Van Halen fans, get ready for a highly entertaining read! New York Times-bestselling author and cultural critic Chuck Klosterman took on the gargantuan task of ranking every single Van Halen song ever recorded. Whether you agree with how he ranked the songs, or what he says about each one, Klosterman’s writing is so sharp and funny that you probably won’t want to stop reading. (We couldn’t!)
We’ll embed the intro to his article below. So dive right in, and be sure to click through and read the full list on VULTURE.com!
All 131 Van Halen Songs, Ranked From Worst to Best
Only time will tell if they stand the test of time
By Chuck Klosterman
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 eraThe details behind David Lee Roth’s departure from Van Halen will never be fully understood. Roth says he was fired and the band says he quit, and neither party seems able to prove either story. This much is known: Coming off the success of VH’s biggest album, Roth intended to star in a film titled Crazy From the Heat(possibly alongside Rodney Dangerfield). Roth asked Eddie Van Halen to score the movie and EVH declined. According to Roth, the Van Halen brothers also wanted to tour less (although Roth was planning on making a movie, so he wouldn’t have been available to extensively tour, anyway). There was also a longstanding personality conflict predating everything else. The Van Halens never really wanted Roth in the band to begin with, initially allowing him to join the group as for means for borrowing his PA system. Meanwhile, Roth felt the musical direction of Van Halen had slowly grown “morose,” prompting him to release a four-song EP of upbeat cover tunes in early 1985. By the middle of that year, he was officially out of the band. After a short period of anxiety and confusion, Eddie Van Halen’s auto mechanic suggested he audition Sammy Hagar. The new line-up debuted that September at Farm Aid and went on to record four No. 1 albums. 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 instrumentalsThe precise number is debatable. A few of their instrumentals need to be considered part of the conventional songs they flow into, and there’s also a Michael Anthony bass solo (“Ultra Bass”) that appears on a live album without appearing on any studio albums (so I didn’t include it here). Suffice to say you could create a relatively long playlist of Van Halen music with no vocals at all. within the band’s catalogue. Some people inexplicably hate Gary Cherone (almost more than they hate the band’s decision to record with himSammy Hagar quit Van Halen twice, the first time being in June of 1996. It appeared, at the time, that this would lead to a Van Halen reunion with Roth, particularly when the four original members appeared together at the MTV Music Awards and recorded two new songs for a greatest hits package. The brief reconciliation, however, served to remind the various parties of how much they hated each other, eventually prompting VH to again audition various replacement singers (most notably Mitch Malloy) before throwing Extreme vocalist Gary Cherone into the mix. Cherone was in the group for three years, recording one album and partaking in one tour.), 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.
Okay, now read the entire list at Vulture.com!