When the temptation of solo success became too strong for David Lee Roth, many took this as news of the band’s demise. But then a funny thing happened – they returned. The band recruited established rocker Sammy Hagar, who’s recording career began just about the time that Van Halen began theirs. So began one of the most enduring debates among rock fans – David or Sammy? We all have our preferences, and the geekiest among us continue to debate the merits of each. And while replacing a charismatic frontman fundamentally changed the character and sound of the band, the fact of the matter is that all of the Van Hagar albums went at least triple platinum, ensuring the second phase of the band’s career would secure its foothold in rock history.

 

5150 (1986)

The mid-‘80s were a heady time: It was the height of President Ronald Reagan’s popularity, Wall Street was booming and a maturing Joe Piscopo was leaving Saturday Night Live to conquer Hollywood. Meanwhile, Van Halen’s career was at a standstill after parting ways with seemingly irreplaceable frontman David Lee Roth. After trying out the likes of Patty Smyth and Jimmy Barnes, the band finally found its singer when Eddie VH ran into Sammy Hagar at a car mechanic’s garage. Hagar and Eddie hit it off right away and the band went into the studio to record 5150, which was released in March 1986 (a little more than three months before DLR’s Eat ‘Em and Smile, which boasted a shit-hot backing band featuring Steve Vai and Billy Sheehan).

Sammy’s poppier style fit with the direction Eddie was moving toward, as evidenced by 1984’s synth-drenched hits “Jump” and “I’ll Wait.” The synthy first single, “Why Can’t This Be Love,” includes the brilliant line “It’s got what it takes,” but it was also catchy enough to propel the album to the top spot on the Billboard charts, the first #1 of VH’s career. The band also ventures into ‘80s power ballad territory with “Dreams” and “Love Walks In,”  no doubt attracting a whole new demographic: the ladies. Of course, if they bought the album, those same ladies might not be thrilled with boneheaded sexist rockers like “Good Enough” and “Summer Nights” (the latter included the following Shakespearean couplet: “Yeah, they love it when me and the boys/Wanna play some love with them human toys”). Despite the pop-friendly focus, there’s still plenty of guitar on “Get Up,” “5150” and “Best of Both Worlds,” although Eddie’s famous “brown sound” transformed into something different altogether thanks to the absence of former producer Ted Templeman and Eddie’s changes to the guitar mix. Ironically, the album closer, “Inside,” bears a strong resemblance to the DLR-penned tunes of the past, with the guys bantering in the background and the guitar squeals straight outta Fair Warning. And so the Van Hagar era began with a bang, although it would eventually end with the same bickering that led to DLR’s departure. – Koomdogg

Grade: B-

OU812 (1988)
After the shock of 5150 had worn off and the VH faithful had a better understanding of what they were in for with Van Halen’s new direction for the latter half of the ’80s with Sammy Hagar fronting the band, OU812‘s keyboard-laden, more pop friendly sound wasn’t as shocking as the aforementioned album. Either you were on board for Van Hagar or you weren’t. And based on the sales and subsequent touring, most people were on board.
Anchored by rockers like “A.F.U. (Naturally Wired)”, “Black And Blue” and “Mine All Mine” and great ballads/slow rockers in “When It’s Love”, “Finish What Ya Started” and “Feels So Good”, OU812 may not be the Van Halen of ’78 or ’79, but this is still a fun, turn it up loud hard rock album made for warm summer nights and drives with the top down. Eddie Van Halen’s incredible guitar playing is still greatly on display here (Exhibit A: “Source Of Infection”) and Sammy Hagar may not be David Lee Roth, but the Red Rocker is certainly one of rock’s great frontmen as well and with Michael Anthony and Alex Van Halen doing their thing holding down the beat, this album succeeds and OU812 would wind up being Van Halen’s last truly great album…at least as of this writing. -Nick
Grade: B+

For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991)
The Hagar-era Van Halen albums tend to take a lot of abuse from “fans.”  It seems the current bandwagon to be on is that the only VH content worth listening to was in the DLR years. This is a sad trend, because if the listener is remotely objective, there is a lot to love on the Sammy albums. Take, for instance, our current subject: For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (or, let’s just call it what it is: FUCK). Outside of the stupid album title (whose verbosity doesn’t even define the appropriate translation that the mother of all [supposed] acronyms is alleged to represent), this album is packed with killer material, especially in terms of riffs.  Sure, “Poundcake” didn’t have all that much going for it outside of Ed playing his guitar with a power drill, and “Spanked,” “Runaround,” and “Man on a Mission” are all by-the-numbers T&A tracks, but the remainder (and the bulk) of this album is high quality.  “Judgement Day” is a pretty ballsy send-up on the arrogance of religious zeal.  “Pleasure Dome” is epic in every conceivable way, and marks one of the coolest concepts to come out of the VH camp, period, with the entire band having the pedal all the way to the floor for the duration of the track (this is some of my favorite drumming from Alex, with a thundering part that manages to sound like he’s falling down a mountain the entire time).  “In ‘n’ Out,” while a bit long for what it is, is a great funk rocker with a simple, yet effective, coda to ride out on.  Oh, and remember “Right Now?” Say what you want, but that is one slick-ass bit of pop music, sung with soul by Sam and containing Ed’s best keyboard part (yes, cooler than “I’ll Wait” or even “Sunday Afternoon In The Park”).  The album wraps up with the completely fun “Top Of The World,” which was originally a David-era song that the guys finally put together. And hey, at least this album didn’t contain a super-shitty ballad like “When It’s Love” (which is really hard to sing, but still dull as white bread), for which I was eternally grateful.  In short, it ain’t perfect, and Andy Johns went a little crazy on the production, but the good far outweighs the mediocre bits.   -Grez
Grade: B

Balance (1995)
Balance is another unfortunate target of post-Roth hatred, and really not for any really good reason. What this album is really comprised of is a ton of kickass rock and experimentation that is tarnished by two crappy ballads (“Can’t Stop Lovin’ You” and “Not Enough”) and one slightly-less-cheesy-mediocre one (“Take Me Back [Déjà vu]”).  In fact, I will go so far as to say that this would be among VH’s very best collections if it weren’t for the aforementioned cheeseballs. To add to the interest level, the boys got back to interjecting the standard tracks with lots of instrumentals and intros, such as Alex finally getting some drum and percussion solo action on “Doin’ Time,” and the massive-sounding “Baluchitherium.” “Aftershock” and “Amsterdam” are traditional Sammy-era rockers, but they’re executed with more aplomb than similar tracks on this album’s predecessor, and even the pot-and-prostitute lyrics of “Amsterdam” are delivered with believability.  “Don’t Tell Me What Love Can Do” is a highly underrated power rocker with no less than three Eddie solos in it and a fabulous guitar tone. The album closer “Feelin’” is a close-to- epic-length track that sounds unlike anything previously in the VH catalog, with interesting changes in dynamics, guitar timbre, and a big vocal performance from Sam.  All of that brings us to “The Seventh Seal,” which is one of Van Halen’s best tracks ever. That’s right, I said it: ever. Listen to this song. Listen to the guitar sound. Listen to the solo. Listen to the lyrics. Listen to the delivery. Everything is completely on target. Sometimes Sam writes some goofy lyrics, but not on this track. Oh, no. This one is smart and badass at the same time. The production on this album is quite nice as well. With Mike Fraser at the mixing board, the levels are much more…well, in balance.  Another thing for which VH deserves props is staying true to the type of music they wanted to record.  Remember, this album was released in 1995 when grunge and alt-rock were the darlings of the radio and recording industry…and it still went on to sell three million copies in the U.S.  Yeah.  Even grunge kids like me bought it and liked it.  It’s time this record got its fair due.   -Grez

Grade: B+

III (1998)
I avoided Van Halen III upon its 1998 release purely out of spite. After the band’s short-lived reunion with David Lee Roth imploded in a very public and ugly way, I was angry and determined to never support the band again. It was only five years ago, when I learned to mellow the hell out about such silliness, that I finally listened to the album on its own merits.To my surprise, Van Halen III is better than its reputation would lead you to believe. Yes, it’s sloppy and unfocused at times and new vocalist Gary Cherone – a fine singer in his own right – sounds ill at ease trying to play the role of Sammy Hagar Part 2. But let’s talk about the positives. “Without You” is a damn fine rock song and one of my favorites from the band’s ‘90s output. Elsewhere, songs like “Fire in the Hole” and “Ballot or the Bullet” showcase the explosive potential of VH Mark 3. “Once” is moody and dense, and shows that the Cherone/Eddie VanHalen partnership was not a completely unfruitful one.
Unfortunately, Van Halen III is marred by inconsistent songwriting and subpar production, almost neutering what could have been a very good record. Slow burners like “From Afar” and “Year to the Day” drag way too much, and there is a definite lack of sonic punch on the better tracks. Not helping matters at all was the fact that Michael Anthony was already on his way out the door and appears on just three songs (Eddie plays bass on the rest). Last but not least, the less said about “How Many Say I” the better. Still, for all the bashing it takes, I now have a soft spot in my hard rock heart for Van Halen III. – Chris Holmes
Grade: C+

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