- Artist: Van Halen
- Title: Original Studio Albums
- Released: 1978 – 2012
- Format: Vinyl, CD, FLAC, Streaming
- Genre: Hard Rock
- Beverage of Choice: “Anything you can see through”
2020 has been, so far, an experience that I expect everyone will want to forget. Losing Eddie Van Halen to cancer this past week added another layer of suckiness to this long and frustrating year. Eddie was the genius that lifted Van Halen from just another American rock group to an international phenomenon, spinning hit after hit built on his incredible technique and vision. The band members he has left behind, past and present, all represent solid and even gifted musicianship, but Eddie was the one-in-a-million talent, up there with those guitarists we stand before in awe and wonder. He belongs to a small and growing-smaller circle of musicians that dominate or dominated their specific time and genre: Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton to name a few. Even as troubled a soul as he was and his various struggles with relationships and addiction, it was way too early a departure and the world is a poorer place indeed without Eddie.
So, I’m breaking my own rules and ranking the Van Halen albums from worst to best. I’m sure you’ll disagree, especially if you grew up with their early albums like I did. I was fourteen when Van Halen was released and right from the first rising, screaming, bullet train note and explosive riff of “Running With the Devil” it set a new bar for raw guitar sound, creating a standard against which I still judge other guitarists and rock music. So, let me know if you think I got it wrong; after all, music is so subjective to time, place, age and emotion, it would be weird if we all agreed on the list – I did my best to be objective but I guarantee it’s still not perfect!
Van Halen III – The switch from Sammy Hagar to Gary Cherone on vocals added precisely zero to Van Halen’s sound or musical direction. If you listened to the album not knowing about the change in front man, it’s unlikely you’d even hear the difference. The album is over-produced, tired and not worthy of the previous incarnations of the band.
Balance – The last album with Sammy Hagar on vocals reveals a band sick of itself and, with tensions rising between Hagar and Eddie, a lack of cohesiveness and inspiration in the songwriting. Mid-paced rockers more suited to the Eagles than a band with the hard-rock pedigree of Van Halen and not at all fun. Not one song worth listing in even their top 30.
For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge – Straightforward rock attempting to be as radio-friendly as possible in the 1990’s context couldn’t save this album from the bargain bin. It spawned one hit “Right Now”, ironically piano-led. Forgettable and uninspired , the only song I really like is one of Eddie’s ‘filler’ instrumental guitar interludes (“316“) – at least it’s pretty.
OU812 – Possible VH’s most musically diverse album it suffers from a lack of the joy and sense of humor that make their strongest offerings such fun and so emotionally satisfying. Hagar’s vocals seem strained at times, like he was trying too hard to make a rock statement in an attempt to top Diamond Dave’s silliness with seriousness. “Finish What Ya Started” is a great song (strangely, Hagar sounds more like Roth than anywhere else on the album) and the harmonies and backing vocals sound like the original band.
A Different Kind of Truth – The reincarnation of a post-Hagar (and, sadly post Michael Anthony) Van Halen was, for me, an indication that the creativity, musical chops and songwriting ability of the band had not been entirely lost in the years between 1984 and 2012. Eddie replaced Anthony with son Wolfie on bass, so it’s a family affair with Diamond Dave back in front and sounding a lot like his old self. The album deserves a second listen if you haven’t spent much time with it. The riffs are big, Eddie plays hard and fast and the production is uncluttered and loud – very much like the VH of the 70’s. It’s just a little too relentlessly hard, without the snarky humor and party-band-fun flavor of the first six albums. Only “Stay Frosty” relieves the heaviness to a degree, recalling “Ice Cream Man” on the first album but without the swing and laid-back coolness that Diamond Dave evoked in the early years.
5150 – The first album with Sammy Hagar sounds pretty much like a continuation of the musical direction set by 1984. The only reason this album doesn’t make it into my top six is that old subjective element: Van Halen > Van Hagar. It’s a good 80’s album with some of the band’s most memorable songwriting delivered flawlessly and with minimal production changes from the sound that made the band great in the first place. “Best of Both Worlds” is arguably the peak of the band’s songwriting with Hagar adding his unerring understanding of what makes a tune radio-friendly, especially while driving over 55.
Diver Down – Still a rather strange album what with all the covers, novelty songs and short running time but against-all-odds wonderfully delivered in the light of getting an album to market and make some more of those dollars. It’s also somewhat of a reaction to the previously dark and ‘nasty’ album, Fair Warning, and sounds like a band getting back to the party after a fistfight in the parking lot (with the bloody evidence on their faces – witness “Intruder” , the intro into “(Oh) Pretty Woman“.)
Van Halen II – One of the strongest follow up albums ever in that it sounds pretty much exactly like the first one! The band could have written and recorded the nine original songs at the same time as those on Van Halen and nobody would be the wiser, making this almost as good but not as instantly groundbreaking. Every song is familiar and showcases the bands strengths; humor, cohesiveness, sing-along choruses, huge riffs and, of course, Eddie’s amazing sound and technique.
Women and Children First – simply put, “Take Your Whiskey Home“. It’s everything Van Halen could be in one song.
1984 – Eddie took the 80’s by the throat and shook them hard. Guitars are passé? Take that, pow! The band had been using keyboards as background on their albums for a while and now brought them to the fore (on the opening, title intro track , “Jump” and “I’ll Wait“), incorporating pop hooks into their rock roots to great effect. A landmark album in a decade where music seemed to be more of a political statement than entertainment and the more ‘serious’ you were the more the critics loved you. Van Halen managed to keep the joy alive and produce an album that crossed genres while remaining true to the spirit of the band. David Lee Roth’s last album before handing the reins to Sammy Hagar and probably a wise move on Roth’s part; Van Halen never made better music than this after 1984. “Drop Dead Legs” and “Hot For Teacher” are top ten songs.
Fair Warning – I remember getting the original vinyl as a gift from my Dad. He’d spent a few weeks in the USA on business and walked into a record store somewhere in Texas and asked what was ‘new’. They gave him this album (and Tommy Tutone – 2 of all things – although I guess “867-5309/Jenny” was pretty massive). The first time I played it I thought they might have mislabeled the band somehow, it just didn’t sound at all like the first three records. Complicated riffs, percussion and snarly, pissed-off vocals. Where was the party-band vibe? And then I played it again… and again and… fell in love with the sound of realized songwriting, truly heavy playing and the sound of Van Halen all grown up. “Mean Street” blows down the door and Eddie has never sounded leaner, meaner and more focused, the bridge sounds like that on “Ain’t Talking About Love” (my number one VH song) and it simply rocks hard. “Push Comes to Shove” sounds like the band picking over the bones of past slights and fights to a disco rhythm – appropriate as the beginning of the end was in sight for the band.
Van Halen – The original and best. ‘Nuff said.