Before Van Halen exploded onto the scene with their self-titled debut, punk and disco ruled the roost. Rock was dead… or so everyone thought. As it happened, it was just taking a nap. “This is the 1980s!” declared singer David Lee Roth. “And this is the new sound – it’s hyper, it’s energy, it’s urgent.”
He was wrong about the decade (it was 1978) but right about the music. Over the next few years, they set about revolutionizing rock music. Van Halen were big and bold and brash, and so was their music. It was also epic. Things might never have been the same after Roth quit in 1985, but their back pages are crammed with enough dynamite to ensure their legacy. These are the 10 best Van Halen albums, ranked.
10. A Different Kind of Truth
Almost 30 years after his departure, David Lee Roth returned to the Van Halen fold for A Different Kind of Truth. The result, a guitar-heavy set consisting mainly of reworked ’70s demos, is by no means flawless (with a 50-minute running time, it’s far too long for a start) but if you can overlook the filler, there’s enough thriller to get you through. Fans clearly thought so, lapping up enough copies to take it to No.2 on the US Billboard 200.
9. For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge
As ultimateclassicrock.com says, the 1990s weren’t kind to Van Halen, In fairness, Van Halen wasn’t kind to the 1990s. For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge isn’t “bad” per see, but it’s not great either. Asides from the piano-heavy Right Now, it’s a straightforward, guitar-heavy piece of mediocrity that makes you do the one thing you never thought you’d do – miss the ’80s.
Released just a couple of months after their first tour with Sammy Hagar, OU812 is a mixed affair. It’s competent enough, and there’s no denying it serves as a fine showcase for the band’s instrumental talents, but it lacks the spontaneity of the Dave Lee Roth era.
What was once effortless now sounds forced. It’s too complicated, too studied… basically, it’s no fun, It plods rather than rocks, leading Canadian journalist Martin Popoff to say that “the philosophical soul and warmth” of Van Halen “evaporated when David Lee Roth packed it in.” He may have had a point. Still, it’s not a complete failure, with the country funk of Finish What Ya Started standing out in particular.
As Louder Sound writes, when Diamond Dave left Van Halen, a lot of fans thought the game was up. Eddie Van Halen didn’t. We lost a frontman,” he said, “but we gained a singer.” The singer in question was former Montrose frontman, Sammy Hagar. With Hagar on board, the band continued their assault on the charts with renewed vigor. 5150, the first Hager album, gave them their first US No. 1.
Driven by radio-friendly, keyboard-heavy singles like Why Can’t This Be Love, Dreams, and Love Walks In, it was glossy and shiny and unquestionably commercial, but it lacked a certain spark. Hager might have been the better singer, but that didn’t make Roth’s absence any less noticeable.
6. Diver Down
Diver Down is by no means perfect, but it doesn’t deserve quite so much criticism as it gets. Sure, it’s a half-hearted rush job with more filler than thriller, but in among the many, many cover songs are enough classic moments to redeem it. Eddie’s playing in Little Guitars and Intruder/Oh, Pretty Woman is devilishly good. Secrets, meanwhile, is quite possibly the sweetest thing the band ever recorded. The whole thing may whiff of contractual obligation, but it’s still a blast.
5. Fair Warning
As StarTribune writes, Fair warning may only have produced one radio hit (Unchained), but it’s the most guttural and visceral of all their albums. By all accounts, Eddie seized creative control, with the result that Roth’s poppier style got sidelined and Eddie’s taste for darker, more complex material took center stage. It was too dark, too weird, and too nasty to be a commercial success, but for all the bizarreness of tracks like Dirty Movies and One Foot Out the Door, it still sizzles.
4. Women and Children First
Van Halen may have descended into cynical corporate rockers in their later years, but in 1980, they were still focusing on being as boisterous, raucous, and downright disruptive as possible. Women and Children First would be menacing, but the band is clearly having way too much fun for it to sound anything than one big party.
Musically, it’s a step forward, with the band stretching themselves beyond the club standards of their early days and having some sonic adventures in the studio. Highlights include the electric piano-driven And the Cradle Will Rock and the hard-rocking Tora! Tora!
3. Van Halen II
Sophomore albums are tricky… or so every band tells us. Not Van Halen though, who managed to avoid the trauma of the ‘difficult second album’ by simply making their first album again, albeit with slightly weaker material and more strut than Jagger. Fizzing with energy, it’s as close to pop-metal perfection as it gets.
By the time the last of the definitive Roth era albums was released, Van Halen were already big. But this is what made them massive. Released in January 1984, 1984 was a sensation, giving the band their first taste of UK success with its lead single Jump (which also scooped a Grammy nomination) and going five times platinum within the year.
Shortly after wrapping the supporting tour, Roth announced his departure. The loss of Diamond Dave didn’t kill the band, but they’d never sound quite so epic again.
1. Van Halen
Van Halen never bettered their debut. That’s not a reflection of them, it’s a reflection of the album, a 10 million-seller that heralded in the 80s two years before anyone else and set the standard for hard rock forever after. It’s short and punchy, with not a single second of fluff or filler across the entire thing. Few bands had ever exploded onto the scene with quite so much of a bang, and few would again.
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