The Stories Behind 15 Albums Named After Numbers, Featuring a Lot of Van Halen

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When you think about it, most album titles are a little cryptic (Fiona Apple, I love you, but that's a lot of title). But there’s something especially intriguing about a record that goes by nothing but a few digits. Those digits are usually anything but random, so here are a few of those musical mysteries, unraveled.

1. The Beatles: 1. All 27 songs on the 2000 album were #1 hits in either the U.S. or the U.K. (though some made it as the B side of a hit single). You may have noticed the exclusion of two extremely popular Fab Four songs: “Please Please Me” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Both of those classics only made it to #2.

2. Pearl Jam: Ten. Before they were big stars, Eddie Vedder and company were just some young dudes with an affinity for basketball player Mookie Blaylock. In fact, they even named the band after him, until Mookie’s lawyers kindly asked them to cease and desist. Unwilling to give up the ghost, they named their first album after his jersey number.

3. Van Halen: III. It’s technically Van Halen’s 11th album, so what gives? The title actually represents the fact that this album was the band's third lineup, this one featuring Gary Cherone, the ex-lead singer of Extreme. It just goes to show you - the third time isn't always a charm.

4. Beyonce: 4. Released in 2011, the album was Beyonce’s fourth - but that’s not the only reason she named it 4. “We all have special numbers in our lives, and 4 is that for me,” she explained. “It’s the day I was born. My mother’s birthday, and a lot of my friends’ birthdays, are on the fourth; April 4 is my wedding date.”

5-7. Joan Baez, Lenny Kravitz and the Steve Miller Band all released fifth albums named after the accomplishment: Joan Baez/5, 5, and Number 5, respectively.

8. Usher: 8701. The Usher album featuring “U Remind Me” just happened to be released on August 7, 2001. You’d think that’s the end of the story, but you'd be wrong - the album’s release date was apparently a happy marketing coincidence, not the impetus for the title. The title actually marked the length of Usher’s singing career at that time: he started singing at his church in 1987, and ‘01 was the current year.

9. U2: 7. The explanation for this one is pretty simple: the Target-exclusive EP of rare B-sides and remixes contained seven songs. It was also a wink to their first-ever release, Three. That 1979 release consisted of - you guessed it - three songs.

10. Van Halen: OU812. If you say it out loud, of course, it sounds like “Oh, you ate one too?” Most people think it’s a rather crude joke, but another theory is that it’s a spoof on David Lee Roth’s previous album, Eat ‘Em and Smile. (It could also be both.)

One thing's for sure: whatever the album title refers to, other musicians have had a good time spoofing it. Boston punk band Gang Green came out with I81B4U the same year as the Van Halen album and an experimental band called Mr. Bungle released a demo tape called OU818 the following year.

11-12. Adele: 19 & 21. At the ages of 19 and 21, most of us are eating ramen noodles and drinking way too much crappy beer. Adele was busy writing a couple of hit albums, which she celebrated by naming them after her age at the time she wrote them. To be fair, it’s possible that she was drinking Keystone and eating ramen while she was writing them.

13. Van Halen: 5150. It’s the name of Eddie Van Halen’s home recording studio, where the album of the same name (and every Van Halen record since then) has been recorded. The studio got its name after Van Halen engineer and friend Donn Landee heard it come across on his police scanner: it’s the California penal code for “involuntary confinement of a person for purposes of psychiatric evaluation”.

14. Lynyrd Skynyrd: Twenty. On April 29, 1997, the Southern rock band released their ninth album but named it after another significant number. Twenty is a tribute to the six band and crew members who died in a plane crash two decades earlier.

15. Rush: 2112. If you’ve already listened to this album, you’ve likely figured out from the title track that “2112” refers to a year in the future. It’s just part of the whole concept album about a futuristic dystopian society. But you may not have known that Ayn Rand may have been its inspiration:

“It's difficult always to trace those lines because so many things tend to coalesce, and in fact it ended up being quite similar to a book called Anthem by the writer Ayn Rand. But I didn't realize that while I was working on it, and then eventually as the story came together, the parallels became obvious to me and I thought, 'Oh gee, I don't want to be a plagiarist here.' So I did give credit to her writings in the liner notes."

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August 8, 2012 - 10:12am
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