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The Top 20 David Lee Roth-era Van Halen songs, ranked

In celebration of vocalist David Lee Roth’s rock and roll career, Goldmine gives you The Top 20 David Lee Roth-era Van Halen songs in order

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By Martin Popoff

David Lee Roth of Van Halen on 10/11/81 in Chicago, Il. (Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage)

David Lee Roth of Van Halen on 10/11/81 in Chicago, Il. (Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage)

Welcome back, folks. Time to light some candles for the firecracker known as Diamond Dave. At the buffet table are the six albums that created the original Van Wailin’ plus the band’s last album, A Different Kind of Truth, which surprised everybody with its guitar mania. Disappointing to me is the fact that I’ve got no songs cracking my top 20 from that record, although many of those bangers would have shown up by the end of the Top 40. Those are the facts and I’m sticking to them. Bottoms up!

—Martin Popoff


20. “House of Pain”

The heaviest song on 1984, I’d probably like this more if I didn’t know that it was a song from before the band got signed and then brought forward, just like the lion’s share of A Different Kind of Truth. But it’s got a kerranging signature riff and it’s elevated even further by the progressive rock wall-of-sound acrobatics taking place when Dave is singing. As a bonus, there’s a high-speed solo section and then a funky jam at the end that is infectious of groove.


19. “D.O.A.”

For decades, this stomping metal banger would have been way higher up my personal list, in no small part due to the violent title. But I’ve grown a little tired of its main riff, although what I realize is that I’m only tired of it in its most laid-back incarnation. Fact is, Eddie Van Halen is mostly dressing it up with licks and aggressive delivery and then there’s a great lift-and-tuck that serves as a brief pre-chorus. Plus I love the howling heaviness at the end where Alex doubles up on the beat.


18. ”Dirty Movies”

Yes, this song is so good that it already arrives with double quote marks around it. This is Van Halen at their complicated funkiest best. It’s so slinky that it’s hard to tell what’s pre-chorus and what’s chorus, and the backing vocals are divine. Fair Warning has become to be known as the most personal album for the great Eddie Van Halen, no longer with us as of nearly exactly two years ago. It’s the one where he put the most work in from a studio standpoint and, alas, he’d not be allowed to indulge so deeply ever again.


17. “Dance the Night Away”

Van Halen were never so charming and seductive with their pop songs as they were upon the two that make my top 20 from the second album. “Dance the Night Away” was a huge hit for the band and one can understand why. It’s buoyant and brisk, the riff is infectious and so are the backing vocals and Alex’s roiling sheet metal factory groove.


16. “Romeo Delight”

There’s a lot of obtuse noise on Women and Children First, but “Romeo Delight” goes right for the jugular, Van Halen turning in one of their most convincing speed rockers, although this one amusingly comes to a dead stop for Dave to sing the verses. But the complex, elliptical chorus is a thing of heavy metal joy, as is the raucous closing segment, set up by what sounds like coffee percolating. There’s a Led Zeppelin and The Who quality to the way this on-paper short song is taken past four minutes and the world is better for it.


15. “Drop Dead Legs”

Here’s the quiet charmer of a deep track on 1984 that most Van Halen scholars I know always get excited over. “Drop Dead Legs” is another great example of Van Halen excelling at funky hard rock, even though Alex lays down a big John Bonham-esque groove upon which Eddie inflects. The bonus on this one however is the long jam session at the end upon which Eddie solos like Robert Fripp, at least when he’s not picking his way through the entirely new riff that he’s brought late to the song.


14. “One Foot Out the Door”

Recorded quickly, this short shocker of a rocker was considered by producer Ted Templeman to be a metaphor for how quick Van Halen put together their records. What’s super-cool about the thing is that the purely heavy metal riff is actually played on synthesizer. Around it, however, Alex massages in some exemplary fills and Eddie turns in one of his most heroic, clouds-parting guitar solos of all time. It’s all over in two minutes.


13. “Light Up the Sky”

“Light Up the Sky” is the most sophisticated and proto-NWOBHM heavy metal machine of the heavy songs on Van Halen II. It’s darn near apocalyptic, given the jazzy chords and matching angular backing vocals. But speaking of the NWOBHM, let’s remember that that hallowed time had not begun yet, and what Van Halen was giving us on the debut and II was standing pretty much alone in terms of new baby bands dishing up the metal. Although this is as good a place as any to give a shout-out to Riot, who produced Rock City in 1977 and Narita the same year Van Halen delivered their dangerous, casual second record. San Fran’s Yesterday and Today was happening too, with two records as of 1978.


12. “Jump”

Momentarily horrified when “Jump” was unleashed upon the airwaves as an advance single from 1984, I soon gave into the shock and loved the song dearly like millions of people around the world, who snapped up 1984 in droves, eventually sending the album over and above diamond status in the US. The MTV video for the song is an iconic piece of US pop culture (as is the clip for “Panama,” not on my list) and it’s probably Van Halen’s most air-drummed piece of music, an anthem, a philosophy, a call to arms. And let’s not forget the elephant in the room: central to the damn thing is a synthesizer riff that sounds almost like children’s music. It is of no matter: the lesson learned was to trust Eddie.


11. “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘bout Love”

Apparently they call this Chuck Berry guitar, where a guitarist in a power trio finds that hallowed space between rhythm guitar and soloing. The instance I heard this song back in 1978… well, I remember being more impressed with what Eddie does here than what he did on “Eruption.” Plus it was crazy, modern, technical heavy metal for the day, with a note-dense riff that was even a little spooky, theoretically outside the realm of possibility for this most giddy and ebullient of Los Angeles bands. I really get ticked off typing it though, just like the similarly punctuation-perverse track list of the Fair Warning album.


10. “I’ll Wait”

We’d been slowly primed for the keyboard thing across bits and pieces of the previous three albums, and then 1984delivers two very successful examples of Eddie moving over to the ebony and ivory. I instantly fell in love with “I’ll Wait” because of its “secret agent man” chord sequence, Alex’s authoritative pounding on the thing and then Eddie’s lyrical guitar solo. Actually this is a new thing for me, this discovery of how, if I put thinking too much about it aside, 1984 is probably my favourite Van Halen album.


9. “Beautiful Girls”

Yeah, yeah, here’s where I’ll shoulder the complaints that there’s no “Runnin’ with the Devil” or “Jamie’s Cryin’” in my top 20. Fact is I gotta get to the second album before I succumb to the charms of Van Halen playing subdued and measured. “Beautiful Girls” is just an irresistible California pop song, everything to do with the Van Halen image, really for the first time in the catalogue. In fact I’d go so far as to say that this represents David Lee Roth from the Crazy from the Heat EP, only with the full force of the classic Van Halen band keeping him honest.


8. “Little Guitars”

Hey, I’m not a Diver Down hater, but realistically and soberly, this is the only one of the very few originals on the record that I can support. And support it I do, “Little Guitars” being a charming, melodic, up-tempo pop rocker distinguished by Eddie actually playing it on a little guitar. It starts a little casual, a little wobbly, but then the transitions and parts unfold and what emerges is a shiny but self-effacing Tex-Mex jewel of a song.


7. “Atomic Punk”

I’ve always found it hilarious that Van Halen’s most professional album of the entire catalogue turned out to be the debut. “Atomic Punk” contributes robustly to this idea, given its technicality and then the delivery of that technicality with effortless swagger. As I’ve alluded to previously, Van Halen in early 1978 were elevating the art of heavy metal, exceeded only by Judas Priest, who in fact issued Stained Class the same day the self-titled Van Halen album came out, namely February 10th, 1978. “Atomic Punk” was as good as anything on Stained Class, but in fact better given the Who-like magic and chemistry firing back and forth between Dave, Eddie, Mikey and Alex.


6. “Somebody Get Me a Doctor”

Here’s a heavy one on the contentious, surprisingly ragged and explosive second album that combines the best of “Light Up the Sky” on one side and “D.O.A.” on the other. In other words, it’s carnal and stomping but it’s also smart of architecture, not at the defining riff but when Dave sings, exactly like “House of Pain.” So at the end of the day it’s a headbanger for both the head and heart, again, emerging from a weird year before the heavy metal dam would burst over in the UK.


5. “On Fire”

Again, so incendiary like “Atomic Punk,” “On Fire” sounded European to me and my buddies back in 1978, more like Scorpions or Judas Priest. And those scraping guitar sounds from Eddie drove us insane, not to mention the cerebral, circular riffs and his swirling, off-kilter soloing on this blazing closing track. Truth be told, I’m less emotionally attached to this song or indeed anything on the debut versus the rest of the Dave-era catalogue, but the magic in the math can’t be denied.


4. “Mean Street”

It’s kind of a weird phenomenon, but Van Halen fans gather around “Mean Street” somewhat to stick their vote in that Fair Warning is the greatest Van Halen album of all time. Hard to explain, but there’s an undercurrent of frustration trying to figure out what your favorite Van Halen album is and “Mean Street” is a sort of siren song, a beacon, helping fans—a notoriously cranky, angry mob, I gotta say, like Kiss and Zeppelin fans—agree about Fair Warning. Things are just a notch or two above okay at the verse riff but then an intensity is achieved as we get to the chorus, given Alex’s shower of sparks at the cymbal location and a subtle sense of backing vocals. Plus it’s long enough that we get all the jamming and epic-ness that we need to awaken our disposition toward serious study.


3. “Girl Gone Bad”

If, on paper, “House of Pain” is the heaviest song on 1984, “Girl Gone Bad” is the silent dissenter, performed more aggressively but more imbued with melody. It’s up-tempo, battered and bruised by Alex’s panoramic drumming, and it’s all about guitar, bass, drums and vocals performing at a level for which an onlooker should be wearing a welder’s helmet. It’s basically an explosion of joyous Van Halen chemistry and again, a big part of why 1984 has got to be—grudgingly on my part—my favourite Van Halen album.


2. “Unchained”

If I’m going to get raked over the coals for a handful of glaring omissions (mostly from the debut album), I’m back in my comfort zone with “Unchained,” because, as I found when I did my book Unchained: A Van Halen User Manual, polling shows that this song often wins as the greatest Van Halen song ever, democratically speaking. Which is a surprise, given that it’s kind of mid-level heavy metal, with an okay riff but nothing remarkable. Again, it’s the Who-like chemistry between these four guys that elevates the song, on top of the fact that Eddie is substantially crafty in knowing that the parts (and/or the energy) have to just get better and better as a song progresses.


1. “And the Cradle Will Rock”

Hey, I’m as surprised as you are seeing this song at the top of the list, but if I were to ponder why, it’s that “And the Cradle Will Rock” is Van Halen’s greatest exercise in combining the carnal stomp of heavy metal with a poppy disposition, but not making it maudlin, which happened all too many times across the Sammy Hagar era. In other words, I love the thoughtful, creatively fearless chords and textures found at the verses, which offset the more meat-and-potatoes blues-rooted heavy metal of the song’s signature riff. And finally, here on Diamond Dave’s birthday, let’s throw Roth some love, because his conversational phrasing is such a huge part of why this song is such a masterpiece.


Martin Popoff is the author of Unchained: A Van Halen User Manual and Van Halen: A Visual Biography