Ranking Every Van Halen Album From Worst to Best

Eddie Van Halen left behind a legacy that ranks high among the pantheon of rock gods

Van Halen ranking featured
Eddie Van Halen, photo by Philip Cosores

    It took the death of their iconic guitarist to finally stop Van Halen. For four decades, the band seemed like it could adapt to and survive anything. The arrival and departure of multiple lead singers. The rise of MTV. The births of heavier styles of rock that overtook the hearts and t-shirt collections of fans worldwide. Drugs and alcohol. Health problems. A constant clashing of egos and personalities. Even if they weren’t releasing music. Van Halen seemed destined to limp forward like a rusting muscle car for eternity.

    But on October 6th, 2020, the linchpin of the band’s sound, guitarist Eddie Van Halen, passed away and closed the book on one of the greatest rock groups of all time. As Wolfgang, Eddie’s son and the band’s latter-day bassist, put it to Howard Stern a month after his dad’s passing, “You can’t have Van Halen without Eddie Van Halen.”

    That’s not a “my dad can beat up your dad” rose-colored view. As important as bassist Michael Anthony, drummer Alex Van Halen, and the trio of singers who moved in and out of the group — David Lee Roth, Sammy Hagar, and Gary Cherone — were to Van Halen’s 12 studio albums, the core of their sound was Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing. He was a fleet-fingered dynamo who loved to play around with tone and dynamics, and to pair chunky rhythm work with squealing, flickering solos. He remained constant even as his band refused to do the same.


    These 12 albums represent the life work of Eddie Van Halen, the immigrant from the Netherlands who arrived in the States not knowing a lick of English and, starting in the bars and backyards of Pasadena, California, became a guitar god. No matter how you might reshuffle our ranking, his legacy is set and will outlive us all. Might as well jump in and see where your favorite Van Halen album wound up. —Robert Ham

    12. Van Halen III (1998)

    Van Halen III

    Runnin’ with the Details (Analysis): Everything about the penultimate Van Halen album felt off. The artwork was chintzy. The music was shot through with that “digital loudness war” awfulness. What bass playing remained on the album after Michael Anthony was roughly hip-checked out of the sessions was plodding and boring. The ballads were syrupy and sickly. There was an electric sitar solo, for pity’s sake.


    And then there was poor Gary Cherone, roped in to replace the replacement. As fine a singer as he is, he was ill-suited for the job at hand. Throughout, he tries to match Sammy Hagar’s throaty bombast or work some of his “More Than Words” magic. Neither approach fit the job at hand. Nor did Eddie Van Halen and company try to work with Cherone and his vocal range. They charged ahead as if shot from the same cannon featured on that awful front cover.

    Which would make the group’s fanbase that poor schlub getting smacked in the guts with a cannonball. That would explain the muted response to Van Halen III. It did reach #4 on the Billboard 200, with the hip-grinding “Fire in the Hole” and the forceful “Without You” making waves on Mainstream Rock Radio. But the empty seats at the accompanying tour was the final word on this era of Van Halen. The band would go quiet for the next five years and VH III would soon take up ample amounts of space in used CD bins.


    Hot for Ever (Best Song): Strangely, the finest moment on VH III is the song that sounds the least like Van Halen. EVH and company were clearly paying attention to the heavy rock being made in Seattle and evoked some of that same rain-soaked spirit in the muscular, dirty “Without You”. What other Van Halen song would dare keep the sound of amp buzz and allow a moment of quiet before EVH’s dive-bombing solo? Even Cherone sounds comfortable here, something that can’t be said for all the songs that follow.

    Not Now (Worst Song): For all his remarkable talents, EVH wasn’t a naturally gifted singer. Yet, here he is, leading the way on the groaningly bad piano ballad “How Many Say I”, while his band’s new and talented lead vocalist was relegated to a support role. A perfect example of peak CD era hubris when so many big artists filled out the running time of their albums with chaff simply because they could. –Robert Ham

    11. Balance (1995)

    Van Halen Balance


    Runnin’ with the Details: The last Van Halen album with Sammy Hagar, Balance heralded the end of an era for Van Halen in many unfortunate ways. Inexplicably, Balance is also the final VH album to achieve platinum status, miraculously selling 3 million copies in the U.S. and reaching #1 on the Billboard 200 chart. It wouldn’t be unfair to demand that the surviving members — and anyone else who worked on the album — send handwritten thank you cards to every single person who spent actual money to buy it.

    A product of the CD era, when even excellent albums tended to drag on, at about 20 minutes longer than the classics, Balance drags pretty much from the opening note. It would be all too easy to point to the rise of grunge and alternative as the reason the band falls so far out of alignment here, but the album’s commercial success proves that losing currency wasn’t the issue. And it’s not like Van Halen were emulating grunge, or like they weren’t up for trying new things — the album is introduced with throat chanting courtesy of The Monks of Gyuto Tantric University, for example, while Eddie tries his hand at an Elton John/Billy Joel-style piano ballad on “Not Enough.” And yet the music is almost utterly bereft of inspiration.

    An unfocused, punishing slog, Balance is the sound of death throes from a lineup that had accomplished so much just a handful of years prior. The title, of course, is misleading — Van Halen had almost completely lost their balance, and this album captures them on the verge of tumbling into the abyss.


    Hot for Ever: With its raunchy, stutter-step groove, guitar fireworks, and heady yeah-yeah backing vocals, “Amsterdam” gives off some promising signs of life. It’s no surprise that the Van Halen brothers were able to raise their pulse in an homage to their original hometown, but it’s too little too late. Listening to “Amsterdam” is like watching a couple of blips on an electrocardiogram before the patient flatlines completely.

    Not Now: You can throw a dart in the air and pick almost any of these tunes as candidates — not only for worst song on this album, but for worst Van Halen song ever. “Can’t Stop Lovin’ You” might just take the cake, though. As the second track, this soulless acoustic-driven “power” ballad signals to the listener that you’re in for a long, painful ride. Seconds after “Can’t Stop Lovin’ You” begins, it’s already time to reach for the parachute. –Saby Reyes-Kulkarni


    10. For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991)

    Van Halen For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge

    Runnin’ with the Details: In the early ’90s, the Van Halen machine was churning ahead with the tour-album-tour cycle, and For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge was greeted with a warm response from fans, at least commercially. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album charts and held the spot for three weeks in the summer of 1991, accompanied by a massive tour. The album saw the return of classic Van Halen producer Ted Templeman, who worked with the band in the David Lee Roth era.

    There is a general feeling of safety in the songwriting and shiny production on For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. The unfortunately titled opener “Poundcake” locks in a fairly standard pop-rock template that is rarely deviated from — to the extinct that some of the hooks on tracks like “Spanked” and “Pleasure Dome” wash out with one another. Repeat listens do reveal the band’s workmanlike approach to songcraft — one that was perhaps too workmanlike to venture far from the established formula.


    Except for the cringeworthy song titles, there’s nothing overtly offensive about For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge … even if that was the initial intent. For those with a keen eye, the album’s title forms a certain acronym. Hagar, enraged by issues of censorship, initially wanted to the title the album “F–k“. More tastefully, the phrase “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” was chosen, originating from a track by occult music pioneers Coven. Also of note, Eddie Van Halen and Peavey would also team for their first 5150 amplifier collaboration, issuing the first amps in the series alongside the new album.

    Hot for Ever: Far and away the most memorable track is the anthemic “Right Now”, lodged deep on the second side of the record. The general slog of repetitious songs on For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge is temporarily relieved by Hagar’s genuinely joyous hook, and Eddie’s guitar, sometimes busy on other songs, shines behind it.


    Not Now: This cake is missing something. Or has it gone stale? Here is a case of the lead single not necessarily being the best track on an album. “Poundcake” is more of a symbolic failure, as it serves as the mold for the similarly weak tracks that follow it. Unfortunately, the bar was set low. –Jon Hadusek

    09. A Different Kind of Truth (2012)

    Van Halen A Different Kind of Truth

    Runnin’ with the Details: The early 21st century seemed like an era where veteran rock bands that had been out of commission for a spell decided to reunite their classic lineups (or in some cases, most of their classic lineups) for a new album and tour. Case in point, Soundgarden, Faith No More, Stone Temple Pilots, Slayer, and of course, Van Halen with David Lee Roth. But with Michael Anthony not invited to partake (the bass spot was occupied by Eddie’s son, Wolfgang), there was some concern about how a new VH album would turn out in 2012 – especially taking into account that the last VH studio album (Van Halen III) was crummy, or, just how truly rocking a new album would be (the last Roth release, 1984, was synth-y).


    That all said, A Different Kind of Truth was surprisingly one of the hardest-rocking VH albums ever. The only criticism is quite a few of the tunes were leftovers from earlier in their career – rather than it being a batch of entirely newly composed songs. And while it’s not as front-to-back flawless as the band’s classic albums (there’s at least a tune or two custom-made for the fast-forward button), A Different Kind of Truth was an absolutely worthy addition to the VH discography.

    Hot for Ever: Few bands were able to balance hard rock and melody – and not have it come off forced, nor with ulterior motives in mind (crossover chart success) – as masterfully as VH did. And the second single off A Different Kind of Truth, “She’s the Woman,” did a dandy job of showcasing this attribute. In addition to featuring a meaty riff, EVH hands in another outstanding solo. Without question, this should have been the first single off of A Different Kind of Truth, not what was offered (read below).


    Not Now: How the heck one of the worst songs on the album was issued as its lead single on VH’s big comeback album will forever remain a mind-boggler. Of course, we’re talkin’ ‘bout “Tattoo.” Everything about the tune is uninspired – the lyrics, the chorus, its leisurely tempo, the music … even its video. In fact, a valid argument could be made that issuing this tune as the first single hurt A Different Kind of Truth – while the album was certainly successful, it was not the blockbuster that many had predicted. And this weak first single may have been the culprit. –Greg Prato

    08. OU812 (1988)

    Van Halen OU812

    Runnin’ with the Details: With the second installment of the Sammy Hagar era, it was clear on a number of levels that Van Halen was a different animal than the band that had conquered the world in its previous incarnation. Concurrently, by 1988, the hard-rock paradigm that Van Halen had spearheaded a decade earlier was now, fairly or not, synonymous with hair metal, and in so many ways Van Halen just weren’t in that place anymore (if they ever were to begin with). There had been hints along the way — “Jump”, for example — that Eddie Van Halen envisioned the band as a vehicle for growth. He and his bandmates fully achieved that growth for the first time with OU812.


    The eighth Van Halen long player showcases Eddie’s keyboard work, with synths dominating songs more than ever. That said, OU812 isn’t a fluff-pop album, or even a pop album per se, but very much a rock album in spirit and temperament. Hard-charging tunes like “Mine All Mine” and “A.F.U. (Naturally Wired)” show that Van Halen could still dial-up the adrenaline, while much of the material reveals a band with a newfound affinity for temperance. And aside from the usual sexual bravado of “Black and Blue”, “Finish What Ya Started”, and “Sucker in a 3 Piece”, we also get a more empathetic, soul-searching perspective on tunes like “Mine All Mine” and “When It’s Love”, both of which convey a yearning to find deeper meaning in life.

    Hot for Ever: One of the distinguishing features of Hagar’s tenure with Van Halen is that the band started churning out love songs. You might consider “Cabo Wabo” a love song, but it’s distinct in that it’s a song driven by a love for place. It’s also an ode to friendship, and to the joy of living. As a result, it’s also Van Halen’s most convincing love song, as you can feel Hagar’s infatuation with the setting he describes. With “Cabo Wabo”, Van Halen had gotten adept at harnessing their firepower to create a new kind of rapture, while still staying faithful to hard rock.


    Not Now: If Eddie Van Halen’s push for more keyboards famously drove a wedge between him and David Lee Roth, a song like “Feels So Good” suggests that Roth may have had a point. The song gurgles along on a synth groove that recalls ZZ Top at their most commercially inclined, while the harmonic structure conjures images of Van Halen trying to out-do Genesis in the wimp-out department. –Saby Reyes-Kulkarni

    07. Diver Down (1982)

    Van Halen Diver Down

    Runnin’ with the Details: After turning in an aggressive entry with Fair Warning, Van Halen went pop for an album. 1982’s Diver Down is occasionally greeted with a tepid response by fans of the band’s heavier output. Yet, the album holds a charm of its own for those who embraced the (power) pop direction. Diver Down is also notable for its dependance on cover songs. Usually, this would be a red flag, pun intended. But the covers are so strong, Diver Down became an accessible entry point for listeners who found the hard rock of Fair Warning too hard and were enticed by Van Halen’s inspired renditions of classic songs.


    Opening with another Kinks cover, “Where Have All the Good Times Gone!”, Van Halen again showcase a tactful ability to reinvent their favorite songs while honoring the spirit of the originals. Along with the cover of “Dancing in the Street”, the band sounds downright jubilant. Only the original “Hang ‘Em High” reaches the heavy caliber of Fair Warning, with tracks like “Secrets”, “Little Guitars”, and the gorgeous Roy Orbison cover of “(Oh) Pretty Woman” sounding almost jangle pop at times. It’s some of the most emotive and pleasant guitar work Eddie Van Halen ever recorded. Sadly, the final tracks on the album veer too heavily into David Lee Roth’s showtunes vibe, and the lush guitar songs are fleeting.

    Hot for Ever: The centerpiece is a masterful take of Roy Orbison’s “(Oh) Pretty Woman”, which became a hit for Van Halen and updated the song with colorful pop-metal playing from Eddie. The entrancing guitar tones are equally melancholy and bittersweet to compliment the lyrical content. For maximum results, listen to the instrumental interlude “Intruder” first, as it transitions directly into “(Oh) Pretty Woman” to cinematic effect.


    Not Now: The barbershop song “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)”, oft-covered since it was written in 1924, was right up Roth’s alley. But after the genuinely pleasant track sequence of chorus-delayed guitars and melody, “Big Bad Bill” just feels kinda slight. Diver Down is not a long album at 31 minutes and includes multiple interludes and an outro track. It’s very possible they tacked this one on, if you will. –Jon Hadusek

    06. 5150 (1986)

    Van Halen 5150

    Runnin’ with the Details: The first album of the Van Hagar era kicks off with a self-aware wink. Even before the first guitar note, new vocalist Sammy Hagar is out front, singing, “Hello, bayyyyyy-buh!” in a nod, either derisively or warmly, to the kind of Big Bopper-like vocalizing that DLR was known for (and was still indulging in on his debut solo EP). But from there, the band tried to do everything it could to distinguish itself from its previous incarnation with 5150. That included working with new faces in the studio, in particular Foreigner’s Mick Jones, who helped continue to add a synthetic sheen to the band’s powerhouse rock. This is, without question, Van Halen’s worst-sounding album.


    At the same time, the band brought Hagar on board when he was at the height of his vocal powers, strengthened by years of recording and touring. He added a meaty midrange to the band, slotting perfectly in between EVH’s synth luster/guitar shrieks and Michael Anthony’s low end thunder. Hagar was also the ideal person to tackle the band’s post-1984 compositions that furthered their interest in pop success with open armed power ballads like “Love Walks In” and the underdog training for the big game montage sound of “Dreams”. With their new vocalist’s help, Van Halen didn’t just repeat the success of their previous album. They took it to a new level.

    Hot for Ever: There’s no middle ground with “Why Can’t This Be Love.” You either love it or think it’s one of Van Halen’s worst moments on record. Even with its corny-ass lyrics (“Only time will tell/ If we stand the test of time” — Really?) and slathers of Oberheim OB-8, it is pure pop perfection that lets Hagar be Hagar while still copping the feel of a classic Van Halen track.


    Not Now: Album closer “Inside” comes across as the most blatant attempt by Van Halen to capture a little bit of the off-the-cuff magic that DLR brought to the table. It is, instead, an eye-rolling splay of dumb banter and even dumber chanted vocals. Not even EVH’s screaming, fretboard assaulting solo could rescue this one. –Robert Ham

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