On Jan. 26, 1955, a guitar god was born. Edward Lodewijk Van Halen — better known to rock fans across the globe as Eddie Van Halen — would emigrate with his family from his native Holland in 1962; a decade later, Eddie and his brother, Alex, would join with Diamond David Lee Roth and bassist Michael Anthony to form the band that would become what some would call the greatest band in the world: Van Halen. In celebration of Eddie's 65th birthday, we present the ultimate Van Halen mixtape, featuring not just the greatest hits but also the deepest cuts...minus the Van Hagar era, because honestly, who wants to celebrate any of that?
When we said this was a no "Van Hagar" zone, we meant it, but we'd also be remiss if we didn't include what is probably the best song of that era, from 1985's "5150" album, and honestly the last time Van Halen sounded like Van Halen until David Lee Roth's return in 2008. Recorded one year after their magnum opus "1984," the song keeps the heavy synths, but beyond it, the band does little to match the height of what came before.
From Eddie's signature opening riff, "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" takes off and never lets down. David Lee Roth reminds listeners that while his love is rotten to the core, the sound is fresh and vital on this anthem for a new age of music, at least as the '70s segued into the '80s. What the band does here almost transcends its time, as it feels fresher than most '70s contemporaries but not quite indicative of the coming decade.
With a voice like a kettle whistle, Diamond Dave takes center stage in this classic about living the fast life and burning the candle at both ends. The lyrics are clear and razor sharp and crescendo into a perfect harmony during the chorus, something that would bear itself out in a number of the best songs from the classic lineup. Eddie's guitar is in top form here, which is remarkable as most of the song is rhythm guitar until the brief solo in the song's lower third.
Not only Eddie's best-known solo but quite possibly one of the greatest guitar solos ever, "Eruption" features Eddie performing a masterclass on his signature guitar tapping, delivering what was, at the time, a sonic experience unheard of. At the time of the album's release, people were so intent on copying Eddie's style that he would often perform "Eruption" with his back turned to the audience out of fear that someone would watch a little too closely and steal his method.
Taking the baton from "Eruption" on the debut album, Van Halen's cover of Kinks classic "You Really Got Me" is not unlike a line drawn in the sand for this still-new band. It says something that Van Halen's version of the song may well be better remembered than the original version, which is easy to believe in many ways as the band more than adopts the song, and as most covers go, they make it their own.
The sixth track from the band's debut album, "Jamie's Cryin'" starts off with a literal guitar wail reminiscent of George Harrison on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." But don't think this song sticks on homage, as it is definitely its own beast and brings plenty of swagger to the table with an infectious hook wrapped around Diamond Dave's lyrics.
This is one of the few Van Halen tracks where the opening guitar belongs to David Lee Roth as opposed to Eddie, as Diamond Dave picks and grins his way through the opening half of this cover of Chicago bluesman John Brim's "Ice Cream Man." All their flavors are guaranteed to satisfy, as the rest of the band thunders in from Dave's acoustic opening to deliver a rollicking track that stays frosty throughout and becomes an instant classic in the process.
The second track from "Van Halen II" feels a bit like a rock 'n' roll dream. It is the type of track born to serve as the sound track to someone's first kiss at the arcade in a song that seems almost perfect to usher in the '80s with a radio-friendly sound that may not have the usual swagger of Van Halen but is beloved all the same.
The band dives right in to its comfort zone as glam rockers with "Light Up the Sky," boasting equal amounts of rock star swagger from both Eddie and Dave. Dave's kettle whistle blows higher and longer than usual as he screeches melodically through most of the song until Eddie delivers a trademark solo that reminds you that the band had no intention of ever being a one-hit wonder.
Eddie's tapping goes to new heights to kick off "Woman In Love." But the real MVP here might be bassist Mike Anthony's backing vocals, with a high pitch that serves as an anchor for harmony in this track that manages to both achieve both a high and laid-back tempo in one of their more eclectic cuts that remains all the more infectious and underrated on the band's sophomore effort.
David Lee Roth never met a pretty girl he wasn't willing to sing about, and he's in top form here crooning on his favorite subject in this upbeat track and possible MVP of "Van Halen II." Weaving a tale of paid bills and toes in sand, "Beautiful Girls" is pure Van Halen and works as a perfect entry on our playlist and is probably one of the better-made tunes for long road trips to the beach.
The second track from "Women and Children First," the song comes alive with a safari style rhythm from Alex Van Halen. Eddie's licks come in slowly and grow with intensity until Dave's trademark scream sets everything on fire, as the band powers through toward the infectious chorus. Not the band's fastest track, but it is certainly one of the more intense.
The boys are takin' whiskey to the party tonight, and we're along for the ride in this straightforward rocker from the "Women and Children First" album. To be sure, David Lee Roth's lyrics are simplistic and everything is about chasing women or basically partying. But here his swagger is in high form, and with a chorus this good there's no way it wasn't going to make it onto our playlist.
At his heart, David Lee Roth is a showman and takes some of his inspiration from vaudvillian-era tunes. "Could This Be Magic?" is a pure departure from Van Halen's standard serving of hard rock with a light and whimsical acoustic tune that highlights the versatility of a band that manages to keep listeners on their toes when it simply displays its musical chops. From Eddie's and Mike's dueling acoustic picking to Dave's Southern-fried swagger, the song is a delight to listen to and an underrated gem in the band's discography.
The opening track of 1981's "Fair Warning" isn't on the top 10 of most Van Halen fan lists, but this gritty and grimy gem brings a good amount of fight to the table, delivering rawer than usual lyrics from David Lee Roth and dirty guitar riffs from Eddie. It is a barroom brawler of a song that fights its way onto our list exactly where it belongs. "Mean Street" features a Van Halen that's still hungry and ready to go.
The best-known track from 1981's "Fair Warning," "Unchained" is one of the more powerful and uncompromising tracks in the band's overall discography, with a straightforward and powerful rhythm that is out there solely to collect tracks. This is what whiskey-soaked rock is meant to sound like, and it pumps with the heart of a lion.
The opening track from the underrated "Diver Down," "Hang 'Em High" has the feel of Western speed metal as Eddie unleashes himself and goes for the throat. Diamond Dave flies above it all with lyrics that move almost as fast as Eddie's guitar and soar twice as high. On an underrated album, "Hang 'Em High" might one of the band's most underrated tracks overall.
Señorita, we're in trouble again as Eddie and the boys delight with one of the band's more musically complicated tunes. While Dave's lyrics remain simple, the complexity comes from Eddie, Alex and Mike, who weave a catchy and diverse rhythm that's hard to pull apart but insanely easy to listen to. "Little Guitars" delivers the goods even when it's occasionally unclear where the goods are coming from.
A perfect mixture of acoustic leading into a fair amount of metal, "The Full Bug" duels with "Hang 'Em High" on "Diver Down" for album supremacy, and in a way "Bug" comes out on top as no holds are barred. Diamond Dave is in full form here, even bringing a harmonica to the party after the second verse. It's a pure party track that marries the band's past with its present.
When you think Van Halen, "Jump" is where your mind will likely go first. A perfect song in every way, "Jump" matches purely pop lyrics with '80s synth and an intense baseline that comes together to turn into a celebration of a band at the absolute height of its powers. Much can be said of the song's effortless production, serving as a crown jewel on the band's greatest album, but the time would be better spent just listening over and over again.
If there was a song that marked the high point for Van Halen, "Panama" would fit the bill. Chockfull of double entendres courtesy of Diamond Dave, the song is an instant classic among classics, equally driven by Eddie and Dave to near perfection. It also features one of the best music videos for the band that largely defined the early MTV age.
An ode to Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs, an underground L.A. band Diamond Dave was a fan and backer of, "Top Jimmy" features Eddie using a unique stereo guitar that delivers his signature sound on this upbeat track. It's one of the more overlooked on "1984" as it's easily overshadowed by the bedrock that is "Jump" and "Panama."
Driven largely by Alex Van Halen's drum and Mike Anthony's bass, Diamond Dave swaggers his way through this boozy ode to the perfect pair of legs. What makes "Drop Dead Legs" memorable against the titans of "1984" is just how much the song sounds like a nugget somehow omitted from the band's debut album. It reminds listeners that even after a magical run, the band retains its roots, which is also mildly bittersweet given its impending ouster of Dave.
The Van Halen brothers outdo themselves here, as Alex thunders in with his kickdrums and Eddie wails in with a complex chord that feels like one part aerial assault and one part motorcycle diving right into what is honestly a bad ass explosion of sound and fury. "Hot For Teacher" also exemplifies how well Diamond Dave harmonized with Eddie and Mike Anthony, delivering a solid sound that remains infectious to this day.
Featuring more synths than guitars, the second-to-last track from "1984" is a bit of an underrated gem. Don't discount the lack of Eddie's signature guitar. He uses his Korg synthesizer to deliver a driving rhythm that is buttressed by Mike Anthony's bass, clearing the way for David Lee Roth to slither in with a seductive suite of lyrics that feels lock in the era of day-glo everything but still rocks to this day.
In 2012, Van Halen returned for one final album with David Lee Roth back at the helm, and Eddie takes his need for speed to new levels. He duels with Alex on drums in a high-octane rat-a-tat, as Diamond Dave uses his mature voice to deliver high-velocity vocals that may not rise as they once did. But he injects enough gusto not to make much of a difference. Without question, Eddie comes to conduct business and his still-vital tapping delivers an electric experience that silenced anyone who questioned if the mighty Van Halen could stage a comeback.