Van Morrison’s travails with the music industry have punctuated the majority of his half-century-long career in music. Following his departure from Warner Bros. Records in 1983, the legendary singer from Belfast has jumped from label to label ever since, most recently signing with RCA Records for the release of his latest LP, Duets: Re-Working The Catalogue, a collection of collaborations that do just as the title implies. Last month, however—just three days shy of Morrison’s 70th birthday—Sony’s Legacy Recordings acquired the grand majority of his catalog, making 33 records available digitally for streaming services. Additionally, Sony released the 37-track career spanning anthology The Essential Van Morrison.
Looking ahead, Sony has also announced plans to release deluxe Legacy Editions of deep career cuts like Saint Dominic’s Preview, It’s Too Late To Stop Now, Hard Nose the Highway, and Enlightenment. And on October 30, Rhino will be reissuing expanded editions of classics like 1968’s Astral Weeks and 1970’s His Band and the Street Choir, featuring a host of great alternate takes and long versions of key album cuts.
To celebrate this news, Paste has put together a list of 15 of the best Van Morrison songs from all phases of the man’s storied career—the ones that quintessentially define the Northern Irish icon’s wholly unique fusion of blues, jazz, classical, pop, skiffle, and R&B and make him such an international treasure.
15. “Brown Eyed Girl”
Originally titled “Brown Skinned Girl”, this Calypso-kissed AOR staple about an alleged interracial tryst and deemed too hot for pop radio upon its release was without question the biggest hit from Morrison’s ill-fated tenure with groundbreaking producer/songwriter Bert Berns and his Bang Records label. Van claimed he never saw a penny of royalties and the contract he naively signed rendered him liable for all expenses incurred during the recording process, which is probably a big reason why he doesn’t consider it one of his favorite songs from the catalog. However, whether he liked it or not, “Brown Eyed Girl” has since become his reluctant calling card, the one Van Morrison song everyone seems to know about due to its firm place on classic rock radio, its appearance in such acclaimed films as The Big Chill and Born on the Fourth of July and the fact its a song in regular rotation in the iPods of no less than two American presidents.
14. “Why Must I Always Explain?”
Hymns to the Silence is Morrison’s first and only double album, yet it remains one of the vocalist’s most underappreciated works in his catalog. And this classy, Celtic-kissed highlight from its 94-minute sprawl is indeed its grandest gesture, a direct response to his critics at the time chiding him for not making all of his records sound exactly like Astral Weeks or Moondance. In many ways, however, “Why Must I Always Explain?” is closer to the cloth of Tupelo Honey than anything else, ushering in one of Morrison’s best decades in the 1990s.
13. “Irish Heartbeat”
The emerald undercurrent of Morrison’s homeland heritage has always played a role in the music he’s created over the last half-century. But never has it been as explicitly expressed as it is on “Irish Heartbeat,” a song that first debuted on 1983’s Inarticulate Speech of the Heart. Van revisited it on the 1988 collaborative album with fellow countrymen The Chieftains, as well as on this year’s Duets: Re-Working The Catalogue with guitarist and fellow Gaelic music enthusiast Mark Knopfler.
Although initially met with less-than-stellar citiques, the passing of time has proven to be most compensatory for Wavelength. Most notably, its title track saw the incorporation of synthesizers, as Peter Bardens and his spacey Moog loops help keep Morrison from slipping into irrelevance on the cusp of the New Wave era. It’s not exactly as cool as the notion of Van using fellow Irishmen the Boomtown Rats as his backup group (which would have been amazing), but its the closest the singer came to getting on their wavelength.
By and large Van Morrison is more renowned for his mastery of the studio than the stage, though he is equally adept in both cases. But if there is one song from the Morrison songbook specifically designed to burn down a concert hall, its the fourth song on Moondance, as dutifully indicated during Van’s spin through his soulful hit on Thanksgiving Day 1976 as part of The Band’s farewell concert film The Last Waltz. It’s too bad these guys never got together up at Big Pink back when. That would have been a seriously classic album.
10. “Listen to the Lion”
One of the most underrated albums from Morrison’s early ‘70s days is his jazzy, pastoral sixth LP St. Dominic’s Preview. But the centerpiece of this 1972 gem is actually a holdover from Tupelo Honey that features Van and Montrose intertwined in an 11-minute battle of wits, pitting the singer’s improvised scatting and the guitarist’s unbridled mastery of the acoustic guitar. Van revisited the song’s mantra on 2005’s Magic Time with the standout track “The Lion This Time,” and performed the two songs together on 2009’s Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl.
9. “Someone Like You”
Poetic Champions Prose, released in 1987, is one of Morrison’s finest albums from the Reagan/Thatcher years. And its epicenter is this tender, heartfelt ballad that’s since provided peak eye-welling moments as carefully selected soundtrack fodder on rom-coms like John Candy’s sentimental sleeper classic Only the Lonely, Lawrence Kasdan’s Kevin Kline/Meg Ryan love fest French Kiss, and perhaps most ubiquitously, Renée Zellweger’s star vehicle Bridget Jones’s Diary.
8. “Here Comes the Night”
Perhaps the second most visible and visceral single from Them was the tune that got them appearances on such popular British shows as Ready Steady Go! and Top of the Pops. Written by renowned American songwriter Bert Berns (who also penned “Brown Eyed Girl”) and featuring the guitar work of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, “Here Comes the Night” was famously covered by David Bowie for his 1973 Pin Ups LP, and spent 10 weeks on the Billboard charts here in America, while peaking at No. 2 over in the United Kingdom.