It's no secret that there's a deep animosity between Van Halen -- particularly their leader, guitarist Edward (formerly Eddie) Van Halen -- and their former frontman, David Lee Roth. His 1985 departure was acrimonious, and while his solo career paled in comparison to Van Halen's continued success with Sammy Hagar as their frontman, the group never escaped the shadow of Diamond Dave. No matter how many number one albums and singles they racked up, no matter how many shows they sold out, fans and critics alike preferred their gonzo days with Roth, and kept hounding the band for a reunion. Edward held his ground for years, but once the band stumbled with 1995's Balance, he reconsidered, courting Dave for an ill-fated mini-reunion for the 1996 hits compilation The Best of Van Halen, Vol. 1 -- a move that resulted not just in two enjoyable albeit underwhelming new songs, but also the alienation of Sammy, who left the band over this issue. Van Halen recruited Extreme vocalist Gary Cherone for 1998's Van Halen III, but instead of offering a new beginning, the album torpedoed the group's career, losing them fans and eventually their record contract. Years passed with no activity from the band, and the silence whetted the appetite for a reunion -- which for many meant a reunion with Dave, not Sammy, but bad blood can run deep, so when Edward pulled the rest of the band together for a comeback tour in 2004, he chose Hagar as the frontman. To promote the tour, the band assembled a new hits compilation, the double-disc, 36-track Best of Both Worlds. On the surface, this seemed like an ideal solution to the problems that plagued the half-baked Best Of, which at one disc couldn't possibly have fit the hits from both the Dave and Sam eras, but Best of Both Worlds turns out to be another botched collection, and one of the reasons it doesn't work as well as it should is that animosity toward David Lee Roth.
Since the band's sound and popularity were built on the records they made with Roth, there was no way for Van Halen to ignore his contribution, but they do their damnedest to diminish it here. There are no pictures of Diamond Dave to be found in the artwork (unless you count the miniature reproductions of the sleeves of Van Halen and Women and Children First) and David Wild's liner notes mention him only twice -- once when he joins the band, once when he leaves -- while conspicuously lavishing praise on Sammy. As petty as this swipe is, it's understandable and could even be forgivable if the two discs were well assembled, but they're sabotaged by an absurd sequencing that alternates a Dave song with a Sammy song for the bulk of the entire collection. This is a jarring sequencing, to say the least, causing a whiplash change of tone, mood, and attitude with every song, which are otherwise well-chosen, containing the big hits from each era (the only exception is the boneheaded move to end the collection with three cuts from the 1993 live album Live: Right Here, Right Now, all Diamond Dave songs sung by Sammy). This attempt to elevate Sammy above Dave in the canon is a bit like trying to say Ronnie James Dio was more important to Black Sabbath than Ozzy Osbourne -- a piece of flat-out hyperbole that does a disservice to what the singer actually achieved. David Lee Roth was larger than life, a gonzo performance artist touched with genius who helped Van Halen seem bigger, sillier, grander than any other metal band; with him in front, they were giants, they were golden gods. Sammy Hagar was his opposite, an everyman who sang about girls and tequila, somebody who brought Van Halen back down to earth. Since part of the fun of rock stars is to have them be larger than life, a manifestation of the audience's dreams, fans naturally gravitate toward the Diamond Dave years, but there are merits to both approaches and both resulted in good to great music. But that's hard to appreciate on Best of Both Worlds, when the Dave and Sammy tunes are mixed up with no regard for chronological, musical, or emotional cohesiveness. The raw materials for a great Van Halen compilation are here -- it's just up to users to take these 36 songs and sequence them at home, on their CD players or iPods, to make this the compilation it should have been. [WEA International released the Very Best of Van Halen in 2004, which contains the exact same track listing.] ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine