Those who knock Van Halen usually do so because they are lyrically light weight- a party band with nothing to say. With a few exceptions that’s at least somewhat true, but that doesn’t change that the group altered hard rock and heavy metal music, especially sonically, for good. And they were one of the best party bands of all-time with a stable of songs that will forever be in the classic song pantheon and plenty of deep cuts to keep their hardcore fans interested. Van Halen also has at least two or three cuts that can be appreciated by most everyone, even those who shy away from the hard stuff.
Narrowing my favorites down to five cuts proved very difficult. Discovered by KISS, VH arrived fully formed in 1978 with their perfect, self-titled debut, along with Zeppelin, Sabbath & possibly Metallica, it’s still one of the best debuts in hard rock history. Though I only chose one track from it to include here, and it’s a deep cut, I do consider “I” to be their best album, with “1984” a close second. Though I chose two tracks from the very good “II”, I consider that album below both of their aforementioned albums as well as probably “Fair Warning” in quality. The best stuff on “II” is up their with the best in their entire catalog, but the tracks on the back end are a bit weaker. The David Lee Roth version of VH never made a bad album- six great ones in seven years. Even the too short and too reliant on covers “Diver Down” has some incredible gems on it. DEspite a few good tracks, I’m completely ignoring the Van Hagar era of the band and everything which came after it. These tracks focus on Van Halen from 1978-84.
The obvious choices from “Van Halen I” would have been to go with brilliant opening track “Runnin’ With The Devil”, the mighty 1-2 punch of “Eruption/You Really Got Me” or oft-played classic rock staples “Jamie’s Cryin'” & “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love, which just missed the cut, but I opted for “Atomic Punk”, mostly because I just like it more. It’s one of their most hard charging, even angry-sounding tracks and the scratchy Eddie Van Halen guitar licks at the beginning were unheard of before that time. Eddie truly revolutionized the instrument. He unfairly takes the blame for much of the technically flawless & flashy, but showy and often soulless and overly bombastic playing which came after him, but to me Eddie still sounds innovative & badass. The rest of the world never reality caught up.
Like many second albums “Van Halen II” was comprised of many songs performed and some even recorded by the group prior to the release of their first album, but that hardly makes most of them cast offs. The hit “Dance The Night Away” is possibly my favorite VH song of all-time- like Def Leppard’s “Photograph”, it’s the perfect marriage of pop & metal, a track that you can both dance and rock out to that can be appreciated by metal and non-metal fans together. It never gets old to me. “D.O.A.”, like “Atomic Punk” is another great VH deep-cut, showing a darker, angrier sounding side of the band. Other notable great songs from “II” are single “Beautiful Girls” and slower track “Women In Love”.
I completely ignored 1980’s “Women And Children First” album but that’s not to say it isn’t a good one. “And the Cradle Will Rock” and “Everybody Wants Some” (remember the crazy dancing hamburger scene in “Better Off Dead”!) are both key VH tracks and deep cuts “Romeo Delight” and “In A Simple Rhyme” are among my faves as well. 1981’s “Fair Warning” is Van Halen’s darkest, most musically experimental and lowest selling album (between 1978-84 anyway), but time has been very kind to it. I chose to include single “Unchained” which has perhaps the best Van Halen monster opening guitar riff they every recorded, but album opener “Mean Street” and the great under appreciated “Sinner’s Swing!” could easily have taken its place.
Five out of twelve tracks on 1982’s “Diver Down” are covers, and three more are instrumentals. It’s safe to say the band was running low on ideas at the time, but “Oh Pretty Woman” and “Dancing In the Street” covers were both hits (and deserved it), and the Kinks “Where Have All The Good Times Gone” may even be better. Band original “Little Guitars” is the best song on the album and it hurt my heart not to include it among my top five. VH reached its greatest commercial success with 1984’s “1984”. The album contained four hit singles including the #1 “Jump”, “Panama”, perhaps the group’s most iconic video moment “Hot For Teacher” and the underrated synth gem “I’ll Wait”. “Panama” has always been my favorite with a guitar riff only second to “Unchained”, and certainly the groups heaviest sounding top 40 hit ever. The deep cuts on the album are all stellar as well making “1984” the band’s most consistent album. “Drop Dead Legs”, “House Of Pain”, “Girl Gone Bad” & “Top Jimmy”- gems all. Unfortunately due to inviting mostly between Roth and Eddie the band decided to call it quits at the height of its power, recruiting ex Montrose and solo performer Sammy Hagar to lead vocals and the group would quickly, in my opinion, become a shell of its former self.
So I know outside of “Panama” and “Dance The Night Away” this list contains some surprises. What do you guys think? Are these choices crazy? What would you go with instead? Anyone want to lobby for Van Hagar being the better incarnation of the band. Any big Gary Cherone fans out there 😉 ?
ATOMIC PUNK (1978) FROM “VAN HALEN I”
BUY Atomic Punk AMAZON
DANCE THE NIGHT AWAY (1979) FROM “VAN HALEN II”
BUY Dance The Night Away AMAZON
D.O.A. (1979) FROM “VAN HALEN II”
BUY D.O.A. AMAZON
UNCHAINED (1981) FROM “FAIR WARNING”
BUY Unchained AMAZON
“PANAMA” (1984) FROM “1984”