The Top 20 Classic Van Halen Songs

Oh, pretty woman, where have all the good times gone? Panama.
Hot for teacher – somebody get me a doctor. And the cradle will rock, little dreamer.
Take your whiskey home, fools. I’m the one runnin’ with the devil.
Beautiful girls dancing in the street; I’ll wait. Sinners swing Saturday afternoon in the park.


By classic, we mean the Roth era, where a potent foursome rocketed into the franken-stratosphere with a six-pack of records that still polish concrete today. Rather than ranking our choices, we put everything in discographical order and then exchanged thoughts, some of which you’ll read below. We also allowed ourselves personal picks, as usual.


So this is love? Happy trails...

1. Runnin’ with the Devil
Van Halen (1978)

TG: Wanna be startin’ thumpin’? Michael Anthony starts his underrated foundation pulse here and lends angelic backing vox for the demonic chorus. This track has horns – not brass or cuckold ones; it’s like a bull wrecking the China Shop of disco.

CM: I like the simplicity and space of it, the best choice to open their first record. Eddie provides a broad riff and a solo so melodic it had to be played twice, while Dave introduces his persona as streetwise solo agent, but in this case it’s more about survival rather than living it up.

2. Eruption/You Really Got Me
Van Halen (1978)

CM: We cheated a bit here – the two aren’t bound as strongly as “Heartbreaker” and “Living Loving Maid” were on classic rock radio – but it allows us to acknowledge both Eddie’s fretboard showmanship and the group’s prowess at transforming cover songs. Great as the Kinks’ original is, VH ambush it with unprecedented fervor.

TG: Always makes me wonder if hearing this version kept the Davies brothers awake at night until they felt compelled to release whatever early ’80s album – Come Dancing by the Parley End Up Blowing All Your Lolas for the Week. Not that a Kinks komeback was totally a bad thing...

3. Atomic Punk
Van Halen (1978)

TG: Punks from the waist down, when needed. Alex shows off a bit...tasty cymbals under phased guitar string massages – somewhere, Jamie’s crying.

CM: Head-down energy and more lyrical darkness in a song described by its title. You know they’re not really punks but they make the word their own. (Eddie has referred to “Ain’t Talkin Bout Love” as near-punk, too.) The band didn’t do live albums in the early days because the studio takes were essentially live, and that’s obvious here, with the raw room balance and rhythm section behavior during the guitar solo. Heck, it’s obvious about everything on the first two or three albums.

4. Little Dreamer
Van Halen (1978)

TG: Great opening riff. Dave goes from streetwise to world weary, and the beat goes slinky, almost funky.

CM: As much as the debut album introduces the characters and typical operation of the band, it’s also relatively diverse with every track earning its place, and “Dreamer” has quite the aura. Striking performance from Dave, and the backing vox put it over the top.

5. Dance the Night Away
Van Halen II (1978)

CM: As tuneful as any rock or pop ever was. No solo needed, and Ed has his hands full regardless tapping harmonic decoration.

TG – no, wait, it’s Martin: What do you think about Van Halen?

Rust: Rock music is adrenalized anthems backed by protohistoric rhythms; such Neanderthalic chants fuel and inform the hormone-soaked desires of the young. As the generation folds, the music of one's youth becomes advertising jingles that feed misremembered ephemera and re-focus sexual desires to wants of status and self-worth.

Martin: Russ, do you enjoy anything?

Rust: Explication.

6. Somebody Get Me a Doctor
Van Halen II (1978)

TG: Because this song is sick as hell!

CM: Yes sir. Inflamed riff has spread to distended rump, convulsive tics, delirious pleas, and string fever. Best crank it up twice and wait for morning.

7. Beautiful Girls
Van Halen II (1978)

CM: Man, these cats could swing. Dave sits on top of the world but not without self-deprecating humor as he watches the beautiful gal walk away.

TG: This is the real sinner’s swing – vocal dexterity complements the funk underneath.

CM: The Andrews Sisters could have done this as a three way, and it would have been just as funky.

TG: Do you mean “funny”?

CM: Both. But seriously, by swing, I mean Eddie accenting slightly in front of the beat as he does in so many rhythm parts. It’s not hard to imagine Alex inverting his groove and a walking bassline fitting right in.

TG: As long as it’s not Love Walking In, I’m good.

8. And the Cradle Will Rock
Women and Children First (1980)

CM: Indubitably one of their best, lifted by a unique sonic hook (Wurlitzer through a flanger and Marshall). In fact, most of the rhythm track is keyboard driven, often mistaken for guitar – though there’s plenty of that as well. It fits right in with Women and Children First’s expansion of the group’s sound, which also includes more acoustic flavor (as opposed to brief novelties on the first two albums) and looser arrangements like “Everybody Wants Some” and “Fools”.

TG: A slowed and heavier “Dance the Night Away” riff gives crunch to the heft of Anthony’s axe as Dave reports on the down and out youth of Anywhere, America.

9. In a Simple Rhyme
Women and Children First (1980)

TG: Alex shines here as his deft stickwork drives to the chorus where the backing voices warm the heart like fuzzy socks. The mellifluous refrain reigns excitement until the band’s rush to climax just after. A second winsome refrain rides us into the sunset. Diminuendo in Blue...Balls.

CM: This earnest resolution to win one lady’s heart always seemed epic to me, perhaps an illusion due to the 12-string guitar, sweet vocal harmony, and changes of pace. Speaking of vocals, it’s a shame that the VH brothers cold-shouldered Michael Anthony in later years, his voice being one of the band’s hallmarks. He also has more flair on bass than Eddie’s mandate for simplicity would allow, as stowaway moments on this album prove.

10. Mean Street
Fair Warning (1981)

TG: Eddie’s peccadilloes battle Dave’s lyrical aggrandizement. Other large words vie for your attention as I proselytize for the Church of Our Lady of the Drop Dead Legs. VH know how to groove as evidence aplenty exists in this list, but I enjoy the relatively straight-ahead approach of this track. After the incredible harmonic intro, the band punches its way into true hard rock territory where machine gun licks leave bullet holes in the genre. Having left their mark, the guys veer into the slow lane for sustained outro pleasure.

CM: Fair Warning gets tagged as VH’s “dark” album, and while it lacks carefree atmosphere, it ain’t a threnody, either. Even “Mean Street” has a breakdown that implores the listener to “dance, baby.” That being said, no other sun shines on this street, as the pulsing rhythm strikes poor boys down.

11. Unchained
Fair Warning (1981)

CM: Braaaaaap! [Chris burps. Was it the bourbon highball or bogarting the Dr. Pepper he procured for Todd?] The opening riff is legend, but note how its chugging force gets twisted in the pre-chorus. Small anomalies like that throughout Fair Warning point toward it being partly a co-opted Eddie solo effort, one where he may have wanted to tackle more sophisticated ideas. In any case, he spent a lot of time working alone on this album and it shows.

TG: Time for some flanged fun. Is it also time to give Ted Templeman his props? I think so (despite his involvement in Harper’s Bizarre – the musical group). Perhaps those early forays into insane Pop popped Ted’s ear cherry for production purposes. Whatever the cause, the classic VH albums have always sounded great, and this one shines in all directions.

12. When Push Comes to Shove
Fair Warning (1981)

CM: Over a sultry bass-led intro, Dave treats vices casually then gives way to sympathy for the broken-hearted. The music wanders into areas they hadn’t been before – probably envisioned as instrumental, I’d guess – and is quite interesting, though not often found in VH hymnals.

TG: Add Momma to the train! Mr. Anthony’s [did CM use “sultry” already? Damn his hide, he did!] bumpworthy bass grinds your mind into oblivious orgy as Alex accents like a French tickler set to stun. Did Dave just walk in and thwart (another) instrumental endeavor? Probably.

13. Hang ’Em High
Diver Down (1982)

TG: Uptempo riff sets up-tempo pace. Is as musically unsettling as Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” is lyrically; both tackle Western (American) themes while achieving different ends.

CM: Let it not be said Diver Down is sub-par, present company exemplar otherwise. Griping about the album being half covers doesn’t erase how enjoyable they are, and the originals sit among VH’s best, especially this one. Mike and Alex summon a storm beneath quickfire guitar hooks and a great vocal cascading down the chord changes. If we were ranking this list, it would be high indeed.

14. Secrets
Diver Down (1982)

CM: “Sweet rhythm” for a luscious vamp that challenges the vocal to deliver, and it does. Dave truly sings more on Diver Down because the material requires it.

TG: Subdued ode upon Dave’s muse of Woman as the embodiment of Love, Eros, Fantasy, Nature and Soul. Secrets of life, it seems.

15. Little Guitars
Diver Down (1982)

CM: After a tasteful nylon-string intro, there’s a full-band episode that peeks at Eddie and Alex’s inner prog/fusion tastes, then they shift into a glorious pop-rocker that complements the similarly catchy yet harder-edged “Hang 'em High”.

TG: Eddie’s peppy figure with the damper effect releases endorphins into my mind; however, the dramatic and slightly dissonant chopped chord that follows introduces a hint of worry and anxiety. The sum total of the cycle is akin to Peanuts characters dancing near the edge of a cliff – in the best way possible, of course.

16. Jump
1984 (1984)

CM: Oberheim triads, driving eighths, nonsense kerbuffle masquerading as lyric, jagged guitar break, triumphant synth solo. Pointed sisters still ask: how did this become a huge hit? The temple man would know. So do I. There’s no way around it.

TG: After the Valhallan intro, the song briefly drifts into Jazzercise territory with Dave directing calisthenics via microphone prosthetics. (TG: “How do you spell calisthenics?” CM: [gives correct spelling] TG: “How do you spell prosthetics?” CM: “What the fuck are you writing?”) My third eye makes me shine like jewelry. However, all is made whole with the righteous riffage provided by Edward.

17. Panama
1984 (1984)

TG: Stick in hand, cold takes command. Is Dave driving while the passenger is easing his seat back or vice versa? Are they parked in the Hollywood Hills tumbling dice and getting rocks off? Was Panama a state of mind or a nation state run cruelly by Manuel Noriega? I’m guessing both. It talks about cars and girls, and it rocks, so put it on the record machine and enjoy.

CM: By 1984, VH’s knack for hooks stood as tall as their hi-watt reputation, and “Panama” drives both home in top gear. How appropriate for Dave to blurt “Jump back, what’s that sound” in the first line.

18. Drop Dead Legs
1984 (1984)

CM: An exaggerated strut of a song, followed by an unrelated outro where three Eddies swirl around something Doobie-esque...

TG: “China Grove” or “Black Water”?

CM: Maybe a crooked “Long Train Running”, but anyhow, that coda is a sweet slice of pie that almost makes you wanna, like, roller skate.

TG: I don’t know if I’m hungry or disgusted.

CM: Don’t blame me, them was the times.

19. I’ll Wait
1984 (1984)

CM: Deeper into synth world than “Jump” with richer twists along the way, perhaps due to the minor rather than major key. Alex turns in a fine performance with far more than just those ringing roto-tom fills.

TG: Much richer, my friend. And no doubt made so by Michael “Moneybags” McDonald dropping dimes to Dave’s diamonds as they bounced ideas off each other during a writing session – the viewing of which must surely have been akin to the birth of Castor and Pollux in the far heavens.

20. House of Pain
1984 (1984)

TG: False swing intro diverts into mind-melting rhythmic onslaught. Not a song as much as a contrivance; not a track as much as a trick; not a night stick so much as a night cap. Stick that in your rump and roast it!

CM: Fifty shades of awesome for those who like it different ways. Last part arrives from nowhere to take us away from the House o’ Pain.

Personal Favorites

Girls gone bad light up the sky.

Todd’s 3 Faves:

Ice Cream Man
Van Halen (1978)

TG: Mr. Roth’s wild ride through all flavors (and Push-Ups, too) and favors of the tastiest kind. Dave’s tongue trots along as the band eventually melts your face (and cone) with hot sexual chocolate. Sorry, let me clean myself off. Fun track with many highlights. As Charlie Brown once opined, “Life is like an ice cream cone, you have to lick it one day at a time.” Um, if you treated life that way, you'd have to stick it in the freezer every day, and your life would become freezer burned. Charlie Brown – bad at baseball and analogies. Van Halen – good with instruments and cover songs.

Big Bad Bill
Diver Down (1982)

TG: Move over, Benny Goodman, Dad Van Halen jumps in on clarinet as Dave illustrates the traditional tale of yet another strong man tamed by tail. Diamond Dave changes to Vaudeville Dave.

Hot for Teacher
1984 (1984)

TG: Is the intro solo Alex’s take on Blind Joe Morello? Perhaps. Eddie drops in with almost jazzy guitar (he had his amp turned to “Jazz” anyway) (he had his foot pedal to the Jazz – not Metal) (for the first time ever, he temporarily turned his amp volume down from 11 to 6 before amping up again; Sustain!) until the whole enterprise (pun me up, Scotty) leaps forward at warp speed. The entire track still warps my mind, and the video warped my pubescence.

Chris’ 3 Faves:

I’m the One
Van Halen (1978)

CM: Infectious swing once again, a hard-rock adaptation of big band boogie – the phrasing, pre-chorus chromatics, “shoobee-doo-wah” break, everything. Eddie flies effortlessly between rhythm and lead lines, boosted by a watertight groove that slices ’n dices and could probably solve a world problem or two in its spare time.

Diver Down (1982)

CM: I faintly remember an explanation that “Intruder” was devised as a prelude to “Pretty Woman” to fit the video length of the latter. Whatever the reason, it’s tensely cinematic on its own.

Dancing in the Street
Diver Down (1982)

CM: A reinvented Motown staple with soul preserved, and the Moog, cowbell, and syncopated bass are all up my alley. Though some retroactive commentators downgrade Diver as much as we tout its virtues, I’ve never stopped enjoying it, full-bug-stop.

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