“Hallelujah is a Hebrew word which means, ‘Glory to the Lord,’” the late Leonard Cohen once noted when asked about “Hallelujah,” quite possibly the best-known song in his rich and enduring catalog of compositions. “The song explains that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist. I say all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have an equal value. It’s a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way, but with enthusiasm, with emotion.”
Though it certainly wasn’t what he was referring to, many kinds of “Hallelujah”s — as in, versions of Cohen’s song — exist as well, but with wildly varying degrees of value. Thanks to its hymn-like pace, Biblical allusions, slow-building melody and an emotional Rorschach test of a chorus, “Hallelujah” has become the go-to over the last two decades for anyone looking to inject heart-tugging, eye-moistening, mic-dropping musical gravitas into, well, practically any situation that demands it.
Music journalist Alan Light, author of the 2012 book “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah,’” calls the song “one of the most loved, most performed and most misunderstood compositions of all time,” and it’s hard to argue with his assessment. From weddings and funerals to blockbuster films and TV dramas, from major sporting events to televised singing competitions, from political rallies to drunken karaoke nights, “Hallelujah” has been repeatedly rolled out to the point of severe oversaturation. And perhaps unsurprisingly, its performers have often completely steamrolled the wry humor, sexual rumblings and self-contained joyousness of Cohen’s lyrics in their attempts to amplify the song’s ingrained profundity.
The top 50 cover versions of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ ranked!
Of course, the flip-side to the maddening pop cultural ubiquitousness of “Hallelujah” is that — like Cohen’s “Suzanne” and “Bird on a Wire” before it — the song is both deeply felt and pliable enough to have inspired some genuinely moving interpretations by a diverse array of talented artists. In fact, as Light explains in “The Holy or the Broken,” “Hallelujah” largely owes its lasting popularity not to Cohen’s original recording (which appeared on his commercially unsuccessful 1984 album “Various Positions”), but to Jeff Buckley’s 1994 rendition, which was in turn based upon a version that John Cale had recorded three years earlier.
To rank every recorded version of “Hallelujah” would be a fool’s errand — there are easily 500 of them floating around on the internet, and probably many more if you factor in videos of concert and home performances. But here are 50 notable renditions that run from the terrible to the transcendent, all of them testifying in one way or another to the song’s apparent immortality.
50. The Osmonds
Look, I’ll be the first person to go to bat for the Osmonds’ hard-rocking environmental anthem “Crazy Horses,” but the Mormon brothers’ syrupy 2015 rendition of “Hallelujah” — which rewrites most of Cohen’s lyrics and reduces the song to a one-dimensional Jesus anthem — is just plain horse poop.
49. Michael Bolton featuring MB’s Children’s Choir
You already know it’s going to be rough sledding when you read the words “Michael Bolton and Children’s Choir,” but even that forbidding billing won’t sufficiently prepare you for the New Age-y awfulness of this 2011 version, which bolts on a completely unnecessary key change near the end for extra saccharine overload.
“The most perfect song in the world,” is how U2’s frontman once described “Hallelujah,” and it certainly takes a perfect song to withstand the wretched trip-hop treatment Bono subjected it to on the 1995 Cohen tribute album “Tower of Song.” This version is so cringeworthy that Bono himself later apologized for it, telling Alan Light that “I didn’t just let myself down, or my parents, I let the whole school down.”
47. Bon Jovi
Perhaps the most amusing thread running through Jon Bon Jovi’s career is how seriously he takes himself as an artist even when no one else does. Case in point: this dreary, countrified 2007 cover, which strains mightily for greatness but never gets even halfway there.
46. Susan Boyle
Boyle’s 2019 version is pretty much what you’d expect from the “Britain’s Got Talent” star, with her angelic vocals set against a ponderous, treacly arrangement.
45. Imogen Heap
Much beloved by fans of TV’s “The O.C.,” which famously used it to soundtrack the 2006 death scene of Mischa Barton’s character Marissa Cooper, Heap’s overly breathy acapella version will test the patience (or tolerance for pitchiness) of just about everyone else.
44. Tangerine Dream
A cosmic, pulsating instrumental cover of “Hallelujah” is what I would expect from Edgar Froese’s pioneering German electronic outfit. Alas, this damp squib of a vocal version (which appeared on 2010’s “Under Cover — Chapter One”) is what they actually gave us.
“Hallelujah” has been a magnet for acapella groups, and this 2016 Pentatonix rendition is generally considered the gold standard by those who are into such things. But while there’s no denying the group’s talent, the song comes off as unbearably bland here — probably because the singers show no real connection to the lyrics — and the soft breakbeats that show up around the two-minute mark seem totally misplaced.
42. Adam Sandler
Sandler’s comedic “Sandy Screw Ya” rewrite — performed with Paul Shaffer at Madison Square Garden for the 12-12-12 Hurricane Sandy Benefit Concert — served as a much-needed poke at the overuse of “Hallelujah” in somber memorials and charity events. But if you can listen to it more than once at a time, you’re made of sterner stuff than I.
41. The Voice Coaches
Performed in December 2012 by Cristina Aguilera, Cee-Lo, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton with assistance from Carson Daly, Christina Milian and “The Voice” contestants as a tribute to those killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, this is the rare version of “Hallelujah” that may actually be too short; clocking in at barely two minutes, this well-meaning performance just doesn’t get enough camera time to achieve lift-off.
40. Alexandra Burke
The winner of the fifth series of TV’s “The X Factor,” Burke scored a number one hit in the UK in 2008 with a rendition so showy and ululation-packed that it inspired a legion of appalled Jeff Buckley fans to send his version to number two.
39. Johnny Mathis
Mathis is a national treasure, and “Hallelujah” should be right in his wheelhouse, but this rendition from his 2017 album “Johnny Mathis Sings the New American Songbook” doesn’t work — chiefly because of the way his vocals have been treated by producer Kenneth “Babyface” Edwards. The use of Auto-Tune here is both completely unnecessary and massively distracting.
38. Kate McKinnon
Dressed as her recurring Hilary Clinton character, McKinnon essayed a solo piano rendition of “Hallelujah” for the cold open of “Saturday Night Live” following the election of Donald Trump in November 2016. Ultimately, her performance will be remembered more for her closing comment of “I’m not giving up and neither should you” — as well as its dignified contrast to the tantrums of Trump and his minions following his 2020 election loss — than for anything musical.
In an interesting twist, Yeshiva University acapella group Maccabeats dispensed with Cohen’s lyrics altogether, using the melody of “Hallelujah” as a setting for the Jewish liturgical poem “Lecha Dodi.” The Maccabeats themselves sound great, but too bad about the lame electronic beats that also happen to be part of this 2010 track.
36. The Canadian Tenors and Celine Dion
One of many talented vocal groups to tackle “Hallelujah” without ever digging too deeply into what it’s actually about, the Canadian Tenors sound perfectly fine here on this 2010 “Oprah” broadcast — but the performance only really catches fire when Canadian icon Celine Dion makes a surprise appearance to join in the fun.
35. Tori Kelly
Since “Hallelujah” worked so well in “Shrek,” it was only a matter of time before the song showed up in another animated Hollywood film. “American Idol” veteran Tori Kelly recorded this serviceable version for 2016’s “Sing,” in which she voiced the role of a stagefright-afflicted teenage elephant named Meena.
34. Matt Buechele
As most “Hallelujah” interpreters tend to overlook the humor lurking in the song’s stanzas, Cohen would have surely appreciated Fallon writer Buechele’s “10 singers in 60 seconds” approach here, even if some of his imitations aren’t actually all that impressive. (I would pay cash money to hear the whole song sung in his Kermit the Frog voice, though.)
Speaking of humor — while it’s unlikely that German metal vets Bonfire meant to go for the funny bone with their 2018 power ballad arrangement of “Hallelujah,” I still find myself laughing hysterically with every fretboard squeal. If Spinal Tap had tried covering the song, it might have sounded something like this.
32. Yaron Herman
French-Israeli jazz pianist Herman performed a lovely Keith Jarrett-esque take at France’s Victoires du Jazz awards ceremony in 2009, deconstructing the song’s melody while also tapping into its more joyful aspects.
31. Yolanda Adams
Stark and powerful as the visuals that accompanied it, Adams’ gospel-tinged acapella delivery of “Hallelujah” lent added poignancy to January 2021’s national COVID remembrance ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. It’s only two minutes long, but a full version performed like this (and in this context) would have been unbearably devastating.
30. Kate Voegele
Singer/actress Voegele made the Billboard charts for the first time with her 2008 cover of “Hallelujah,” which she also sang on the popular TV show “One Tree Hill.” If her vocal approach is occasionally a little too “American Idol”-esque, her lovely guitar fingerpicking makes up for it.
29. Theory of a Deadman
These Canadian hard rockers dialed back their amps for an acoustic-based 2016 version that — while possibly being a tad overlong — feels surprisingly heartfelt. Or maybe it’s just the “rescued kitten” theme of the video that really brings on that “dust in my eye” effect.
28. Popa Chubby
This unfortunately-named blues-rocker’s sweaty, SRV-esque 2010 performance of the song might not be the most subtle in the canon, but the way he digs into it — both at the mic and on the fretboard — makes for a surprisingly fresh-sounding alternative to all the dreary, dirge-y versions out there.
27. Enrique Morente y Lagartija Nick
Morente — an innovative and highly controversial flamenco singer — and Cohen were huge admirers of each other, and Morente’s remarkable 1996 recording of “Aleluya” is unlike any you’ve ever heard. Recorded with Spanish alt-rock band Lagartija Nick, it’s a wild ride that mixes traditional flamenco with distorted rock, topped with Morente’s unbelievably intense vocals.
26. Michael McDonald
Your mileage on McDonald’s version (from his 2008 album “Soul Speak”) likely varies depending on how much you dig his blue-eyed soul shtick. Personally, I find the laid-back groove he lays down here oddly appealing, especially in comparison to the rigid approaches usually favored by performers of this song. And as always with McDonald, you can really hear the beard!
25. Eric Church
Country singer-songwriter Church closed his 2016 EP “Mr. Misunderstood On The Rocks: Live and (Mostly) Unplugged Live” with this nicely downhome version of “Hallelujah.” Armed only with an electric guitar, and backed only by the singing of some extremely enthusiastic audience members, Church turned the song into something both personal and joyfully communal, like cracking a favorite beer on your back porch with a bunch of friends.
24. Chris Botti
A nicely atmospheric instrumental reading from trumpeter Chris Botti, as featured on his 2002 album “December.” No acrobatics or histrionics, just sweet melody set perfectly against a somber backdrop. 23. Jake Shimabukuro
Another fine instrumental version, this one recorded in 2018 by ukulele virtuoso Shimabukuro. If it’s a little odd at first to hear the melody played in such a high register, you quickly give in to the sound as the soothing track warmly washes over you.
22. Myles Kennedy
In December 2019 at the Paris Olympia, the Alter Bridge frontman performed “Hallelujah” in tribute to Jeff Buckley, who had recorded a live album at the same venue in 1995. Using Buckley’s own Telecaster, Kennedy delivered an appropriately gorgeous solo version of the tune.
21. Keren Ann
Recorded as a bonus track for the Israeli-born singer-songwriter’s self-titled 2007 album, this pleasingly rumpled rendition sounds like it was casually tossed off right before closing time at some Parisian dive — and is all the better for it.
20. Justin Timberlake and Matt Morris
One of the highlights of January 2010’s “Hope for Haiti” telethon was this aching performance of “Hallelujah” by Timberlake and Morris, which found the two singers harmonizing like they’d been singing together all their lives. “I think for both of us there was the desire to create something in that moment that was beautiful,” Morris later reflected. “That was really the intention behind it.”
19. Jennifer Hudson
Hudson has been tearing up “Hallelujah” for years, but this performance of the song at the 2019 Global Citizen Prize Awards might be her finest version. It’s showy as hell, of course, but the power of her pipes takes the song straight up to heaven.
18. Rufus Wainwright
The big rap against Wainwright’s 2001 recording of “Hallelujah” was that it wasn’t John Cale’s, since many of those who purchased the Shrek soundtrack for the Cale version they heard in the film were disappointed by the record company switcheroo. Still, it’s a deeply moving performance in its own right.
This North Wales folk group recorded their Welsh-language version of “Hallelujah” in 2005, but didn’t release it until 2008, when they finally landed Cohen’s official approval. While it’s difficult to tell which of Cohen’s verses they’re employing, the Cymraeg words give their version an otherworldly feel, and there’s no mistaking the emotion behind them.
16. Allison Crowe
Crowe has twice recorded piano-based versions of “Hallelujah”: once in 2004, and again recently for the soundtrack of Zack Snyder’s “Justice League.” Though similar in arrangement to her first recording, the new one packs the added power of age and experience —and takes on even deeper resonance with the knowledge that “Hallelujah” was the favorite song of Autumn, Snyder’s daughter, who took her own life in 2017.
15. Damien Rice
Irish singer-songwriter Rice performed the song at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 2008 induction ceremony, in honor of Cohen’s induction. Passionate but beautifully restrained, Rice’s rendition hit the mark without ever having to resort to cheap theatrics or overt solemnity.
14. Puddles Pity Party
It’s highly doubtful that Cohen ever envisioned “Hallelujah” being sung by a 6’8” clown, much less sung really well. But Puddles, the Pagliacci-like alter-ego of Philadelphia-based baritone Mike Geier, completely nailed it in this stunning 2014 performance.
13. Neil Diamond
Nearly 40 years after covering Cohen’s “Suzanne” on his “Stones” LP, the Jewish Elvis recorded “Hallelujah” for 2010’s “Dreams.” While Diamond has occasionally had difficulty keeping his hammier vocal flourishes in check, he plays it straight and reverent here, clearly feeling the power of the song without ever succumbing to the urge to arena-size it.
12. First Aid Kit with Annika Norlin
It’s difficult to breathe new life into a song so oft-covered, but Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit pulled it off with help from guest singer Annika Norlin during their 2017 Leonard Cohen tribute concert in Stockholm. Now available on their 2021 release “Who by Fire,” this gorgeous, slow-burning version hits all the right emotional notes while still bringing something fresh to the table. Even if you think you’ve reached your “Hallelujah” limit, you’ll make room for one more after hearing it.
11. Scary Pockets feat. Judith Hill
OK, here’s one more recent “Hallelujah” to make room for — in 2020, with help from guest vocalist Judith Hill, Scary Pockets somehow managed to totally find the funk in a decidedly un-funky song. The only problem with their rendition is that it’s too short by half!
10. Chester Bennington
The circumstances surrounding this performance — the Linkin Park frontman sang it at the May 2017 funeral of Chris Cornell, two months before Bennington took his own life — are heartrending enough in themselves. But throw in Bennington’s nakedly emotional performance (and tasteful guitar backing from Linkin Park’s Brad Delson), and you’ve got an express ticket for Niagara Falls.
9. Brandi Carlile & the Seattle Symphony
This stunning 2010 performance from Carlile is equal parts pain and exultation, with the Seattle Symphony matching her every move yet never going too far over the top. If you’ve never heard this one, be sure to strap yourself in before hitting Play.
8. Willie Nelson
You know how Willie can basically sing an owner’s instruction manual and make it sound fantastic? Well, it should be no surprise that he pulls off the same trick on this wonderful country-meets-gospel arrangement of “Hallelujah” — complete with steel guitar and high lonesome harmonica — from 2006’s “Songbird.”
7. Regina Spektor
Recorded at the 2005 Jewish Heritage Festival, Spektor’s haunting performance remains one of the most acclaimed versions of the song, and it’s easy to understand why. She deep into the prayerful side of the song, while still retaining a playful, almost conversational element — and the way she draws out the final “Hallelujah” of each chorus is absolutely masterful.
6. Bob Dylan
If there was any artist who could completely relate to the combination of Biblical imagery, sexual-spiritual conflict and early rock and roll chords in “Hallelujah,” it’s Bob Dylan — so this fiery interpretation from his July 8, 1988 concert in Montreal (and the fact that he was the first artist to cover it) makes perfect sense. The only shame is that he’s never done a studio version of the song, or officially released a live one.
5. Leonard Cohen (from Live in London)
Cohen gets two entries on this list — both because he wrote the song in the first place, and because this 2009 live performance differs markedly from his 1984 studio recording, incorporating both the verses from his original take and the previously-unrecorded ones employed by John Cale’s. Plus, Neil Larsen’s Hammond solo totally burns!
4. Leonard Cohen (original 1984 version)
While many listeners prefer Cohen’s sumptuous and elegant Live in London arrangement to the dinky Casio rhythms, over-egged choruses and none-more-Eighties production of the “Various Positions” recording, to my ears the latter elements offer an appealing (and even amusing) contrast to Cohen’s craggy delivery. Plus, you can practically hear him cracking a smile while delivering the line, “But you don’t really care for music, do ya?”— which is worth the price of admission in itself.
3. k.d. lang
lang’s recording of the song for her 2004 album “Hymns of the 49th Parallel” was stellar in itself, but she knocked it even further out of the park when she sang it two years later during Cohen’s induction to the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. Anjani Thomas, Cohen’s partner and musical collaborator, has said that she and Cohen both felt lang’s performance was the definitive one. “We looked at each other and said, “Well, I think we can lay that song to rest now! It’s really been done to its ultimate blissful state of perfection.”
2. Jeff Buckley
While most “Hallelujah” performers sidestep the song’s sexuality in favor of its spiritual uplift, Buckley — who once referred to the song as “a hallelujah to the orgasm” — went straight for the erogenous zones with the gloriously haunting and sensual version he waxed for 1994’s “Grace.” A posthumous hit for the singer-songwriter (who died in 1997), and considered by many to be the quintessential “Hallelujah,” Buckley’s rendition was inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2014.
1. John Cale
Originally recorded for the 1991 tribute album “I’m Your Fan,” Cale’s version — which cherry-picked three of the 70-plus unused verses that Cohen had penned for the song — provided the lyrical template for most subsequent versions of “Hallelujah,” including Cohen’s live performances of the song from 1993 onward. Best-known for its appearance in the 2001 animated comedy film “Shrek,” Cale’s simple voice-and-piano arrangement strips away all artifice, leaving only a warm but world-weary rumination on the sacred and the profane. To my ears, “Hallelujah” doesn’t get more perfect than this.
Dan Epstein is the Forward’s contributing music critic.