Posts Tagged ‘Van Morrison’

 

Summer 1968 was a transitional time for the Belfast Cowboy Van Morrison. Recently departed from his garage rock band Them and unsatisfied with the release of debut solo album “Blowin’ Your Mind”, he was determined to move his music from the peppy pop of “Brown Eyed Girl” to someplace deeper. He was briefly living in the Boston area, where he conceived of the mystical blend of soul, jazz, folk, and Celtic music that would define his masterpiece of a second album Astral Weeks

Crucial to the development of that sound were a series of live performances in August at a small subterranean club called the Catacombs, backed by a local bassist and flautist. Writer and musician Ryan Walsh, in his book about the album and wider happenings in Boston at the time (also called Astral Weeks), He describes a recording of one of those Catacombs gigs, perhaps the only known document of this embryonic stage of an album that is routinely cited as among the greatest of all time. The recording was never released, nor was it circulated as a bootleg. Much of the Astral Weeks book is spent documenting Walsh’s own heroic efforts to find a recording copy.

Then, on Wednesday of this week, an official download of the recording, simply titled Live in Boston 1968suddenly appeared online as an official download. It was only available via iTunes UK, and the cover art was essentially blank. But by Thursday afternoon, this rarest of rare recordings had disappeared again, wiped from the store. Van Morrison has always been a bit of a strange guy, but this was bizarre even for him.

Walsh has a pretty good theory about what’s happening here. He speculated that the release was intended as a “copyright dump.” By officially making the recording available for purchase, according to Walsh, Morrison is asserting and preserving his copyright over it before it defaults to the public domain in January, 50 years after it was made. The optimistic interpretation of this move is that Morrison is gearing up to release the show officially; the pessimistic interpretation is that he’s moving to block anyone who would attempt do so themselves after it became public domain. Either way, it would not be surprising if this were spurred on by Walsh’s book, which was published in March of this year. If you missed out on downloading the show yourself, it seems likely that it will soon pop up via various non-sanctioned channels if it hasn’t already, now that it’s out there.

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“Brown Eyed Girl” hit the radio waves 50 years ago. The hit became a landmark moment for its singer, Van Morrison, who had just left his home of the Belfast-born Irish soul troubadour Van Morrison and his band Them to break out on his own. “Brown Eyed Girl” was a start, but it wasn’t what Morrison saw himself doing.

Throughout his career, Morrison has weaved into many genres, but the thread of deep spirituality has bound the pieces together. His perspectives have shifted dramatically — from mystic poeticism to born-again Christianity and everything between, even dabbling in Scientology — but it’s always there, and it’s part of what makes his catalog so fascinating.  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,

Van Morrison is one of rock’s greatest poets, and no matter what he’s preaching or what the band’s playing, it’s profound and it’s certainly always got soul.

Astral Weeks

Morrison first came to prominence as a preternaturally gifted teenager fronting the gritty Blues soul act Them. By 1967, he had already composed the now 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.

It’s almost impossible to pick one track from the close-stitched tapestry that is Astral Weeks, where every song – excepting, perhaps, the smooth swing of The Way Young Lovers Do makes persuasive claim to being a masterpiece. Morrison’s dreamtime evocation of postwar Belfast was recorded in a handful of hours with some of America’s finest jazz musicians, relying on intuition and alchemy to bring the songs of memory and rebirth to vivid life. Madame George exemplifies the album’s mood of heightened nostalgia, its pitch of ecstatic longing. Earlier attempts at the song recorded with Berns came out sounding boorish and flat-footed. Now working with New York producer Lewis Merenstein, Morrison and his hired hands instinctively divine the heart of it, capturing an entire street world in 10 minutes with three simple acoustic guitar chords, fluttering flute, backstreet violin and Richard Davis’s double bass, the elastic anchor which holds the whole thing together. The charismatic drag queen of the title – an amalgam of six or seven different people, according to Morrison – is a wonderfully elusive construct around whom a rich cast of characters spin. Although his lyricism has never been more colourful or evocative, the key line is a simple one: “Say goodbye.” Madame George is one long letting go: to time, place, people; above all to innocence. It ranks among the most beautiful and heartbreaking farewells in popular music.

“To be born again / To be born again / From the far side of the ocean,” Morrison sings on the title track, signaling a personal reinvention; not only from his new home in America, but of rock music entirely. Astral Weeks is where it really begins. Morrison mixed the acoustic folk he had been playing in Boston coffee shops with a new jazz ensemble, featuring musicians who had played with the likes of Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, Charles Mingus and the Modern Jazz Quartet.

Morrison showed the band his acoustic songs and told them to add what they felt. The classical guitar and flute flutter between string arrangements, Morrison’s spiritual poetry dancing atop, while Richard Davis’s double bass drives straight through, grounding it all. The songs are loose and free.

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.

There’s no other record like Astral Weeks. Its 47 minutes seem to be over in the blink of an eye, leaving you questioning everything you knew about music.

Moondance

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,

Moondance is based around punchy R&B and concise pop songs. Side one is packed with five outstanding compositions; the title track, where Van plays Sinatra, is the most well known, but ‘Crazy Love’ is pretty, ‘Caravan’ is jaunty, ‘Into The Mystic’ is lovely and esoteric, while ‘And It Stoned Me’ is all of the above.

While Astral Weeks was a loose exploration, Morrison ditched the jazz ensemble for a new band for its follow-up. Moondance is far more structured, though he hides that with the freewheeling imagery of gypsies and idyllic county fairs. His spirituality is in full force here, from the baptism of “And It Stoned Me” (“Oh the water/Let it run all over me”) to the gospel of “Brand New Day.”

Morrison followed the loose abstractions of Astral Weeks with the precise opposite – a collection of tight, honed, radio-friendly blue-eyed soul made with the crack band of local musicians he had assembled near his then home in Woodstock. The 10 tracks on Moondance offer up an embarrassment of riches, but the killer cut is this mysterious tale of being “born before the wind, oh so younger than the sun”, and sailing the “bonny boat” into some sublime metaphysical harbour. Pinned down by Morrison’s rattling acoustic rhythm guitar, John Klingberg’s propulsive bass, and the totemic foghorn, Into the Mystic provides the spiritual heft on an album more concerned with transmission than transcendence.

Moondance would define what people would come to expect from a Van Morrison record: the swinging blue-eyed soul of an Northern Irish folk rocker enamored with early R&B. Side 1 is stacked with many of his best known songs: “And It Stoned Me,” “Moondance,” “Crazy Love,” “Caravan” and “Into the Mystic.” And side 2 is just as good. The dual saxophones of Jack Schroer and Collin Tilton keep the music from veering too far off into other genres, pulling the country rock of “Come Running” and the bluesy “These Dreams of You” right back into Morrison’s signature style.

His Band and the Street Choir

Van Morrison seemed to have aged quite a bit by 1970. He began writing and producing everything himself, relying heavily on song structure instead of the jams of Astral Weeks. His Band and The Street Choir is a confident step in the same direction as Moondance, but Morrison loosens up his grip to create a freer, more organic record — even leaving in some of the studio chatter. Moondance and His Band, were released in the same year, are like twins. They share a lot of the same genetic makeup, but they both pull in different directions, eager to prove themselves.

You know how the second side of Moondance was pleasant but unmemorable?His Band And The Street Choirs essentially is an entire album of the same thing – nicely arrangements, delivered in Van Morrison’s unmistakable voice, but the song-writing isn’t as sharp as on his other early albums. His Band And The Street Choir is generally grouped with the surrounding albums – Moondance and Tupelo Honey are as part of the domestic trilogy, chronicling Morrison’s life with Janet Planet in Woodstock in upstate New York.

Only a couple of the tunes from His Band And The Street Choir stick with me. Opener ‘Domino’ is a horn infused R&B song that’s still Van Morrison’s biggest hit in the US. And the closer ‘Street Choir’ has a big memorable chorus (“Why did you leave America?”) and more dramatic tension than the rest of the album. The remainder of Street Choir is often with less interesting lyrics than his best work.

There’s enough of Van Morrison’s enjoyable early sound to make His Band And The Street Choir interesting to fans.

Although always overshadowed by its multi-platinum sibling, His Band widens Van’s range. He runs through sax-filled soul rock on “Domino” (which topped even “Brown Eyed Girl” as his most successful single), folk on “Virgo Clowns,” and straight blues on “Sweet Jannie.” It’s loose and free but quintessentially Van.

Tupelo Honey

Although he moved to Marin County, California, to record Tupelo Honey, Woodstock, N.Y. is at the heart of the album. Lyrically, Morrison revels in his pastoral life that fell apart as Woodstock became a hippie destination after the 1969 festival.

Like many of his compatriots before him, Van Morrison relocated to America, although in his case it was due to a woman rather than a potato famine. While Van Morrison had lived in the U.S.A. since the start of his solo career, Tupelo Honey’s country textures make for his most American sounding album. Living in Woodstock, Van Morrison was living close to The Band, and they’re perhaps one influence on the rootsier sound here.

It’s perhaps symptomatic that the strongest tracks – opening single ‘Wild Night’ and the epic title track – are those closest to Van Morrison’s more typical R&B. If you’re not in the right mood, Tupelo Honey‘s agenda of doe-eyed domestic bliss can be nauseating, but despite the throwaway nature of several tracks the overall effect is often charming. The booklet artwork helps; Van, with his tight pants and little beard, looks like a cute Celtic mythological figure. The central song on Tupelo Honey is the gorgeous title track; it starts off with beautiful organ, joined by Van’s delicate vocal intoning “She’s as sweet as tupelo honey/She’s an angel of the first degree.” The other two epic tracks are also enjoyable; ‘You’re My Woman’ isn’t startlingly original, but carries through on a wave of euphoria, while ‘Moonshine Whiskey’ has a fluid catchy chorus that contrasts with the taut verses.

The standout tracks are the snappy lead-off single ‘Wild Night’, with a stylish bass entrance into the introduction, and ‘Old Old Woodstock’ which evokes the languid and rural tone of some of The Band’s work. The low point is ‘I Wanna Roo You’, which is even worse than the title suggests.

The lesser tracks do mesh into Tupelo Honey, as the whole album has a lightweight tone; a collection of mellow -tinged love songs. It’s enjoyable enough, but Tupelo Honey is one of Morrison’s lesser albums from his early catalogue.

The country waltz “(Straight to Your Heart) Like a Cannonball” finds him retreating to nature — “Sometimes it gets so hard/ And everything, everything don’t seem to rhyme/ I take a walk out in my backyard and go.” And although he abandoned the full-blown country-and-western theme he had planned for Tupelo Honey, the twang survived.  “When That Evening Sun Goes Down” bops with honky-tonk piano and slide guitar.

Saint Dominic’s Preview

Morrison genre hops more blatantly than ever on Saint Dominic’s Preview. He comes out swinging on the opener, “Jackie Wilson Said,” awash with saxophones and one of the catchiest hooks Morrison has ever written. But he wastes no time switching to the flute-heavy “Gypsy” and the Ray Charles jazz of “I Will Be There.” Morrison plays each style so convincingly, it’s barely noticeable how wide he’s reaching. But these three are really just an aperitif for what comes next.

Morrison’s superlative run of driving R&B singles in the early 1970s – Come Running, Domino, Blue Money, Wild Night  had turned him into a US pop star, a development he professed to loathe, naturally. That particular populist strain of writing peaked with this frantic, appealingly odd slice of finger-snapping soul-pop from 1972’s Saint Dominic’s Preview. Paying homage to the great American R&B star, one of the few vocal stylists who could hold a candle to the Belfast Cowboy, Morrison is at his most unaffected and exuberant.

There’s no poetry here, just a string of “do-do-do-dos”, “bop-shoop-bops” and “dang-a-lang-a-langs” to express the sheer joy of being head over heels in love. Dexys Midnight Runners had the big UK hit with the song in 1982 , but Van’s remains the definitive reading. You can imagine the wee fellow high-kicking his way through it, letting it “all hang out”, and very possibly tearing the seat of his trousers in the process.

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.

The last four tracks contain some of Morrison’s deepest moments. The 11-minute “Listen to the Lion” is surprisingly sparse. He manages to draw out the song’s minimal lyrics, repeating lines like “I shall search my soul” and “Lookin’ for a brand new start.” He changes each line slightly as he repeats, not in a trance, but magnetically drawn to each one. The title track and “Redwood Tree” owe much to Morrison’s new life in California but with more spirituality than anything on Tupelo Honey. The latter culminates with the lines “Won’t you keep us all from harm/ Wonderful redwood tree” delivered joyously like a gospel Thoreau. Similar to “Listen to the Lion,” album closer “Almost Independence Day” is a winding stream-of-consciousness epic. With only a few repeated words, Morrison leaves the listener completely in awe.

It’s Too Late to Stop Now

Morrison once said, “When I go into the studio, I’m a magician,” and working through this list, it’d be hard to argue against that. It seems obvious that he prefers the control of the studio to live performances where anything could go wrong. Even now, he has a reputation as an inconsistent performer, offering little to no banter between songs and often refusing to play the hits. But when he was on, he was untouchable.

It’s Too Late to Stop Now is Morrison’s Live at the Apollo. He fully embodies the soul singers he worshipped to deliver definitive versions of some of his songs — looser than ever, throwing ad-libs like a preacher speaking in tongues. Van runs through his classics like “Domino” and “Wild Night” with feverish energy, even singing along with the horns on “These Dreams of You.” A few times on the record, he catches his breath with slower tunes like “Cypress Avenue” or “Saint Dominic’s Preview” before jumping right back with fire. The maddening energy peaks on “Gloria,” where Morrison shows himself transformed from garage-rock singer to showstopping rhythm-and-blues man.

Morrison’s peerless double live album, It’s Too Late to Stop Now, is revisited this month in an expanded box set. Recorded during his 1973 tour, it captures him at a career peak, performing with the 11-piece Caledonia Soul Orchestra, a superlative band augmented with two horn players and a string quartet. The new material – 45 tracks – only serves to emphasise the jaw-dropping power and versatility of Morrison in full flood. It includes two previously unheard versions of Listen To the Lion, his epic incantation from Saint Dominic’s Preview; the one recorded at the Rainbow in London just about shades it for sheer vocal abandon, not to mention Bill Atwood’s soaring trumpet part. The song itself is the ultimate expression of Morrison’s compulsion to heed the internal voices that drive his music, the seemingly painful search for his inner lion. Over a slow, stop-start shuffle, the words are pared to a bare minimum. “I will search my very soul,” is the digested read; this is all about sound and feel. Many years later Morrison described it as “a song about me. Probably the only one”.

Veedon Fleece

Veedon Fleece is the ultimate hidden gem of Morrison’s catalog. Following the dissolution of his marriage, he returned to Ireland for first time since 1967. But Veedon Fleece isn’t really a breakup album Morrison already had a new fiancee at the time of his trip. It’s the sound of a man at a crossroads in his life, a wanderer coming home after a self-imposed exile, during which he failed to find a permanent place for himself.

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.

After moving to America in 1967, Morrison spent the next six years in exile from Ireland. On his return in 1973 for a holiday, he immediately found the muse rapping at his window. He flew back to his home near San Francisco with a hatful of strange and beautiful songs, infused with Celtic twilight and preoccupied with a grail-like object that gave his next album its title but the significance of which even Morrison has since been unable to adequately explain. Reminiscent of Astral Weeks in its instrumentation, flow and questing spirit, Veedon Fleece is one of his greatest works. Any selection from the album is bound to be representative rather than definitive, but this brooding, contemplative march is a highlight, inspired by Morrison’s visit to the Wicklow town of Arklow, his head “full of poetry”. James Rothermel’s high, lyrical recorder soars over “God’s green land”, and when the strings swoop in at the start of the third verse, the force of the music perfectly conveys the gravitas of Morrison’s “soul-cleansing” excursion.

Veedon Fleece was the last album from Van Morrison’s initial run of solo records; subsequently he went into semi-retirement for three years, only emerging to appear in The Band’s The Last Waltz. In some respects, it’s almost the completion of the circle begun with Astral Weeks; , Veedon Fleece is more steeped in acoustic mysticism than any of his releases since Astral Weeks, and it’s similarly loose in feel. It’s also more noticeably more Irish than anything he’d released previously; there’s little R&B here, using more folk-oriented, acoustic instrumentation, and the lyrics reference William Blake and figures from Irish mythology.

The songs that take place in America deeply contrast with his descriptions of Ireland. “You can’t slow down and you can’t turn around/ And you can’t trust anyone,” he sings on “Who Was That Masked Man.” That paranoia comes right before the sunny description of Ireland on “Streets of Arklow” where he sings, “And our souls were clean/ And the grass did grow.”

Side 2 especially basks in the warm nostalgia of home with songs like “Cul de Sac” and “Country Fair.” On “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push the River,” Morrison describes the search for the mythical “Veedon Fleece,” but musically he’s not searching, for the first time in years. He mostly treads through the jazzy folk he once covered on Astral Weeks, sounding more confident than ever.

Wavelength

Wavelength immediately showers you with warmth. “So glad you made it, so glad you’re here,” Morrison sings on opener “Kingdom Hall,” the perfect greeting to what might be his most accessible record, packed start to finish with pop-rock classics.

Wavelength is Morrison’s first attempt at incorporating synths, but it’s still firmly a ‘70s record. The title track swims in warm synths, courtesy of Van’s former Them bandmate Peter Bardens, but they’re never the star. The guitar is high in the mix, right beneath Morrison’s voice and the gospel harmonies.

The Band’s Garth Hudson bookends the album with electronics, tearing through a keyboard solo in “Kingdom Hall” and adding grand synths to closer “Take It Where You Find It,” but the organ and accordion on “Venice U.S.A.” keep Wavelength from wandering too far toward the sky. The album doesn’t rely too heavily on synths — it’s a balancing act that’s prevented the record from sounding dated almost 40 years later.

Like the albums that followed it, Wavelength is slick and commercial, and the style suits Morrison as his vocals are unique enough that a generic musical backing isn’t a problem. It does mean that Wavelength can’t coast by on atmosphere like some of Van Morrison’s previous work did; the album is a little monotonous in places, and some of the songs drag on too long, and it works best when he’s laying on the pop hooks.

There are pop hooks galore on pop songs like the title track and ‘Kingdom Hall’, while the short, punchy ‘Natalia’ is arguably the most memorable piece. The gentle ‘Hungry For Your Love’, with Morrison playing electric piano is melodic and memorable, while the most significant piece is the closer ‘Take It Where You Find It’, which slowly builds into a nine minute epic, with the refrain centering around “lost dreams and found dreams in America”.

After the tentative A Period of Transition, Wavelength is a step forward for Van Morrison; its more polished sound would be utilised for 1979’s career highlight Into The Music.

Into the Music

After the commercial success of Wavelength, Morrison looked inward, turning to spiritual writing in a new way. Songs like “Full Force Gale,” which features a slide guitar solo from Ry Cooder, and “Rolling Hills” show him embracing Christianity for the first time in his music. The strings played by Toni Marcus complement the lyrics beautifully, but his signature horn swells and sax solos are still there.

Following a directionless mid-to-late 1970s, Morrison wrapped up the decade with one of his most enjoyable albums, Into the Music, a breezy declaration of spiritual and musical regeneration. With a sensational new band, spearheaded by former James Brown horn player Pee Wee Ellis and freewheeling violinist Toni Marcus, he hit upon a powerful folk-soul hybrid which on the album culminated in a monumental 11-minute version of the 1950s standard It’s All in the Game. Van’s more accessible musical instincts were also back on track. The one-two punch of Bright Side of the Road (a minor hit in the UK) and this rousing declaration of being “returned to the Lord” is one of Morrison’s most uplifting opening sequences, and the most effortlessly immediate music he had made since the days of Brown Eyed Girl. Whether or not you care for the God-talk, Full Force Gale is an irresistible expression of rebirth, a punchy pop gospel testament which sweeps away any doubters.

His early records revolve around searching — for a home, for love, for meaning — but starting in the late ‘70s, he seems to have it all figured out. His point of view may change from album to album, but in the moment he delivers these perspectives as truth. And for that moment, you’ll believe him. In “Angeliou,” Morrison perfectly sums up why we listen to his records: “It wasn’t what you said/ But just the way it felt to me/ As I listened to your story/ About a search and a journey/ Somewhere inside/ Just like mine.”

Into The Music is a blue-print of the adult contemporary direction than Van Morrison would pursue during the 1980s, but the song writing is so sharp that it’s his best album. It’s slickly produced and loaded with backing vocalists, strings, saxophones, and other adult contemporary paraphernalia, but for these joyous songs the sensory overload approach works beautifully, like being swept away by a wave of intertwined sexual and spiritual power.

No Guru, No Method, No Teacher,

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

Van’s last full-length masterpiece was No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, released 30 years ago. From its pointed title onward it found him shucking off many of the formal teachings that had infiltrated his music over the past several years – Christianity, Scientology, Rosicrucianism – to reconnect with his enduring muses: nature, pantheistic spirituality and a deep absorption with the past.

In the Garden brings all three themes together in six minutes of pure rapture. Morrison transports himself back to “the garden wet with rain” of Astral Weeks, taking the listener, trancelike, through what he later described as “a meditative process”. The music is unspeakably gorgeous, a wonderfully tensile ensemble performance lead by Jef Labes’ rippling piano motif, every quiver held in check through to the ecstatic climax, where Morrison turns the album title into a mantra. Though he tends to favour more workmanlike material in concert these days, this remains the transcendent high point of Morrison’s recent live appearances.

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 under reported.

I’m still forming an opinion on this, but so far I think it’s one of his better albums from the period, with earthier arrangements. Like a 1980s’ take on his spacier mode – akin toAstral Weeks or Veedon Fleece. ‘One Irish Rover’ is pretty, ‘Foreign Window’ is punchy with its memorable horn riff.

Common One

Common One

This 15-minute excursion from 1980s meditative Common One became the fulcrum of Morrison’s live shows for the next decade, an open-ended opportunity for the band to vamp and for he and Ellis to engage in extended call-and-response routines about topics as obscure as brass bands and Seamus Heaney’s publisher. Summertime in England is the deepest of Deep Van, an improvised jumble of some of Morrison’s most pressing musical, spiritual and literary preoccupations. Partly inspired by the open spaces of Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way, it’s a deeply ambitious, highly eccentric, improvised blend of snappy rhythm, hymn-like half-time passages, funky organ, vaulting strings and free-flowing horns.

The action moves from the Lakes to the Vale of Avalon as Morrison pictures Wordsworth and Coleridge “smokin’ up in Kendal”, evokes Mahalia Jackson coming “through the ether”, pays homage to Yeats, Joyce, Eliot and, of course, William Blake, and eulogises about a woman in a red robe – “high in the art of sufferin’” – with whom he plans an assignation in the long grass. The conclusion of all this magnificent madness? “It ain’t why, why, why – it just is.”

Into The Music was among Van Morrison’s most accessible efforts; its followup is among the least. Common One plunges directly into mystic spiritual territory, and with two songs passing the 15 minute mark there’s little in the way of pop hooks. Losing pianist Mark Jordan from the Into The Music band changes the feel of the record significantly; Common One is more open sounding and jazz oriented, with more room for improvisation from Van Morrison’s vocals, and the saxophone and trumpet.

The result is arguably the most divisive album of Van Morrison’s career, as its lengthy song structures push it close to jazz (as admirers would classify it) or easy listening (as its detractors would label it); and there’s justifiable grounds for regarding Common One as a flat-out masterpiece, a noble failure, or as an outright snooze fest.

While it’s not immediately compelling, the ambient atmosphere of the longer pieces is quite unique in Van Morrison’s catalogue. A couple of the shorter pieces are accessible enough; ‘Satisfied’, which Christgau accurately categorises as “the only vaguely fast one”, could have fit nicely onto Into The Music with its punchy R&B arrangement, while ‘Wild Honey’ is concise and prettily melodic, with a sentimental arrangement and lyric (“don’t you feel my heart beat/just for you”) that rubs up nicely against the more esoteric material. The more esoteric, fifteen minute material comprises of ‘When Heart Is Open’, a subdued improvisational piece based on Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way, and the more urgent ‘Summertime In England’, where Van Morrison rants about T.S. Eliot and William Blake. Add in the charming opener ‘Haunts Of Ancient Peace’, and there’s plenty of really good material here.

Common One takes some effort to decode, and it’s probably the least approachable album that Van Morrison ever made, but there’s plenty to enjoy for dedicated fans.

Avalon Sunset

Before Morrison’s long slide into genre exercises – a skiffle album here, a country record there, jazzin’ at Ronnie Scott’s – and the undistinguished collections of too-solid blues and R&B that have defined his music over the past two decades, he enjoyed a late-80s commercial renaissance with Avalon Sunset. The album marks the lush, string-drenched apogee of his preoccupation with a peculiarly British strain of ancient mysticism. Forget the singularly unlikely Cliff Richard duet (Whenever God Shines His Light) which finally got The Man on Top of the Pops, and head instead to this magnificent miniature Coney Island is an orchestrated gem over which Morrison recites – in thick east Belfast vernacular; check out the way he says “face” – an autumn bird-watching trip through the County Down where the “craic was good” and so, apparently, was the grub: “Stop off at Ardglass for a couple of jars of mussels and some potted herrings, in case we get famished before dinner”. Somebody once tracked the route taken in the song and concluded that Morrison must have deployed William Burroughs’ cut-up technique on his road map, but such literalism misses the point. This is a journey into the heart of life’s simple joys, a note-to-self to seize contentment when it appears, even in such seemingly mundane pleasures as “stopping off for Sunday papers at the Lecale District”. A mere 123 seconds it may be, but Morrison’s eternally restless soul has rarely sounded at such peace. “Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?”

Avalon Sunset, Van Morrison’s 19th studio album, was a commercial success, and his fastest album to reach gold status in the UK. But while it attracted more attention than usual, it feels like Morrison is treading a well worn path by this point, To Van Morrison’s credit, he was able to write a popular standard on Avalon Sunset, unusual for a pop artist into the third decade of their recording career; ‘Have I Told You Lately’ was popularised by Rod Stewart, and has been co-opted as a popular wedding tune, but it’s a love song to God.

Similarly, the other songs that deal most explicitly with faith are also strong. It’s possible to dismiss the Cliff Richard duet ‘Whenever God Shines His Light’ as mawkish, but I like the contrast between Richard’ boyish tenor and Morrison’s emotive yelp. ‘When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God’ is tuneful and thoughtful.

Avalon Sunset is a solid album with no obvious throwaways, but besides these highlights I don’t have a whole lot of use for it; it’s mostly Van Morrison dispensing wisdom over a smooth backing. Unless you’re a hardcore fan, you’re probably better off finding the album’s best songs on a compilation.

Beautiful Vision 

Beautiful Vision is one of Van Morrison’s most settled, comfortable albums, like a calmer take on the Into The Music sound, and it’s relatively insular with its low key explorations of spirituality and Irish heritage. Even if he’s sometimes treading water musically, there are plenty of great songs here, and it’s one of his more consistent, most substantial records, even if it’s less adventurous and less universal than his earlier work.

Beautiful Vision is one of Van Morrison’s most settled, comfortable albums, like a calmer take on the Into The Music sound, and it’s relatively insular with its low key explorations of Christianity and Irish heritage. But even if he’s treading water musically, there are plenty of great songs here, and it’s one of his more consistent, most substantial records, even if it’s less adventurous and less universal than his earlier work. Guests include Mark Knopfler, who plays guitar on ‘Cleaning Windows’ and ‘Aryan Mist’, while Morrison himself plays piano on the closing instrumental ‘Scandinavia’, where his sprays of notes are melodically compelling.

Enforcing an initial reaction that Beautiful Vision is bland and uninteresting, at least a couple of these songs are abjectly uneventful – the monotonous title track and ‘Aryan Mist’ both wander past without adding anything to the record. But digging deeper, there are a couple of catchy potential singles in the form of ‘Cleaning Windows’ and ‘Dweller On The Threshold’, the former a seemingly autobiographical tale from Van Morrison’s days in Belfast inspired by R&B, and the latter balancing wistful lyrics with a fast tempo. The standout track, though, is ‘Across The Bridge Where Angels Dwell’, where R&B, jazz, and gospel are fused into a glorious whole, Van Morrison’s voice floating above the female backing vocals. The two Celtic influenced pieces, ‘Northern Music (Solid Ground)’ and ‘Celtic Ray’, give the album a solid beginning,

The insular world that Morrison creates here isn’t ideal for neophytes, but Beautiful Vision is like a more mature, calmer version of Into The Music, and it’s not as far from that album’s greatness as it may seem on first impression.

Van Morrison Hard Nose the Highway

Hard Nose The Highway

You can’t go too far wrong with Van Morrison’s 1968-1974 period; Hard Nose The Highway is justifiably reckoned as one of his lesser albums from the era, but it’s still an enjoyable listen. If St. Dominic’s Preview was a brilliant summation of Van Morrison’s career up to that point, then Hard Nose The Highway is arguably a predictable retread.

The record also has more of a smooth, jazz-inflected feel, and it’s a little blander than usual, but it’s still sonically creative in the opening ‘Snow In San Anselmo’, which is one of the weirder successes in the Van Morrison catalogue. The two covers, the traditional British ballad ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’, referred to here as ‘Purple Heather’, and the more bizarre choice of ‘Bein’ Green’ are also an indication of Van Morrison running out of ideas, but they’re nicely performed, and none of the above objections detract from the fact that most of the songs on this album are perfectly solid.

Despite the overall feeling that it’s a relatively minor work, the major issue with Hard Nose The Highway is simply that the ten minute track ‘Autumn Song’ drags more than it should; a pleasant but generic jazz tune is stretched out to unnecessary proportions, far less interesting than the previous record’s ‘Listen To The Lion’. The lyrical agenda of ‘The Great Deception’ is blatant (“Have you ever heard about the great Rembrandt/Have you ever heard about how he could paint/And he didn’t have enough money for his brushes”), but works fine musically.

The main appeal of Hard Nose The Highway is the pair of opening tracks; ‘Snow In San Alselmo’ is one of Van Morrison’s best arty tracks, with a eerie feeling and weird choir, while ‘Warm Love’ is one of his best commercial songs, with an accessible melody and utilising his pretty upper register. The title track is perfectly solid, while he also manages to bring something new to the somewhat over-used ‘Purple Heather’.

Hard Nose The Highway isn’t Van Morrison’s strongest album by any stretch of the imagination; it’s the quietly under-achieving record between two milestones, but Morrison was in such good form at this time that even his under-achievements are worth hearing.

TB Sheets

During Van Morrison’s spell in Them, the brutally, brilliantly reductive Belfast band he fronted between 1964 and 1966, there had been glimmers of an artistic sensibility at odds with the turbo-boosted dockside R&B of songs like Gloria and Baby Please Don’t Go. On My Lonely Sad Eyes, Hey Girl and an aching cover of John Lee Hooker’s Don’t Look Back, Morrison was reaching for something deeper and more revelatory. It wasn’t until he made his first solo recordings in New York with Bert Berns in 1967, however, that he began forging a distinct creative identity. The antithesis of the jaunty Brown Eyed Girl, TB Sheets is the first great Morrison immersion: 10 minutes of crawling, bloodied blues, sticky with the sweet stench of decay. Taking cues from gnarled old death songs like TB Blues, Morrison conjures something entirely idiosyncratic. The “Julie baby” dying of tuberculosis was, according to various sources, either an old high school friend, his London landlady or a work of fiction. Whoever she may be, Morrison delivers us, with unremitting focus, into her fetid room, creating a suitably claustrophobic, choking musical backdrop of stabbing organ, stinging blues licks and searing harmonica. His agitated death-watch veers between compassion (“I cried for you”), impatience (“I gotta go, I’ll send somebody around later”), awkward empathy, guilt and mortal dread. When words fail, he snuffles at the window like a hunted boar. When the recording was over – apparently; perhaps apocryphally – Morrison burst into tears. Not an easy listen, but grimly unforgettable.

Them

Every Van Morrison collection needs something from Them. Both of their albums, The Angry Young Them and Them Again, were recently reissued, but if you manage to find one of the many compilations out there, you get the bonus of their non-album singles like “Baby, Please Don’t Go” and “Richard Cory.”

In the two years they were together (1964 – 1966), Them recorded garage rock classics like “Gloria” and “Here Comes the Night.” The blues rock of his youth remains part of Morrison’s career even now, although tightened up considerably. Them’s music is an important document of a burgeoning young rock star about to become the Van Morrison we all know today.

If 1967 was a year of introduction and innovation in rock ‘n’ roll—from Monterey Pop to to the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band and the launch of Rolling Stone Magazine  1968 was a proving ground, when a handful of the stars who had sprouted in the “Summer of Love” came to full flower in the psychedelia age. Artists from both sides of the pond, including The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Aretha Franklin, Cream, Traffic and Jefferson Airplane felt free to chip further away at old molds and pursue a daring new musical muse. It was an epochal year for established artists as well. The Beatles splintered in the studio, but their individual contributions to a self-titled double LP, the so-called “White Album”, amounted to some of the band’s greatest work and, in retrospect, unlocked a few imminent solo careers. It was a double album released by the Beatles  containing strong flavours of blues and rock’n’roll, Does this now mean the Beatles are taking a step backwards? As Ringo Starr philosophically remarks: ‘It’s not forwards or backwards. It’s just a step.’

John Wesley Harding

The year started out with what may well have been the finest album of the year, Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. Midway through the year some tapes of Dylan’s were uncovered which were equally brilliant. Several of the songs on them came out on an album by The Band, Music From Big Pink. The best things on their album were not the Dylan songs, most of which sounded forced and strained, and by no means as good as Dylan’s own version of them on the tape. Rather, the highlights were the songs written by lead guitarist Robbie Robertson. “The Weight” was typical of the group’s low-down, country-soul, rock and roll performing and was one of the finest recordings of the year.

Bob Dylan also sets an anomalous tempo, established early in the year with the bucolic minimalism of ‘John Wesley Harding’. Dylan’s continued absence from the promotional scene allows him to move with a freedom not permitted his British contemporaries, and his absence creates a vacuum that myth, and under-the-counter recordings, step in to fill. British groups like The Who, meanwhile, grasp the opportunities of America. So effectively in fact, that their live shows were stupendous as they were chaotic.

The Notorious Byrd Brothers

The Byrds continued to go through personnel changes at least four times a year but in between times came up with two of the year’s great albums: The Notorious Byrd Brothers and Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The latter was a fine, straight country album with gorgeous, free harmonizing and excellent material. The former was perhaps their best album to date, and surely one of the five or so best of the year. David Crosby made some brilliant song-writing contributions, but the album was mainly Roger McGuinn’s and neither he nor anyone else in rock has often equalled such cuts as “Get To You” and “Artificial Energy.”

The Grateful Dead bored a lot of people with their much awaited second release, Anthem of the Sun and Moby Grape disappointed those who know that they are (or at least were) one of the finest live bands in the country with a very mediocre second album, Wow. On the other hand, the Rascals, long thought of as a teeny bopper group, continue to mature and develop and had at least one fine single this year: “People Got To Be Free.” 

Among individual artists, Laura Nyro began to receive the recognition she deserves, and many idolize her Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. Johnny Winter, a recently discovered white Texas blues singer has already created a large following on the basis of a few guest appearances in New York. San Francisco concert promoter Bill Graham rents a vacant New York theater and opens the Fillmore East concert venue.

Canadian rock band Steppenwolf release their debut album including the single “Born to Be Wild” and San Diego Rock band Iron Butterfly releases the album In A Gadda Da Vida considered to one of the first incarnations of the genre heavy metal albums.

The Rolling Stones grew out their roots with “Beggar’s Banquet”, while The Kinks and The Zombies took giant leaps forward with new and imaginative masterpieces that forever altered their trajectories. Plus we were introduced to a bunch of new faces to the pantheon:  The Doors, Sly Stone, Fleetwood Mac, Tim Buckley and, oh yes, Led Zeppelin. British rock and roll this year was dominated by blues bands. Ten Years After managed to kick up a lot of dust, Procol Harum continued to grow into its style and came up with a fine album, Shine on Brightly.

Pink Floyd lead singer and song writer Syd Barrett is checked into a psychiatric hospital and the band replaces him with David Gilmour.

Rock ‘n’ roll was at its most free in the pre-Woodstock glow of 1968. The Beatles went to India, Johnny Cash went to Prison at Folsom with one of the great live albums ever released, the Rolling Stones put a mobile studio in a truck, The Monkees went off the air. But it couldn’t ignore what was happening in the world riots, assassinations, war, a doomed election, space travel, poverty, drugs, Civil Rights, women’s liberation. All of it seeped into the art of the free-love counterculture with that strange combination of militant idealism and comical self-regard, as though it were clear that humanity would one day look at 1968 for a generation’s heroes and villains. Fifty years later in 2018 we are in the midst of a modern drug epidemic, a tarnished presidency, a growing underclass and a renewed vigor for social progress.

Here are some of the best albums of that momentous year in no particular order.

Sweetheart Of The Rodeo

The Byrds,  – Sweetheart of the Rodeo’

Even though David Crosby was booted from the Byrds in late 1967, the band had a pretty great 1968. In addition to the excellent ‘Notorious Byrd Brothers’ album, the restructured group released ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo,’ the granddaddy of all country-rock records. Credit goes to newcomer Gram Parsons, who helped steer the Byrds in this new direction. By the time the album came out in August, Parsons was gone and most of his vocals had been replaced (you can hear his recordings on the various reissues). But it didn’t matter in the long run — his, and the album’s, influence still resonates today.

Dock Of The Bay

Otis Redding, The Dock of the Bay   Released: February. 23rd

In some ways, 1968 began with a great sadness. On December. 10th, 1967, the blossoming soul star Otis Redding was killed in a plane crash in Wisconsin that also claimed the lives of four of his band members. The tragedy had taken not just one of the era’s most distinctive singers, but an artist standing at a new horizon for R&B music. Days before his death, Redding had recorded a new composition ”(Sitting On) The Dock of the Bay,” a lilting ray of sunshine that found a winsome Otis Redding unwinding his tight groove sound and opening up new worlds for his soul.

Released posthumously in February 1968, The Dock of the Bay showcased Redding for the mainstream audience he had courted at Monterey Pop the previous summer. “Let Me Come on Home” was the hard-driving, horn-happy rocker; “The Glory of Love” the arpeggiated slow burn; “Tramp” the naughty call-and-response with Carla Thomas. It wasn’t the album Redding was supposed to make in 1968, but it nevertheless served as the crossover breakthrough he always had in him.

Cheap Thrills

Big Brother & Holding Company, Cheap Thrills  – Released: August. 12th

Cheap Thrills, the second album featuring Janis Joplin, marked the emphatic emergence of the Texas-born singer in the San Francisco band that had already found some local success without her. Propelled by a star-making appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 that netted the band a deal with Columbia Records, Janis Joplin’s wavering, powderkeg voice quickly dominated the band’s psych-blues repertoire and raised the bar for practically every fiery vocalist to follow. Album entries “Summertime” and “Piece of My Heart” became signature songs, the vehicles with which she stunned the pop world with her grit and femininity, fusing her inner torment and strife with her public persona. Cheap Thrills topped the charts, one of the few products of San Francisco’s emerging underground to earn a mainstream embrace. The album’s cover, by illustrator R. Crumb, remains one of the most iconic of the era.

Truth

Jeff Beck,  –  Truth  

Jeff Beck’s first solo album following his departure from the Yardbirds in 1966 picks up where he left off with the influential British blues rockers: covering blues classics, standards from the Great American Songbook and even one of his old band’s songs. The guitar hero’s group on ‘Truth’ — including singer Rod Stewart and guitarist Ronnie Wood  would get co-billing on the follow-up album, 1969’s ‘Beck-Ola.’ They deserve it here too.

Ogdens' Nut Gone Flake

Small Faces, Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake  –  Released: May 24th

Marking a definitive break from Small Faces’ early mod and R&B underpinnings, the two-act Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake was a bold move into the realms of stylish psychedelia and the eccentric affectation of late ‘60s English invention. Although more than a hint of Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane’s Cockney humor was inescapable—the whimsical “Rene” and “Lazy Sunday” being obvious examples—two bold anthems, “Song of a Baker” and “Long Agos and Worlds Away,” predated Led Zeppelin’s arch bombast by several months.

At the time, the round album cover, made to resemble a tobacco tin, and the sidelong gibberish of “Happiness Stan,” a pseudo fairytale narrated by English actor Stanley Unwin, also garnered plenty of attention. One of the first concept albums ever envisioned (and basically unplayable live), Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake remains a little appreciated musical masterpiece. Small Faces would disband the following year.

Wheels Of Fire (Remastered)

Cream, Wheels of Fire  –  Released: August

Wheels of Fire had a hard precedent to follow, coming as it did on the heels of Cream’s 1967 sophomore breakthrough, Disraeli Gears and the blues-embossed psychedelia that preceded it. Nevertheless, laden with such classics as “White Room,” “Politician” and a sterling remake of the Robert Johnson classic “Crossroads” that became a microcosm of Eric Clapton’s entire career as a blues-nicking guitar deity, it managed to express the full potency of this startling supergroup (with Jack Bruce on bass and Ginger Baker on drums) and ensure their immortality. By taking the idea of a double disc to a new level of productivity—half live, half studio—Wheels of Fire also made full use of the trio’s songwriting chops and their ability to improvise onstage. Rarely has there been such a sprawling effort capable of bringing out that ability with such flourish and finesse. This was Cream’s last real album-length musical document, with only 1969’s abridged Goodbye to follow.

We're Only In It For The Money

Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention  –  We’re Only It for the Money

More so than any other record on our list of the Top Albums of 1968, the Mothers‘ third record is the one with the most direct link to ‘Sgt. Pepper’s.’ And not just because its original parody cover photo — which ended up inside the LP after the Beatles’ management objected — is a fierce slap to the earlier record. Frank Zappa and crew’s concept album satirizes tons of Summer of Love standbys, including hippie idealism, left-wing thought processes and over-the-top concept albums.

Traffic (Remasters)

Traffic, Traffic  Released: October

A follow-up to their excellent and eclectic debut, Traffic’s eponymous sophomore set found a fully congealed ensemble. The on-again, off-again participation of Dave Mason was now fully present, if only temporarily for this effort. Indeed, this was the album that represented Traffic’s transition from woodshed romanticism to forerunners of new iconic invention, a sound simultaneously purveyed by The Band in their early Americana guise. Several of the standout songs—”40,000 Headmen,” “Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring,” “Pearly Queen”—offered druggy swirls of hippie-rock and tight soul embodied by Steve Winwood’s preternatural tenor and organ playing. Mason’s highlight, “Feelin‘ Alright,” would become a rock-radio smash for Gospel-tinged covermeister Joe Cocker the following year, and remains a mainstay in Mason’s live repertoire to this day. The definitive Traffic album, Traffic is another underrated monument of 1968.

Odyssey & Oracle by ZOMBIES (2011-01-21)

The Zombies, Odyssey and Oracle  –  Released: April 19th

One of the ‘60s great unsung masterpieces of that hallowed decade, the Zombies’ Odyssey and Oracle followed on the heels of the group’s early hits “Tell Her No” and “She’s Not There,” while marking a giant leap forward. It was a set of songs flush with bold experimentation and baroque innovation, a concept not unlike that of Sgt. Pepper and other ornate musical ventures of the day. Ironically, The Zombies had broken up by the time Odyssey came out, and with its eventual smash hit, “Time of the Season,” it became a sad swan song that failed to reap the appreciation it deserved. Al Kooper championed its release in the U.S., but tepid label support doomed it to the cut-out bins practically from the get go. The original band recently reconvened (sans the late guitarist Jim Atkinson) to play the album live in its entirety, helping regain the critical kudos that evaded it originally.

At Folsom Prison (Legacy Edition)

Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison  –  Release: May

When Johnny Cash arrived at Folsom Prison in California on January. 13th, 1968, he was fortunate that he was there to perform for inmates and not join them behind bars. Cash had spent much of the previous few years in a drug spiral, watching his career and his life circle the drain. He was looking to revitalize his waning career, and a prison concert seemed the ideal vehicle—if Cash had always empathized with jail-bound convicts and the lonely despair that comes with the life, now he felt he could speak directly to them on terms everyone could understand. He had recorded the “Folsom Prison Blues” single back in 1955, and here was an opportunity to put faces to names. Proving that the concert was directed at a very specific audience, Cash performed a set of songs (two sets actually, which were combined into one 15-song album) that resisted self-help bromides and spiritual guff. “Dark as a Dungeon,” “The Long Black Veil” and “25 Minutes to Go” evoked the cynicism and gloom of living in captivity. Little did Cash expect, it also resonated loud and clear with a global audience who for one reason or another felt the sting of living in bondage even as they walked free.

Astral Weeks

Van Morrison, Astral Weeks   –  Released: November

After attaining his initial success back in Belfast with the band Them and a couple of hits (“Gloria,” “Here Comes the Night”), Van Morrison launched his solo career with a bang in the form of the ubiquitous soul-blaring 1967 hit “Brown Eyed Girl,” off his debut LP Blowin’ Your Mind! But it was the followup that proved to be his magnum opus. Charting new experimental terrain, he initiated a sound that was open-ended and had more to do with jazz, folk, elegiac imagery and pure stream of consciousness. “Cyprus Avenue,” “Sweet Thing,” “Ballerina” and “Astral Weeks” are unbound folk songs lit up with bells, strings, flutes and Morrison’s assured vocal wail. All but ignored in Northern Ireland, the album struck a chord with critics who admired Morrison’s meditative musings and the songs’ cerebral settings. Today, it’s widely recognized as one of the most influential albums of the era and an adventurous chapter in what would be a long and varied career.

The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society

The Kinks, Are the Village Green Preservation Society  –  Released: November. 22nd

The Kinks were never rabble-rousers in the truest sense of the word. For every proto-punk attempt at slash and burn with songs like “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night,” Ray Davies and Co. were able to offer softer laments like “Waterloo Sunset” and “Set Me Free.” With an astute eye for detail, Davies could probe the absurdities of life and turn them into woeful tales of middle-class misery. He found full flourish with the lovely and graceful Village Green Preservation Society, a wonderfully wistful song cycle about idyllic England in more innocent times, flush with nostalgia, nuance and a gentle chiding of civility and sentiment in a storybook world. If Ray Davies chose to look at life through rose-colored lenses, no one could blame him for attempting to engineer this imaginative escape. It was The Kinks‘ sixth album, and final record by the original quartet, bombed when it came out in November 1968 . But it’s now considered the band’s best LP, a straight-faced concept album about Victorian-era mores. It’s lush, pastoral and brimming with gently strummed songs about small-town England that rank among the best songs that Ray Davies has ever written.

Bookends

Simon & Garfunkel, –  Bookends  –  Release: April 3rd

The most fully realized album of Simon and Garfunkel’s middle-period career, Bookends showed that the duo were capable of more than merely poignant, introspective balladry. Only their fourth studio effort, Bookends was fashioned as a concept album that imagined life’s progression from youth to old age. “Old Friends,” a song that more or less became synonymous with the duo’s often stormy relationship, encapsulated that trajectory, but several others stood apart as future standards, including “America,” “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” “At the Zoo,” and an encore performance of “Mrs. Robinson,” culled from the soundtrack to The Graduate, released the year before. At the same time, Bookends would prove an ideal lead-in to Bridge Over Troubled Water, which would follow two years later and elevate the duo to their grand crescendo.

Music From Big Pink

The Band, Music From Big Pink  –  Release: July 1st

The Band’s debut record took an entirely different path from 1967’s candy-colored psych-rock explosion. Bob Dylan’s former backing group stripped down and excavated a form of American roots music that was somewhere between country and folk. Dylan had a hand in some of the songs, but the quintet proved to be one of the most significant groups of their time.

By the time The Band released their debut full-length, they were already a well-known, road-tested outfit who’d played behind Dylan during his infamous electric breakout. But their emergence as architects of archival Americana arrived with Music From Big Pink, an album borne from jams, rehearsals and songwriting sessions at the album’s namesake house in upstate New York. Though elevated in stature at the time thanks to the presence of a few Dylan compositions, the finished album found Robertson, Helm, Hudson, Danko and Manuel tossing off their musical shackles, mixing up instrumental and vocal duties, and creating a vintage variety of folk and country that seemed as effortless as it did brilliant. It was that emphasis on rural roots—the band boasted four Canadians and and Arkansan—that inspired the souped-up backwoods persona they purveyed in both sight and sound. The songs stand the test of time, and indeed, “The Weight,” “This Wheel’s On Fire,” “Tears of Rage” and “I Shall Be Released” stand among the most indelible expressions of heartland music ever recorded.

Lady Soul [w/bonus selections]

Aretha Franklin, Lady Soul   –  Released: January. 22nd

It says something about how rare and electrifying Aretha Franklin was in 1968, as a 26-year-old singer making her third album for Atlantic Records, that she could claim the title Lady Soul and not only pull it off, but then wear the crown undisputed for the next 50 years. Aretha Franklin had scored a defining hit—for both herself and women everywhere—the previous year with her cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” then mourned Redding’s death in December. Her mix of exuberance and despair, crying and shouting with every twist of a wounded relationship that haunts the album, courses through Lady Soul.

There’s gospel bliss on ”(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and down-hearted blues on “Good to Me As I Am to You.” She also fearlessly reimagines songs by her most famed male contemporaries, including a simmering cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” which had been a hit for The Impressions. Franklin’s once-in-a-century siren of a voice always powerful, always under complete control—is backed all the way by a crack New York headlined led by organist Spooner Oldham, saxophonist King Curtis and guitarist Joe South.Beggars Banquet

The Rolling Stones, Beggar’s Banquet  –  Released: December. 6th

Following 1967’s critically panned Their Satanic Majesties Request, attempt to cash in on psychedelia, the Rolling Stones revealed their essence on Beggar’s Banquet—a dirty, raw, set of originals that injected some country twang into the band’s R&B obsessions and set the mold for the iconic Stones sound that would stretch on for another 50 years.

Like a few other artists on our list of Albums of 1968, unplugged and settled into a more gutsy rock ‘n’ roll groove for their seventh LP. Acknowledging, but without directly borrowing from, the usual R&B and blues influences, the Rolling Stones crafted an album that’s simultaneously raw, scary and sinister. More than that, it launched a staggeringly fruitful creative period (which continued through 1972’s career milestone ‘Exile on Main St.’) when the Stones more than earned their title as the World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Band.

Containing at least three certified Stones classics—“Street Fighting Man,” “Salt of the Earth (featuring a rare lead vocal from Keith Richards) and the signature song “Sympathy for the Devil”Beggar’s Banquet marked the first entry in a four-album run—followed by Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street—that would go down as maybe the greatest winning album streak in rock history.

Sadly, it also marks the final album with Brian Jones’s full participation, and his reliability at the time was clearly in question. The original cover image, featuring a graffiti-strewn lavatory, was rejected by the record label and replaced with an unadorned invitation image that drew instant comparisons to the Beatles’ White Album, which had come out three weeks before. Nevertheless, the inner gatefold, depicting an enthusiastic food fight, ensured the Stones’ depravity wasn’t diminished.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland  –  Released: October. 16th

Jimi Hendrix  radiated genius from the get-go with Are You Experienced? and Axis Bold As Love, his first two albums with the his band Experience in 1967. On Electric Ladyland, he took that extraordinary innovation into entirely new realms that were difficult to define then and remain so now. The trio, with its British rhythm section and American front man, was perfectly suited to their era, and with a supporting cast that included Traffic’s Steve Winwood, Dave Mason and Chris Wood, as well as drummer Buddy Miles and Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady, Electric Ladyland redefined the concept of modern rock within a progressive posture. The album boasts everything that Hendrix (who produced it) did well: slinky psych-soul (“Burning of the Midnight Lamp,” the title track), explosive electric blues (“Voodoo Chile”), melodic pop (“Crosstown Traffic,” “Long Hot Summer Night”) and tripped-out sonic explorations that take the listener under the sea (“1983… A Merman I Should Turn to Be”) and into the heavens (“And the Gods Made Love”). His version of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” showcased his ability to put an indelible mark on any popular music of the day, making it little wonder that even now, half a century later, the final studio effort recorded in Hendrix’s lifetime continues to set an almost unattainably high bar. Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland was the only two record set of the year that made it in my book. He is the authoritative lead guitarist, the coolest showman, an excellent songwriter, and a constantly improving vocalist. He has one of the finest drummers in pop music working with him and an imagination of touring performers on the scene that day, Hendrix is tops and 1968 was his year.

The Beatles (The White Album)

The Beatles, The Beatles  –  Release: November. 22nd

After the critical success of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the rapid follow-up of the equally colorful and hallucinogenic Magical Mystery Tour, this expansive double-disc allowed the four Beatles both to stretch out artistically and reconnect with their roots in a way that would be further explored with the bare bones concept for their 1970 swan song, Let It Be.

A series of solo excursions made by an increasingly fractured band, the so-called White Album collected songs composed while the Fabs were meditating in India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It mostly resisted the pressure to address the social upheaval swirling outside the doors of EMI Studios (later called Abbey Road) and focused instead on wide-ranging song craft, with each member managing to create some of his most lasting work despite—or maybe because of—the infighting and tension that plagued the recording sessions. Lennon emerged with “Dear Prudence,” Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” “Sexy Sadie” and “Revolution 1”; McCartney composed “Martha My Dear,” “Blackbird,” “I Will” and “Helter Skelter”; and Harrison contributed “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Long Long Long” and “Savoy Truffle.” Taken together, they form what many consider to be among The Beatles’ greatest collection of songs.

Filmed at the BBC Radio Theatre, Sir Van Morrison performs an intimate “In Concert” show. The Belfast born “Van the Man” performs a selection of tracks, old and new, from his iconic back catalogue through to “Keep Me Singing”. Tracks include the classic hit “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Wild Night” and “Cleaning Windows”. This intimate show is an up close and personal performance by the Grammy award winning Celtic soul troubadour who is arguably one of the most influential songwriters and performers in the history of popular music.

1. Too Late
2. Magic Time
3. Wild Night
4. Baby Please Don’t Go / Don’t Start Crying Now
5. Here Comes The Night
6. Every Time I See A River
7. Cleaning Windows / Be-Bop A Lula
8. Let It Rhyme
9. Whenever God Shines His Light
10. Sometimes We Cry
11. Going Down To Bangor
12. The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword
13. Keep Me Singing
14. Enlightenment
15. Carrying A Torch
16. Brown Eyed Girl
17. Jackie Wilson Said
18. In The Garden

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Van Morrison’s vocal is an expressive instrument which synthesises his Irish roots with the R&B and jazz that he grew up hearing in Belfast. His exploration of Celtic Soul has effectively fuelled his entire career, as he veered between commercial pop and more uncompromising efforts. Even if his solo career can sometimes feel obstinate and inconsistent, his body of work is uniquely his own, and he should be remembered as a giant of his era

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, Sony’s Legacy Recordings acquired the grand majority of his catalog, making 33 records available digitally.

I’m constantly listening to Van Morrison’s back catalouge while I’ve left gaps at this stage, I’m confident at this stage these are among my favourite essential Van Morrison albums that you should own .

Beautiful Vision

Beautiful Vision (1982):
Beautiful Vision is one of Van Morrison’s most settled, comfortable albums, like a calmer take on the Into The Music sound, and it’s relatively insular with its low key explorations of spirituality and Irish heritage. Even if he’s sometimes treading water musically, there are plenty of great songs here, and it’s one of his more consistent, most substantial records, even if it’s less adventurous and less universal than his earlier work.

Unlike many of his peers from the sixties and seventies, Van Morrison’s eighties work is full of felicity and freshness and this album stands up well beside Veedon Fleece, St Dominic’s Preview, Moondance and Into the Music. Certainly this album, along with Poetic Champions Compose, No Guru, the still miraculous Irish Heartbeat and much of Avalon Sunset, bubble over with VM’s own peculiar brand of realism – making spirituality accessible to the masses while making wonderful horn arrangements accessible to anyone with ears to hear. So it is refreshingly perverse, in a way, to see how he has allowed his catalogue to fall into disrepair, while everyone else, dead or alive, creates archives and re-releases their entire oeuvre in mono and massive boxsets.

Others here have gone into detail about Vanlose Stairway, and Cleaning Windows , all great songs – pop songs, too, in their way – as are Celtic Ray, She Gives Me Religion and the indecently joyous Dweller on the Threshold. Van Morrison, at times like these, convinces you of the higher power he has sung about so frequently. Apart from the overly prominent snare and the slightly thin vocals, the old devil of eighties production stays away from this record the discernible dwindling of inspiration in the last quarter of the album, after Vanlose Stairway. It is, at any rate, almost a relief when the intensity diminishes and the music seems to drift to a close. Few singers have been so adept at getting their band to sound vital and spontaneous in the studio as well as on stage. Beautiful Vision has stayed the course – it’s as true now as it was then.

Veedon Fleece

Veedon Fleece (1974)
Veedon Fleece was the last album from Van Morrison’s initial run of solo records; subsequently he went into semi-retirement for three years, only emerging to appear in The Band’s “The Last Waltz”. In some respects, it’s almost the completion of the circle begun with Astral Weeks; returning to Ireland at the end of his marriage, Veedon Fleece is more steeped in acoustic mysticism than any of his releases since Astral Weeks, and it’s similarly loose in feel. It’s also more noticeably more Irish than anything he’d released previously; there’s little R&B here, using more folk-oriented, acoustic instrumentation, and the lyrics reference William Blake and figures from Irish mythology. This was Van’s 8th album from 1974 was recorded shortly after a divorce . Any album before this break is there to be savored and Veedon Fleece is no exception. Closest in style to Astral Weeks it was written in Ireland on a three week holiday and recorded quickly afterwards. It’s a stripped down sound with acoustic guitar, flute and piano dominant. Stream of consciousness lyrics are overlaid across what can broadly be described as pastoral music, none more than on closer Country Fair. Opener Fair Play is gloriou,sly laconic, a stone wall classic to open the album and sets the tone for what is to follow.

Reminiscent of Astral Weeks in its instrumentation, flow and questing spirit, Veedon Fleece is one of his greatest works. Any selection from the album is bound to be representative rather than definitive, but this brooding, contemplative march is a highlight, inspired by Morrison’s visit to the Wicklow town of Arklow, his head “full of poetry”. James Rothermel’s high, lyrical recorder soars over “God’s green land”, and when the strings swoop in at the start of the third verse, the force of the music perfectly conveys the gravitas of Morrison’s “soul-cleansing” excursion.

Lyrically this is such a densely packed whole you could be listening repeatedly and get something new every time.Original Side 1 closer You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push The River is a prime example of this. At almost nine minutes it’s a tour de force full of the sort of mysticism Van is famous for, backed up with lovely strings and woodwind. Original Side 2 opener Bulbs is the most upbeat the album gets and was chosen as an unrepresentative single, with echoes of the style heard on Tupelo Honey. A simply gorgeous masterwork that brings all the threads of Morrison’s career to that point to a natural conclusion.

Astral Weeks

Astral Weeks (1968)
Astral Weeks is a fascinating record; it sounds different from anyone Van Morrison or anyone else has created, and for adventurous music listeners it’s worth picking up for that reason alone. Although Morrison arguably balanced jazzy exploration with more accessible work on subsequent albums like St. Dominic’s Preview and Veedon Fleece, Astral Weeks is his most extreme statement which alone makes it essential as a unique effort in the canon of popular music.

Van Morrison’s seminal 1968 solo album Astral Weeks—the effort that firmly put his solo career on the music map this song “Sweet Thing” exudes hopefulness looking forward, with a unique blend of wishful thinking and whimsical romanticism. It may be the defining song of the album itself,

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 Weeks’s refined and definitive multi-genre bisque that remains one of the most magnificent and visionary works recorded for a major record label. Check out the vibraphone heavy alternate take on the upcoming Astral Weeks expanded edition it is a revelation.

Moondance

Moondance (1970)
Astral Weeks showcased the stream-of-consciousness, improvisational side of Van Morrison’s music, Moondance is based around punchy R&B and concise pop songs. Side one is packed with five outstanding compositions; the title track, where Van plays Sinatra, is the most well known, but ‘Crazy Love’ is pretty, ‘Caravan’ is jaunty, ‘Into The Mystic’ is lovely and esoteric, while ‘And It Stoned Me’ is all of the above.

Morrison followed the loose abstractions of Astral Weeks with the precise opposite – a collection of tight, honed, radio-friendly blue-eyed soul made with the crack band of local musicians he had assembled near his home in Woodstock. The 10 tracks on Moondance offer up an embarrassment of riches, but the killer cut is this mysterious tale of being “born before the wind, oh so younger than the sun”, and sailing the “bonny boat” into some sublime metaphysical harbour. Pinned down by Morrison’s rattling acoustic rhythm guitar, John Klingberg’s propulsive bass, and the totemic foghorn, Into the Mystic provides the spiritual heft on an album more concerned with transmission than transcendence.

“Moondance” is undoubtedly Van Morrison’s finest hour, a masterpiece that easily ranks amongst the Top 100 albums of all time. For me, it’s his only album that gets a five star rating, unless there is some hidden gem that I have not yet heard. His other albums generally have a few great tracks interspersed with somewhat average material, but this one is consistently great throughout; musically sublime and well produced. Standout tracks are “Crazy Love”, “Caravan” and the title track, but in truth all tracks on here are excellent.

”’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. There is no denying the impact “Mystic” has had on generations of gypsy souls rocked by its soothing sway.

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.

Saint Dominic’s Preview (1972)
Morrison’s failing marriage informs his music on Saint Dominic’s Preview. The love songs of the “domestic trilogy” are replaced with more eclectic and ambitious material. Saint Dominic’s Preview is perhaps the quintessential album of Van Morrison’s early career, covering both punchy R&B pop craft like the opening ‘Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile)’ and artier impulses like the ten minute semi-improvisations that close each side of the original LP. There’s definitely a lot of soul in the delivery of Van Morrison, and he stated that ’50s soul singer Jackie Wilson was a key influence in developing his style. So when the opportunity arose to pay tribute to one of his heroes, Van took it. The upbeat ditty was inspired by a line in Wilson’s song ‘Reet Petite’ and speaks to the joy and elation one can get from listening to their favorite song. The track has been covered several times over the years, with Dexys Midnight Runners having the most success with their version.

No wonder he himself has said he`s not a rock singer. No, he`s closer to Ray Charles
or Otis, or one of those old blues shouters like Big Joe Turner or Jimmy Rushing. This is soulful, “spiritual” singing that takes no prisoners. It is what they sometimes call righteous.
Listen To The Lion is a rumbling, grumbling ruminative extemporisation on a theme, a sobering eleven-minute meditation, a rant, a kind of rap.

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 track 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.

After so much relative solemnity you`re ready for the joyously uplifting title track, a perfect rendition of a song that tends to make the sun come out and the birds sing. Redwood Tree is next, an almost folky song in Van`s nostalgic vein.
Almost Independence Day is the grand finale to this great album, another vocal and musical exploration in Van`s “this`ll take as long as it takes” manner. It`s a tremendous tour-de-force. The accompaniment on this track, as on the whole album, is flawless, spontaneous, and exactly “right”.
Throughout this man`s now illustrious career he`s often come up with masterpieces.
Listen.

Tupelo Honey

Tupelo Honey (1971 )

Van Morrison’s “Caledonia soul”–his unique blend of Irish mysticism and spiritual questing, literary allusion and blue-eyed R&B–can be as beautiful and deeply emotional as any music ever made. That’s certainly the case on 1971’s Tupelo Honey, one of the finest albums of Morrison’s long career. Kicking off with the classic “Wild Night”, Tupelo Honey is as completely joyous as the normally bitter Van gets, particularly on the title track and the unabashedly grateful, slow-building “You’re My Woman”, both among the most moving love songs he’s ever recorded.

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 album Tupelo Honey with a major boot in the booty.

Into the Music

Into The Music (1979)
Into The Music is a blue-print of the adult contemporary direction than Van Morrison would pursue during the 1980s, but the song writing is so sharp that it’s his best album. It’s slickly produced and loaded with backing vocalists, strings, saxophones, and other adult contemporary paraphernalia, but for these joyous songs the sensory overload approach works beautifully, like being swept away by a wave of intertwined sexual and spiritual power.

Following a directionless mid-to-late 1970s, Morrison wrapped up the decade with one of his most enjoyable albums, Into the Music, a breezy declaration of spiritual and musical regeneration. With a sensational new band, spearheaded by former James Brown horn player Pee Wee Ellis and freewheeling violinist Toni Marcus, he hit upon a powerful folk-soul hybrid which on the album culminated in a monumental 11-minute version of the 1950s standard It’s All in the Game. Van’s more accessible musical instincts were also back on track. The one-two punch of Bright Side of the Road (a minor hit in the UK) and this rousing declaration of being “returned to the Lord” is one of Morrison’s most uplifting opening sequences, and the most effortlessly immediate music he had made since the days of Brown Eyed Girl. Whether or not you care for the God-talk, The track Full Force Gale is an irresistible expression of rebirth, a punchy pop gospel testament which sweeps away any doubters.

His Band And The Street Choir  (1970)

Van was apparently a happy man, especially judging from the group photos in the booklet, living with Janet Planet (a union which wasn`t to last) and their child in Woodstock, NY. There is even a note by Janet, reproduced from the original foldout LP sleeve, testifying to Van`s newfound bliss. All of this comes across in what is his loosest, most `hippyfied` album, though it`s also a record with heaps of soul, and the high degree of musicianship we`ve now come to expect on each and every Van Morrison release.

Invariably Morrison gives us a great opening track, and Domino is no exception, taking its honoured place
Next is the offbeat, irresistible Crazy Face – which I notice another reviewer dares us to try and sing! I kind of know what he means. Another highlight is Call Me Up In Dreamland, a song that couldn`t be simpler, but could hardly be less memorable too.
Blue Money is a bit throwaway, but then comes what might just be the loveliest song on the album, Virgo Clowns, which is as compelling as its title. Van sings it with passion and soulfulness.
If I Ever Needed Someone is pure, unadulterated soul. Gypsy Queen is superb, as is the terrific and cathartic closer, Street Choir.
There are some excellent musicians playing with the Man, including John Platania on guitar and mandolin, Jack Schroer on saxes, with Janet Planet herself and Martha Velez (remember her?) as two of the backing singers.
The number of songs about or inspired by Janet are positively Lennon-esque in their devotion, but who could blame him? They look so happy…
After this record came the wonderful Tupelo Honey, Street Choir It stands up on its own, a deceptively loose-knit, euphoric set of twelve songs sung with soulful power by the man who will always and ever be

This upbeat ditty finds Van Morrison once again paying tribute to one of the greats, as he penned the track as a nod to Fats Domino. Morrison lets loose on the song for one of the most infectious sounding cuts of his career. The singer wrote the track in 1968, but some believe he held onto it until 1970 knowing its hit potential and not wanting it to fall under a publishing deal in which he would have given up half the profits to the song. ‘Domino’ holds the distinction of being the singer’s highest charting track ever.

While these albums tend to be among his most well recognised, putting the acclaimed Astral Weeks is probably unconventional. Hardcore Van Morrison fans tend to gravitate to his more insular albums like 1980’s Common One and 1986’s No Guru, No Method, No Teacher.

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The Rolling Stones  –  On Air

On Air is a collection of rarely heard radio recordings from The Rolling Stones formative years. The songs, including eight the band have never recorded or released commercially, were originally broadcast on bygone UK BBC shows such as Saturday Club, Top Gear, Rhythm and Blues and The Joe Loss Pop Show between 1963 and 1965. These flashbacks offer an insight into the band as a vital and constantly surprising live unit. Such was the frequency with which they visited BBC studios in the 60’s, the group constantly set out to offer listeners something different. As well as songs that never appeared on singles or albums, there are seven tracks that were debuted over the airwaves before featuring on albums or EPs.

The group’s take on familiar R&B staples like Roll Over Beethoven, Memphis, Tennessee and Beautiful Delilah (all originated by Chuck Berry) illustrate the verve and energy the Stones regularly brought to their live shows. The BBC would urge them to perform their current singles, and while happy to do so they also relished the opportunity to showcase a fuller picture of their prowess as Britain’s foremost blues outfit, packing clubs and ballrooms night after night.

Among the tracks, first heard ringing out of transistor radios over a period of just under two years, is Come On, the group’s debut single and also the first number laid down for the iconic Saturday Club, hosted by the late, legendary Brian Matthew. Other highlights include the strutting Fannie Mae(originally recorded by bluesman Buster Brown in 1959), Tommy Tucker’s Hi Heel Sneakers, and Bo Diddley’s Cops And Robbers. Nestling among the illustrious and well-chosen cover versions, are raw and vibrant renditions of Stones Jagger / Richards originals, such as (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, The Last Time and The Spider And The Fly in a form closer to the thrilling immediacy of the band’s live shows than on vinyl. These recordings bring the listener as near as possible to the excitement of the era without actually being there in person. If last year’s collection of new recordings of past masters Blue and Lonesome presented the Stones returning to their roots after more than 50 years, On Air is the perfect “sister” compendium, a lovingly curated and restored treasure trove that puts the listener front and centre in the eye of the original storm. To help recapture the spirit of the songs when they were first performed, the tapes have gone through a process called “audio source separation”, which involved de-mixing the transcripts and allowing engineers at Abbey Road access to the original instrumentation and voices within each track, so that they could be rebuilt, rebalanced and remixed to achieve a fuller, more substantial sound. The end result is the Stones at their most passionate and intense, transporting listeners back to the band’s lean and hungry years when their standing as household names was already assured, and global domination was just 12 bars away.

The variety of radio shows from which the material is compiled is testament to the special relationship the Stones had with the BBC from the very beginning of their recording career. The music speaks for itself, but ‘On Air’ also serves as an important historical artefact, and an essential of the group’s impressively evergreen canon. On Air offer a unique insight into the formative days of The Rolling Stones a few years before ‘The Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band in the World’ became a reality this was a band playing the music they loved so much – Blues, R&B, Soul and even the odd country song. Performing these songs night after night in clubs and dancehalls meant they are all honed to perfection and performed with the genuine love and affection that The Stones have for their musical heritage.

The Rolling Stones’ On Air marks the first wide release of any of the band’s live BBC sessions, recorded during the beginning of their storied career.  An audio companion to the recently published book of the same name, On Air features a bevy of tracks recorded between 1963, when the group appeared on Saturday Club just months after the release of their debut single, a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Come On,” and 1965, when the band returned to the show armed not only with more great blues and soul covers but a new original, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”  Available in 1CD and 2CD formats, as well as a 2LP vinyl edition (which replicates the contents of the 1CD version).

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Muddy Waters  –  Electric Mud

Third Man Records reissue of Muddy Waters’ fifth studio album Electric Mud, which comes as a continuation of Third Man’s partnership with Universal Music Group and the Estate of Muddy Waters. The album, which Chess originally released in 1968 has not seen a legitimate domestic vinyl release since 2002, despite its enormous influence on generations of blues rockers. It features members of Rotary Connection as Muddy’s backing band and was very controversial upon its release for its fusion of electric blues with psychedelic elements. The album is now recognized as a forward-thinking classic, sampled extensively by artists like The Black Keys and Gorillaz.

Van Morrison  – Versatile

Van the man releases his 38th studio album Versatile, which arrives less than three months after the singer released his 37th studio album Roll With the Punches. While Roll With the Punches, found Morrison reinterpreting the work of blues and soul legends like Sam Cooke, Bo Diddley and Little Walter, Versatile sees the Irish crooner shifting to jazz standards like George and Ira Gershwin’s A Foggy Day and They Can’t Take That Away From Me, Cole Porter’s I Get a Kick Out of You and Unchained Melody, popularized by the Righteous Brothers. Like Roll With the Punches, the covers are interspersed with Morrison originals; the singer penned seven new songs for Versatile, including an arrangement of the traditional Skye Boat Song.

For his second studio album of the year, Van Morrison has turned to the classics.  Versatile features six Morrison compositions alongside jazz vocal standards and other legends of the Great American Songbook.  Of the six Morrison-penned songs, three are originals and three have been previously recorded: “I Forgot That Love Existed,” “Only a Dream,” and “Start All Over Again” – on Poetic Champions Compose (1987), Down the Road (2002), and Enlightenment (1990), respectively.  Flautist Sir James Galway appears on the new Morrison song “Affirmation.”

Neil Young and Promise of the Real  –  The Visitor

In addition to new single Already Great, the 10-track album The Visitor also includes Young’s patriotic Children of Destiny, which the rock legend surprise-released on July 4th. Young recorded that song at Hollywood, California’s famed Capitol Studios alongside Promise of the Real – led by Willie Nelson’s son Lukas – and a 56-piece orchestra; in total, 62 musicians played on the track. The Visitor, also arrives less than a year after Young released his solo Peace Trail in December 2016; earlier that year, Young and Promise of the Real unleashed their double-disc live LP Earth.

Neil Young with the band Promise of the Real for his latest studio album on the same day that he opens his online archives for business.  Songs like “Already Great,” “Fly by Night Deal,” and “When Bad Got Good” show Young as fiercely political and fiery as ever.

U2  –  Songs of Experience 

U2 return with their hotly anticipated new studio album Songs of Experience. Recorded in Dublin, New York and Los Angeles, Songs of Experience was completed earlier this year with its subject matter influenced by Brendan Kennelly’s* advice to Bono, to “…write as if you’re dead”. The result is a collection of songs in the form of intimate letters to places and people close to the singer’s heart: family, friends, fans and indeed himself. Songs Of Experience is the companion release to 2014’s Songs Of Innocence, the two titles drawing inspiration from a collection of poems, Songs of Innocence and Experience, by the 18th century English mystic and poet William Blake. Produced by Jacknife Lee and Ryan Tedder, with Steve Lillywhite, Andy Barlow and Jolyon Thomas, the album features a cover image by Anton Corbijn of band-members’ teenage children Eli Hewson and Sian Evans.

U2 is garnering acclaim for this newest studio album, a follow-up to 2014’s Songs of Innocence.  

Wilco, A.M. / Being There

Wilco revisits its first two albums this week.  A.M., the band’s 1995 debut, is expanded on 1 CD or 2 LPs with eight previously unreleased bonus tracks, including “When You Find Trouble,” the last track recorded by Jeff Tweedy’s previous band, Uncle Tupelo.  The band’s sophomore double album, Being There, morphs into a 5-CD or 4-LP box set by pairing the original album with a disc of 15 unreleased outtakes and alternates plus a clutch of live material recorded in Los Angeles just after the release of the original album. (The vinyl includes a radio set for KCRW-FM, while the CD box has that, plus a lengthy show recorded at The Troubadour a day before that appearance, on November 12th, 1996.)

Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols: 40th Anniversary Edition

UMG revisits the long out-of-print 2012 Super Deluxe Edition of The Sex Pistols’ album in a smaller format still boasting 3 CDs which include the original studio album with 1977 B-sides, a disc of outtakes, and one disc of live material. A DVD has 1977 footage of the band playing live from the infamous boat party held on the River Thames, London, the Winter Gardens, Penzance in Cornwall and the Happy House, Stockholm, Sweden.  A 48-page booklet rounds out the set.  Available today in the U.K., and next Friday in the U.S.

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The Skids  –  Scared to Dance

Deluxe Expanded Edition of the debut album by The Skids. Originally released in March 1979 the album spent ten weeks in the UK National Charts, eventually peaking at No.19. The hit singles Sweet Suburbia (No.70), The Saints Are Coming (No.48) and Into The Valley (No.10) are all featured. This three CD edition contains the original album expanded with nine bonus tracks, a second disc with 12 previously unreleased 1978 studio demos (long sought after by collectors of the band) and a third disc with the complete show from a late `78 show at the legendary London Marquee from which the B-side T.V. Stars (Albert Tatlock!) was taken. Each disc comes in its own cardboard wallet and is housed in a clam shell box featuring original album artwork. A 20-page booklet contains lyrics to the album, pictures of all relevant singles and detailed liner notes.

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Hater  –  Red Blinders

Rough Trade Shops top tip.You can imagine John Peel’s hurriedly inaccurate summation of a cold and unforgiving Swedish winter as he juxtaposes the big-jumper-like welcoming warmth of Hater. Their lush and tempered guitars are an almost Marr-approved Smiths-like foil for Caroline Landahl’s beautifully accented and accentuated vocal – it’s a heartwarming brew. Hater are new to the game. Last year’s well-received debut album, You Tried earned comparisons to Alvvays, The Pretenders and even Jefferson Airplane, eclectic for sure, but that’s just incidental. Their new EP distinguishes their very own super polished and intricate guitar-led dreamy pop. Featuring their first single for Fire, the wonderfully forlorn and truly lovesick Blushing (we’ve all been there) and Rest with its haunting monosyllabic guitar break, a super-clean chiming motif that seems like a closing salvo before it regains momentum and brings proceedings to a suitable climax, welcoming back Landahl for one last chorus. The echoey eeriness of Red Blinders could have come right out of the bubble blowing indie pop hey days of the early ‘80s, while Penthouse is a chunkier c86 groove with a wind blowing through its motorik rhythm.

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The Lovely Eggs  –  Cob Dominos

Repressed on their own Lovely Eggs imprint. Described as unhinged, strange, bizarre, cuckoo and howling mad; but with a growing army of fans including Radio One’s Huw Stephens and Art Brut’s Eddie Argos you’d be crazy not to fall in love with their underground grunge-pop sound. Inspired by everyday life, coupled with a fierce ethos that music should be about magic and art and feeling and fun, the Lancashire duo have more in common with writer Richard Brautigan and artist David Shrigley than they do with their musical peers.

Big Country, – We’re Not In Kansas (The Live Bootleg Box Set 1993-1998)

One of the Scottish alt-rock group’s lesser-known periods is examined in this band-approved 5CD set of recordings of live shows across the U.S. and Europe during their second decade.

Other Re-Issues Releases This Week on Vinyl and CD

Suicide – The First Rehearsal Tapes – Superior Viaduct
Olafur Arnalds – Eulogy For Evolution – Erased Tapes
Bob Dylan & The Band – The Basement Tapes – We Are Vinyl
Bob Dylan & The Band – Before The Flood – We Are Vinyl
The Specials – The Specials – Chrysalis
Special AKA – In The Studio – Chrysalis
Tom Waits – Glitter & Doom Live – Anti
Morbid Angel – Kingdoms Disdained – Silver Lining
Andy Human & The Reptoids – Kill The Comma 7″ – Emotional Response
Protomartyr – Under  Color Of Official Right – Hardly Art

Tupelo Honey

In a career that would come to be defined by near-constant change Van Morrison‘s fifth studio album found him in the midst of personal as well as creative upheaval. released in the October of 1971. Recorded Spring-Summer, 1971 at Wally Heider Studios and Columbia Studios in San Francisco.

Already over the course of his relatively young career, Morrison had led a nomadic lifestyle, moving from Ireland to Boston and then to upstate New York, where he settled in Woodstock while writing the material for the classic albums “Moondance” and “His Band And The Street Choir” LPs. Fruitful as those environments clearly were from a songwriting standpoint, by the spring of 1971, he was on the move again  this time across the country, to the sunnier climes of northern California.

There were a number of reasons for Morrison’s latest migration. His wife at the time, Janet “Planet” Rigsbee Morrison, was from the area, and was eager for more familiar areas a desire compounded by the changes Woodstock had seen in the wake of the historic rock festival held in the area. Complaining it “was getting to be such a heavy number,” Morrison said later, “When I first went, people were moving there to get away from the scene — and then Woodstock itself started being the scene.”

Morrison was also at something of an artistic crossroads. After exploring Northern soul to critical acclaim with his more recent efforts, he contemplated cutting a country album for his fifth LP. Although he gave up on that idea after making the move to the West Coast, he faced an even bigger decision: what to do about putting together a new group of musicians now that he’d put thousands of miles between himself and his regular crew.

With saxophonist Jack Schroer and his wife Ellen who contributed backing vocals the lone holdouts from Morrison’s previous band, he set about assembling a new musical corps, ultimately enlisting a crowd of players that included familiar faces (percussionists Connie Kay and Gary Mallaber had contributed to previous LPs) as well as a generous helping of fresh blood. Among the new additions were a trio of Bay Area musicians who’d later become very familiar to rock fans: producer Ted Templeman, notching his second co-production credit after working on the Doobie Brothers’ self-titled debut earlier in the year; guitarist Ronnie Montrose, who’d soon embark on his own distinguished recording career; and guitarist John McFee, a highly regarded session player who’d join the Doobies toward the end of the decade. The vocals on the album were always live after rehearsing each song five or six times, according to saxophonist and flautist “Boots” Houston, who further commented that when Morrison and the band went into the studio: “we would then just play a whole set straight through without repeating anything. We would have played maybe twenty songs and Van would go back and cut out the songs he didn’t want.

If his personnel were new, Morrison’s material was of a slightly older vintage. After abandoning the idea of a country album, he relied mostly on previously written material during the sessions for the new LP, penning one new track — the Side One closer “You’re My Woman” — along the way. Further cementing the reputation he’d already acquired for mercurial behavior, Morrison subjected Templeman to a trial by fire, leading a hard charge through the songs and essentially demanding everyone else keep up. The end result, somewhat ironically, amounted to one of his more peaceful, contended-sounding records.

Tupelo Honey proved an immediate hit for Morrison upon its arrival in October of 1971. Peaking at No. 27 in the U.S. — a new high for him — it also included one of his biggest hit singles, the album opener “Wild Night.” For mainstream listeners eager to hear more of the bucolic side of his musical personality, Tupelo Honey offered a bounty of mellow riches, reflecting the sun-dappled domestic bliss pictured on the album cover. Of course, as he was later eager to point out, none of it was necessarily reflective of his reality.

“The picture was taken at a stable and I didn’t live there,” said Morrison  “We just went there and took the picture and split. A lot of people seem to think album covers are your life or something.”

In fact, although it ended up garnering him additional riches and critical acclaim, Morrison was never shy about expressing his emotional distance from the album. As stubbornly as he insisted on making music his way and following his own occasionally inscrutable creative path, he wasn’t immune to contractual obligations or commercial pressures, and he’d later acknowledge that the decisions leading to these particular sessions weren’t ones he stood behind.

“I wasn’t very happy with “Tupelo Honey,” Morrison amitted afterward. “It consisted of songs that were left over from before and that they’d finally gotten around to using. It wasn’t really fresh. It was a whole bunch of songs that had been hanging around for awhile. I was really trying to make a country and western album.”

Tupelo Honey remains one of the more popular gateways to Morrison’s daunting body of work, and if it isn’t necessarily the first record named in discussions of his best albums, it’s usually part of the conversation. Still, for the relentlessly forward-thinking artist who produced it, it represents a misguided detour he’d rather not revisit — and as fans would soon discover, he was interested in exploring musical vistas well beyond this period’s sound.

“I never really listen to Tupelo Honey much,” commented Morrison. “I just don’t connect up with it. I’ve got a bad taste in my mouth for both the Street Choir and Tupelo Honey albums.”

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Van Morrison has announced the details of his 37th studio album, Roll With the Punches, to be released this fall and supported with tour dates in the U.S. and U.K. . Due in stores on Sept.ember 22nd ., Punches arrives roughly a year after Morrison’s most recent effort, Keep Me Singing, which reached the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic. The 15-song track listing blends new original numbers with covers of classic blues numbers — a balance that, as Morrison argues in the press release announcing the new LP, reflects the approach he’s always taken to making music.

“From a very early age, I connected with the blues,” Morrison explains. “The thing about the blues is you don’t dissect it — you just do it. I’ve never over-analyzed what I do; I just do it. Music has to be about just doing it and that’s the way the blues works — it’s an attitude. I was lucky to have met people who were the real thing — people like John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Witherspoon, Bo Diddley, Little Walter and Mose Allison. I got to hang out with them and absorb what they did. They were people with no ego whatsoever and they helped me learn a lot.”

Calling the album as a whole “performance oriented,” Morrison says he focused on his interpretive approach while recording. “Each song is like a story and I’m performing that story,” he adds. “That’s been forgotten over years because people over-analyze things. I was a performer before I started writing songs and I’ve always felt like that’s what I do.”

Van Morrison, ‘Roll With the Punches’ Track Listing
“Roll with the Punches”
“Transformation”
“I Can Tell”
“Stormy Monday/Lonely Avenue”
“Goin’ to Chicago”
“Fame”
“Too Much Trouble”
“Bring It On Home to Me”
“Ordinary People”
“How Far from God”
“Teardrops from My Eyes”
“Automobile Blues”
“Benediction”
“Mean Old World”
“Ride On Josephine”

Van Morrison Bang Cover

These Recordings Van Morrison made for Bang Records in 1967, including an entire disc of tracks seeing official release for the first time, will feature on the upcoming reissue “The Authorized Bang Collection”. The compilation gathers songs the Irish singer-songwriter laid down during his brief period on legendary producer Bert Berns’ label.

The collection, due out April 28th, features three discs of music that Morrison recorded alongside Berns: The first disc focuses on the original masters from Morrison’s Bang sessions including original mixes of songs like “Brown Eyed Girl,” “T.B. Sheets” and “Madame George” while the second boasts rarities from the sessions.

The third disc dubbed the Contractual Obligation Session, as it closed Morrison’s tenure with the label – contains 32 short, stripped-down and less-refined songs that were oft-bootlegged over the years but presented here in its best sound quality to date.

After leaving Them for a solo career in 1967, Morrison aligned with Berns’ Bang Records; Berns, who wrote tracks like “Twist and Shout,” “Piece of My Heart” and “Cry to Me,” produced Them’s 1965 hit “Here Comes the Night.” However, after the recording sessions, Morrison and Berns‘ partnership fizzled. After Berns died unexpectedly in December 1967, Morrison entered a legal battle with the producer’s widow over his creative independence.

Bert Berns was a genius,” Morrison said in a statement. “He was a brilliant songwriter and he had a lot of soul, which you don’t find nowadays.”

The Authorized Bang Collection 3-CD set celebrating the 50th anniversary of Van Morrison’s first solo record and includes, for the first time on CD, the original mixes of the master recordings, including the hit “Brown Eyed Girl”. An additional 13 tracks of session outtakes (10 previously unreleased) complement the original masters, in both original stereo or mono mixes. Also included in ‘The Authorized Bang Collection’ is the first official release of Morrison’s “contractual obligation session.” He submitted 31 hastily composed, wryly humorous “nonsense” songs. This disc illustrates the depths of Morrison’s frustration at an early stage in his career.