I love Van Halen. Their debut album was the first rock music I ever loved, before I knew who they were or what they were doing. The band has now been together for more than 40 years and is technically still active, although it doesn’t really seem like it. In fact, it’s a bit disingenuous to even say they’ve been “together” these five decades — the Van Halen timeline is notoriously comprised of two strikingly different units (and officially three different units, and arguably four). With the lone exception of AC/DC, no other rock group has ever bifurcated its career so successfully (though Fleetwood Mac and Genesis come close). Van Halen is, in many ways, the high-profile exception to otherwise inflexible rules: classically trained virtuosos who make music for getting hammered in parking lots. A metal band that rarely plays metal. A legendary live act consistently criticized for their terrible live performances. A caricature of leering masculinity that proved unusually inclusive to female audiences. An embodiment of American exceptionalism, spearheaded by two Dutch Indo immigrants who could barely speak English when they arrived in Pasadena. There are simply no other bands like this. They were copied constantly and no one ever got it right.
Van Halen were pure monoculture, emerging within an era when that aspiration was still common and respected. The singularity of their aesthetic was so recognizable that it became a kind of representational shorthand for youth-oriented movie directors: the soundtrack for burnout disenchantment in Over the Edge, the Platonic dream of Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the language of extraterrestrial life in Back to the Future, and the validation of rockist sensibilities in Airheads. Only Led Zeppelin is more archetypal of the genre. Yet the past 20 years have been complicated for Van Halen, for reasons both self-inflicted and beyond their control.
Had Van Halen disbanded after their tenth album (1993’s Live: Right Here, Right Now), their catalogue would border on bulletproof. But they were too young to retire and too popular to quit, so they just kept going (albeit erratically and devoid of schedule). That decision was justifiable, particularly since perseverance is traditionally rewarded by the sands of time. For Van Halen, however, the opposite has occurred. The cyclical nature of cultural significance has not worked in their favor. A useful comparison is the career arc of Black Sabbath, perhaps the only band whose sonic influence on hard rock is more pervasive. Throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s, various bastardized incarnations of Sabbath released a string of subpar albums that temporarily cheapened the memory of the band’s canonical work. Their will to survive made them figuratively nonexistent. But when the original Black Sabbath reunited in 1997, the group’s reputation was fully re-fabricated, far exceeding the band’s critical perception at the height of their powers. At this point, even the allegedly embarrassing Sab records that were supposedly dooming their legacy (1987’s The Eternal Idol, 1990’s Tyr) have been sympathetically reassessed. One would have expected a similar trajectory when Van Halen reunited with David Lee Roth for 2012’s A Different Kind of Truth, a comeback album mostly comprised of updated demo tracks from the ’70s. Yet this wide-angle reconsideration did not happen, or at least has not happened yet.
Why not? A fraction of the explanation can be traced to the curious (and somewhat cruel) decision to replace competent bassist Michael Anthony with guitarist Eddie Van Halen’s competent son Wolfgang. But the larger explanation involves how the rest of society evolved in the interim. The pop landscape had changed so radically that appreciating the musical style pioneered by Van Halen has become akin to appreciating recent breakthroughs in blacksmithing. To many people born post-grunge, the difference between David Lee Roth and Glenn Miller is negligible. It’s easy to imagine an engaged teenage music fan unfamiliar with 130 of Van Halen’s 131 songs. Which, both predictably and paradoxically, is part of the reason I wanted to compile the following list. This material deserves deeper, detailed contemplation.
It’s not like Van Halen is in any danger of being erased from the historical record. Their commercial popularity has been certified and there’s a collective acknowledgment regarding the quality of their musicianship. Pretty much anyone who’s seen the video for “Panama” views the band as idealized avatars for a euphoric, consequence-free, hyper-intoxicated lifestyle that (a) could only exist in Southern California, (b) could never exist today, and (c) probably never existed at all, unless you were a member of this specific band. The abstract idea of Van Halen remains iconic. The individual musical compositions, however, tend to be lumped into two categories that resist close reading. Songs from the Roth era are marginalized as party anthems designed for strippers, subscribers to Guitar World magazine, and guys with unusually strong opinions about how many cylinders a car engine should have. Songs from the Sammy Hagar era are marginalized as well-crafted, non-bombastic radio hits that you can like but never love, unless you’re Sammy or whoever concocted the marketing strategy for Crystal Pepsi. It’s tempting to view Van Halen as having many versions of only two songs (one recorded prior to 1985 and the other recorded after). This is reductive and wrong. Moreover, it’s an unintentional result of the group’s technical proficiency. Eddie Van Halen was the most inventive guitar player of his generation, but he’s also a surprisingly stern formalist. Rarely does EVH’s music dabble in prog or inaccessibility; instead, he jams all his unorthodoxy into the claustrophobic confines of a traditional four-piece rock configuration, performed at a volume typically reserved for volcanoes. The core riffs are sophisticated, but also remarkably minimalist; the solos are overstuffed and a little self-derivative, but no two are identical and none of them are easy. The downside to this formalism is a superficial sense that many of these songs are interchangeable. The upside is a depth of creativity that takes years to untangle, delivered in a working-class package that is roughly the musical equivalent of eating hot pizza and drinking cold beer.
This list was compiled by one person sitting alone in a dark room, so it’s obviously subjective and ephemeral (and I’d be skeptical of anyone who agrees with all 131 entries). I am including only official studio releases. I’d also like to apologize in advance for using the word “riff” 14 times in the forthcoming 11,148 words, but there just isn’t a practical synonym that adequately reflects what a riff is, and writing about Van Halen without analyzing the riffs is pretty much impossible. It would be like trying to rank the 131 best deciduous forests in North America without repeating the word tree.
The VH catalogue contains many diamonds and many pearls, but also a lot of pyrite and a few discarded mufflers. I certainly don’t love all of it. Like all non-robots, I have a handful of conscious and unconscious biases. My unsurprising preference is for the work from the Roth era, although less fascistically so than when I was a youth. For sake of transparency, here’s a list of things about Van Halen I consider to be overrated: their sense of humor, their musical heaviness, and the difference in quality between Van Halen and Van Halen II. Conversely, here’s a list of things about Van Halen I consider to be underrated: Roth’s prowess as a lyricist, Hagar’s aptitude as a performer, most of Diver Down, the eerie consistency of the rhythm section, and the degree to which EVH’s autodidactic understanding of technology and audio engineering has amplified his preexisting brilliance.
Here’s a list of the things about Van Halen I consider to be properly rated: pretty much everything else.
131. “Why Can’t This Be Love,” 5150 (1986)
Just so we’re clear, this is not the single worst Van Halen song to listen to. I won’t jump out of a moving vehicle if it comes on the radio. But “Why Can’t This Be Love” was the first single released off 5150, and that was the worst decision the band ever made. If they’d opened with “Get Up” or “Summer Nights,” the collective view of post-Roth VH would likely be quite different. Introducing the Hagar era with a cold, mid-tempo, keyboard-based love song installed the belief that Van Halen was moving away from high-octane fiesta rock and toward responsible, AOR maturity. That sentiment was galvanized almost four months later, when Roth’s solo band debuted with “Yankee Rose,” an unbelievably ebullient song about wanting to fuck the Statue of Liberty. Roth never came up with another single as good as “Yankee Rose,” but the impact was seismic and perpetual. From that point forward, we would always know who was Laverne and who was Shirley.
130. “Tattoo,” A Different Kind of Truth (2012)
This was the “hit” off the 2012 return-to-Roth project, loosely based on a demo from 1977. The bass is unusually high in the mix, which is either a housewarming present for Wolfgang or a veiled shot at Anthony. Either way, the song gets very boring very fast, much like every conversation with any person who wants to talk about their tattoos.
129. “Learning to See,” The Best of Both Worlds (2004)
In 2004, Van Halen released The Best of Both Worlds, a double album with one disc of Hagar and a second disc of Roth, along with three new Sammy songs that few people played once and even fewer played twice. This is the worst of the three originals. There are 18 seconds of guitar during the extended intro that sound a little like Alice in Chains. Those are by far the strongest 18 seconds of the song, so you better really like Jerry Cantrell if you decide to check this one out.
128. “The Trouble With Never,” A Different Kind of Truth (2012)
A lesser effort from ADKOT, which makes it album filler on a collection of songs that were originally considered too weak to serve as album filler. Dave awkwardly chats over the breakdown, a questionable habit that usually entertains (but not this time).
127. “How Many Say I,” Van Halen III (1998)
The closing track on the ill-fated Van Halen III, this is a piano ballad representing the only time Eddie Van Halen handles lead vocals on a Van Halen song. And you know what? As a lead singer, he’s an amazing guitar player.
126. “Neworld,” Van Halen III (1998)
Speaking of VHIII, here’s the opening instrumental, one of at least 13 instrumentals within the band’s catalogue. Some people inexplicably hate Gary Cherone (almost more than they hate the band’s decision to record with him), so maybe they see this as the rare VHIII bright spot. But it kind of seems like nothing to me. It was co-produced by Mike Post, who wrote at least one instrumental (the TV theme to The Rockford Files) approximately five times superior to this one.
125. “Year to the Day,” Van Halen III (1998)
Here we have Cherone doing an okay vocal impersonation of Hagar, supported by a studied, restrained blues exploration. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a person who would be excited by that expository description. It’s also eight and half minutes long, making it a mere 23 and a half minutes shorter than all of Van Halen II.
124. “Once,” Van Halen III (1998)
The reason “Once” is better than “Year to the Day” is because it’s 52 seconds shorter, meaning it’s only four and a half minutes too long. I do think it could have been salvaged if (a) a few of the lyrical passages were rewritten and (b) it had been sung by Enya. That probably seems like a joke. I’m not joking. It’s right in Enya’s wheelhouse.
123. “Josephina,” Van Halen III (1998)
So here’s a different kind of truth about Gary Cherone — he wasn’t terrible. The central problem with Van Halen III is the material. What was anyone supposed to do with a song like “Josephina”? There was a media narrative (at the time) pushing the logic that Cherone had been brought into the band as a way for Van Halen to perform material from both previous eras, but my suspicion is that he was just arbitrarily selected after someone at the record label heard Extreme’s “Mutha (Don’t Wanna Go to School Today)” and justifiably concluded that anyone fronting a group trying to clone 1978 Van Halen would jump at the chance to join the actual 1998 Van Halen.
122. “Without You,” Van Halen III (1998)
Which, of course, prompts another question — what would happen if Van Halen tried to copy Extreme? The answer is this song, apparently, which rivals the sixth or seventh-best track on Pornograffitti. What in the hell was going on with these guys? Were they already distracted by the looming Y2K crisis?
121. “One I Want,” Van Halen III (1998)
Here we have Mr. Cherone writing lyrics like Hagar but singing like himself. The track’s thesis is that different men want different things. Or maybe they all want the same thing? It’s words, and then more words, and then something that is more than words. What would you say if I took those words away? Probably nothing, because you probably wouldn’t notice. Nice chorus, though (prime Michael Anthony).
120. “Can’t Get This Stuff No More,” Best of — Volume I (1996)
One of two contemporary Roth originals from the ’96 Best Of collection, erroneously perceived to signal the imminence of a full-on studio reunion that wouldn’t happen for another 16 years. This song is on a par with the grammar of the title.
119. “Dirty Water Dog,” Van Halen III (1998)
As noted earlier, it’s not like Gary Cherone was Pol Pot. He didn’t lobby for apartheid or weaponize humidity. Still, it must be noted that Soundgarden went on hiatus in 1997, Audioslave didn’t come together until 2001, and Van Halen III was released in 1998. So there were other options here. Then again, Eddie Van Halen has long insisted he quit purchasing new music around 1986, which likely limited his exposure to “Get on the Snake.” Anyway, this song is titled “Dirty Water Dog,” and I don’t want to know why.
118. “Source of Infection,” OU812 (1988)
Sammy Hagar has cited this as a VH song he does not like, admitting they were just drunkenly goofing around in the studio. The lyrics appear to have been generated by the world’s stupidest computer. That said, I find myself mildly awed by how well these boozehounds can play their instruments shit-faced.
117. “China Town,” A Different Kind of Truth (2012)
Strip off Dave’s vocals and Ed’s solo and you’d never guess this was Van Halen, which is not exactly what you want when buying a Van Halen album. There are scenarios in which describing music as “overdriven” can constitute a level of praise. This is not one of those scenarios.
116. “Doin’ Time,” Balance (1995)
An Alex Van Halen drum solo that would fit more logically on side two of Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy (vinyl edition only).
115. “Honeybabysweetiedoll,” A Different Kind of Truth (2012)
There’s some heavy action on this puppy, and people hysterically drawn to thrash might consider it the best track off A Different Kind of Truth. But it doesn’t have much structure and the title is just too dumb to forgive.
114. “Primary,” Van Halen III (1998)
Possibly an online guitar tutorial?
113. “Aftershock,” Balance (1995)
Musically exploratory, the groove is deep and the cymbals are constant. Considerably better than it seemed at the time of its release, although that’s a limited accolade.
112. “Loss of Control,” Women and Children First (1980)
The lowest-ranking cut from the first Roth period, it’s the rock equivalent to the film Pushing Tin, combined with Post Malone’s harrowing departure from the VMAs. The opening six seconds are exhilarating, but then it’s just junk and jokes.
111. “As Is,” A Different Kind of Truth (2012)
Not really Dave-esque music, though he tries to make it work as best he can. Edward unleashes a mind-numbing torrent of screech-notes and dive-bombs, though a little less musically than the 25-year-old version of himself.
110. “Strung Out,” Balance (1995)
109. “Feelin’,” Balance (1995)
The final track on Balance, a record produced by Bruce Fairbairn, a Canadian who specialized in songs of this ilk. Fairbairn (who died the year after Van Halen III showed up in stores) was widely respected for his ability to make heavy music bright, hooky, and accessible. He created colossal hits for Loverboy and Bon Jovi, resurrected Aerosmith from the mausoleum, and helped Kiss, the Scorpions, and AC/DC craft some of the worst albums of their careers. What’s puzzling is that Van Halen already made bright, hooky, accessible music, so recruiting Fairbairn was a little like hiring an animal trainer to teach a beaver how to build a dam.
108. “The Dream Is Over,” For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991)
Sammy certainly enjoys singing about dreams. “Dream another dream,” he advises, because “this dream is over.” A 1991 effort that could double as the score to an imaginary 1987 Michael J. Fox movie, it’s the kind of song that almost no one remembers but likely would have charted in the Top 40 if it had been released as a single, simply because that was how things used to work in those days.
107. “It’s About Time,” The Best of Both Worlds (2004)
More second-generation Hagar. The word “time” is employed 39 times in just over four minutes, which I realize is intentional, but maybe throw these guys a thesaurus or Glen Ballard’s cell number. One of the official lyrics is “we’re gonna make it up to you big time,” but it sounds more like Sammy is saying “I’m about to make love to you big time,” which sounds like Alec Baldwin’s impersonation of Donald Trump. The riff is okay, although I don’t sense Eddie put in any overtime coming up with it.
106. “Big Fat Money,” Balance (1995)
It turns out The Red Rocker is not a communist, which is not exactly a shocking revelation. This is a guy whose (surprisingly excellent) autobiography includes a couple of pages about how he got rich investing in sprinkler systems. I appreciate his honesty. I also appreciate the fleeting moment in this song that resembles “Communication Breakdown.” Not much else, though.
105. “In ‘n’ Out,” For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991)
It’s easy to make jokes about stocky 70-year-old Samuel. He was, however, the front man for Montrose, whose 1973 debut is just about as kick-rump delicious as ’70s rock ever gets (some even consider it the template for the first Van Halen LP). This track could have qualified as a B-side on that album, and I would have liked to hear Ronnie Montrose take a stab at it. Are these compliments? Maybe. Do sprinkler systems save lives? Totally.
104. “Me Wise Magic,” Best Of — Volume I (1996)
The other new track from the fleeting ’96 Roth reunion, and supposedly the good one, which is depressing news for anyone about to listen to the bad one.
103. “A Apolitical Blues,” OU812 (1988)
Van Halen attempted far fewer covers once Sammy joined the fold, but they did play around with this goofy barroom number from Little Feat. The message is one of conscious political disengagement, so it would really get dragged on Twitter if attempted today.
102. “Not Enough,” Balance (1995)
The piano sounds like Ben Folds and Hagar sounds like a pro. It’s as close as Van Halen would ever come to AM Gold, and I’ve played this more than a few times in my life, sometimes twice in a row. But RTs aren’t endorsements.
101. “The Seventh Seal,” Balance (1995)
Ambitious (it starts off with a sample of Tibetan monks) and written during a provisional stretch of sobriety for Eddie, there’s a seriousness to “The Seventh Seal” that warrants appreciation. It would be fine on a mid-period Yes album. It does not, however, capture or express the strongest qualities of this particular quartet.
100. “Inside,” 5150 (1986)
The superfluous bummer at the end of 5150. Too much banter on this one. Seems like an outtake. It’s too bad they weren’t friends with Lars Ulrich’s dad, who I’m sure would have told them to delete it.
99. “Pleasure Dome,” For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991)
Almost seven minutes long, “Pleasure Dome” is VH’s attempt at making their adaptation of “Achilles Last Stand,” or at least that’s what they must have told Alex. Something tells me this song is almost impossible to play from memory and likely deserves extra-credit for its sprawling complexity, but that’s a little like admiring a novel because it’s 800 pages long and doesn’t have any human characters.
98. “Baluchitherium,” Balance (1995)
Here’s an instrumental about the largest land mammal that ever lived, a hornless rhinoceros that went extinct about 25 million years ago. My desire to like this song is supernaturally high, but something always goes wrong. It doesn’t land. The opening has expansive promise before devolving into what would happen if Eric Johnson were diagnosed with clinical depression. Seems more like a song about a Megatherium.
97. “Black and Blue,” OU812 (1988)
In 1990, New Hampshire high school employee Pamela Smart used this plodding OU812 track to sexually seduce a 15-year-old male student, later convincing the teen to murder her husband. That sentence is not a music review, but it tells you almost everything you need to know.
96. “Tora! Tora!,” Women and Children First (1980)
A 1980 instrumental lasting less than a minute, this is nothing to write home about. It does, however, fall into the unusually large category of Van Halen Songs Involving Unorthodox Punctuation. If you enjoy exclamation points, question marks, ellipses, and/or extraneous quotation marks, Van Halen is absolutely the hard rock band for you and your family.
95. “One Foot Out the Door,” Fair Warning (1981)
The closing curtain on Fair Warning, this is a rapid, keyboard-based pocket jam that does what it’s supposed to do, even if I can’t adequately describe what that is. The innovative solo at the end is almost an afterthought, which might be the most striking thing about it.
94. “Fire in the Hole,” Van Halen III (1998)
Can EVH make his guitar sound like a machine gun? Yes. Can he make it sound like a helicopter? Sure, why not. Wait a second — is this supposed to be like “Goodnight Saigon”? Not quite. There are some thick grooves here. Not a lot, but some. It sounds a little like a phosphorescent version of that album Mötley Crüe made with John Corabi, and that’s a compliment to somebody, although I can’t say precisely who (probably Mick Mars).
93. “From Afar,” Van Halen III (1998)
You can tell they worked hard on this one, and that this is (perhaps) the kind of sparsely symphonic music that EVH had longed to make for years (but was never able to attempt with Sam or Dave). Soundtrack music for a movie that does not exist, the scope is uncharacteristically wide. There’s a tangible sense of geographic dilation and a sadness combined with wonder. But it’s on Van Halen III, so the wrong guy is singing. Cherone’s vocal performance lacks authority and the whole thing drags, which is just about the worst thing you can say about a Van Halen song.
92. “A.F.U. (Naturally Wired),” OU812 (1988)
The letters “A.F.U.” stand for “All Fired Up,” which is also the title of a Pat Benatar song that’s better than this one. It’s also half the title of a Shania Twain song I’ve never actually played but would probably almost enjoy. There’s a spirited ricochet quality to this track that would be easier to notice if the vocals were completely removed from the master tape.
91. “Spanked,” For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991)
Not sure how much the world needed another song about phone sex, but it’s off an album titled F.U.C.K. on the advisement of boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, so keep your literary expectations in check. This one gets lumped into the towering silo of VH tracks saved by the gang vocals on the chorus. It’s almost five minutes long, and maybe it would rock your socks off if they’d played the entire composition at a tempo that would have pushed it closer to 3:30 (although this would be a true for a lot of five-minute songs from a whole lot of bands).
90. “Mine All Mine,” OU812 (1988)
The lead track on OU812, this is mostly bland keyboards and top-notch percussion, saddled with “deep” lyrics that grapple with the eternal non-conflict between personal spirituality and organized religion. The drumming is creative and justifies its placement at the top of the track list. Everything else is aggressively forgettable.
89. “Amsterdam,” Balance (1995)
The Van Halen brothers were born in Holland, so they supposedly dislike this Hagar-penned track about visiting their homeland for the express purpose of smoking pot. Sammy’s response was to argue that the only reason anyone goes there is to get high and go to art museums, a reductive but realistic line of reasoning. The song itself resides on the other side of good, though I do like the way Sammy rhymes the word “Amsterdam” with “You don’t have to worry about the Man.”
88. “Sunday Afternoon in the Park,” Fair Warning (1981)
Recorded on a diminutive Electro-Harmonix synthesizer, this is a brief, sinister instrumental that simulates Pink Floyd trying to get heavier than Rainbow. There’s a ceiling on how good a song like this can be, but that ceiling is reached.
87. “Can’t Stop Lovin’ You,” Balance (1995)
The kind of pop song that prompts critics to employ the modifier “unabashed,” this only crawled to #30 on the charts, yet I still hear it on the radio 23 years later. It’s well sung, and it’s not easy to write a song this productively simple. The words I would use to describe it are “durable,” “efficient,” “practical,” and “indefatigable.” Of course, those are also the words I’d use to describe a Ford F-150.
86. “Man on a Mission,” For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991)
As with much of the For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge album, the performance here is more convoluted than necessary. I realize some would say that that has been the case with this band from the get-go, but only if they exclusively focus on the solos and project that perception onto everything else. Most of the best VH tracks are musically austere through the verses, almost always absent the extraneous downstrokes that create an illusion of fullness. What changed, I suspect, is that Eddie got bored and started experimenting with how much hand-to-hand combat he could jam into every pass, to the schizophrenic detriment of songs like “Man on a Mission.”
85. “316,” For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991)
An acoustic instrumental about the birth of Eddie’s kid Wolfgang, now an official member of the band. Your opinion on the merits of that sentiment is directly proportional to your opinion on the merits of the song.
84. “Stay Frosty,” A Different Kind of Truth (2012)
The 2012 callback to 1978’s “Ice Cream Man,” it’s a little too much of everything that was pleasant about its precursor, which is another way of saying too cute by half.
83. “Sucker in a 3 Piece,” OU812 (1988)
A pointed, relentless assault against people who wear suits.
82. “Push Comes to Shove,” Fair Warning (1981)
The drumming and the guitar are reggae while the bass is leftover disco and the singing is soft sleaze, conclusively proving that the year is 1981. It’s a ballad, although not the type you play at the prom and not the kind that would move anyone to tears.
81. “Up for Breakfast,” The Best of Both Worlds (2004)
The lone reward from the doomed 2004 reunion with Hagar, it starts like “Why Can’t This Be Love” before getting significantly more appealing, at least during the goofball hook (which almost sounds like southern rock).
80. “Spanish Fly,” Van Halen II (1979)
One of the many (potentially apocryphal) examples of EVH thoughtlessly fooling around on a guitar and accidentally creating a song that someone else recognizes as godhead. It does sound vaguely Spanish, it does mirror the flight of an insect, and it’s undoubtedly difficult to perform (especially if you believe he wasn’t even trying, which I don’t).
79. “Blood and Fire,” A Different Kind of Truth (2012)
While most of A Different Kind of Truth is a translucent attempt to reset everything back to the group’s club days, this is the one track that more closely resembles Roth’s solo career, particularly 1988’s Skyscraper. Even the solo has the ostentatious flavor of Steve Vai’s passion (if not necessarily his warfare). One oft-told anecdote about Roth is that his management team was contacted by the Fox network in 1990, about securing the rights to the song “Just Like Paradise” to serve as the theme for an upcoming teen show tentatively titled Beverly Hills, 90210. Roth’s managers declined the offer without even consulting Roth, prompting Fox to manufacture an instrumental soundalike that probably cost Dave a few million dollars and the chance to snort krell in a bathroom stall with peak Shannen Doherty.
78. “You’re No Good,” Van Halen II (1979)
A cover with no relationship to the original, it has the properties of a song that was pushed onto Van Halen II to expedite the three-week recording process but ended up becoming the lead track when they listened to the playback and realized it sounded like something they’d written themselves.
77. “Take Your Whiskey Home,” Women and Children First (1980)
A compact drinking song that’s less ecstatic than one would expect from a band that was still drinking constantly, it opens slowly before plowing through a musical schematic best described as, “here’s a riff, here’s another riff, and now here’s that first riff again.” Released in ’80 but moving like a cyborg from 1975, it’s fortified by the solo and the ultimate conclusion, both of which are abrupt.
76. “Could This Be Magic?” Women and Children First (1980)
Mega-likable acoustic mischievousness, it’s always astonishing how well these guys vocally complement each other. They recorded this in one take, assisted by country singer Nicolette Larson.
75. “1984,” 1984 (1984)
Probably the band’s second-most familiar instrumental, it’s effectively just an appetizer for “Jump.” This is the auditory equivalent of Optimus Prime vomiting in slow motion, which probably sounds like an insult, although not to me.
74. “When It’s Love,” OU812 (1988)
You’ve heard these keyboards before and you will hear them again (Optimus Prime is feeling better). A power ballad from central casting, the solo is a textbook modernization of the blues and the chorus does not really answer its own question. “How do I know when it’s love? / I can’t tell you, but it lasts forever.” Something of an inexact message, especially since the four guys who made the song have been married a combined total of eight times. But maybe that proves they actually know what they’re talking about (and even if they don’t, all-around great guy Michael Anthony has been with the same wife since 1981, which is the rock star equivalent of forever).
73. “Little Dreamer,” Van Halen (1978)
I have a problem with this song, and it’s a personal problem. And I know this confession degrades the value of my perspective, since my obligation as a professional critic is to separate my own experience from a song’s free-standing value, particularly when my personal experience is unusually weird or exceptionally specific. But in this case, I can’t help it. I was introduced to “Little Dreamer” on an 8-track tape. It was the last song on program three, but there was only room for the first minute and 20 seconds, so the music faded out after Dave sings the line, “Seems no one’s talking ‘bout those crazy days gone past.” It would then click over to program four and fade back in for the remaining two minutes. If you’ve never seen an 8-track, I’m sure this makes no sense whatsoever. It probably sounds like I’m describing a gramophone or a reel-to-reel or a butter churn. But to me, this experience may as well have happened yesterday, and I can’t get over it. Every time I hear “Little Dreamer,” I wait for the song to fade out in the middle and skip to the next program, and every time — every time — I’m disoriented when that doesn’t happen. It’s more or less the only thing I can think about when I hear this song. So maybe it’s amazing, maybe it’s terrible. I’ll never know for sure, and I love being old.
72. “Secrets,” Diver Down (1982)
Old Weird Dave came up with this number after reading a bunch of Native American greeting cards in New Mexico (I don’t get it either). It’s lounge rock, although calling it toothless would be missing the point. At the time of its release, all the negative reviews of Diver Down didn’t even waste space complaining about “Secrets,” but I’d actually dig an entire album of this sort of thing.
71. “Take Me Back (Déjà Vu),” Balance (1995)
Inarguably the best Van Halen song to heavily employ wind chimes, Sammy sings this a little like Natalie Maines. The guitar playing is out of character, but not compromised or disappointing. Perhaps the most broadly overlooked song they ever made, it’s pretty fascinating to hear a Van Halen track so devoid of rock that it actually anti-rocks.
70. “Sinner’s Swing!,” Fair Warning (1981)
Originally titled “Get Out and Push” (which frankly makes more sense), this is propulsive and the right kind of dirty. It’s as hard as rock can get without losing a morsel of musicianship or turning into new wave British metal.
69. “Runaround,” For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991)
Though the songwriting credits cite all four members, “Runaround” is arguably the most Sammy-centric single of his tenure, not far removed from something like 1980’s “Bad Reputation” or “Your Love Is Driving Me Crazy” from 1982. “Runaround” has no connection to anything the group cut with Roth (most notably witnessed in the glossy, studied pre-chorus), and that makes it hard to rank. Among Van Halen fans, there tend to be three distinct perceptions of who Sammy Hagar is. The first comes from people who worship Dave and can only see Sam as the guy who wrecked their favorite band. The second comes from snooty Double Nickels on the Dime fanatics who always viewed Hagar as the bozo to end all bozos and generally see his enlistment in Van Halen as an indictment of Eddie’s taste and judgment. But the third perception is the casual perception, which is that Hagar is just a good dude — a rock star who doesn’t act like a rock star, a self-aware interview subject, a laid-back workaholic and the pop metal version of Jimmy Buffett. If you live in that third camp, you might place “Runaround” in the top 20. I can’t go that far, but it feels stupid to hate on this (especially since I really enjoy that glossy, studied pre-chorus).
68. “Bullethead,” A Different Kind of Truth (2012)
Another discarded ’70s jam retooled for 2012, this was probably viewed as too hard core and anti-melodic when originally conceived (the previous title being “Bang Bang”). One thing that’s beguiling about Eddie Van Halen is the inversion of his desires. Most hard rock guitarists of his caliber (Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore) put inordinate effort into illustrating that they’re more than just “heavy” players, constantly trying to show their aptitude at music that has no relationship to metal. EVH is the opposite. Even though most of his work is naturally vivid and effervescent, he is compelled to periodically prove that he can always out-rock all possible rivals. There are momentary examples of this on almost every album. It’s curious, because even his harshest critics would never question Van Halen’s ability to pulverize mountain ranges. He’s the only person worried about this. The labyrinth of male insecurity will never stop being interesting.
67. “Don’t Tell Me (What Love Can Do),” Balance (1995)
The best song off the worst Van Halen album that isn’t Van Halen III. The lyrics grow darker and more nuanced when you consider that the original title was “What Love Can Do” (which the band instructed Hagar to rewrite). The fact that this song is also a meditation on Kurt Cobain’s suicide makes it a bit retroactively thirsty, but such was public life in 1995. Paced somewhere between mid-tempo and ground-sloth, it’s easy to overlook the atypical, Neil Young-ish guitar solo that triples its Blue Book value.
66. “The Full Bug,” Diver Down (1982)
Dave hits the harmonica and Eddie hits the harmonics, probably a little more intricately than necessary for the likes of Joe Six-Pack (and way, way more intricate than for the likes of Joe Eighteen-Pack). This is what an artist does, though. You can’t criticize the mechanic for being smarter than the owner of the car.
65. “Big River,” A Different Kind of Truth (2012)
The demo version of “Big River” was called “Big Trouble,” so Dave must have been reminiscing about his 1983 exploration of the Amazon basin when it came time to drag this into the Age of Obama. The riff has a top-shelf tail, and it’s hard to fathom why they never used this one before.
64. “Judgement Day,” For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991)
A satisfactory effort that became cumbersome and dated when grunge broke four months later, the whole of F.U.C.K. feels like what it was — an album that took way too long to produce. Van Halen spent 13 months making this record. If they’d recorded “Judgement Day” in less than 24 hours, it quite possibly fries the proverbial pork chop. Another option would have been shelving this music for three years, forging a friendship with KRS-One, and creating an obvious lead single for the Judgment Night soundtrack.
63. “She’s the Woman,” A Different Kind of Truth (2012)
A chunked-up groover with the consistency of postmodern Thin Lizzy. (Actually, not quite. That’s too much. That’s an overstatement. But still — this is not terrible.) The words are bizarre. “She’s the woman.” Okay, sure. Shouldn’t that be self-evident, though? Who else could she be?
62. “Feels So Good,” OU812 (1988)
Built around a soft, rich OB-8 keyboard bleat that became the de facto Van Hagar signature, this is a great song to hear at the dentist and a decent song to hear almost anywhere else. Some of the lyrics make me think of the Police, perhaps not accidentally.
61. “‘Dirty Movies’,” Fair Warning (1981)
The title is placed in quotes, thereby suggesting that the movies in question aren’t really that dirty. (Reader’s note: They are.) “Hey, you remember when that girl was prom queen?” asks sex-positive Dave, and everyone applauds while the guitar player slithers into the balcony and bites a few ankles.
60. “Girl Gone Bad,” 1984 (1984)
Do not discount Van Halen as a band who could only write about women who became porn stars; as evidenced here, they were equally proficient at writing about women who became prostitutes. There’s a sexy gallop to this track. Eddie and Alex are completely locked in, almost as if they’ve been doing this their whole life, which of course they have.
59. “You and Your Blues,” A Different Kind of Truth (2012)
One of the only songs on A Different Kind of Truth that was (as far as I can tell) 100 percent new — the paradox being that it’s an overt, playful justification for nostalgia. The song’s range and key cater to Roth’s (ahem) “limitations” as a singer, allowing him to control the message and deliver the mail. His fastball is gone, but he can still get guys out with the slurve.
58. “Right Now,” For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991)
The sonic architecture is brilliant and the message is heartfelt, so the only real problem is that it makes me want to shoot myself in the pancreas. I know it’s thoughtful and mechanically sound, but give me a fucking break. A song like “Right Now” is a little like the movie Dead Poets Society: There’s a time in every life when certain thoughts feel mind-blowing and profound, usually because you’ve never heard someone else intellectually elucidate a human condition you’ve always intuitively felt. But the moment you move beyond that age, those same thoughts become obvious (and then inane). That said, I can still grasp that Ethan Hawke is quite good in Dead Poets Society, even if I’ll never watch it again. Cognitive dissonance — always hot.
57. “Happy Trails,” Diver Down (1982)
It’s impossible to concoct a lazier way to end a record, but who cares? These longhairs know their throats. If the Beach Boys’ harmonizing scores a ten out of ten, this is a strong eight and a half. Your middle-school choir teacher might tell you the lead vocalist is somehow the third-best singer in a four-man band, but his attitude is unbeatable and his swagger is the juice of life.
56. “Beats Workin’,”A Different Kind of Truth (2012)
I know I keep comparing the official reworked songs off ADKOT against their unofficial demo incarnations, and I know that’s a zero-sum game. It’s just a hard obstruction to avoid. This song, for example, used to be called “Put Out the Lights.” It was shorter, sleazier, and more dynamic. However, the two qualities that remain unchanged are the foundational riff and the overall movement of the arrangement, both of which are competitive with the foxiest stuff on Fair Warning and Women and Children First. I like this, but I know I should like it more. It’s a rather nonsensical experience: Whenever a band reconnects for a reunion, all their fans hope they’ll make music that reminds them of the past. Yet when Van Halen literally repurposed their old demos and presented them as new material, it felt a little like cheating. The internet damaged the emotional reception of this album. It was like watching the pilot for the American version of The Office. Everybody who cared knew the jokes before they happened.
55. “Hang ‘Em High,” Diver Down (1982)
If somebody told me the band recorded (or even rehearsed) this song more than twice, I’d be surprised. They’d played a different version (with different words) in the years before signing a record deal, finally throwing it on Diver Down to eat up space. The updated lyrics are cowboy jibber-jabber and nobody involved seems to give a shit, but the talent carries the day and Eddie’s throwaway guitar solo is still a two-for-one bargain.
54. “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now),” Diver Down (1982)
The oldest cover in the catalogue (written in 1924), it’s notable for featuring Ed and Alex’s father Jan on clarinet and for being endlessly, hopelessly charming. Haters of Diver Down will point to this track as proof that the entire project was a waste of everyone’s not-so-precious time, but that’s like being mad at Paul McCartney for making the Beatles cover “Till There Was You.” This isn’t a Pantera album. There’s no reason to kill a song simply because it’s nice.
53. “Good Enough,” 5150 (1986)
As the tip of the spear on 5150, it takes some time to get used to the changes in production (the guitar sounds are now equally split between both the right and left channels, as opposed to having all of Eddie through the left speaker and everyone else coming through the right). It’s a compressed banger with a strong heartbeat and bunch of bent notes, though it loses half a letter grade for the hack Big Bopper opening.
52. “Outta Space,” A Different Kind of Truth (2012)
Fast and furious (but could be cleaner). The lyrics are about climate change, specifically the concept of humans needing to colonize other planets to escape all the polar bear corpses. Roth is wise enough to talk about politics in a non-confrontational framework, perhaps because he’s also the kind of guy culturally curious enough to arbitrarily move to Japan. “The ideas are much more myriad, and much more complex and constant here,” he said of Tokyo in 2013. “And you know what? A lot of it comes from the interaction of people on the street. ‘Sumimasen’ style, you know, just that simple respect and the simple acknowledgement of others — it’s pretty rare in the U.S.”
51. “Bottoms Up!,” Van Halen II (1979)
This one can go either way. A boogie that skews toward the obvious (lyrically and musically), it’s also staunchly in the vein of what Van Halen II is all about, so maybe file this in the drawer labeled “What We Were Doing at the Time.”
50. “And the Cradle Will Rock…,” Women and Children First (1980)
Manufactured around a keyboard riff that sounds like a guitar, it’s a fan favorite and the only single off Women and Children First. I’ve always found it a bit ponderous and uncompromisingly average, but I’ve also listened to it somewhere in the vicinity of 8,000 times. The part of the song everyone remembers is when Dave asks, “Have you seen Junior’s grades?” right before the solo, a line some see as the height of Roth’s comedic persona and others see as idiotic. I give it a B-minus, which is probably better than whatever they gave Junior.
49. “Finish What Ya Started,” OU812 (1988)
Spontaneously composed at 2 a.m. (during a bygone era when Eddie and Sammy were so simpatico they lived next door to each other), this track would dominate country radio if it were released today (a chrome-to-cornfield crossover that was virtually impossible in ’88). The words are about Hagar’s inability to finish having sex with his wife, ostensibly because he was too busy composing the lyrics to this song. One of the eternal myths about Van Halen is that Roth was a more sexual front man than Hagar. I mean, he feasibly had more sex, but Sammy thought about it way more often.
48. “Ballot or the Bullet,” Van Halen III (1998)
The irrefutable apex of Van Halen III, and a song I assume I must be overrating. The words are self-righteous and the solo is of a lesser vintage, but the tone and progression of the lead riff that drops in at 26 seconds is an oozing Komodo dragon who just swallowed the ZZ Top box set.
47. “Fools,” Women and Children First (1980)
The introduction is so long that I think there might actually be two of them (Scandal vocalist Patty Smyth, who declined the opportunity to join Van Halen when Roth exited in ’85, likes to refer to her pal Eddie as “Mr. Intro”). A little more thumpity than needed, it’s one of those songs designed for pissed-off teenagers trapped in the basement, underlined by Roth’s insouciant lyrical decision to ignore articles and pronouns.
46. “Top Jimmy,” 1984 (1984)
An ode to James Paul Koncek, the front man for the less-than-marginally famous L.A. blues outfit Top Jimmy & the Rhythm Pigs. Gearheads will inform you that this is one of the rare Van Halen songs where Eddie employs an alternative guitar tuning (“DADCD,” which I definitely recognize as a sequence of capital letters). It does sound slightly different than the rest of 1984, although part of me wonders if that thought would have ever occurred to me if someone else hadn’t told me first.
45. “Cathedral,” Diver Down (1982)
It would be wonderful to say this was what happened after Eddie Van Halen read Raymond Carver, but it’s really just a guitar made to sound like a church organ. Imaginative, highbrow, and well-suited for dabblers in DMT (the so-called “businessman’s hallucinogen”).
44. “Outta Love Again,” Van Halen II (1979)
Though presented as stock cock rock, the lick construction improves upon inspection, almost as if the spine of the song is running up and down a staircase. Unfortunately there’s not much to add about the lyrics, unless you’re fascinated by the kind of verbally banal breakup scenarios that used to qualify as “drama” on The Hills and Laguna Beach.
43. “I’ll Wait,” 1984 (1984)
Mammoth drums, mammoth synth, not much verve or panache. For decades I assumed the lyrics reflected Roth’s cynical perception of Eddie’s marriage to Valerie Bertinelli, but the evolved conventional wisdom is that Michael McDonald was brought in as a co-writer and pretty much came up with everything.
42. “Ice Cream Man,” Van Halen (1978)
The least muscular endeavor on the debut, this is a cover of a 1953 blues number by John Brim. According to Brim’s obit, royalties from the VH cover allowed him to open a nightclub in Chicago, so that’s nice to think about. This version opens with Roth on the acoustic guitar and commences to rock about a minute later, with intensity so natural that most fans assume it’s a Van Halen original. It’s a tad jokey, but never annoying and clearly “on-brand,” as the kids like to say. People who don’t much care for Van Halen tend to like this song, as do small children who believe it’s literally about ice cream.
41. “Drop Dead Legs,” 1984 (1984)
Slower and heavier than standard VH fare, it never devolves into sludge, a credit to the eternal sunshine of Ted Templeman’s production. Though rarely classified as a historically elite producer, all six of Templeman’s Roth-era albums (and a few he did with the Doobie Brothers) stand among the best-sounding recordings of the entire rock era. Now, one could argue that Templeman got a little lucky here — early Van Halen records were recorded fast and live, the guitarist contributed more technological knowledge than most engineering PhDs, and there was no way anyone could have anticipated that these hesher alcoholics playing parties in Encino could possibly harmonize with such depth and exactitude. But a lot of other producers still might have found a way to fuck this up, and Templeman did not.
40. “Get Up,” 5150 (1986)
One of the stronger efforts off 5150, but a difficult song to listen to more than once or twice, simply because it’s way too busy and over-filled with sounds that don’t seem especially connected. It has the manic energy of a desperate businessman trying to make a five-minute sales pitch in 90 seconds. Part of the general problem with 5150 is that Templeman had exited alongside Roth, transferring production duties to former recording engineer Donn Landee and Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones. This led to an overall equalization of the various musical components and downplayed the stark separation of Eddie’s guitar. It was a bad decision, and what they lost cannot be recovered.
39. “Light Up the Sky,” Van Halen II (1979)
A VH II infomercial for increased phalanx dexterity, this track artfully toggles between subtle moments of softness and full-on Astroturf shred. The words are about wolves and fireworks and watching TV, more impressionistic than narrative and hard to understand (much less interpret). There’s a faithful 2000 cover of this song featuring Yngwie Malmsteen and Billy Sheehan that’s approximately as good as the original, except the production sucks and the exact same lyrics seem significantly less gonzo.
38. “Dreams,” 5150 (1986)
There was a video for this that was nothing but footage of the Blue Angels jet squadron, this being 1986 and Top Gun being a movie people liked (I preferred Iron Eagle, the Eat ‘Em and Smile of fighter pilot films). As the fourth cut on 5150, it’s important to the group’s identity, as it still includes a traditional hammer-on guitar solo even though the rest of the song is keyboard-driven lite rock. A good vocal performance, an okay message about dreaming. It’s Hagar’s favorite VH song, and also a favorite of 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry, although Hagar got more mileage out of it.
37. “Top of the World,” For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991)
The intro for “Top of the World” matches the outro for “Jump,” as does the emotional outlook. This is another track where Hagar’s fingerprints are particularly noticeable, both in mood and aesthetic. The drums are abnormally loud, as they are on most F.U.C.K. tracks. Must have been a good year for microphones.
36. “Everybody Wants Some!!” Women and Children First (1980)
Two exclamation points, just in case you didn’t quite accept the veracity of Dave’s nuanced socioeconomic argument. Roth’s improvised rap is lascivious and fetishistic, and I’m not sure how the tribal drumming and monkey screeches would translate in the modern landscape. That said, it’s impossible to imagine their catalogue without this tune, in the same way it’s impossible to imagine Rollie Fingers without a handlebar mustache.
35. “Poundcake,” For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991)
Van Halen (and especially Van Hagar) is now widely considered “dad rock,” a term that’s only insulting if you hate children. “Poundcake” involves the use of a handheld electric drill, so this is as dad-rockin’ as paternally possible. Eddie once said he just happened to pick up the drill in the studio and “by sheer luck, it was in the same key as the song.” It must be crazy to go through life constantly noticing the musical key of every power tool you stumble across, but that’s the burden of genius. This was all over MTV in the summer of ’91 and would have worked at any point in their career, although the lyrics are straight-up sewage-drain awful.
34. “Atomic Punk,” Van Halen (1978)
It starts like a train and accelerates toward futuristic brutality, although never at the expense of melody. Considering the title and the release date, you’d think it was either about (or against) punk rock, but the lyrics are closer to “Mr. Roboto.” Roth is “a victim of the science age” who “is the ruler of these netherworlds” when he’s not ruling “these streets” on a nightly basis. It’s the rare Van Halen song with no backing vocals, probably because they would have taken the edge off by sounding too pretty. I didn’t like this song when I was a little guy, but it has aged like J.Lo. They could put this out tomorrow and humans would explode.
33. “On Fire,” Van Halen (1978)
The coda to the debut, “On Fire” is one last chance to blow the doors off the Pontiac while cementing the band’s platform as The New Sound Of Hard And Heavy Music. Parochially connected to “Atomic Punk,” Dave instructs all the kids to “turn your radios on” and “throw your headphones on” and generally get with the goddamn program. Three minutes of nuclear meltdown, along with one bonus second to ash your cigarette.
32. “Love Walks In,” 5150 (1986)
Sammy Hagar believes he was telepathically contacted by aliens in 1968, an experience that transformed his life and led to songs like “Love Walks In,” which seems like a decent trade-off. The track’s synthesized framework is lush and satisfying. It almost feels like it could be a wedding song (there’s even a line about a woman standing “in a silken gown”). Of course, one must presuppose that anyone selecting the processional for their wedding would Google the meaning of the song beforehand, and maybe people don’t want their defining relationship represented by a telepathic encounter with aliens, unless they were marrying Leonard Nimoy or the kid from Powder.
31. “Women in Love…,” Van Halen II (1979)
All my life, I thought the opening line of this song was, “Marge, you’re breaking my heart.” It turns out it’s actually, “My heart, you’re breaking my heart,” which is maybe 10 percent as inspired. But, nevertheless. This is a song about a man losing a woman to another woman, with personal politics more aligned to Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” than Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl.” The playing is restrained and the introductory lead has the compelling inclusion of what appears to be a bum note, which is (of course) totally intentional.
30. “Dancing in the Street,” Diver Down (1982)
EVH came up with a Mini-Moog riff he wanted to give to his favorite singer, Peter Gabriel. Templeman convinced him to instead hand the riff to Roth for his take on this timeless non-rocker, and Eddie has never forgiven either of them. Probably the most divisive Roth-era track among die-hards, it remains one of the all-time best versions of this song, predominantly due to the backing vocals but aided by the congenial spirit of the lead singer, a man who would probably dance at a funeral. In his book Van Halen: Exuberant California Zen Rock’n’Roll, British academic John Scanlan favorably compares it to the elemental origin of EDM. “It is as if someone had plugged Donna Summer’s `I Feel Love’ into Eddie’s ears as he slept,” writes Scanlan, “and this was what he remembered upon waking.”
29. “So This Is Love?” Fair Warning (1981)
Anchored by an unpretentious bass line, “So This Is Love?” is lyrically confusing, in that the verses of the song express romantic optimism while the title suggests romantic deflation. But coming from Dave, the contradiction feels equitable; it’s not hard to imagine him being disappointed with getting exactly what he wants.
28. “Mean Street,” Fair Warning (1981)
If you love this song, you definitely (and maybe exclusively) love the hyperkinetic intro. The ignition switch for Fair Warning that doubles as a statement of purpose, as Fair Warning was a moody, thorny album with no proper US singles. This is the album aspirant guitarists tend to lionize, and “Mean Street” was a tougher version of what the band traditionally delivered. Reviews at the time labeled it as metal, but it’s more like a laser-focused interpretation of blues-rock that should have been recorded at a slightly faster pace, which is how they play it live.
27. “Summer Nights,” 5150 (1986)
For the first 15 seconds, Eddie (performing alone) sounds like a precocious adolescent trying to figure out an unfamiliar song for the very first time, maybe even reading the sheet music and glancing at his finger placement. He’s then rudely interrupted by Hagar, who grunts the word “Uh.” By magic, Eddie can now rip all the riffs into ribbons, which he proceeds to do. Two minutes later, the astoundingly dumb lyrics are airlifted by the vibe and taken to a hospital in Malibu.
26. “House of Pain,” 1984 (1984)
The old demo version VH recorded with Gene Simmons is faster, heavier, and better than the version they released on 1984, and I’ve never seen a full explanation as to why the arrangement was altered (perhaps because there isn’t one, beyond Eddie’s personal preference). However, one advantage of the slower version is that you can more easily isolate the influence of Eric Clapton, assuming you happen to be the kind of guy who likes to point out pedantic details about popular rock music.
25. “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love,” Van Halen (1978)
Some insist this nihilistic attack dog is a top-five milestone. I don’t really get that. It’s powerful and it’s memorable and I know it’s definitive, but it seems like a song for a band with less potential for enthusiasm. I also recall playing this in my 1991 college dorm room and being asked if it had been released before or after “The Fuck Shop” by 2 Live Crew. “There aren’t any old times,” Joseph Cotten notes in The Magnificent Ambersons. “When times are gone, they’re not old, they’re dead. There aren’t any times but new times.”
24. “I’m the One,” Van Halen (1978)
This one careens all over the place, almost as if the song itself is being shaken as it unspools. I’m tempted to say it displays elements of jazz, though I don’t know enough about jazz theory to say that with confidence. The takeaway is that this is genuinely insane mainstream rock music, performed by musicians who are always in complete control of the insanity they’re creating. There’s also a barbershop breakdown just before the conclusion, a choice that undoubtedly seemed kitschy in ’78 but now just seems clever.
23. “Somebody Get Me a Doctor,” Van Halen II (1979)
Something close to an adrenalized Tony Iommi riff with a Randy Rhoads solo jammed up the gullet, this would have been a great tune for Ozzy, particularly since the titular “doctor” is either a bartender or a door-to-door syringe salesman.
22. “Best of Both Worlds,” 5150 (1986)
A verified hit, though not to the magnitude of the similarly titled Hannah Montana tune from 2006. It scans as a top-notch solo Sammy effort (of which there are several), and it’s the abstract pattern for what the band wanted to do over the next ten years when they weren’t writing love songs. There isn’t much else to say about “Best of Both Worlds” besides that it’s good, and that the lyrics offer no explanation about what differentiates the first world from the second world, although one can only assume citizens inhabiting both of those worlds must have been wearing parachute pants.
21. “Intruder/(Oh) Pretty Woman,” Diver Down (1982)
A cool, disquieting instrumental that pushes directly into a truncated version of the Roy Orbison standard, it would seem this under-rehearsed single was nothing but trouble. Intended as a one-off, the song’s success prompted the group to make an entire album (Diver Down) against their will, much to the consternation of everyone involved. Eddie was displeased that a song without a guitar solo somehow went to #12 on the charts, supposedly huffing, “It shows you how much guitar solos mean to people.” Well, sure. Point taken. But this is killer and indolent at the same time.
20. “Beautiful Girls,” Van Halen II (1979)
The supernatural definition of musical immediacy. It takes all of three seconds to inform you (a) who is playing, (b) what song it is, (c) how you should be feeling, (d) what your priorities need to be, and (e) who is living right and who is living wrong. “Hey, hey, where you going?” Dave asks an anonymous beachgoer as the cabana starts to close down the bar, and he might be talking to Bo Derek or he might be talking to your grandma. This was a band living in a big world. As Billy Corgan once said while backhandedly criticizing Sonic Youth, “Even though [Van Halen] were fucking cool and looked good and everybody wanted to be them, there was still that element of, hey, everybody can join the party.”
19. “Jamie’s Cryin’,” Van Halen (1978)
Ed’s axe actually seems to cry (or at least whine) on this classic, which is something akin to double-reverse onomatopoeia. Exceptional storytelling all the way through, though you can also space out during the verses and just lean into the chorus. Tone Loc’s deployment of the lick on “Wild Thing” is an added bonus, though Dave and Wolfie are probably the only members of the band who even know it happened.
18. “Little Guitars,” Diver Down (1982)
The intro is flamenco “Eruption” without electricity. The body of the song is deftly harpooned by the rhythm section and there’s no downward stroke on the lead guitar, so the melody dances above the vocal. The object of the song is a Mexican woman, or maybe the whole thing takes place in Mexico, or maybe Dave just wanted to use the word “señorita” in a song. Nothing is heavy, everything is edifying — a comprehensive success.
17. “Where Have All the Good Times Gone!” Diver Down (1982)
The lesser-known Kinks cover that launches Diver Down, this is a perfect song for Roth and a paradigmatic example of musicians taking someone else’s work and making it seem like a song they generated themselves, even though nothing about the structure is radically altered. Do I remain preoccupied over why they added an exclamation point to the original’s title? Yes. But this time, I think I get it.
16. “Jump,” 1984 (1984)
As an articulation of unadulterated joy and the unprecedented power of six rudimentary keyboard chords arranged in the best possible sequence, “Jump” is without flaw or peer. It’s a song devoid of detractors, except for people who like Van Halen a little too much and refuse to view it as legitimate rock. The video (directed by Roth) is an instruction manual for how to look cool while acting ridiculous and defines everything beautiful about hair metal, though MTV made it so popular that it ultimately served as the first concrete step toward the group’s implosion 12 months later.
15. “Humans Being,” Twister: Music from the Motion Picture Soundtrack (1996)
A song off the soundtrack to Twister that completely annihilates the trailer park. I’m assuming somebody from Universal Pictures was like, “We need a song that feels like a tornado,” and some guy taking the meeting for Warner Brothers was like, “I think I know who to ask.”
14. “In a Simple Rhyme,” Women and Children First (1980)
There are three or four different songs here, seamlessly patched together. It has qualities usually associated with rock operas like Tommy, although looser and much less heavy-handed. Roth uncharacteristically sings from a position of weakness and everything concludes with a 15-second Godzilla stomp that’s sometimes classified as a secret track titled “Growth.” From a total band perspective, this is among their most accomplished achievements.
13. “Hear About It Later,” Fair Warning (1981)
My interpretation of this song always fixates on the image of David Lee Roth talking to his girlfriend (or whatever constitutes the equivalent of a girlfriend in Dave World). He’s explaining that the moral complexities of his occupation as an arena rock frontman might result in unintended consequences that will contradict his role as a responsible partner, and — if this eventuality does, in fact, transpire — he does not want to hear about it later (because they’ve already talked about it once). It’s quite possible I’m wrong about this, but that doesn’t matter at all. Songs are alchemy. They can be whatever we want, at least to ourselves.
12. “Cabo Wabo,” OU812 (1988)
Here’s the real difference between Sam and Dave. Dave drinks to go crazy, and to drive other people crazy. Sam drinks to relax, and to think about how awesome his life is. There’s a lot of self-actualized sincerity on “Cabo Wabo.” I once heard an interview with Hagar (I think it was with Eddie Trunk) where he described the first time he went walking on the beach in Cabo San Lucus, only to be drenched by an unanticipated Pacific wave. When the wave receded back into the ocean, Sammy noticed a huge fish had been marooned on the sand, so he picked up the still-flopping fish and carried it to a nearby restaurant, where the chef immediately chopped it into tacos. This incident, for whatever reason, prompted Hagar to buy real estate in Mexico. I don’t think I have the potential to enjoy any geographic location as much as Sammy Hagar enjoys the Baja Peninsula. I will also never not be amused by the concept of “Rome” and “Dallas, Texas” representing the entirety of human experience, which is how this song starts.
11. “Feel Your Love Tonight,” Van Halen (1978)
Problematic perspectives abound within, so I’m inclined to bury this a bit deeper in the mix. But it just can’t be ignored. The song feels so palpably alive. It’s like they’re recording it right in front of you.
10. “‘5150’,” 5150 (1986)
An obliquely romantic Hagar track dedicated to the true love of Eddie’s life — the 600-square-foot recording studio he built next to his home in Studio City, L.A. Playful and well-played, impellent and quasi-funky, and carried by an exceptional vocal performance (particularly on the chorus). There’s also a brilliant bootleg version of this song with Axl Rose joining the band live on-stage, the lone downside being that it’s fake.
9. “Romeo Delight,” Women and Children First (1980)
The Rubicon for serious skullbangers (Slayer’s Kerry King considers it “the last truly great Van Halen rock song”), “Romeo Delight” is Reagan-era Teeth Metal, which means metal for musicians who can’t stop smiling at how much ass they’re kicking. The beginning 16 seconds are like getting punched in the face three times before realizing somebody else started a fistfight. It would have been fascinating if they’d maintained this musical direction for the next ten years, although I probably wouldn’t be writing this article if that had occurred.
8. “Runnin’ With the Devil,” Van Halen (1978)
If you subscribe to the multiverse theory of the cosmos, there somewhere exists a version of Earth where everything is identical to the Earth we now inhabit, except Eddie Van Halen only plays rhythm guitar. And within this alternative world, his only possible peer is Malcolm Young. EVH is certainly not the only guitarist who ever played lead and rhythm simultaneously, but almost no one outside of Hendrix ever reached this level of aptitude at both skills. The staccato bass playing on “Runnin’ With the Devil” is similarly excellent, as is Roth’s singing performance. There are clips all over the internet of Dave’s isolated vocals, and I understand why people think all his decontextualized yowling is hilarious. But he’s yowling on pitch, he has a bank vault of 22 autonomous yowls, and yowls aren’t supposed to be decontextualized.
7. “You Really Got Me,” Van Halen (1978)
I’ve noticed that those who were teenagers when the Kinks released this song in 1964 consider Van Halen’s 1978 cover to be an abomination, and when I interviewed Dave Davies in 1999 he still seemed annoyed that anyone had the gall to perform this song with so much volume and calculated precision. As I’ve aged, I’ve grown to understand that perspective. But I still disagree, for at least two reasons. The first is that there’s compelling evidence that this is how Davies would have recorded the song originally if the existing technology had allowed him to do so. The second is that any free-thinking person must now begrudgingly concede that VH’s simulation is marginally superior in every debatable dimension, much in the same way any free-thinking person must now begrudgingly concede that LeBron is marginally better than Jordan.
6. “Hot for Teacher,” 1984 (1984)
Here we have the encapsulation of almost everything Van Halen is known for, all within the space of five minutes: Athletic drumming, an extended guitar introduction that transitions into a thick principal riff, vocals that are spoken more than sung, two interlocked solos, and lyrics that are technically demeaning but somehow come across as non-toxic and guileless. The video would obviously outrage contemporary audiences, but you know, it mildly outraged people in 1984, too.
A primordial antecedent to “Panama,” this is Van Halen going straight for the jugular and solely focusing on tempo and texture, with lyrics about a crime they may or may not have committed. It seems like they could have made a horizontal song like this twice a year for half a century, but it’s actually rather rare, which makes me wonder if what I hear as simplicity is actually complicated clarity.
4. “Panama,” 1984 (1984)
The strongest pure riff in the catalogue. Highly stylized lyrics in the modality of Chuck Berry (“Model citizen/ Zero discipline”) and an overall propulsion that idles over the verse before accelerating through the chorus. It remains unclear whether “Panama” is the name of a car, the name of the girl driving the car, or the variety of ganja the girl driving the car happens to be smoking. The specifics are unnecessary, unless you’re the type of person who likes to know the geologic origin of all the rocks that just buried you in the avalanche.
3. “Dance the Night Away,” Van Halen II (1979)
The crowning achievement of Michael Anthony’s John Cazale-like career as a background vocalist, there are dozens of little details here that could be obsessed over and expanded upon (the cowbell, the moment where Roth nearly laughs at his own caterwauling, the way the melody captures the specific atmosphere of a June evening five minutes before twilight, et al). But the more essential truth is that this song just makes people feel good. You can’t listen to “Dance the Night Away” without feeling good. This should be the hold music for suicide prevention hotlines.
2. “Unchained,” Fair Warning (1981)
The title reflects the band’s lifestyle. The music reflects the power of their reality. Nonchalantly consumed from a distance, “Unchained” merely feels like insatiable straight-ahead rock, but the lick is freaky, obliquely hovering above the foundation while the drums oscillate between two unrelated performance philosophies. It’s as heavy as music can be without being heavy at all. After the solo, Roth chats up Templeman about his suit and the acquisition of leg (singular), almost none of which makes any goddamn sense in any context that isn’t this song. A top-to-bottom masterwork, catapulted beyond-Thunderdome.
1. “Eruption,” Van Halen (1978)
There are those who don’t even consider this a song. It wasn’t intended for the album, Eddie still insists it includes a mistake, and there are now eighth-graders on YouTube who can replicate every note. But “Eruption” is the distilled essence of Van Halen, the vortex of their ethos, and the sonic justification for jettisoning every lead singer who starts to seem halfway annoying. The first 45 seconds are impressive, but not transcendent (there are, in fact, certain similarities to the opening of the 1970 Cactus song “Let Me Swim”). The music fades out, and any cogent first-time listener would find themselves thinking, “Well, I guess that was it. I guess that was okay.” But suddenly he’s back, and now he’s attacking the instrument the way piranhas skeletonize a water buffalo, and then he does that thing that he always does and your living room speakers transmogrify into the P-Funk Mothership and ascend through the roof and into the troposphere. It ends with the Doppler effect, except you haven’t moved and neither has he. This is, by the widest possible margin, the most important freestanding guitar solo of all time. And I realize that if you hate Van Halen, this is precisely what you hate. You hate the sensation of having your brain trapped in a beehive, you hate the distance between the proficiency of the artist and the potentiality of his audience, and you hate that this guy just invented the 1980s. But if you love Van Halen, this is what you love, and you can listen to it a thousand times without diminishing returns. The experience does not evolve. You will always be inside that guitar.