EVH’s passing is still a bit fresh, and while he was not the huge influence on me like Alex Lifeson, Johnny Marr, and Neal Schon, I still feel that the world of guitar shines dimmer without him in it. I’m not the biggest Van Halen fan, but I seem to have all of their albums and have witnessed them live. I was obsessed with various aspects of their band throughout my life, and nothing sucks me back in like some good Twitter rants from any of their previous band members. Live they put on an amazing show while never really knowing how to actually play their own songs. I am going to jump (I mean, might as well) into their top 15 songs, but first I want to address the lead-vocalist elephant in the room. I like both eras (not even going to acknowledge the Cerrone album in my list), but for entirely different reasons. I will be lumping all the songs into one amazing numbered list with no bias towards either singer, but I do want to talk about them and their respective roles.
David Lee Roth is a goddamned paradox. He was a sex symbol with his striking visual presence and that amazing swagger, but he had the personality of a Game-Show-Host. He was completely sexual in his lyrical content, yet fully goofy in his presentation. Hilarious and yet opiniated and intense. Just a bizarre mixture of elements that somehow powered the Van Halen machinery. He gets a bit of a bad-rap for not being able to sing live, when the entire band was ridiculously sloppy. It wasn’t about the musicianship mechanics to him – it was about the entertainment value. If we are being really analytical, the band had three lead singers in their recorded history and he would place 6th in terms of actual chops (do the math on your own).
Sammy Hagar is easier to figure out. He wants to have a good time, make music he likes, have a lot of sex, and drink a lot of booze. He gets a bad-rap for being too commercially viable and not edgy like his predecessor, but unlike DLR, Sammy is a true musician. I would argue that each one was the correct vocalist for their time-line in the band.
As always, these are my choices for top-15, you need not agree even though this list is 100% scientifically correct.
#15 “Right Now” (For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge)
This became the band’s Stairway-to-Free Bird, and I am not a fan. I am sure I loved it when it came out, and there is no denying the quality of this song and the importance of the message, but like most signature songs – it is tired and over-played. I include it because I am not a monster and to dismiss a band’s most important song because it became too popular just seems super elitist. Of course, this was also in the Pepsi Clear ads, so this song can just fuck right off.
#14 “Everybody Wants Some!!” (Women and Children First)
…and I want some too!! This crystallizes everything that rock should be when you are young and have yet to discover that life will just be an endless cycle of bills. The guitar-turned-animal-voices against the tribal drumming and jungle squeals in the into set this apart from, well, everything frankly.
How can a singer rap in the middle about the way the lines run down the back of the stockings without getting laughed out of the studio? DLR was a magician because I can still hear this song and not be embarrassed to like it.
#13 “Mean Street” (Fair Warning)
I don’t know if this song would make this list without that freaking intro…but WHAT AN INTRO. Slapped harmonics in complete reckless abandon. This album was darker and at the time did not do as well commercially, but time has been kind to it – the more serious tone has aged very well, and the dark sonic corners make this album a must-have for rock fans.
#12 “Unchained” (Fair Warning)
While we are on Fair Warning, let’s talk about the single greatest drop-D opening riff of all time. This song pays off the promise of where we could see the band headed on Women and Children First. That album had the best front cover in their career, but this album just went next-level sonic-ally. One break, coming up!
#11 “Don’t Tell Me (What Love Can Do)” (Balance)
I like when Sammy battles with his faith and religious demons in lyrics. This song could have been very trite (and Van Halen lyrics are REALLY good at being trite), but instead we get him spitting out the words over the low growl of Michael Anthony’s (CRIMINALLY UNDERAPPRECIATED) bass. This song came out at a time that I was having a crisis of faith and I felt understood from the other side of my speakers.
#10 “Ice Cream Man” (Van Halen)
I hesitate to put a cover tune on here, but the charm and delivery of the band in the early years is 100% captured in this song. The constant push/pull of Diamond Dave as a Sex-God/Car-Salesman has never been as apparent as it is here. The full-force of the band playing something so campy was so original, and while they were never able to quite capture anything this fun in later years, the honesty in their bombast was long-lasting.
#9 “Finish What Ya Started” (OU812)
If they could have pulled off more songs like this, fewer people would have missed DLR. Sammy letting go and being campy as he tries to get the object of his affection is almost life affirming in it’s sincerity and silliness. It has all the hallmarks of a great Sammy melody, but with his tongue firmly in his cheek – a feat he was nearly incapable of on later releases.
#8 “The Dream is Over” (For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge)
While the Sammy Hagar years brought far more commercially successful singles, the album tracks were never as interesting and adventurous as the DLR period. In some ways, it seems that Sammy’s ability as a TRUE songwriter got in the way when it was time to just let loose. This song is a notable exception. Not a single, but just a burner of a chorus driven song that comes out of nowhere on this mostly forgettable hard-rock album from a time when hard-rock no longer mattered.
#7 “Eruption” (Van Halen)
I just did not know where to put this. It could be number 1 or number 15. It isn’t really a song, but it was the piece I recorded from my stereo speaker off the radio so that I could play it for my grandfather. “This is ONE guitar!” I screamed. He was as impressed as I was. Eruption is a time-capsule. it is the musical moment that changed everything. We often think about the guitar world pre/post EVH, but really, our musical calendar is defined by less than 2 minutes in 1978.
#6 “Mine All Mine” (OU812)
Every drummer friend of mine has kind of a revolving list of who the “best” rock drummers are. You have your Pearts, your Barkers, your Smiths, your Bonhams and Moons… occasionally some arrogant drummer prick who has to throw in Gadd… but almost always missing from this list is Alex Van Halen.
I assume it is because you cannot trust a drummer who thinks that is a quality snare sound. Does he even know to put the silver things on the bottom to get a “snap”? Seriously horrendous.
If you can’t get past his non-snare (which I am guessing was the inspiration for the St Anger drum sound), he has some of the most interesting and understated recorded parts in hard rock. The obvious riff is the intro to “Hot For Teacher”, but I prefer the opening groove on this song.
True fact, I met AVH at the Sacramento airport in 1988. I was only able to get a handshake and say one thing to him, but I made it count – “I LOVE your syncopation in Mine All Mine”.
#5 “Summer Nights” (5150)
As incredible as the backing vocals in VH were from the very beginning, they were more novelty and kitsch in the DLR days – maybe because DLR was (technically speaking) a weaker singer than both Michael and Eddie. Sammy saw the possibilities and the harmony vocals became an integral part of the arrangement, rather than a counterpoint of musical humor.
“Ahhh Ahhh, Summer Nights!” in the coda of the song is as catchy as the chorus. The guitar in this song is such an interesting departure (and growth) from the EVH of just 2 years prior that it seemed like the clouds parted anytime this song played on a boombox in July of ’86.
#4 “I’m the One” (Van Halen)
Barbershop Metal. This song is a goddamned mic drop. This often overlooked gem from the first album completely brings into focus what was going on with this exciting new band. Sex, swagger, goofiness, musicianship, and a party. Van Halen in the early years would not have worked one bit if they took themselves seriously.
The dichotomy of over-the-top guitar-hero antics with the reckless abandon in the rhythm section, fronted by THE rock star needed humor and silliness to ground it and make it accessible. This song captures all of that and delivers it in a climatic a cappella bridge that still floors me decades later.
#3 “Dance the Night Away” (Van Halen II)
This is barely even a rock song. Just a ridiculous pop song with hooks around every corner, and the best sounding track in their early years – it isn’t encumbered with overtly busy guitar and questionable tempo from the drums.
The keyboard textures in the chorus elevate the hook, and the backing vocals are pure magic. DLR truly bringing his smooth baritone game front and center. VHII was never going to live up to the aural onslaught of their debut, but this proved there was far more in their future than just retreads of Kinks covers.
#2 “I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You” (Balance)
For a “love” song these lyrics seem bleak. I recently learned that this song is from the perspective of Sammie’s ex-wife, that (as he says) he, “was a bad guy to”.
Apparently, sometimes you don’t get over someone, no matter how badly things end and you need them to know that you will never stop loving them. I like how romantic and effed this is – not because I fall into those kinds of mental traps, but because it is REAL for many people.
While Sammy might be too “straight” in his songwriting at times to be truly creative, he often does really express true, universal feelings. This song also benefits from a greater production sense than most of their material. While most of this album blew serious chunks, this song was a sonic and emotional masterpiece.
#1 “Why Can’t This Be Love” (5150)
When the Van-Hagar thing was announced, I was not enthusiastic. It wasn’t that I loved Van Halen with DLR and couldn’t fathom a different singer, it was that I was so over Van Halen (Diver Down and 1984 were letdowns – at the time – for me), and Sammy’s “Can’t Drive 55” bullshit songs were just insipid.
Imagine my surprise when this combined the best traits of both bands – Sammy’s pitch-perfect high-register and knack for chorus writing, with the onslaught of the trio’s perfected mid-80’s soundscape. This song still does it for me.
Rock with texture, soul, melody, and heart. It moves me as much today as when I first heard it. The entirety of my Senior year summer and first love is captured in under 4 minutes of pure rock bliss.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip through the Van Halen-Lee Roth-Hagar catalog and will check my earlier lists of my favorite Journey and Rush songs.