My Top 10 Favorite Bands (Ranked by Me): Number 6

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Our Top 10 Favorite Bands list has brought us to number 6.  If you missed any of the previous bands, be sure to check out the links to the rankings at the bottom of the page.  Today’s band didn’t invent the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, but they damn sure perfected it…

 

6. Iron Maiden

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Here’s a fun exercise: close your eyes and think of the words “heavy metal.”  Now open them.  Chances are you thought of Metallica, maybe Priest or Sabbath, but certainly Iron Maiden.  There are a handful of bands that have now become synonymous with the term “heavy metal” and Maiden is definitely one of them.

When the New Wave of British Heavy Metal was being formed by young and hungry bands in England in the late 70’s, many of them fizzled out after the trend started to die down only a few short years later.  There were two key bands with markedly different sounds that would end up surviving the trend’s chopping block.  One of those was Def Leppard (more on them in a later entry) and the other was Maiden.

Maiden’s sound can best be summed up by Anthrax guitar player Scott Ian as “[Judas] Priest but eviler.”  Their first two albums with original singer Paul Di’anno are as sinister sounding as it gets with a touch of prog rock; it was as if Yes started wearing leather jackets and practicing Satanism.  After Di’anno was booted, the band went from evil prog rock outfit to arena ready giants with former Samson frontman Bruce Dickinson at the helm.  Maiden had a string of albums with Dickinson that rocketed the band to superstardom and are considered classics by any metal fan.

What separates Maiden from the rest of it’s metal brethren is their eagerness to be creative and different without alienating their core fanbase.  You never hear Maiden fans complaining about the group selling out like you do from, say, Metallica or Def Leppard fans.  Iron Maiden have been around for almost 40 years and their fans are still as loyal as ever, and part of that is owed to how genuine the band has remained.  You would be hard pressed to find a metal fan who isn’t a huge Maiden fan, and for how expansive the genre of Heavy Metal is, that says a lot about these 5 lads from London

Best Album – Powerslave (1984)

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In all honesty, this was a nearly three way tie between Maiden’s 1984 masterpiece, 1981’s Killers, and Number of the Beast.  It is Powerslave, however, that delivers on every single track from dropping the needle on “Aces High” to the record rut after “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”  There are very few albums that, in their entirety, capture a group at the height of their creative genius, but Powerslave gives listeners a chance to hear Iron Maiden firing on all cylinders.  Dickinson had already been with the quintet for two albums, and the band’s “classic” lineup was in place for years prior.  What you get as a finished product is, in my opinion , one of the greatest side-to-side metal albums in music history.  Every song has purpose and there is absolutely zero filler here.  If you consider yourself a fan of metal and haven’t checked this one out, do it!

Worst Album – The X Factor (1995)

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What happens when one of the most iconic singers in rock history leaves the band that made him famous?  Well you get this album, of course.  The songs on The X Factor aren’t particularly terrible, but they sound too much like someone trying to be Iron Maiden.  When comparing this one to the classics of the 80’s, it shrivels in their presence.  It seems like an unfair comparison, but someone had to occupy this spot and it goes to this 1995 disappointment.  Give it a listen if you feel I’m being unfair, but I’ll stand by this verdict until proven otherwise.

Strongest Member – Steve Harris (Bass/Vocals)

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The captain of the S.S. Maiden, Steve Harris is one of the most revered members of the heavy metal family.  You will routinely see him popping up on lists of best bass players of all time but what really distinguishes him from other purveyors of 4-stringed bad-assery is his deft songwriting ability.  A quick check of any Iron Maiden LP will net you plenty of S. Harris writing credits as well as some producing to boot.  Harris was also one of the founding members of Maiden and is the only member to appear on EVERY album (and boy have there been a lot)!  Through longevity alone, Stevie boy easily claims this spot as his own.

Weakest Member – Blaze Bayley (Vocals)

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I don’t really have too much to say about old Blaze here, other than that he was the weakest member on Maiden’s weakest album.  That alone lands him on this not-so-coveted platform and it wasn’t a particularly hard choice either.  Bayley is a fine vocalist but he’s to Maiden what Gary Cherone is to Van Halen: a talented singer who just wasn’t right for the job.

 

 

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My Top 10 Favorite Bands (Ranked by Me): Number 7

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Our Top 10 Favorite Bands countdown has brought us to Number 7.  If you’ve missed any of the previous bands on this list, be sure to check out those posts.  Today’s band took the first wave of British Punk and turned it completely on its head…

 

7. The Clash

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The year was 1976.  Political unrest in both England and The States was at an all time high, disco was king, and heavy metal godfathers like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Kiss were selling out fewer and fewer arenas by the day.  Around the same time, an anti-movement was taking place in the U.K. and, to a lesser extent, New York City.  Punk was the result of a disenfranchised youth getting fed up with conservative politics and “dinosaur rock.”  Bands like The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, and The Buzzcocks took pride in deconstructing rock and synthesizing it down to its basic form: three chords and indiscernible lyrics set to a hyper active beat.  It was completely different from anything being released at the time, and the young freaks with the bleached hair and clothes pins shoved through their orifices ate it up.

The Clash released their self titled debut album in 1977 and while it sounded very loud and abrasive like most punk records of the day, the musicianship and writing was in a completely different stratosphere than the other outfits around at the time.  Things only got more progressive after the next series of albums.  The Clash dabbled in almost every conceivable genre of music during the height of their popularity, so to pigeonhole them as a “punk rock” band was to do a great disservice to the English foursome.  They were basically punk’s answer to The Beatles.

That may be where my lone criticism with The Clash lies.  While their musical versatility really separated the band from their punk peers, it was what made large amounts of their albums skippable.  Between rockabilly, ska, ballroom, blues, and others, The Clash tried their hands in everything and it made for multiple disjointed records.  However, when The Clash were on, they really earned their moniker of “The Only Band That Matters.”

Best Album – London Calling (1979)

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In the time of vinyl, releasing a 19 song LP was unheard of, but that’s exactly what London Calling is.  From the iconic album art to the eclectic spectrum of tunes, London Calling felt like an instant classic pretty much from the needle drop.  The album had radio hits in “Train in Vain” and the title track, but the real gems from this record are the deep cuts.  Songs like “Death or Glory,” “Spanish Bombs,” “Guns of Brixton,” and “Revolution Rock” have all become staples in every Clash fan’s rotation and they all represent different sides of the band.  Above I mentioned how The Clash would often times mix too many genres into one overblown cocktail of music, and while that is sometimes the case on this album, it works way more often than it doesn’t.  London Calling has become a sort of punk rock Bible, which is a tad ironic seeing as how very few songs on the record could be classified as straight up punk.  This is the album that transformed The Clash from punks to true professionals.

Weakest Album – Cut The Crap (1985)

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By 1985, the wheels started to fall off the well oiled machine that was The Clash.  Guitarist, co-lead singer and principle songwriter Mick Jones was fired, and his shoes proved to be too large to fill.  Cut The Crap was a disjointed effort that saw The Clash slowly start to unravel before our very eyes.  What was once a cohesive unit of brothers was now a shell of its former self and the album sold accordingly, that is to say it didn’t sell much at all.  Cut The Crap was The Clash’s last album as a unit, marking an end to one of the most influential groups of the 20th century in popular music.

Strongest Member – Mick Jones (Guitar/Vocals)

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He sang, he played guitar, he wrote, and he even cofounded the band.  Mick Jones was inarguably the driving force behind many of The Clash’s best work.  Every band has a principle songwriter and Jones was just that.  Much like Cliff Burton of Metallica, it became quite apparent just how much Jones meant to The Clash after he was fired from the band (see Cut The Crap above).  Check the liner notes of any Clash album from 1977 to 1982 and you will see Mick Jones’ name present on almost every tune.  The man was a creative genius even after The Clash, touring with The Gorillaz and forming Big Audio Dynamite.  It takes a lot of talent to be the leader of a band routinely referred to as one of the most influential in rock history, and Jones is proof of that.

Weakest Member – Paul Simonon (Bass/Vocals)

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Saying someone is the weakest member of The Clash is a lot like saying they’re the ugliest  of all the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit models, so bare with me.  Paul Simonon didn’t have the chops that drummer Topper Headon had, nor was he the creative tour de force like Jones or Joe Strummer, so he takes this spot only by virtue of being stuck with three insanely talented musical visionaries.  That’s not to say Simonon didn’t have his moments.  He wrote a couple of fan favorites, including “Guns of Brixton” which he also sang on, and he was the cover boy for the now iconic London Calling album art.  Paul Simonon may be the weakest member of “The Only Band That Matters,” but that in and of itself is still something to be immensely proud of.

My Top 10 Favorite Bands (Ranked by Me): Number 8

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In the countdown of My Top 10 Favorite Bands (as ranked by me), we have made it to number 8.  If you have missed any of the last bands ranked, be sure to check out the previous posts.  Today’s band sees us make a return to the thrash genre, with a group whose DNA is forever shared with the number 9 band on this list…

 

8. Megadeth

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Megadeth lead singer/guitarist Dave Mustaine, whether he likes it or not, will always be linked to Metallica, so it’s only fitting that he and his crew come in one spot ahead of the thrash quartet Mustaine was once a part of.  Similarly to Metallica, however, my love for Megadeth comes from a very specific time slot of their existence, particularly from 1985 to 1992.

One of the biggest detriments against Megadeth comes in the form of the revolving door of musicians Mustaine chose to surround himself and bassist David Ellefson with.  It was kind of hard to get a handle on the persona of the band with so many lineup changes, and I always preferred the original lineup of Mustaine, Ellefson, Gar Samuelson on drums, and Chris Poland on the opposite lead guitar (pictured above).

While they lacked continuity in the lineup department, they had it in terms of song structure and composition, mostly because Ellefson and Mustaine were the principle writers.  The albums showed growth between releases but never strayed too far from the formula, something I really appreciated.

I hate to keep comparing Megadeth to Metallica, so allow me to once more compare Megadeth to Metallica.  What separates one from the other is how much more fun Megadeth is to listen to.  Much like when David Lee Roth formed a “spite band” after being ousted from Van Halen, Mustaine did the same.  That is to say both Roth and Mustaine surrounded themselves with infinitely better musicians than their previous outfits boasted (Eddie Van Halen and Cliff Burton notwithstanding).  The musicianship in Megadeth, even on the early albums, incorporated time signatures and modes far beyond the realm of Metallica’s limited spectrum, even in their prime.  These are the things that separate the number 9’s from the number 8’s.

Best Album – Rust in Peace (1990)

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It was a near dead heat between this and 1986’s Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying, as both albums offer the absolute finest Megadeth has to offer.  Every song on this album is perfectly crafted from start to finish, as Rust in Peace is a master class in thrash metal songwriting.  The changing modes and time signatures make sure that every listen to this record feels like the first time.  Hell, I still get excited every time I hear the opening riff to “Hangar 18.”  If Master of Puppets is the Old Testament of thrash, consider Rust in Peace its New Testament counterpart.

Worst Album – Risk (1999)

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Risk. As in “if they thought putting all of these songs on an album was a good idea, that certainly was a risk!” HEY-O!  I’ll be here all week.  But seriously, folks, the 90’s were a weird time for a lot of bands who saw their heyday in the previous decades.  Mustaine and Megadeth were actually one of the few outfits whose popularity not only stayed afloat in the 90’s, it thrived.  The end of the decade, however, gave us Risk, an album that was a bit errr progressive and different.  Fans and critics weren’t really in the mood for different though, as Mustaine’s choice of softer melodies didn’t mesh well with the public.  Looking back, Risk has aged slightly better than originally thought, but it still doesn’t hold a candle to classic Megadeth.

Strongest Member – Dave Mustaine (Lead Singer/Guitar)

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Was there ever any doubt?  The strawberry haired mad scientist known as Dave Mustaine was and is the driving force in one of the most popular thrash bands in the history of the genre.  You could talk about his keen ear for music or his wizardry on the frets of his guitar, but what puts Mustaine head and shoulders above his peers and bandmates is his aggressive, almost violent desire to be better than his former band, Metallica.  Even when Megadeth was at the height of popularity, Mustaine found himself depressed at the fact that he could never catch Metallica.  This militant need for perfection is what makes Mustaine one of the most underrated musicians of his era; a true genius at his craft.

Weakest Member – Dave Mustaine (Lead Singer/Guitar)

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Whoa, plot twist alert!  For everything amazing Mustaine did for Megadeth, it was his ego and paranoia (read: drug use) that at times almost caused the thrash outfit to unravel.  Whether it be his constant firing of members not named David or his creative choices after the early 90’s, Mustaine represented a sort of Hindu Shiva for the band: one hand creates while the other destroys.  Megadeth is clearly one of my favorite bands and Mustaine is a huge reason for this, but part of me feels that if he had just checked himself at times, Megadeth could have been even better than they already were.

 

My Top 10 Favorite Bands (Ranked by Me): Number 9

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Yesterday saw the introduction of the Top 10 Favorite Bands list and if you haven’t read that post yet, I won’t spoil who number 10 is (go check it out instead).  Today we unveil number 9, who comes in so high based on only its first trio of albums!  Shocked?  Read on to find out why number 9 should have hung it up after lucky number 3…

 

9. Metallica

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Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler (I swear to god, that’s his name) once said in an interview that Metallica “were the best thing to happen to the 80’s.”  While I don’t agree wholeheartedly with that statement, its hard to argue with his logic.  From his perspective, the 1980’s were filled with bands that made metal a glossy and accessible commodity to “posers.”  Men wore make up and liberally applied hairspray all while playing “softer” versions of the same hard rock once championed by guys like Geezer.  When Metallica came along, it became cool to be an outcast again.  It wasn’t about having a hot lead singer and writing songs girls could identify with.  Metal was violent and angsty once again, and Metallica were to blame.

Putting Metallica on this list puts me in a bit of an uncomfortable spot.  When it comes to their catalogue, they’re batting sub .300 in my book, as I find most of their material after 1986’s metal masterclass Master of Puppets to be contrived and hallow efforts when compared to their earlier works.  That is, however, as much an indictment on their later albums as it is a testament to just how freaking insane Metallica’s first 3 releases were.

The first two Metallica songs I heard were “Whiplash,” on a Tony Hawk video game’s soundtrack, and “Battery,” on a friend’s Walkman while riding down to The Keys.  I was floored by how heavy “Battery” was and how fast and furious “Whiplash” felt.  The next time I was in a Barnes and Noble, I picked up Master of Puppets on CD and instantly fell in love.  It was like nothing I had ever heard before and it really shaped my affections for metal as a genre (up until that point the heaviest album I owned was probably Back in Black by AC/DC).

Since then, I was extremely disappointed to learn that not everything Metallica released sounded like their first three albums, but I still hold that trifecta of Kill ’em All, Ride the Lightning, and Master of Puppets in extremely high regard and feel that few bands could touch what was original Metallica.  As a matter of fact, I’d wager that if Metallica had quit making music after bassist Cliff Burton’s death in ’86, they would be Top 5 on this list, an accomplishment I’m sure they are kicking themselves over not achieving.

Best Album – Ride the Lightning (1984)

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Not much separates this album from it’s direct predecessor, Master of Puppets.  Honestly, this record only sits in this spot by the narrowest of margins, as it ultimately came down to quality over quantity (Puppets has more songs I love, but Lightning has songs I love more).  The first 3 songs on this album are all-timers when it comes to Metallica tracks.  Sonically, the album is light years ahead of their debut in both production and musical prowess.  Not only is this my favorite Metallica album, it may be one of my favorite albums ever.  The whole 8 song record is on YouTube, so I would recommend anyone reading this take a quick break and give it a listen.

Worst Album – St. Anger (2003)

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I almost put The Black Album here just to be petty, but I have more self restraint than that.  Seriously though, I have friends who will vehemently defend their love for this album (sorry, Matt).  I have a few issues with this one, however.  The lack of guitar solos, while at the time a conscious choice made so as not to date the album, has ironically given the record a really time specific, early 2000’s feel to it.  There is also the infamous snare drum, which sounds like drummer Lars Ulrich is beating on a taut piece of printer paper.  I’ve pretty much hated every album Metallica has released after …And Justice For All, but this one really represents Metallica’s low water mark.

Strongest Member – Cliff Burton (Bass)

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I said in the introduction paragraph that Metallica would be a Top 5 outfit had they quit after the death of Cliff Burton, so I figured I needed to double down here.  In all seriousness, Cliff was the driving force on all of Metallica’s early work.  He was far and away the most musically gifted in the band, as he taught the other members about harmonies and melodies as well as introduced more advanced song structures after Kill ‘Em All.  Cliff winning this award is a lot like giving an injured player an MVP after the team loses without him, as the quality in songs went into a slow and steady decline after the bassist met his untimely demise.  As the key songwriting cog in Metallica, no one else could even come close to holding this spot.  Rest in peace, Mr. Burton.

Weakest Member – Kirk Hammett (Guitar)

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Okay, calm down.  It certainly wasn’t going to be Cliff in this spot, and the twin headed songwriting monster that is Lars and James wasn’t taking this one home either.  That leaves our boy Kirk here as the black sheep of the crew.  Hammett took over for Megadeth guitarist Dave Mustaine after he was booted from Metallica for alcohol issues.  The gap in talent was apparent from the jump, as Hammett reportedly struggled with some of the solos Mustaine had written for Kill ‘Em All.  Hammett doesn’t really have a huge hand in any of the songwriting processes either.  His lack of virtuoso talent and dubious creative credentials make Hammett an obvious, albeit controversial choice, for this spot.

Album of the Week: Def Leppard’s Hysteria

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Here at Original Rankster, we try to provide you with the quality rankings you seek as often as possible (as a full time college student [at the time of writing] searching for employment, patience is appreciated).  However, all numbers and no fun makes Rankster a dull boy, so to change it up I give you: Album of the Week

Each week, I’ll provide you wonderful readers with an album I’m particularly fond of and delve into what I believe made this record so good.  This week on the dissecting tray is Def Leppard’s 1987 mega-hit, Hysteria.

 

Background:

In the years preceding Hysteria’s release, Def Leppard were already a huge commercial draw.  They had three albums under their belt, with their 1983 release, Pyromania, going platinum several times over.  With producer Robert “Mutt” Lange at the helm (responsible for AC/DC’s Back in Black), Def Leppard set out to destroy the boundaries previously broken by Pyromania.  This would prove to be a more daunting task than originally anticipated by both the band and Mutt.

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Initial recording sessions for Animal Instinct (Hysteria’s original title) were slow and plagued with multiple delays including singer Joe Elliot getting the mumps and producer Mutt Lange being involved in a minor car accident.  Nothing, however, could prepare the band for what was about to happen

On December 31, 1984, drummer Rick Allen went for a joyride in his Corvette convertible on a country rode in Sheffield, England when he swerved to avoid an oncoming motorist.  Allen lost control of his vehicle and flipped several times into a nearby field.  The car rolled on top of the young rocker, severing his left arm and leaving him for dead.  Allen survived, but his limb was not able to be reattached.

The other members of Def Leppard were left with a choice: carry on without their brother Rick Allen, or call it quits right at the apex of their career trajectory.  Allen picked option C, and decided he was going to be a member of Def Leppard, no matter how many arms he had.  He reconstructed his electronic drum kit, using foot pedals as a substitute for what he would’ve used his second arm for and completely re-taught himself the drums.

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This would prove to invigorate and inspire the band, as Def Leppard roared back into the studio with a vengeance.  The album now known as Hysteria took nearly four years total to complete, but when it was finished the band knew they had created magic.

Hype for Hysteria was, ironically enough, slow initially.  Part of this had to do with the band deciding to release two separate lead singles for the album in America and their native U.K.  The first single released in the U.S. was “Women,” a relatively straightforward rocker that didn’t exactly show any growth from the band in the last four years; American buyers were skeptical.  That is, until Def Leppard released their second single, a little number by the name of “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”  At the risk of sounding like a cliche douche, the rest is history.

Hysteria went on to be Def Leppard’s magnum opus, selling a staggering 25 million units worldwide (12 million in the States, alone).  The record produced 7 singles, 6 of which found their way into the Billboard Hot 100 and the album went number 1 in three different countries.  1987 saw a bevy of big sellers in the rock industry, but Hysteria remains the heavyweight champion of them all, and in the next several paragraphs you’ll find out why everyone and their dog owned a copy of this bad boy by the end of the 80’s.

 

Content:

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Def Leppard was known throughout the 80’s and early 90’s as the band chicks and dudes could both like and not be ostracized by members of their respective communities.  Nothing perpetuates this theory more than Hysteria.  The entire album is smattered with songs ranging from over-the-top ballads (“Hysteria,” “Love Bites”), to upbeat hard rockers (“Run Riot,” “Don’t Shoot Shotgun”).  What really sets this album apart from its predecessors, though, is the production quality.  Mutt Lange was with Def Leppard since their 1981 sophomore effort High ‘n Dry, which if listened to with a blindfold on sounds like a slightly more melodic AC/DC record.  The leaps in production quality from High ‘n Dry to Pyromania and then to Hysteria were nothing short of stunning; each record sounded miles ahead of the previous one.

The use of guitar as the primary instrument takes a back seat on this album, and upon initial inspection it can turn a lot of “metal heads” off to this record.  I routinely hear people say that everything Def Leppard released after Pyromania was “soft, cookie cutter crap,” but all that hostility can really be equated to fans feeling alienated towards a glossier approach to producing songs.  Each song on Hysteria is painstakingly crafted from the bottom up.  The attention to detail and layering seen on the album can be credited partially to Mutt’s near obsessiveness in the recording booth and also to the band’s principal songwriters maturing at just the right time.  Every single note pops right out of your speaker and feels purposeful.

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The advent of synths and dubbing instruments multiple times over were principle reasons why this album took so long to produce, but boy was it well worth the wait!  This is Def Leppard’s “hookiest” record on call, as the whole album has more hooks than a commercial fishing boat.  Each song catches you almost instantaneously and never lets go, and the tracks get stuck in your head for days.  Speaking of catchy tunes…

 

Highlights:

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Hysteria plays like a kind of “Greatest Hits Compilation,” as the whole album is stacked with Top 10 chart toppers and beloved deep cuts alike.  Take even the first four tracks off the record and they represent somewhat of a microcosm of the musical spectrum presented by Hysteria.  “Women” took the classic hard rock approach Def Leppard had been known for at the time and “studiofied” it.  “Rocket” is the over the top, glossy, production laden track with all sorts of recording booth tricks that were state of the art at the time.  “Animal” is the slowed down, sultry slow rocker with a soft touch.  Finally, “Love Bites” is the seminal ballad of the album, showing Def Leppard could transition into the era of the “power ballad” better than any band out there.

While the entire album is awesome from top to bottom, and the first four tracks sum up the feel of the record as a whole, it is the middle four tracks of Hysteria that are worth the sticker price alone.  “Armageddon It,” “Gods of War,” “Don’t Shoot Shotgun,” and “Run Riot” are four of my favorite Def Leppard songs ever released, and they all come in a neat little back to back package in the middle of their most grandiose album.  “Gods of War,” in particular is a nearly 7 minute hard rock composition that has nifty hooks and harmonies galore and could quite possibly be the entire group at their collective height, musically and creatively.

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A super deep cut that often gets overlooked in the shadows of its more popular brethren is the oh-so-groovy “Excitable.”  Located at the tail end of Hysteria, this track has both danceability and a hard rock edge that makes it a perfect fit for the late part of the album; a pick me up, if you will, sandwiched between two of the softer, slower songs on Hysteria.

Lowlights:

Speaking of softer, slower songs, Hysteria is a nearly perfect record on almost every account.  It does, however, falter a bit towards the end of the second side (relatively speaking, anyway).  The title track is a ballad that by all accounts gets overshadowed by the earlier “Love Bites,” both in production quality and feel.  It just doesn’t have the same gut punch that “Love Bites” has the first time you hear it.  “Love Bites” makes you feel emotionally drained after hearing it, “Hysteria” just sounds soft.

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While on the subject of inferior clones, “Love and Affection” is nearly identical to “Animal,” but much like “Hysteria” is the lesser version of “Love Bites,” “Love and Affection” is the lesser version “Animal.”  Don’t skip it, because its still a fine song in its own right, just kind of a wimpy way to close out this masterpiece.

Legacy/Aftermath:

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After Hysteria dropped, Def Leppard went from a mere rock band to a group of musical Demi-gods.  Hysteria was the culmination of the band enduring many hardships and working them to their advantage.  The members of Def Leppard became full on rock stars after 1987, in every sense of the word.  Particularly, guitarist “Steamin'” Steve Clark and his alcoholism took on an entirely new dynamic.  While the rest of the band was starting to settle down, Clark went completely berserk, sometimes downing an entire bottle of Jack Daniels just to maintain stasis.

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The band had visions of grandeur for their next album, Adrenalize, and were famously quoted as saying “the next one won’t take us four years.”  Unfortunately, Clark being a part of the band’s future wasn’t in the cards.  On January 8, 1991, Clark succumbed to alcohol poisoning.  The bright yet tormented guitarist who was just entering his prime was dead at the age of 30.

The band soldiered on and released Adrenalize in March of 1992 (ironically, five years after Hysteria).  The album was a smash hit and spawned a few top 40 bangers, but Def Leppard could never live up to the hype they created with Hysteria and subsequent albums all sold progressively less and less units.

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Hysteria marked a band reaching its artistic peak right as the music industry was in the mood for gloss and polish.  The album represented an already great pairing of band and producer catching lightning in a bottle and releasing one of the greatest efforts of the 1980’s.

Def Leppard still tours today, with Whitesnake/Dio guitarist Vivian Campbell taking the place of Steve Clark as the band’s second guitarist opposite Phil Collen and although they have released new material, their set lists are still littered with cuts off of Hysteria.  Turn on the radio today anywhere from adult contemporary to classic rock stations and you can still hear “Love Bites” or “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”  The impact this record made on rock in the 80’s is still being felt today.  Def Leppard will always say they are just a band from Sheffield, but after Hysteria, they couldn’t escape the fame any longer.  And we should all be thankful for that…

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Hopefully you enjoyed Album of the Week! Next week on the docket: Building the Perfect Beast by Don Henley.

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Van Halen (Roth) Albums Worst to First

My favorite band of all time gets put through the ringer… Well, sorta.

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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.

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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%)

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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.

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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%)

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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.

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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%)

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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.

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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%)

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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.

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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)

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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)!

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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%)

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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.

Photo of VAN HALEN and Michael ANTHONY and Eddie VAN HALEN and David Lee ROTH and Alex VAN HALEN

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:

Albums:

6. Diver Down

5. 1984

4. Women and Children

3. Van Halen I

2. Van Halen II

1. Fair Warning

 

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