"Hallelujah" is a song written by Leonard Cohen in 1984, and never officially released as a single. It has become famous mainly through cover versions, and has been recorded by hundreds of artists. In 2008, American Idol contestent Jason Castro sang a version that caused Jeff Buckley's famous cover to rocket to the top of the Billboard Hot Digital Songs chart (you know, the kids these days with their iTunes and what-not). Buckley's rendition became a Platinum single on April 22, 2008, eleven years after his death and fourteen years after its original release -- despite never being officially released as a single.
"Hallelujah" has appeared in endless TV shows and movies. According to Wikipedia, it has appeared in: The West Wing, Crossing Jordan, Without a Trace, The O.C., Scrubs, House, Criminal Minds, ER, Third Watch, Ugly Betty, and LAX; and the films Feast of Love, The Edukators, Vinterkyss and Lord of War. I also happen to know it popped up in The Watchmen, The L Word, Shrek, and probably many more. This song is everywhere.
Here are ten of the best-known versions of the song. There are actually so many "well-known" covers of "Hallelujah" that I couldn't include them all in a top 10 -- go search YouTube for more. (One very notable version is the one by Espen Lind featuring Kurt Nilsen, Alejandro Fuentes and Askil Holm, which cannot be embedded.)
1. Jeff Buckley (Live in Studio)
Although this version differs a little from his famous album version (it has a longer intro), Jeff Buckley's is the most famous cover of "Hallelujah." It was inspired by John Cale's version (#4 below) and was released on Buckley's album "Grace" in 1994.
2. Rufus Wainwright
Wainwright's version is nearly as famous as Buckley's, because it appeared on the Shrek soundtrack (despite John Cale's version actually being used in the film). Wainwright's album version is actually my favorite version of the song. Another notable Wainwright performance is from the Leonard Cohen documentary "I'm Your Man," and includes vocals from Joan Wasser (Buckley's girlfriend) and Martha Wainwright.
3. k.d lang
It's not news that k.d. lang can really, really sing. But still, her vocal control in this live version is stunning. The last note goes on forever, and the video includes nearly a full minute of standing ovation. If this doesn't make you cry, I don't know what will.
4. John Cale
John Cale is credited for popularizing Cohen's song with his early cover. This arrangement seemed really weird to me until I listened to it several times. Watch John Cale and a string quartet perform the classic song in 1992.
5. Sheryl Crow
Crow speeds it up a bit, and her guitar treatment is different than most -- she capos on the first fret. Wicked. (For guitar nerds, most versions are performed capo'd at the 5th fret and played in "G", thus sung in the key of C.)
6. Allison Crowe
Crowe's album "Tidings" featured songs recorded in a single take. Here's one of them.
7. Damien Rice
Performed in 2008, at Leonard Cohen's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Also interesting to see that he's playing capo'd at the third fret. See a more emotional/quiet version from Rice here.
8. Justin Timberlake and Matt Morris
Part of the "Hope for Haiti Now" benefit in January, 2010. Sorry about the weird popup YouTube thingies embedded here -- don't click them -- but this version actually has the best sound of any on YouTube.
9. Regina Spektor
Live in 2005, with phrasing more like Cohen's than most covers. Audio only.
10. Leonard Cohen
Of course, Leonard Cohen actually wrote the song in the first place. Check out that last verse. Cohen reportedly said of the song: "I wanted to write something in the tradition of the hallelujah choruses but from a different point of view.... It's the notion that there is no perfection -- that this is a broken world and we live with broken hearts and broken lives but still that is no alibi for anything. On the contrary, you have to stand up and say 'hallelujah' under those circumstances."
A Note for Non-Musicians
The lyrics "it goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, and the major lift" refer to the chord progression of the song itself as those lyrics are sung. Although the verse is about King David, the lyrics now seem like Cohen is winking at the listener -- teaching future generations with his own lyrics in the first verse how to cover his song. The chords to this bit are: C, F (the fourth), G (the fifth), A minor (the minor fall), and F (the major lift).
Today is October 10, 2010—10.10.10. To celebrate, we've got all our writers working on 10 lists, which we'll be posting throughout the day and night. To see all the lists we've published so far, click here.