This list will piss some people off, and I don’t care. What you are about to read is true. This is a ranking, from best to, well, least best, of the six Van Halen albums.
Now, some of you will quickly blurt out, “But there are way more than six VH records.” No, there aren’t.
The first six releases, from the first album through 1984, all with David Lee Roth, are the only Van Halen albums.
What came after was a different thing. Sure, there are some good tunes and obviously lots of great guitar playing, but calling anything past 1984 a “Van Halen” album is like calling South Saturn Delta a Jimi Hendrix Experience record. It’s not, and you shouldn’t say that it is.
So here you go. This list is based on approximately 1.5 million hours spent listening to, studying, and obsessing over these awesome releases and dozens of live shows going back to the 1979 Tour of the World. You can disagree if you like, but you’d be wrong.
Best VH record of all time. Yeah, I said it. This astounding offering features the best tones, the most imaginative parts, and the greatest solos that Eddie ever recorded. “Unchained” is a strong contender for the greatest riff ever. The solo to “So This Is Love” swings with reckless abandon. The lead break on “When Push Comes to Shove,” (one of Steve Vai’s favorite Van Halen moments) is perfect in every way. The tone in the intro to “Hear About It Later” is a flat-out awesome example of a semi-clean rock tone with modulation on it. Not just the best VH album, one of the best guitar albums in history.
Greatest hard rock debut ever? Maybe. This album changed the world overnight in an almost “Beatles on Ed Sullivan” kind of way. My neighborhood went from having one kid who played guitar to seven in the space of a couple of months, and it was all because of Van Halen. The tunes are amazing, the tones were absolutely unheard of at the time (but would instantly become the most imitated tones on the planet), and the guitar parts—rhythm and lead—blew minds and ended some careers while launching others. “Eruption” got all the pub, but the solos in “I’m the One” and “”On Fire” are otherworldly and the rhythm guitar in “Jamie’s Cryin’” is criminally underrated.
Van Halen II
This pick will raise some hackles, but the fact is that on VH II, Eddie Van Halen expanded the state of the art by leaps and bounds. The tapped harmonic intro to “Women in Love” was a game changer, and the tone was massively influential. Ed’s solo on “You’re No Good” is perfectly composed and the rhythm pocket of his “Beautiful Girls” riffs kicks every available ass. The second record is viewed as light by some (probably because “Dance the Night Away” gets overplayed), but only when you compare it to their heaviest work.
The huge hits can sometimes obscure the fact that the compositions are so deep and strong on this release. “Drop Dead Legs,” "House of Pain,” and “Girl Gone Bad” all show Ed’s dark, complex sense of harmony and melody. The guitar work is fresh and vital, with amazing riffs in all the aforementioned tunes, as well as brilliant solos in those and “I’ll Wait.” The hits feature great guitar work too, they’ve just been played to death. If you haven’t hear the deeper cuts lately, though, give them another listen.
Several readers might have this one at #6. It’s somewhat easy to dismiss due to the fact that it was short (barely a half hour, although VH II was only a few seconds longer), it was half cover tunes, and Ed’s guitar tones were a little thinner and a little harsher. But once you get past “(Oh) Pretty Woman” and dig into the originals, there is some amazing stuff here. “Secrets” features some of his nicest chord work and a gorgeous tone, “Little Guitars” is an incredibly inventive progression (and the tone features a rare appearance of an MXR Chorus unit), and “Cathedral” got thousands of players doing volume swells and using timed delays. It’s a great album, just not as great as the ones above it on this list.
Women and Children First
Well, some record had to come in last and this is the one. That certainly isn’t to say it lacks killer riffs and tones. “Romeo Delight” and “Fools” both deliver on those fronts, and “In a Simple Rhyme” features driving verse power chords and a gorgeous half-time breakdown. But the solos just aren’t as thought out or ass-kicking on this album, and it doesn’t have a signature “moment” like all the others. If this were any other band, Women and Children First would likely be the greatest thing they ever did, but we’re not talking about any other band. We’re talking about the mighty Van Halen, and they set the bar so freakishly high with the other five that even they can fall a little short.
Sadly, Van Halen never released another album ever, but these six gems will live on forever.