Remember him for who he was | Photo by Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images
A tribute to the greatest guitarist who ever lived
Van Halen was the music of my high school parking lot.
I tend to say that as a pejorative, but that’s really me trying to be cool, and distancing myself from the awkward kid we all were at one point. I loved Van Halen, just as anyone who grew up in the 80s did. My neighbor had a poster of Eddie on his wall, and he was just so cool and larger than life. A real guitar god.
Eddie’s death hit me more than I thought it would. He has retreated from the public eye, and there had been rumors for years that he wasn’t doing well, but still, when the news hit, it was like a piece of me died. It was that part of childhood I shared with… well, everyone. Van Halen was everywhere back in the 80s, and they have become part of the cultural background noise. They are so essential to pop culture that you don’t even notice it.
So this is one man’s attempt to rank all twelve Van Halen studio albums. I’ll be completely honest, I genuinely love the top eight and would put the top five among any band’s top five in the history of pop music. Man, that stuff holds up.
Anyway, this one is for Eddie.
12. Van Halen III
I can deal with the long-running argument between Sammy and Dave. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, and they brought out different sides of Eddie. I’m somewhat agnostic on the matter, but I’m glad we had both, as it gave us a longer and more dynamic career from Eddie. Playing in essentially two different bands showed off more of his gifts. But Gary Cherone? This was basically a rushed album made as a middle finger to Sammy, and not one that actual people should listen to. They were trying to prove they could rock out without Sammy, and instead kind of proved that Sammy was a key cog in the Van Halen machine.
This is probably the last “real” Van Halen album. But you can feel the band straining under its own weight and the radical changes going on in pop music. Grunge came like a tidal wave and buried most of the LA hair scene, and Van Halen was denied its rightful place as rock’s distinguished elders. OK, at least elders. They tried to modify the formula, and jumped back on the socially conscious train, but… let’s face it, that’s not Van Halen. While I don’t consider the two later albums to be proper Van Halen records, this one clearly still is. It’s the last gasp, and probably the only bad record they ever made. There’s just not much to hold on to here.
10. A Different Kind of Truth
I refuse to recognize this as a Van Halen album due to the lack of Mike Anthony. While I can go with Sammy or Dave, depending on my mood, the high harmonies of Mike Anthony are an essential part of the Van Halen sound. Without him, it’s not the same band. That said, it’s nice to hear them make amends with Dave and while I still wouldn’t argue this is a good album, it’s not bad either. If nothing else, it’s a full family affair with Wolfgang now in the fold. It’s their middle age record and, well, it’s nice that we got one of those. They at least sounded happy. As far as last statements go, you could do a lot worse than happy and content, while making amends with an old rival.
9. Fair Warning
On the one hand, this is definitely an Eddie record. He usually lets the other guys in the band have their moments and detours, but here, this is all wailing guitar, all the time. That might sound like a good thing, but in this case, it’s really not. This is an angry album made by a band that pretty obviously hates each other at this point. No one gets a word in edgewise because either Eddie so dominates the band or they’ve stopped trying. Who knows which is worse. If you are a super guitar nerd, this is probably your go-to VH record, as Eddie is on a rampage throughout, but there’s no melodies, no hooks, and precious little fun. And a Van Halen record that isn’t fun feels fundamentally wrong. All of that said, the album justifies its existence by the presence of “Unchained,” one of the greatest riffs in rock n roll. At the time, it felt like a last gasp. Instead, it was the band catching its breath before the second half.
8. For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge
Van Halen spent most of the 80s flexing its muscles and trying out new things. They really don’t get enough credit for being a musically dynamic band that constantly explored its own limits and audience expectations. But people did get tired of it, and they wanted a plain old Van Halen record, which they finally did on their “return to form” album, F.U.C.K. It’s the most straight ahead rock album in their entire catalog, and it gave them perhaps their biggest hit in “Right Here, Right Now.” But that was a bit of false advertising. That was more of a pop tune on an album full of pristine, classic Van Halen rock tunes. The album opens with the not-even-a-double-entendre of “Poundcake,” the kind of gloriously stupid song that’s actually brilliant which was Van Halen’s bread and butter. But “Top of the World” might be the perfect summation of the Van Hagar years: a clean riff, singalong verses, those Mike Anthony harmonies, a classic solo, and a perfect feel good song. Seriously, I love this album, and I have it #8. We’re getting into banger after banger already.
7. Diver Down
Diver Down is one of the most derided records in the proper Van Halen catalog. And I get it, its just 30 minutes long, contains five covers, five new songs, and two instrumentals (one of which is “Cathedral,” which I will put up against “Eruption”). The last song, “Happy Trails,” was meant as just that. This was a band saying good bye, and doing it in a half assed fashion. All of that is basically true. But damn it, I love the hell out of this record. There are better Van Halen albums, but I don’t think there is “more Van Halen” record. This is Van Halen boiled down to its essence, like this is Plato’s theory of the cave, if Plato could finger tap. I mean, listen to this. Even Eddie is impressed with himself.
The war with Dave was in full swing and here the band realized you can’t out good time Mr. Good Time himself. Instead, Eddie takes over much like he did in the Fair Warning era, only this time not in angry way. He doesn’t rock out as hard on this album, but he plays around more and plays with different styles like the jazzy “Mine All Mine” or the boogie of “Source of Infection.” There’s a hat tip to Little Feat, a band that no way does Dave-era VH cover, and they make the perfect Sammy ballad in “When It’s Love.” This is a fantastic, dynamic record which really showcases Eddie’s skill beyond hard rock and finger tapping. So of course audiences largely rejected it and they went back to pop-rock. But, man, Van Halen as a country rock outfit is just so cool.
5. Van Halen II
After fundamentally re-making rock n roll in their image on their first album, what to do one the follow up? Well, if you’re Van Halen, you pretty much make the same exact record only with slightly worse songs. Of course, slightly worse than the original still makes this an all-time great record. Van Halen, at this point, was going the AC/DC route. They found the perfect formula and they weren’t going to change a damn thing. There’s only so long you can do that as an artist without getting bored and for VH, it was two albums. But geez, what a near perfect follow up to their first album, giving fans essentially more of the same. “Dance the Night Away” has a classic sound so pure, I thought it was a cover of 50s song before I checked the liner notes. They show Linda Ronstadt what’s up on “You’re No Good” and rock out to “DOA.” But the album’s high point is its final bow, “Beautiful Girls” is maybe the quintessential Diamond Dave Van Halen song.
4. Women and Children First
This is my favorite Van Halen album. Look, I’m not saying it is their best, it’s only #4 on this list so y’all don’t murder me, but on personal preference, this was the album I popped on the turntable when I heard the news about Eddie. After those first two records, Van Halen had a formula. Now, it was their formula and no one had figured out how to copy it (nor would), but they could have kept churning out party anthems for the rest of their lives and people would have loved them for it. And that’s how the record starts, with the twin blasts of “And the Cradle Will Rock…” and “Everybody Wants Some!!” This was another by the blueprint VH record. And then “Fools” happens. I admit its not the most famous song in their catalog, but it starts with Eddie and Dave sort of noodling about, and then at the one minute mark, Eddie just goes nuts, only for the song to slide back into an old-fashioned boogie blues. The band was trying stuff out, and seeing what sticks. The heavy metal of “Romeo Delight” is among the heaviest work the band will ever do, and the band even pretend to be punk for the two minutes of “Loss of Control.” Then the album swings back into Diamond Dave land, where the fun time acoustic blues of “Could This Be Magic?” gives the album its title and a needed laugh. This is the album where you realize Eddie isn’t just a great hard rock guitarist… he can do anything the hell he wants, and it’s going to turn to gold. There was no limit to what the band could do, but I loved how they showed off how talented Eddie was even in a song they are clearly just joking around in, and maybe wrote in half an hour.
They fired Dave. Get over it. Dave is now the template for a rock frontman (which we distinguish from a lead singer, as Dave was never the greatest singer, but he had personality in spades). But damn, he must have been exhausting to be around as a human being. So they get a pro like Sammy Hagar to help them navigate the changing 80s musical landscape. Van Halen went from a hair metal band to a pop-rock outfit. Look, they had been trending that way for a while, this just made it official. And they just churned out hits on this record: “Why Can’t This Be Love?”, “Summer Nights,” “Love Walks In,” and so on. Even the album filler is great, like “Best of Both Worlds.” Eddie had incorporated keyboards as far back as Women and Children First and placed them up front in the mix on 1984, but 5150 goes whole hog. Let’s be honest, long time fans’ heads f’n exploded over this album, and particularly the massive hit that was “Dreams.” What better way to stake out your position as a totally different band than the synths carrying not even a ballad, but a straight pop song. What seemed like heresy, now seems like the most fitting eulogy for Eddie Van Halen. We’ll climb higher and higher indeed.
You’re the greatest guitarist in the world, by general acclaim. You’ve essentially told the world you’re breaking up your well-regarded band which has never quite attained crossover success. Do you set out on your own? Or do you just say screw it, toss in one last time with your frontman, and make a highly synth record with more pop hooks than you can shake a stick at? “Jump” is a pure pop song, and pure 80s cheese, and God, do I love it to death. But for all of the talk about the synths on the record, its not like Eddie hadn’t been playing the keys for pretty much the band’s entire catalog. And “Panama” was a huge hit, and a straight ahead rocker as well. Oh yeah, and “Hot for Teacher” exists, the purest distillation of the band: Alex and Mike lay down the rhythm hard, Eddie plays whatever the hell he feels like, and Dave jokes around like the Mad Hatter. And they made the near perfect video for it which is too ridiculous to really take it too seriously. And then, upon conquering the pop world as well as Planet Rock, they kicked Dave out of the band and essentially ended Van Halen as we know it. The sheer balls on these guys. They had one last stand in them, and they went out on the highest of notes. It’s almost incomprehensible that this is not the greatest record. But it isn’t.
1. Van Halen
I want you to imagine a world before Van Halen for a second. I know it’s hard to do, as they’ve been a part of the musical landscape for so long and are one of the most oft-imitated acts on the planet. But before they essentially gave birth to the Sunset Strip hair metal scene practically on their own, there was the standard world of hard rock, populated by the likes of Black Sabbath and Zeppelin, or glam rockers like T. Rex or even the New York Dolls, or the burgeoning New Wave of British heavy metal fronted by Diamond Head, or the punk scene of the Sex Pistols and the Clash. And then comes Van Halen in 1978… and they sound almost entirely unlike any of them.
Think about that. How often do you hear an album and not be able to parse out its influences? Very rarely does a band come along that sounds like something entirely new, particularly out of the gate on their first record. But that’s what Van Halen did. Van Halen 1 doesn’t sound like anything that came before it, and immediately about one million kids tried to copy the sound, only they couldn’t because they weren’t Eddie Van Halen.
Van Halen isn’t a blues based like most of the hard rockers at the time. They share little in common with those pretentious glam rockers, and they would have laughed you out of the room had you called them art rock. They didn’t really belong to the metal scene and they certainly weren’t punk. They were goddamn Van Halen, a genre unto themselves. OK, the rest of the LA scene would soon be covered in kids wearing spandex trying to finger tap their way to success, but hell, Van Halen didn’t really belong to the hair metal scene they birthed.
At this point, the guitar god was still Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix. Eddie didn’t build on what they did, he wandered in his own direction and made his own new thing. OK, they cover “You Really Got Me’ by the Kinks and “Janie’s Crying” might have some roots in 50s rock if you squint hard enough. “I’m the One” is just another song on the album, and on any other record, it would be the best song by a country mile. “Ice Cream Man” maybe best sums up the band, starting with a standard blues riff, but then suddenly transforming into something else entirely. But seriously, what the hell is “Eruption”? And can you imagine putting the needle down on the record for the first time, and hearing this?
There will never be another band like Van Halen. And good Lord knows we have tried. Van Halen’s debut isn’t merely a great album, it is one of the ten best records in rock history, period. You know how they say only 1000 people bought Velvet Underground’s record, but they all formed bands?
Well, same thing with Van Halen’s first record, but it sold over ten million copies.