Van Morrison's Essential Albums: 'Astral Weeks,' 'Moondance' and More - Rolling Stone
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Van Morrison’s Essential Albums

From teenage garage-rocker to Sixties folk mystic and beyond — we survey more than 50 years of greatness from the king of the Irish soul singers

Van Morrison at the Rainbow Theatre, LondonVarious

We survey Van Morrison's greatest albums, from staples like 'Moondance' to overlooked gems like 'No Guru, No Method, No Teacher.'

Ian Dickson/Shutterstock

Rolling Stone’s Essential Albums guides survey an iconic artist’s discography, breaking down their finest LPs into three tiers: Must-Haves, Further Listening, and Going Deeper. We also recommend key tracks from other releases under the heading More Gems.

Speaking to Rolling Stone in 1978, Van Morrison came as close as he probably ever will to summing up the essence of his genius. “The only time I actually work with words is when I’m writing a song,” he told Jonathan Cott. “After it’s written, I release the words; and every time I’m singing, I’m singing syllables. I’m just singing signs and phrases.”

Van Morrison’s actual voice is one in a million, a jaw-droppingly versatile instrument that can range from the most delicate croon to the roughest growl. But maybe the single quality that sets him apart from any other singer-songwriter you might name as a peer is that act of reaching beyond language. He’s firmly rooted in familiar genres — mainly blues, jazz, and R&B, fixations he’s never strayed from during his six-decade career— but his performances always have the potential to turn on a dime from mundane to transcendent once he starts releasing the words, improvising his way toward the hidden truth that underlies a given song.

In his seventies, the Belfast-born Morrison has only grown more prolific. And he’s still stubbornly pursuing that exalted space where language breaks down — listen to the way he gradually climbs toward blissful abstraction in the second half of “Dark Night of the Soul,” a track from his 41st LP, Three Chords and the Truth. As Morrison heads deeper into his sixth decade as a performing artist, we survey his vast body of work.

Must-Haves: Astral Weeks (1968)

After fronting Belfast garage-R&B crew Them, a 21-year-old Morrison scored a Top 10 hit with 1967’s “Brown Eyed Girl.” But the Irish singer’s second LP showed how little he cared for glossy pop concision. On lengthy tracks like “Beside You” and “Cyprus Avenue,” Morrison blasted off into free-folk nirvana with help from a backing band staffed with jazz virtuosos. The singer’s acrobatic vocal feats — the blissfully ragged melisma on the title track, or the famous speaking-in-tongues climax of “Madame George”  — exemplify his career-long quest to break through the barriers of conventional song and into pure ecstatic sound.

Must-Haves: Moondance (1970)

If Astral Weeks is the sound of Morrison rejecting radio-friendly formatting, Moondance captures him utterly excelling within it. “That was the type of band I dig,” Morrison said of the Moondance sessions. “Two horns and a rhythm section — they’re the type of bands that I like best.” The result is a transporting evocation of romantic rapture — from “And It Stoned Me,” an easy-rolling ode to nature and innocence, to the jazzy come-on “Moondance” to “Into the Mystic,” a cosmic love song to end all cosmic love songs. It’s his most durable, listenable LP.

Must-Haves: Saint Dominic’s Preview (1972)

“Kind of rushed,” Morrison said of his sixth LP, “but I thought it was a good shot.” It’s a sampler platter of everything he does well: celebratory R&B belting, on “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile)”; laid-back blues, on “I Will Be There”; spiritual folk grandeur, on “Almost Independence Day.” The title track — one of his most moving moments — finds Morrison, then living in San Francisco, expressing just how far he feels from his hometown (“It’s a long way to Belfast city too”) at the height of the Troubles.

Must-Haves: It’s Too Late to Stop Now (1974)

Morrison can be a legendarily surly performer, but when he’s on, he can also be one of rock’s most electrifying old-school showmen. The irrefutable proof lies on this double LP, recorded at a series of shows in the spring and summer of 1973 with the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, his impeccably drilled 11-piece band. (“He had these signals behind his back,” guitarist John Platania later told Rolling Stone. “We knew instantly we had to bring it down, and then we’d build it up again.”) Morrison serves up a fiery, clap-along “Gloria” and a brisk, horns-and-piano-drenched “Domino,” climaxing with a marathon take on the Astral Weeks stunner “Cyprus Avenue.”

Must-Haves: Veedon Fleece (1974)

Maybe better than any other album in his catalog, Veedon Fleece effortlessly bridges the divide between Morrison’s earthier, more genre-bound material and his expansive, poetic side. On one hand, the LP finds him reaching for Celtic-soul transcendence on sprawling, dizzyingly gorgeous excursions like molasses-paced opener “Fair Play” and incantatory epic “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push the River”; on the other, it also demonstrates his sustained mastery of more straightforward folk-rock (“Bulbs”) and Moondance-style pop-R&B (“Comfort You”). No matter the approach, every track here is drenched with feeling and mysticism, and the marvelously sympathetic band — featuring many of the players heard on It’s Too Late to Stop Now, recorded the year prior — spurs Van to breathtaking vocal heights. “I don’t have a clue what most of that album is about,” Morrison said later of Veedon Fleece. “I think I was picking those songs out of the air. Psychic air, whatever you want to call it.”

Further Listening: Into the Music (1979)

After a stellar early-Seventies run, Morrison’s output slowed in the latter half of the decade. But everything clicked on this handsomely varied set. Complemented by tasteful horns, strings, and backing vocals, Morrison gives each track exactly what it needs, from joyous R&B-meets-gospel shouting on “Bright Side of the Road” to heartfelt praise-singing on “Troubadours.” The highlight is “And the Healing Has Begun,” an eight-minute seduction opus that makes horniness seem holy. “We gonna stay up… all night long,” Morrison shouts at the climax, “and then we’re gonna go out and run across the fields!”

Further Listening: Blowin’ Your Mind! (1967)

In many ways, Morrison’s entire career is a reaction to his first LP, a pop-soul set that spawned “Brown Eyed Girl.” The singer has all but disowned the album in the years since, citing it as more producer Bert Berns’ vision then his own and saying that he “almost threw up” when he saw its cartoonish psychedelic cover. In fact, Blowin’ Your Mind! is full of versatile songwriting — see the hard-driving “Ro Ro Rosey” and the haunting, Astral Weeks–foreshadowing “T.B. Sheets.” An extended reissue, The Authorized Bang Collection, includes snide nonsense songs like “Ring Worm” and “Want a Danish,” which he recorded to get out of his contract. “We put an album together,” he sings on one of the more barbed tracks. “It’s called Blowin’ Your Nose.”

Further Listening: Tupelo Honey (1971)

Morrison’s fifth LP took the romanticism of Moondance and distilled it into a suite of supremely chill folk-infused soul. The album’s best songs — inspired by life in Woodstock with his first wife, Janet “Planet” Rigsbee — capture a distinctly rural kind of domestic bliss. The album cover shows Morrison leading Planet on a horse through sun-dappled woods, and songs like “Old Old Woodstock,” with its postcard descriptions of small-town living, exude tranquility. Meanwhile, epic love ballads “You’re My Woman” and “Tupelo Honey” show how much feeling the singer, not yet 30 at this point, could wring out of standard song forms.

Further Listening: The Healing Game (1997)

“Here I am again/Back on the corner again/Back where I belong/Where I’ve always been,” Morrison sings on the title track from his 26th LP. Inspired by the days of doo-wop, the song seems to represent Morrison’s declaration that fame hasn’t altered his fundamental course. But what’s so satisfying about the record — a clear highlight of his mid-period discography — is how much experience and wisdom his performances convey. On relaxed, assured tracks like “Rough God Goes Riding” and “Fire in the Belly,” the then-51-year-old employs the full range of his mature voice, still stretching for those thrilling high notes but also reveling in rumbling lows.

Going Deeper: The Angry Young Them! (1965)

In his teenage years, Morrison was already a garage-band howler for the ages. Them’s first album captures what it must have been like to hear him belting out preternaturally intense R&B at Belfast’s Maritime Hotel in 1964. Tracks such as “Just a Little Bit” and “I Like It Like That” find him spitting and snarling like a proto-punk, his unhinged fury presaging Captain Beefheart as much as Iggy Pop. He’s every bit as convincing on a dreamy ballad like “Don’t Look Back.” And then there’s “Gloria”: 160 seconds of British Invasion perfection.

Going Deeper: No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986)

Glossy mid-Eighties production can’t dull this gem from an undervalued Morrison era. The singer is deep in his mystic-gospel wheelhouse on “Foreign Window,” where he evokes the “palace of the Lord,” while he alludes to Astral Weeks on “In the Garden,” a song that seems to depict the same kind of exalted romance portrayed on that classic LP. Along with the spirituality, there’s a weary crankiness: On “Thanks for the Information,” Morrison sings that whenever he’s “breaking through to a new level of consciousness, there always seems to be more obstacles in the way.”

Going Deeper: Irish Heartbeat (1988)

References to Morrison’s Irish heritage cropped up more and more in his songs over time. On this set, recorded with the Chieftains, he dove in headfirst, joining the Celtic-folk legends on a set of traditional songs and reworkings of titles from his recent solo catalog. The blend of the ancient (“Star of the County Down,” where you can imagine Morrison & Co. soundtracking a dance in a town square) and the contemporary (the title track, a hymn-like ballad originally heard on his 1983 LP Inarticulate Speech of the Heart) makes for a potent, gently surreal contrast. The best moments come when the division between the two styles falls away, as on “Raglan Road,” a tale of doomed love where stirring fiddle and uilleann pipes offset the singer’s craggy, passionate delivery.

Going Deeper: Pay the Devil (2006)

Morrison’s Nineties and 2000s discography is studded with covers-heavy, genre-themed albums. Each of these has its moments, but the best might be this country outing, which features a track list mostly drawn from the repertoires of icons like Hank Williams and Merle Haggard. Hard-luck tales like “There Stands the Glass” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart” are a great fit for Morrison’s husky late-era voice, and “Big Blue Diamonds” inspires him to test the limits of his still-impressive range.

Going Deeper: The Prophet Speaks (2018)

The singer’s 40th studio album continued a late-career roll that began with 2016’s Keep Me Singing. It’s a loose, unfussy LP with the feel of a club set. Covers of songs by Morrison heroes including John Lee Hooker, Sam Cooke, and Solomon Burke blend seamlessly with originals like “Ain’t Gonna Moan No More,” a slow-burning ode to the musician’s eternal quest. A track like Hooker’s “Dimples,” where the singer shows off his earthy harmonica chops, trades lines with saxist Troy Roberts, and stretches out the tune to accommodate a litany of growls, wails, and outbursts, feels like a quintessential mature statement from an artist who has fought for more than 50 years to keep his art spontaneous.

More Gems: Them, “Baby, Please Don’t Go” (1964, non-album single)

With a 19-year-old Morrison delivering a ferocious vocal, Them helped turn this blues tune into a raucous rock standard, covered by everyone from AC/DC to Aerosmith.

More Gems: “4% Pantomime” (1971, from the Band’s ‘Cahoots’)

What Levon Helm called an “extremely liquid” session birthed this rip-roaring barroom-style duet with Richard Manuel of the Band. The two trade verses and Manuel blesses Morrison with the fitting nickname “Belfast Cowboy.”

More Gems: “The Great Deception” (1973, from ‘Hard Nose the Highway’)

On this standout from an overlooked LP, Morrison combines a smooth delivery with a cynical view of a counterculture populated by “plastic revolutionaries” and “so-called hippies.”

More Gems: “Caravan” (1978, from the Band’s ‘The Last Waltz’)

Morrison electrified a flagging crowd at the Band’s 1976 farewell show with a roaring version of a Moondance standout. “God bless him for being the showman he is,” Levon Helm later wrote of the singer’s cameo.

More Gems: “Summertime in England” (1980, from ‘Common One’)

Morrison is at his visionary best on this multipart epic, where he combines a survey course’s worth of writer shout-outs (William Blake, T.S. Eliot, and more) with incantatory vocal flights and a refrain (“It ain’t why; it just is”) that seems to sum up his entire outlook on life and art.

More Gems: “Tore Down a la Rimbaud” (1985, from ‘A Sense of Wonder’)

One of Morrison’s better Eighties efforts kicks off with this buoyant, hands-in-the-air track, where the singer praises his muse for giving him “knowledge of myself.”

More Gems: “Rave On, John Donne” (1983, from ‘Inarticulate Speech of the Heart’)

In the Eighties and Nineties, Morrison would often lapse into spoken word. One of the best examples of that trend was this synth-bathed, quasi–New Age mood piece where he free-associates on literature, philosophy, and science. “Drive on with wild abandon,” Morrison recites, addressing the song’s poet namesake.

More Gems: “Crazy Love” (2004, from Ray Charles’ ‘Gen­ius Loves Company’)

At the Songwriters Hall of Fame awards, Morrison traded verses with one of his idols on a loose, effortlessly classy version of a beloved Moondance slow jam.

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