Ten Best Van Morrison Songs of All Time
George Ivan Morrison, better known as Van Morrison, is one of the legendary figures in rock history for his development of a style of music known as Caledonia Soul and also for his longevity, which has him still recording and performing music almost 50 years after he first arrived on the scene.
Van was born in working class Belfast, Northern Ireland on August 31, 1945 and at an early age was exposed to American music of all styles: country, jazz, soul, blues, gospel, folk, and swing by his father and mother. Apparently, his father brought back a suitcase full of records by Lead Belly, Hank Williams, Jimmy Rodgers, and others when he returned from a trip to America and Van would listen to them non-stop as he was growing up. His gift as an artist was the ability to assimilate all of this musical information and blend all of these different styles into something uniquely original. Along with this musical intelligence Morrison was also blessed with a great voice, which has a unique blend of grit and honey that is immediately recognizable and utterly incomparable.
Morrison initially gained famed as the singer for the volatile Irish garage-R&B group Them, which had several hits in the mid-1960s including "Gloria", "Here Comes the Night", and "Mystic Eyes". He moved to New York City in 1967 and broke out on his own with Bang Records and had what many believe to be his most recognizable and popular song: "Brown Eyed Girl". He was fortunately able to escape his stifling Bang contract, signed a recording deal with Warner Brothers, and had a decade long run of some of the greatest music in rock history starting with Astral Weeks in 1968 and ending with Into the Music in 1979.
Van is my favorite musical artist of all time and as such I felt compelled to put together a list of what I consider to be his ten best songs. I could have easily made up the list with 5 songs from Moondance (side 1 of the album), three from Saint Dominic's Preview, and two from Tupelo Honey and called it a day, but I tried to provide a more balanced view and have included songs from many different albums and eras. I also intentionally did not add songs Van recorded with Them. I wanted to focus soley on his solo career with this list. Also be sure to vote for your favorite Van song in the poll at the end of the article and check out my list of 10 Underrated Van Morrison Songs.
10) Wonderful Remark
From the 1983 movie soundtrack for The King of Comedy, this gem didn't appear on a Van Morrison album until the release of the 1990 greatest hits CD. Van's voice sounded better than it had in years and the song is propelled by a killer horn arrangement that really swings. Apparently Van had written the song in the late 1960s and even recorded an 8 minute version during the Saint Dominic's Preview sessions, but the song didn't see the light of day until this 4:01 minute take was released on the movie soundtrack. It was recorded in 1982 at the Record Plant is Sausalito, California.
9) Bright Side of the Road
This bouncy, bright song appeared on the 1979 album Into the Music, which is one of Van's least known, but best records. I remember in the late 1980s visiting dozens of record stores trying to find the album with no luck. I was thankfully able to locate a copy in a used record store and after listening found myself amazed that an album of such beauty and power had been for the most part discontinued. Thankfully, you can purchase the whole album on iTunes, which you can't say for other essential classic Van albums like Tupelo Honey, St. Dominic's Preview, Veedon Fleece, and His Band and the Street Choir. Van was able to capture a more authentic, spontaneous sound on Into the Music after releasing two albums (Period of Transition and Wavelength) that sounded somewhat manufactured and stiff. The song is filled with harmonica, punchy horns, and female background singers. However, my favorite part is when Van lowers his voice toward the end and begins to grumble and growl the words, even throwing in a few "heh-heh-heh's" for good measure. Into the Music is Van's first openly religious album. The song was also featured on the soundtrack for the 1996 Jon Travolta vehicle Michael.
8) Astral Weeks
Like the whole 1968 Astral Weeks album, the title track song is hard to describe. I think it's about a mystical, mysterious journey (which is a common theme in Van's music), but it's hard to know for sure. Morrison has commented that it's about seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, but didn't elaborate further. So, it could be about the end of his ordeal with his horrendous Bang recording contract, but it's only speculation. Van's voice is young and strong as he sings over a jazz jam of guitar strings, upright bass, and flute. The best part is the last third of the song where strings build up and Van sings about "another home way up in the heavens". It makes me feel like I am floating above the clouds when I listen to it. The song ends gently and quietly with Van barely whispering. I also love the opening lines: "If I ventured in the slipstream/between the viaducts of your dream/where immobile steel rims crack/and the ditch in the back road stops/could you find me?" Very cool stuff.
7) Real Real Gone
"Real Real Gone" was originally written in 1980 during the Common One session but didn't surface until the 1990 album Enlightenment, The song is considered Van's best upbeat number since the early 1970s. It's one of those songs that is immediately likable due to the intoxicating, driving horns which leap out at you from the very start. Van's voice has changed over this years (unfortunately this is probably a consequence of his smoking, which you can see him doing on the Wavelength album cover) and this is a good example of his older voice which is rougher and more gravely than in his younger years. The song starts out as an homage to finding strength in a higher power but ends with Van paying tribute to some of his early musical influences. This time Sam Cooke, Solomon Burke, James Brown, and Wilson Pickett. Now that I think about it, maybe they are one in the same and music is a higher power we can all find strength in from time to time.
6) Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile)
This one is a tribute to one of Van's early influences, R&B and soul singer Jackie Wilson, who is best known for the songs "Lonely Teardrops" and "Higher and Higher" from the early 1960s. The song came out on the lesser known 1972 album Saint Dominic's Preview, which is one of Van's best works of all time. The song is a 3 minute burst of joy with Morrison scatting his way along amid a flourish of horns and wrapping it all up singing de-de-do's. It's hard not to smile after this song comes on the radio.
What is Your Favorite Van Morrison Song?
Another tribute song for one of Van's early influences, this time Fats Domino, the great piano playing R&B musical artists of the 1950s and early 1960s most famous for short, catchy numbers like "Blueberry Hill". The song is the first track on the album His Band and the Street Choir and captures perfectly the soul party vibe of the record. The signature of the song is the punchy horn arrangements. Van's voice was also in great form at this time and he delivers one of his best vocal performances ever. Surprisingly, the song is Morrison's highest charting single (I thought "Brown Eyed Girl" would have been the highest) and reached #9 on the US charts in 1970.
4) Brown Eyed Girl
Van's most popular song according to iTunes but ironically the least Van Morrison-like song on the list due to the heavy handed Brill Building influence of Bang Records producer Bert Berns. Morrison recorded it for Bang in 1967 after he moved to New York from Ireland. It was during a period of time after Them fell apart when he was struggling financially and still developing his musical style and writing skills. Van signed a contract with Bang that gave total control of the music to Berns and as a result he had a large impact on the final product that hit the airwaves. (On an interesting side note, Berns apparently had Mafia ties and often had muscle in the studio during the recording sessions.) However, Morrison's style still leaks into the song in spite of Berns' meddling ways. At first "Brown Eyed Girl" comes across as a snappy pop number but with each additional listen the foundations of soul, jazz, and r&b come to the surface, especially the killer bassline that kicks off the first portion of the song and Van's hard driving scatting at the end. "Brown Eyed Girl" reached number 10 on the US pop charts. Van would never record such a catchy, radio friendly, top-40 oriented song again.
3) Wild Night
In the early 1970s Van had a house in Woodstock (and was neighbors with The Band and Bob Dylan among others) and was living the life of a hippie gentleman farmer with then-wife Janet "Planet" Rigsbee when he wrote most of the songs for the 1971 album Tupelo Honey, including this fast, hard-driving gem. The entire album has a vibe of marital bliss and country living (check out the album photos if you don't believe me). However, we later learned it was all an illusion as Van and Janet decided to move to California and cracks began to form in their marriage. Guitarist Ronnie Montrose created the memorable opening guitar lick while messing around in the studio one day and the song is a great example of how Van was able to synthesize elements of country, rock, jazz, soul, and r&b into something uniquely his own. You can hear all of these influences in the song, but it can't really be described fully by any one of them. I'm not sure what it is, but I know it's great. John Mellencamp thought so as well and recorded a cover version with Meshell Ndegeocello in 1994 that reached #3 on the charts. In comparison, Van's version only reached #28 in 1971. Who could have guessed that horns and a steel guitar could rock this hard.
2) Listen to the Lion
Another entry from the underrated 1972 Saint Dominic's Preview album. Probably the least known song on the list but arguably the best due to Van's most amazing vocal performance ever. The song is an 11:08 minute soul journey into finding and following your inner voice amid crashing piano, cascading acoustic guitar, and strumming mandolin. That alone makes it a good song, but what takes it to best of all time level is at about the five minute mark Van stops singing words and starts scatting non-stop for the next 3 minutes. He growls, wails, roars, and howls as if possessed and wrestling with the lion inside. After these vocal fireworks the exhausted Van finishes the song barely whispering about sailing on a journey to mystical Caledonia. A fascinating, one of a kind song.
1) Into the Mystic
I can close my eyes now and hear the intro with the gorgeous acoustic guitar strumming and string slap, followed by the bounding bass, electric guitar, cymbals, and Van's rich, vibrant voice. When he stretches out "I want to rock your gypsy soul" in the second chorus the hair on my neck stands on end. "Into the Mystic" is Morrison's masterpiece and one of the greatest songs in rock history. One of the early working titles was "Into the Misty", but thankfully Van changed it to the more mysterious and ethereal sounding "Into the Mystic" before it hit the stores. The song was released on the 1970 Moondance album and Van once commented that the song is simply about being part of the universe. I think that pretty much sums it up better than anything I could say it. Surprisingly, the track was never put out as a single and it always amazes me that Morrison was able to craft such a beautiful, timeless, fully realized classic at such an early age. He was only 25 at the time. (On a side note, Van always looked 10-15 years older than his actual age. Maybe he had an old body to go along with his old soul. If you don't believe me, check him out in this clip from The Last Waltz. I would put him at 45, but this is only a few years after Mystic and he's only like 31. Amazing.)
These songs just missed making the top ten, but are still great songs nonetheless: Moondance, And It Stoned Me, Caravan, Wavelength, Summertime in England, Warm Love, Tupelo Honey, Heavy Connection, Saint Dominic's Preview, Crazy Love, These are the Days, Full Force Gale, Dweller on the Threshold
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My list of 10 Van Morrison songs that deserve a second listen.