You might not hear much Van Morrison on the radio, save for the painfully overplayed “Brown-Eyed Girl” (sorry, but it won’t make my list), though maybe that’s by design. Since the Northern Irish singer songwriter split from his short-lived garage band Them in the late ’60s to pursue a solo career, he’s been fearlessly chasing his muse without much regard for mainstream recognition, crafting his own identifiable style by cobbling together soul, funk, folk, R&B, jazz, rock and Celtic influences into a sound so unrecognizable yet so natural it seems as though many of his songs have always existed.
He uses this sturdy foundation of influences as a platform for his openhearted songwriting that has more in common 19th century poets than any of his contemporaries, using a subtle hand and evocative imagery to create celebrate the world as he saw it, filled with beauty and opportunities for personal transcendence. It might not make for radio-ready hits, but Van Morrison’s truly unique voice spawned some of the most rewarding albums and songs of the rock era. Let’s look at his best.
10. “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile)”
The opening track to St. Dominic’s Preview, one of Van’s best albums, is bursting with energy, an astoundingly full song that pays tribute to the uplifting power of great music — specifically, it seems, the music of the ’50s soul singer who lent his name to the song. Even more than most songs in Morrison’s extensive catalog, “Jackie Wilson Said” shows the command Van maintained over his complex songs, as the unwieldy number of instruments somehow come together in perfect harmony.
9. “Astral Weeks”
The opening and title track from Van’s most oft-touted record, “Astral Weeks” is a microcosm of the album as a whole — filled with shimmering, loose musical arrangements and stream-of-consciousness lyrics that appeal to the emotional over the intellectual like most songs. The transcendental themes of Van’s music never felt so true as they do as he sings soft but passionately over trembling strings, “Way up in heaven,” as the song fades into the sky.
A standout on an album full of best-of contenders, “Caravan” from Van’s beloved album Moondance has been a live staple through most of his career, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a handy hybrid of both raucous energy and honest tenderness that ends with a group singalong that just seems to build and build in volume and voices, a fitting ending for a song about the divine joys of traveling with close friends.
7. “Wild Night”
Van Morrison has never restricted himself to evocative ballads, preferring to dabble in powerful grooves as well. “Wild Night” is one of his most infectious anthems, heavily borrowing from southern soul while upping the energy, featuring complex horn arrangements, mean guitar work and a driving rhythm perfect for keeping an audience moving.
6. “And the Healing Has Begun”
Van’s 1979 effort Into the Music sounds a lot more polished than some of his earlier efforts, but the squeaky clean production can’t detract from one of his greatest collections of songs. “And the Healing Has Begun” is a towering song that combines the freeform exploration of Astral Weeks with his more conventionally melodic works, the Celtic soul building in intensity before Van unleashes the full range of his pipes in such a way to recall his legendary live performances.
5. “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push the River”
Like Astral Weeks, Veedon Fleece captures Van the Man at his most spontaneous and inspired, singing passionately over the sounds of his talented Caledonia Soul Orchestra as their instruments swirl naturally but unpredictably together. Unlike Astral Weeks, Veedon Fleece has yet to fully receive its due after a lukewarm reception, but songs like the eight-minute flute-centric epic “You Don’t Pull No Punches” prove the album’s untethered poetic brilliance.
4. “Wild Children”
“Wild Children” isn’t lounge jazz, but it does sound awfully jazzy, all tinkling pianos and weepy saxophones intermingling at will, and its lackadaisical pace certainly makes you want to lounge around. The tenderness turns out to be a virtue, evocatively suggesting a postwar period of uncertainty while name-checking a few of Van’s influences, including Tennessee Williams and Ray Charles.
3. “Tupelo Honey”
A thing of pure loveliness, “Tupelo Honey” is the greatest love song Van ever wrote, which is saying something for an artist so heavily emotional. The title track from his 1971 LP was borne out of the domestic bliss Van felt with his then-wife Janet Rigsbee, and the reserved verse-impassioned chorus dynamic does a great job of conjuring the powerful yet peaceful experience of being in love.
2. “Into the Mystic”
The mellow genius of “Into the Mystic” might not be evident at first, but each subsequent listen reveals the craftsmanship that went into this miniature musical achievement. The shimmering romance of the balladry builds so naturally and conjures an air of irresistible romance that could easily be tied to a woman, a place or the world itself. The glorious open-endedness stems from Van’s own difficulty pinning down exactly what the song is supposed to mean, though he once admitted, “I guess the song is just about being part of the universe.”
1. “Saint Dominic’s Preview”
Soul and folk never sounded like such a perfect fit as they do on “Saint Dominic’s Preview.” Morrison’s globetrotting lyrics take you from Belfast (whose dire state in the ’70s reportedly inspired the song) to San Francisco in the span of six minutes, taking inventory of enough gorgeous lyrical imagery to give even Bob Dylan a run for his money. The horns and the group-sung chorus give the entire song the soaring importance of gospel, and the production serves every element of Van’s arrangement equally with a crisp yet natural sound that makes every burst of trumpet and wailing guitar riff a triumph in itself. So many small triumphs can only add to one giant one.