Van Morrison’s voice is an expressive instrument. It combines his Irish heritage with the R&B and jazz that he grew up hearing in Belfast. His exploration of Celtic soul has fuelled his entire career, as he has veered between accessible pop and more enigmatic records. Van Morrison’s first two authorised studio records illustrate this divide; 1968’s Astral Weeks was an expressive song cycle with stream-of-consciousness lyrics, while 1970’s Moondance was a collection of punchy, radio-friendly R&B songs.
Van Morrison kept making interesting music through the 1980s – I lost track after 1991’s Hymns to the Silence, a bloated double album with little innovation. Despite the excellence of records like No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, my favourite Van Morrison albums are all drawn from the 1960s and 1970s.
Van Morrison’s Five Best Studio Albums
#5 – Veedon Fleece
Veedon Fleece was the last album from Van Morrison’s initial run of solo records; subsequently he went into semi-retirement for three years, only emerging to appear in The Band’s The Last Waltz. In some respects, it’s almost the completion of the circle begun with Astral Weeks; returning to Ireland at the end of his marriage, Veedon Fleece is more steeped in acoustic mysticism than any of his releases since Astral Weeks, and it’s similarly loose in feel. It’s also more noticeably more Irish than anything he’d released previously; there’s little R&B here, using more folk-oriented, acoustic instrumentation, and the lyrics reference William Blake and figures from Irish mythology.
#4 – Astral Weeks
The improvised song cycle Astral Weeks is a fascinating record; it sounds different from anything that Van Morrison, or anyone else, has ever created. For adventurous music listeners it’s worth picking up for that reason alone. He’d return to the virtuoso singing, stream-of-consciousness later in his career, like on the second side of Into The Music. Astral Weeks shows it in its purest form, like the epic opener ‘Astral Weeks’ and the celebrated ‘Madame George’.
#3 – Moondance
Astral Weeks showcased the stream-of-consciousness, improvisational side of Van Morrison’s music, Moondance is the converse; based around punchy R&B and concise pop songs. Side one is packed with five outstanding compositions; the title track, where Van plays Sinatra, is the most well known, but ‘Crazy Love’ is pretty, ‘Caravan’ is jaunty, ‘Into The Mystic’ is lovely and esoteric, while ‘And It Stoned Me’ is all of the above.
#2 – Saint Dominic’s Preview
Morrison’s failing marriage informs Saint Dominic’s Preview. The love songs of the “domestic trilogy” (Van Morrison’s three records from 1970 and 1971) are replaced with more eclectic and ambitious material. Saint Dominic’s Preview is the quintessential album of Van Morrison’s early career, covering both punchy R&B pop craft like the opening ‘Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile)’ and artier impulses like the ten minute semi-improvisations that close each side of the original LP.
#1 – Into The Music
Into The Music is a blue-print of the adult contemporary direction than Van Morrison would pursue during the 1980s, but the song writing is so sharp that it’s his best album. It’s slickly produced and loaded with backing vocalists, strings, saxophones, and other adult contemporary paraphernalia, but for these joyous songs the sensory overload approach works beautifully, like being swept away by a wave of intertwined sexual and spiritual power.
These five albums are among Van Morrison’s most well-received, although placing the acclaimed Astral Weeks at #4 is unconventional – it would be a lot stronger without ‘Beside You’ as the second track. Dedicated Van Morrison fans tend to gravitate to his more insular, atmospheric albums like 1980’s Common One and 1986’s No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. My favourite Van Morrison song isn’t drawn from any of those albums – it’s the title track from 1971’s Tupelo Honey.
Do you have a favourite Van Morrison album? Or a favourite song?