I don’t remember the first time I heard Van Halen, but I remember the first time I took notice. I was laying in bed and “Hot For Teacher” came on the clock radio. I leaned over to make sure the dial wasn’t between stations – I couldn’t believe the drums were supposed to sound like that.
Soon thereafter I’d bought a copy of 1984 on cassette. I then went back and got Diver Down and then the older ones, which were all $3.99 (“The Nice Price”) at Sam Goody. Van Halen was my gateway drug to Led Zeppelin, to Rush, to all the joys of classic rock. But you never forget your first.
The classic lineup, Eddie Van Halen on guitar, Alex Van Halen on drums, Michael Anthony on bass and first among equals in the backing harmonies, and David Lee Roth as frontman was a recipe for perfection. They were the link from 70s guitar rock to 80s metal, but with a real emphasis on musicianship. Dave is a goof, but he hit those falsettos better than anyone. Eddie wasn’t just a speed demon, he was a whiz with technique and feel and had an alchemist’s delight with effects. For power and alacrity I say Alex holds his own against titans like John Bonham and Neal Peart. The only frontmen with more charisma than David Lee Roth were Mick Jagger, Freddie Mercury or Ozzy Osbourne. None had his sense of humor. Van Halen spawned a million boring imitators, but you can’t fault them for that. It only makes them sound better by comparison.
After “1984” and their massive hit “Jump” (a fun tune, but no masterpiece to purists) it was impossible for the twin egos of Eddie and Dave to continue. “Van Hagar,” with new vocalist Sammy Hagar, never quite measured up, but on their own terms they really were quite something. A lot of those tunes are truly great, and the production experimentation on, say, OU812 is extraordinary.
After the third Sammy Hagar album, however, things really fell apart. Dave was back for a few tracks, then Sammy again, then Gary Cherone from Extreme. This list doesn’t have much in the way of kind words for the fourth Sammy album Balance or the Cherone era, but luckily there’s a happy ending. The 2012 reunion A Different Kind of Truth really is quite great. If nothing else, hopefully this’ll get you to check it out (it’s free on Spotify!). It keeps it all in the family with Wolfgang Van Halen on bass. (With patriarch Jan Van Halen appearing on one Diver Down track, this makes for four Van Halens that have recorded with the band. Gummo Van Halen was great but never appeared on any album.) For the record, Extreme had some great songs, and if we ever meet Gary Cherone we definitely want to buy that guy a beer: he got a raw deal.
Something important to consider: Most of these songs are great. It’s only Balance and the Cherone album III that suck. So, if you see a tune that you like and it is ranked #68, that doesn’t mean it is a bad song. It only means that there are 67 that are greater!
With that, let’s ease the seat back, doodle “VH” on our binders and commence counting down Every Van Halen Song Ever.
138) “HOW MANY SAY I,” VAN HALEN III, CHERONE
An unmitigated disaster. A turgid turd of a piano ballad where they find someone even worse than Gary Cherone to sing lead: Eddie Van Halen. Someone should take the worst parts of the Star Wars prequels and cut them to this tune. They both represent a genius gone mad with power. Luckily, Van Halen’s ship eventually got righted — the “reunion” album with David Lee Roth is coming if you can just hold on for a while. And if it meant suffering through this song, I guess it was worth it.
137) “FROM AFAR,” VAN HALEN III, CHERONE
Sluggish, ugly, awful. Oh, Van Halen, what hath become of thee? Hell, Extreme, what hath become of thee, too!? Extreme had some good songs, don’t forget! Such an embarrassment for everyone.
136) “YEAR TO THE DAY,” VAN HALEN III, CHERONE
At 8 minutes and 35 seconds this is the longest track in the entire Van Halen catalogue. This allows for a quite good instrumental opening, followed by some standard, but not terrible, hard rock thunder. It sounds like “Bringin’ On The Heartache” era Def Leppard. Then Gary Cherone won’t stop screaming and yelling, and it absolutely ruins it. Ugh, what a mess.
135) “TAKE ME BACK (DÉJÀ VU),” BALANCE, HAGAR
Faux cowboy Sammy Hagar might be the worst Sammy Hagar of all. This song is worse than Poison. And I mean both the band and the substance.
134) “STRUNG OUT,” BALANCE, HAGAR
Balance’s instrumental is like a John Zorn composition — practically musique concrète. Nothing you want to listen to over and over again, but a nice respite from Sammy’s screaming on this highly unBalanced album.
133) “ONCE,” VAN HALEN III, CHERONE
You’ve got power ballad piano mixed in with synthesized drumming but if you can make it to the four-minute mark there’s actually a quite extraordinary guitar solo worthy of Eric Johnson’s “Ah Via Musicom” collection. Then there’s Gary Cherone’s pained shriek-singing, where he sounds like he’s on the toilet suffering horrid constipation.
132) “BIG FAT MONEY,” BALANCE, **HAGAR
Sammy is just awful on this one. God, when he’s off he’s like nails across the chalkboard. But everything else with this song is kinda great. The solo is quite jazzy as it leaps around grinding, fervent chords. Then Sammy starts shouting again and it all falls apart. Despair.
131) “DOIN’ TIME,” BALANCE, HAGAR
Alex Van Halen finally gets his own instrumental, here at the end of the Hagar run. Alas, it sounds more like something left out of Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum than pure VH.
130) “INSIDE,” 5150, HAGAR
Hmnnn. Note to the band: The goofy tunes work with Dave, not so much with Sammy. The strange bass effects are at near-Stevie Wonder level, but that’s not enough to make you want to listen to this one more than once. So annoying.
129) “HAPPY TRAILS,” DIVER DOWN, ROTH
A barbershop version of Roy Rogers’ TV theme song is a funny idea, sure, and at only sixty-six seconds long it’s hard to get too angry, but this is a prime example of something that grows real irritating quite quickly. Luckily it’s at the end of the album and easy to avoid.
128) “DON’T TELL ME (WHAT LOVE CAN DO),” BALANCE, HAGAR
A nice chorus but the verses just churn along like a death march with Sammy screaming all over the place. This was released as a single, and God only knows why.
127) “ONE I WANT,” VAN HALEN III, CHERONE
A weird quasi-funk tune, but through all sorts of effects and compression. Sounds more like late period King Crimson than Van Halen, which sounds like it could be a compliment, but in this context it is only a half-compliment.
126) “FEELIN’,” BALANCE, HAGAR
This lengthy (by Van Halen standards) tune gets better as it continues, gaining in momentum and tempo. But moments of Sammy Hagar wailing against the backdrop of Eddie’s’ echoey guitar bring to mind Mickey Rourke’s Ram Jam from “The Wrestler.” Who will put this man out to pasture?
125) “JOSEPHINA,” VAN HALEN III, CHERONE
This starts out a somewhat sunny ballad that is only half-atrocious. Eddie has some nice fills here and there. Halfway through it gets real dark and bogged down by truly bizarre guitar effects. The depth of production is interesting, but God help anyone who actually tries to listen to this for fun.
124) “FIRE IN THE HOLE,” VAN HALEN III, CHERONE
While not bad for the Cherone era, keep in mind that this tune was used in the movie Lethal Weapon 4. So those were two franchises past their prime.
123) “WITHOUT YOU,” VAN HALEN III, CHERONE
The first Van Halen tune to feature Gary Cherone. A decent enough number that would have fit in with Sammy, but pretty nondescript despite a hundred layers of production. The backing vocals are all right, I guess.
122) “NOT ENOUGH,” BALANCE, HAGAR
Grab your lighters, cause Van Halen’s trying for one last power ballad. It’s better than Billy Joel, but not by much.
121) “AMSTERDAM,” BALANCE, HAGAR
This might have the lamest lyrics in the entire VH repertoire. Some of the guitar is good, and Alex jams out on the ride cymbal, but let’s just say Amsterdam’s favorite son Vincent Van Gogh isn’t mourning his lost ear on this one.
120) “MINE ALL MINE,” OU812, HAGAR
Cheesy synths overwhelm this one past the point of acceptability. This song is wearing leg warmers.
119) “A APOLITICAL BLUES,” OU812, HAGAR
When Van Halen does the blues it is usually couched in all sorts of production effects. But this blues is just straightforward. As such, it isn’t so great.
118) “BALUCHITHERIUM,” BALANCE, HAGAR
A lengthy (four minute) instrumental composition. Since it lacked Sammy Hagar, who had become basically insufferable by Balance, it automatically ranks higher than most from that album. But this doesn’t gel like VH, it’s more of a Joe Satriani/Eric Johnson type of thing. Which isn’t to say Van Halen shouldn’t try new things, but this track really does sound like a band running out of ideas.
117) “PRIMARY,” VAN HALEN III, CHERONE
Eddie plays around with weird effects for a quick instrumental. A welcome change from the rest of the junk on the Cherone album.
116) “BALLOT OR THE BULLET,” VAN HALEN III, CHERONE
An uptempo rocker with a little bit of a swagger. Not even Cherone can ruin this one. This one has a groove, even if the band is in horrible disarray at this point.
115) “LEARNING TO SEE,” THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS, HAGAR
The least memorable of the three 2004 tracks produced with Sammy Hagar. Just so bland. This creative misstep is what led to finally getting Diamond Dave back in the band.
114) “THERE’S ONLY ONE WAY TO ROCK,” VAN HALEN LIVE: RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW, HAGAR
A Sammy Hagar tune that made it into VH’s life show. Sounds like talented musicians covering some lost KISS throwaway.
113) “CAN’T GET THIS STUFF NO MORE,” BEST OF — VOLUME I, ROTH
One of two tracks written for a greatest hits collection, bringing David Lee Roth back to the band. The instrumentation isn’t bad, but it’s too lazy and flat to fully connect.
112) “IT’S ABOUT TIME,” THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS, HAGAR
This post-Cherone/pre-Roth return Hagar tune is almost not bad. Recorded in 2004 it opens with some Tom Morello influence, which is something to chew on considering Morello would be nothing without a guy like Eddie to pave the way for him. Sammy has cleared his voice by now, and isn’t so grating. It’s a decent tune.
111) “STAY FROSTY,” A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH, ROTH
Meant to be a fun-time hit in a vein of “Could This Be Magic?” or “Ice Cream Man,” but it doesn’t click the same way — or as well as the other tracks on this album. But its inclusion fits the pattern of a true DLR Van Halen album, so that’s a nice touch. A Different Kind of Truth is absolutely worth checking out.
110) “HUMANS BEING,” TWISTER SOUNDTRACK, HAGAR
The dull, plodding verse represents a once great band at the bottom of their creative powers. Then, almost like cyclone appearing from nowhere, the still-magical Eddie Van Halen clears the area with a swirling guitar solo, and creates some free space to broaden out and jam. Perfect for the dumb Twister soundtrack.
109) “GROWTH,” WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST, ROTH
Van Halen loved to play around with short instrumentals, but this “hidden track” is just dumb. A metal riff made solely to wake you up at the end of the album in case the sweet harmonies of “In a Simple Rhyme” made you drift off to sleep.
108) “NEWORLD,” VAN HALEN III, CHERONE
A light and sweet piano/acoustic guitar instrumental introduces us to the darkest period in Van Halen — the dreaded Gary Cherone album. Poor Gary Cherone. He never meant to hurt anyone. For the record, Extreme had some fine songs in their day.
107) “THE DREAM IS OVER,” FOR UNLAWFUL CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, HAGAR
The riff is a little reminiscent of “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love,” but then glides into some complex harmonies. I wonder how intentional that was.
106) “AFTERSHOCK,” BALANCE, HAGAR
Some really cool guitar effects and furious drum fills elevate this standard rocker. The solo glides along nicely, to the point that late period Sammy’s shrieks aren’t too gruesome.
105) “BEATS WORKIN’,” A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH, ROTH
The last song on the (hopefully not) last Van Halen album. Noisy, rambunctious, and ready to party. With cowbell.
104) “HONEY BABY SWEETIE DOLL,” A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH, ROTH
Tom Morello has been upfront with his love of Van Halen, and I like to think of this efffects-heavy track as EVH giving him a nod back. This boisterous mass of sound will break the windows in your house if you let it.
103) “CROSSING OVER,” JAPANESE IMPORT ONLY, HAGAR
Life is full of mysteries, like why this decent tune was left off of Balance while so much junk stayed on. The melody kinda resembles Talking Heads’ “Listening Wind” (with echoes of VH’s “Love Walks In.”) It’s a dark, slow song, but at least it’s doing something different.
102) “UP FOR BREAKFAST,” THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS, HAGAR
Deliberately playing off of “Why Can’t This Be Love,” this 2004 post-Cherone Sammy tune is decent enough, and has some of the most absurdly blunt sexual metaphors this side of Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons. It is what it is, I suppose.
101) “WON’T GET FOOLED AGAIN,” VAN HALEN LIVE: RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW, HAGAR
VH covered the Who in their live act. Kinda neat to hear the synthesizer done on guitar. The rest is kinda standard. Sammy and Roger Daltrey have a lot in common, for better and for worse.