Van Morrison’s voice is an expressive instrument which synthesises his Irish roots with the R&B and jazz that he grew up hearing in Belfast. His exploration of Celtic Soul has effectively fuelled his entire career, as he veered between commercial pop and more uncompromising efforts. Even if his solo career can sometimes feel obstinate and inconsistent, his body of work is uniquely his own, and he should be remembered as a giant of his era; U2 are perhaps his only competition as Ireland’s greatest musical export.
I’ve been reviewing Van Morrison’s discography this week and I’m confident on what my five favourite Van Morrison albums are. So (drum roll please…) presenting my five favourite Van Morrison studio albums:
Beautiful Vision (1982):
Beautiful Vision is one of Van Morrison’s most settled, comfortable albums, like a calmer take on the Into The Music sound, and it’s relatively insular with its low key explorations of spirituality and Irish heritage. Even if he’s sometimes treading water musically, there are plenty of great songs here, and it’s one of his more consistent, most substantial records, even if it’s less adventurous and less universal than his earlier work.
#5 Veedon Fleece (1974)
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 (1968)
Astral Weeks is a fascinating record; it sounds different from anyone Van Morrison or anyone else has created, and for adventurous music listeners it’s worth picking up for that reason alone. Although Morrison arguably balanced jazzy exploration with more accessible work on subsequent albums like St. Dominic’s Preview and Veedon Fleece, Astral Weeks is his most extreme statement which alone makes it essential as a unique effort in the canon of popular music.
#3 Moondance (1970)
Astral Weeks showcased the stream-of-consciousness, improvisational side of Van Morrison’s music, Moondance is 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 (1972)
Morrison’s failing marriage informs his music on Saint Dominic’s Preview. The love songs of the “domestic trilogy” are replaced with more eclectic and ambitious material. Saint Dominic’s Preview is perhaps 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 (1979)
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.
While these five albums tend to be among his most well recognised, putting the acclaimed Astral Weeks at #4 is probably unconventional. Hardcore 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:
This post has a sequel, covering his 1980s work: https://albumreviews.blog/2018/11/06/favourite-five-van-morrison-in-the-1980s/.
There’s also more coverage of Van Morrison here: https://albumreviews.blog/reviews/van-morrison/
Do you have a favourite Van Morrison album? Or a favourite song? Should I be checking out his post 1991 career?