Although Southern California's hard rock heroes Van Halen made quite a splash in the late '70s when the band debuted, the group certainly built its lasting legacy through its prolific work during the '80s, which established a firm classic rock and arena rock legacy that is hard to deny. Even more remarkable is that Van Halen's plentiful accomplishments within the decade generated great success despite a highly publicized lead vocalist change. Here's a a chronological look at some of the band's best songs from both the David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar eras.
Supported ably by a thumping rhythm section and guitar riff, this 1980 tune spotlights everything that was unique about Van Halen Mark I: Eddie Van Halen's imaginative riffing and electrifying solos and, of course, David Lee Roth's vampy, snarky vocal style. Roth has never been one of my favorite rock singers, but his delivery can never be accused of lacking personality. Ultimately, the most memorable part of the song revolves around its two central guitar solos, and at the core of those is a line from Roth that always brings a smile: "Have you seen Junior's grades?" This is theatrical hard rock expertly executed that manages to maintain a pungent distinction from sister style heavy metal.
Whatever one may say about Van Halen's limitations, it's difficult to question the band's ability to rock out not only with aggression and conviction but with a singular flair no one else has ever quite matched. Such is the case on this track, another highlight from 1980's solid Women and Children First, which skillfully plays Eddie Van Halen's guitar work against Roth's hammy, exotic style in the verses. And although that contrast of personalities made for a volatile situation for the band, as the story goes, it also resulted in a magic the band was never able to recapture during the Van Hagar years.
There's nowhere to go but down from the introductory riff to this song, a sweeping, transcendent piece of work indeed from Eddie Van Halen that anchors the proceedings with style on 1981's Fair Warning. Nonetheless, the band does its best to construct a decent rock song around it, succeeding fairly well by bringing in its trademark harmony vocals during an interesting, syncopated bridge. It's never made a lot of sense to search for much lyrical depth in Van Halen tunes, and that rule holds true here as well. But for fans looking for aggressive, good-time rock and roll, cranking up this song is always mission instantly accomplished.
This is perhaps the band's most underrated gem, a sultry slow burn from 1982's rather disappointing collection of mostly head-scratching covers, Diver Down. Eddie Van Halen's intricate, almost gentle guitar work certainly stands as a highlight, but Roth's vocals demonstrate not only his singing ability and showmanship but his rather left-field stylistic influences that somehow work anyway. After all, Roth was always a spandex-clad lounge singer who seemed to like getting a cardio workout during his performances. What an odd, unique stew the band created from its maverick central creative duo.
While there's not much that comes out of searching for links between Van Halen and punk rock, the speed and intensity of this song nonetheless have far more in common with that genre than much of the hair metal that followed in the wake of the blockbuster 1984 album. Of course, when you throw in the inherent theatricality of Roth and the rest of the band (I mean, no one held a gun to their heads and made them wear the orange suits with the white gloves in the song's unforgettable music video, right?), you realize pretty quickly we're dealing with a decadent L.A. hard rock band that still has no equal.
6. "I'll Wait"
Along with "Jump," which fails to make this list only because it doesn't need the publicity, this power ballad from 1984 helped introduce a synthesizer-heavy pop sound that would carry Van Halen through the mid-'80s. And while some fans objected to the new direction, it was probably inevitable that an artist as meticulous as Eddie Van Halen would have to evolve in some ways. As for the song itself, it proves that Eddie was as adept with keyboard riffs as guitar riffs, and the melodic sense exhibited here matches Roth's strengths while carving out an ever-expanding audience for the band's music.
Although many fans are venomously opposed to the band's second, arguably more successful era with Sammy Hagar at the helm, the fact is that 5150 stands up well to scrutiny as a very tight, varied album that measures up favorably with any record the band ever released. Well, maybe it's not strictly a fact, more like a controversial, forceful statement from yours truly. Nonetheless, this song kicks off the Van Hagar era with a bang, buoyed by Hagar's playful "Hello, baby" pronouncement at the beginning of the song. Even better, Eddie Van Halen's riffing and songwriting seem as good as ever here, helping the band to maintain its blistering form.
Like it or not, as the '80s wore on, Eddie Van Halen began to reveal a growing affinity for the versatility of keyboards and a thirst for branching out musically. He combined these elements to become an ever more skillful purveyor of the power ballad, and this song may be Van Halen's most soaring, compelling moment in that department. Ready-made for uplifting sports montages, the tune posed a key question to fans about whether or not they were able or willing to handle a Van Halen with pop sensibilities as strong if not stronger than its ass-kicking rock and roll tendencies of the past. So which side are you on?
Appropriately titled to match the ambitions of the new Van Halen, this rocker spotlights all the best tools at the band's disposal, featuring a classic Eddie Van Halen riff and some of the guitarist's most subtle, textured playing. It also boasts a great, arena-ready sing-along chorus, and though he can be as annoyingly blustery as Roth, two things that can't be questioned about Hagar are the strength and precision of his pipes. So even if this expanding pop sensibility never translated into another No. 1 hit for Van Halen, it's certainly possible it helped buy the band some additional years.
Maybe it's my teenage memory of the hot but extremely '80s chicks from the song's music video, but I continue to have a bit of a soft spot for this interesting tune from 1988's OU812. Musically, the track certainly takes a cross-genre approach, maximizing the harmony vocals of Michael Anthony and Eddie Van Halen against a nearly Southwest-sounding guitar shuffle. In addition, Hagar delivers some of his most nuanced, soulful singing yet, and the result is an endlessly interesting if somewhat jarring departure from the power-chord rock fans had been accustomed to from Van Halen. Or, maybe it's just the hot gunslinging women after all.