Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Hark! A Ranking of Van Halen Albums

With the passing of Eddie Van Halen earlier this month, I felt the need to look back at the band's efforts and impact on the music scene to the albums made over a long career and troubled path.

The band itself revolved mostly around the virtuoso skill of the lead guitar and band namesake himself. Following in the footsteps of the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, Eddie represented a new generation of metal / hard rock guitar play that worked it fast AND worked it loud(er). Not with the harshness of more hardcore metal sounds, but with a semblance of melody.

One thing sometimes overlooked in the talk about Van Halen's legacy was the work of Eddie's brother Alex Van Halen (the OTHER namesake) who worked on the drums the way Eddie worked the guitar: fast and hard. Historic irony: when they both got into forming a rock band, Eddie was on drums and Alex on guitar. It's just that Alex found more time to practice while Eddie worked a paper route, and after learning to play “Wipe Out” (THE epic drum song of all time) they realized Alex was better as a drummer. There are certain songs – “Everybody Wants Some!” and “Hot For Teacher” in particular – that simply would not exist without the opening overpowering sound of Alex's drum riffs. Ranked somewhere below Neil Peart and definitely below John Bonham, Alex's work defined a lot of hair metal/hard rock drum sound of an entire decade (1980s).

Mixed into that was front man singer David Lee Roth, for whom the word “hyperactive” was not enough to explain him. Where other lead singers of the day had their outsized images, Roth was pure energy, bouncing from one activity to the next and writing lyrics that reflected that half-crazed mindset, providing jestering and snark in half the recorded songs they made.

Filling out the lineup was Michael Anthony on bass, who had gone to that instrument as his other friends in the scene had gone to lead guitars. Following in the steady but impressive paths of John Paul Jones and Jack Bruce, Anthony provided a bass-riff style that complemented the faster speeds of the Van Halen brothers but rarely showed off himself. One of the sadder elements of the rise and fall of Van Halen has been how Anthony got cast aside/kicked out as the band spiraled apart in the late 1990s, as part of the overall tragedy of a musical talent that should have put the band in the Top Five instead of the Top Twenty of all time.

The best way I can describe Van Halen to later generations is that they were the Party band for a generation of white suburbanite youth, from the late 1970s into the early 1990s. Cruising music for guys in muscle cars they bought used off their uncle's front yard, where the sound system with the subwoofer got more money than the fuel injectors. Even when Roth got booted from the group, his replacement Sammy Hagar filled the vacancy with a lyrical style that could play well on a Saturday night rolling the street scene across many a suburban town. Until Grunge came along and washed that all into the Pacific Ocean.

But that is another story for another time...

In the meanwhile, here's my take on the band's efforts. Much like my review of U2's work, I rank this from weakest album – the ones you can live without – to epic albums of historic importance and majesty.

“One break... COMING UP!”

Ranking Van Halen Albums - Weak to Epic

Title: Balance

Reasons: Released in the middle of the post-metal Grunge era, focused on more ballad tunes than on straight-up rockers, Balance was a wrong album at a wrong time. There's no other way to describe it.
This was personally an album I had bought from the store, listened once, and wondered why it sounded slower than the other CDs I owned. For a week I worried my player was finally dying. It wasn't until I played the disc on a new player and realized it was the album that was slow that I recoiled. None of the songs appealed to me at that time – future listening warmed me up to only a handful – and I traded the damn thing in to the used book/music store on U.S. 1 in Ft. Lauderdale as soon as I could.

This wasn't the Van Halen I grew up to. It wasn't a good way to end the Van Hagar era, and it foretold the folly that the next lineup would endure...

Epic Song(s): None
Great Song(s): Aftershock, Feelin'
Good Song(s): Don't Tell Me, Not Enough, Doin' Time, Baluchitherium

Title: Van Halen III

Reasons: The third lineup with a third front man singer, third time was not a charm. With Hagar's unceremonious departure after Balance, Eddie tried going younger and East Coast with Bostonian Gary Cherone (plucked from then-rising band Extreme) who happened to sing in a similar fashion to Hagar. Cherone's arrival however did not bring with him any input to make Halen relevant to the 90s sound, leaving the band stuck in some early 80s power ballad purgatory. Adding to the chaos was the diminished role Anthony had at bass (only three songs with Eddie pulling triple-duty for the rest of the album) before he got kicked from the roster (by this point, the animosity Eddie had towards Anthony seemed worse than the vitriol he had spat at Roth during THAT split). As Anthony commented later, this album had turned into an Eddie Van Halen solo project, complete with Eddie's first (and only) attempt at lead vocals on “How Many Say I.”

By the time this album came out, I had already soured on the band due to Balance, and I was not impressed with Cherone's hiring as the new singer (I didn't blame him, I blamed what seemed to me a mercurial Eddie). In fact, the late 90s was a void of music for me, I wasn't buying anything, the output of my favorite artists (Springsteen, U2, others) in that period had been middling at best.

I hadn't even bought this album. It was only Eddie's recent death and my need to review all the albums that made me listen to it off Hoopla Digital. In the end, I didn't find any problems with Cherone's performance – he performed as expected – I found issues with the overall direction of the music – plodding, long – to be the deal-breaker. Half of these songs are too long, attempts at opera rather than attempts at rocking out (which had been Van Halen's strength).

Epic Song(s): None
Great Song(s): Without You, Fire in the Hole
Good Song(s): From Afar, Once, Year to the Day, Primary

Title: Fair Warning

Reasons: This is in my view the darkest, moodiest work of the Van Halen discography covering all three lineups. From what I've read elsewhere, this is when the tensions between Eddie and David flared up, where Eddie wanted to go into more complex moodier themes while David wanted to stick to what was working (fast upbeat tunes with a fun cover tune or two). The resulting mix contains few truly good songs, but it does include arguably a live show fave and one of the bigger hits in the band's history in “Unchained.” Of the Roth-era albums, this is the weakest one and an album most fans can skip.

Epic Song(s): Unchained, Mean Street
Great Song(s): So This is Love?
Good Songs(s): Sinners Swing, Hear About It Later

Title: For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge

Reasons: An unusual album for me even when it came out, something that seemed and sounded a bit juvenile (yes, the album's acronym was a clue) just as I was finishing up college, as though the band was regressing and I hadn't. It may have to do with the band rehiring their producer from the Roth era – Ted Templeman – perhaps in an attempt to regain the Roth fans that hadn't returned to the fold after the first two Van Hagar era albums.

The resulting album, released mere months before Nirvana's Nevermind – which blew the doors off hard rock forever with its Grunge sound – seemed a return to the party noise, car cruising ways of old... except it still didn't have the soul and snark of David Lee at his best. Sammy's voice just doesn't carry that vocal tone well. What we got was an album with some genuinely good pop metal tunes and little else... except for the one song that threw everything in the Van Halen universe off-kilter.

“Right Now” was a piano-driven power ballad tune that in all honesty was a genuinely epic song. It was a song that lyric-wise Roth couldn't pull off but Hagar could (Hagar's lyrics here are also him at his best). It didn't roll up the hit charts – it came out as a single towards the end of the album's life-span – but was on constant radio and video play. In fact, it got overexposed as a song, and in hindsight you could see how the impact of “Right Now” led to the disaster that was the Balance album which came after it.

Epic Song(s): Right Now
Great Song(s): Poundcake, Judgment Day, Runaround, Top of the World, 316
Good Song(s): The Dream is Over

Title: A Different Kind of Truth

Reasons: You want the truth? This was an album that should have come out in 2002 not 2012. This was an attempt to regain some chemistry between David Lee and Eddie that had allowed them to pull off reunion tours between 2006 through 2008, much in the vein of the 70s and 80s bands (hi, Fleetwood Mac) that found moderate success appealing to their nostalgic fanbases.

The end result was a more Blues-driven sound that was less than the familiar styling of the 70s and 80s with Roth and more to do with both David Lee too strained on vocals to reach his yelps of lore, and Eddie getting too old and too injured – he had hand surgery in 2009 to combat arthritis – to attempt the high-speed finger-picking that had been his signature style. The album itself was pretty good, but did not carry on it any songs like “Unchained” or “Everybody Wants Some!” to encourage long-term airplay. If this be the last album of Eddie Van Halen's life, it's a good note to exit on... just not a great one.

Epic Song(s): None
Great Song(s): She's the Woman, You And Your Blues, Stay Frosty, Beats Workin'
Good Song(s): China Town, Blood and Fire, Outta Space

Title: OU812

Reasons: This was the second of the Van Hagar albums and where the first one (5150) seemed more risk-adverse and poppy, this one revved it up a little more and ran with a faster, edgier sound. As a result, the songs on this album that clicked for me did so in a big way that the great songs on 5150 didn't. When I would go back to relisten to the Hagar-era albums, this was the one I reached for first.

Epic Song(s): Mine All Mine
Great Song(s): When It's Love, AFU (Naturally Wired), Black and Blue
Good Song(s): Feels So Good, Finish What You Started

Title: 5150

Whose side did you take in 1985? You asked that question and every rock n roller knew the answer had to be either Halen or Roth. But the big question that needed answering was “What would Sammy Hagar's input be to whatever new sound Van Halen was going to bring to the world?”

Where David Lee Roth's vocal range worked in the yelping high pitched enthusiasm and low-growl seduction of a teenager eager to get to work (on refurbishing a car, dating that girl in art class, what have you), Hagar's vocal styling was more earnest than enthused meaning a clearly different way the lyrics were coming at us (as well as different lyrics altogether). At a time when Eddie was focusing more on the use of synths to imitate the finger-pick work on his guitar, this led to an album that could rightly be viewed in hindsight as the most pop album the rock band ever produced.

In terms of longevity, this is an album more fans will hear from, thanks to the ongoing airplay the big songs “Dreams,” “Best of Both Worlds,” and “Love Walks In” keep getting. There are decent songs to be had on here, just not ones that would shake the pillars of heaven, man.

Epic Song(s): Dreams, Best of Both Worlds
Great Song(s): Summer Nights, 5150
Good Song(s): Why Can't This Be Love, Get Up, Love Walks In

Title: Diver Down

Reasons: After the darkness of Fair Warning came this little thing, almost a quickie of an album that the critics didn't seem to like but arguably has some of the better performances on record the band ever committed.

The story is that David Lee wanted to do a single release cover of “Dancing in the Street” that Eddie couldn't get his head around, while Eddie wanted to do a cover of “(Oh) Pretty Woman” that Eddie COULD play. When they went in to do both, the studio argued to go ahead and record a full album anyway, so they did. Rather than come out with a rushed, panicked effort however, it's an album that actually sounds relaxed as though the band had a fun time recording it (in truth, Eddie hated the experience and it drove a wedge even more between him and David Lee). While Eddie's version of Roy Orbison's classic had its unique, hard-guitar tinge to it, what Eddie did revamping “Dancing in the Street” was arguably a better job, using a echoing riff to it that rose and fell like ocean waves.

This is one I view as the Party album of the era, something you could put on the spinner or the tape deck in a house while your school friends were gathered on a Saturday night, and play it all the way through without anyone complaining. This is IMHO an album with no throwaways, almost every song ranked at least Good and better. It's almost like the Sgt. Peppers of the Van Halen discography. The fans loved it even though Eddie (and the critics) didn't...

Epic Song(s): Dancing in the Streets, Little Guitars (intro)
Great Song(s): Where Have All the Good Times Gone, Hang Em High, Intruder, (Oh) Pretty Woman, Little Guitars, Happy Trails (shut up, it's fun)
Good Song(s): Cathedral, Secrets

Title: Van Halen II

Reasons: I wrote before – both reviewing U2 as well as the Beatles – the second album from a band usually isn't as great as the first due to various factors: It's made up of lesser songs from that first album, a rushed nature of recording to match that first album, the expectations to follow up with something both similar yet refreshing, etc. Van Halen's second album is no exception, usually for all those reasons I mentioned. In this case, however, the band still excelled with an album that is actually easier and accessible, comes across as more polished and focused rather than rushed.

It could be my own ears and my own judgment call here. It can well be that I found the songs on the second album more enjoyable, that the lyrics and melodies spoke to me differently than the harder noise of the debut album. I certainly found the songs like “Beautiful Girls” and “Dance the Night Away” as greater accomplishments than “Running With the Devil” and “You Really Got Me.” Thing is, if you released this together with the first as a double album, it would all blend in as one epic album and nobody would complain about it.

Epic Song(s): Dance the Night Away, Bottoms Up, Beautiful Girls
Great Song(s): Somebody Get Me A Doctor, Spanish Fly
Good Song(s): Light Up the Sky, DOA. Women in Love

Title: 1984

Reasons: What I remembered when this came out, there was a lot of publicity and anticipation. Some of it had to do with the when and how – unleashing the first single “Jump” on New Year's Eve heading into 1984 itself – as well as this mood across the music landscape that rock bands had to step up to challenge this one album from 1982 called Thriller by Michael Jackson that had basically steamrolled the globe (still two years on!). There was a lot of pressure on Van Halen the band because Eddie Van Halen was a part of that Thriller juggernaut having played an epic guitar solo in the hit song “Beat It.” There was also the need to rebound from the negative critical reactions they got from Diver Down, as well as pressure from the company (always always in the music biz) of getting a Number One song into the books.

The result was an album that reflected the synthetic manufactured ambience of the 1980s, especially with Eddie leaning into the use of synth keyboard to replicate his finger-picking style on guitar. Very noticeable on “Jump,” that Number One song that placated the studio, where the fast-tempo of the keyboards mimicking how the guitar would play but giving it a different sound than a guitar would.

The album would represent that schizoid style between Eddie's musical instincts and David's hard rock focus. The result was an album with sure hits and power rock songs, not necessarily meshing well but definitely the big hit of the decade that any band would live for. We should be talking a lot more about "Panama," a car-cruising ode that deserves more love from rock critics and historians as the perfect blend of all four band members' strengths as musicians. About half this album gets airplay to this day, especially the controversial “Hot for Teacher.”

What happened afterward in response to the frictions between Van Halen and Roth, obviously, shook the rock n roll scene ever since.

Epic Song(s): Jump, Panama, Hot For Teacher
Great Song(s): Top Jimmy, Girl Gone Bad, House of Pain
Good Song(s): 1984, I'll Wait

Title: Women and Children First

Reasons: I got this album after I had gotten into Van Halen's 1984, as part of my effort to keep up with the cool kids on the block. It surprised me that other than “Everybody Wants Some!” this was an album that was woefully underplayed on the radio (even "And the Cradle..." wasn't as often-played), and not as talked about as a great album in its own right.

Where the first two albums eclipsed this third one, this is where the band expanded their sound just enough to make it grittier yet more polished. A hint of blues coming through songs like “Fools” and “Take Your Whiskey Home.” This is probably where my love for Doors music seeped into my love for this album (which compares in some respects to Morrison Hotel, only better).

Every time my brother Phil asks me what the best Van Halen album is, I always point to this one.

“Everybody Wants Some!” which anchors this album and powered by Alex's epic drumbeats is arguably the best cruising-the-street song of my generation if not all time. The rest of the album keeps up with that power. It's a personal decision ranking this here, and I understand that by not ranking it top overall (because the top one has its history and place within the rock n roll pantheon that I can't ignore). But if anyone ever tells me which Halen album to listen to first to get an understanding of why they were one of the greatest bands ever, THIS is the one I'll point to because it covers everything the band does best.

Epic Song(s): And the Cradle Will Rock, Everybody Wants Some!, Take Your Whiskey Home
Great Song(s): Fools, Tora Tora!, In a Simple Rhyme
Good Song(s): Romeo's Delight, Could This Be Magic

Title: Van Halen

Reasons: Personally this is not my favorite Van Halen album (see the previous entry above), but I respect its place in rock n roll history by putting it here. This is the album based off of a demo tape recorded by Gene Simmons (of KISS fame) they shopped around the music industry, backed by a series of well-received live shows in the L.A. Scene. It's packed with hard rock goodness and blistering guitar noises that spurred hundreds of suburban white boys and girls to learn “Eruption” in their parents' garages.

It's that song – an instrumental by Eddie – that anchors the whole album: if you broke it down, it's basically a finger-picking (or more precisely string-tapping) exercise made up of classical music snippets, but Van Halen's genius with using both hands to finger-tap it revolutionized the metal guitar solo and made this the go-to song to learn how to do that.

What happened with this album release was that it caught much of the music scene off-guard: it came at a time when Punk was the Next Big Thing (which never took because guess what, Punk was too raw even for Rock), as Led Zeppelin and other hard rock acts were retreating from the stage (either to fatigue, fallout, or other woes). Critics blasted it but fans ate it up: It's one of the biggest-selling debut albums in music history (eventually certified Diamond status years later).

To be honest, there's really not much here other than the standard metal sounds of the day... just done at Ramones-like speed, Led Zep-like power, and hyped by David Lee Roth's yelps of joy. This doesn't have the party-like flavor of the other great Van Halen albums, but it has the hook of “You should pay attention to what we're about to do next because your kids and grandkids will be learning it for the next 100 years.

Epic Song(s): Running with the Devil, Eruption, Ain't Talking Bout Love
Great Song(s): You Really Got Me, I'm the One, Atomic Punk, Ice Cream Man
Good Song(s): Jamie's Cryin', Feel Your Love Tonight

* * *

I could look at reviewing the official live album(s) and the greatest hits album that included new Van Hagar songs, but they're not necessary to understand the overall impact the band had. I could include the David Lee Roth solo albums, but that's not entirely part of the Van Halen history... oh what the hell, here's an album cover!

From here, I am considering a review of Bruce Springsteen, or else a review of Led Zeppelin, whichever makes more sense to ye. PLEASE leave a comment so I may make sure.

1 comment:

Denny in Ohio said...

Although they had plenty of metal moments they struck me as a power pop band with Roth.

As far as Zeppelin or Springsteen I don't have a preference since I would welcome your thoughts on either/both.