Written By Aaron Savage and Jason Voorhees
Before we give you our next list of top-ranked albums, we here at Sports n’ Metal would like to thank you for checking out our blog and hope these lists give you something to debate with friends over the water cooler Monday morning at work or over a beer after work at happy hour. Feel free to send us a message if you disagree with our rankings or if there is a band, whose catalog, you’d like to see us rank or debate. That brings us to our next list. With the one-year anniversary of the late, great Eddie Van Halen’s passing upon us, and with the great Diamond David Lee Roth announcing this past week his intention to retire after his next slate of scheduled shows, we felt there was no better time than now to rank the albums of the band that made Dave famous in the first place, the Mighty Van Halen. So, without further ado, here is how we ranked the catalog of the Mighty Van Halen.
12. ‘Van Halen III’ (1998)
The eleventh studio album by the band is the only album to feature ex-Extreme lead vocalist Gary Cherone, who took over frontman duties after the departure of Sammy Hagar. While Cherone had great success with his previous band, Extreme, and is a tremendous talent in his own right, something didn’t click here, and Van Halen III is easily the worst album of the Van Halen catalog. In many ways, Cherone sounded like he was trying too hard to sound like Sammy Hagar, except the album was utterly devoid of the pop hooks that made Van Hagar so successful. “How Many Say I,” featuring Eddie on vocals, is downright cringeworthy. This is the only Van Halen album we wholeheartedly recommend you skip. No pun intended. That said, we highly recommend you search YouTube for live performances from this era, as they were truly spectacular. It is the only time in the band’s history that you could see “Dreams” and “Romeo Delight” on the same setlist.
11. ‘Diver Down’ (1982)
Diver Down, the fifth studio album in Van Halen’s catalog, came out when the record label was pressuring the band to have a hit single after the polarizing release of their previous album, Fair Warning, which lacked an obvious hit single. Dave had the idea to release a stand-alone single rather than a full-length album, and the label wanted the band to do a recognized cover song. Dave suggested “Dancing in the Street” by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, but Eddie said he “couldn’t get a handle on anything out of this song. I couldn’t figure out a riff, and you know the way I like to play; I always like to do a riff, as opposed to just hitting barre chords and strumming.” So, Eddie suggested Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman.” Van Halen’s version of “Pretty Woman” was a hit upon its release, so the record company demanded a full album. Diver Down contains five cover songs, including the aforementioned “Dancing in the Steet.” Still, there are some pretty impressive original compositions here as well, including “Hang’ Em High,” which dates back to a 1977 demo, “Little Guitars,” and “Secrets.” This is widely regarded as the band’s least favorite album, although it has sold over four million copies.
10. ‘Balance’ (1995)
The final release of the Sammy Hagar era saw the band at the height of their maturity. While tensions in the band were high and relationships were tumultuous at best, the band was able to focus, and the result was another #1 on the U.S. Billboard Top 200. Balance saw the band take a more serious approach to their songwriting and tackle topics such as suicide. When discussing the hit single “Don’t Tell Me What Love Can Do,” Sammy Hagar said, “When I heard that Kurt Cobain had taken his own life, the first thing I thought of was I wish I were there and could have tried to save him. The original title for these lyrics was ‘I Want to Show You What Love Can Do,’ but because it was such a dark, horrible thing, I just couldn’t shine a light on it, so I changed the final line to ‘Don’t Tell Me What Love Can Do.'” Hagar has said the song is about universal love. The album still contained classic Van Hagar fare, such as the sappy mid-tempo ballad “Can’t Stop Loving You” and the piano ballad “Not Enough.” The riff for “Amsterdam” dates to the 5150 album sessions. Overall, a solid release but far from the band’s best.
9. ‘Women And Children First‘ (1980)
Van Halen’s third studio album was the band at their most raw and was their heaviest release to date. It was also the first Van Halen album not to feature any cover songs. Van Halen ventured into speed metal territory with the full-throttle “Loss of Control.” While the first single, “And the Cradle Will Rock,” was not as successful as previous singles like “Dance the Night Away” or “You Really Got Me,” the album still went platinum within a year, charted at #6 on the U.S. Billboard Top 200 and further entrenched the band as a top live concert draw. This is a must-own album for any Van Halen enthusiast.
Check out Mr. Bungle’s cover of “Loss of Control” here:
8. ‘OU812’ (1988)
The eighth studio album by the band, and second of the Van Hagar era, OU812 saw Van Halen diving deeper into 80s synth-pop with radio-friendly hits such as “Feels So Good” and “When Its Love.” The album has a slick 80s production that probably dates it to the era more than any Van Halen album, although rockers like “Mine All Mine” and “Source of Infection” feature some of Eddie’s greatest riffs. The song “Cabo Wabo” features a riff that dates back to Sammy Hagar’s Montrose days, and “Finish What Ya Started” sees Eddie delving into country twang. At the same time, Sammy’s sexual innuendos give the song a familiar Van Hagar feel. The album is one of Van Halen’s most diverse musically, but the lean production prevents it from reaching its predecessor’s greatness, 5150.
7. ‘For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge’ (1991)
For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, or F.U.C.K. as affectionately known, was the follow-up to OU812 and was a welcome return to the guitar-driven hard rock that Van Halen was known for. Easily the heaviest album of the Van Hagar era, the album featured standout, good-time rockers like “Runaround,” “Poundcake,” which saw Eddie using a power drill in the song’s intro and guitar solo, and “Top of the World,” which utilized the outro riff of “Jump” from 1984 as its main riff. But perhaps the album’s most significant achievement was the piano-driven “Right Now,” of which the instrumental dates to 1983. An early version of the song is featured in the 1984 movie, “The Wild Life,” which was scored by Eddie. Sammy Hagar has stated that he feels the lyrics to “Right Now” are the best he ever wrote for Van Halen. “I was tired of writing cheap sex songs. Eddie and I wanted to get serious and talk about world issues.” The song was later used in Crystal Pepsi ads and used numerous times by U.S. political candidates. Other standout rockers include “The Dream is Over” and “Judgement Day,” which are as heavy as anything the band ever recorded with Sammy Hagar.
6. ‘Van Halen II’ (1979)
Recorded less than a year after Van Halen’s historic debut album, Van Halen II took just one week to record, and recording began just one week after the band completed their first world tour. Many of the songs on Van Halen II are known to have existed before the release of their first album and are present on the demos recorded by Gene Simmons in 1976 and by Ted Templeman in 1977, including an early version of “Beautiful Girls” and “Somebody Get Me a Doctor.” The album was met with critical acclaim and has been called a “carbon copy of their first album, albeit lighter and funnier” and “some of the grandest hard rock ever made.” If you loved Van Halen’s debut album, you’ll love Van Halen II, although it doesn’t quite capture the magic of the first album.
5. ‘A Different Kind Of Truth’ (2012)
A Different Kind of Truth is the twelfth and final studio album ever recorded by the band, their first studio album since Van Halen III in 1998, and their first studio album with original lead vocalist David Lee Roth since 1984. It is also the only Van Halen album to feature Eddie’s son, Wolfgang Van Halen on bass, replacing longtime bass player Michael Anthony, whose relationship with the Van Halen brothers had grown acrimonious in later years and who had gone on to play in Chickenfoot and The Circle with former Van Halen frontman, Sammy Hagar. When David Lee Roth rejoined the band in 2007, Eddie Van Halen was reluctant about the possibility of recording a new album, but once Wolfgang became enthusiastic about the idea of recording a new Van Halen album, Eddie’s opinion changed. When Eddie, Alex, and Wolfie began jamming at Eddie’s 5150 Studios, Wolfie discovered rough, unreleased demos from the band’s archives and, believing the tracks had potential, brought them to Eddie and Alex to rework and refine. And completing the first track, “She’s the Woman,” Dave decided to join the project. Two other reworked tracks later became “Outta Space” and “Bullethead,” both featuring blistering leads and riffs from Eddie. Overall, the album is chock full of reworked demos from the band’s early days and sounds as pure to the Van Halen sound as anything they’d released since Fair Warning. Surprisingly, despite the absence of Michael Anthony, even the harmony vocals have a vintage Van Halen sound. The worst track on the album is easily the first single released from the album, “Tattoo,” which also happens to be the only track to feature a synthesizer. “Stay Frosty” will remind fans of “Ice Cream Man” from the first album and was ranked the 16th best song of 2012 by Rolling Stone magazine, whose readers ranked the album the fifth-best of the year. A Different Kind of Truth is worthy of a top 5 ranking in the Van Halen catalog and is a must-listen.
4. ‘Fair Warning’ (1981)
This is the album that is easily the most underrated and underappreciated of Van Halen’s catalog. The fourth album by the band sold more than 2 million copies but was still the band’s slowest-selling album of the David Lee Roth era. Easily Van Halen’s darkest album, it featured the street anthem “Mean Steet” and “Dirty Movies,” the seedy tale of a prom queen turned porn queen. The band experimented more than ever with different sounds in the studio, and Fair Warning even featured the first use of a synthesizer on a Van Halen record, which would be exploited to a more significant effect on later albums. “Unchained,” “Hear About It Later,” and “So This is Love” are all standout tracks on the album that still get much play on rock radio stations to this day. While not featuring an obvious hit single, this is the album that many Van Halen diehards consider their best. Esquire listed Fair Warning as one of the 75 albums every man should own.
3. ‘5150’ (1986)
After the success of the 1984 album, there were cracks in the foundation of the band. David Lee Roth wanted to explore a solo career and recorded his E.P. “Crazy from the Heat,” which featured hit singles, and MTV smashes “California Girls,” a Beach Boys cover, and “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody,” a reworking of the 1959 Louis Prima classic medley. Many regarded this as Dave testing the waters for a solo career. Tensions in the Van Halen camp grew, and in 1985, David Lee Roth officially left Van Halen. Enter: Sammy Hagar. Hagar, famous for being the singer in the band Montrose and for his solo career, was introduced to Eddie Van Halen at the mechanic’s suggestion who was working on Eddie’s Lamborghini at the time. The pair hit it off and began working on songs for what would become the 5150 album, named after the home studio Eddie had constructed in 1983 and referencing the police code for a temporarily detained psychiatric patient. Sammy breathed new life into the band, and the results are apparent on this classic album. Expounding on the keyboards prevalent on the 1984 album, 5150 featured synthesizer-heavy, radio-friendly classics such as “Dreams” and “Love Walks In,” but perhaps the best song on the album, and one of the best in Van Halen’s entire catalog, is the guitar riff-driven title track, “5150.” 5150 is a return to the guitar-laden rock that made Van Halen famous and features a big hooky chorus and the riff that Guitar World magazine voted the best of 1986. “5150” wasn’t even released as a single, which is a testament to just how good this album is. The album went platinum in one week and was the first Billboard 200 #1 album in the band’s history and Sammy Hagar’s history, as he stated on the “Live Without a Net” concert video.
2. ‘1984’ (1984)
This is where it all began for many as far as Van Halen goes. 1984 was the album that made Van Halen MTV staples and took the band from the headlining tours and festivals and into the living rooms of every teenager in the world. In 1983, producer Ted Templeman asked David Lee Roth to listen to a new song idea. That song was “Jump.” “Jump” was a departure from the classic Van Halen sound in that it revolved around a synth-keyboard riff and a thumping repetitive bass line to go along with hard rock instrumentation. The song was a smash hit and took Van Halen into the stratosphere. Rolling Stone ranked “Jump” #177 on their list of 500 greatest songs of all time. “Panama” proved to be the perfect follow-up single after the second single, “I’ll Wait,” which was a mid-tempo synth-heavy song in the vein of “Secrets” from Diver Down. “Panama” featured a more classic Van Halen sound built on heavy and hooky riffing and an anthemic shout-along chorus. The video for “Panama” made the rounds endlessly on MTV and featured Van Halen in all their debauchery. The bulk of the video was filmed over two dates at the Spectrum in Philadelphia during the shows and at soundchecks. The final single from 1984 was the classic “Hot for Teacher,” which featured a fantastic double bass drum performance from Alex Van Halen, including a 30-second opening drum solo. The music video featured comedian Phil Hartman performing the voice of the video’s protagonist, Waldo, an awkward boy with large glasses and a bow tie. Two models appear as teachers in the video who tear off their clothes. The band is featured as kids and as their grown-up selves showing what became of them in the future-David Lee Roth is a game show host, Alex Van Halen is a gynecologist, Michael Anthony is a sumo wrestler, and Eddie Van Halen is a patient in a psychiatric hospital. No one knows what became of Waldo. This was when Van Halen was THE most influential band in the world.
1. ‘Van Halen I’ (1978)
The birthplace for Van Halen, their debut album just so happens to be their best as well. Guitar God Eddie Van Halen was introduced to the world, and the rest was history. Van Halen’s self-titled debut album put Eddie Van Halen on the world’s stage. Those of us who weren’t lucky enough to have seen Eddie and the boys rocking backyard parties in Pasadena or playing clubs in L.A. were blown away the first time we put in that cassette and heard “Eruption”. Perhaps no movie scene better captures the experience than the scene in Back to the Future where Marty McFly, having traveled back in time to 1955, put the cassette in a walkman and woke his teenage father from deep sleep to the sounds of Van Halen saying he was Darth Vader from the planet Vulcan. It was indeed an out-of-this-world experience hearing “Eruption” for the first time. David Lee Roth became the template for all front men to follow with his sexy swagger, the golden main of blond hair, and acrobatic stage moves. The album is loaded with classics such as the album opener “Runnin’ with the Devil,” which opens with a classic Michael Anthony thumbing bass line, making us wait that extra ten seconds before we hear the first riffs of Eddie Van Halen on record. “I’m the One” showcases every aspect of what made the band great, from frantic riffing and soloing by Edward to fast-paced drumming by Alex Van Halen to the swag of Dave to the great harmony vocals of not only Michael Anthony, but the rest of the band as well. Van Halen’s cover of the Kinks classic “You Really Got Me” is as essential to the rock canon as the original. This is the album that encapsulates everything that Van Halen was and made them great. VHI is the quintessential Van Halen album.