In 1970, a ragtag quartet from Birmingham created a new genre of music. The band was Black Sabbath. The genre was heavy metal. It didn’t emerge from the blue: over the previous few years, bands like Iron Butterfly and Led Zeppelin had been getting progressively heavier. But Black Sabbath was the first band to master and shape the cranked-up sounds into an entire album of gloom-laden savagery. Since then, thousands of artists have interpreted, rejigged, and on some occasions, flat-out copied Black Sabbath’s efforts. Some have succeeded, others have flopped. In tribute to headbangers everywhere, here are the 20 best metal albums of all time.
20. Megadeth – Rust In Peace
Described by TheTopTens as an almost perfect album, “Rust In Peace” will take even Megadeth’s haters by surprise. The technically beautiful “Holy Wars” gets things off to a scorching start, quickly followed up by the belting “Hangar 18” and the equally outstanding “Take No Prisoners.” “Poison Was the Cure” is a slow-burner, but after the raging speed of “Five Magic,” the gentler pace comes as something of a relief. If you ever needed a reason for Megadeth’s inclusion in the “Big Four” of American thrash metal bands, this is it.
19. Type O Negative – Bloody Kisses
As Louder rightly says, “Bloody Kisses” has a little bit of everything. Whereas some bands struggle to balance the theatrics of metal with the seriousness of the sentiment, here, Type O Negative manage it beautifully. As you’d expect of the band, it gets into some dark, depressing places at times, but there’s a lightness of touch that keeps things approachable.
18. Beherit — Drawing Down the Moon
As junkee.com points out, Beherit’s debut album doesn’t mess around. An opening reading of Anton Lavey’s Satanic Bible sets the tone for what turns into a strange, almost frightening album that takes ambient music and electronics to all new hellish depths. It’s not an approachable album. It’s not even a definable one. But it is an extraordinary one. Just don’t listen to it with the lights off.
17. Dio – Holy Diver
In 1983, Ronnie James Dio broke away from the hard rock that had made his name to emerge as a fully formed metalhead on “Holy Diver.” Accompanied by guitarist Vivian Campbell’s crunching sounds, Dio’s high-pitched wail takes us from the anthemic “Stand Up and Shout” to the scorching title track. Half social commentary and half Dungeons and Dragons escapism, it may not have found much of an audience at the time of its release, but it certainly has since.
16. Mastodon – Leviathan
As What Culture notes, by the time “Leviathan” was released in 2004, Mastodon were already two albums into their career and just starting to mold their trademark progressive sound. Throaty vocals, crunchy chords, technical wizardry, and bombastic drumming combine to create a heavy-weight album that may not be as well known as some of our other entries, but which certainly deserves to be.
15. Opeth – Blackwater Park
Opeth isn’t the first metal band to like a bit of prog rock, but they’re about the only one to have combined it with death metal and succeeded in creating something listenable. “Blackwater Park” is a singular, fascinating exploration of the band’s signature sound that may take a second listen to fully understand, but that’s more than worth the effort.
14. Immortal – Sons Of Northern Darkness
In 2002, the Norwegian trio Immortal delivered a blast of Scandi metal capable of sending shivers down your spine. It wandered a very different path from the direction metal had taken in the 1990s, but by that point, we were all sick of the status quo anyway. Frontman Abbath Doom Occulta sounds like one of Satan’s Little Helpers, adding a touch of levity to the buzzsaw guitars and dark lyrics. It was neither brash nor glossy, overstyled or underproduced. In short, it was different, and in 2002, different was exactly what metal needed.
13. Anthrax – Among the Living
Ranked by Rolling Stone as one of the best metal albums of all time, Anthrax’s “Among the Living” is an undeniable thrash classic. It churns, it flows, and it’s got more gear shifts than any single album has any right to. As a display of the band’s musical agility, this surprisingly accessible album is hard to fault.
12. Electric Wizard — Dopethrone
Electric Wizard’s “Dopethrone” doesn’t make for easy listening. Speaking about it years later, lead singer Jus Oborn explained, “Most of us were stuck in some drug addiction or alcoholism at the time, and it was just pure hate. It was us against the world, and we just wanted to make the most disgusting, foul, putrid record that anyone has ever recorded.” They didn’t disappoint. At just over an hour-long, “Dopethrone” feels like a horror movie bought to life. If you’ve always suspected doom metal is just too cheerful for its own good, this is the album for you.
11. Judas Priest – Screaming for Vengeance
Two years after delivering an album that changed the face of British metal (“British Steel”), Judas Priest dished up another fine serving of music in the form of “Screaming for Vengeance.” If “Britsh Steel” was the sound of a band deciding to take a different road, “Screaming for Vengeance” is the sound of a band that’s been on that road for a while, knows its twists, knows its turns, and knows exactly to navigate it. Confident, to the point, and packed with gems like “Electric Eye” and “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’,” “Screaming for Vengeance” is a mature album that makes up in virtuoso what it lacks in surprise.
10. Pantera – A Vulgar Display of Power
As La Weekly notes, “A Vulgar Display of Power ” saw Pantera drop any last hints of their hard rok beginnings and embrace metal with open arms. Rage-fueled, angry, and dripping in scorn, this was the album that elevated Pantera from contenders to bona fide metal icons.
9. Ozzy Osbourne – Blizzard of Ozz
Ozzy Osbourne has made more comebacks than almost any other artist around. In 1980, he staged his first resurrection after being fired from Black Sabbath in the form of “Blizzard of Ozz.” If he was looking for a way of making the critics eat their words, he succeeded. Studded with nuggets like “Crazy Train,” “Suicide Solution” and “Mr. Crowley,” the album represented a majestic return to form. If Ozzy helped create metal in the 1970s with Black Sabbath, here, he perfected it.
8. Black Sabbath – Master of Reality
Ozzy Osbourne might have lived hard and fast, but overlook the addictions and the bat eating and he seems to be a perfectly amiable kind of guy. It’s just not always obvious from his music. Back in 1971, Black Sabbath gave us their darkest, meatiest album to date. Overlooked by critics at the time (most could never see past Bill Ward’s cowbell on “Lord of This World”), “Master of Reality” is an innovative, somber affair that sets the tone for every drudgy metal album that’s come after. Even if it wasn’t for the cowbell, that alone would make it worth a listen.
7. Metallica – Master of Puppets
Widely considered Metallica’s magnum opus, “Master of Puppets” showcases the band’s thrash metal sound to perfection. The title track is an obvious standout – written by James Hetfield after witnessing comatose junkies at a party, it’s an eight-and-a-half-minute masterpiece that manages to blend thrash with jazzy melodies and come out all the better for it. Title track aside, there’s no shortage of other gems to discover, from the almost classical sounding instrumental “Orion” to the psychodrama of “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” and the frantically paced “Battery.” Without a question, this is the album that made Metallica the biggest band in metal.
6. Megadeth – Peace Sells … but Who’s Buying?
In 1986, Megadeth released their second album, “Peace Sells … but Who’s Buying?” It was ferocious stuff. Any rage that Dave Mustaine was still harboring after his forced exit from Metallica found its expression on the album’s 7 hard-hitting masterpieces. Taut, contemptuous, and powerfully personal, the album showcased a band at the peak of their powers. The lyrics might be savage in their vitriol, but not everything great has to come from a good place. Mustaine was a man with a point to prove… never has the sound of a grinding ax sounded so epic.
5. Motorhead – Ace of Spades
Four albums into the career, Motorhead hit their stride. A precursor to thrash metal, “Ace of Spades” is a rip-roaring blast from start to finish. Blessed with a devil-may-care attitude, crunching guitars, and immortal lines like “I don’t want to live forever,” the album turned Motorhead into heroes and Lemmy into an icon. It wasn’t their last great album, but it was the one that made us want to hear the rest.
4. Judas Priest – British Steel
By the late 1970s, British metal was getting bloated. It was strong and it was heavy, but not necessarily in a good way. Basically, it had lost the fun, turning from something savage you played to frighten your parents into something self-indulgent and overly orchestrated. Judas Priest’s first few albums were long, complicated, and not particularly approachable. That changed on 1980’s “British Steel.” Suddenly, they remembered that the end goal of making records was to get people to listen to their music. The songs got sharper, shorter, faster, and more exciting. Crucially, they also got something no one else had thought of introducing to a heavy metal song before: melody. It worked. Tuneful, savage, and as close to funky as metal has ever got, it represented a turning point for the band… and for metal.
3. Iron Maiden – The Number of the Beast
Iron Maiden’s first album with singer Bruce Dickinson also happens to be their best. “The Number of the Beast” might be almost 40 years old, but even metalheads born years after its original release still get chills when they hear the squealing guitar on “Run to the Hills” or the operatic vocals on “Hallowed Be Thy Name.” Complex, heady, and altogether thrilling, it was a milestone moment for metal and a career-defining one for Iron Maiden.
2. Black Sabbath – Paranoid
If Black Sabbath’s debut album was good, their sophomore album was great. Packed with Tony Iommi’s iconic licks, “Paranoid” serves up some of the most pitch-perfect heavy metal ever made. From the memorable “Iron Man” to the stylish “Faeries Wear Boots,” the band doesn’t put a foot wrong. It may not have created heavy metal (their debut album had already done that), but it trimmed it, styled it, and turned it into what, for a brief period at least, was the most musically intriguing genre around. It wouldn’t be long before the melodrama and the theatrics of the 1980s would take metal in a new and not entirely welcome direction, but for a while at least, it dominated… and Black Sabbath was the reason.
1. Slayer – Reign in Blood
When Rick Rubin signed Slayer to Def Jam in 1986, it didn’t seem the most natural pairing in the world. Slayer was metal; Def Jam was hip-hop. But the cultural clash managed to produce the best album of Slayer’s career. At that time, metal was getting flabby, excessive, and almost comedic. Rubin trimmed the fat, toned things up, and produced a sharp, explosive album that kept the drama but lost the theatrics. “Reign in Blood” is as savage and mean as metal gets. It’s not the kind of music parents would want their kids to listen to, but ultimately, isn’t that the point?