Look over Sammy Hagar’s catalog of songs, and what do you get? Well, you probably get a little worn out, since few rockers’ catalogs are so packed with anthemic fist-wavers. But you also get some respect for the many styles he’s covered and the side trips he’s taken, all while maintaining his status as the eternally youthful Red Rocker.
Since he’s recorded in so many situations for so many labels, there’s never been a compilation that wraps up the best of everything. 2004’s The Essential Red Collection comes closest, but even that’s got a few notable omissions. What follows is our attempt to wrap the best of Sammy, from the start of his solo career to the present, into a tidy 15-track set that fits on a single CD. This is strictly drawn from solo albums (and group albums where he gets top billing), so Montrose, Van Halen, and Chickenfoot can wait their turn. It also draws (with one exception) only on songs he wrote or co-wrote.
Let’s call this collection One Way to Rock, since that tune (which we’ve of course included) always sounded like a title track waiting to happen. Taking this in chronological order…
Red (from Sammy Hagar, 1977)
This rocker is the anthemic opener and sort-of title track to Sammy Hagar’s self-titled 1977 album, known to fans as the Red Album. The title isn’t a double entendre like Aerosmith’s “Pink”: He just loves the color and thinks that red knocks ‘em dead. The album as a whole is a great starting point for early Sammy, with buried treasures in “Free Money” – yes, one of the first covers anyone did of a Patti Smith song – and the high-attitude “The Pits,” which would be on this collection if we had more room for deep cuts.
Heavy Metal (from Heavy Metal, 1980)
The fantasy mag Heavy Metal was all over college dorms in the late ‘70s, and its one animated movie featured big names from the hard rock/metal world. For this theme song, Sammy Hagar leaves out the fantasy element and instead celebrates heavy metal as a sound and a lifestyle – musically, it’s probably the most Zeppelin-esque he ever got.
Space Station #5 (from Live 1980)
We said there wouldn’t be any Montrose on this set, but this song sneaks in since Sammy Hagar revisited it on his 1980 live album, faithfully recreating the space truckin’ groove of the original. Though Ronnie Montrose’s lead guitar is missed, this version is no slouch: Give a cheer for guitarist Gary Pihl, a mainstay of the Hagar band before moving into a longtime gig with the band Boston.
I’ve Done Everything for You (from Rematch, 1982)
It’s easy to forget that Sammy Hagar got his first big hit as a songwriter, not a singer: Originally on his 1978 live album All Night Long, it got picked up by Rick Springfield three years later. It went Top Ten as the followup to “Jessie’s Girl,” and it gave the teen idol the tougher image he was after. Hagar then cut his own studio version for a best-of collection. Fans have long wondered who inspired this song, one of the nastier ones he’s written.
Your Love is Driving Me Crazy (from Three Lock Box, 1982)
‘80s pop metal at its hookiest. This was Sammy Hagar making nice with the production trends of the day, putting those big drums in the forefront, adding some glossy synths, and keeping it all danceable. And it works, mainly because the song is solid – and by Hagar standards, nice and romantic. This was his biggest solo hit single, the only one to hit the Top 20. It formally launched his glory days, with the even bigger follow-up coming just eleven months later.
I’ll Fall in Love Again (from Standing Hampton, 1982)
For all the party-animal vibe he puts across, Sammy Hagar can also be a serious pop craftsman. There’s no better proof than this infectious track, a chugging rocker with a breezy California feel and a few Beach Boys touches in the harmonies. He tempers his lead vocal to keep it radio-friendly. Characteristically, the lyric greets a romantic letdown with the assurance that everything’s gonna be alright.
There’s Only One Way to Rock (from Standing Hampton, 1982)
Rock anthems were making a comeback in the early ‘80s – see “I Love Rock & Roll,” “The Heart of Rock & Roll,” and ELO’s “Rock & Roll is King” – but this Sammy Hagar song arguably had the biggest beat and the most attitude. The tune inspired countless wiseguy critics to point out assorted other ways to rock, but that wasn’t the point. This was just pure fun. The song was the second hit from Standing Hampton, and you can grin if you know what that album title means.
I Can’t Drive 55 (from VOA, 1984)
This of course is the definitive Sammy Hagar song, and one of the solo hits he got to do with Van Halen: You hitch an instant catchphrase to a between-the-eyes chorus, and you’ve got a hard-rock classic. The title has long since become a code for being unable to play by the rules. But according to his own recollections, Sammy wasn’t being that much of a bad boy: The cops pulled his Ferrari over when he was doing 62, which is perfectly legal in some parts of town.
Valley of the Kings/Giza (from HSAS, 1984)
Time to pull one overlooked track out of the fire. HSAS was Sammy Hagar’s short-lived (only a few months) supergroup with Santana alums Neal Schon and Michael Shrieve, plus bassist Kenny Aaronson. The single was an unlikely cover of “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” but this track was a far more successful stab at doing something grand and mythic, in the vein of Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” Schon slings riffs throughout – clearly getting off on being in a band without keyboards – and Hagar’s voice really soars, especially on the enigmatic closing chant.
Eagles Fly (from I Never Said Goodbye, 1987)
Not a trace of party spirit on this one, which dares to go for a deeper inspirational mood. The song sports one of Sammy Hagar’s more thoughtful vocals, and musically it splits the difference between classic hard rock and modern synth-rock. This was submitted for Van Halen’s 5150, whose producer found it too serious – but you might consider it a Van Halen track anyway since Eddie (who plays bass through the album) throws in some licks in the guitar solo.
Little White Lie (from Marching to Mars, 1997)
Skipping ahead ten years, we come to Sammy Hagar’s first post-Van Halen radio hit – and it finds him in an unusually vengeful mood, continuing the more serious feel of his VH swansong Balance. Beginning with a cappella voice and acoustic guitar, the song is all about tension: The arrangement keeps you in suspense for the full band to kick in, which doesn’t happen until it’s nearly over.
Mas Tequila (from Red Voodoo, 1999)
This is less a party song than an actual party, pressed directly onto CD. Yes, the groove is borrowed from Gary Glitter’s “Rock & Roll, Part 2” (Glitter and collaborator Mike Leander get a writing credit), but Hagar throws in his own stock of good times – and Glitter’s tune didn’t have that nifty key change before the guitar solo. (Extra points for namechecking Tone-Loc’s then-15-year-old rap nugget, “Funky Cold Medina.”) Tequila would be extremely good to Hagar, his Cabo Wabo brand was a roaring success and he ultimately sold it for $80 million.
I Love This Bar (from Livin’ It Up!, 2005)
A Sammy Hagar country crossover album was probably the last thing anyone expected after Van Halen, but fans who think they hate country should check this one out. Now with the Waboritas as regular band, this album featured a cover of Toby Keith, collaborations with Kenny Chesney, and the spiritual influence of Jimmy Buffett (who’d later sign Hagar to his Mailboat label). And it winds up making perfect sense, since he meets those artists where they hang out – on the beach of course, where the spirit flows and the spirits flow. A surprise highlight was this harder-rocking spin on a good-timey Keith hit.
Trust Fund Baby (from Space Between, 2019)
2019 found Sammy Hagar with a new Allstar band (Jason Bonham, Michael Anthony, and Vic Johnson), and he didn’t call it the Circle for nothing: With a few small tweaks, this track could have fit back on the Red Album. Rocking fast and hard, he comes up with a few novel ways to point out that he ain’t no fortunate son.
Funky Feng Shui (from Lockdown 2020, 2020)
Sammy Hagar and the Circle lifted spirits with their online posts during the pandemic – mainly doing cover tunes, but also posting this 90-second track as a song in progress. It’s a likely hit once they finish it, but it’s also big fun right now; showing he can still hit those high notes in his living room without studio help – and that after all these years, he’s nowhere near ready to calm down.
Think we missed one of the best Sammy Hagar songs? Let us know in the comments below.