By John Ruberry

A few months ago Van Morrison released his 43rd studio album, What’s It Gonna Take? It’s a stupendous work, and most of its songs focus on the COVID-19 lockdown. Van the Man gives well-deserved musical punch in the nose to lockdown zealots Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Klaus Schwab. 

This week, on August 31, Van Morrison turns 77. He’s still touring, in fact, he begins a short American tour the day after his birthday, which includes, hello Peter, two gigs in Massachusetts.

In 2020 was a rare year for Morrison as he didn’t release a studio album, but he did issue three anti-lockdown songs, “Born to Be Free,” “As I Walked Out” and “No More Lockdowns.” Eric Clapton, another foe of lockdowns, recorded a Morrison-penned anti-lockdown song, “Stand And Deliver.” Morrison has been the most prominent artist who has stood up to opposition to the 2020-2021 shutdown of musical venues.

Of course Morrison is rich, but most musicians aren’t. Many are just getting by.

My DTG review of “What’s It Gonna Take?” is here. And yes, sometimes I am wrong. I predicted the mainstream media, as it did with the collection’s predecessor, the double album Latest Record Project: Volume 1, would savage it. On the contrary, because the hostile reviews of that collection probably helped sales–it charted well, the media took a different approach this time. By mostly ignoring What’s It Gonna Take? But not entirely. Morrison has “descended into lunacy,” is what one reviewer, Arthur Lazarus, a psychiatry professor, said of the album in his review. I was under the impression that mental health professionals now avoid words like “lunacy.” Who is the “crazy” one here, Lazarus? On a positive note, National Review gave a favorable notice to What’s It Gonna Take?

To a small extent, Van Morrison, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has become a non-person. Oh, he appears in Google News searches, as the media dutifully covers his concert appearances. I follow Morrison on Twitter. And like myself, likely because he shares views that run counter to those of the Twitter leftists, in his case about COVID, he’s almost certainly been shadowbanned. I never see the Belfast Lion’s Tweets on my feed, although he has been quiet there lately. Remember, this is a person whose first hit, “Brown Eyed Girl,” is one of the most-played songs on radio–ever.

I’ve been a Van Morrison fan for decades, so I decided to listen to every studio album of his, remember, there are 43 of them–in succession–about a week after I posted my Da Tech Guy writeup on What’s It Gonna Take? It was a wondrous musical adventure that took me through many musical genres, mainly, especially in the second half of his career, Chicago blues, but also of course rock, as well as jazz, country, Celtic, swing, as well as Van the Man’s stream-of-consciousness works, best exemplified on his Astral Works landmark album.

Morrison is a multi-instrumentalist, playing guitar, harmonica, keyboards, and saxophone. But outside of the craftmanship of the songs he writes, he’s best know for his vocals. Morrison’s singing style is a combination of Hank Williams, Muddy Waters, James Brown, and here’s an obscure name for you, Louis Prima. Oh, on a side note, Prima was one of my mother’s favorites. And about that voice, it’s most distinctive quality is “the growl,” which I believe is inspired by bluesmen like Waters. 

Morrison has influenced many artists, including Bob Seger, Graham Parker, Elvis Costello, and Bruce Springsteen. Of the latter two, on their debut albums the feel of Van is quite apparent.

During my Morrison musical sojourn, during which I ironically contracted COVID-19–I am fully recovered–I decided to write a blog post where I list, well, in my opinion at least, his ten best albums. It’s time for me to be Casey Kasem–so let the countdown begin!

Oh, but first, links in the album’s titles bring you Morrison’s website, where you can purchase or download each collection, and also find the Wikipedia article on each of them. 

10: Hymns To The Silence (1991). Morrison’s first double album is a tad long, but it contains one of his best ballads, “Carrying A Torch.” You’ll find an even better rendition of that song on Morrison’s duet album, where Clare Teal accompanies him. Van the Man on this record takes a song that has been covered countless times, Ray Charles’ hit “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” but he gives it a fresh take by having traditional Irish musicians the Chieftains accompany him. There’s also an intriguing spoken word piece too, “On Hyndford Street.”

9: No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986). Morrison’s 1980s efforts were mostly jazz and Celtic-influenced songs, many of them expressing a love of nature, with some stream-of consciousness songs throw in. The best of these is No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. Its highlights include “In The Garden,” “Tir Na Nog,” and an homage to his 1970s pop hits, “Ivory Tower.” It was around this time I saw Morrison in concert–so far the only time I have done so. I was under the impression, based on his ’80s works, that the Belfast Lion had lost the roar of his growl. Wrong. He growled a lot that night and it returned to his later studio albums.

8: Three Chords & the Truth (2019). The title alone makes this effort at least an honorable mention. “Angry Van” of the 2020s didn’t emerge once the COVID lockdowns kicked in. In “Nobody In Charge” Morrison decries, “politicians that waffle endlessly.” A haunting love sing, “Dark Night Of The Soul,” is another highlight. And Van offers a gorgeous re-working of “Auld Lang Syne” on “Days Gone By.”

7: What’s It Gonna Take? (2022). I’ve discussed this work already in this blog post–but to flesh out my love for this album, it’s as fresh as breathing in, mask-free, mountain air in spring. While anti-COVID lockdown songs dominate the collection, including “Dangerous,” which Morrison’s response to comments about him made by Northern Ireland’s health minister, Robin Swann, as well as “Fighting Back Is The New Normal” and “Fodder For The Masses,” the collection ends with another great love ballad, “Pretending.”

6: Veedon Fleece (1974). Stream-of consciousness Van is at the forefront here. Like gourmet cuisine, you may not appreciated Veedon Fleece at first bite, but it’s a hearty musical meal. “Bulbs,” “Linden Arden Stole The Highlights,” and “Streets Of Arklow” are among the great tracks.

5: Saint Dominic’s Preview (1972). Released 50 summers ago, this album contains two of Morrison’s best-known songs, the title track and “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile).” Van the Man’s greatest “stream” work, “Listen To The Lion,” is an 11-minute long masterpiece.

4: Magic Time (2005). This is the best Van Morrison album you’ve never heard of. There is quite a bit of swing music influence on Magic Time. While Van the Man, as we discussed early, re-worked “Auld Lang Syne” in 2019, he gifts us a New Year’s Eve alternative here with “Celtic New Year.” There’s another preview of “Angry Van” on “Keep Mediocrity At Bay.” Magic Time opens with another great ballad, “Stranded.” And there is a luscious sequel to “Listen To the Lion” in “The Lion This Time.”

3: Into The Music (1979). The Belfast Cowboy–Morrison has a lot of nicknames–ended the 1970s with a bang. It opens with two now-familiar songs, “Bright Side Of The Road” and “Full Force Gale.” There is rock, blues, gospel, and more here. And if Morrison’s “growl” is what you enjoy about him the most, then Into The Music is your album.

2: Moondance (1970). Like many all-time-best albums, Moondance comes across as a greatest hits album. The title track, “Caravan,” “Crazy Love,” and “Into The Mystic” are just four of the great tracks here. And while “Brown Eyed Girl” from Morrison’s first album is one of the most played songs on radio, “Into The Mystic” is a popular song at funerals. And “Crazy Love” is played at many wedding receptions.

1: Astral Weeks (1968). Arguably his first album, as his debut collection, Blowin’ Your Mind, was released without his input, Morrison, with jazz musicians backing him up, recorded a collection that sounded like nothing else up to that point. Is Astral Weeks a rock album? Jazz? Folk? Blues? The answer is none of the above. It’s simply Van Morrison. “The Way Young Lovers Do” foreshadows his 1970s hits, but like Veedon Fleece, stream-of-consciousness dominates here. “Cyprus Avenue” and “Ballerina” are majestic songs. “Madame George” is an enigmatic work, which is one of its enduring qualities.

So, if you are now inclined to explore Van Morrison, you might be wondering “Where do I start?” As I’ve said before, I deplore the term “classic rock,” but if that is your “jones,” then start with Moondance. If your first love is vintage country, then take a look at Pay The Devil. Blues? Get an album that just missed my top ten, Too Long In Exile, where John Lee Hooker teams up Morrison to revisit his “Gloria” hit that he recorded with his band Them in 1964. Are you a punk rocker? Then dig into Morrison’s recordings with Them. If your a jazz aficionado, I recommend Versatile to you. How ’bout Celtic music? Morrison collaborated with The Chieftains on Irish Heartbeat.

Now that I’ve listened to all 43 of Van Morrison’s studio albums I have a plan for what’s next: the Belfast Cowboy’s live albums.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

Comments are closed.