There’s no denying it. Whether you’re a fan or not, Van Halen’s impact on the world of rock, and music in general, is pretty monumental. With their debut album, they roared into the sonic landscape as a gargantuan force to be reckoned with. Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing enamored the minds of every musician and made everyone rethink about how to approach the guitar. It’s safe to say that every song on the debut record is a classic from top to bottom and is absolute perfection. When it came time for the band to record a follow up to that debut, the expectations were incredibly high, and fans were eager to hear where the band would go from there. Fortunately for Van Halen, they managed to record an absolute smash that some fans might even say rivals their highly impactful and critically acclaimed debut. Today, after 40 years, I’m going to discuss why Van Halen II (1979) is just as much of an important record as the debut in a streak of four consecutive, perpetually flawless albums, and still holds up today as one of the greatest rock albums of all time.
Musically, II is very similar to the debut, but it still has a lot of its own character. The band finds themselves incorporating some different dynamics into their sound, with the moodier slow groove of their rather interesting choice in cover “You’re No Good,” originally performed and written by Linda Ronstadt, and then leading into a very Spanish/salsa influenced song in “Dance The Night Away.” This is where I feel the vocal combo of David Lee Roth and Michael Anthony really shines. Out of all the DLR Van Halen albums, this is probably DLR’s finest vocal moment. The fact that he didn’t keep this kind of vocal performance overall in his stint with the band is quite unfortunate. However, most fans know that the real driving force behind Van Halen’s vocal sound was undeniably the backup vocals of Michael Anthony.
However, at this point in the album, it might be easy to say “Where are the bangers!?” but then the band goes into “Somebody Get Me A Doctor” which brings back the heavy rock elements that fans adored about the band in the first place. It is easily one of the best songs on the album, showcasing one of Eddie’s best guitar riffs, and a fan favorite alike.
This leads into the groovy and fun track “Bottoms Up!,” and while I find this to be one of the weaker numbers, it’s still a pretty good song; Nothing entirely special. The band then brings the speed back up on “Outta Love Again,” which really highlights the powerful rhythm section of Michael Anthony and Alex Van Halen. It’s almost like Eddie takes a backseat to let the other musicians in the band shine, while still having that signature swagger.
Arguably one of, if not the, best song on the whole album, “Light Up The Sky” really shows the band firing on all cylinders. It sports a very signature Van Halen song structure of getting straight to the point, bringing the dynamics down during the middle, and then ends on a massive bang. This is another instance where the vocal harmonies and interplay really shines here, which at this point is a signature part of the band’s sound.
The album then breaks to the instrumental “Spanish Fly” that shows Eddie translating his guitar techniques to a nylon string acoustic in the spirit of “Eruption” from the debut. It’s as if “Eruption” is the “Yin” and “Spanish Fly” is the “Yang.” Then it leads into an incredibly underrated jam “D.O.A” that I feel really doesn’t get enough love. It’s got one of the heaviest and pick heavy guitar riffs the band has ever come up with, and I can’t help but crank this one when it comes on in the car.
The way the album ends is on a very melodic note, which helps counteract the straight heavy bangers of the previous four or five tracks. “Women In Love” has one of my absolute favorite clean guitar intros. While it’s nothing entirely flashy, this is where Eddie’s guitar playing really shines the brightest. His sense of melody and arpeggios within the chords he’s using and his simplistic but melodically impactful guitar solo shows that he’s more than just a one trick pony who can tap for days. He really had a very sensible understanding of the instrument, and this track is where it really highlights that particular aspect of his playing that I feel doesn’t get enough credit.
Finally, the album finishes on a light and airy note but still manages to be heavy with “Beautiful Girls.” This is another song like “D.O.A” where I can’t help but crank this one when it comes on. This song is truly the essence of what Van Halen with David Lee Roth is all about. The band couldn’t have picked a better song to conclude the album. It showcases everything the band is capable of and is easily one of the absolute highlights of the album.
One thing about this album is that I always feel like it’s too short! I always find myself wishing there was at least one more song, but then the fan in me goes, “Well, that’s why they have two albums after this that are just as phenomenal” and then I go listen to those. Van Halen I (1978) and Van Halen II (1979) are basically like sister albums and are best served as a package deal. Sometimes I find myself treating these two albums like it’s a double album because the songs are pretty interchangeable. The band started really experimenting with their sound on albums that followed these two, so they serve as a nice reference point for any fan to recognize where they came from.
While Van Halen has been very polarizing over the years in terms of musical direction, and even change in line-ups, one thing is certain. Albums like Van Halen II (1979) cemented the band as a musical icon and influenced a whole generation and culture. The amount of impact this album and really the first 4 albums in Van Halen’s discography as a whole cannot be understated. The real question is, does this album hold up 40 years later? The answer to the question is absolutely. Despite being released in the late ’70s, the sound is undoubtedly timeless and will continue to be as far any hard rock fan is concerned.