5. Isobel Campbell – Runnin’ Down a Dream (Song): When the first round of COVID hit in March of this year, it was not uncommon to see streams of people walking down our otherwise quiet street. I joined the walkers, as I always do, and this track was a main listening experience at that time. The great Tom Petty song gets redone with a hovering synth that sounds like a drone and Isobel’s barely above a whisper vocals.
4. Alice Boman – Don’t Forget About Me (Song): My favourite track of the year that was actually released in 2019. It likely popped up on an Apple playlist early in the new year and was instantly slotted in as a constant listen. The two beat percussion that appears a handful of times is a subtle highlight but it’s the lyrics that really hit. “I don’t want to ruin this illusion/by saying something wrong/so I say nothing at all” – Devastating.
3. Bjork – Debut (Album): At some point in the 90s I owned Bjork’s Debut album. And at some point in the 90s I sold it just to buy it back in the last year. I didn’t really get it all those years ago and it took a lot of listens to get it now. But when I did, it stuck. The dreamier second half which is what I ended up listening to the most. A great album by an extraordinary artist.
2. Van Morrison – Astral Weeks (Album): For the last two years in a row I’ve listened to Van Morrison on bitterly cold winter walks in January. The expert folk, rock and jazz musical bed creates a hazy world where Morrison speaks to you and tries to tell you his dreams. It’s an otherworldly listen that is breathtaking each time. “You breathe in/you breathe out”
1. The Beastie Boys – Beastie Boys Music (Album) – The Beastie Boys released this single disc greatest hits in late October of 2020. For some, this music has always been with us. Hearing “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)” on a cheap ghetto blaster as an 11 year old in hockey dressing rooms, “Sabotage” at Lollapalooza in the early 90s, “Intergalatic” banging out of club speakers in the late 90s, and back to “Paul Revere” in a Vegas lounge side room to a small handful of partygoers. The Beastie Boys have never been too far from the stereo over the years but hearing this collection of songs brought their greatness back to the forefront. A must have for all 40 year old rock, rap, and alternative music fans.
Released in November of 1968, Astral Weeks was Van Morrison’s second album and first classic. Melding together jazz, rock, and folk the album is like entering into a different world. The lyrics read like a stream of conscience or listening to someone try and describe their dreams to you. There were no hits here, no “Brown Eyed Girl” so the first bits of listening for most are to the actual album. The expanded edition was released in 2015 and offers different versions of four of the album’s eight tracks.
Produced in New York by Lewis Merenstein, by most accounts Van Morrison would arrive to the studio and lock himself in the isolation booth with an acoustic guitar and let the talented jazz musicians play what they felt the song needed. Most followed Morrison’s singing along with Richard Davis’ bass. Several stories indicated that Morrison was aloof and never connected with the other musicians. Much to Morrison’s chagrin, strings were overdubbed afterwards and clearly not what the singer wanted however, the minimalist style throughout Astral Weeks make the strings welcome and never overwhelm the song.
The first song is the title track and gives an introduction of what the rest of the album will sound like. Morrison sings “If I ventured in the slipstream/between the viaducts of your dream” over a bed of folk and jazz stylings. One of several mantras, “Beside You” repeats “You breathe in/you breathe out” over spare instrumentation, mostly just an acoustic guitar that recalls the Leonard Cohen debut.
“Sweet Thing” is one of the tracks that stands out for the memorable music instead of the great singing and lyrics. “The Way Young Lovers Do” is the shortest track here, the upbeat swinging big band number sounds more like a performance vs the personal introspection that appears elsewhere. At nine minutes, “Ballerina” is the oldest song dating back Morrison’s time with the band Them. A vibraphone accompanies the loving and tender lyrics. A shorter run time could have made this a potential single.
Two of the featured tracks both centre around Cyprus Avenue in a wealthy area of Belfast. “Cyprus Avenue” lyrically revolves around a remembrance of a fourteen-year girl while a younger Morrison watches from the car and is too afraid to speak. He then imagines the girl of his dreams with ribbons in her hair being driven in a carriage by white horses. “Madame George” features excellent violin playing and another mantra in “and the loves to love to love to love” before a fine bit of hi hat drumming towards the end of the track.
I first really started listening to this album in January of 2019 then picked it up again recently. There is a lot to unpack on this album as it is truly an album to step into and live in for ¾ of an hour. I’ve always known Van Morrison as an older gentleman so it is fascinating to think that all of this was conceived when he was just 23 years old. Astral Weeks is an extraordinary album that will hopefully find new fans in every generation.