I Live With Fools
Van Halen Albums Ranked Worst To Best
by Benjamin Ray
Van Halen is one of the great party rock bands of all time. Much like AC/DC, a Van Halen record is guaranteed to rock loud and hard and never get switched off when it comes on the radio. Through six albums with David Lee Roth, the band defined fun and swagger in rock at a time when punk, disco, and self-important arena-rock bands ruled the music industry; sure, Van Halen filled arenas with jaw-dropping guitar work, and there was healthy ego between Roth and Eddie Van Halen, but the guys never seemed to take themselves too seriously. Through the late '80s and '90s, Van Halen was replaced by Sammy Hagar and the group became simultaneously more technically proficient and less fun – ballads became a thing, too – until they just sort of faded away with some bland discs with almost none of the spirit of before. This lists ranks the band's entire studio discography.
11. Balance (1995)
The '90s were not a decade that a band like Van Halen could thrive in, which is why all of their work in this era is so bad. But length had something to do with it too; you could argue that OU812 was the band's last good album, and that was in 1988. The three '90s discs aren't as much bad songwriting as just bland and directionless, with some sort of attempt at sounding serious. Maybe serious fans can get on board with "Big Fat Money," but there's little here to recommend.
10. For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991)
Har har, these grown men snuck an obscenity into an album title. To be sure, 1991 was no place for these guys, but 1990 and '91 were full of '80s holdovers trying to hang on in the grunge/alt-rock/hip-hop age. Although this isn't a great album by any stretch, it has a few solid songs that suggest this would have been an appropriate farewell (and then Van Halen III would never have happened), Lyrically, this one is pretty bereft of ideas outside of "Yay for sex," and worse, the songs seem to be retreads of older ideas. Still, "Runaround" is a highlight, "Right Now" adds a memorable piano introduction that makes it one of the best songs of the Hagar era, and "Pleasure Dome" is an interesting stab at something new on an established sound. There's not enough here to make a great album, but the few highlights will appeal to Van Halen fans of all stripes.
9. Diver Down (1982)
I liked this one when I was younger; this album was born one year before I was, and one of us has not aged well (hint: I still have all my hair in its original color). Diver Down is sandwiched between two superb albums and seems to be a rush job, designed to meet a contract or keep product on the market, as evidenced by five covers and two short instrumentals among the 12 songs. The originals really aren't that great either; only "Hang 'Em High" is up to par. They may get airplay on rock radio, but "Pretty Woman" and "Dancing In The Street" are mediocre covers; better is the opening "Where Have All The Good Times Gone." The band would rebound in a major way the year after, making this a transitional album of sorts and the low point of the David Lee Roth era.
8. OU812 (1988)
This is probably the last album Van Halen made approaching greatness, and the last time they were a significant presence on the charts. Yes, the synthesizer had become an integral part of the sound now, but Hagar had found his niche working with the Van Halen brothers (and Michael Anthony), and because 5150 worked so well the guys opted to repeat the formula, to obviously lesser results. But they still rocked ("Source Of Infection," "Make It Last," and even if this isn't an album fans will frequently listen to, it's still solid rock.
7. A Different Kind Of Truth (2012)
Amid much hoopla, bad blood, and the replacement of Michael Anthony with Eddie's son Wolfgang, David Lee Roth rejoined the band (briefly, as it turned out) to record a comeback/reunion disc. Some of the songs dated back to the band's early days, but this isn't exactly the follow-up to 1984, as the members are all older and wiser and a tad more mature; granted, maturity is a handicap for Van Halen, but they sound like they have something to prove here, and the disc simmers and sizzles as expected. It's a bit like OU812 meets Fair Warning, I suppose, loud and midtempo and full of confidence and a bit of that old welcome swagger. "Stay Frosty" is about the only misstep, a reminder that Diamond Dave is great at embarrassing himself, but it's forgotten when surrounded by "Blood And Fire," "Bullethead," "You And Your Blues," "Outta Space" and "As If." Although some took issue with lead single and leadoff song "Tattoo," I thought it a powerful slice of riff rock that sounds great in the car.
6. 5150 (1986)
In which Roth left, the band became Van Hagar, and the fans were forever split. In hindsight, the problem isn't Hagar – a fantastic rock singer who puts on a great show regardless of whether he is fronting Montrose, Van Halen, Chickenfoot, or his solo career. He can't drive 55, remember? The problem was the synthesizers and the songwriting, which morphed from badass to pop-hair-metal-balladry of sorts, sounding like everything else on the radio at the time (or that would define rock for the second half of the '80s until Nirvana and Sonic Youth and Pearl Jam kicked everyone's ass and stole their hair spray). But 5150 rises above that because of the strong songwriting, riding the high from 1984, and giving the band's sound another dimension that was needed after the six Diamond Dave albums, as great as those were. Radio airplay aside, one can't deny that "Finish What Ya Started," "Best Of Both Worlds," and "Summer Nights" are quite good songs, although the other hits, "Dreams" and "Why Can't This Be Love," are a bit suspect in their blatant bid for arena-rock glory. It's a fine album, but it's missing a bit of that Van Halen personality of old, a flaw that would magnify with each successive album.
5. Van Halen II (1979)
The second album already shows signs of growth and expansion on the sound of the debut, but the songs don't live up to that level (how could they?). The cover of "You're No Good" was an interesting one; as hard rock as these guys were, they chose some pretty interesting pop songs to cover throughout their career. "Spanish Fly" introduced acoustic guitars into Eddie's playing in a too-brief solo, "Dance The Night Away" is more pop than before and actually points the way toward the direction things would go with Sammy Hagar many years later, and "Outta Love Again" and "D.O.A." show that the guys were not interested in simply repeating themselves for commercial gain. But "Beautiful Girls" is a killer album closer, one of the band's most fun songs and clearest mission statements (women, amirite?), and it improves this interesting album. Not a total success, but still early Van Halen, and still quite good.
4. Women And Children First (1980)
This album is among the most experimental of Van Halen's career, and although it suffers from a weaker second half, it's an underrated disc by all but the faithful. Certainly, the mechanical keyboard grind was a necessary addition to "And The Cradle Will Rock," adding a layer of industrial menace to the song, while "Everybody Wants Some!" has one of the longest introductions in the VH catalog, relying on the tribal drums before seguing into the main piece. Both are classics, but I would rank "Fools" as a lost gem on par with those, with its opening guitar workout and the chug-a-lug instrumental closing riff. It's a solid six minutes and a lot of fun, as is the considerably lighter "Romeo Delight." And if the second side seems a little more disposable, it's because the first side sets the bar high.
3. Fair Warning (1981)
The darkest, hardest Van Halen album of the Roth era – perhaps of any era, actually – came from a growing rift between Eddie Van Halen's musical desires and David Lee Roth's showmanship bent. Roth loved the covers and the party-rock-frat-boy attitude while Eddie wanted to keep exploring and expanding the band's sound, not drastically, but enough that Van Halen could be considered more than an AC/DC-like cartoon. The tension infused the driving, BS-free, which was underrated at the time but has since grown in stature among VH fans. Certainly, "Unchained" is one of their fiercest and finest rockers, but nearly every song hits hard, especially "Mean Streets," "Sinners Swing" and "Dirty Movies," with a special nod toward the closing instrumental "One Foot Out The Door." Everything great about this band, minus their commercial side, can be found here.
2. 1984 (1983)
The swan song for David Lee Roth until 2012's brief comeback, 1984 came at just the right moment to push the band into superstardom. A dash of synthesizer proved to be the shot in the arm the band needed after the lackluster Diver Down, but Eddie used it intelligently and the band had a strong set of songs and the thriving MTV on which to play them. Purists may have been a bit upset that "Jump" was the song that broke these guys through in a big way, being as how the main riff was played on a keyboard when an obvious guitar god was on hand, but it matched Van Halen's musical style perfectly and became a massive hit. Yet it is an anomaly; most of the songs are hard rock, and they come fast and furious; "Hot For Teacher," "Girl Gone Bad," "House Of Pain," and the swaggering "Drop Dead Legs," not to mention the monster riffs and layered vocals of "Panama," the best song here. And while "I'll Wait" also chose synths over guitars, it was still an instant classic. The album appeals to everybody simply because it's just excellent.
1. Van Halen (1978)
Flat-out one of the best debut albums of all time, it was evident that Van Halen arrived fully formed and ready to kick ass with a mischievous grin and the finest guitar shredding since...well, it was hard to say. Hammer-ons at the speed of light played on a Frankenstein guitar weren't really a thing in 1978, at least not commercially, and although in the '80s everyone would learn about Satriani and Vai and so forth, Eddie's playing was a revelation. Of course, his brother Alex on drums and Michael Anthony were one of the most solid rhythm sections in rock at the time; few moments of that year are more iconic than the opening 20 seconds, with the car horn giving way to Anthony's fat bass notes, followed by Alex's pounding drums over Eddie's two-note, then six-note memorable riff that opens "Runnin' With The Devil."
Certainly, there is no song like "Eruption," which is simply an astonishing, jaw-dropping two-minute guitar solo no matter how many times you hear it, but it's a brief setpiece that gives way to a near-flawless hard rock album. At least two-thirds of these songs still get regular radio airplay, from "Devil" and the cover of "You Really Got Me" to "Jamie's Cryin'," and "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love," to lesser-known but just-as-good tracks like "Ice Cream Man," "Feel Your Love Tonight," and "I'm The One." But there isn't a bad song to be found, or even a mediocre one (maybe "On Fire," I suppose), which is a killer track record for a debut. Van Halen is cool as hell, no matter how many times you hear it.