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Best Van Halen Songs: 20 Hard Rock Classics That Broke All The Rules
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List & Guides

Best Van Halen Songs: 20 Hard Rock Classics That Broke All The Rules

From merciless metal riffs to synth-pop hooks, the best Van Halen songs outran the competition with their colossal hard-rock ferocity.

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With the vim of hard rock and the vigour of glam metal, Van Halen wasted no time at all in becoming one of the greatest rock bands of all time. Embracing synth keyboards as well as crunching guitars, the pioneering spirit of guitarist Eddie Van Halen hovers over a majestic body of work that never failed to inspire a legion of headbangers. Take a jump back in time and explore our list of the best Van Halen songs…

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

20: Don’t Tell Me (What Love Can Do) (from ‘Balance’, 1995)

In the year after the untimely death of grunge icon Kurt Cobain, Van Halen released their 1995 single Don’t Tell Me (What Love Can Do), in which Sammy Hagar addressed the tragedy of the Nirvana songwriter’s suicide. “Kurt Cobain could have been saved,” Hagar asserted in his memoir, Red: My Uncensored Life In Rock. “I wrote that song about it to say you have control over your destiny.” Reaching No.27 in the UK, this forgotten gem was one of the best songs from the band’s tenth album, Balance.

19: Poundcake (from ‘For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge’, 1991)

The spark for Van Halen’s 1991 single Poundcake was lit when a studio maintenance man used a Makita power drill on some studio equipment while Eddie Van Halen was recording his guitar part. “He picked up the drill, and my guitar happened to be on,” Eddie Van Halen said. “It sounded cool, but it was a total accident.” Using the drill sound as a jumping-off point, and then expertly deploying it again during the solo, Poundcake peaked at No.74 in the UK and is a classic example of Eddie’s remarkable ear for tinkering with unusual sonic experiments and industrial sound effects.

18: Humans Being (from the ‘Twister’ soundtrack, 1996)

Appearing on the soundtrack to the 1996 movie Twister, the tornado-like riff on Humans Being perfectly complements the edge-of-your-seat antics of storm chasers cruising through Oklahoma. A swirling work of hard-rock gusto, the song was created during a difficult time for the group, when Eddie Van Halen was undergoing hip surgery. As it happens, this would be the final single the band would release with their second lead singer, Sammy Hagar, but it remains one of the best Van Halen songs for the way in which its tempestuous guitar work transports listeners straight into the heart of tornado alley.

17: Right Now (from ‘Unlawful Carnal Knowledge’, 1992)

Stealing the thunder from Nirvana’s Smell Like Teen Spirit, Van Halen’s politically charged single Right Now won Video Of The Year at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards. Featuring some of Sammy Hagar’s best lyrics, the song saw the group address social issues such as wage slavery and the AIDS crisis, all set to a miasmic piano riff and stomping hard-rock groove. Instantly asserting itself as one of the best Van Halen songs, Right Now sees Hagar belting out a tortured wail decrying society’s ills, culminating in a masterfully cathartic solo from Eddie Van Halen. Going political certainly didn’t do the group any harm, as the song peaked at No.55 on the US Hot 100 and perfectly showcased Hagar’s uncompromising intensity.

16: Love Walks In (from ‘5150’, 1986)

Having replaced David Lee Roth as Van Halen’s lead singer for the band’s seventh album, 5150, Sammy Hagar’s lyrical input aimed to launch the group into the realm of science fiction. With its otherworldly synths as a backdrop, the power ballad Love Walks In was inspired by Hagar’s reading of a book called Aliens Among Us by Ruth Montgomery which argues that our planet is already inhabited by extraterrestrial visitors that are lurking in the shadows. “I think Edward Van Halen is an alien,” Hagar jokingly said during an MTV interview. “I don’t know what planet he’s from, but they all play guitar.” Flying high like a UFO, Love Walks In reached No.22 and spent 15 weeks on the US charts.

15: Dreams (from ‘5150’, 1986)

Cited as Sammy Hagar’s favourite song he recorded with Van Halen, the 1986 synth-rock single Dreams is a pure nugget of 80s nostalgia. Apparently inspired by the success of the Top Gun movie, it boasted a music video compiled from footage of fighter jets from the US Navy performing aerial stunts. The clip became hugely successful on MTV and helped the song to peak at No.22 in the US, later prompting the US military to use it as part of their recruitment drive. Naturally, Dreams itself is as effective as a homing missile. “That’s one of the best things my father ever wrote,” Eddie Van Halen’s son, Wolfgang, later said.

14: Finish What Ya Started (from ‘OU812’, 1988)

Released in September 1988, Finish What Ya Started saw Van Halen take a slight U-turn and explore a more bluesy sound than they had previously attempted. Eschewing hard-rock bombast, the song was written by Eddie Van Halen and Sammy Hagar in Malibu while drinking tequila and smoking cigarettes on the porch, and you can practically feel the humidity of the Californian dusk emanating from the speakers. With Hagar’s lascivious lyrics hinting at sexual dissatisfaction, the down-at-heel twang of Eddie’s guitar and the song’s ambulating rhythm demonstrated the group’s proficient musicality, helping Finish What Ya Started to peak at No.13 on the US Hot 100

13: Can’t Stop Loving You (from ‘Balance’, 1995)

Written in the aftermath of Sammy Hagar’s divorce from his first wife, Betsy Berardi, Can’t Stop Loving You is the Van Halen singer’s attempt to write a song from his wife’s perspective. Ostensibly a maudlin love ballad, it sees Hagar’s gritty voice leap passionately to a higher plane as he imagines the possibility that his ex-wife is still in love with him. As one of the best Van Halen songs, Can’t Stop Loving You embodied a strain of euphoric power balladry much in favour with mid-90s audiences, and it reached No.33 in the UK in 1995. With Eddie’s guitar solo twisting the listener’s heart in as many knots as an absent lover, the song transcends presumptuousness and taps into a beleaguered romanticism only Van Halen could reach.

12: When It’s Love (from ‘OU812’, 1988)

A full-on glam-metal power ballad, When It’s Love was the second single from Van Halen’s second album with Sammy Hagar, OU812. Starting with a symphonic swell of synths before erupting into a strutting rock riff, the song sees Hagar wrap his vocal chords around a rousing chorus that invokes teenage infatuation. When It’s Love was yet another US Top 10 hit for the band, reaching No.5, and it even peaked at No.28 in the UK. Apparently the first song to be brought to the studio by Hagar during the making of OU812, it’s most notable for Eddie’s grandiloquent guitar solo.

11: Why Can’t This Be Love? (from ‘5150’, 1986)

With David Lee Roth’s departure as lead singer, and the arrival of new frontman Sammy Hagar, Van Halen kicked off a whole new era with their 1986 single Why Can’t This Be Love? With keyboards becoming prominent once again, as on the mega-hit Jump before it, Why Can’t This Be Love? was propelled with burbling synth notes and an undeniably catchy chorus, with the band’s chemistry melding brilliantly with Sammy Hagar’s incumbent vocals. Relishing his newfound role as lead singer, Hagar’s arrival worked to Van Halen’s advantage – the song peaked at No.3 in the US and No.8 in the UK, making it not just one of the best Van Halen songs, but also one of their biggest hits.

10: Jamie’s Cryin’ (from ‘Van Halen’, 1978)

One of the highlights on Van Halen’s 1978 debut album, Jamie’s Cryin’ captures the band at the dawn of their imperial phase. A swaggering rocker about a one-night stand, the song quickly became a fan favourite and sees singer David Lee Roth on fine form. As it happens, Roth attempted to lay down a sweeter vocal for Jamie’s Cryin’ by avoiding cigarettes and alcohol, but, after a few failed attempts, producer Ted Templeman plied him with booze and smokes to restore him to glory. Though it lacks the pace of some of their seminal hits, Jamie’s Cryin’ captures a long-lost rock’n’roll era before Spinal Tap had the nerve to parody it. It remains hard to beat.

9: And The Cradle Will Rock… (from ‘Women And Children First’, 1980)

The sole single from Van Halen’s third album, Women And Children First, And The Cradle Will Rock… is a hard-rock powerhouse. Featuring a pummelling rhythm that shakes you to the core, it also marked the first time Eddie Van Halen played a Wurtlizer electric piano, feeding the instrument through a Marshall amp with almost proggy zeal. Eddie and his brother, drummer Alex Van Halen, reportedly practised the main riff in a basement for two hours a day across two weeks in order to nail the syncopation. A rock’n’roll masterclass in precision among the best Van Halen songs, And the Cradle Will Rock… is a wilful demonstration of the band’s hard-rock superiority.

8: Unchained (from ‘Fair Warning’, 1981)

Manna for the headbanging masses, Van Halen’s 1981 single Unchained was a throbbing and thunderous rocker, with a volcano-rousing guitar solo from Eddie that stands tall among the best Van Halen songs. Taken from the group’s Fair Warning album, the song also contains one of singer David Lee Roth’s most epic moments. “C’mon, Dave, gimme a break!” shouts producer Ted Templeman towards the end of the song. “Hey, hey, hey! One break, coming up!” Roth responds, ripping into the chorus once again like a spirited wolverine. A barnstorming performance in more ways than one, Unchained is nothing short of jaw-dropping.

7: Hot For Teacher (from ‘1984’, 1984)

Kicking off with an awe-inspiring drum solo from Alex Van Halen, Hot For Teacher, the fourth single from the 1984 album, found the band in their MTV-era pomp. A gleefully lurid celebration of schoolboy lust, the song reached No.56 in the US and put listeners in detention with Eddie Van Halen’s boogie-based riff on his Gibson Flying V. In a controversial but iconic music video featuring a Playboy model as a class teacher, the band wore matching suits and performed a tongue-in-cheek choreographed dance. Their moves may not have gotten the highest grades but, when it came to rock’n’roll, Van Halen were clearly top of the class, and Hot For Teacher never fails in schooling even their harshest critics.

6: Eruption/You Really Got Me (from ‘Van Halen’, 1978)

Call us out for cheating if you like, but it’s best if we consider Eruption and You Really Got Me as a double entry in our list of the best Van Halen songs. After all, in line with the sequencing of their debut album’s tracklist, the band often played the tracks back-to-back during their concert shows, and radio stations still often play them together. Eruption is, of course, truly exemplary, showcasing Eddie Van Halen’s unique two-handed guitar tapping technique that pioneered new developments for 80s metal. You Really Got Me was a Kinks cover that took a British Invasion classic and gave it a metal-tinged makeover, smothering it with a deranged squall of distortion. If you need proof that Eddie Van Halen was the greatest guitarist since Jimi Hendrix, then look no further than this two-pronged assault on the senses.

5: Jump (from ‘1984’, 1984)

For many, Jump was Van Halen’s era-defining classic, going to No.1 in the US and No.7 in the UK following its single release in December 1983. The song’s iconic Oberheim synth hook served notice that the group were taking a creative leap in an entirely new direction, and Jump immediately asserted itself as one of the best Van Halen songs. Singer David Lee Roth was known for performing star jumps during gigs, and, fittingly for one of the best workout songs, the inspiration for Jump actually came from Roth’s kickboxing trainer Benny Urquidez. Roth would undergo training for three hours a day so that he could please fans with his stage-based acrobatics. “I can teach you to jump up in five seconds – it takes years to learn how to land properly,” he would later say.

4: Dance The Night Away (from ‘Van Halen II’, 1979)

Peaking at No.15 in the US, Van Halen’s 1979 single Dance The Night Away was written when the band spotted a drunk woman having sex with her boyfriend in a parking lot. After she danced in the front row of a club with her jeans on backwards, the band wrote Dance The Night Away as an ode to free-spirited abandon and unbridled excess. As the lead single from 1979’s Van Halen II, it was embraced for its blast of rock’n’roll radio-friendliness and cocksure pop nous. Encapsulating Van Halen at their most instant and catchy, Dance The Night Away shows that hard-rock bands could easily compete with the danceability of disco, if only they had the nerve to try.

3: Runnin’ With The Devil (from ‘Van Halen’, 1978)

Blessed with one of Eddie Van Halen’s most earth-scorching riffs, Runnin’ With The Devil catapulted the band into hard-rock history when it reached No.52 in the UK in April 1978. Its stonking bassline leads into a leisurely groove before dragging listeners up from the abyss with David Lee Roth’s mischievous screech and Eddie Van Halen’s fleet-fingered soloing. Standing head and shoulders above most of their hard rock peers in the late 70s, Runnin’ With The Devil doesn’t just deserve to be regarded as one of the best Van Halen songs, it also deserves recognition for signalling the arrival of a band who were always destined to give rock’n’roll an adrenaline shot.

2: Panama (from ‘1984’)

Inspired by David Lee Roth’s 1951 Mercury lowrider, Panama speeds its way into our list of the best Van Halen songs like a getaway driver evading the law. Recorded in Van Halen’s newly-built 5150 studio, Eddie recorded engine noises by reversing a Lamborghini up the driveway and revving it to the max. Putting pedal to the metal, his breakneck guitar soloing leaves scorch marks on the soul, and the song has since become a drive-time classic, never failing to get motors running. Panama reached No.13 in the US and assuaged the hearts of Van Halen’s hard-rock faithful after the synth-fuelled Jump. Without a doubt, it’s a career highlight.

1: Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love (from ‘Van Halen’, 1978)

Of all Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solos, it could be argued that 1978’s Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love is his ballsiest. Parodying the gumption of punk music, Eddie’s spidery soloing outright rejects that scene’s amateurish manifesto by spinning a web with two virtuosic solos. While David Lee Roth sings about casual sex, the drone of an electric sitar buzzes underneath, making Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love so electrifying you can practically feel the static. High-voltage and vicious, Van Halen’s performance on this song walks the tightrope between punk and heavy metal. Breaking the rules in only the way they can, Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love is Van Halen’s ear-shredding masterpiece, and that’s why it tops our list of the best Van Halen songs.

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