Monday, May 30, 2011

Rock Solid: Van Halen

"If you only own one album by Van Halen it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.


Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and Amazon.com offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

Word has it that Van Halen will put out a new album this year. It would be their first full-length effort in 13 years, and their first with lead singer David Lee Roth in 28 years. Given the Van Halen brothers' spotty work ethic and volatile history with lead singers, I'll believe that when I'm holding the new album in my hands. But what better time, as we wait with skeptical anticipation, to review the band's moments of greatest glory?

Since I am an equal opportunity Van Halen fan (meaning I see the merits of all versions of the band, Gary Cherone years excluded), we'll be awarding them two Rock Solids. One with Roth and one with Sammy Hagar. In the interest of forthrightnesss, I must tell you that all but one of the 6 original Roth albums critically outperformed the 4 Hagar ones. Whether or not that's justified is a different matter.


David Lee Roth:

It was basically a two man race here. The band's 1978 self-titled debut vs. their 1983 opus 1984. Both received perfect 5 star ratings from the All Music Guide. They both got 4.5 stars from Amazon.com reviewers, however, the debut had 84% 5 star ratings to 1984's 67%. So Van Halen it is.

And it's hard to argue. The album features no less that 5 stone cold classics (and more dropped g's than you can shake a stick at): Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love, Jamie's Cryin', You Really Got Me, Runnin' With the Devil, and Eruption.

The tireless Stephen Thomas Earlewine of the All Music Guide calls the album "stellar" and "seminal" (have you ever noticed that no one uses the word "seminal" outside of college classrooms and music reviews?). He also finds the albums' songs to be "vital, surprising...and really revolutionary, because no other band rocked like this before." For a man whose sparing with his hyperbole, that's damn fine praise.

Amazon.com reviewers, who are rarely sparing with the hyperbole, are on the same wavelength. I'll let a couple of them speak for themselves:
  • "This was something new, something purely American, and opened the door to what we know as Hard Rock or Heavy Metal today. It's impossible to listen to any rock artist today and not hear the influence of Van Halen." (Graboidz)
  • "Every song on this album is basically an advanced lesson in futuristic guitar playing. Nowadays, anyone and their grandmother's grandmother can do hyperdrive hammer ons and pull offs sprinkled with some telepathic psycho harmonic doorbells concluding with a kamikaze dive bomb whammy bar...but way back then, it was Eddie." (Rixter 109)
But is Van Halen Roth-era Van Halen's best work? Voices dissent. Jinx McElroy believes that "Van Halen 1 is not the best Van Halen album. Most fans will tell you either Fair Warning or Women and Children First hold that dubious title." Why is it a "dubious" title? Only Jinx knows. However, The One Who Knows (his name says it all) purports that "while Van Halen's subsequent CD's all had great tunes, none were as consistently excellent as this one."

My sentimental favorite is actually the band's supposed Rock Bottom (Diver Down), and I think 1984 hits higher highs, but overall, as I said, Van Halen is the objective best of the David Lee Roth years. At least until this new one comes out.

Sammy Hagar:

In the case of Van Hagar, the All Music Guide is quite stingy, with an average 3 star rating for their four albums. The one that raises the average (with 4 stars) is the 1986 Hagar debut, 5150. Amazingly, Amazon reviewers gave every Van Hagar album 4 stars. 5150 also comes out tops here, with 51% 5 star reviews (compared to 31%, 48%, and 44% for OU812, F.U.C.K., and Balance, respectively).

Though 5150 has some great high points (Why Can't This Be Love, Dreams, Best of Both Worlds, and Love Walks In), I'm not in as complete agreement here as I was about Van Halen. More on that later. First, let's hear from the critic and fans.

It's pretty clear where Earlewine falls on the whole Sammy vs. Dave debate, but he does have some nice things to say about 5150, even backhanding the Roth era a tiny bit: "[Hagar] helped push Van Halen into a dedication to writing full-fledged songs, something that often seemed an afterthought in the original lineup." Harsh!

But Stevie can't help philosophizing a bit as well:"And so Van Hagar was a bit of an odd mix -- a party band and a party guy, slowly veering into a bourgeois concept of respectability, something that eventually sunk the band." I think he's kind of dramatically saying Van Halen got too self-serious under Hagar. I'll buy that. Ultimately, though, Earlewine finds 5150 to be a "pretty impressive opening act."

Most Amazon.com fans give similarly qualified praise, but some find Sammy's work with the band to be superior to his predecessor's:
  •  "I am a VH fan and to me this is their best album. It really has it all: a great mix of melodies and guitar rock. What makes Eddie so great is his unreal guitar skills combined with his ability to write memorable tunes and no VH album shows that better than 5150." (Slim Pickins) 
  • "I have to disagree with some who think Eddie's best work was earlier in his career. As great as his early playing was (and it was great), I think it was a little one dimensional. His later work shows improved sophistication and real mastery of the instrument. His ability to compose a good melody and put underneath it a complex guitar accompaniment (it's so busy it's hard to call it accompaniment) really shines on 5150. (Clay Gilbert) 
  •  "If you ever buy just one Van Halen album in your entire life, make sure it's this one." (Anonymous)
Others are less concerned about the album's place in history and are instead intent on enjoying it for what it is. Dequan Waters says that 5150 "delivers optimism, fantasy, and appreciation." And Ian5150 reveals that, "This album + my air guitar skills = I got laid for first time in high school." Man, I wish I'd been better at math in high school.

Myself, I actually prefer 1995's Balance, Hagar's swan song with the group. It's not a popular choice, for sure, probably because it doesn't boast any huge singles on the same level as the earlier three albums. Despite that, it's actually the only Van Hagar album I actually enjoy listening to from front to back.

But course the true Van Halen Rock Solid is Greatest Hits, Volume 1. Get that, download Jamie's Cryin', Everybody Wants Some, Hot For Teacher, I'll Wait, Finish What Ya Started, and Not Enough, and you're all set.