moving from quiet acoustic work to more synth-driven ’80s-y arrangements. The lyric here is quite simple — it deals with coming back to a failed relationship — but it works beautifully.
56. “Light As the Breeze” A fairly delicate love song that, as a a bonus, also features one of Cohen’s most delicately discreet cunnilingus metaphors (oh yes, there are plenty if you look for them): “I knelt there at the delta/ At the alpha and the omega/ At the cradle of the river and the seas.”
55. “Winter Lady” This is the most understated moment on Cohen’s debut album, a song about wanting a casual hookup to stay a little longer because she reminds you of a lover long gone. It’s shot through with deep melancholy, as the subject matter might suggest, but still finds a place for some gorgeous imagery: “She used to wear her hair like you/ Except when she was sleeping/ And then she’d weave it on a loom/ Of smoke and gold and breathing.”
54. “Diamonds in the Mine” An uncharacteristically raucous piece of work, so much so that by the end Cohen is flat-out screaming. It’s the conclusion to the “Hate” side of Songs of Love and Hate, and a suitably misanthropic conclusion it is, too.
53. “Came So Far For Beauty” The obvious interpretation here is that Cohen has given up everything for a woman who doesn’t want him, but really this song could refer to the pursuit of any ideal to the point of obsession. The message is that you can’t force life to give you what you want, any more than you can force a woman to love you: “I could not touch her with such a heavy hand/ Her star beyond my order, her nakedness unmanned.”
52. “Lover Lover Lover” If she does love you, though, don’t fuck it up.
51. “To a Teacher” The song is dedicated to Canadian poet A.M. Klein, who was apparently something of a mentor and inspiration to Cohen. Klein suffered from mental illness and became a recluse later in his life, barely writing at all for the 20 years that preceded his death in 1972.
50. “That Don’t Make It Junk” A bruised and sorry view of love, from the perspective of a lover who sits by the phone waiting for a booty call in the hope it’ll lead to something more (in this respect, it’s rather reminiscent of REM’s “Tongue,” amongst other things). Still, the narrator hasn’t entirely lost faith in love: “I fought against the bottle, but I had to do it drunk/ Took my diamond to the pawnshop, but that don’t make it junk.”
49. “The Butcher” This may well be the flat-out weirdest lyric in the Cohen canon. There are plenty of lyrical interpretations — the image of the lamb is a recurrent one in Christianity, and the dialogue between a father and his “only child” could certainly also be an allusion to God and Jesus — but really, only the author knows for sure.
48. “Ain’t No Cure for Love” The idea of love as a drug or a poison is a somewhat hackneyed one, but Cohen makes it work here. It’s the most straightforward song on I’m Your Man (save, perhaps, the title track), and its vocals are our hero at his most growlingly seductive.
47. “Who by Fire” A song that draws heavily on Judaism — it’s based on the Yom Kippur prayer “Unetaneh Tokef,” apparently. Beyond that, it’s about death. Of course.
46. “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong” The final song on Cohen’s debut album, and a morass of strange and fascinating imagery. Its four verses deal with different manifestations of desire and jealousy, and by the end, Cohen is howling over the repeated outro, the restraint and cleverness of all his intellectual lyricism stripped away, leaving only anguish and despair. Hell of a way to finish a record.
45. “Undertow” A simple lyric, and Cohen doesn’t even sing it. And yet it’s beautiful, both in the context of Dear Heather and on its own.
44. “The Darkness” Forty years after “Avalanche,” Cohen is still writing eloquently about depression, although apparently his own condition has happily eased with advancing age. This song is less bleak than it is darkly funny, the story of an ill-advised love affair borne of depressive self-destructive urges, one that was always going to end badly: “I shoulda seen it coming/ It was right behind your eyes/ You were young and it was summer/ I just had to take a dive/ Winning you was easy, but darkness was the prize.”
43. “Morning Glory” Our hero at his most avant-garde, reading a sort of internal monologue that eventually gives way to Anjani Thomas’s simple refrain “Oh, that morning glory.”
42. “The Letters” The image of a letter seems charmingly archaic here — who writes letters any more? But then you realize that the letters in question were probably written long ago — they’re the link between two lovers long separated, united only in regret that their affair came to nothing.
41. “Last Year’s Man” A lyric that’s quite startling in its remorseless self-analysis. It’s always tempting to identify the narrator in Cohen’s songs with their author, but there’s absolutely no doubt here — the song starts with the image of Cohen sitting at his table with his trademark Jew’s harp and a crayon, paralyzed by… fear? Doubt? Self-loathing? Whatever the case, the imagery of stasis is all over this song, and it seems to depict a writer terrified that his time has already passed. Happily, that would turn out to be not the case. At all.
40. “If It Be Your Will” A love song to God, basically. Cohen’s spirituality has always informed his work to varying degrees, but rarely as directly (or beautifully) as it does here.
39. “Amen” The grizzled veteran of love surveys the commencement of a new affair with a mixture of fatalism and realism: “Tell me again when I’m clean and I’m sober/ Tell me again when I’ve seen through the horror/ Tell me again/ Tell me over and over/ Tell me that you want me then…”
38. “First We Take Manhattan” From the very first moment you hit “play” on I’m Your Man, it’s clear that something is different. There’s no acoustic fingerpicked guitar, no late-night candle-lit ambiance — instead, there’s the pulse of a very danceable synthesizer, and Cohen intoning one of the greatest opening lines in history: “They sentenced me to 20 years of boredom/ For trying to change the system from within.” The lyric itself is fascinatingly elusive, laden with references to the Second World War and the Holocaust, and also plenty of sideswipes at materialism and the superficiality of the world we live in today.
37. “Paper Thin Hotel” The doomed love affair(s) that dominate Death of a Ladies’ Man‘s Don Draper-esque narrative reach their most squalid point here — the narrator sitting in a cheap hotel, listening to another man having sex with his wife, and rejoicing in it.
36. “Take This Longing” There’s a theory that this song is about Nico, but really, it doesn’t matter — the sentiment is perfectly clear, and in some ways it’s actually kinda reassuring that even Leonard Cohen doesn’t always get the girl.
35. “Democracy” Cohen rarely gets overtly political, but when he does, he doesn’t pull any punches. So it goes with this song, a deeply cynical — albeit ultimately optimistic — view of the world we live in. The refrain “Democracy is coming to the USA” is simultaneously celebratory and cynical, because the implication of the idea that it’s coming is that it isn’t here right now.
34. “Chelsea Hotel #2” Yes, it’s about Janis Joplin.
33. “Story of Isaac” Cohen’s lyrics often take their cues from existing texts and put his own distinctive spin on them — this is a reinvention of the story of Isaac from the Bible from the perspective of young Isaac himself.
32. “I’m Your Man” The great man in leg-humpingly lovelorn mood. This comes from an album wherein elsewhere he complains that he “ache[s] in the places where I used to play,” but everything seems to be in working order here, eh?
31. “So Long, Marianne” The generally accepted interpretation is that the Marianne in question is Cohen’s ex-girlfriend from the 1960s, Marianne Ihlen, but really, this song could apply to any relationship. It’s a sort of corollary to “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” — if that song celebrates the love that was, then this looks back with a more ambivalent eye, apportioning both regret and blame, but moving ultimately to acceptance.
30. “Because Of” The thing that no one ever appreciates about Cohen is that he’s funny. Take, for instance, the opening lines here: “Because of a few songs wherein I spoke of their mystery/ Women have been exceptionally kind to my old age.” There can’t be many more delicately funny ways to say, “Hey, I’m nearly 70, but I’m still getting laid!” Of course, the man being who he is, the humor’s as self-effacing as anything else: “They bend over the bed… and cover me up like a babe that is shivering.”
29. “I Can’t Forget” Still, Cohen has written plenty about old age with rather more serious insight, too. I’m Your Man‘s “Tower of Song,” of which we’ll speak more later, was a wry evocation of the effects of impending age, but this underrated track from the same album takes a more solemn, contemplative tone, following the narrator as he looks into the mirror and wonders who’s looking back at him: “I smoked a cigarette and I tightened up my gut/ I said this can’t be me/ Must be my double…”
28. “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy” A forlorn ballad inspired by the life, and death by suicide, of a girl that Cohen knew in the early ’60s — there’s more about the real-life Nancy here.
27. “Going Home” The first song off Old Ideas proved straight away that the great man has lost nothing in the way of lyrical inventiveness as he approaches his ninth decade on earth. This is written from the perspective of Cohen’s creator, and features much wry, self-deprecating humor: “I like to speak with Leonard/ He’s a sportsman and a shepherd/ He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit.”
26. “Hallelujah” Look, I’m not being contrarian by putting “Hallelujah” this low, but its ubiquity doesn’t change the fact that Cohen has written a bunch of better songs. Twenty-five of them, in fact. Onwards.
25. “Joan of Arc” The figure of Joan of Arc crops up several times over the course of Songs of Love and Hate, and its final song is given over completely to her story. It’s a strangely fascinating treatment of the saint — a sort of gentle love song between Joan and her impending martyrdom, reminding us that behind the legend was a flesh-and-blood woman, one who was in the end consumed by fire both literal and metaphorical.
24. “Stories of the Street” It’s the “hits” that tend to command your attention on Songs of Leonard Cohen, but side two is home to some hidden gems. Foremost amongst them is this examination of the aftermath of revolution, which draws heavily on the Cuban revolution and spares neither Batista nor Castro. It also contains a particularly good couplet that’s as applicable today as it was nearly 50 years ago: “O lady with your legs so fine, o stranger at your wheel/ You are locked into your suffering and your pleasures are the seal.”
23. “The Future” Decades later, and Cohen returns to the idea of a dystopian future in suitably bleak style. This is also home, disappointingly, to a throwaway line that sounds very anti-abortion (“Kill another fetus now/ We don’t like children anyhow.”) Come on, Leonard, you’re better than that.
22. “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” It’s an interesting thing to ponder that several of Cohen’s very best songs have been meditations on finding positives in the end of a relationship. This is certainly one of them, and if you’ve ever come to the conclusion that parting ways with someone you love is the best thing for both of you, even if you don’t want to do anything of the sort, you’ll know exactly the bittersweet feeling that this song evokes so well.
21. “Death of a Ladies’ Man” Of course, they’re not all like that. The epic conclusion to Death of a Ladies’ Man is startlingly bleak, a portrait of a relationship that ends because… well, because the woman loses interest, basically: “I’ll make a place between my legs/ I’ll show you solitude.” The closing refrain is particularly bitter: “So the great affair is over but whoever would have guessed/ It would leave us all so vacant and so deeply unimpressed?/ It’s like our visit to the moon or to that other star/ I guess you go for nothing if you really want to go that far.”
20. “In My Secret Life” Ten New Songs was Cohen’s first record in a decade, and against all odds, also a contender for the title of his best. This opening track sets the tone, an examination of how the modern world makes fools of us all… and yet, we live in it as best we can (an interpretation that’s particularly intriguing in light of Cohen’s decision to return from years of seclusion.) It’s not an optimistic song — the narrator maintains a secret life wherein things are better than his “real” life, but ultimately even that leaches away — but it’s not overly bleak or fatalistic, either. It’s just a depiction of what is.
19. “The Master Song” Cohen seems to like writing about love triangles, and this labyrinthine lyric draws heavily on the imagery of the Biblical holy trinity to depict a very, very unhealthy-sounding relationship. There’s a heap of meaning to be unpicked from this song — see here for some erudite analysis.
18. “Villanelle for Our Time” Cohen didn’t write this lyric — it’s a poem by Canadian writer F.R. Scott — but his reading is so definitive and beautiful that it can’t help but merit a place on this list.
17. “The Faith” This is the second song Cohen has based on the same Quebecois folk song — it also inspired “Un Canadien Errant” from Recent Songs — but this is the far superior interpretation. The last verse, in particular, is gorgeous — it’s not even Cohen singing any more, just his backing singers. At the time it felt like a goodbye, the sun setting on a wonderful career — but hey, who knew he’d be touring again within a couple of years, and releasing a new album nearly a decade later? Not even Cohen himself, I suspect — it wasn’t until after Dear Heather that it came out that his manager had swindled him out of a shitload of cash and that he’d have to hit the road again to make money. Clearly, everyone’s glad he did.
16. “Boogie Street” In which our hero descends from the mountain, pours himself a glass of wine, and hits the town. It’s possibly the least upbeat song ever to use the word “Boogie” in the title — in a good way, of course — and also a lyric in which Cohen’s interest in Buddhism really manifests itself: “So come, my friends, be not afraid/ We are so lightly here/ It is in love that we are made/ In love we disappear.”
15. “Sisters of Mercy” Perhaps the most delicately beautiful description of the free-love ’60s that anyone’s ever written. Sometimes lovers come into your life for only a moment, and yet that doesn’t make the experience you share with them any less meaningful.
14. “A Thousand Kisses Deep” There are really two versions of this — the album version, which is on Ten New Songs, and the spoken-word version that Cohen’s been performing live since his return to live performance. The former is excellent, but the latter is sublime, and seems to change every time he plays, too.
13. “Waiting for the Miracle” This’ll be forever identified with Natural Born Killers, but hey, if you’ve only ever heard the truncated version on that soundtrack, then listen to the rest of the song!
12. “Tower of Song” Our hero’s reflection on advancing years and his place in the musical pantheon. It’s as wittily self-deprecating as ever — particularly the bit where the ever-gravelly voiced Cohen growls “I was born like this/ I have no choice/ I was born with the gift of a golden voice” — and it manages to consider mortality without ever seeming morbid.
11. “Bird on the Wire” One of the most fascinating things about Cohen’s lyrics is the way he’s able to condense so much meaning and so many possible interpretations into so few words. In one way, “Bird On the Wire” is one of the most simple lyrics he’s ever written — it’s basically saying “I was an asshole and I’m sorry.” But then, the imagery rather undermines this sentiment, dominated by metaphors of being impotent and caught up in circumstances beyond one’s control. In the end, it’s a struggle between temptation and conscience, two extremes embodied in the beggar and prostitute that inhabit the song’s last lines.
10. “The Partisan” A reworking of an old French song about the resistance. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the song is the subtle differences between the French and English lyrics: compare and contrast “she died without a whisper” and “il est mort sans surprise,” for instance.
9. “Dress Rehearsal Rag” The “Hate” side of Songs of Love and Hate reaches its emotional nadir with perhaps the most bleak lyric Cohen’s ever written: a portrait of a man who’s lost everything except his self-loathing, staring into a mirror in a cheap hotel room, rehearsing his suicide. People generally make far more of the Cohen-is-depressing angle than is really justified, but there’s no denying that there’s very little in the way of good cheer here.
8. “Everybody Knows” Perhaps the highlight of I’m Your Man, and particularly interesting because it signals what’d become a real shift in direction with Cohen’s next album, The Future: the idea of discussing the state of the world as well as the state of the heart. It features some of his sharpest lyrics in years: “Everybody knows the deal is rotten/ Old black Joe’s still picking cotton/ For your ribbons and bows/ And everybody knows.”
7. “The Stranger Song” A fascinating and hugely underrated piece, drawing heavily on the imagery of The Man With the Golden Arm to create a portrait of an itinerant drifter, probably a junkie, who charms women into supporting him for a while then leaves. But as with all great art, its meaning transcends its direct narrative — it’s as much about how all relationships involve a degree of dependency and trust, and how that can be destructive, and how the desire to subjugate your needs to those of the other person can be strong indeed. And in the end, you can be left with nothing… “not even laughter.”
6. “Take This Waltz” An example of reworking existing texts has led to some of our hero’s greatest lyrics (there’s another coming, too.) This is based on Federico García Lorca’s “Little Viennese Waltz” (the original is here in translation and here in the original Spanish), and it features some of Cohen’s most gorgeous writing. In particular, the last verse, where Jennifer Warnes takes over lead vocals, is pretty much the most beautiful thing you’ll ever hear.
5. “Avalanche” A brutally accurate depiction of the experience of depression, dating from before when the condition had a name. Nick Cave did a pretty great cover of this, too.
Cohen has described this song’s chorus — “There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in” — as “the closest thing I could describe to a credo. That idea is one of the fundamental positions behind a lot of the songs.” It’s a wonderfully profound line, when you think about it — the idea of finding beauty in flaws and imperfections, in accepting and embracing the cracks in the pavement life throws at you.
3. “Suzanne” Apart from maybe “Hallelujah,” this is perhaps Cohen’s best known song, something that’s all the more remarkable because it’s a deeply personal reflection on an encounter over half a century ago. The language is some of the most beautiful that anyone’s ever put into song lyrics, and it’s laden with symbolism that you could spend days poring over: “And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor/ And she shows you where to look amid the garbage and the flowers/ There are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning/ They are leaning out for love and they’ll lean that way forever/ While Suzanne holds her mirror.” The real Suzanne was the wife of one of Cohen’s friends, apparently, and he was besotted with her, although they never got it on — instead, they drank tea and ate oranges. Bless. The sense of unfulfilled longing is really strong here, as it is in many other Cohen songs. (There’s more about the “real” Suzanne here.)
2. “Alexandra Leaving” I’m sure I remember reading somewhere that this song took two decades to complete — I can’t find the quote now, but apparently it took Cohen that long to make sense of and be able to process the affair that inspired it. The time he put it into it was worth it, because it’s a profound and deeply affecting meditation on accepting and understanding that a love affair has finished, and making yourself see both the good and bad for what they were: “You who had the honor of her evening/ And by the honor had your own restored/ Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving/ Alexandra leaving with her lord.” It’s another song that’s adapted from a poem, in case The God Abandons Anthony by Constantine P. Cavafy, which is interesting to read for contrast’s sake — the way LC turns the city of Alexandria into the girl Alexandra is brilliant and fascinating.
1. “Famous Blue Raincoat” And finally, our winner. Really, any of the songs in the top 10 could go here, but if I had to pick a favorite Cohen song… well, it’s a fool’s game, but here we are. Again, “Famous Blue Raincoat” seems like a very personal song — it’s framed as a letter, signed off with the author’s name — but the exact circumstances it describes remain evasive and inscrutable. It’s a love triangle, again, and it appears that Cohen’s friend has made love to the singer’s girlfriend, resulting in the breakup of the relationship. But here’s the thing: bitter as it is, everyone came out better for it, if somewhat sad and scarred. Sincerely, L Cohen.