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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Van Morrison’s 2000s masterpiece Magic Time, his only album for Geffen Records. “Stranded” is the first and best track from the record, featuring lulling, doo-wop harmonies and a rare performance by Morrison on alto saxophone. Magic Time deserves more accolades than it gets in the music press, and this gorgeous tune is the first reason why that is the case.
Most know of this title cut hit from Morrison’s 1995 chestnut on account of its placement in a particularly sweet scene from the 1997 Oscar award-winning film As Good As It Gets. But true Van fans consider “Days Like This” a favorite because of its status as one of the singer’s most golden classic R&B turns, highlighted by a money horn section featuring the tenor talents of Pee Wee Ellis, the former saxophonist of longtime Morrison hero James Brown.
Like David Bowie, Van Morrison has always harbored a penchant for hiring ace guitarists to assist him in the craftsmanship of his catalog. The relationship between the Irish singer and American guitar icon Ronnie Montrose is rarely recognized, even as it’s proven to be one of Van’s most fruitful collaborations. Montrose plays a tasty Stax-like lick against bassist Bill Church’s funky walk, opening Van’s 1971 classic Tupelo Honey with a major boot in the booty.
The best track off Van’s 1967 solo debut Blowin’ Your Mind is this mercurial near-10 minute blues ramble about the claustrophobic discomfort of being trapped in a sickroom with a young girl dying of tuberculosis. Morrison and Eric Gale form a double six-string fusion virtuoso, creating a barbed slow burn groove that would later be covered by John Lee Hooker and sampled by Ghostface Killah.
Since it screamed out of Northern Ireland a half-century ago, the debut single from Van’s group Them has become a gold standard in the world of garage rock, its maximum R&B growl laying the groundwork for the proto-punk invasion of the mid-‘60s that spawned such legendary acts as The Stooges, MC5, and more. Patti Smith might have might have carjacked it and took it for a joyride on her auspicious 1975 debut Horses, as did scores of other artists and acts these last 50 years. But none sound as definitive as the original coming from the angry, young Them.
Morrison’s second studio album as a solo artist has long been considered one of the most important recordings in pop lore, even though it took Van himself 40 years since its initial release to perform the songs live in concert. And at nearly 10-minutes-long, this alleged tale about a transvestite socialite is the stirring nucleus of Astral’s refined and definitive multi-genre bisque that remains one of the most magnificent and visionary works recorded for a major record label. The vibraphone heavy alternate take on the upcoming Astral Weeks expanded edition is a revelation.
”’Into the Mystic’ is the heart of Moondance,” Lester Bangs once wrote about the musical centerpiece. There is a certain warmth to Van Morrison’s solo music that seems to get to the heart of everything we hold dear in jazz, folk and soul idioms simultaneously. With “Mystic,” he does so in one sprawling, romantic ballad that captures a message of love more effectively than anything in his half-century career. And whether you grew up hearing its mellow gold flow out of your transistor radio over the last 45 years or first experienced it as Jim and Michelle’s first dance song in American Wedding, there is no denying the impact “Mystic” has had on generations of gypsy souls rocked by its soothing sway.