I was so busy last week that I not only forgot to post this ranking of Van Halen albums — I totally forgot it even existed. I actually wrote it a few years ago when they released the Tokyo Dome Live in Concert set. If I had to write it today, I might rethink the order slightly — but only slightly (sorry, Gary). As always of course, your mileage may vary.
There are two kinds of people: 1) Those who believe David Lee Roth is, was and always will be known as Van Halen’s greatest frontman; and 2) Sammy Hagar.
OK, it isn’t as cut and dried as that. But there’s no denying that for decades, VH fans have been divided into two factions (and only two; sorry, Gary Cherone). Also true: The DLR camp has the upper hand right now. After decades of exile and reunion attempts, Diamond Dave seems firmly back in favour with the mercurial Van Halen brothers (bassist Michael Anthony, who sided with Sammy during their divorce, is the current original member non grata, replaced by Eddie’s son Wolfgang). Since 2007, the Halens and Roth have toured regularly, trotting out their ’70s and ’80s hits (but no Hagar or Cherone songs; sorry again, Gary) for fans new and old. In 2012 they released A Different Kind of Truth, their first album together since 1984 (the year and the LP).
To prime the pump for their latest reunion trek, they released a live set from a 2013 Tokyo show, plus remastered versions of 1984 and their self-titled 1978 debut. So, to help you get back up to speed on their back catalogue, here’s a rundown of their albums from worst to first. If you disagree (seriously, how many times can I say sorry, Gary?), keep it to yourself. I don’t wanna hear about it later.
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14 | Van Halen III (1998)
Q: What do most people say to Gary Cherone when they meet him? A: ‘Yes, I will have fries with that, thank you.’ This is why.
HIGHLIGHTS: The silence between tracks.
13 | Live: Right Here, Right Now (1993)
If there’s anything less essential than a live album of Hagar-era Halen, it’s one with Hagar singing Panama and Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love.
HIGHLIGHTS: The cover of Won’t Get Fooled Again.
12 | Balance (1995)
As in, ‘Can we balance Sammy’s earnest blather with generic arena-rock, power ballads and instrumental fillers?’ Sadly, they can.
HIGHLIGHTS: Amsterdam, Big Fat Money.
11 | For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991)
Right now, somebody is wondering whose idea it was to put one serious single on an album with a stupid title and a song called Spanked.
HIGHLIGHTS: Runaround, Right Now.
10 | OU812 (1988)
The punny title, the Meet the Beatles cover pic, the ballads and middle-of-the-road dreck; this is where it all started to go wrong for the Sammy-fronted lineup.
HIGHLIGHTS: Finish What Ya Started, Source of Infection.
9 | Tokyo Dome Live in Concert (2015)
For better — and sometimes for worse, thanks to DLR’s increasingly erratic and annoying vocal antics — this is a reasonable facsimile of the current VH live experience.
HIGHLIGHTS: You Really Got Me, Eruption.
8 | Diver Down (1982)
Sure, it’s basically an EP of covers and filler cobbled together between Fair Warning and 1984 — but it’s still more fun than some of the Sammy albums.
HIGHLIGHTS: Where Have All the Good Times Gone!, (Oh) Pretty Woman.
7 | 5150 (1986)
The band’s first album with Hagar is also its best with the Red Rocker — despite an unmistakable shift towards respectability via radio-ready pop-rock and ballads.
HIGHLIGHTS: Best of Both Worlds, Why Can’t This Be Love.
6 | A Different Kind of Truth (2012)
You can’t go home again. But the band’s half-decent reunion album with Roth tries its best by leaning heavily on reheated leftovers from their early days.
HIGHLIGHTS: She’s the Woman, China Town.
5 | Women and Children First (1980)
Darker and heavier (both musically and emotionally) than the bulk of their catalogue, the original lineup’s third studio album is often unfairly overlooked.
HIGHLIGHTS: And the Cradle Will Rock…, Everybody Wants Some!!
4 | Fair Warning (1981)
Could DLR and VH get nastier, dirtier and more intense than Women and Children? Yes they could — and this upderappreciated gem is the result.
HIGHLIGHTS: Mean Street, Unchained.
3 | Van Halen II (1979)
Second verse, same as the first. VH’s sophomore disc picks up where their debut left off, mixing good-time boogie, arena-metal anthems and blistering hard-rock heroics.
HIGHLIGHTS: Dance the Night Away, Beautiful Girls.
2 | 1984 (1984)
The synth-pop of Jump made this sixth album a crossover blockbuster. But the blazing riff-rockers and leering vocals make it clear VH were also at their party-animal peak.
HIGHLIGHTS: Panama, Hot for Teacher.
1 | Van Halen (1978)
From the mastodon swagger and crazed howling of Runnin’ With the Devil to the game-changing guitar solo Eruption to the blues-basher Ice Cream Man, this isn’t just their best work — it’s one of the best debuts in rock.
HIGHLIGHTS: The whole enchilada.