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Van Halen: a guide to their best albums

Van Halen in 1978
(Image credit: Lynn Goldsmith / Getty Images)

If ever a back catalogue epitomised the American Dream, it’s the albums of Van Halen.

Formed in Pasadena, California in 1974 by four teenage kids from families that had migrated across the Atlantic in the pursuit of a better life, Van Halen were loud, brash, shamelessly ambitious, larger-than-life, classically all-American. And so was their pioneering spirit.

Van Halen revolutionised hard rock music. When the band’s debut album was released in 1978, punk had unsettled rock’s old order; giants such as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath were on their last legs. But Van Halen had seen the future. “This is the 1980s!” declared singer David Lee Roth, boldly if prematurely. “And this is the new sound – it’s hyper, it’s energy, it’s urgent.”

The key to that new sound was the late, great Eddie Van Halen, whose innovative two-handed ‘tapping’ technique made him the most influential guitarist since Jimi Hendrix

But Van Halen wasn’t a one-man show. Eddie’s brother Alex went at his drum kit like a prizefighter. Bassist Michael Anthony underpinned Eddie’s histrionics and provided killer backing vocals that had him rightly described as the band’s “secret weapon”. 

And then, of course, there was ‘Diamond Dave’, a wisecracking, split-jumping, super-toned blond Adonis, son of second-generation Jewish immigrants, and hard rock’s greatest showman. As Roth stated: “I once heard somebody say to the Van Halens: ‘You guys play the music, the Jew sells it’. Well, you’re fucking right!”

With Roth as cheerleader, Van Halen were America’s favourite party band, their high- octane turbo-pop songs the soundtrack to the ‘me’ decade. But when Roth left the band in 1985 amid mutual hostility, much of the magic went with him, even if his replacement, Sammy Hagar, was a better singer.

Nevertheless, the new-look ‘Van Hagar’ proved just as successful as the former model, while Roth’s solo career stalled in the 90s.

Hagar lasted 10 years. His successor, former Extreme vocalist Gary Cherone, was out after one album. Hagar returned for a chaotic reunion tour in 2004, and two years later came the announcement that Roth was rejoining the band with, shockingly, Eddie’s 15-year-old son Wolfgang replacing Michael Anthony. 

After their 2015 North American tour Van Halen went on hiatus, with rumours of further live performances – including a possible "Sam and Dave" option – being stifled by stories about Eddie Van Halen's ill health. He was hospitalised in 2019 to be treated for throat cancer, and tragically passed away in October 2020.

Van Halen’s place in the pantheon of classic rock acts is secure. With close to 60 million albums sold, they are high on the list of biggest-selling acts in the US. And at their best (with Roth), Van Halen ruled.

Below, we pick out the cream of their recorded crop.

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Van Halen (Warner Brothers, 1978)

As one of the classic debut albums, this 10-million seller is up there with Zeppelin’s and Sabbath’s and Appetite For Destruction. Van Halen was like a bomb going off. With its short, punchy songs, technical flash, testosterone-charged swagger and sense of daring, it kick-started the 80s two years early. “We were not afraid of defying convention,” said David Lee Roth. “Everybody was ascending.”

Eruption was Eddie’s volcanic showpiece. And the orthodox songs were equally explosive, from Runnin’ With The Devil through to frenetic closer On Fire. Classic Rock’s Geoff Barton, then reviewing for Sounds, called the album “senses-shattering”. Van Halen had arrived – with an almighty bang.

1984 (Warner Brothers, 1984)

The last of the definitive Roth-era albums was also the one that made Van Halen a household name on this side of the Atlantic when its lead single, Jump, hit No.7 on the UK chart. In playing this simple rock song on a keyboard, guitar hero Eddie beat all those airy-fairy synth-pop acts at their own game.

I’ll Wait, the album’s other big pop crossover hit, was also powered by a keyboard riff, but the hard rock crunch of Panama and Hot For Teacher ensured that the band’s hairy fan base wasn’t alienated.

On 1984, Van Halen could do no wrong… But by 1985 Roth was gone, and the band, in whatever guise, would never be as great again.

Van Halen II (Warner Brothers, 1979)

How do you follow a belter of a debut album? Many have dropped the ball, from Montrose to The Darkness. But Van Halen walked it, banging out their brilliant second album in just six days. It sounds like it, too: fresh, a little loose, fizzing with energy, its air of beer-fuelled spontaneity encapsulated in Roth’s fumbled lyric and giggles on Bottoms Up!

Shrewdly, Van Halen didn’t try to top the fire-power of Van Halen, opting instead for a lighter, more playful vibe, running from the jammed intro to You’re No Good (such chutzpah!) to Roth’s farewell kiss on the closing Beautiful Girls. And in Dance The Night Away they delivered the perfect pop-metal song.

Diver Down (Warner Brothers, 1982)

Possibly the laziest album ever made. There are just 18 minutes of original material on Diver Down. But no matter: despite the whiff of contractual obligation, the album is a blast.

Back in the mid-70s, when they were still a bar band named Mammoth, the boys had a repertoire of 300 cover tunes. Diver Down recalls that era with a stinging rendition of The Kinks’ Where Have All The Good Times Gone!, plus covers of Roy Orbison’s (Oh) Pretty Woman, the Tamla Motown classic Dancing In The Street and a jazz number featuring dad Jan Van Halen on clarinet.

The original songs on the album are all great too, especially Secrets, the sweetest thing Van Halen ever recorded.

Fair Warning (Warner Brothers, 1981)

The cover illustration – details from Canadian artist William Kurelek’s The Maze, portraying scenes of urban madness and violence – was befitting of the most left-field VH album.

Fair Warning is tough, edgy, dark, and in places plain weird. ZZ Top aside, no other mainstream, multi-platinum hard rock band would have dared to record such bizarre tracks as Dirty Movies (a funky porno satire), Sunday Afternoon In The Park (a sinister, new wave-inspired instrumental), and One Foot Out The Door (a punky, half-finished throwaway).

However, the meat of the album lies in two straight-up rock songs: the bruising Mean Street, and Unchained, featuring Eddie’s chunkiest riff.

Women And Children First (Warner Brothers, 1980)

Van Halen’s third album included a poster of Roth in classic beefcake pose, photographed by the legendary Helmut Newton. Roth was rock’s leading pin-up boy, but VH hadn’t gone soft. The album is a hard rock tour de force, typified by Tora! Tora!

And The Cradle Will Rock…, is Roth’s homage to teenage drop-outs. Fools and Everybody Wants Some!! are fluid jams built around crushing riffs. Romeo Delight threatens to run right off the rails. The only light relief comes with the drunken sea shanty Could This Be Magic?

Women And Children First is Van Halen’s true cult classic album. In Roth parlance: “Pure fuckin’ rock.”

5150 (Warner Brothers, 1986)

For many people, Van Halen just wasn’t Van Halen without Diamond Dave. Eddie saw it differently. “We lost a frontman,” he said, “but we gained a singer.” And with Sammy Hagar on board, the band’s career arc continued upwards.

5150, the first ‘Van Hagar’ album, was also the band’s first US No.1. With trusted producer Ted Templeman having defected to the now solo Roth camp, VH enlisted Foreigner’s Mick Jones to put a fine gloss on what became the album’s three keyboard-driven hit singles: Why Can’t This Be Love, Dreams and Love Walks In.

And yes, Sammy was a better singer than Dave. But 5150 didn’t have the spark of classic VH. And we all knew why.

For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (Warner Brothers, 1991)

All four studio albums that Van Halen recorded with Sammy Hagar topped the US chart, although the third of them might not have sold so well if it had been titled according to the singer’s wishes. “I wanted to name the album just Fuck,” Hagar said. Instead, they chose something more oblique.

The album – co-produced by an exonerated Ted Templeman – is patchy, but it has three songs as good as any from the Hagar era: Poundcake – heavy, grungy, with Eddie applying an electric drill to his fretboard; Top Of The World – vintage feel-good VH; and the piano-led Right Now – arguably the best song the band have ever written.

OU812 (Warner Brothers, 1988)

Having proved with 5150 that there was life after Dave, Van Halen couldn’t resist a little dig at their former singer with the title of their eighth album, a cheeky reference to Roth’s Eat ‘Em And Smile.

OU812 did good business (current US sales: four million), but it’s a hit-and-miss affair. Lacking Dave’s levity, the heavier tracks are all bluster, but a lighter touch on the three hit singles works beautifully. Black And Blue is a funky boogie lit up by Michael Anthony’s doo-wop-influenced vocal harmonies, When It’s Love is a deluxe rock ballad, Finish What Ya Started is a genuine surprise, with Eddie twanging country-funk guitar licks and Hagar croaking soulfully.

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2005, Paul Elliott has worked for leading music titles since 1985, including Sounds, Kerrang!, MOJO and Q. He is the author of several books including the first biography of Guns N’ Roses and the autobiography of bodyguard-to-the-stars Danny Francis. He has written liner notes for classic album reissues by artists such as Def Leppard, Thin Lizzy and Kiss, and currently works as content editor for Total Guitar. He lives in Bath - of which David Coverdale recently said: “How very Roman of you!”