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Best Van Halen Albums: Their Studio Discography, Ranked And Reviewed
Warner Music
List & Guides

Best Van Halen Albums: Their Studio Discography, Ranked And Reviewed

Blessed with Eddie Van Halen’s virtuosic skills, the best Van Halen albums amount to one of hard rock’s most enduring legacies.

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Any band with Eddie Van Halen’s virtuosity has a head start, yet the much-missed Californian guitarist had far more to offer than simply his much-admired shredding technique. Indeed, Eddie also brought his highly advanced compositional skills to the table – and when he aligned these with a crack rhythm section and not just one, but three fantastic frontmen, that meant his band could move with the times and remain among the world’s biggest and most revered hard-rock acts for the best part of two decades. Van Halen’s legacy is liberally spread across a dozen records, and this countdown of the best Van Halen albums treats it with the respect it deserves.

Listen to the best of Van Halen here, and check out our best Van Halen albums, below.

12: ‘A Different Kind Of Truth’ (2012)

Almost 30 years after climaxing with the stupendous 1984 album, Van Halen finally returned to the studio with their original frontman, David Lee Roth, for a new record. With Eddie Van Halen’s son, Wolfgang, replacing original bassist Michael Anthony, and a tracklist comprised of material written and demoed but not previously completed to the band’s exacting standards during their late 70s/early 80s heyday, A Different Kind Of Truth featured some great songs which favourably recalled past glories (She’s The Woman and China Town). It has strong competition among the best Van Halen albums, but the very fact it existed at all was reason enough for most fans to hoist the flag.

Must hear: She’s The Woman

11: ‘Van Halen III’ (1998)

The only Van Halen album cut with former Extreme singer Gary Cherone fronting the band, 1998’s Van Halen III was put together during difficult circumstances (Cherone was brought in to replace longtime Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar, and bassist Michael Anthony quit during the recording sessions). Yet excellent tracks such as Without You, Fire In The Hole and the epic, keyboard-driven Once all suggest that Van Halen III was, artistically, a triumph over adversity.

Must hear: Once

10: ‘Balance’ (1995)

The final of four consecutive Van Halen titles recorded with David Lee Roth’s replacement, Sammy Hagar, at the helm, Balance was again put together under pressure. Behind the scenes, relations between Hagar and the Van Halen brothers had become strained, and the album’s supporting tour was marred by various physical injuries, leading to it being dubbed “The Ambulance Tour”. Nonetheless, Balance still moved over three million copies in the US, and it remains memorable among the best Van Halen albums for containing several belting tracks in Take Me Back (Déjà Vu), the anthemic Can’t Stop Lovin’ You and the dark, mystical The Seventh Seal.

Must hear: The Seventh Seal

9: ‘Diver Down’ (1982)

In contrast to its meticulously compiled predecessor, Fair Warning[], Van Halen’s fifth album, Diver Down, was recorded at lightning speed. The record’s freshly penned originals (which zigzag from the ominous, soundtrack-esque Intruder to the dextrous, Spanish-flavoured Secrets) are dazzlingly eclectic, and there’s a clutch of spirited covers, the highlight of which is an attitude-soaked take of The Kinks’ Where Have All The Good Times Gone? Everything on Diver Down is performed with such pizzazz it renders the details of the recording process itself redundant.

Must hear: Where Have All The Good Times Gone?

8: ‘OU812’ (1988)

The second of the Sammy Hagar-fronted Van Halen albums, OU812 reputedly took its strange title from a car license plate in cult US comedy film Cheech And The Chong’s Movie, but there was nothing obscure about the lean, radio-friendly rock it showcased. The album’s slick production helped yield four US smash hits (including the monster power ballad When It’s Love), and OU812’s place among the best Van Halen albums was confirmed when it became the first of four consecutive Billboard 200 chart-toppers for the group.

Must hear: When It’s Love

7: ‘For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge’ (1991)

After the relatively glossy production values of the multi-platinum OU812, Van Halen’s ninth album, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, was touted as a return to the band’s hard-rock roots, with fewer synthesisers in the mix and original producer Ted Templeton returning to man the console for the first time since working on one of the best Van Halen albums in history, 1984.

The record’s provocative title (springing from the not-entirely-accurate notion that “fuck” was an acronym for the phrase “for unlawful carnal knowledge”) was intended as a dig at censorship in the music industry, though some of its songs (not least Spanked and the grinding opener, Poundcake) were also pretty near the knuckle. However, the album’s anthemic signature hit, Right Now – which reflected on social issues such as safe sex and slave labour in the workplace – was a major step forward for the group in terms of both content and composition, and it still sits proudly among the best Van Halen songs.

Must hear: Right Now

6: ‘Women And Children First’ (1980)

Van Halen’s triple-platinum third album, Women And Children First, contained plenty of the high-octane rock’n’roll that Eddie Van Halen and co had made their own on Van Halen’s self-titled debut album and Van Halen II, yet it also captured the band branching out on more adventurous material such as In A Simple Rhyme, the keyboard-driven And The Cradle Will Rock… and the Delta blues-flavoured Could This Be Magic?, which featured vocals from Nicolette Larson, who had previously scored a Top 10 US hit with a cover of a Neil Young song, Lotta Love, from Young’s 1978 album, Comes A Time. At this stage, though, it was still the band’s more visceral material which copped the plaudits, with Rolling Stone’s David Fricke favourably comparing Eddie Van Halen’s guitar wizardry to Jimi Hendrix, and referring to Women And Children First’s out-and-out rockers, Romeo Delight and Everybody Wants Some!!, as “works of high-volume art.”

Must hear: Could This Be Magic?

5: ‘Van Halen II’ (1979)

Though a consolidation on the aggressive, yet catchy, hard-rock sound premiered on the band’s self-titled debut album, Van Halen II also saw the band go heavier on tracks such as Light Up The Sky and the crunching D.O.A., and lighter on the record’s two infectiously melodic radio hits, Beautiful Girls and Dance The Night Away. The latter song also provided the Los Angeles quartet with their breakthrough US Top 20 hit, securing Van Halen II’s place among the best Van Halen albums, while the instrumental Spanish Fly was a breathtaking acoustic shred-fest which swept away any misplaced doubt that Eddie Van Halen was a musician with a truly singular talent.

Must hear: Dance The Night Away

3: ‘Fair Warning’ (1981)

Van Halen’s fourth album, Fair Warning, contained some of the band’s fiercest and most uncompromising rock songs, not least the prowling Meat Street and the flange-enhanced Unchained, both of which remain firm fan favourites today. One of the best Van Halen albums of the 80s, it peaked at No.5 in the US and eventually went double platinum, and its critical reputation continues to grow, with a Rolling Stone reappraisal suggesting it “showcases the band’s coiled power better than any other Van Halen albums”.

Must hear: Unchained

2: ‘Van Halen’ (1978)

A landmark hard-rock release later hailed as an influence by the likes of Guns N’ Roses, Poison and Mötley Crüe, Van Halen’s self-titled debut album proved to be a game-changer at a time when old-school rock’n’roll had largely been strangled by punk. Effectively a live-in-the-studio take of the band’s then current live set, Van Halen remains as explosive and accessible today as it did when it first hit the racks in February 1978, and its landmark tracks, among them Runnin’ With The Devil, I’m The One, Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love and Atomic Punk, are still the embodiment of exhilarating late-70s rock.

Must hear: Runnin’ With The Devil

1: ‘1984’ (1984)

Unlike some bands, the record that heads this list of the best Van Halen albums doesn’t automatically pick itself. Indeed, for blazing the trail, Van Halen’s debut could top this list, while 5150 has a claim if the emphasis is on sales figures. However, if we’re looking to single out the most complete Van Halen album, the best point of entry into the band’s catalogue is surely the magnificent 1984. Van Halen’s final album with David Lee Roth for almost 30 years (and only held off the top of the Billboard 200 by Michael Jackson’s Thriller), 1984 is stuffed wall-to-wall with classics. Its USP is probably still the ubiquitous Jump, but with the likes of Panama, Hot For Teacher, House Of Pain and I’ll Wait all coming up on the rails – and the sleeve painting gifting us one of the best Van Halen album covers – it’s simply one of those incredible albums, up there with the likes of AC/DC’s Back In Black and Nirvana’s Nevermind, which gets to places most classic-rock records simply can’t reach.

Must hear: Jump

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