Leonard Cohen's new LP You Want It Darker is probably one of the best albums ever released by a person over the age of 80. It's just part of his astounding career renaissance that began when he returned to the road in 2008 for a stunning tour that lasted five years. The show featured songs from throughout his long career, which began all the way back in 1967 with Songs of Leonard Cohen. His singing voice has changed quite a bit since those days and the music has grown much more sophisticated, but brilliant words have never diminished. In honor of You Want It Darker, we had our readers select Cohen's best albums. Here are the results.
Not a lot of people were focused on Leonard Cohen in 2001. He'd pretty much vanished from the public eye following his 1993 tour in support of The Future. He spent a great deal of time at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles where he worked as the personal assistant to Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi. Recording new music simply wasn't a part of his life, but in 1999, he began spending part of his time at his daughter's house in L.A. His longtime backup singer and occasional creative collaborator Sharon Robinson started coming by, and they began writing new tunes together. It took a couple of years, but they eventually produced 10 brand-new songs. Always liking a simple title, Cohen called it Ten New Songs. Robinson and Cohen lock vocals on most songs to stunning effect. It didn't get much attention at the time, but "In My Secret Life," "A Thousand Kisses Deep" and "Boogie Street" all came alive on the Grand Tour and are now seen as classics.
New Skin For the Old Ceremony was the fourth and final chapter from the folkie period of Cohen's early musical career. The songs are sparse, though often punctuated with percussion, banjo and mandolin. Critics were torn when it came out, and it became his first album to not even touch the Billboard album charts. It did far better overseas, beginning a long tradition of faraway audiences appreciating Cohen more than fans in North America. "Chelsea Hotel #2," "Who By Fire" and "I Tried to Love You" are the standout tracks and were part of his live show for decades.
Proving that his 1967 debut LP was no fluke, Cohen came back in 1969 with the brilliant Songs From a Room. This was an era of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and the Stooges, but even without loud guitars Cohen was able to pull in a devoted audience with sparse songs like "Bird on the Wire," "Lady Midnight" and "The Partisan." The latter is a cover of World War II-era song about the French Resistance and Cohen even sings a verse in French. It's unlike anything else in his catalog, and only grew in power when he sang it as an old man decades later. Songs From a Room peaked at Number 63 on the Billboard Album Chart. That may seem like a dismal showing, but it's actually the best he did until Old Ideas in 2012.
After the insanity of creating Death of a Ladies Man with Phil Spector, Leonard Cohen was quite ready to make a quiet, normal album. Recent Songs is reminiscent of Cohen's earliest albums, though gypsy violin and Jennifer Warnes' beautiful vocals bring it in a new direction. Warnes became a key Cohen collaborator in the years ahead, and in the 1980s she became famous on her own for singing "Up Where We Belong" with Joe Cocker and "(I've Had) the Time of My Life" with Bill Medley. Back in the 1970s, though, she added pristine harmonies to classics like "The Guests" and "The Gypsy's Wife." Even by Cohen's dismal standards, this one sold poorly and made Columbia less than eager to keep putting these albums out. But to their credit, they never dropped him.
Columbia Records has gotten a lot of shit over the years about initially refusing to release Various Positions, but imagine it from their perspective. It's 1984 and the biggest stars in music are Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Prince and Michael Jackson. One of your lesser-known artists, who has never seen an album hit higher than Number 63, turns in an album where he's singing along to a cheap-o synthesizer. Nothing sounds remotely like a hit. It's not their fault for not realizing that "Hallelujah" would become one of the most beloved songs of the later part of the 20th Century. They didn't know "Dance Me to the End of Love" would be the opening song to about 600 straight concerts. This was just another album destined to wind up in the cutout bin, and when they finally did release it, that's what happened. All that said, the record is absolutely brilliant. Cohen found a way to make music in the MTV age that sounded modern – but not soulless. His voice had deepened considerably, but pairing that with backup singers and synths resulted in something wondrous.
Death of a Ladies Man is really the black swan of the Leonard Cohen catalog. It's the album where he had the least creative control and the one he recorded at the height of his debauchery. Sprinkle in a perpetually-drunk Phil Spector (often wielding a gun) recording him in insane late night sessions and you've got one nutty outlier of an album. The theory was that by pairing one genius with another you'd somehow get a double the genius, but the result is pretty much the least-loved album either of them ever made. It does, however, have its fans, as its placement on this list suggests. "Don't Go Home With Your Hard On" and "True Love Needs No Trace" are memorable songs, but it's telling that Cohen never touches any of these tunes when he tours. They probably all cause too many unsettling flashbacks.
The 1980s were not a kind time to most musical icons of the 1960s. Giants like Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney tried to land on MTV and Top 40 radio by making songs they felt were modern, but all they did was alienate their old fans and fail to win over any new ones. The result is a pile of terrible albums by some of the most creative musical minds of the century. By some miracle, Leonard Cohen completely escaped this curse. It helped that he wrote some of the best songs of his life in that time, and that he teamed up with producers like Roscoe Beck, Jean-Michel Reusser and Michel Robidoux. They weren't afraid to use synths and drum machines, but they never sounded cheesy. They actually sounded majestic in Cohen's hands. Every song on this album – including "First We Take Manhattan," "Everybody Knows" and "Take This Waltz" – is a classic, though we're still trying to understand what the hell "Jazz Police" means. These songs would serve as the backbone of his live show for the rest of his career.
Leonard Cohen was a distinguished 33-year-old poet when his debut LP Songs of Leonard Cohen landed on store shelves in the final days of 1967. The public knew "Suzanne" from the Judy Collins cover the previous year, but few people had heard the Canadian sing his own words. His voice wasn't anything to get too excited about, but the lyrics were just stunning. Nobody had heard anything like "So Long, Marianne," "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" and "Sisters of Mercy" since Bob Dylan. The album peaked at Number 83, but everyone that bought it knew they had something special. It turned out he was just getting started.
Following up I'm Your Man was a difficult task, but Cohen was quite up for it. He began work on The Future while dating Rebecca De Mornay, and she even wound up with a producer credit. But romantic bliss didn't exactly seep into the lyrics, considering the album kicks off with a vision of the apocalypse. "Give Me Christ," he sings on the title track. "Or give me Hiroshima/Destroy another fetus now/We don't like children anyhow/I've seen the future, baby it is murder." The rest of the album is filled with equally brilliant tunes like "Waiting for the Miracle" (famously used in the film Natural Born Killers), "Democracy" and "Anthem." The album was met with rave reviews and it gave his career a lot of momentum, but it would be nine years before he recorded another album.
In late 1970, Leonard Cohen went down to Nashville with Bob Dylan's producer and Elton John's string arranger and cut an album unlike anything else that had ever been heard. He was near the peak of his songwriting powers at this point with masterpieces like "Joan of Arc," "Avalanche" and "Famous Blue Raincoat" just pouring out of him. The latter tune could be his single best lyric, even if it contains evidence of his brief flirtation with Scientology in the line, "Did you ever go clear?" It's the story of a love triangle involving a man, his brother and a woman named Jane. Cohen has complained that the story doesn't quite make sense, but the confusion around the narrative somehow just adds to the power of the song. This isn't a wrong note or word on this whole album. It peaked at Number 145, which just proves that the sales charts don't mean much of anything.