Van Halen revolutionized hard rock when they came shrieking out of Pasadena in the 1970s, and have sold millions of albums since. Here they are, ranked from disastrous to dazzling
Van Halen revolutionized hard rock music. When the band’s debut album was released in 1978, punk had unsettled rock’s old order. Giants such as Zeppelin and Sabbath were on their last legs. But VH had seen the future. “This is the 1980s!” declared singer David Lee Roth, boldly if prematurely. “And this is the new sound – it’s hyper, it’s energy, it’s urgent.”
The key to that new sound was Eddie Van Halen, whose innovative two-handed “tapping” technique made him the most influential guitarist since Hendrix. But this wasn’t a one-man show. Eddie’s brother Alex went at his drum-kit like a prizefighter. Bassist Michael Anthony underpinned Eddie’s histrionics and provided killer back-up vocals that had him rightly described as the band’s “secret weapon”. And then, of course, there was ‘Diamond Dave’, a wisecracking, split-jumping, super-toned blond Adonis, son of second-generation Jewish immigrants, and heavy metal’s greatest showman. As Roth stated, “I once heard somebody say to the Van Halens. ‘You guys play the music; the Jew sells it.’ Well, you’re fucking right!”
The band made six classic albums with Roth in a golden era that ran until 1985 when the singer quit to go solo. Amazingly, the band went on to even greater commercial success with Roth’s replacement, Sammy Hagar, with albums such as 5150 and OU812. The only major lowpoint in Van Halen’s history was in 1998, when former Extreme vocalist Gary Cherone fronted the band for one disastrous album. But eventually, in 2006, the Van Halen brothers buried the hatchet with Roth. And this reunion – which yielded the 2012 album A Different Kind Of Truth – continues to the present day, albeit with Eddie’s son Wolfgang on bass instead of Michael Anthony.
Here, every Van Halen album is ranked from worst to best – beginning at the very bottom with poor old Gary Cherone…
14. Van Halen III (Warner Brothers, 1998)
Even the most partisan of David Lee Roth loyalists had to admit that Sammy Hagar could sing. What’s more, Hagar had starred on one of the greatest rock records of all time, Montrose’s legendary debut. But the same could not be said of the guy who replaced Hagar in the late 90s. Gary Cherone was the wuss who sang in Extreme, wearing a leotard. It was a disastrous mismatch, producing just one album that sold only 500,000 copies when every other VH album had shifted at least two million. The reason? Van Halen III stinks like a wet dog. Every song sucks, and Cherone sang them like a drowning man.
13. Balance (Warner Brothers, 1995)
The last of the four studio albums that the band made with Sammy Hagar was created amid escalating tension between the singer and the Van Halen brothers. As a result, it had none of the vibe that 5150 or OU812 had. Balance was still a huge hit – a US number one. But apart from the catchy Can’t Stop Lovin’ You and the meaty Amsterdam, it was a bum note on which the Van Hagar era ended.
12. Tokyo Dome Live In Concert (Warner Brothers, 2015)
For a band that built its reputation on stage, it was strange that Van Halen never made a live album in the early 80s when they were at their peak – and when David Lee Roth was still the coolest rock’n’roll star on the planet. Instead, the band’s first live album came in 1993 with Sammy Hagar on vocals, and this, their first live album with Roth, came in 2015 – a two-disc set recorded during the A Different Kind Of Truth tour in 2013. The track listing is perfect, heavily weighted towards vintage material, with just three songs from the new album. The band sounded as great as they did back in the day. And if Roth sang out of tune here and there, so what? He always did.
11. Live: Right Here, Right Now (Warner Brothers, 1993)
Van Halen’s first live album was the better of the two. The reason was timing. Whereas Tokyo Dome Live In Concert had the band reliving past glories with Roth, Live: Right Here, Right Now had the Van Hagar line-up at the height of its powers in the early 90s. Recorded over two nights in May 1992 in Fresno, California, the album featured all of the big hits they’d recorded with Hagar – Poundcake, Why Can’t This Be Love, Best Of Both Worlds, Right Now, Dreams – plus four Roth-era classics, Hagar’s solo anthem One Way To Rock, and a blast through The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again. The band, with Hagar, never sounded so great again.
10. A Different Kind Of Truth (Interscope, 2012)
It was a big deal – Van Halen’s first album with David Lee Roth since 1984. And while it was never going to be a match for what they achieved in the past – those six brilliant records from their first imperial phase – A Different Kind Of Truth was a big, ballsy hard rock record in the classic Van Halen tradition. To this end, the band exhumed several songs that were originally written in the 70s before their debut album was released. The fury in China Town was a throwback to Women And Children First. Stay Frosty was an echo of the debut album’s Ice Cream Man. And the band’s pop smarts were in evidence on Tattoo, She’s A Woman and You And Your Blues. Above all, these guys sounded like they were having fun again – Roth most of all.
9. OU812 (Warner Brothers, 1988)
Having proven that there was life after Dave, Van Halen couldn’t resist a little dig at their former singer with the title of their eighth album, a cheeky reference to Roth’s solo debut Eat ’Em And Smile. OU812 did good business (current US sales: four million), but it’s a hit and miss affair. Lacking Dave’s levity, the heavier tracks are all bluster, but a lighter touch on the three hit singles works beautifully. Black And Blue is a funky boogie lit up by Michael Anthony’s doo-wop-influenced harmonies, When It’s Love a deluxe rock ballad, Finish What Ya Started a genuine surprise, with Eddie twanging country-funk licks and Sammy croaking soulfully.
8. For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (Warner Brothers, 1991)
All four studio albums that Van Halen recorded with Sammy Hagar topped the US chart, although the third of them might not have sold so well if it had been titled according to the singer’s wishes. “I wanted to name the album just Fuck,” Hagar said. Instead, they chose something more oblique. The album is patchy, but it does boast three songs as good as any from the Hagar era: Poundcake, heavy, grungy, with Eddie applying an electric drill to his fretboard; Top Of The World, vintage feelgood VH; and Right Now, a dynamic, piano-led piece, and the deepest song the band has ever written.
7. 5150 (Warner Brothers, 1986)
For many, Van Halen just wasn’t Van Halen without Diamond Dave. Eddie saw it differently. “We lost a frontman,” he said, “but we gained a singer.” And with Sammy Hagar on board, the band’s career arc continued upwards. 5150, the first ‘Van Hagar’ album, was also the band’s first US number one. With trusted producer Ted Templeman defecting to the Roth camp, VH enlisted Foreigner’s Mick Jones to put a fine gloss on the album’s three keyboard-driven hit singles, Why Can’t This Be Love, Dreams and Love Walks In. And yes, Sammy was a better singer than Dave.