Leonard Cohen: The Essential Leonard Cohen

Adrien Begrand

Poet. Novelist. Buddhist monk. Renowned ladies' man. One of the greatest Canadian songwriters who has ever lived. Who else can I be talking about, other than one Leonard Cohen?

Leonard Cohen

The Essential Leonard Cohen

Label: Legacy
US Release Date: 2002-10-22
UK Release Date: 2002-11-04

Poet. Novelist. Buddhist monk. Renowned ladies' man. One of the greatest Canadian songwriters who has ever lived. Who else can I be talking about, other than one Leonard Cohen? His music has been around for 35 years now, first entrancing young baby boomers in university coffeehouses with his tenor-voiced dreamy songs of love and loss, and 20 years later, appearing as the epitome of cool to young Gen X-ers with his new, raspy, baritone-voiced songs of sardonicism, doom, and more love. It's high time the next generation of kids got to know the guy, and The Essential Leonard Cohen is the perfect place for them to start.

Born in Montreal in 1934, Cohen was a bit of an odd duck when he emerged onto the folk scene in 1967; after all, he was 33, considerably older than all the young groundbreakers in popular music at the time, and besides that, he was already a published poet and writer, with three volumes of poetry and two highly acclaimed novels already under his belt (these days, if a writer tried to be a pop singer, the term "media whore" would be used often by cynics). His maturity, his simple, understated songwriting (combining elements of Bob Dylan's early folk and Charles Aznavour's sophistication), and his great poetic talent gave him a big advantage over his younger peers, and when his first album was released, it was like he was a seasoned veteran.

Nearly half of the songs on The Essential Leonard Cohen focus on Cohen's three greatest albums. His 1967 debut The Songs of Leonard Cohen is represented by five tracks, and it's hard to argue with his selections. The classic ballad "Suzanne", the one Cohen song all our parents know, gained recognition when folk singer Judy Collins put out a rather dowdy version of the song in 1966. Cohen's version, however, is gorgeous, as he sings in that completely unpretentious young voice of his, sparsely accompanied by a quiet acoustic guitar, some very subtle strings, and his siren-like background singers (a device Cohen would employ, with great effect, for his entire career). The darkly esoteric "The Stranger" evokes Dylan's surreal storytelling during 1965-66, while the gentle "Sisters of Mercy" shows more compassion for a restless spirit than Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" did ("You who must leave everything that you cannot control / It begins with your family / But soon it comes round to your soul"). "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye", and especially the Celtic-tinged waltz "So Long Marianne", both with more of those entrancing female vocals, are two of the prettiest love songs you'll ever hear.

When compared to his first album, Cohen's change in his singing voice in the '80s is startling, but it's also much better. Gone is the slightly nasal croon; in its place is a cigarette-ravaged, deep voice that betrays a weary vision of the world in the late Eighties. 1988's I'm Your Man is a spectacular piece of work, and Cohen seems to feel the same way, as six of that album's eight tracks are on this compilation. "Everybody Knows", which was introduced to people my age in the very good movie Pump Up the Volume, has Cohen sounding like a dryly comic voice of doom, over a hypnotic synth accompaniment: "Everybody knows the war is over / Everybody knows the good guys lost / Everybody knows the fight was fixed: the poor stay poor, the rich get rich / That's how it goes". The ominous "First We Take Manhattan", with its classic opening lines, "They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom for trying to change the system from within. I'm coming now, I'm coming to reward them", perfectly encapsulates the growing cynical sentiment late in the "Me" decade. The Kurt Weill-goes-jazz sound of "I'm Your Man" has Cohen at his most carnal ("I'd howl at your beauty like a dog in heat / And I'd claw at your heart / And I'd tear at your sheet"), while the slinky "Tower of Song" is Cohen at his most melancholy ("My friends are gone and my hair is gray / I ache in the places where I used to play"), and "Ain't No Cure For Love", with its syrupy synths and saxophone solo, quickly transcends the rather dated musical arrangement. Meanwhile, the astonishing, beautiful "Take This Waltz" (based on Federico Garcia Lorca's poem "Pequeno Vals Vienes") is also one of the most poetic English interpretations of a Lorca poem you will ever come across.

There are also five selections from Cohen's outstanding 1992 album The Future, which had Cohen focusing more on the state of the world after the Gulf War. He sounds downright menacing on the album's title track, as he very sarcastically looks at a world gone completely astray: "Give me back the Berlin Wall / Give me Stalin and St. Paul / I've seen the future, brother: / It is murder". Cohen describes America as "the cradle of the best and worst" on "Democracy", an acid-tongued satire of Americana in all its worst elements, and on the powerful "Waiting for the Miracle", he depicts a culture desperate for enlightenment. One of the most upbeat songs Cohen has ever written, "Closing Time" is an irresistible, playful, alcohol-soaked romp that is full of surreal humor ("And my very close companion / Gets me fumbling, gets me laughing / She's a hundred but she's wearing something tight"). On "Anthem", he tells us that things are always darkest before the dawn, and offers up a bit of optimism, intoning, "There is a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in".

The rest of the album is a constant parade of classics, from nearly all of Cohen's other albums (with the exception of 1973's Live Songs and the disastrous, Phil Spector-produced Death of a Ladies' Man, from 1977). There's the oft-covered "Bird on a Wire", the moody "The Partisan", the timeless songs "Chelsea Hotel #2" and "Famous Blue Raincoat". "Hallelujah", which has been famously covered by both Jeff Buckley and John Cale, is stunning, and the live rendition of his 1984 song "Dance Me to the End of Love" is Cohen at his most romantic. It's a bit of a surprise that four songs from his 2001 album Ten New Songs have been included, but they more than hold their own on this compilation, especially the exquisite "In My Secret Life". Author Pico Iyer provides some well-written, insightful liner notes.

Diehard fans will definitely have many different complaints of their own (I can practically hear the bickering over the exclusion of "Joan of Arc" and "Last Year's Man"), but Leonard Cohen has done an outstanding job selecting over two and a half hours' worth of his most timeless music. For first-time listeners, this is the absolute best place to start their love affair with Cohen's music; almost every album is represented, and newcomers can decide which full album they'll move onto next. This is the twelfth release in Sony's Essential series, which has included artists like Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Santana, and Johnny Cash, with rather spotty results; however, this lovely compilation is the first in the series that truly deserves the title "Essential".

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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