In 1974, David Lee Roth, the golden haired son of a Jewish doctor, used to rent his PA system out to a band called Mammoth. The members of Mammoth decided it would be cheaper to just make Roth their lead singer than to pay the $10 rental fee for the equipment. With Roth in tow, the band changed their name to the surname of the lead guitarist and drummer and thus the mighty Van Halen was born.
From 1978 to 1984, Van Halen released 6 iconic albums that revolutionized hard rock as we know it. Combining the Van Halen brothers’ uncanny musical prowess with Roth’s showmanship and screeching vocals, the band set out on a 6 year tour of debauchery and destruction rivaled by few in the game.
But you didn’t come here for a history lesson; you want numbers, dammit! Below you will find 6 of the greatest albums ever gifted to the world of rock. Believe me, ranking these albums wasn’t easy. Imagine trying to rank all 6 of your children whom you love equally and for different reasons. Or better yet, ranking 5 of your favorite children and then the one child you adopted who never stood a chance (here’s looking at you, Diver Down).
If you’re familiar with the Definitive James Bond Ranking, the same rules apply here: 5 categories each ranked from 1 to 10 with an aggregate score of all 5. Those categories are as follows:
Musicianship: How impressive was each individual member on this album? The band as a whole?
Radio Ready: Was the album radio friendly? Any hit singles?
Legacy: Does this album hold up? Is it still talked about to this day?
Musical Dynamism: is there a wide variety of songs or do they all sound the same?
Play Through: Can you listen to the album all the way through? Does it lag in certain parts?
Now that we got the minutiae out of the way, drumroll please…
6. DIVER DOWN (1982): 35/50 (70%)
Musicianship: 8.5/10 – This album catches a lot of flack, and some of that flack is warranted. What can’t be denied is the musicianship clearly displayed by the four members (and their special guest). Eddie shines on guitar both as an innovator (“Cathedral,” “Intruder”) and as a pure shred artist (“The Full Bug”). Two songs where the band absolutely shines are two of the most diversely contrasted tracks on the album. “Hang ’em High” shows Eddie and drummer Alex Van Halen in particular going ballistic (listen to the drum fill in the verse directly after the solo). Juxtapose this against “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now),” where the band plays unplugged along with Eddie and Alex’s late father Jan Van Halen on clarinet, and you see the full range of talent on display from everyone in the group. And let us not forgot the final track on the album, Happy Trails, has our boys partaking in a four part harmony that is equal parts humorous and impressive.
Radio Ready: 7/10 – This album gets a huge boost in this department from a handful of cover tunes (something Diver Down gets lambasted for on a routine basis). “Where Have All The Good Times Gone” and “Dancing in the Streets” get routine radio play even to this day but the track that drags this album up from the depths of average in this department is the most famous cover of Roy Orbison’s “(Oh) Pretty Woman.” Without this cut, Diver Down may have slipped into even greater obscurity in the pantheon of its more accomplished brethren.
Legacy: 5/10 – I alluded to it above, but Diver Down seems to be Van Halen’s most divisive and infamous album of the Roth years. Some praise the uniqueness of songs like “Little Guitars” while others rip the album for its reliance on cover tunes (5 of the 12 songs on the album are covers). One thing we all can agree on, however, is the band probably should’ve left “Dancing in the Streets” alone. That track by itself was enough to drag this score down considerably.
Musical Dynamism: 9/10 – As I said a few paragraphs ago, this album goes from hardcore, guitar oriented rock to acoustic jams and back all within a couple of songs. “Big Bad Bill” shows the bands softer side, and the contrast from “Hang ’em High” to “Cathedral” in just one song is refreshing without being too jarring. Say what you will about Diver Down, but it is nothing if not dynamic.
Play Through: 5.5/10 – Diver Down hurts itself sometimes from being too all over the place. The album starts off with a bang of a one-two punch in “Where Have All The Good Times Gone” and “Hang ’em High.” It starts to drag in the middle with a reliance on instrumentals and cover tunes before floating in and out before ultimately fizzling out with “Full Bug” and “Happy Trails.” An ultimately forgettable album with a few gems, I wouldn’t recommend DD to play through on a long car ride.
Studs: “Hang ’em High,” “Little Guitars.” Duds: “Dancing in the Streets,” The Full Bug.”
5. VAN HALEN I (1978): 40/50 (80%)
Musicianship: 7.5/10 – Whoa! Put the pitchforks down! I love this album as much as any Van Halen fan, but let’s call a spade a spade, shall we? Look, this album basically rewrote the book as far as modern rock guitar is concerned, but the other facets of the band are lacking more so on this venture than in any other album. Van Halen’s maiden voyage features Eddie going absolutely insane on songs like “I’m The One” and “On Fire,” but most everyone else is nowhere to be found from a virtuoso standpoint. The song writing on this album is crisp and the other members fill their roles dutifully, but Van Halen I falls toward the bottom when comparing the sum of its parts.
Radio Ready: 9.5/10 – It is quite rare to see a band play the role of such precision hit-makers as the California quartet did on their eponymous debut (see Boston’s self titled debut and Guns n’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction). Van Halen I is chalk full of radio friendly hits with a combination of deadly, virtuoso guitar work and sleazy, sun-soaked lyrics about wonton sex and hedonism. It’s a beautiful time capsule of late 70’s/early 80’s Sun Set Strip living. “Feel Your Love Tonight” and “Jamie’s Cryin'” in particular see the band navigate through these themes with lethal accuracy.
Legacy: 10/10 – Along with the aforementioned Appetite and Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Are You Experienced, I can’t think of a more iconic debut in the realm of hard rock than Van Halen I. If the album had contained “Eruption” and nothing else it probably still would’ve left a bigger impression than 90% of other rock albums from the 1970’s. This album is the old testament of most guitar players and everyone from Dimebag Darrell to Dave Mustaine credit this album in particular to their love of the instrument.
Musical Dynamism: 5/10 – This category is tied tangentially with the musicianship category in that almost of the cuts on this album are tied to Eddie slamming away at his six string. Most songs on Van Halen I follow a similar (albeit successful) formula: tasty riffs coupled with Roth and bassist Mike Anthony taking turns shrieking in an ungodly register (see: “On Fire”). I love listening to this album, but if someone were to argue with you that every song sounded similar, your best comeback would be “and?”
Play Through: 8/10 – Van Halen I is a wonderful journey through some of Van Halen’s best and greatest hits. Some of the songs on here fall flat enough that I feel the need to skip them if I’m listening on CD, but if I drop the needle on the vinyl of this record, I can grin and bare it. “Runnin’ With the Devil” and “Ice Cream Man” appear on many Van Halen compilation albums, but for my money those are the only two tracks on this record worth skipping. Everything else about this album is a rollercoaster ride through the fun side of hard rock.
Studs: “Feel Your Love Tonight,” “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” “Jamie’s Cryin.'” Duds: “Ice Cream Man,” “Runnin’ With the Devil.”
4. WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST (1980): 40.5/50 (81%)
Musicianship: 8/10 – Women and Children First marked a change, both sonically and spiritually for Van Halen. The compositions got more serious and each member started to show off their chops in one way or another. As Van Halen marched into a new decade, Women and Children First saw the band incorporate keyboards and slide guitars into a few of their tracks. “Could This Be Magic?” is a wonderfully soulful take on slide guitar and even used nat sound (rainfall) to make the song feel more homey. There are plenty of straightforward rockers on this album too; the band shines on cuts like “In a Simple Rhyme” with their harmonizing and Alex Van Halen’s drums have never been better/more complex than they are on “Loss of Control.”
Radio Ready: 8/10 – Its a tale of two halves for Van Halen’s third album. Side A features two of the band’s most memorable songs, with “Everybody Wants Some” in particular still being played all over FM radio stations to this day. Side B definitely dips in terms of radio production, but with the advent of satellite radio we hear things like “Take Your Whiskey Home” that would’ve never had air time before. Classic Rock stations also seem to adore “And The Cradle Will Rock,” so this score may have been a lot lower, say, 10-20 years ago.
Legacy: 7/10 – It doesn’t have the fame of 1984 (or the infamy of Diver Down), but Women and Children First delivers for the hardcore Van Halen fan. Ask a superficial Van Halen fan about WACF and you’re bound to get one of two responses: 1) “What?” 2) “Oh yeah I love ‘Everybody Wants Some!'” This album is so much more than its lead single, though. “Fools” and “Romeo Delight” offer serious guitar seminars and lyrics that will bring a wry smile to even the most cynical Van Halen fan. Most people even partially aware of Van Halen are privy to this record, but I feel you aren’t a true Van Halen fan unless you give this album a hard look. “Criminally underrated” is a phrase thrown around often, but it certainly applies here.
Musical Dynamism: 8/10 – This was touched on a bit in the first category, but WACF showcases Van Halen branching out in terms of musical dynamism. “And The Cradle Will Rock” shows Eddie playing a Wurlitzer piano through a Marshall 100 watt guitar amp in the iconic sonic blitz that opens the album. There are tracks with back masking and even a slide guitar, as mentioned before. Compared to their first two musical ventures, WACF is in a stratosphere of its own in terms of how different each track is. While not exactly a master class on varied writing, it shows a maturity that is continued through their next three efforts.
Play Through: 9.5/10 – With the exception of “In a Simple Rhyme,” this album brings it from beginning to end. That’s not to say the last track on WACF is bad, it just doesn’t live up to the level of its predecessors on the record. From start to finish, this album packs a punch and every song delivers on a different front. You like bluesy hard rock a la ZZ Top? “Fools” and “Take Your Whiskey Home” deserve your attention. How about Black Sabbath if they had a punk producer? Give “Tora Tora/Loss of Control” a listen. Seriously, this album is a gem and if you don’t own it in some capacity, drag your ass down to a music store and buy it… NOW!
Studs: “Fools,” Romeo Delight,” Take Your Whiskey Home,” “Could This Be Magic?” Duds: “In a Simple Rhyme.”
3. 1984 (1984): 41/50 (82%)
Musicianship: 8.5/10 – By the time 1984 came out, Van Halen as a unit started to fray; Dave and Eddie couldn’t stand each other. From the ashes of this tragic development, however, came Eddie’s 5150 home studio. It shows on this album, as Eddie makes a concerted effort to introduce myriad guitar tones and *gasps* keyboards. Yes that’s right, our guitar hero Eddie Van Halen has not one, but two tracks on this album that show off his skills on the synthetic ivory (“Jump” and “I’ll Wait”). That being said, the Van Halen brothers show off how skilled they are at their respective instruments, particularly on “Hot for Teacher,” where the intro alone has skyrocketed Eddie and Alex into mythical status on guitar and drums.
Radio Ready: 10/10 – Wow! Talk about an album that was tailor made for pop radio. Four songs from this album made the Billboard Hot 100, as 1984 turned Van Halen from a simple rock band into a pop culture phenomenon. Even the deep cuts of this album (the unsung heroes of this album, as it were) had a radio friendliness to them that many of the other albums just didn’t have. This may have been the swan song of the Van Roth years, but it is definitely the band’s most well recognized effort.
Legacy: 9/10 – 1984 would probably be the one Van Halen album that even non-Van Halen fans can admit to liking. This is the album that has Van Halen’s only number 1 hit in the Roth era (“Jump”). All this being said, 1984 only scores a 9 on legacy because it gets a bit of grief from more serious Van Halen fans (be it fair or unfair). The last two tracks on this album, “Girl Gone Bad” and “House of Pain,” are some of my favorite Van Halen songs of all time and are very heavy tracks. But keyboard driven compositions like “Jump” and “I’ll Wait” have done much to alienate some of the heavier fans of Van Halen from this album.
Musical Dynamism: 7/10 – Remove the synthesizers from 1984, and this is a pretty straightforward, Zeppelin-on-steroids-esque rock album. Not many people would mistake this record for a rock opera, but the keyboard-laden songs bring this score up above average and into the respectable realm. I don’t really have much else to say about this album from a musical standpoint. It’s a fun album, but in terms of musical dynamics, Van Halen has done better.
Play Through: 6.5/10 – At the risk of sounding like a bigot towards keyboard oriented tracks, this album dips whenever Eddie busts out the synth. “Jump” and “I’ll Wait” are very unimaginative when it comes to songs not centered around guitar. “Top Jimmy” is a fun and different take on Eddie’s guitar tone and “Drop Dead Legs” oozes with sex appeal as Alex does his best John Bonham impression. Much like Diver Down, however, this one is hard to sit through in its entirety. But the album shines in several different sections.
Studs: “Girl Gone Bad,” “House of Pain,” “Top Jimmy.” Duds: “Jump,” “I’ll Wait.”
2. VAN HALEN II (1979): 41/50 (82% by virtue of a tiebreak)
Musicianship: 8/10 – At surface level from a guitar standpoint, II is almost identical to I. Take a closer look, however, and Eddie reaches deeper into his bag of tricks. From the tapped harmonics on “Dance The Night Away” to the nylon string shred fest that is “Spanish Fly,” EVH let’s us know he’s just getting started. Alex shows off his chops on the kit in songs like “Light Up The Sky” and even Mike Anthony gets in on the action in “You’re No Good.” It feels like the first time we see each individual member of Van Halen showcase their talents, a slight step up from the first album.
Radio Ready: 9/10 – Piggybacking off of the success of the multi-platinum debut and subsequent tour, Van Halen returned to the studio some 10 months after Van Halen I was released. This is definitely evident in the songwriting on Van Halen II, which can be considered a spiritual successor to their debut album. The record is filled to the brim with both bright, poppy hits (“Beautiful Girls,” “Dance The Night Away,” “You’re No Good”) and some of their heavier material (“D.O.A.,” “Somebody Get Me a Doctor”). Van Halen’s sophomore effort is often thought of as a seminal “summer party” album; you can just feel the sea breeze hitting your face every time you drop the needle on this one.
Legacy: 8/10 – Van Halen II is another one of those “criminally underrated” albums found in the “trough” of Van Halen’s wave of popularity. Look at it this way: Roth’s career with the group is bookended by two albums many consider to be the best this group has to offer. It feels almost unfair that an album had to follow Van Halen I, but Van Halen II is well equipped to do just that. It’s just similar enough to its predecessor that it wasn’t a jarring shift in style, but also different enough to attract a wider audience. It’s Van Halen I’s lighter toned twin (bonus points for the guitar used in the album photo shoot being buried with Dimebag Darrell)!
Musical Dynamism: 6/10 – Where Van Halen I was an album of similar cuts, II started to slightly skirt away from that. The album is still very “samey” but some tracks stand out as musically different. “Women in Love” is lighter than anything that appeared on the debut, and “Dance The Night Away” had crossover appeal that both chicks and dudes could latch onto. As mentioned above, the album had its fair share of bangers (don’t get it confused, this is a guitar player’s record), but II differs from I in that its only ever so slightly more musically dynamic.
Play Through: 9/10 – Personal anecdote time: I have this album on Compact Disc (look it up, children) and listened to it side to side, ad-nauseum for the entirety of Summer 2015. At this point I can air drum every Alex Van Halen fill in my sleep. Call it a desert island album, call it a must have, call it what you want, just have this record by your side. Not a single track on the album is skippable, and only “Bottoms Up” and “Women in Love” don’t deliver the testosterone pumping thrills that the other tracks do. Buy Van Halen II, you won’t be disappointed.
Studs: “Outta Love Again,” “Light Up The Sky,” “D.O.A.” Duds: “Bottoms Up,” “Women in Love.”
1. FAIR WARNING (1981): 41.75/50 (83.5%)
Musicianship: 10/10 – Often referred to as “the guitar player’s Van Halen album,” Eddie Van Halen unleashes every ferocious technique in the book onto the unsuspecting listeners of this album. From start to finish, EVH bombards his fretboard with a flurry of fingers that no album had seen before or has seen since. And that’s just the guitar player! I’d be remiss if I didn’t address Alex’s jazz chops on this record and Fair Warning can be considered Mike Anthony’s coming out party. The bassist’s work load really increases on this album, as he is heard playing tapped harmonics on the intro to “Dirty Movies” and a sweet little walking bass lick as the surrogate rhythm in “Push Comes to Shove.” Musically, this is the Pasadena Party Band’s finest hour.
Radio Ready: 5/10 – Guitar players regularly cite Fair Warning as their favorite album, but when the record first came out it wasn’t well received, critically speaking. The album is a dark departure from Van Halen’s “frat-party-on-coke” days of the first three albums and although “Unchained” is a rock radio staple, the rest of the album gets lost in the weeds of angry, drop tuned riffs and “heavier” lyrical subject matter (this is notably the only Roth album where the word “fuck” is clearly audible). The radio may not love Fair Warning, but we fans certainly do.
Legacy: 8/10 – Depending on whom you ask, Fair Warning is either Van Halen’s finest hour or a weird trip down the proverbial rabbit hole of Eddie Van Halen’s deep seated hatred for Roth’s and Ted Templeman’s (producer) direction of the previous albums. Luckily, the album has aged well, both from a critic’s standpoint and in the eyes of the fan. It often gets overlooked by many only peripherally associating themselves as Van Halen fans, but the true fans will usually tell you this album is some of the quartet’s finest work.
Musical Dynamism: 9/10 – Fair Warning did right what 1984 does (partially) wrong with the synthesizers. Where keyboards are present they are layered nicely. The penultimate and ultimate tracks of Fair Warning, the instrumental “Sunday Afternoon in the Park” and its frantic follow-up “One Foot Out the Door,” use keyboards to create a dark and moody atmosphere perfect for Eddie to shred all over. The album has jazz/funk (“Push Comes to Shove”), pop (“So This Is Love”), hard rock/metal (“Mean Street,” “Hear About It Later”), and even sleaze (“Dirty Movies”) covered and covered flawlessly. It’s dynamic without being so just for the sake of itself (if that makes any sense at all).
Play Through: 9.75/10 – This album is nearly flawless from the time the needle drops all the way to the bittersweet “click” of the record ending. Seriously, Fair Warning has no equal in terms of Van Halen albums and the only non-Van Halen album that even comes within spitting distance is the magnum opus Hysteria by fellow hard rock giants Def Leppard. The single gripe I have with Fair Warning is “So This Is Love,” not a bad song by any accounts but certainly a bit out of place on an album as dark and brooding as this. I could listen to this album everyday and find something new I love about it each time. Brilliant!
Studs: “Dirty Movies,” “Sinner’s Swing,” “Hear About it Later,” Push Comes To Shove.” Duds: “So This Is Love.”
My Personal Rankings:
6. Diver Down
4. Women and Children
3. Van Halen I
2. Van Halen II
1. Fair Warning