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Amongst the major musical titans emerging during the second half of the 20th century, the Belfast-born Irish soul troubadour Van Morrison is perhaps the most underappreciated — a figure every bit the equal of Dylan, Young, and Cohen in terms of achievement and influence — but somehow one also subtly marginalized in the annals of music history.

No one argues (or no one that we know of) that Van The Man isn’t great. But despite or because of the extent of his domineering genius, he has remained a conspicuously remote rock star, with a well-earned reputation as one of the truly difficult and diffident figures in popular music. Tales of his crankiness are legendary, and include hectoring inattentive audiences, abusing fellow musicians both on and off stage, and generally creating the impression that other human beings are not his preferred life form.

It is a personal reputation that cuts against the stunningly ingratiating nature of Van’s greatest music, a beguiling mélange of the romantic, naturalistic, spiritual and sexual, worshipping equally at the altar of Jackie Wilson and John Donne. Perhaps the only artist of our time capable of mirroring this inextricable conflation of body and soul would be his unexpected doppelgänger, Prince. Morrison’s music knits together diverse histories and seems to exist outside of time and place. Possessing an extraordinary musical aptitude with countless instruments, as well as an equally expert facility for writing and performing in the folk, jazz, blues, and soul idioms, Van transcends formalism and makes his influences new again. It does not hurt that as a vocalist he is virtually peerless, on a plane with John Lennon, Billie Holiday, and Sam Cooke.

Much like another hard-boiled romantic genius, Alex Chilton, Morrison first came to prominence as a preternaturally gifted teenager fronting the gritty soul act Them. By 1967, at the age of 22, he had already composed the standards “Gloria” and “Brown Eyed Girl,” which remain two of his best-known songs. But the idiosyncratic and complicated Morrison was always a one-man gang at heart, and the inevitable launch of his solo career would bring to bear the intensely sad, sublime and inventive chamber pop of Astral Weeks, an instantly legendary album whose luminous power has only increased with age.

Even within the context of the deliriously madcap, anything-goes mentality that had taken over the music industry by 1968, Astral Weeks was an insane idea: a largely improvised 47-minute jazz-folk song-cycle that wed a passionate spirituality to tales of Belfast’s most pronounced outcasts: junkies, transvestites, and disenfranchised souls of every variety. In its way, Astral Weeks was every bit as subversive and daring as the Velvet Underground’s thematically similar White Light/White Heat, released the same year. In some ways it was more so. While the Velvets swathed their tales of deviance and deprivation inside apocalyptic walls of feedback and dissonance, Van went the other way, with gentle, slow building beauty eerily offsetting the desperation of the album’s inhabitants.

Astral Weeks was an inarguably masterful record, but its baroque, drawn-out tales held little in the way of commercial promise. As if to compensate, Van followed it up with Moondance, an album full of brief, catchy, and often spectacular songs, including two unimpeachable classics: the rough and ready “Caravan” and the borderline transcendent slow burn ”Into The Mystic.” The album was justifiably a million-seller, and from that point forward Van remained a bona fide commercial proposition as well as an artistic one, turning out classic singles like ticker tape throughout the early ’70s: “Domino,” “Wild Nights,” “Jackie Wilson Says (I’m In Heaven),” and others. While this represented the period of his most overt mainstream acceptance, Morrison was continually pushing the envelope. Three-minute marvels stood toe to toe with phenomenal existential meditations, such as the spectacular, harrowing ten-minute wonder ”Almost Independence Day,” from 1972′s brilliant St. Dominic’s Preview.

Eventually, Van’s more meditative, experimental side became dominant again, resulting in both his best ever work and his most disappointing commercial results. 1974′s Veedon Fleece was a return to the geographic and emotional terrain of Astral Weeks, a Gaelic preoccupied masterclass packed with more melancholy, longing and despair than a mass audience was prepared to embrace. Its commercial failure would send a demoralized Morrison into a multi-year hiatus from releasing music. It is perhaps his greatest ever work.

The Van who resurfaced from self-imposed exile emerged unchastened by his mainstream failures and eager to push the envelope further still. The series of frequently ingenious records he made starting in the late ’70s and onto the early ’90s both benefited from his profound grounding in R&B and soul and freed him from them at the same time. His experimentations with synths and atmospherics were every bit the equal of the groundbreaking work being done by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. His preoccupations became steadily more spiritual in nature, although the bile of his industry-related frustrations never abated. It all came together on the stunning 1986 release No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, an astoundingly underappreciated album that Okkervil River’s Will Sheff writes about with great insight here.

Typical of Van, that gorgeous and wistfully autumnal album commences with a memorably dyspeptic complaint: “Copycats stole my words/ Copycats stole my songs/ Copycats stole my melodies…” It’s a funny sentiment, but it’s not wrong. The litany of timeless artists who have borrowed liberally from the musical vocabulary Morrison created is enormous. It is fair to assert that the careers of everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Elvis Costello to Dan Bejar would look immensely different without the presence of Van The Man’s influence. It is nearly assured that none of them would disagree, but the fact of it remains wildly underreported.

Later period Morrison has a tendency to run to the more readily agreeable, from the gratifying romp through American country that was 2006′s Pay The Devil (an album of mostly covers, not included in this count down) to the jazz enchantments of 2012′s Born To Sing. It is a blessing and a curse for this visionary artist that the aspects that make his music so routinely palatable also tend to disguise the hidden genius embedded in his carefully crafted work. The lower part of our countdown is populated by many of his most recent records, but that may well be the consequence of our not having the context to achieve the full understanding of his ambitions. We also elected not to include a handful of his great collaborations and some of his live records, though all are worth checking out. It would come as no surprise if we were to revise our opinion in ten years’ time, and recognize that Van was simply ahead of us. He nearly always is.

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Comments (46)
  1. I know this is the “wrong” answer, and Astral Weeks is the “right” answer, but Moondance. Mondance forever. It’s got that killer of an opening track in “And It Stoned Me,” one of the most romantic songs ever committed to tape with “Into the Mystic,” and a goofy, sing-a-long title-track.

    Props to Tim for tackling this catalog. It’s as unwieldy and huge as it is rewarding.

    • Yeah the title track is probably the weakest song but Moondance would have been a fine pick for the number one spot. “And It Stoned Me” was the song that got me hooked on Van Morrison and confirmed what I already knew from listening to Brown Eyed Girl; this man had a voice I loved and recognized instantly. I’ve always just listened to his late 60′s early 70′s stuff so yes kudos for all this listening and I will be on the look for a lot of these albums next time I’m at the record store

  2. Wow, what a great work and a great writing. Bravo.
    And, as usual, a surprising (but excellent) number one.
    Not enough love for Moondance, though (but I can’t say I’ve listened to all these records… maybe someday day I will).

  3. I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you were going for a clever “second is the best” thing here. But that wouldn’t make any sense because veedonfleece certainly is not the worst. Now I’m confused again.

  4. Morrison was born in 1945. In 1967, he was 22, not 19.

  5. Wow, what a mammoth output to review. Similar to the above, I have neglected to visit many of these records (especially those from the 90s-00s), but I’m partial to St. Dominic’s Preview. Listen to the Lion is one of my favorites of all time of Van’s. I love the less structured, seemingly stream-of-consciousness in the emulation of the other Morrison, Jim. It appears quite frequently throughout Saint Dominic’s Preview. Astral Weeks, His Band and Street Choir are also solid. I must say, I need to revisit veedonfleece and Moondance again to round out my palate. Thanks for the feature!

  6. A lot of bold choices, and as someone who is hopelessly in love with Veedon Fleece, I couldn’t be happier with its place at the top (I would have been perfectly happy with Astral Weeks in that slot – they’re both masterpieces).

    Personally, I think It’s Too Late To Stop Now – quite possibly my all-time favorite live album – should at least be in the top ten. It’s Van at the peak of his powers, in my opinion.

    I also am a huge fan of The Healing Game. I feel like it’s the last truly amazing album Van made and should be ranked a lot higher. The songs are mostly great and the production is impeccable. But different strokes for different folks.

  7. Wow. Great work. Not a Van fan, but now I’m curious about his discography.

  8. Shout out to ‘Into The Music.’ Perhaps not his “masterpiece,” but an incredibly fun Van Morrison record.

  9. Where is “You Win Again,” his collaboration with Linda Gail Lewis? Not exactly Van’s finest hour, but it’s fun, rollicking album that deserves some love here. You included “Irish Heartbeat,” so I know that collaborations are part of the list.

    • “We also elected not to include a handful of his great collaborations and some of his live records, though all are worth checking out.”

  10. I am so happy to see someone in a position to reach so many more than I, write the truth I have known for so long. Veedon Fleece is indeed, his finest work, in an illustrious career full of so many high water marks. Every time I put that record on, I am completely and utterly captivated by it. It is his finest work, and one of the finest recordings ever made by mortal men. I will always preach of the brilliance of this record to anyone who will listen.

  11. I find it hard to mount any sort of compelling argument against somebody who’s taken the time to listen to and review The Man’s entire discography, but… Moondance at #7? That didn’t rock my gypsy soul.

  12. I think “Moondance” is a fine album, but in my opinion, it’s been lionized to the point where it obscures a large part of his catalog that really deserves better. Personally, at least two of the songs (“These Dreams of You” and “Caravan”) sound positively anemic next to their far-superior live versions on “It’s Too Late to Stop Now.” That kind of kills the buzz of the original album for me. But I still love the album. Just not as much as “Veedon Fleece,” “Astral Weeks” and a few others.

  13. well…Veedon Fleece and Wavelength are my 2 favorites. just thought i’d weigh in. I’m weird, and tired.

  14. I think Veedon Fleece is a good album and more people should hear it and all but that doesn’t change the fact that Astral Weeks is one of the greatest albums ever by anyone. Also make sure to read what Lester Bangs had to say at https://personal.cis.strath.ac.uk/murray.wood/astral.html

  15. One minor quibble on here for me is that ‘Blowin Your Mind’ could be a few spots higher. “Brown Eyed Girl”, “He Ain’t Give You None”, and “T.B. Sheets” are all terrific songs

  16. Veedon Fleece has been my favorite Van album since my trip to Ireland where I listened to it every day. “Astral Weeks’ older, wiser cousin” is a great description. Enjoyed the list!

  17. Can’t argue with those top 3 in any order, but I’ll make a case for Hard Nose the Highway being the most criminally overlooked. It’s almost as good as Veedon Fleece–if you listen to them back to back, it sounds like one giant mind-blowing double album, with Veedon better mostly because it doesn’t waste 5 minutes on a Muppets cover. It should be in the same tier as Moondance and Tupelo and His Band, just behind his very best.

    I’d also rank his 90s stuff much higher I think–Healing Game and Back on Top especially. High Summer, Rough God, and Philosopher’s Stone are among his best songs.

  18. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  19. I don’t know much about Van Morrison but I have Veedon Fleece and I knew it’d be #1.

  20. oh.  |   Posted on Apr 14th -13

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  21. I had not heard Veedon and forgot how amazing Astral Weeks is. If the point of these articles is to reignite passion for an album and introduce a new album than this is the most successful list I have seen on Stereogum.

  22. Astral Weeks is a musical template completely unique in pop music, the mutant musical gene that is this genius’ masterpiece and as such has to rank it #1.
    Into the Music, specifically side 2 is his and pop music’s most impassioned musical expression ever! My favorite Van.

  23. Timothy Bracy And Elizabeth Bracy: your list is, to my eyes, simply perfect. Congrats.

  24. Another thing: no Van Morrison fan can live without listening to the amazing outakes and alternate versions compiled on Philosopher’s Stone.

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  26. I don’t even see how that is a leap anyone could make.

  27. In my opinion, a Best Albums of Van Morrison chart, that doesn’t feature Astral Weeks at No. 1 and Moondance at No. 2, is a stupid chart. And even the greatness distance between those two albums is colossal. And indeed after these two albums, he never produced another consistently good record. Tho a couple of tracks apiece from Veedon Fleece and St Dominic’s Preview are excellent.
    So, the correctly ordered Best Albums of Van Morrison chart, should read like this:
    1 Astral Weeks

    2 Moondance

    3 Everything else, who really cares.

  28. this list shows that vtm’s catalog is astoundingly excellent. and the argument over moondance and astral weeks? pfffft. veedon fleece and st. dominic’s preview are right up there too.

  29. It’s hard to beat Astral Weeks but Veedon Fleece is great too. I tracked it down when I realized This Mortal Coil’s “Come Here My Love” was actually a cover. Both versions are so great, so different.

  30. Astral Weeks at #2 and Moondance at #7?!?!?! Come on, even if you don’t particularly like Moondance as much as some of his others personally, couldn’t you at least acknowledge that to almost everyone else it’s top three material and place it a little higher than 7? Oh wait, if you don’t sprinkle some bizarre placements into these lists no one gives a shit cause you’re just telling us what we already know. Got it.

  31. I realize these lists are impossible but not putting “Moondance” in the top 5 is criminal.
    But then again, I’m moved comment on an arbitrary internet publication list, so there’s that too.

  32. Sense of wonder doesn’t belong so far down the list. I’d place it just before Inarticulate. Absolutely right about veedon! Good call. Also thanks for not dismissing the brilliant Dweller and Wavelength. Overall you know your V-man.

  33. Also I love No Guru-vastly underrated. I think most people are so mad at Moondance and Astral bc that’s prolly the only van albums they own or have heard. Fuckin’
    Noob3z. Only surprise is how high up Belfast is, that seemed kinda stupid.

  34. Is it just me, or has Veedon Fleece just snuck up out of nowhere to claim its place as Van’s greatest album? I was skeptical of this until hearing it for the first time the other day, and I must say I hate myself for not learning to appreciate it sooner. If there is a God in this world then I’m absolutely sure its existence is proven with the creation of albums like Veedon Fleece.

    • I think you’re right. The problem, I think, is the lack of availability of Van’s catalogue (for complicated corporate and Morrison-esque reasons). I’ve listened to Morrison for years but only just recently found Veedon Fleece on YouTube along with others in his back catalogue. It really is a revelation. Also: “Listen to the Lion” on repeat, please.

  35. I love the Healing Game so very much, and as someone else said far above me, it’s sort of like the last great album he made. I’m a big fan of Van … but wow there are a lot of albums I’ve never even heard of. Feeling a bit ashamed now but also strangely anticipatory.

  36. VERDEN FLEECE WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS SHIT MOONDANCE IS NUMBER ONE

  37. I’m a big fan of Common One. It’s like In a Silent Way with lyrics.

  38. I can’t say that I agree with the order (at all) but salute the effort and definitely agree with the thesis that Van’s catalogue deserves the same reverence ant attention as Dylan, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen. Some of the albums I would have ranked MUCH higher are the debut (all the stuff he recorded for Bang is raw and soulful), Common One (it’s best moments recall the ecstatic heights of Astral Weeks), The Healing Game (great late period album), It’s Too Late Too Stop Now (one of the best live albums of all time), and finally Hard Nose the Highway (overlooked gem). For me the top spot is a toss up between Astral Weeks and Moondance but Veedon Fleece is a great album. At the bottom of the list I would put Days Like This (a few great songs but the rest is shit) and Hymns To The Silence (bloated, bitter and boring).

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