Rolling Stone’s Essential Albums 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.