Van Halen songs, ranked (Flashlight & A Biscuit, No. 41)
From the worst to the best, everything from America's finest whomp-rock band
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Eddie Van Halen died a year ago today, which still doesn’t quite seem real. I eulogized him here last year, and every line of that still holds true even as Van Halen recedes ever further into the cultural distance. Your kids are going to think Eddie Van Halen, Elvis and Kurt Cobain all were doing their rock-and-roll thing at the same time. But nobody, nobody ever did anything quite like Van Halen, so here’s my followup to the eulogy: the celebration.
A few years back, I ranked every single Guns n’ Roses song. Now, it’s Van Halen’s turn. Thirty-five years, 12 albums, 132 tunes … they’re all right here, from the transcendent to the, uh, not. These are my rankings. Yours and others may differ, but mine are the correct ones. Some notes:
-Let’s get out in front of this now: Van Halen was a product of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and the band’s lyrical attitude toward women generally pinballed in the tight space between mercenary and misanthropic. Even singing a few of Dave’s lines from the early albums is enough to get someone canceled today. We will not be judging 20th century lyrical content by 21st-century standards, but even so: don’t take relationship cues from Van Halen songs.
-Hardcore VH fans have a whole lot less problem with the band’s treatment of women than they do the band’s usage of Sammy Hagar. I’m not going to even try to be too cool for school here; I liked a whole lot of Sammy’s work with the band, mainly because the dude just seemed so happy to be there. Every party needs a guy who supplies the beer and the cheer and the music, and Sammy is exactly that. Dave shows up an hour late and hits on your date, while Gary Cherone corners you and asks why you aren’t taking the plight of migrant farm workers more seriously. But Sammy? Sammy keeps the party going, man, even though he’s now 73 (!) years old.
-Speaking of Cherone, the band’s one-album-only singer: by all accounts he was a good cat stuck in a very bad situation. Everyone got that, everyone understood it, and everyone’s pretty much agreed to forget that Van Halen III ever existed.
-Poor Michael Anthony got buried by the band, both musically and professionally, but — judging from his Instagram — seems to be a dude just living the good life and enjoying the fact that the world still loves the songs on which he played. There are worse fates in life.
-Wolfgang Van Halen, Eddie’s son, gets way too much grief from old-school VH fans; the brothers pushed out Mike to make room for him, which wasn’t great, but Wolf has been the chief curator of the band’s legacy since then. He’s responsible for the band’s swan song, “A Different Kind of Truth,” which includes a whole lot of fun memory-lane songs and one truly great one. (And his debut album, Mammoth WVH, is damn fine un-Van-Halen-esque rock all its own.)
-This is a ranking of songs from studio albums only, no outtakes, live shows, solo material or that weird, mournful instrumental porn movie soundtrack that Eddie once created are included. (Search YouTube for “Eddie Van Halen” and “Rise” or “Catherine” and you’ll find them without dirtying up your browser history.) We’re sticking with the main cuts here, hitting all the albums and eras, including Van Halen I (1978), 5150 (1986), Van Halen III (1998), and their last, A Different Kind of Truth (2012).
-There’s a complete Spotify playlist right here. Listen along as you read … it gets better as it goes:
And now, ladies and gentlemen … THE MIGHTY VAN HALEN.
132. “Once” (III): In the mid-90s, Eddie and Alex parted ways with Sammy — the specifics aren’t important at this point, but for the rest of their career the Van Halen boys mixed and matched with singers with all the calm forethought of a late-night Tinder hunt. For some reason, they briefly settled on the muscular pipes and earnest heart of Gary Cherone, late of the band Extreme. It was a bad idea for all concerned, and it led to a genuinely bad album where nobody seemed quite sure what they were supposed to be doing. The low point of it all is this, the least memorable Van Halen song of all time. Most VH fans only listened to it … once.
131. “Strung Out” (Balance): While spooky chords play in the background, Eddie dorks around for 90 seconds on the strings of his guitar? Piano? Harpsichord? Whatever. This one should’ve been, uh, “lost” by the producers.
130. “Primary” (III): One of many late-period VH instrumentals, it’s one of many 90-second noodles that never really goes anywhere. I know there are untold hours of these kinds of tapes lurking at Eddie’s 5150 studio, and I would love to hear them all … but that doesn’t mean they all need to be released.
129. “Doin’ Time” (Balance): Alex gets his turn with a solo ditty, 101 seconds of beating on every-damn-thing in sight. Drum solos are the best, and Alex hit harder than anyone this side of John Bonham, but still … this wasn’t something we really needed to have pop up on the ol’ CD shuffle back in 1995.
128. “Josephina” (III): Fun fact: the first Van Halen world tour took place when Jan Van Halen, Alex and Eddie’s dad, played clarinet on the cruise ship that took the family to America from Amsterdam, and the elementary-school-age Van Halen boys accompanied him on saxophone and piano. So a bunch of cruise goers got to see the first Van Halen concert and didn’t even know it. Anyway, if you ever wondered what Eddie would sound like playing at a Renaissance Fair, this song is a fairly close approximation.
127. “Tora! Tora! (Women and Children First): Does this even count as a song? It sounds like Eddie pushed over a rack of amplifiers onto Dave, and then stood atop those amplifiers and soloed as Dave yowled in pain beneath. A little appendage of a thing, it’s no “Eruption,” that’s for sure.
126. “Feelin’” (Balance): The last song on the last Sammy album, this is the sound of a band totally out of new ideas. “I need a change, I need it quick,” Sammy sang, and after getting fired from/ditching the band (the specifics don’t matter at this point), he would get it.
125. “Intruder” (Diver Down): Another cranking instrumental, though this one has a bit more propulsion behind it thanks to the fact that drums and bass jump in on the action. I spent weeks trying to figure out how to do that shrieking dive-bomb at 55 seconds in, and I still can’t do the harmonic squeals – the ones that sound like something caught in a bear trap – to save my life. This instrumental leads straight into “Pretty Woman,” so if you consider it part of that song — I do, but it’s listed as a separate track — move it way on up the ladder. If not, it’s fine right here.
124. “Year to the Day” (III): After this nine-minute dirge about a guy pining for his lost love, you’re going to be ready for a heaping helping of Dave leering at women from the back of a taxicab or Sammy comparing his lovemaking prowess to a short-order cook, anything to bring some damn life to the proceedings.
123. “Growth” (Women & Children First): A 19-second chunk of sound that finishes off “Women & Children First.” The initial plan was to continue it on “Mean Streets,” but they either abandoned the idea or forgot to do it. A riff without a home. Still better than some of their later-period songs.
122. “In N’ Out” (For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge): Van Halen got inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame back in 2006, and only Sammy and Mike showed up, which was more than a little sad. And in the ceremony-closing jam, Michael Stipe and Patti Smith froze out Sammy Hagar, looking at him like he was dog crap on their shoes. The nerds were having their revenge on the jocks; high school never ends, man. Of course, their disgust was prompted by songs like this one, which is most definitely not about the burger chain. Also contains the cringiest moment in VH history at the 4:03 mark.
121. “The Trouble With Never” (A Different Kind of Truth): This is the kind of song that would get buried on the back side of the cassette during the best days of Van Halen, so when it’s on their last album? Yeah, you don’t need to spend much time on it. Dave’s still using lines like “When you turn on the stereo does it return the favor?” and “1-800-Tell Me Baby” in 2012, which is just kind of sweet at this point.
120. “It’s About Time” (Best of Both Worlds): Van Halen was always a split-personality band, half Roth and half Hagar, and the “Best of Both Worlds” compilation made the curious choice to throw songs from both singers together like some kind of classic rock block. It seems unfair to throw three new, by-the-numbers Sammy songs in there between “Eruption” and “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love.” Like adding freshmen to the varsity football team.
119. “Aftershock” (Balance): Have you ever seen a fully loaded cargo jet just rolling down the highway, not bothering to take off? No? Listen to this rumbler and you’ll have an idea of what that’s like.
118. “Me Wise Magic” (Best of Volume 1): The mid-90s were a weird time for Van Halen. Left adrift by the grunge revolution, they recorded a couple antiseptic albums with Sammy, fought with Sammy over the “Twister” soundtrack, cut ties with Sammy, brought back Dave to record a couple songs, kicked Dave to the curb, then brought in Gary Cherone for an album. There was no “Best of Volume 2,” which sort of speaks for itself. Oh, and this song was better than it had a right to be, but utterly sideways in the era of Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam.
117. “1984” (1984): More spacey instrumentalism that really only serves to set the table for “Jump.” A whole album of this would’ve been astounding mood-altering material.
116. “Sucker In A 3 Piece” (OU812): I envision the inside of Eddie’s skull sounded exactly like the first 30 seconds of this song, all wails and grinds and zooms and dives. When the band kicks in, we’re right in some vintage Cali VH top-down rock. And then Sammy starts singing, and, well … we remember that this came out in 1988. But even then, nobody was trying to pass off lyrics like “long legs … straight on up to her lunch pail” as even a halfway decent come-on. Lunch pail? Man, there are so many things wrong with that from a metaphorical perspective long before you even start to think about the gender one. The agony here is that our narrator is the side piece for a lady committed to a sugar daddy. The pain is real, brother.
115. “One I Want” (III): Has the line “a good man is hard to find,” which is surely the only Van Halen/Flannery O’Connor crossover.
114. “Amsterdam” (Balance): If you really love Van Halen, you will try to convince yourself that this is a good song, not just a crawly riff tasered so that it twitches a bit. You will fail, but you will try. Hard.
113. “Beats Workin’” (A Different Kind of Truth): This is technically the last official Van Halen song we would ever get during the band’s lifetime, so I’ll be nice and say the title is an appropriate coda for the greatest rock band of the ‘80s.
112. “Dirty Water Dog” (III): Look, I don’t want to back-load these rankings with Cherone-era VH songs. But man, they’re just rough. For every six-second riff that’s decent, there’s another five and a half minutes of meandering. As for the title? Probably best not to ask.
111. “Can’t Get This Stuff No More” (Best of Volume 1): When the “new Van Halen with Dave” came out 12 years after 1984, everybody rejoiced, thinking Dave was back in the band — including Dave himself. Turned out to be just a big misunderstanding — the Van Halen boys had only invited Dave onstage with them at MTV and then recorded new music with him in studio; how on earth could he have gotten the impression he was back in the band? Personnel management was definitely not Eddie and Alex’s strong suit.
110. “Up for Breakfast” (Best of Both Worlds): You can see why this one didn’t make the cut for any album. Give Sammy credit, though — tell the man to come up with breakfast metaphors for sex, and he’ll be supplying content for days.
[Let me know: what are YOUR top 5 Van Halen songs?]
109. “Man on a Mission” (For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge): This sounds like it could’ve been a good sultry Dave tune, but the early-90s VH overproduced it beyond all redemption.
108. “Tattoo” (A Different Kind of Truth): Well, it certainly sounds like old Van Halen: big riff, man-the-battlements drums, dive-bomb solo, Dave growling out threat-slash-come-ons, nonsensical stream-of-consciousness lyrics (“swap meet Sally/tramp stamp cat/mousewife to momshell in the time it took to get that new tattoo”). And at last, the bass is up in the mix. But it never really leaves the parking lot.
107. “From Afar” (III): A Van Halen song should not take 30 seconds to fade into any sort of recognizable riff. A Van Halen song should punch you in the face, go through your wallet and take a selfie with your phone. (Yes, I know VH was cashed long before iPhones were invented. Shut up.)
106. “Big River” (A Different Kind of Truth): One of the little musical aspects I love about the Van Halen brothers is that neither one of them could let a note sustain for more than a single beat without loading up a whole cascade behind it. Alex is the culprit here, riding the high hat and toms to fill every bit of space in this song. It’s part of what made Van Halen always sound like there were about 14 people in the band.
105. “Learning to See” (Best of Both Worlds): This one can’t quite decide whether it wants to be a heavy stomper or an entry in the “sensitive Van Halen” canon. Like, seriously, it bounces back and forth between two decent song fragments from verse to chorus and back again. Pick a lane, my dudes.
104. “Take Me Back (Deja Vu)” (Balance): Every rock star hits a point where they start looking back on their glory days and reminiscing about how wonderful those times were. It’s therapeutic for them and utterly unrelatable for anybody under the age of 25 — you know, the key VH demo. But Eddie does play some wicked nylon-string guitar here. He would’ve been a great campfire guitarist.
103. “Bottoms Up” (Van Halen II): Yeah, you know what we’re talking about here before you even hear the song, and it ain’t the bottoms of beer glasses. The “come-muh-muh-mon baby, bottoms up” break in the middle of the song is vintage Dave-wants-to-party-even-when-everyone-else-wishes-he-would-just-shut-up. Disposable.
102. “How Many Say I” (III): Hey, Eddie sings! Not very well, but still! It’s sweet, but it goes on way too long — six minutes, or approximately two-and-a-half “You Really Got Me”s. Perhaps the worst part of the Cherone years was that they just didn’t seem like anybody was having any fun. At least they all stayed friends afterward, though.
101. “She’s the Woman” (A Different Kind of Truth): Machine-gun riffing straight out of the “Fair Warning” early ‘80s era, which was weird as hell to hear halfway through the Obama administration. The way that Eddie could create an entire soundscape that sounds like THE EIGHTIES still defies belief.
100. “Big Fat Money” (Balance): This is a vintage balls-out jam that doesn’t need words, especially not barely-intelligible Dylan-on-meth scat-singing about how having money is, you know, good. Eddie’s throwing more jazzy chords in this album, which is nice and all but sort of like garnishing a Big Mac with parsley.
99. “Fire in the Hole” (III): Getting into a little Brian May-meets-Metallica’s “One”-style pyrotechnics here, followed by a riff that sounds almost like actual Van Halen. Of course, if you heard this one on the radio, you’d think “this band is really trying to rip off Van Halen but doesn’t sound nearly as good,” and you would be right.
98. “Stay Frosty” (A Different Kind of Truth): So much of ADKOT is a series of implicit tributes to old Van Halen songs of yore, and this one’s a direct spiritual successor to “Ice Cream Man.” Sloppy and ragged and fun. Dave used the title as his final words in his press release announcing his retirement last week, which makes for a bittersweet coda.
97. “Ballot or the Bullet” (III): This almost, almost gets up off the deck to become a lower-middle-class VH song. But progressive politics and Van Halen go together as well as chardonnay and Crunch Berries.
96. “Neworld” (III): A lovely instrumental to kick off the Cherone era … which immediately got reconstituted as the chorus to the very next song, “Without You.” At this point, given what came next in this album, it was fair to wonder if Van Halen needed a singer at all.
95. “Spanked” (For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge): This song should’ve killed at the gentlemen’s clubs (or ladies’ clubs, let’s not be sexist) with its deep bass and welcome-to-the-stage groove. Plus, it’s about calling a sex hotline. What could be more relevant today? Pretty stunning that this and “Nevermind” came out within months of each other.
94. “As Is” (A Different Kind of Truth): Alex gets one last turn in the spotlight here before another frenetic Van Halen cascade of notes that all mainly head in the same direction. There were times when this band would sound like pushing a full shopping cart down a staircase, and this was one of them. That’s not a criticism, by the way.
93. “Black and Blue” (OU812): I’m pretty sure this was the first single off OU812, and I remember at the time being less-than-overwhelmed with it. The dopey-ass lyrics weren’t the issue back in 1988 (“Slip n’ slide, push it in/bitch sure got the rhythm”) — no, the fact is that this is just the kind of toss-off riff that Eddie can craft while watching TV. You listen to EVERY Van Halen song, and you start to realize how many of them are just bolted together out of spare parts. This one, for instance, has about four different riffs just duct-taped together … to whelming effect.
92. “Sinner’s Swing” (Fair Warning): The grand tension of Van Halen was always the Vegas-showbiz sliced ham of Dave versus the chainsaw-grind rock of Eddie, and in this song, Dave gets the upper hand. Hearing Eddie’s guitar chew through a swing beat is like watching a goat play chess; it’s impressive enough, sure, but … why?
91. “Without You” (III): With production that sounds like it was recorded through a door and the yearning of Cherone, this is the closest VH3 got to sounding like Sammy-era VH. (There was absolutely no chance anybody was going to ever mistake this incarnation of the band for Dave’s days.) Give Eddie credit, he kept right on his own musical path even as the entire world veered away from him. This is the best song off III — which doesn’t mean it’s good, mind you.
90. “Happy Trails” (Diver Down): According to legend, the band just threw this onto the end of a demo tape album it was sending to Warner Brothers as a goof, but it went over so well they recorded a version anyway. It’s the worst kind of hammy schmaltz, but it did give three decades’ worth of classic rock DJs something to play as their daily shows ended.
89. “Outta Space” (A Different Kind of Truth): Tapping back into the weirdo sci-fi vibe of “Atomic Punk” 35 years after the original is definitely a choice. This song would’ve killed in 1977.
88. “Not Enough” (Balance): An attempt to get all solemn and shit — you can tell because it’s acoustic piano with an orchestral backing — this one is just too little, too late. Releasing this in 1995 would be like releasing a sitcom with a canned laugh track today.
87. “Pleasure Dome” (For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge): Legend has it that Samuel Taylor Coleridge was in the middle of writing the poem “Kubla Khan” when a bill collector hassled him so much that he lost the thread. On the plus side, what survived of the poem inspired an entire genre of progressive rock, and also this weird little skipping ditty. High point: Alex riding the cymbals in the pre-chorus.
86. “Honeybabysweetiedoll” (A Different Kind of Truth): I assume part of the negotiations for getting Dave back on the last VH album involved giving him a song like this, where he could just babble out whatever the hell was running through his mind at every given second over a driving beat. Best part of the song: the dog barking perfectly on beat at the 3:18 mark.
85. “Dirty Movies” (Fair Warning): The descending guitar crescendo falls apart at the start of this song, and it’s a metaphor for what’s to come next – brilliant ideas that never quite stick the landing. For those of you keeping track, this is one of those women-own-your-ass songs, in this case an actress in a porno, painted here as the seediest possible outcome for little “baby.”
84. “You and Your Blues” (A Different Kind of Truth): Dave references classic songs (“Red House,” “Midnight Train to Georgia,” “Communication Breakdown,” “19th Nervous Breakdown,” et cetera) in the lyrics before launching into a chorus that’s really, REALLY outside his present-day range. This one’s pretty good, though! It’s a clue to the musical direction the band could have gone had not, well, everything happened.
83. “A Apolitical Blues” (OU812): This is a strange little tune to wrap up one of the most slickly-produced albums of Van Halen’s career, a non-protest protest 12-bar blues tune first recorded by Little Feat. The title’s appropriate enough; you’d be hard-pressed to find a less political band than Van Halen, even by the nonpolitical standards of the 80s. That aside, what I do love is the muscle that Eddie brings to the track; the original is a hanging-in-the-bar-past-closing-time jam, this one’s a Mustang burbling in first gear. I would’ve loved to see Eddie do more like this, stepping into other genres and bending them into Van Halenesque shapes.
82. “Don’t Tell Me What Love Can Do” (Balance): Sammy has finally reined in the horndog persona here, and he’s reaching hard for profundity. He almost gets it, too. The wall of sound that covers the entire song works, at least this time around.
81. “So This Is Love” (Fair Warning): Van Halen does absolutely nothing subtly. The shuffle beat here stomps with all the delicate grace of an earthmover. The Eddie solo that slides in like a kid late for curfew at 1:28 is pretty sweet, but overall this is another tap-the-steering-wheel-and-forget-it-90-seconds-later tune from the boys.
80. “Bullethead” (A Different Kind of Truth): The best thing about ADKOT was the way Wolf (I’m assuming it was him) managed to wrangle every bit of old-school genius out of his old man. In this case, we’ve got the Van Halen that could level mountain ranges, a pummeling riff that drives right over you and keeps right on going. I think it’s about a guy losing his temper in traffic (“Yeah I’m rolling slowly, but I’m ahead of you”) but, like most Dave parables, the actual meaning doesn’t matter a bit.
[Let me know: what are YOUR top 5 Van Halen songs?]
79. “Hang Em High” (Diver Down): The best part about this song is how Dave can’t even come close to double-tracking himself in the verses. It’s something about a hanging judge and the Old West or something, but it’s probably just about the fantasies running through Dave’s mind once again. The bright chorus is a treat, and the cowbells leading into the solo are a nice touch.
78. “Baluchitherium” (Balance): A lumbering instrumental track, the third (!) off this one album. A baluchitherium was supposedly the largest land animal of all time, and the fact that Eddie looked for inspiration to a giant extinct beast showed either a wicked sense of irony or a total lack of self-awareness. Either way, it’s a good headphone track.
77. “Top Jimmy” (1984): By 1984, Van Halen was unstoppable, and even their goofball detours into showbiz schmaltz could knock down doors. This was the last time when a lyric like “Jimmy on the radio and even on the video” could fly, even if the idea of a trumpeter/saxophonist/whatever like Jimmy becoming a nationwide sensation is a bit of Mary Sue wish fulfillment on Dave’s part. And yeah, a guitar solo in a song about a sax player is, well, kinda weird, but hey, it’s Van Halen. Also, that “Oh, Jimmy!” will stick in your head for WEEKS.
76. “China Town” (A Different Kind of Truth): One last exhibition of Eddie’s guitar wizardry for old times’ sake, with some straight-outta-“Mean Street” Dave lyricism about life on the dark side of town. Dave would have been the worst guy to hang out with in rough parts of town; he wouldn’t ever shut up and he’d get you shot inside an hour. But it’d be a hell of an hour.
75. “Runaround” (For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge): What the hell was it with Van Halen and these stupid White-boy Barry White breaks in the middle of songs? Sammy growls his way through lines that would make Urban Meyer blush (“Aw man it’s hot enough / and you make it hotter”). Kind of submarines a bouncy little post-“Jump” tune.
74. “The Seventh Seal” (Balance): How would Van Halen respond to the grunge era? By getting back to a raw sound? By stripping down production to the bare essentials? By proving they could still rock the hell out with just guitar-bass-drums? No, by starting their first post-“Nevermind” album with Tibetan monks chanting. This would’ve been a killer song in 1987, all washes of sound and apocalyptic imagery. But it came out in 1995. Timing is everything.
73. “316” (For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge): The studio version of this perennial live favorite is sweet and lovely and far too sedate. This was the lead-in to Eddie’s nightly 10-minute guitar solo shredding spree, where he’d run through “Eruption,” “Spanish Fly,” “Cathedral” and whatever else popped into his head at any given moment onstage. We need more guitar solos back in our lives.
72. “Feels So Good” (OU812): I imagine that Eddie exhaled riffs the way the rest of us exhale breath, constantly and continuously. This was one that probably should’ve been allowed to dissolve into the air, a burbly bit of sugar that never really gets anywhere. Not even the swooping solo that dive-bombs in from the upper atmosphere can resuscitate this one.
71. “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)” (Diver Down): This is a curious little oddity, and you’d be tempted to dismiss it as a goofy gimmick were it not for the fact that that’s Eddie and Alex’s dad playing the clarinet here. That’s just so damn charming that you have to love it. And the old man’s got some chops, too, soloing in the grand Van Halen tradition. Another revelation: Dave’s ragged voice fits the Dixieland jazz style surprisingly well.
70. “Can’t Stop Lovin’ You” (Balance): Somehow this is one of the most popular VH songs on Spotify despite being the musical equivalent of a homemade popsicle, all treacly sweet and gooey. It was a deliberate attempt at radio friendliness, and it worked — this was VH’s last big hit
69. “Fools” (Women and Children First): The chittery blues riff that starts off this tune hints at what could have been had Eddie edged out of whomp-rock territory more often. This is a paint-by-numbers Roth-era VH tune – stomping bars from Eddie, 4/4 high-hat from Alex, in-the-pocket bass from Mike, I’m-a-misunderstood-rebel lyrics from Dave. “Who makes the rules? I live with fools!” – the high schooler’s mantra. At nearly six minutes long – nearly a fifth of W&CF – this is the old-guy-at-the-party of Van Halen rockers, and the less said about Dave’s zoop-zaba-dap Satchmo nonsense at the end of the song, the better.
68. “Best of Both Worlds” (5150): I’m no expert on Van Halen’s creative process, but this one sounds like they came up with that stop-start riff that kicks off the song, and then decided, screw it, that’s enough to build a song off of. When I was a VH freak, I tried to convince myself this song was more than just musical and lyrical clichés. It’s not.
67. “Hear About It Later” (Fair Warning): The suspended, ethereal chords that open this tune would become a Van Halen hallmark, and the way that Eddie builds an entire song out of some fingerpicked chords is flat-out vintage. That said, everybody seems a bit bored on this track; Dave’s unfurling clichés (“I’ve been tried and convicted, it’s winner take all / I want a run for my money, that’s all”) and Eddie’s not exactly cutting loose with the guitar on this one. The bridge is the only spot where this comes close to taking off (“I ain’t home toniiiiight…”) before stumbling into sub-“Everybody Wants Some!” riffery.
66. “Love Walks In” (5150): An old high school teacher of mine once said that if you couldn’t think of what to title your paper (or your novel, or whatever), just call it “Ice,” because ice has so many metaphorical meanings and it’ll make you sound deep. Along those lines, Sammy apparently once said in an interview – maybe a lot of times, it sounds like something he’d say – that the greatest word in the English language is “love,” which is both true and bro-tastic. “Love Walks In” is a clunky song in every way possible, from the title – the lyric is “Love comes walking in,” and yet the verb tense gets shifted for whatever reason – to the keyboard-demo rhythm and sheen of the main riff. “Sleep and dream, that’s all I crave / I’ve traveled far across the Milky Way…” The ‘80s were weird, man.
65. “When It’s Love” (OU812): Begins with the kind of anthemic, 4x4 keyboards that make old Daveheads throw up blood. Sammy’s not exactly stretching his songwriting muscles here (“How do I know when it’s love?”/“I can’t tell you but it lasts forever”) and the fact that this song wasn’t laughed into orbit is proof that we had a much lower tolerance for syrupy gunk back in the ‘80s. Sorry.
64. “Top of the World” (For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge): Built off a tiny hook tucked into the end of “Jump” seven years earlier, this is a triumphant life’s-goin’-great! anthem from Sammy and the boys. The little ascending pre-chorus riff would show up again 30 years later in Weezer’s “End of the Game.” This song makes everything seem like it’s going to be OK in Van Halen’s world. (Spoiler: It wasn’t. Four months later, Nirvana would release “Nevermind,” and nothing was ever quite the same for guitar-god bands.)
63. “One Foot Out The Door” (Fair Warning): An amped-up, video-game-drone version of Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps,” this is a strangely antiseptic-sounding tune. Of course, given that the album was released in 1981, this actually predates most of the cold techno-driven music of the ‘80s. That doesn’t make it particularly good or memorable, though, and it’s gone in under two minutes.
62. “Good Enough” (5150): The Van Hagar Era begins with Sammy ripping off the Big Bopper’s bellowing “Helllooooo baby,” and then the band kicks in, and it’s immediately clear that this isn’t your Dave’s VH anymore. The electronic drums are a sterile pittypat, and the guitar is so compressed it sounds like Eddie is playing in a mailbox. Hagar is a different kind of wordsmith from Roth, taking one metaphor and hammering it into paste—in this case, food service and usage. (Thirty years later and I still can’t figure out what the waitress could’ve said to send Sammy into orgasmic shrieks of “Rack of what? Well, I’ll have some of thaaaaaaat!!!!”) A good litmus test – if you hated the first ten seconds of this song, the rest of Van Hagar wasn’t going to get any better for you.
61. “Cathedral” (Diver Down): I’ll give you five bucks if any member of Van Halen ever visited a cathedral for non-wedding/funeral purposes past their first communion. That said, this is one of the more remarkable – albeit super-dated – instrumentals from the early VH era, a guitar run through a sequencer that oscillated Eddie’s gentle tones endlessly over the horizon. This one was always a lot of fun to watch in concert, since it was the preamble to Eddie tearing the roof off the joint with “Eruption.”
60. “Women In Love” (Van Halen II): The spacey harmonics that kick off this song sing “Southern California,” but the rest of the song feels bolted on and routine. There’s an old legend that the first version of Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like A Lady” was entitled “Cruisin’ For The Ladies,” and the whole song almost got trashed for seeming like weak Van Halen. This would be the kind of song they’re talking about. Oh sure, there’s the “we’ve only got one chance for love, so let’s get it on” ethos that’s run through poetry since, like, forever, but I’m not sure Roth was thinking that sophisticated here.
59. “Judgment Day” (For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge): Another in the long line of solo riff/guitar sorcery/bass-and-drums-kick-in Van Halen bangers, with requisite “oooh, oooh” backing vocals during the soaring chorus. Does boast one of Sammy’s most relatable lyrics: “I’ll do most anything to keep from doing anything, ‘cause sometimes I just wanna do nothing.” Preach.
58. “Summer Nights” (5150): Several things I remember about this tune: 1. The weird-ass shoebox-shaped guitar Eddie played it on. 2. The fact that it was a craven attempt to craft a blast-out-the-Camaro-windows song. 3. Sammy Hagar was in his mid-40s when he sang about “me and the boys want to play some love with some human toys,” and it’s tough to come up with a creepier image than that. 4. I still love the opening spiral riff, even though I dare you to try to whistle it.
57. “Sunday Afternoon in the Park” (Fair Warning): My dad hums the most nonsensical yet melodic tunes when he’s absentmindedly doing something like sorting mail. I like to think that if my dad had access to an array of mindbending effects and pitch-shifting electronics, this is exactly what he would come up with. You wouldn’t think a keyboard could leave your speakers dripping with some sort of burbling oil, but then you hear this song and you want to disinfect everything.
56. “I’m The One” (Van Halen I): The first clunker on VH1, this is standard-issue, primary-colors stuff: Dave yelping and howling for some unnamed lady to “show your love”—and, later, a strange little veer into the voice of a music executive, or something—as Eddie taps out harmonics and dive-bombs on the whammy bar like he’s trying to smash rats. There’s an odd little shooby-doo-wah section with about a minute left in the song that sounds bolted on, but all in all—even though you can tell this is VH from the first notes—this is forgettable stuff.
55. “Spanish Fly” (Van Halen II): Here’s one of the reasons why people write off VH2 as a cheap, run-through-the-copier-too-many-times duplicate of VH1: “Spanish Fly” is, basically, an acoustic-version rip of “Eruption.” In his nightly guitar-solo extravaganza, Eddie segued from one to the other with no hesitation or disruption, and hey, if you’ve never heard John McLaughlin or Alex DeGrassi or any of a billion flamenco guitarists, it sounds pretty damn sweet. Not really a round-the-campfire tune, though.
[Let me know: what are YOUR top 5 Van Halen songs?]
54. “The Full Bug” (Diver Down): Buried at the end of Diver Down, this groover is a hell of a lot better than its album position would indicate. VH’s pocket was always a lot more White than it could have been; compare the rhythm section of, say, the Chili Peppers to see how stodgy Alex and Mike can be. But then again, bass and drums were just the foundation for Eddie to go ripping off into the ether, and he does that here, alongside a harmonica solo from Dave. Not a great song, but not as bad as you’d think. (Ignore Dave’s cringey old-blues-dude imitation at the start. Please.)
53. “Poundcake” (For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge): A power drill kicks off the third album of the Van Hagar era — “F.U.C.K.,” get it, get it — and by this point, five or so years into the experience, this band is as reliable as a franchise steakhouse. What’s interesting is that, from a rock perspective, this came out just a few months before Metallica’s black album, the Chili Peppers’ bloodsugarsexmagic, GnR’s Use Your Illusion, and of course Nirvana’s Nevermind — four albums that completely blew apart the last of the Cali-bro verse-chorus-guitar solo wankery that Van Halen epitomized. This album was a relic from the moment it was released.
52. “Feel Your Love Tonight” (Van Halen I): Well, in the very first line Dave confesses to the kind of sexual harassment that would get him blacklisted in Hollywood in 2021, and then tells his crush that she “better use it up before it gets old.” But beyond THAT, this is a decent little horny-singalong swinger that must have sounded insanely weird alongside the disco and Sex Pistols of 1978. This is music to play out the back of your Camaro in high school—provided, of course, that “you” were a White dude in the 1980s.
51. “House of Pain” (1984): In some ways, it’s poetic that this tune closes off the Roth Era – not for good, but it sure seemed that way at the time – since it’s a throwback to the early groove-and-grind cuts that dominated the band’s early days. This is pretty much the same song as “Mean Street,” but with a good deal less inspiration and muscle behind it.
50. “Little Dreamer” (Van Halen I): The ladies in Dave’s life are either young, hot, and nubile, or a little older (like, maybe, 28), formerly hot, and looking back on their youth with regret. The “little dreamer” here fits into the latter category, a wide-eyed innocent who got the sweetness burned right out of her. No way any rock band post-Nirvana could make anything like this ever again.
49. “The Dream is Over” (For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge): An underrated gem in the soaring-Sammy genre, where Eddie pastes together a workmanlike verse line with a calling-the-angels chorus and Sammy reaches out to the heavens. If you liked this little era of Van Halen, this is right in your wheelhouse.
48. "Right Now” (For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge): Watching Van Halen attempt social commentary was like watching a six-year-old work a lawnmower. Something memorable was going to happen, one way or another. This video was lathered with the kind of bold-but-inoffensive DO SOMETHING motivational messaging that the band had avoided for most of its career, along with more commercialism than the band had ever enjoyed. (Crystal Pepsi!) But to everyone’s credit, this song remains one of the Hagar-era peaks, and I’m not damning with faint praise here. Eddie plays the piano like he plays the guitar, all slippery and cascading, and the whomp of the bass line hammering down from the skies is the band’s last gasp of spotlight before Nirvana came rolling down the tracks.
47. “A.F.U. (Naturally Wired)” (OU812): The title’s an acronym for “All Fired Up,” which is a Super Bowl-losing-level fumble of a potential title. This is some kind of weird 90s motivational play for Sammy; he’s singing about how he gets his kicks the old-fashioned way, man (“When the rest have packed it up, I’m alive, electric, naturally wired!”). Sure thing, brother. The drum that starts the song sounds like an engine trying to turn over, and then the solo that kicks in at the three-minute mark sounds like Eddie’s guitar is redlining. If you can imagine what it would be like to tilt your seat all the way back while you’re flooring it on the highway, that’s about the level of control Eddie seems to have over this particular solo. Which, let me be clear, is in no way a bad thing.
46. “Jamie’s Crying” (Van Halen I): Back in elementary school, we knew this kid named Jamie—a boy—and any time he complained about anything on the playground—what team he was on, getting tagged out in dodgeball, whatever—we’d all begin a chorus of “Ohhh, ohhh, ohhh, Jamie’s crying!” It was great malicious fun and I hope we didn’t warp that kid forever. Anyway, this song is not nearly as good as everyone seems to think it is; it’s now as much a soundtrack shorthand for early-‘80s high school parking lot scenes as Creedence is for Vietnam War scenes. VH did everything in here better elsewhere.
45. “D.O.A.” (Van Halen II): The sinister-L.A. subset of Van Halen’s Dave-era repertoire is a fascinating one, not just because there’s some solid Raymond Chandler-in-the-‘70s storytelling at work (“We was broke and hungry on a summer day / They sent the sheriff down to try to drive us away”). This tune’s image of finding “a dirty-faced kid in a garbage can” is as spooky as it gets, but here’s where VH runs up against the limitations of its own presentation: Roth can’t help turning “Dead or aliiiiiive” into a party jam, and the Eddie-Michael backup chorus doesn’t exactly scream menace. I’d love to see what someone with a bit more of an edge to them could do with this song.
44. “Outta Love Again” (Van Halen II): The band recorded the followup to their debut in about three weeks, and it’s not hard to see: the whole thing is just a half-hour long, and there are way too many half-formed, uncooked-on-the-inside tunes like this one. This one sounds like Alex laid down a skipping beat, Eddie vamped on top of it, and Dave yelped out lyrics, making this some kind of thrown-together club sandwich of a song. (I legitimately cannot hear Michael Anthony in most early VH, poor guy.)
43. “Push Comes to Shove” (Fair Warning): The sleazy, moody side of Van Halen greases through right here. Sure, Dave’s acting couldn’t get him past a high school drama club stage – “What’s there to do tonight? Give me another cigarette”— but the band sounds tighter and more sinister here than in the previous attempts at this angle. And, yeah, “It seems like 40 days and 40 nights since someone used my first name … including you” is a pretty solid lyric.
42. “Loss of Control” (Women and Children First): An absolutely unhinged riff, but the duet of Dave and Mike on “Loss of control! Loss of control!” where they drop the “of” and Mike yowls at least half an octave above his range is hysterical. So many VH songs are unrelated riffs duct-taped together, and here’s one where you can see the band stretching at the seams.
41. “Secrets” (Diver Down): Completely forgotten and ignored when it came out, buried deep on Diver Down, this is – on present listen – a sweet, surprisingly romantic (for Dave) little ditty about an ideal lady. Of course, asking Dave to write delicate romantic lyrics is like using a chainsaw to shave, but still – this is a nice Van Halen song. And I’d bet you don’t even remember it a bit.
40. “Finish What Ya Started” (OU812): According to Sammy’s (very fun) autobiography, the origin for this story involves Sammy being about to, you know, Talk About Love with his significant other when who should show up at the back door but Eddie. So yeah, it’s a song about blue balls. It’s also a good look at what could’ve been with Eddie if he’d wandered a little farther afield into the country realm; the Cali pseudo-twang here wouldn’t get him past a front-door bouncer in Nashville, but I would’ve loved to hear what Eddie could do with a good chicken-pickin’ backbeat.
39. “Dancing In The Street” (Diver Down): Another of the DD covers, this one is more by-the-numbers than revelatory, with Eddie’s guitar-yelping gurgling along the length of the song. But this one never takes off, and as a result, Van Halen seems more dragged along than in control. Legend has it that Eddie intended the burbling synth line to be used for an original song and/or given to Peter Gabriel, but Dave and producer Ted Templeman commandeered it for this song and Eddie seethed about it for years afterward. Ah, band politics.
38. “You’re No Good” (Van Halen II): A strange choice to start the second album, this cover of an old R&B tune from the early 60s—best known for its Linda Rondstadt version—gets the full Van Halen sqawk-and-skronk treatment, complete with the L.A.-by-streetlight break (“Used to be I couldn’t sleep at night, baby…”) and banshee yells that Roth probably still makes when he’s ordering at Starbucks.
37. “Cabo Wabo” (OU812): The production on this one is weird as hell, with the opening guitar riff sounding like it’s being played on the other side of a glass wall. This is Jimmy Buffett as re-envisioned by VH, a beach hangout song about Cabo San Lucas in Mexico that Hagar, true to form, re-branded into a line of tequila that made him rich as hell. The little chords and riffs that dot this song, particularly at the end of the solo, are like tiny madeleines; you haven’t heard them in decades, but they take you right back to the late ‘80s, and all that entails in your own life. Furthermore, we have a distinct lack of “oooooooh” choruses in rock music these days. That needs to change.
36. “Get Up” (5150): This is Eddie off the leash in a way he never was with Dave, running like a dog that’s just shot through a hole in a fence. The Sammy Metaphor Of The Day here is boxing, with Hagar immediately drawing a line between his bro-jock mentality and the party-dude ethos of Dave. Yes, the drums still sound like Alex is pattering away on a toy, but it’s the ‘80s, cut the guy some slack. This tune, while not amazing in and of itself, sounds like Eddie is running the show and Sammy et al are just trying to keep up, which is pretty much the first time that’s happened since the band’s initial formation.
35. “Take Your Whiskey Home” (Women and Children First): A reminder that Eddie could play the absolute hell out of an acoustic guitar too. This tune swings in a way few VH ones do – mostly the band just takes a groove and stomps it into the mud, but here they’re actually working around the beat, with a sinewy bass line that fits the song’s seedy-staggering mood just fine. Not a classic, but a fine little left turn.
34. “Source of Infection” (OU812): Every so often Eddie would go all Milton Berle and pull out enough of his guitar talent to show just how much better he was than everyone else, and that’s exactly what he does in the opening moments here. In fact, this would have been a great damn song if it were just a flat-out instrumental; Sammy doesn’t exactly add meaningful insight here, given that his opening lyrics are literally “Whoo! All right! How ‘boutcha now? Dig it!” Plus, right around the 2:30 mark we get the unique pleasure of a guitar solo layered atop a guitar solo, which you don’t see too often, dog.
33. “Somebody Get Me A Doctor” (Van Halen II): A lot of early VH tunes feel a ransom-note collage of riffs, and this is perhaps the best example of that. Listen to this tune—you can hear at least six distinct hooks that could be the basis of an entire Green Day song. And, in true EVH fashion, the song doesn’t wind down; it just collapses.
32. “Could This Be Magic?” (Women and Children First): Like sitting around a campfire with several of your most drunken and party-addled friends. It’s like an Irish singalong with the “lonely ships on the water” chorus. Favorite moment: Dave politely requesting a solo by saying “Edward?” and then adding “thank you” as Eddie tears the nylon strings off an acoustic guitar.
31. “I’ll Wait” (1984): This song is a fascinating what-if, because you can hear Eddie jamming utterly weird sonic ideas sideways into a standard verse-chorus-verse format, from the burbling undertone of the intro keyboard riff to the ethereal drift of the solo. He was pushing in new sonic directions even as the rest of the band was bumping along in 4/4 time, and I’d have loved to see where he could have gone completely turned loose from the shackles of the Hit Single format. (For those keeping track, this tune falls in the Dave As Obsessed Stalker genre.)
30. “Humans Being” (Twister soundtrack): The last great Van Hagar song, by the standards of Van Hagar. (Yes, if you hate Sammy, you’ll hate this song too.) The perfect soundtrack for a movie about two groups of tornado chasers (because there always have to be “good” and “evil” tornado chasers, you see). As you listen to this song, you can see a trailer for the movie in your head, even if you’ve never seen the movie. Shine on, shiiiiiine on.
29. “Atomic Punk” (Van Halen I): A lesser-known smacker undercut by its own steel-wool-on-guitar-strings intro, this is some kind of strange combination of early Scorsese and Stan Lee (“I am the ruler of these netherworlds … nobody rules these streets at night like me, the Atomic Punk!”). But man, listen to that groove that Alex and Mike lay down. You could build a house on that foundation. Got a brief revival earlier this year as a key driver of a key plot point in “Billions.”
28. “Ice Cream Man” (Van Halen I): This is the entire duality of Van Halen all in three minutes: the showbiz single-entendre cheese of Dave, followed by the kick-down-the-door whomp of Eddie. It’s a pretty straightforward blues shuffle until the solo, where Eddie’s guitar screams like a beast wriggling its way out of a cage. And then the groove kicks back in, and you wonder what Eddie would have sounded like soloing over, say, an old Stax record. (And if you don’t still say the word “satisfy” like Roth at the end of this tune—“satis-uh-fy”—you can’t call yourself a true VH fan.)
27. “Girl Gone Bad” (1984): It’s a sign of how strong 1984 is that the two taper-off songs that close the album – this one and “House of Pain” – would have been frontline starters on almost any other album. Sure, this one sounds 80s as hell, with a bit of Brian-May-meets-Yes guitar atmospherics to kick things off, but the band remains tight as hell even through yet another Dave cliché-fest. The stop-start kicking into the open-road solo is ground the band has traveled so many times before, but still … it works. Why this one hasn’t been used to score an ‘80s movie yet is beyond me.
26. “Where Have All The Good Times Gone!” (Diver Down): Right here was where Van Halen rounded into prime party-bro form, the opening cut on Diver Down. From the strange punctuation (shouldn’t that be a question mark?) to the good-times-have-passed-us-by theme, this was VH at its brightest, mightiest, and, yeah, safest; there’s nothing in here, or in the rest of the album, that would scare any parent anymore.
25. “In a Simple Rhyme” (Women & Children First): This is the apex of the cheery-befuddled-horndog persona that Dave perfected over the first three albums, a jaunty, happily relentless little ditty that sounds as Southern California as it gets. So what if Dave and Mike aren’t anywhere near the same note when they sing “rhyyyyme”? Eddie’s solo sounds like it’s beamed in from a speakerphone, but this has exactly the kind of spacey syncopated chords that raised VH over just a simple party-rock band. It ain’t a classic, but it’s within shouting distance of one.
24. “Blood and Fire” (A Different Kind of Truth): This right here is the last very good-nearing-great Van Halen song, which makes sense because it’s built entirely on a riff written sometime during the “Diver Down” era. The cheerful Southern Cali vibe of this song will put a smile on the face of anyone who ever loved this band during its finest hours. What a gem to get in 2012, long after we’d all written this band off as a memory.
23. “Light Up The Sky” (Van Halen II): This is the Van Halen song that Van Halen aficionados play to seem cool amongst the normies; it’s clearly identifiable as VH, but it never gets played on radio. The dual guitar-then-drums solo break that kicks in just after the two-minute mark is one of the best of the early band’s career, but my God is this band echo-tracked (tracked, tracked, tracked) to within an inch of its life.
22. “You Really Got Me” (Van Halen I): OK, you know this song backwards and forwards, Kinks cover, blah blah. But here’s what I want you to do: listen to it with new ears. Right after the first chords, you can hear a chk-a sound; that’s Eddie working the strings and the amp to make a grinding, gear-changing chunk noise, and it’s one of the first keys to why this Southern California -by-way-of-Amersterdam goofball was a musical genius. He turned the guitar into a percussive as well as a sonic instrument, working through the physicality of the guitar as well as the musicality. The same way you could make a motorcycle that’s faster than a Harley, but it’d never sound like a Harley; so too could you play a guitar more melodiously than Eddie, but you’d never sound like Eddie. Anyway, this song’s a classic, and the batshit-insane guitar solo must have blown the minds of Kinks fans.
21. “On Fire” (Van Halen I): A way-underrated ass-kicker right from the first note. This would have been a career highlight for most other bands; here, it’s a utility infielder. Hell, the ascending post-chorus riff that kicks in at 1:08 would be enough to build a career on. Damn, you can knock down walls with that little groove alone. (Careful-eared emo listeners will hear the “I’m on fire!” call in the chorus of Fall Out Boy’s “My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark,” aka “Light a Mup.”)
20. “Dreams” (5150): And here we have the first (only?) song meant for Dave that Sammy ended up singing. I would have loved to hear what Dave would have done with this song, because there’s no way it would have been anything close to the heart-on-the-table bro earnestness of Sammy. It’s so far from, say, “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love” that we may as well be dealing with a totally different band, but that’s what makes Eddie such an endlessly fascinating guy to study – he had both this 80s-movie-soundtrack innocence and the sleazy skronk in his head. The harmonic-laden solo in this one builds to a crescendo that matches not only the music but the lyrics, and they’re uplifting as hell even though your cynical lizard brain knows this is all just audio chicanery. Even so, there’s a reason why this one was in minivans all over suburbia throughout the late 80s. It was Van Halen your mom could love!
19. “Mine All Mine” (OU812): The wet synths that open up this song, and the second Van Hagar album, were really REALLY big in the ‘80s, trust me. And man, if you were a kid in the suburbs, you’d be all over lyrics like “You’ve got Allah in the East, you’ve got Jesus in the West, Christ, what’s a man to do?” — ooooh, DEEP. What gets buried under the keyboards and the robot-heartbeat drums is that Eddie was just a genius-level ‘80s pop craftsman. The guy could’ve sold all the catchy choruses and bridges he bolted together for his songs to other artists for a mint. This one’s got another car-getting-started solo that segues into an anthemic, plant-the-flag crescendo. I give this one five of five steering-wheel-drum-solos.
18. “Why Can’t This Be Love” (5150): This was the first song released off the newly constituted Van Hagar, and with good reason – it signaled a total shift in the band’s direction, sound, priorities, and lineup. The thumping synth that had burbled along in the background of songs before was now right at the forefront; this was an all-in raise on the festive bounce of “Jump.” The guitar is a supporting player here, and Hagar is mic’d right up front. And you don’t need to be Freud, or Lester Bangs, to note the message to the world in the new VH lyrics “I can’t recall any love at all / Oh baby, this blows ‘em all away.” God help me, I really dig this song, mainly because right when this album came out, I got a $20 ticket to see Van Hagar from the tenth row in the old Atlanta Omni, and son, it was a hell of a show.
17. “Beautiful Girls” (Van Halen II): This is the massive hit that vaulted Van Halen from the back speakers of dudes’ parking lot Camaros into the the cassette decks of their girlfriends’ Cabriolets. Dave comes off as a full-on prankster here, and who could get mad at such a chippy, friendly fellow … albeit one who, uh, thinks every lady “reached from the sea with a look to me like she’d like to fool around”? Also, Mike gets a bit of run, one of the few times in early VH that happens.
16. “Eruption” (Van Halen I): You know, it’s my theory that music went right in the shitter* when guitar heroes stopped doing spotlit wanky ten-minute solos. And while you can give Jimmy Page and his dorktacular Dazed & Confused violin bow credit for starting the trend, Eddie sanctified it with this 100-second barrage of hypercaffeinated diddling. Back in the ‘80s, I remember someone from what was then called a college rock band—Peter Buck of R.E.M., maybe—saying VH’s tapping-on-the-fretboard soloing was going to sound dated as a polka in a few years. And, well, he was right. But I can still tap out a good chunk of this riff, and you better believe it impresses the hell out of the onetime 80s party girls now driving carpools and reviewing their kids’ college applications. (*Note: music is not in the shitter. Guitar solos are ridiculous but still awesome.)
15. “Romeo Delight” (Women and Children First): Fast, catchy, and mean as hell, here’s a song that would’ve scared the hell out of parents from about five different angles. Listen close and you can hear Mike unrolling some actual bass riffs that don’t just double what Eddie did. The double-time heartbeat rhythm fits the lyrics – the tale of a guy bringing whiskey to the party tonight and looking for somebody to squeeze – just perfectly. And “I know the law, friend” is still a quality go-to one-liner.
14. “Mean Street” (Fair Warning): The tap-and-slap intro to this was just a delight to guitar geeks, but once this song gets going, it’s one of VH’s best sinister-underbelly tunes. This is a band completely in control of its groove and its powers, and even Dave contains himself enough to not mess up the whole damn thing too badly with his wackadoodle chirping. “It ain’t ‘Once upon a time’/It’s all over but the shouting, I’ll come and take what’s mine” is some of Dave’s best I-own-you lyricism, and Eddie skitters over all the place with enough guitar freakery to fill a bible.
13. “Drop Dead Legs” (1984): Another in the Underrated VH Classics category. As with about half the damn catalog, you can’t filter this through a #MeToo filter, you’ve just got to play it as it lies. That said, this has one of the absolute best snake-riffs in Eddie’s entire repertoire, a push-pull that yanks you forward and pushes you back again. This is a groove that VH rarely hit, but man, are they locked in here.
12. “Everybody Wants Some!!!” (Women and Children First): This song is just so damn weird and off-the-wall that it makes me a bit angry VH didn’t try pushing boundaries like this more. Over Alex’s tribal beat, you’ve got Eddie scissoring in guitar riffs that sound like rusty blades. And when Dave gets to his sexy chat, he’s fighting off Eddie’s guitar for the ladies’ attention. It’s so damn weird that it’s no wonder it was used as a hallucinogenic soundtrack in the 80s classic “Better Off Dead.” Shame they didn’t dig more into this kind of strangeness.
11. “Jump” (1984): 1984 was Roth-era Van Halen’s most popular album outside of its first one, and this bouncy little ditty was a main reason why. (You may have heard it once or twice.) The synth may have sounded like death to Dave, but it allowed the band to cross over in a way it never had before – to get moms in minivans as well as their angry high-school-age sons, just to give one purely hypothetical example. Eddie had apparently been trying to sell this riff to Dave for years before he finally relented, and the result was only one of the most popular songs of the ‘80s. My favorite part: Eddie dueling himself on the solos, as cascading guitar leads into cascading keyboard. This song will be around forever.
[Let me know: what are YOUR top 5 Van Halen songs?]
10. “(Oh) Pretty Woman” (Diver Down): I was of the age that I heard this version of “Pretty Woman” long before I even realized there was a Roy Orbison version, and with all due respect to Mr. Orbison and his dulcet pipes, this version absolutely smokes. Sure, Dave forgets half the words, but this groove and riff were tailor-made for Van Halen to claim and reshape as their own. What was cute and precious in a ‘50s context turns much more party-hardy in Eddie’s hands, and this is the Southern California anthem to end all anthems.
9. “Running With The Devil” (Van Halen I): True story: when I was a kid I came across one of those religious tracts that promised damnation lurked in every groove of every record, in every spin of every cassette’s tiny wheels. Some earnest acolyte testified about how he was so terrified hearing David Lee Roth sing “Runnin’ With The Devil” that he immediately renounced this sinful, fleshy world and sought salvation. So you can imagine what a tremendous disappointment it was to me that I finally laid my hands on a copy of Van Halen I, played those opening thumping chords…and was not immediately drafted into Satan’s service. As “devil” tunes go, this one’s pretty mild, damnation-wise: our narrator and Satan sound less like demonic warriors and more like a couple of divorced dads killing time before the Packers game (“Got no love, no love you’d call real/Got nobody waiting at home”). Still, as a debut song on a debut album, this one ranks right up there with “Good Times, Bad Times” and “Welcome to the Jungle” as definitive statements of purpose right from the starting gun.
8. “Dance The Night Away” (Van Halen II): This right here is pure, uncut VH: a cheerful bounce with a chainsaw guitar. You play those opening notes, and boom, you’re right back in high school in the 1980s—either in your memories or via a well-chosen soundtrack. Plus, this is a better beach tune than everything Jimmy Buffett ever did, put together in a blender.
7. “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” (Van Halen I): This is the first shot in what’s an underrated Van Halen subgenre: the dark side of the SoCal party life. Roth isn’t quite the guy to carry off this from a performance perspective; he’s still too much of a good-time bro. But the lines in this song are sinister as hell: “You’re semi good-looking, and on the streets again / You think you’re really cookin,’ you better find yourself a friend.” The riff clambers upward and then dives face-first off a cliff, and the band drags you along like you’re barely keeping your head above water in a rushing river. For all the talk of Van Halen as party-rock goofballs, there was always the sense—if you listened close—that these guys might have some people chained up in a basement somewhere.
6. “And the Cradle Will Rock” (Women and Children First): That apocalyptic metallic tidal wave that kicks off this song is one of the first, if not the first, uses of keyboard on a Van Halen tune, something Dave was cool with because it sure as hell doesn’t sound like a keyboard. This is one of the hardest-hitting tunes in the Van Halen canon, so much so that the gentle guitar break in the midst of the song lures you into the inevitable kicker: “Have you seen Junior’s grades?” And yes, we used that line every time report cards came out in high school. Rock on.
5. “Little Guitars” (Diver Down): This is such a bravura performance, from the intro – yes, that’s one guitar, not two or more double-tracked – to the swooping, death-from-above riff that kicks off the main song to the arpeggiated Cali-convertible-cool of the verse. It’s almost sweet, the Dave lyrics (“Anybody in their right mind could see/it’s you and me…”) that run throughout the song. And the fact that these guys can’t hold a note for longer than two seconds is just good goofy fun. Fifty years from now, when some lucky archivist finds a “VH” scrawled on the wall of an abandoned high school and wants to know what the hell a “Van Halen” song was, this would be an excellent place to start.
4. “5150” (5150): So here’s where I break ranks with the mass of Van Halen fans, and I don’t give a crap. I love this song, I love every bit of it, and this tune alone is enough to redeem the entirety of Van Hagar for me. If it’s not your thing, hey, skip right on to the last three entries, you’ll love those. But for me, this song conjures up a thousand images of driving around Atlanta on warm summer evenings, windows on my station wagon rolled down, and you cannot put a value judgment on those feelings. (Well, you COULD, this is the internet, but I’d just dismiss it.) The opening chord-form riff, the electronic drums, the it’s-gotta-be-in-there-somewhere bass, Sammy screaming about half a step above his range … I love this stupid-ass song, and I don’t care who knows it.
3. “Hot For Teacher” (1984): We spent untold hours trying to decipher exactly what the band was saying in all the background babble of this song (I still hear at least two tucked-in f-bombs), and “I brought my pencil” was pretty much a catchphrase of my entire high school life. (So too was “Sit down, Waldo” from the unforgettable video.) The peals of notes in the intro, the jackhammer drums, the singalong chorus – this is Van Halen at its peak. (Once again, we must remind you: this song was written nearly four decades ago. Please do not objectify your teachers. They’re not making enough money for you to leer at them.)
2. “Panama” (1984): Loud, wild, and slick enough to get heads banging at a funeral, “Panama” is one of rock’s great songs. This is ur-heavy metal, the summit of every drive-fast, crank-it-loud screaming guitar band in history. Fun tidbit: the whoosh sounds during the “reach down between my legs” bridge are from Eddie’s 1974 Lamborghini, which he backed up to the studio and miked up. If VH had released nothing but this and “Hot For Teacher,” they’d still be immortal. And no, Wolf isn’t going to play it at Mammoth WVH concerts, no matter how much you ask.
1. “Unchained” (Fair Warning): Hell. Yes. This is it, the absolute best Van Halen song ever. Eddie’s guitar could slice through bone, Dave is at his arrogant best, and the entire song growls like an angry Mustang. What does “Thought you’d never miss me till I got a fat city address” mean? Who cares? This song grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. Dave pulls off an Olympian triple-reverse joyful-sleazeball move by purring cheesy lines in a tone that lets you know he knows how cheesy they are, which makes it all the more fun, but no really, he’s serious … and then the band comes out of the break hard enough to crack the earth’s crust. You want all of hard rock compressed into 200 seconds, here you go. Play it loud forever.
This has been issue #41 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. Check out all the past issues right here. Feel free to email me with your thoughts, tips and advice. And if you dug this, share it with your friends. Invite others to the party, everybody’s welcome.