David Lee Roth‘s legacy will forever be defined by his time with Van Halen. But that doesn’t mean his solo work should be ignored.

From a strictly commercial standpoint, Roth’s post-Van Halen career followed the same basic trajectory Major T. J. “King” Kong did at the end of Dr. Strangelove. But that doesn’t tell the full story. For one thing, he’s often too far ahead of the cultural curve for his own good. The main problem with his first Las Vegas residency was that it arrived about 15 years too early, and his 2006 morning radio show might have gone down much better in today’s world of highly targeted steams and podcasts.

Just like Kong, Roth went down kicking, laughing and hollering – and throwing far more than his share of monkey wrenches into the proceedings, defying genre expectations as well as music industry machinations. While his albums could be maddeningly inconsistent, they all featured at least a few brilliant songs that deserve their own spotlight and illustrate just how important he was to one of the biggest and best hard rock bands of all time.

Need proof? Have a listen to the most underrated song from each of David Lee Roth’s seven solo albums.

“Coconut Grove”
From: Crazy from the Heat (1985)

David Lee Roth’s debut solo EP is best known for breaking up the world’s most awesome hard rock band a big hit cover of the Beach Boys‘ “California Girls.” There was also an impressive medley of two songs from much earlier in the century, “Just A Gigolo” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody.” But his hazy, borderline psychedelic take on the Lovin’ Spoonful‘s “Coconut Grove” casts a more lasting, gimmick-free spell.

 

“Ladies’ Nite in Buffalo?”
From: Eat ‘Em and Smile (1986)

Crazy From the Heat was supposed to be a side project. Instead it contributed to Roth being replaced in Van Halen by Sammy Hagar. Suddenly in need of a solo career, Roth not only hired a guitar wizard that could go toe to toe with Eddie Van Halen in Steve Vai, but an equally talented and flashy bassist in Billy Sheehan. While his former bandmates leaned further into keyboards and more grown-up lyrics and songwriting on 5150, Roth gave anybody somehow disappointed by “Jump” and “I’ll Wait‘ the unhinged hard rock orgy of their dreams on Eat ‘Em and Smile.

And yet, the album’s high point features Diamond Dave showing off his own form of maturity on the sultry and sophisticated “Ladies’ Nite in Buffalo?,” easily disproving the notion that he wouldn’t have been able to grow up alongside his now former bandmates.

 

“Hina”
From: Skyscraper (1988)

Hey science, once you’re done figuring out cold fusion and exactly how the Egyptian pyramids were built, can you try and explain why David Lee Roth abandoned his winning Eat ‘Em and Smile formula so quickly? Was it just because 5150 sold six times as many copies as his solo debut? Because 1988’s Skyscraper was suddenly filled with keyboards and sugary pop choruses, with the freewheeling musical interplay between Vai and Sheehan reduced to the point that both had quit the band by the end of the following tour.

Make no mistake, there are some very catchy songs here, most notably “Stand Up” and the hit single “Just Like Paradise.” But the only track that really expands upon the promise of Eat ‘Em and Smile is the hypnotically weird and atmospheric Vai showcase “Hina.”

 

“Drop in the Bucket”
From: A Little Ain’t Enough (1991)

Roth teamed up with both a new guitar prodigy (Jason Becker) and hard rock’s hottest producer (Bob Rock) for his third solo album, in an attempted return to arena rock glory. There’s cool riffs and ideas all over the place, but overall A Little Ain’t Enough is too polished and predictable to throw off any real sparks. Only the closing “Drop in the Bucket” really hits all the right sweet spots, particularly during a dazzling mid-song instrumental section.

 

“Big Train”
From: Your Filthy Little Mouth (1994)

Roth made an admirable attempt to shake things up here, recruiting acclaimed producer Nile Rodgers and dabbling in new genres such as blues, country and reggae on various Your Filthy Little Mouth tracks. Lead single “She’s My Machine” deserved to be a bigger hit and the barreling “Big Train” is even better, as Roth effortlessly recaptures his magic blend of hard rock and show business razzle-dazzle.

 

“Going Places…”
From: DLR Band (1998)

The DLR Band album is very good, but the story behind its creation might be even better. After reading Roth’s 1997 autobiography Crazy from the Heat, a then relatively unknown John 5 called the management number listed in the back of the book and offered up his songwriting services. Not only did he get a yes, in short order he had co-written and played guitar on half of Roth’s fifth solo album. He proved to be Roth’s best foil since Vai, helping the Van Halen legend to both revisit past triumphs and break new ground. If there’s nitpicking to be done it’s to say that sometimes Roth is too far in the background on the LP, seemingly more along for the ride than steering the ship. But he’s front and center on “Going Places…” an ambitiously epic Led Zeppelin III-esque acoustic rocker.

 

“Shoo Bop”
From: Diamond Dave (2003)

It’s surprising that a David Lee Roth covers album hadn’t happened sooner than 2003. (Go ahead, make your own Diver Down jokes here.) He’s always had great taste in other people’s music, and much of Diamond Dave finds him either shining light on under appreciated gems or offering an interesting twist on beloved songs such as the Doors‘ “Soul Kitchen” or the Beatles‘ “Tomorrow Never Knows.” There’s a clear emphasis on pre-Eddie Van Halen guitar playing throughout the album. This proves to be a refreshing change of pace, particularly on this excellent, renamed cover of the Steve Miller Band‘s 1973 single “Shu Ba Da Du Ma Ma Ma Ma.” (The more futuristic original track “Thug Pop,’ co-written with DLR Band‘s John 5, is also well worth your time.)

 

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A ranking of every Van Halen album.





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