All 131 Van Halen Songs, Ranked From Worst to Best

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September 5, 2018 at 10:36 pm Quote #59627


All 131 Van Halen Songs, Ranked From Worst to Best
Only time will tell if they stand the test of time.
By Chuck Klosterman

I love Van Halen. Their debut album was the first rock music I ever loved, before I knew who they were or what they were doing. The band has now been together for more than 40 years and is technically still active, although it doesn’t really seem like it. In fact, it’s a bit disingenuous to even say they’ve been “together” these five decades — the Van Halen timeline is notoriously comprised of two strikingly different units (and officially three different units, and arguably four). With the lone exception of AC/DC, no other rock group has ever bifurcated its career so successfully (though Fleetwood Mac and Genesis come close). Van Halen is, in many ways, the high-profile exception to otherwise inflexible rules: classically trained virtuosos who make music for getting hammered in parking lots. A metal band that rarely plays metal. A legendary live act consistently criticized for their terrible live performances. A caricature of leering masculinity that proved unusually inclusive to female audiences. An embodiment of American exceptionalism, spearheaded by two Dutch Indo immigrants who could barely speak English when they arrived in Pasadena. There are simply no other bands like this. They were copied constantly and no one ever got it right.

Van Halen were pure monoculture, emerging within an era when that aspiration was still common and respected. The singularity of their aesthetic was so recognizable that it became a kind of representational shorthand for youth-oriented movie directors: the soundtrack for burnout disenchantment in Over the Edge, the Platonic dream of Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the language of extraterrestrial life in Back to the Future, and the validation of rockist sensibilities in Airheads. Only Led Zeppelin is more archetypal of the genre. Yet the past 20 years have been complicated for Van Halen, for reasons both self-inflicted and beyond their control.

Had Van Halen disbanded after their tenth album (1993′s Live: Right Here, Right Now), their catalogue would border on bulletproof. But they were too young to retire and too popular to quit, so they just kept going (albeit erratically and devoid of schedule). That decision was justifiable, particularly since perseverance is traditionally rewarded by the sands of time. For Van Halen, however, the opposite has occurred. The cyclical nature of cultural significance has not worked in their favor. A useful comparison is the career arc of Black Sabbath, perhaps the only band whose sonic influence on hard rock is more pervasive. Throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s, various bastardized incarnations of Sabbath released a string of subpar albums that temporarily cheapened the memory of the band’s canonical work. Their will to survive made them figuratively nonexistent. But when the original Black Sabbath reunited in 1997, the group’s reputation was fully re-fabricated, far exceeding the band’s critical perception at the height of their powers. At this point, even the allegedly embarrassing Sab records that were supposedly dooming their legacy (1987′s The Eternal Idol, 1990′s Tyr) have been sympathetically reassessed. One would have expected a similar trajectory when Van Halen reunited with David Lee Roth for 2012′s A Different Kind of Truth, a comeback album mostly comprised of updated demo tracks from the ’70s. Yet this wide-angle reconsideration did not happen, or at least has not happened yet.

Why not? A fraction of the explanation can be traced to the curious (and somewhat cruel) decision to replace competent bassist Michael Anthony with guitarist Eddie Van Halen’s competent son Wolfgang. But the larger explanation involves how the rest of society evolved in the interim. The pop landscape had changed so radically that appreciating the musical style pioneered by Van Halen has become akin to appreciating recent breakthroughs in blacksmithing. To many people born post-grunge, the difference between David Lee Roth and Glenn Miller is negligible. It’s easy to imagine an engaged teenage music fan unfamiliar with 130 of Van Halen’s 131 songs. Which, both predictably and paradoxically, is part of the reason I wanted to compile the following list. This material deserves deeper, detailed contemplation.

It’s not like Van Halen is in any danger of being erased from the historical record. Their commercial popularity has been certified and there’s a collective acknowledgment regarding the quality of their musicianship. Pretty much anyone who’s seen the video for “Panama” views the band as idealized avatars for a euphoric, consequence-free, hyper-intoxicated lifestyle that (a) could only exist in Southern California, (b) could never exist today, and (c) probably never existed at all, unless you were a member of this specific band. The abstract idea of Van Halen remains iconic. The individual musical compositions, however, tend to be lumped into two categories that resist close reading. Songs from the Roth era are marginalized as party anthems designed for strippers, subscribers to Guitar World magazine, and guys with unusually strong opinions about how many cylinders a car engine should have. Songs from the Sammy Hagar era are marginalized as well-crafted, non-bombastic radio hits that you can like but never love, unless you’re Sammy or whoever concocted the marketing strategy for Crystal Pepsi. It’s tempting to view Van Halen as having many versions of only two songs (one recorded prior to 1985 and the other recorded after). This is reductive and wrong. Moreover, it’s an unintentional result of the group’s technical proficiency. Eddie Van Halen was the most inventive guitar player of his generation, but he’s also a surprisingly stern formalist. Rarely does EVH’s music dabble in prog or inaccessibility; instead, he jams all his unorthodoxy into the claustrophobic confines of a traditional four-piece rock configuration, performed at a volume typically reserved for volcanoes. The core riffs are sophisticated, but also remarkably minimalist; the solos are overstuffed and a little self-derivative, but no two are identical and none of them are easy. The downside to this formalism is a superficial sense that many of these songs are interchangeable. The upside is a depth of creativity that takes years to untangle, delivered in a working-class package that is roughly the musical equivalent of eating hot pizza and drinking cold beer.

This list was compiled by one person sitting alone in a dark room, so it’s obviously subjective and ephemeral (and I’d be skeptical of anyone who agrees with all 131 entries). I am including only official studio releases. I’d also like to apologize in advance for using the word “riff” 14 times in the forthcoming 11,148 words, but there just isn’t a practical synonym that adequately reflects what a riff is, and writing about Van Halen without analyzing the riffs is pretty much impossible. It would be like trying to rank the 131 best deciduous forests in North America without repeating the word tree.

The VH catalogue contains many diamonds and many pearls, but also a lot of pyrite and a few discarded mufflers. I certainly don’t love all of it. Like all non-robots, I have a handful of conscious and unconscious biases. My unsurprising preference is for the work from the Roth era, although less fascistically so than when I was a youth. For sake of transparency, here’s a list of things about Van Halen I consider to be overrated: their sense of humor, their musical heaviness, and the difference in quality between Van Halen and Van Halen II. Conversely, here’s a list of things about Van Halen I consider to be underrated: Roth’s prowess as a lyricist, Hagar’s aptitude as a performer, most of Diver Down, the eerie consistency of the rhythm section, and the degree to which EVH’s autodidactic understanding of technology and audio engineering has amplified his preexisting brilliance.

Here’s a list of the things about Van Halen I consider to be properly rated: pretty much everything else.

131. “Why Can’t This Be Love,” 5150 (1986)
Just so we’re clear, this is not the single worst Van Halen song to listen to. I won’t jump out of a moving vehicle if it comes on the radio. But “Why Can’t This Be Love” was the first single released off 5150, and that was the worst decision the band ever made. If they’d opened with “Get Up” or “Summer Nights,” the collective view of post-Roth VH would likely be quite different. Introducing the Hagar era with a cold, mid-tempo, keyboard-based love song installed the belief that Van Halen was moving away from high-octane fiesta rock and toward responsible, AOR maturity. That sentiment was galvanized almost four months later, when Roth’s solo band debuted with “Yankee Rose,” an unbelievably ebullient song about wanting to fuck the Statue of Liberty. Roth never came up with another single as good as “Yankee Rose,” but the impact was seismic and perpetual. From that point forward, we would always know who was Laverne and who was Shirley.

Keep reading:

September 6, 2018 at 5:58 am Quote #59628


Not even remotely close to the way I see it. Too much to even begin. I will say it seems like in his top 20 are many radio tunes.

September 6, 2018 at 11:05 am Quote #59632


Ranking “Humans Being” above songs like “Mean Street”, “I’m the One”, “Light Up the Sky”, “Drop Dead Legs”, etc… is ridiculous.

September 7, 2018 at 2:37 am Quote #59634


voodoo: Ranking “Humans Being” above songs like “Mean Street”, “I’m the One”, “Light Up the Sky”, “Drop Dead Legs”, etc… is ridiculous.

Humans Being???

That’s your eye opening anomoly with his list….

There’s much worse rankings than that my friend…MUCH MUCH worse….

Humans Being is a GREAT tune…very cinematic sonic journey of sound…One of the few I totally dig from the 2nd lineup….

But the fact being he had the audacity to include & rank several VH3 tunes above the others is the real wtf confusion to me at least.

Anyhoo- Nice to see he took the time to make the list & article.

I haven’t actually read the whole thing yet…just did a quick scroll through for now. I’ll read it all in full on Sunday.

September 7, 2018 at 5:52 am Quote #59635


I agree that Humans Being is a great song. Better than Mean Street… ah…no. And this is where the problem lies with this article. Yes, everyone has their opinions, but I like almost ALL the VH songs. Even his #131. This article rips apart the songs more than it praises them… not a truest, just more unneeded primarily negative journalism.

September 9, 2018 at 5:18 pm Quote #59640


I scrolled through the top and starting reading at around #75 down to #1. When I got to #2, I tried to think of what song was left and did NOT remember Eruption. Oops.

I really enjoyed the read and am not too bothered by his rankings. They don’t line up with mine – at all, really – but what can you do? I too, up to the very moment I read the article, thought Dave was singing, “Marge, you’re breaking my heart….” All my life I thought that was the line!

Glad he wrote it – there were some really funny parts I enjoyed.

September 15, 2018 at 9:12 pm Quote #59645


When you turn on your stereo, does it return the favor?


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