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Essential Leonard Cohen: Margaret Atwood, Mitsou and more on 25 most important songs

Andrea Warner

CBC/Radio-Canada will broadcast the Nov. 6 Montreal Bell Centre Leonard Cohen tribute concert, titled Tower of Song: A Memorial Tribute to Leonard Cohen, on Tuesday, Nov. 7, at 8 p.m. (8:30 p.m. NT) on CBC Radio 2,, ICI Musique and

The commemorative event, with all proceeds going to the Canada Council for the Arts, the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec and the Conseil des arts de Montréal, will feature Borns, Coeur de pirate, Elvis Costello, Lana Del Rey, Feist, Philip Glass, k.d. lang, Bettye Lavette, Courtney Love, Damien Rice, Seth Rogen, Ron Sexsmith, Sting, Patrick Watson, Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites (the Lumineers) and Adam Cohen. The concert will also be televised on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018, at 8 p.m. (8:30 p.m. NT) on CBC and ICI Radio-Canada Télé.

If you're a fan of Leonard Cohen's songs, chances are it's impossible to choose a favourite. The one. The best.

Many people default to "Hallelujah," because of course, it's gorgeous, painful, evocative and occupies a certain space in pop culture thanks to some astounding covers (Jeff Buckley and k.d. lang, for instance). But Cohen's catalogue is rich, with at least 50 songs that could all vie for top spot in a ranked list.

Instead, CBC Music brings you 25 essential Cohen songs, with writeups from everybody such as Margaret Atwood and Mitsou to Chvrches and CBC Music staff. Scroll through the list below to read about why we chose these particular Cohen gems.

Album: Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)
Song: “Suzanne”

“I love so much Leonard Cohen, he has a massive back catalogue. But ‘Suzanne’ or ‘Bird on a Wire’ are probably my favourites. Songs of Leonard Cohen is my favourite record and it’s got all the songs on it that mean the most to me. ‘Suzanne’ and ‘So Long Marianne,’ those kind of melodies combined with his words, it’s the bitter and sweet all together.” — Lauren Mayberry,Chvrches

“‘Suzanne.’ I listened to that so many times. The whole album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, that was my main one going through junior high. That was just when I was just picking up acoustic guitar and trying to sing and doing all of that stuff. It was a big influence on me when I was trying to embrace more the softer side of things and be more musical and lyrical. He’s definitely a good influence when you’re that kid picking up a guitar and that first song and figuring it out.” — Ryan Hemsworth

Album: Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)
Song: “So Long, Marianne”

There aren't enough songs in the world about “Marianne,” no matter which way you spell it. This song is essential because it is a song about beloved memories shared with a pretty one named "Marianne." We all long to laugh and cry with an old friend. Do you have regrets? Do you wish you could have done things differently? —Mary-Anne Korosi, CBC Music

Album: Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)
Song: “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”

Simple and bittersweet, but still profound and lyrical — that’s my favourite type of Cohen song. And I particularly like how his voice has deepened, drowning its earlier Dylan-esque inclinations wherein he sounded like a young boy hoping to convince his lovers that it was best not to be tied down. The dark, bottomless ocean of his gruff tenor gives the song new context and the lyrics stretch easily to meet him. It’s deceptively simple, but that’s the hallmark of a damn fine song. — Andrea Warner, CBC Music

Album: Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)
Song: “Sisters of Mercy”

Whether spiritual or physical, the sisters of mercy are people with whom to take comfort. This Cohen song is an affirmation of life, of love; an acceptance of who you are, and who you're with. A pleasing, familiar melody, the song even maintains a coy yet cheeky attitude, with lines like: "We weren't lovers like that and besides it would still be all right." — Holly Gordon, CBC Music

Album: Songs from a Room (1969)
Song: “The Partisan”

Many don't realize that Leonard Cohen didn't actually pen this powerful song about the horrors of war; it's a translation of "La complainte du partisan," a song about the French forces who fought against German occupation during the Second World War. But Cohen is widely credited with keeping the song alive by recording this evocative, timeless cover in 1969, and introducing the political tale to a whole new generation. — Jennifer Van Evra, CBC Music

Album: Songs of Love and Hate (1971)
Song: “Famous Blue Raincoat”

“‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ is perfect, but I also have a huge soft spot for ‘Hallelujah.’” — James Vincent McMorrow

“I mean anything from his first three albums, they’re all my favourite songs, but let’s go with ‘Famous Blue Raincoat.’ It's incredible.” — Justin Rutledge

Album: Songs of Love and Hate (1971)
Song: “Joan of Arc”

Well, it’s barely a song, really, but his delivery, that tired resignation, is actually brilliantly, disturbingly chilling given the context. The setup is a back-and-forth conversation between Joan of Arc and the fire about to consume her, whole and alive, burned at the stake for heresy. It’s heartbreaking and infuriating, but the fight is also over, it’s too late, and the vocal performance, the “la-la-la-la” refrains, perfectly capture that feeling. — AW

Album: New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974)
Song: “Who By Fire”

“It sounds like an early folk song, the kind that has been passed down through the generations. Except, of course, it's Leonard's poetry.  It also features beautiful and dramatic string arrangements against a single mandolin, which I love. He is a master of that contrast.” — Jill Barber

I love how it opens as though the singer and I are in mid-conversation: "And who by fire…." It's the starting with an “and.” The song could be a nightly newscast. There's the strong echo of an ancient Jewish prayer that asks, "Who shall live and who shall die … who shall perish by fire and who by water." But then Leonard gives us his poetry: "Who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate" — you're right in a film noir. "Who by Fire" takes in all of life and all of death all at once. It's brilliant. — Shelagh Rogers, CBC

It’s sublime. It's probably my favourite clip on YouTube. Leonard and his amazing band, with the addition of Sonny Rollins. Leonard almost (almost) smiles after Sonny's first solo and Leonard and the band break into applause when he finishes the song with some incredible circular breathing and one final, definitive squawk out of his sax. — Julian Tuck, CBC Music

Album: New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974)
Song: “Chelsea Hotel #2”

Is there a greater song about New York's infamous Chelsea Hotel? Cohen's song about a dalliance with an unnamed woman perfectly sums up the mythology of this haunt to the famous and notorious, including Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Tom Waits and Sid Vicious (who was found stabbed to death there in 1978). Finding out that the song is about Janis Joplin gives an extra punch to lines like “You got away, didn't you babe,” but nothing shows Cohen's humility more than a line like this, one of his best: “You told me again you preferred handsome men, but for me you would make an exception.” — Jesse Kinos-Goodin, CBC Music

Album: Death of a Ladies’ Man (1977)
Song: “Don't Go Home With Your Hard-On”

If you don't associate Leonard Cohen with "fun," try this one out. It's got raucous, druggy, '70s Phil Spector production, and Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg help out with one of Cohen's greatest sing-along choruses. — Dave Shumka, CBC Music

Album: Death of a Ladies’ Man (1977)
Song: “True Love Leaves No Trace”

This musical setting for Cohen's poem "As the Mist Leaves No Scar" reverses the lonesome mystery of the original poem with a second vocalist, extra verses and Phil Spector's weirdly retro (even for 1977) production. The supermarket flutes and five-and-dime rimshots lift this song out of its wounds and convey a wistful sense of general beauty that's still convincing. This song sounds like walking back alone from the grocery store, down a tree-lined autumn street at sunset. — Ahmed Khalil, CBC Music

Album: Various Positions (1984)
Song: “Hallelujah”

“It’s gotta be ‘Hallelujah.’ It’s so beautiful and so well written. It’s the only one.” — Mary Lambert 

Album: Various Positions (1984)
Song: “If It Be Your Will”

Cohen himself has described this song as more of a prayer. The simple verses of "If It Be Your Will" embody submission, and yet they come off as incredibly empowering. And sometimes, no matter your take on religion, whether you're spiritual or secular, you just need something to believe in. — Judith Lynch, CBC Music 

Album: Various Positions (1984)
Song: “Dance Me to the End of Love”

“As a band we’ve covered ‘Dance Me to the End of Love' since the very beginning. That was the very first YouTube video I think that we ever put up was ‘Dance Me to the End of Love.’ He is more than an icon, he is like a lyrical demigod [laughs]. To put it lightly. I’m a huge fan.” — Joy Williams, the Civil Wars

Album: I’m Your Man (1988)
Song: “Ain’t No Cure For Love”

If you were to give out an award for the Leonard Cohen song that sounds least like a Leonard Cohen song, "Ain’t No Cure for Love" would probably be the winner. It almost sounds like someone's trying to put one over on you, like "Hey, do you remember when Leonard Cohen made a really funky sax song with an uplifting female vocal chorus? Of course you don't. I made that up." Except it's a real thing that happened, and that he was able to operate so far out of his comfort zone and still make such a great song is proof positive of his legendary status. — Chris Dart, CBC Music

Album: I’m Your Man (1988)
Song: “I’m Your Man”

"How much amazing music Canada seems to produce over the years. Every songwriter should look to Leonard Cohen for lyrics. It is phenomenal what he does. It's very different from what I do, but I have a massive respect for him." —Passenger

Album: I’m Your Man (1988)
Song: “Tower of Song”

Leonard Cohen pays tribute to one of his earlier musical influences in ‘Tower of Song,’ Hank Williams Sr., whose songwriting abilities Cohen ranks as being ‘a hundred floors above me.’ —Cathy Irving, CBC Music

Album: I’m Your Man (1988)
Song: “Everybody Knows”

Technically, this song should be annoying. Cohen repeats the title phrase ad nauseam, casually berating everybody for their world apathy while talk-singing in a rather detached, dispassionate voice. But it isn’t annoying. And that’s because Cohen has used all this to disguise the true gist of the song: a private message to his lover. You think you are being discrete, Cohen, but everybody knows. This is impossibly good songwriting. — Mark MacArthur, CBC Music

Album: I’m Your Man (1988)
Song: “First We Take Manhattan”

Leonard Cohen always sounds like he's seen it all. With this synthy little​ snippet of pop paranoia, he raised the stakes, sounding like he'd seen it all before it happened. Ringing with memorable lines and ennobled by Cohen's ever-deepening grand old manner, “First We Take Manhattan” evokes a man mortally wounded who refuses — refuses — to die. — AK

Album: I’m Your Man (1988)
Song: “Take This Waltz”

Cohen was so deeply fascinated by Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca that he named his daughter Lorca. His translation of the poet's Pequeño Vals Vienès became "Take This Waltz" and was clearly a labour of love, despite his stone-faced performance in the video. We also love it in Sarah Polley's 2011 film of the same name. — Michael Morreale, CBC Music

Album: The Future (1992)
Song: “The Future”

"I’m very fond of some of Leonard Cohen’s songs. Why don’t you play ‘The Future.’ I think it’s very apocalyptic. [And those are landscapes very familiar in your work?] Well, what if Leonard’s right?" —Margaret Atwood

Album: The Future (1992)
Song: “Anthem”

"I love Leonard Cohen's songs, but I also love this piece of poem: ‘There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in.’ And to me, that expresses living in general." —Mitsou

Album: The Future (1992)
Song: “Waiting for the Miracle”

Cohen's musical tastes have always run to the popular idiom, the real core of his songs being the lyrics. Every once in a while, however, he manages a perfect conjoining of style and substance, as in this impossibly wised-up and world-weary song of hope. A message from a man in limbo, or the voice of a ghost who haunts the shore, "Waiting for the Miracle" looks down from a hill of ashes on love's labours lost, and offers all that remains: more love. —AK

Album: The Future (1992)
Song: “Closing Time”

"I’ve been covering Leonard Cohen for years and I do ‘Closing Time’ a lot. My mother had two first editions of his books, Let’s Compare Mythologies and Spicebox Earth. I went to the University of Montreal and the first week of school this guy came over and was like, ‘I hear you like Leonard Cohen,’ and I didn’t know Leonard Cohen was a singer. I could quote everything, but I got into his music later on. I mean, I must have known he was a performer, because I liked ‘Closing Time’ when it came out. I remember when ‘Closing Time’ was on MuchMusic and I remember being home sick for the day and watching that video for the first time and being like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty awesome,’ and eating Kraft Dinner [laughs]." —Old Man Luedecke

Album: Ten New Songs (2001)
Song: “A Thousand Kisses Deep”

"A Thousand Kisses Deep" might be one of the saddest songs. It makes me feel all the feelings, feelings that I barely understand, but that's what's amazing and powerful about it. —Samantha Smith, CBC Music