Not since Datsun cars with tape decks lined high school parking lots have so many people been listening to Van Halen as they are this week.
After Eddie Van Halen’s death to cancer at age 65 on Tuesday, both new and old fans have been flooding record stores and streaming sites seeking his namesake band’s canon of cannonballing rock ’n’ roll. Jamie’s crying, and so are we.
The good news is that many of the records hold up. There’s a joyfulness and cocksure energy in Eddie’s guitar playing that slashes through the troubling mire of 2020. And unlike a lot of the ’80s metal they inspired and some of their own records with Sammy Hagar on vocals, the original 1977-84 albums boast a timeless sound quality, despite original lead singer David Lee Roth’s sexist mumbo-jumbo.
Here’s a ranking of the band’s best albums for those too young to have ever owned them, or those old enough to have not listened to them since their last boombox or Datsun went kaput.
1. “Van Halen” (1978): A cornerstone of American rock ’n’ roll, plain and simple. Turn it up to 11.
2. “Fair Warning” (1981): It only produced one radio hit, “Unchained,” but it’s the most guttural and visceral of the LPs, led by the nuggets “Mean Street” and “One Foot Out the Door.”
3. “Women and Children First” (1980): Also a mean and raucous one but a little more playful, with “Everybody Wants Some!” and “Romeo Delight” as standouts.
4. “Diver Down” (1982): A half-full record, to be sure, but it boasts some of Eddie’s most wicked playing in “Little Guitars” and “Intruder/Oh, Pretty Woman.”
5. “1984” (1984): This one might come more highly recommended if we weren’t still constantly hearing its tracks on FM radio, including “Jump,” “Panama” and (gulp!) “Hot for Teacher.”
6. “Van Halen II” (1979): For better or worse, the hastily made, poppier follow-up to their big debut boasts some of their most boneheaded material in “Beautiful Girls” and “Women in Love.”
7. “5150” (1986): The one good one with Sammy.
8. The Bird & the Bee’s “Interpreting the Masters, Vol. 2: Van Halen” (2019): Unlike Van Halen’s one ill-fated record with Extreme’s Gary Cherone on vocals, this Los Angeles lounge-pop duo’s tribute is supposed to be campy, and it proves Eddie’s songwriting holds up even without the shredding.
9. “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” (1991): The one just-OK album with Sammy.
10. “A Different Kind of Truth” (2012): The reunion record with Diamond Dave was largely made up of reworked ’70s demos. It’s questionable the singer even knew he appears on it.