I'm a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
The Mighty Van Halen
A handful of rock bands have made so huge an impact that they literally changed the music world. Count Van Halen among them. For decades, they were one of the biggest bands in the world. In their heyday, they sold millions of albums and packed enormous arenas for their legendary live shows. Even today, many of their songs are staples on rock radio.
Van Halen’s classic lineup consisted of some of the most iconic figures in rock history. The band is centered around the Van Halen brothers–Alex on drums and Eddie on guitar–who are both phenomenal musicians. Michael Anthony was on bass. David Lee Roth was the frontman from the early days until he left in 1985 to pursue a solo career. At that point, ex-Montrose frontman Sammy Hagar gave up his own successful solo career to join the group.
As a band, Van Halen has endured many ups and downs, and their sound has changed quite a bit over the decades. Where the early albums had a brash, fun and reckless vibe, they became more musically mature once Hagar joined the group. Where they had been relegated to the outskirts of the music world at the start of the ‘80s, by the end of the decade they were logging hit after mainstream hit.
Many an argument has erupted over which version of Van Halen is better: the wild Dave era, or the glossy Sammy era? As for me, I like both. That might sound like fence-sitting, but I look at every phase of the band’s career as indicative of the natural evolution of one of the greatest rock guitarists who ever lived.
That’s Eddie Van Halen of course, and this article will largely center on how his sound changed, for better or worse, on each of their albums. If you are a guitar player looking to learn more about Eddie and why he’s considered among the most important rock guitarists of all time the albums on this list are a great place to start.
Or, maybe you’re simply a fan of good rock music and you miss the days when musicianship mattered. If modern music is making you ill, the mighty Van Halen is certainly one of the cures.
But where should you start? Here are my top 10 Van Halen albums of all time. You start at the top, and you work your way down.
I have a feeling I will look at this list I've made in a year or so and wonder what I was thinking. It's so hard to put these albums in order! So, if you are a Van Halen fan and you disagree with me, I totally understand. You can vote for your own favorite in the poll at the end of the article and make your voice heard.
1. Van Halen (Debut)
Van Halen’s first album, released in 1978, is not only tops on my list here. I consider it one of the most significant guitar albums of all time. This record introduced the world to Eddie’s otherworldly sound and the band that would be the prototype for rock groups over the next fifteen years. I don’t think it is hyperbole to say it literally changed the rock world.
Eddie’s playing is spectacular throughout the album. Of course, everyone considers Eruption the key track here, at least historically speaking. While much of Eddie's playing is commonplace today, at the time it was something nobody had ever heard before.
As significant as Eruption is, I think the overall quality of the songwriting and musicianship throughout the rest of the album is even more important. Every song is a gem.
In my opinion, I’m the One is the most brilliant song here. The band absolutely tears it up on this track, and it features, I think, Eddie’s best solos on the album. Ice Cream Man and Atomic Punk are close behind. Running with the Devil is probably the weakest song, but even that is a classic.
If you are just getting started on your exploration of this band, Van Halen’s debut album is the place to begin, especially if you are a guitar player.
2. Women and Children First
The third Van Halen album hit the streets in 1980. The band had a lot of live up to, coming off of the success of the first two records. With Women and Children First they knocked it out of the park.
The first four songs – And the Cradle Will Rock, Everybody Wants Some, Fools and Romeo Delight – are epic Van Halen, with crushing riffs, mind-bending guitar work, and catchy hooks. In a Simple Rhyme is a good tune with a light feel, and Loss of Control is a swinger.
However, a few of the other songs show the diverse talents of the band, such as the bluesy intro to Take Your Whisky Home and acoustic tune Could This Be Magic?
For a guitarist’s perspective, with Women and Children First I feel like Eddie makes the move from a freakish showpiece to a more integrated member of the band. He still shreds like a bad, bad man. But his playing seems more contextual and integrated into the overall sound of the group, and the songs show a touch more maturity.
I also think that this album, and even more so the album Fair Warning that came after, were the apex of Eddie’s early, crunchy Marshall sound. Throughout his career, Eddie has been responsible for some of the most legendary guitar tones in rock. It has evolved through the years, but I think this is what many people are talking about when they say they want that Van Halen guitar sound. It is certainly my favorite of the Van Halen tone eras.
You may be surprised to see OU812 in third place on this list. To be honest, I was a little surprised when I ranked it here. However, I don’t see how I could deny the strength of this album. There isn’t a bad song here.
The only ding against it I can see is that OU812 is a fairly commercial record, with Dreams, Finish What Ya Started, Why Can’t This Be Love and When It’s Love getting a ton of mainstream radio attention at the time. However, I think the argument that the Dave-era version of Van Halen was less commercial is flawed to begin with.
Released in 1988, this album was the second with Sammy Hagar. It is a prime example of the band’s maturing, more polished but still edgy sound. From a guitar perspective, Eddie did plenty of face-melting during the early years of the band, but at some point, every musician needs to evolve. His solos on OU812 are still very good, but it is clear that the Hagar-influenced Eddie was becoming a smarter, much stronger songwriter.
I also think the Sammy-era Van Halen attitude became solidified with this album. Where Dave was a typhoon of glitter and glam, Sammy was a warm tropical breeze. Face-down in Cabo, kissing the ground.
4. Van Halen II
This album is so good, and criminally underrated in the rock world. This was the follow-up to the debut album and released in 1979. There are better-known tracks such as Beautiful Girls, Dance the Night Away and Women in Love that get a lot of classic rock radio airplay, and they are excellent songs.
However, the brilliance of this album lies in the deep tracks, the ones casual rock radio listeners may never have heard. Check out Somebody Get Me a Doctor, D.O.A and Light Up the Sky. The band sounds huge on these tracks, and Eddie’s playing is downright fierce. As typical, his solos are incredible, but I’ve always thought he was a better rhythm player than he gets credit for, and that’s evident in many of these songs.
This is one of four Van Halen albums where I honestly can’t find a bad song. The jaw-dropper of the record is Spanish Fly, where Eddie blows us away on a classical guitar just as he did on an electric with the first album.
Dance the Night Away - Live
5. Fair Warning
Fair Warning was Van Halen’s fourth studio album and in many ways their darkest. Then again, this album is so good exactly because it is so dark and nasty. The record kicks off with Mean Street, Dirty Movies and Sinners Swing, a trio of tracks that illuminate some of the less savory sides of society. Unchained is probably the best-known song on this album.
Those four songs, taken on their own merits, are as good as anything Van Halen has ever done, especially during the Dave years. Unfortunately, the rest of the record is fairly forgettable. Hear About it Later and So This is Love are decent at best, and the remaining three tracks, I think, can be most accurately described as uncomfortable.
Of course, Eddie is Eddie throughout. His intro and rhythm work on Mean Street is brilliant, as is the opening riff to Unchained. As a guitar fan, I love this album. As a music fan, I feel like there is a little bit of filler here that perhaps the disc would have been better off without.
Still, Fair Warning is a classic that is well worth your time. For many bands, it would be their magnum opus. For Van Halen, it gets the five spot on my list.
Van Halen Studio Albums
Van Halen II
Women and Children First
For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge
Van Halen III
A Different Kind of Truth
6. For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge
For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge was released in 1991 at the apex of the glam metal movement. Van Halen, of course, were among the prime architects of the ‘80s hard rock sound. By this point, they were probably the biggest band in the world. Having just come off of the success of OU812, VH fans expected a lot here, and would not be disappointed.
At this time MTV was also at the height of its popularity, and Van Halen got a lot of exposure. Poundcake was huge on MTV and on the radio, as was Top of the World. Right Now is a song about living for the moment that touched on many of the issues of the time. The song itself is enough to send anyone into a period of deep introspection, but the video that came after was brilliant.
For me, The Dream is Over is the best song on the albums. I also think Eddie’s tone took a few big steps forward on this disc. A lot of guitarists talk about the “Brown Sound” when it comes to Van Halen's tone, but it seems to me there have been many versions so the Brown Sound over the years.
I recognize that this might be a controversial choice for the sixth spot on my list. There is nothing stunning from a guitar perspective here. However, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge is an outstanding rock album with some now-classic tracks.
The album 5150 came out in 1986 and was the first with new frontman Sammy Hagar. The difference in the band’s sound was notable, and in many ways, this disc marked a demarcation between old-school and new Van Halen fans. (Though I suppose we are all old-school by now!)
The battle lines were drawn. Dave vs. Sammy. Which Van Halen was better?
I’ll leave that to you to figure out, and I’ll simply say that I love both versions of the band. They’re a little different, and even Eddie’s tone changed a bit. I personally think 5150 was the low point of his sound, and the album has always sounded a little under-produced to me, but it’s all good.
In fact, the reaction to 5150 was really good. The radio played the heck out of it, with the songs Love Walks In, Why Can’t This Be Love, Dreams and Best of Both Worlds getting massive exposure. Despite losing Dave, it was clear that Van Halen was as strong a band as ever.
My favorite song on the album, and one of my favorite VH songs of all time, is the title track: 5150. The opening riff is killer and surprisingly requires some decent chops to get right.
Dave vs. Sammy
In the interest of full disclosure, 1984 was the first Van Halen album I ever owned. I got it in sixth grade because the song Jump was on the radio all the time and all the cool kids were listening to it.
What this tells you is that, by the time this album came out, even a grade-school kid from the sticks knew who Van Halen was. I started playing guitar not long after, inspired by this album as well as others such as Def Leppard’s Pyromania, Ozzy’s Bark at the Moon and Quiet Riot’s Metal Health.
Released in early 1984 (of course), this was a good enough album, but it did stray quite a bit from what Van Halen fans had expected from the band thus far. For one thing, Eddie’s keyboard work on Jump and I’ll Wait was a newly revealed facet of his talents, though he would use the keyboard and piano on many future albums.
While the song Jump is probably the song best known to the general public, most Van Halen fans mark it far down on the list of their best work. However, 1984 does contain a few classics.
Panama and Hot for Teacher are two songs many causal rock fans may be familiar with. The latter in particular shows that Eddie’s talents hadn’t faded a bit, despite the more commercial nature of the album. Drop Dead Legs is an underrated classic.
Classic Van Halen - Panama
9. Diver Down
By the time Diver Down was released in 1982 Van Halen had put out a studio album every year since 1978, in addition to touring extensively. All of the records had been brilliant thus far, but if you’re thinking a band can’t keep up that pace without eventually releasing a dud you’d be right.
While not really a bad album, Diver Down was much weaker than anything the band had done so far. It contained two cover tunes that really didn’t seem appropriate for a rock band (Dancing in the Street and Oh, Pretty Woman) as well as fun but bizarre tracks such as Big, Bad Bill (featuring Eddie and Alex’s dad Jan Van Halen on the clarinet) and the a cappella Happy Trails.
There were some bright spots. Eddie once again wowed the world with Cathedral, a solo using a volume swell technique that made his guitar sound like more an organ. Little Guitars is a classic for sure, and the Kinks cover Where Have All the Good Times Gone? and Hang ‘em High are decent tunes.
Overall, Diver Down is still Van Halen, and still better than anything a typical rock band would put out. Unfortunately, due to the pressure to keep up with their grueling schedule, it wasn’t as good as it could have been.
Balance came out in 1995, in the midst of the anti-glam metal revolution. Van Halen was never really glam metal, but they certainly inspired the genre. Bands with amazing, gunslinger guitarists who had been selling platinum records only a few years before had faded into obscurity overnight. Guitar solo had become a dirty phrase. What horrible things would befall the mighty Van Halen in this world of insanity?
None. The band seemed above it all and kept plugging away when many bands were falling apart. Balance contained some great songs and even managed to get mainstream radio attention for Can’t Stop Loving You and Don’t Tell Me (What Love Can Do).
However, there is a lot going on here that I think has escaped the attention of many rock fans, and maybe even some guitar players. While, in my opinion, Fair Warning was the summit of Eddie’s Marshall sound, I think Balance is the best of his 5150 tones (though he did use the Marshall for some clean sounds).
More importantly, on Balance we see a very mature band, with a guitar player who seems much more interested in texture and tone than speed and tricks. The album itself sounds great production-wise. There are some good songs throughout, notably Aftershock, and Amsterdam and the Vai-ish instrumental Baluchitherium.
In another era, Balance may have been something more. Back in the mid-‘90s, it was a breath of fresh air, and as number ten on my list of best Van Halen albums, I still think it is better than what most modern bands are putting out.
Van Halen III and A Different Kind of Truth
This article is intended as a top 10 list of Van Halen studio albums, but there are a few more albums and songs I think are important to address.
After Balance, things got kind of weird for Van Halen. They recorded the song Humans Being for the movie Twister, which I think is a pretty darned good song. Then, internal disputes led to the departure of Hagar, and a brief reunion with Dave for a couple of songs on the Best of Van Halen: Volume One compilation.
From there, Van Halen brought in former Extreme vocalist Gary Cherone for what would become the Van Halen III album.
Van Halen III wasn’t awful, but it didn’t seem like Van Halen either. The pieces just didn’t fit. It’s a shame. With Extreme, Cherone was a great vocalist in a very talented band, and he often gets a little too much heat for what happened with Van Halen III.
Sammy came back briefly to record three songs for another greatest hits album, after which the band seemed to vanish behind a storm of controversy and health problems.
Van Halen emerged again in 2009 with A Different Kind of Truth. The album featured Dave on vocals and Eddie’s son Wolfgang on bass. Truthfully, it was a decent record, and I loved getting a new Van Halen album, but at the same time, it wasn't like the old days. I’m sure they know this. I’d love to see more from them, and as long as they keep recording I will keep buying their records.
What’s Next for Van Halen?
It’s been several years since Van Halen has released an album and almost a decade since their last studio effort. At least in the interviews I’ve read, Eddie and Alex still seem to have the drive to create new music. For guys like them, it is probably as essential as breathing, and they seem very happy to have Wolf as part of the band.
As for the vocals, that’s another matter. Dave seems to struggle at times, and many fans are worried he may not have what it takes any longer. David Lee Roth is one of my all-time favorite frontmen, and I loved seeing him out there with Eddie again. However, I’m not so sure I want to see him in a bad situation if it ever comes to that.
A reunion with Sammy seems very unlikely, as much as the fans would love to see it. Apparently there is a lot of bad blood there. So, who does that leave as the lead singer of Van Halen?
Maybe nobody. If Van Halen never records again I’ll be pretty bummed. I love this band, and they have been enormously influential in shaping my evolution as a guitar player, and as a music fan.
But I also feel extremely lucky to have been alive at a time in history when the mighty Van Halen reigned, led by the greatest rock guitarist of all time.
Which Is the Best Van Halen Album?
Ziggy Zagg on November 08, 2019:
Luckily I started with their first album in 78. Worshipped the David Lee years until 1984. The Sam Halen era is great songwriting but the urgent extreme creativity from the guitar has become more of a rock pop song structure hit making ballady band. But still love to hear the Eddie incredible parts that he places inside some of them.
Michael James (author) on September 15, 2018:
@Wesman - I know what you mean about the ballads. That was certainly a big difference between and Dave and Sammy versions of Van Halen .
@Keith - I initially thought I'd have Fair Warning ranked much higher because it has some of my favorite songs on it, but it just kept slipping down my list.
Keith Abt from The Garden State on September 13, 2018:
Fair Warning has always been my fave VH, though sentiment probably has a lot to do with that since it was the first VH album I owned.
Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on September 13, 2018:
Great write, as always. I can certainly agree that Sammy era was just as commercial as Dave era was. There was just something about Sam Halen ballads that ticked me off, whether love ballad or other kinds. I just couldn't like those. I always liked Van Hagar power rock songs though.