Leonard Cohen's 20 Best Songs

Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen performs at the Coachella Music Festival in Indio, California, on April 17, 2009. Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

We didn't want it darker, but we got it. Leonard Cohen is dead, right when we need him, right when we could use his wisdom and grace and spiritual sensibility the most.

The man was always an enigma—a songwriter and poet who put out his first album at age 33 and headlined Coachella in his 70s, a singer whose most famous song traveled from obscurity to become a global hymn for the modern age.

Cohen's recording career transcended generations, ignored trends, obsessed over spirituality and sexuality, baffled label executives, remained vibrant well into his elderly years and produced virtually no hits (unless you count "Hallelujah," which did not become well-known until after Jeff Buckley covered the song in the 1990s). His songs captured longing, loss, lust and whatever other emotions are contained in Shrek.

And now we're going to try to sum it all up for a new listener in just 20 songs. Futile, right? These are our absolute favorite Cohen songs, in order of chronology, not quality.

1. "SUZANNE" (1967)

One of Cohen's most beloved songs and also one of the most covered, "Suzanne" describes his platonic relationship with Suzanne Verdal, who was married at the time to Montreal sculptor Armand Vaillancourt. With its sweet melody and gentle guitar picking, "Suzanne" conjures a magical scene as the “half-crazy” Suzanne “takes you down to her place near the river” and “feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China.” Despite the line “for you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind,” Cohen maintains the relationship was never a sexual one. Yet the walking tours of Montreal the two supposedly took are brilliantly captured in all their sensual glory: “And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor/And she shows you where to look among 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 will lean that way forever.” —Lucy Westcott

2. "HEY, THAT'S NO WAY TO SAY GOODBYE" (1967)

I can't think of anyone who has captured the pain of a love turned to ashes more beautifully and tragically than Leonard Cohen in "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye." It begins with the ecstasy of love but by the third line has already turned guarded: "Many loved before us," he sings, "I know that we are not new." By the fifth line, the love has ended. And the phrases I've never forgotten? Hair upon a pillow "like a sleepy golden storm." And "our steps will always rhyme." After you listen to Leonard, listen to Judy Collins sing it. Heartbreaking. —Paul Raeburn

3. "THE PARTISAN" (1969)

The rumbling guitar strings that carry us through "The Partisan" end with a different lyric in Cohen's cover than in the original. In fact, most references to the time and place in which the song drew its inspiration are erased; he cut the details about the French Resistance and German occupiers. The new subject is a singer who arrives to us without a nation; the final lyric describes not a dutiful French fighter who disappears into shadows to serve in loyal silence but a protester who lives in the public eye to fight oppression another day. It is strange that a song whose lyrics are stripped of their original context has more resonance afterward. But it is so with Cohen's "Partisan." For Cohen, there is nowhere to disappear. A fight once had for freedom is a fight that lives on, and no country or military uniform is required to wage it. —Margarita Noriega

4. "FAMOUS BLUE RAINCOAT" (1971)

"Famous Blue Raincoat" is the greatest epistolary song ever composed. It has been covered by everybody from Tori Amos to Jennifer Warnes and Glen Hansard, but unlike "Hallelujah," Cohen got this one right the first time. With its soft, cyclical melody and haunting backing vocals, the song captures loneliness and desolation in the form of a late-night letter. The lyrics are essentially a time capsule for when Cohen lived in Manhattan. And best of all, the singer really did have a blue raincoat. It was a Burberry coat that was lost forever when it was stolen from his ex-lover Marianne's loft in New York. Perhaps the raincoat thief is out there somewhere. Please return it to Cohen's family, you thieving bastard. —Zach Schonfeld

5. "AVALANCHE" (1971)

Songs of Love and Hate has one of the best opening lines of any album ever: "Well, I stepped into an avalanche/It covered up my soul." The song is "Avalanche." The music is full of orchestral dread, paired with Cohen's unusual style of classical guitar playing. The lyrics are bleak as hell. The vocal intensity is outright inimitable. Nick Cave himself has said that Songs of Love and Hate changed his life when he was a teenager in Australia. He repaid the favor in 1984 when he covered "Avalanche" as the opening song on the first Bad Seeds album. —Zach Schonfeld

6. "CHELSEA HOTEL NO. 2" (1974)

The only obvious place to gather and remember Leonard Cohen after his death was announced was New York City's Hotel Chelsea. The historic 23rd Street building, home to an array of luminaries over the years, is the subject of Cohen's timeless song "Chelsea Hotel No. 2," about a tryst he had with singer Janis Joplin. The track appeared on Cohen's 1974 album, New Skin for the Old Ceremony, and soon became a fan favorite. Amid the flowers, candles and a bottle of red wine recently left outside the hotel, which was already adorned with a plaque for Cohen, were lyrics from the song: "I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel/You were famous, your heart was a legend/You told me again you preferred handsome men/But for me you would make an exception.” During his time living at the hotel, Cohen would later say that he “was an expert on the buttons of that elevator." When he met Joplin, "she was riding it with as much delight as I was." —Lucy Westcott

7. "MEMORIES" (1977)

"Memories" is the sort of song that could have only appeared on Death of a Ladies' Man, Cohen's poorly received collaboration with maniacal producer Phil Spector, who spent the session pointing guns at people instead of directing music. The arrangement is bombastic and grand, with squealing horns and a massive choir of voices drowning out the man whose name appears on the record sleeve. Cohen's voice could not be more poorly suited to this wall of sound, but thanks to an irresistible doo-wop melody and one of his horniest choruses, he pulls it off. "Memories" is one of Cohen's weirdest and most wondrous songsand the only Ladies' Man song he continued to perform live after the album tanked. —Zach Schonfeld

8. "PAPER THIN HOTEL" (1977)

If you've ever creeped on an ex, take comfort that you probably didn't sink as low as Cohen's "Paper Thin Hotel." The song is one of Cohen's bitterest, most voyeuristic creations. It is sung from the perspective of a man placing his ear to the wall of his hotel room as his lover or ex-lover bones some other guy. Cohennever the prude, particularly when Phil Spector was controlling the boardsnarrates the act in alarming detail, and as he overhears "the grunt of unity when he came in," he declares (convincingly?) that the burden of love and jealousy has been lifted from his soul. The musical setting is a grotesque soup of Disney-ish orchestral sleaze. I don't know whether this is Cohen's best or worst song, but I do know that I will never ever forget it. —Zach Schonfeld

9. "THE SMOKEY LIFE" (1979)

"The Smokey Life" is a gem hidden at the end of one of Cohen's less remembered albums, 1979's Recent Songs. It's about a breakup (perhaps Cohen's own split from Suzanne Elrod), but Cohen shies away from the bitter indulgences of Death of a Ladies' Man and tackles the subject with poetic grace. Like much of Recent Songs, the song has a lilting, jazzy quality to it. Some lack melodies on that album, but this one is sheer folk-pop gold. AM gold, not quite. —Zach Schonfeld

10. "DANCE ME TO THE END OF LOVE" (1984)

Leonard Cohen's gift was that he could wring a beautiful song out of the darkest of subjectssociopolitical despair ("Anthem"), the burning of Joan of Arc ("Joan of Arc"), heartbreak ("Alexandra Leaving"). The best example is "Dance Me to the End of Love." It tricks listeners into believing it is a sensual love song when it was really inspired by the Holocaustin particular, the string quartets that performed beautiful music as death camp victims were being sent to their doom. The words are among his most unforgettably evocative ("Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin/Dance me through the panic 'til I'm gathered safely in"), while the music is not quite like anything else in Cohen's songbook: an uptempo Greek folk-dance rhythm carried out on a drum machine and a Casio keyboard. The synthesized sounds pointed the way to 1988's brilliant I'm Your Man—Zach Schonfeld

11. "HALLELUJAH" (1984)

"Hallelujah" is by far Cohen's most famous, most revered and most covered song. But it certainly was not the case in 1984, when the song first appeared on his Various Positions album. Not poppy enough for CBS, it went unnoticed at the time of its release. "Hallelujah" showcases Cohen’s relentless talent as a songwriter. He famously drafted 80 verses before cutting them down to four. Ironically, the verses he so carefully crafted for five years seemed to be best performed by others: The song gained popularity with John Cale in 1991 and reached a new generation of fans thanks to Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright and the 2001 movie Shrek. The original musical arrangement may not be so ear-pleasing, but Cohen never meant to write a lovely pop song. "Hallelujah" is a confession rather than a sing-along. Its strength is in its message. And it is best conveyed in the coarse Various Positions version. —Claire Toureille

12. "TAKE THIS WALTZ" (1988)

I am truly sad that I don't have any good reason in life for waltzing. There is already something so wistful and graceful about that 3/4 time signature, and when you pair a deep, earthy voice with it, a song like "Take This Waltz" becomes encapsulating. This is the kind of song that makes me feel as if I’ve read an entire novel—as if I am entranced by some kind of lovers’ longing and I know every detail of their yearning. The song, featured on 1988's I'm Your Man, is stylistically contemporary enough that I could get away with playing it at the end of the indoor cycling class I taught over the weekend—they'll never know I was strategically shuffling my feet between stretches according to that triple meter so I could lose myself in the momentary magic. —Joanna Brenner

13. "EVERYBODY KNOWS" (1988)

After the news broke that Leonard Cohen had died, I saw lots of fans posting his 1988 song "Everybody Knows," as well as the 1992 song "The Future." It's not because they are his best-known songs, though both are truly great. It’s because these tracks capture the apocalyptic and despairing mood of much of the country after Donald Trump won the presidency that same week. On "Everybody Knows," in a low, gruff voice—almost a rap—the singer describes a world overrun with poverty, corruption, adultery and AIDS. With help from a stuttering electronic bass line, the track has one of Cohen's most irresistible grooves. "Everybody knows that the boat is leaking," he sings. "Everybody knows that the captain lied/Everybody's got this broken feeling/Like their father or their dog just died." God, he got it right. —Zach Schonfeld

14. "FIRST WE TAKE MANHATTAN" (1988)

Fifteen years before 9/11, Leonard Cohen wrote this creepy, menacing tale about terrorism's dark appeal. "There's something about terrorism that I've always admired," he confessed in an interview (before reassuring the questioner that he didn't condone such violence). "The fact that there are no alibis or no compromises." "First We Take Manhattan" sets that fascination to slick, plastic synths. The song's narrator is guided to evil by "a signal in the heavens" and "the beauty of our weapons." Cohen's paranoid fantasy was a weird match for the MTV synth-pop of the day, but like much of his best work (see also The Future), it proved startlingly prescient. —Zach Schonfeld

15. "DEMOCRACY" (1992)

During the 1980s and early '90s, I appreciated Leonard Cohen and always nodded approvingly and politely whenever friends popped in one of his CDs. But I didn't buy any of his albums and never found myself sitting at home or strolling with my Sony Walkman and wishing I was listening to "Suzanne" or "Bird on a Wire." I filed him away as a Canadian Bob Dylan, or Neil Young without Crazy Horse, which, of course, is not a bad thing. Then, in 1992, I heard "Democracy," from Cohen's newly released The Future album, on a Los Angeles radio station and was smitten by the biting lyrics and cheeky martial arrangement. The world was still rejoicing over the collapse of the Berlin Wall three years earlier, and here was Cohen, whose voice by now was full-on Tom Waits, raining on the parade. It was dark, funny and skeptical in the face of nonstop self-congratulation and optimism from a triumphant West. "Democracy" was a reminder that the narrative unfolding around the world was messier and less predictable than people were making it out to be. I went out on a Cohen buying binge and haven't stopped listening. I'm Your Man is on my desert island list. And when Cohen died right after Trumpnado, I played "Democracy" on YouTube and there it was: "Democracy is coming to the USA/It's coming through a crack in the wall." —Jim Impoco

16. "THE FUTURE" (1992)

In 1995, I had to take the most depressing reporting assignment of my life: two weeks in Birobidzhan, the Jewish homeland in the former Soviet Union. To reach it, I had to fly to Seoul, South Korea, then Khabarovsk in Russia, then take a two-day train, sitting up straight, into the depths of Siberia until I got to the Chinese border. They were grim days, post-Soviet, no bling-bling. All I had during those long airport waits, sleeping in a chair, was my Walkman and a tape of Leonard Cohen's The Future. While "Hallelujah" is probably my favorite love song, the words "Give me back the Berlin Wall/Give me Stalin and St. Paul/I've seen the future, brother: It is murder" truly resonated on that grim trip. My only friend in those days was Leonard and The Future—Janine di Giovanni

17. "CLOSING TIME" (1992)

"Closing Time" isn't Leonard Cohen's best song, but it's the one I want to hear right now, because it has so much bounce in its melody, so much despair in its lyrics...and so many shiv-like punch lines. Like all his best songs, it's complex and contrapuntal: funny and serious, sexy and scary. It's (probably) a eulogy for the death of a ladies' man (L.C.), a lament for the waning of his sexual desire and power, yet it sounds like a frenzied, fantastic orgy with a raging, honky-tonk soundtrack: "And I swear it happened just like this: a sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss/The gates of love, they budged an inch/I can't say much has happened since/It's closing time." Somebody somewhere said "Closing Time" is about growing old disgracefully, to which I would add: as performed by a man who agedand did everything elsewith supreme grace. —Bob Roe

18. "IN MY SECRET LIFE" (2001)

"In My Secret Life" marked Cohen's return to musical life after a lengthy absence, and what a return it was: soulful, sexy, wistful. The sense of longing was familiar throughout Cohen's work, but the musical vocabularywarm keyboard tones, drum machines, light R&B guitar—was something new. Like every other song on 2001's Ten New Songs, "In My Secret Life" grooves under the influence of singer and longtime Cohen collaborator Sharon Robinson. It's a sly and wondrous little song, and it proves that the deepening of Cohen's voice was one of the best things that could have happened to him. —Zach Schonfeld

19. "GOING HOME" (2012)

After Cohen's death, some of his songs are imbued with a new meaning, a deeper sense of poignancy. This is to be expected. Songs are living things. They have a funny way of changing over time. (Just look at "Hallelujah.") "Going Home," the opening track on 2012's Old Ideas, takes a sly approach to mortality and is especially affecting to listen to now that the singer is gone. During the verses, he gently berates a third-person "Leonard" from the point of view of God. The chorus, with its lovely, shuffling rhythm, offers some indication of where Cohen imagined he was heading when he slipped into the next life: "Going home/Without my sorrow/Going home/Sometime tomorrow/Going home/To where it’s better than before." In his songs and in interviews, Cohen often addressed death candidly and clearly, without slinking away from mortality's inevitable grip. In a 2012 New York Times interview, the singer was asked when "Going Home" was written. His answer: "In trouble." —Zach Schonfeld

20. "A STREET" (2014)

Leonard Cohen famously spent years writing and rewriting some of his greatest songs. "Hallelujah" was one of those. "Treaty," from his new album, You Want It Darker, had been germinating for 15, perhaps 20, years before it emerged in album form. Then there is "A Street." The song, a cryptic and mesmerizing story of loss and betrayal and life before the storm, was based on a verse Cohen wrote shortly after September 11: "The party's over/But I've landed on my feet/I'll be standing on this corner/Where there used to be a street." He held on to it. He puzzled over it. He published a version of the lyrics in The New Yorker in 2009. And then finally he located the right arrangement—a slinky organ groove paired with a half-talking/half-singing delivery—and included the completed song as the centerpiece of his very good 2014 album Popular Problems—Zach Schonfeld