In his usual inscrutable fashion (or his record label's), Van Morrison is reissuing his back catalog with little regard for rhyme or reason. 1974's amazing Veedon Fleece, 1982's Live At The Belfast Opera House, 1990's Enlightenment… eventually most of it will be re-mastered with a few bonus cuts and people like you and me will be able to buy it.
While Van has enjoyed a long career, he made his name in the singer-songwriter era of the early 1970s with hits like "Moondance," "Domino," "Wild Night," "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile)," "Tupelo Honey" and that super-smash "Linden Arden Stole the Highlights." And while Van certainly transcended every genre he ever touched, he's still comfortably remembered as a hippie-ish looking dude in long flowing robes and coats, even if today he looks like an aging mobster in a Zorro hat and has always sung plenty of country, jazz and blues.
The early 1970s were a big time for singer-songwriters, bearded and non-bearded white guys with acoustic guitars who sang sensitively about sensitive matters. James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Harry Chapin, John Denver, Don McLean, Perry Leopold, even flashy dudes like Elton John, Billy Joel…you might be wondering where are they? They're on YOUR list. This is mine.
These are whom I consider the "Best." As great as the aforementioned may or may not be, I couldn't possibly type the name James Taylor (though I like "Fire And Rain" and "Sweet Baby James" and a few others) when I hadn't yet typed John Cale, who I greatly prefer. And I still had to leave off Colin Blunstone! Ah, the injustice! My criteria were simple. The people selected had to make very good albums in the early '70s. Tim Hardin, for example, made his best records in the 1960s and by 1971 was hanging on by a needle and a thread. Warren Zevon didn't start making good records until the second half of the 1970s. And Bob Dylan dropped down on the list because 1) the masterful Blood On The Tracks and the underrated New Morning aside, he wasn't in full gear by this point and 2) How many lists can one man dominate before you call him a list hog? We need to spread the wealth sometimes.
Finally, the people chosen had to be people you'd consider "singer-songwriters." Sure, David Bowie writes and sings his own songs and Todd Rundgren, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Donald Fagen…so many other do the same, but somehow they don't make you think of them that way. They seem more like performers destined for a different list. And most of them have made other lists… while someone like Judy Collins is mostly an interpreter of other people's fine works and not often a songwriter — though that song about her father was a catchy one.
I thank those of you who read the criteria. Judging by many of the comments left by our commentators, these opening paragraphs exist in a special, protected place where only the chosen few notice that it's here at all. I'm sure you disagree with my picks. (No one agrees with another person's list.) But at least you have taken the time to read this long, meandering list of excuses. Thanks! (And, seriously, isn't it funny to read the complaints from people who would have questions to their answers if they read this "secret" part of the blog?)
Now let the weirdness begin!
25) Melanie: She's amazingly good at covering other people's songs. I'll take her "Wild Horses" and raise you her "Ruby Tuesday," alongside a little "Lover's Cross" and "I Think It's Going to Rain Today," but this totally good-hearted and precious singer-songwriter also wrote her own stuff like "Candles In The Rain," "What Have They Done To My Song, Ma" and "Leftover Wine" that was like having a portable hippie at your disposal. Who wouldn't want that?
24) Rod Stewart: While I'm one of the only people in the world who thinks Rod got better in the 1980s, I also acknowledge that he was pretty good back in the early 1970s when he still had tons of street cred. And he's one of the only singer-songwriters to evoke genuine hair envy. I mean, look at most of these guys. They have NO look.
23) Lou Reed: Other singer-songwriters wrote about stuff like nature, saving the environment, their first high school girlfriend, Reed wrote about electro-shock, cross-dressing, S&M and other topics that are pretty commonplace today, but back then got you banned from the Scholastic Book Club for sure. Ain't no Oprah going to come down from the sky!
22) Bob Dylan: Even when Bob Dylan is sleeping he's more creative than most of us at our most waking hour. The man sweats inspiration. So it was a little disconcerting in the early 1970s when it seemed as if the well might be going dry. In retrospect, the dry period came later. New Morning and Blood On The Tracks were strong albums and even Planet Waves seems better with age. Maybe everything does. If so, boy I can't wait to start enjoying my copy of Knocked Out Loaded.
21) Carole King: Look everyone, it's someone who's had some actual hits. Tapestry is one of those albums that everyone who was on earth bought when it first came out and everyone born afterwards bought it at a garage sale. King was already a professional songwriter for other people when she finally got the chance to show the world that she didn't need to let other people sing for her. And then she sold a ton of records. Must've felt good to say "told you so."
20) Paul Simon: He divorced Art Garfunkel so he could vacation by himself in Jamaica and sing over other people's music at will. He was good at it. He was also very good at making turning 30 seem like an absolute travesty. In this era of botox and constant reminders that 60 is the new 40 (which it isn't unless YOU think you're going to live to be 120!), it's refreshing to look back at an era where everyone sank into mid-life crisis before its time and lamented the passing of their youth before their joints actually ached. Slip Sliding Away, indeed!
19) John Cale: The quiet member of the Velvet Underground who never quite got his due. Like I said in my intro (did you see it?), I can't type the name "James Taylor" if I haven't already paid homage to John Cale. I'm not saying that Cale's album Paris 1919 can change your life, but who's to say it won't. Millions read Dianetics and were never the same.
18) Loudon Wainwright III: LWIII became known as the funny guy thanks to a novelty song called "Dead Skunk." These days he's known as being other musicians' dad--as in Rufus and Martha--but there was a time when LWIII was considered a "New Dylan" right alongside John Prine, who just missed being on this list. Loudo got the extra nod since he wrote a nice song about swimming, one of those topics that is often overlooked by contemporary songwriters.
17) Eric Andersen: Andersen is one of the gentlest songwriters of the era. He was all about the protest and had the "Thirsty Boots" to prove it, but by the early 1970s he realized that his market would be pure romanticism. Blue River is so mellow it's practically asleep. For his troubles, his record label lost the tapes to his next album, only to find them so many years after the fact that by then Andersen had moved to Norway and become a "cult artist" when he should have been a superstar. Sometimes fate sucks.
16) Gordon Lightfoot: They should consider renaming Canada after this man. He's that smooth. Even people who know nothing about music can identify this man's voice. Sure, they call him Edmund Fitzgerald, but their hearts are in the right place.
15) Gene Clark: There were so many marginally successful singer-songwriters to choose from…Isaac Guillory, John Martyn, Essra Mohawk… that I finally settled on the Byrds' Gene Clark to represent all of them, since his No Other album remains one of my all-time faves and while he never recorded enough for my liking, what he did commit to tape always had a haunted quality to it that made you wish other people had kept him employed more regularly.
14) Townes Van Zandt: I know Judas Priest got taken to court over the inane idea that they somehow encouraged a couple of misguided fans to kill themselves, but if Townes had been brought up on similar charges he might have been convicted. "Waiting 'Round To Die," "Nothin" and at least half his catalog are jammed with songs so incredibly melancholy that those not attuned to such sad sentiment might find themselves wondering why they exist. Fans--people like me--just nod our heads in agreement and acknowledge that life is a bitter, bitter battle rarely won--and that's on a good day. Pass the codeine.
13) John Lennon: He was better in the Beatles, but for the first few years his solo career looked like it had a chance of holding the standards pretty damn high. His first real solo album, 1970's Plastic Ono Band, was quite, ahem, personal and Imagine sweetened things up a tad but still managed to remember to bring the songs. It wasn't until he got raveled up in politics and eventually got a little bored with music and partied too hard that the records started to suffer. And then he retired for five years only to come back and be greeted by a nutjob who killed him. Why should life ever resemble a Lifetime movie?
12) Sandy Denny: Most people notice her voice because it's quite noticeable. While Fairport Convention never became very popular in the United States, their incredible wealth of talent led to several worthy solo careers and a cult following that collects every stray note they utter. Sadly, there's a lot of death on this list. Which considering how harmless singer-songwriters come across--compared to heavy metal dudes and punk rockers--makes you wonder what goes on in those dressing rooms after all.
11) Tim Buckley: As I said, lots of death. Buckley liked heroin a bit too much. "All We Are Saying Is Give Smack A Chance" he uttered from the stage and apparently he wasn't kidding. Maybe if this stuff was regulated? Who knows? Fact is, Buckley recorded a tremendous amount of music in a few short years and his constant evolution as an artist from album to album makes him one of those people where if you've only heard a song or two, you have no real understanding of the man. Except he did like to sing about the actual fact that he was singing a melody to you and that is almost as weird as people who refer to themselves in third person.
10) Judee Sill: You'd think I had a thing for heroin addicts. Judee Sill lived a rough life and sang about Jesus and her Christian faith and backed it up with music that critics compare to Bach. She died young of a drug overdose and her two official albums have been reissued several times with the acclaim increasing with each reissue. They found other tapes and issued them and at the rate the reissue committee is going, she has the potential to be legend by the year 2020, provided a car company can use one of her tunes in their commercials.
9) Richard Thompson: Another one of those Fairport Convention people. Fortunately, Thompson's been rightfully acknowledged for his eye-raising guitar playing, his wry, stunning songwriting and his likable if limited, vocal range that provides every song with just the right amount of "oh crap, things are getting worse." That he smiles like a maniac as he delivers songs about grim death just shows that either he has no idea what he's actually singing about or he's so well-medicated that he feels no pain. Or most likely, he's an evil, evil man.
8) Tom Waits: These days, he's Mr. High Weirdness, but back in the early '70s, Waits was a piano-based beatnik troubadour who knew how to bring the pathos along with those shaggy dog stories that leave you scratching your head. He could be drunk and sentimental. He longed for an era passing him by. And when you see old footage, it's just plain weird to see him look that young and sound so old. These days people pay good money to avoid the ravages of time and there he was trying to get those wrinkles. Crazy!
7) Randy Newman: Another guy who was old before his time. Randy did what few singer-songwriters would dare. He wrote from a viewpoint that often wasn't his own. He sang as a deeply prejudiced man. He sang as an uneducated man. He sang as a small-town freak. He sang as a man with bad desires. Yet, Randy was a happy, well-adjusted family man who could've made a killing in condo development but chose music instead. Many people who've heard his voice think he should've gone into real estate. Me? I give him lucky number 7 because I think he's swell.
6) Leonard Cohen: is brooding dude set the bar for best music to be played at 3 a.m. when you've given up on life and all you want to do is dig a hole in the backyard and find yourself a quiet place to sleep. You think I'm being flip, but I'm really not. I find his music inspirational. I find the imagery chilling and his flat delivery the perfect foil, but I'm not going to claim that this music won't depress the average person. For me, it has a calming effect. But I wouldn't recommend it to someone who was going through "hard times" and wondering what to do with their life. They might choose something very bad.
5) Neil Young: Neil would never be content as a singer-songwriter and while "Heart Of Gold" paid his way to elsewhere, he always made alternate plans with Crazy Horse and got his jam mojo working. I'm sure the idea that he inspired a group like "America" (whose "Sister Goldenhair" and "Ventura Highway" sound great while driving) didn't make him too happy here. And not just because he's from Canada, either.
4) Jackson Browne: A victim of his own good looks and easy-going demeanor? Jackson Browne always seems to get dumped on for being so sweet and sensitive, as if there's something wrong with being a nice guy! I could use it. But if you brush past the general perception of this talented songwriter as uber-wimp, you'll hear that not only does he have a way with words and melody but he can even rock from time to time. And anyone with David Lindley in his band should never be taken likely. If only someone had taken him out and bought him a leather jacket when he needed one.
3) Joni Mitchell: Hmmn, three known Canadians in the top ten. You'd think I was working for their government or something. Like most Canadians (and Englishmen for that matter), Joni Mitchell relocated to California to be closer to mudslides, earthquakes, serial killers, great weather and the eventual Yahoo! headquarters. Maybe it's that Canadian resiliency, but Mitchell didn't go "soft" once hitting the Pacific shores, she got tougher and weirder, recording albums that managed to flirt with mainstream pop radio while exploring her inner muse.
2) Nick Drake: While it sucks to die young, if you're in need of finding the lemonade in the lemon, I guess immortality is the consolation prize. Like Van Gogh with his ear intact, Nick Drake never got much love and respect when he was around to hear about it. Even years afterwards only a sainted few remembered the man. I remember the first time I inquired to a friend after spotting Fruit Tree, the four-LP boxed set. I was told that he made Leonard Cohen sound chipper. I immediately bought the box. And I never regretted it. Technically bought the entire thing several times with each CD re-master. Had he lived, he probably would've eventually cut something really lame. Everyone else eventually did. It's the law of averages. Hey, whatever label currently owns his catalog, use this in your ad campaign: "Nick Drake, he never reverted to the mean!"
1) Van Morrison: One of the easiest decisions I've had to make here at List of the Day. Never in doubt who would get the number one spot. If Van Morrison was my child, he would be the favored son, the one to get the good presents, the one who gets to stay up late on a school night, the one who when the cops call to tell me that he did something wrong I go into complete denial. Astral Weeks was 1968, but the early '70s brought us Moondance, Tupelo Honey, St. Dominic's Preview, It's Too Late To Stop Now and Veedon Fleece. No one comes close. Most know him for his radio hits, but here's where the hardcore fans have the advantage. Van can barely boil water in three minutes. He needs five to ten to really get moving. I hear he's quite the curmudgeon. For that, he's not invited for dinner. Manners, son.