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Readers’ Poll: 10 Best Leonard Cohen Songs of the Past 30 Years

See what song managed to top “Anthem,” “The Future” and “First We Take Manhattan”

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Thirty years ago it looked like Leonard Cohen's recording career was basically over.  His label didn't even want to release his last album (despite the presence of a little song called "Hallelujah"), and once they reluctantly did it didn't even crack the Billboard 200. He seemed resigned to a fate of singing old classics like "Suzanne" and "Famous Blue Raincoat" at tiny theaters for the rest of his life. Then came 1988's I'm Your Man, which was packed with new masterpieces like "First We Take Manhattan" and "Tower of Song." It sounded unlike anything in his catalog, or anything else in music for that matter. It was the beginning of an incredible creative rebirth that continued right up to his death last week. We had our readers select his best songs of the past 30 years. Here are the results. 

Watch Tori Kelly's touching 'Hallelujah' for the 2016 Emmy's 'In Memoriam.'

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“In My Secret Life”

In October of 2001, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, Enya, Nickelback, Linkin Park and Staind all had albums near the top of the Billboard 200. Very few people in the industry were thinking about Leonard Cohen, but that month he quietly returned from a self-imposed nine-year exile with Ten New Songs. The moody, reflective album kicks off with "My Secret Life," which is essentially a duet with his backup singer Sharon Robinson, who co-wrote every song on the album. Only hardcore Cohen fans even knew such an album existed, but "In My Secret Life" got a new life on the Grand Tour of 2008 to 2013 where it was a regular part of the show. Every night Cohen and Robinson would lock voices on the song, creating absolute magic. 

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Leonard Cohen didn't write a lot of political songs, but the fall of the Berlin Wall and the student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square around the same time inspired him to pick up his pen. "Everyone was rejoicing," he said. "I thought it wasn't going to be like that, euphoric, the honeymoon." He centered his song around America. "This is really where the races confront one another, where the classes, where the genders, where even the sexual orientations confront one another," he said. "This is the real laboratory of democracy." The song confused a lot of people, but he laid out his views right there in the lyrics: "I love the country, but I can't stand the scene/And I'm neither left or right/I'm just staying home tonight/Getting lost in that hopeless little screen." 

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“I’m Your Man”

The title track to I'm Your Man doesn't have much of a hidden message. In one of his most unapologetically lustful songs, he tells a woman he's ready to do anything she wants. "If you want a lover, I'll do anything you ask me to," he sings. "And if you want another kind of love/I'll wear a mask for you/If you want a partner, take my hand, or/ If you want to strike me down in anger/Here I stand/I'm your man." He sang this at basically every concert he did the final three decades of his life, and it never failed to make the women in the audience swoon. 

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“Closing Time”

Leonard Cohen probably didn't write "Closing Time" to give him a perfect song for late in the encore section of his show, but that's what it became. It's a euphoric song about the end of a wild party. "The fiddler fiddles something so sublime," he sings. "All the women tear their blouses off/And the men they dance on the polka-dots." As the song goes on, the scene seems a bit more dangerous. The cider is laced with acid, and there's a sensation in the air that "looks like freedom but feels like death." He'd often sing this after the three-hour mark of the show. People would be getting their coats on, preparing to leave, and then he'd do another three songs. 

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“First We Take Manhattan”

"First We Take Manhattan" was first heard on Jennifer Warnes' 1986 Leonard Cohen Tribute disc Famous Blue Raincoat. Cohen went to the set of the video and was photographed eating a banana, an image he used on the cover of 1988's I'm Your Man. Cohen cut the song himself on that album, upping the menace factor by about 500 percent. The tune was inspired by the rise of terrorism and white nationalism around Europe at the time. Sadly, it remains all too relevant today. 

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“You Want It Darker”

Leonard Cohen's health took a severe decline in the final couple of years of his life, and near the end, he was barely able to leave his daughter's home in suburban Los Angeles. He refused to let that stop him from recording music, so his son Adam brought recording equipment into his house and recorded his voice right into a laptop. You Want It Darker came out days before Cohen died, and the lyrics of the title track made clear he was in a rough spot. "If you are the dealer, let me out of the game," he sang. "If you are the healer, I'm broken and lame." It made for a brilliant final act. 

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“Waiting for the Miracle”

For those that first heard "Waiting for the Miracle" in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, it's hard to hear it without thinking about Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis committing brutal acts of violence. But if you know it from The Future or the many live performances, it's a song with slightly less baggage. "Waiting for the Miracle" sets a very somber mood and Cohen paints a vivid portrait of a world in crisis. "There ain't no entertainment and the judgements are severe," he sings. "The Maestro says it's Mozart, but it sounds like bubble gum." 

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“The Future”

The future Leonard Cohen presents on the title track to his 1992 album is a pretty dark place. "Give me Christ," he sang. "Or give me Hiroshima/Destroy another fetus now/We don't like children anyhow/I've seen the future, baby: It is murder." Yikes. It's the first song on the disc, and it sets the tone for an album with more than one or two bleak moments. On the album he sings "Give me crack and anal sex," but in concert it became "give me crack and careless sex." The former was clearly related to the AIDS epidemic, and he ultimately thought better than equating it with one type of sexual activity. 

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Leonard Cohen wrote countless lines of poetry during his 82 years of life, but the single most memorable one may be: "Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in." The 1992 tune is about accepting the imperfect things in life, and understanding that we all fall short of greatness. In a 2005 essay, Andrew Sullivan reflected on it. "There’s a line in a Leonard Cohen song that has always stayed with me," he wrote. "It kept me going in a bleak moment in my life, when I thought, as we all sometimes do, that I couldn't see how good could come out of the dark I have turned my life into." He was talking about "Anthem." Many others have turned to the song during times of crisis. It's just one of Cohen's many gifts to the world. 

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“Everybody Knows”

Leonard Cohen wrote "Everybody Knows" in 1988, but to many Americans right now, it probably feels like it was written for this very moment in history. "Everybody knows the war is over," Cohen sings. "Everybody knows the good guys lost/Everybody knows the fight was fixed/The poor stay poor, the rich get rich." The timeless song was most famously used in 1990's Pump Up the Volume, but it's been covered by everybody from Don Henley to Bette Midler. No matter how many times Cohen sang this song in concert, lines like "everybody knows the plague is coming" were always chilling. It was co-written with Sharon Robinson, once again proving her pivotal importance to the Leonard Cohen saga. 

In This Article: Leonard Cohen, Readers Poll

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