Sunday, March 11, 2012

Listful Thinking: The Best David Lee Roth Era Van Halen Albums

Why an entire weekend of Van Halen?

Because they rule.

And because my review of 5150 is shaping up to be one of the most read reviews on this site, for reasons that are beyond me. Particularly because I am a fan of the David Lee Roth era Van Halen and was not particularly glowing in my assessment of Sammy Hagar's first entry as Van Halen's lead vocalist.

With the recent addition to A Different Kind Of Truth into the DLR catalog, and with the added surprise that it's pretty freakin' good, I sat down and did a list of the best Van Halen records from the David Lee Roth period.

Feel free to comment on your own list while realizing that the correct list is as follows:

1.) Van Halen
You really do need to start at the beginning with Van Halen’s catalog. Not only does it remain as the band’s best offering, it’s really something you need to hear from start-to-finish to get a better grasp at how the record blew minds when it was first issued. Of course, it’ll be hard to do since the guitar as we know it ultimately changed when Van Halen’s debut was released, but just imagine how every tone, note and solo on that left anyone with even a minor interest with the instrument scratching their heads in amazement. Even the covers are vital as it doesn’t hide from the fact that Van Halen cut their teeth on the club circuit and filled out the gaps with a plethora of cover songs, occasionally rivaling the originals.

2.) Women & Children First
For most bands, the third record typically stands as the make or break effort. It’s a release that demonstrates their creative mettle, an opportunity to build upon the first two records (generally, one in the same) while pointing the way for future endeavors. Van Halen could have easily taken the easy road with Women & Children First, playing down their heavier elements in favor for more commercial pastures like they did with “Dance The Night Away” from II. Thankfully, they didn’t. Instead, they brought out songs that were aggressive, clever, and anything but safe.

3.) Fair Warning
Even darker than Women & Children First, Fair Warning remains as the overlooked gem in Van Halen’s cannon. Exposing the soft white underbelly that decadence afforded them, Fair Warning combines massive riffs with naughty subject matter and if the stories of inner-band turmoil are true, at least they were going out on fire.

4.) 1984
For all the drama it create and for all the success it garnered, 1984 straddles a fine line of commercial appeal while sounding like a legitimate step ahead. How they would have followed this record is anyone’s guess, but methinks Eddie would have held a bigger role since 1984 is a big “fuck you” to Dave’s logical assumption that nobody wants to hear keyboards from rock’s greatest living guitar player. Guitar Player subscribers don’t, but fans of Top 40 radio sure did. Thankfully, 1984 is incredibly consistent-maybe the most consistent V.H. album since the debut-and it still plays like the same kegger party soundtrack that it was when first released.

5.) A Different Kind Of Truth
Ranked high not only for the fact that it has more good to great tracks than either II or Diver Down, it also came after an improbable delay. I mean, no one should release albums this good after such a layoff and after so much drama has transpired. Yet here we are, looking at a record that begs to be played now as well as a decade later-which is probably when people will begin to realize how good Truth really is.

6.) II
How do you follow up a debut record that changes the face of the rock and roll guitar and introduces an entirely new genre in the rock ‘n roll landscape? You can’t. Instead, the members of Van Halen rushed back into the studio and cherry-picked the best remaining songs from their club days and released them as the follow up to Van Halen. II isn’t a bad album, it just isn’t a great album like the debut. While the debut sounded like it was created by a band of otherworldly talent, II sounds like the work of a really good rock band with songs that cater to the beer ‘n cigarette days of the Sunset Strip. A while there are a few awesome tracks, there’s also garbage like the opening cover “You’re No Good,” which sounds just as weak today as it did thirty years ago.

7.) Diver Down
I can remember how excited I was at the news of the Diver Down release as a freshman in high school. Immediately after purchasing it, I remember how disappointed I was with the results. 31 minutes, almost half the songs are cover versions, 3 tunes are instrumentals with one of them nothing more than filler music for a fucking video. The sad thing is that Diver Down contains three must have originals (“Hang ‘Em High”, “Little Guitars,” and “The Full Bug”) which means that most fans ended up shelling out hard earned cash for an album that the band didn’t seem to put much work into beforehand.

Honorable Mentions:

“Me Wise Magic” and “Can’t Get That Stuff No More”

A pair of tracks from the band’s first greatest hits compilation, when the band was toying with the notion of joining forces with Dave again. Given the band’s DLR catalog, these tracks probably rank towards the bottom. But when compared to their entire output, including their tenure with Sammy Hagar, the songs are a much tolerable affair, providing hints as to what Van Halen might have sounded like if Roth had remained the frontman and followed Eddie’s increasing dominance in song arrangement and structure.

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