The 30 Greatest Metal Records of All Time: Part I

July 29, 2011

Partly as an expanded correction of my METAL! article going further than my Addendum yet not redundantly producing a somewhat revised list of “best” artists, I’ve compiled a list of the 30 greatest Metal records of all time, ordered chronologically and divided into time-periods, the first of which is listed below. Metal-for-life fans who listen to little else other than their beloved genre will likely find a lot of fault with what is assembled here; I’m certain to have left out many genre classics and many people’s personal favorites, but hopefully what is discussed here is a good sample of both cultural milestones and formative albums in the canon of the metal genre as well as timeless and superb work from the formative years of the genre’s development and recent time as well. As with all such lists, it is subjective and beholden to the author’s personal opinion and as with any such genre-highlighting piece it is always open to revision as new music is released, I discover older masterpieces for the first time, and particular works click with me as they haven’t before. So, (hopefully) enjoy!

Part I: The Roots of the Sound and the Genesis Days:

The First Wave of Heavy Metal was built off of blues riffs that were amped-up by aggressive chords and played by guitar heroes and icons. The last vestiges of psychedlica, that music that had cranked-up the noise and turned on the distortion and thus inadvertently laid the ground work for what was to come dissipated into stadium rock bands like Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy, etc. The first section of this 3 part piece I’m assembling focuses on the early days of heavy metal; the work produced by it’s reluctant originators (Led Zeppelin) and early creative artists who fully defined it and embraced its label(Black Sabbath), those that gave it a look and presence (Alice Cooper), those that gave it more room to grow and began the steps that would lyrically ground much of it (Judas Priest), those that only understood the power of the riff and that sometimes that was enough (Van Halen, AC/DC), and those that would stumble into new ways of being and doing metal, ways that would evolve among imitators as  both fantastic and ridiculous (Iron Maiden). Much of what is present at this phase would have been termed “hard rock” had it been released 10 years later, but at this early stage has to bear the Metal label for the inspiration it grew from and would in turn inspire.

1) Black  Sabbath : Black Sabbath (1970)

Particular albums become obligatory on certain lists; you can’t find a reliable or legitimate “Best Rock Albums of All Time” list without Sgt. Pepper’s or Highway 61, a “Best Hip Hop Albums” list without Fear of a Black Planet or Paid in Full, a jazz list without Kind of Blue or A Love Supreme, etc. Such is the case with the debut album of Black Sabbath; and just as is the case with those other “obligatory” choices in other genre lists, Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath remains a powerful work that stands the test of time and remains fresh to listening ears despite a canonized status that could easily cause it to be relegated to one of those records which you pay credit to in conversation, recognizing its importance to the history of the genre but rarely actually revisiting it or, if you’re a younger fan, ever truly listening to it at all.  Black Sabbath demands a listen from anyone even remotely interested in metal. If you want to know what Heavy Metal is and where it started, you listen to this record. If you want to know what makes Metal great, you listen to this record. Once you hear the title track or “N.I.B.” you know what this genre is. If you want to encounter this album in depth for the first time and you have the means to do so, the best way is to snag (if you can find them) a vinyl copy of the original British pressing and the 2009 Deluxe Edition CD. For one, the tracks are slightly different on the two; as is the case with a lot of records from this time, the US and British versions differed and since the band was in the process of becoming who they were, singles changed and labels attempted to market the product in different ways. The 2009 CD divides the massive “WASP/Behind the Wall of Sleep/Basically/N.I.B.” and “A Bit of Finger/Sleeping Village/Warning” tracks into their own separate entities, includes the “Evil Woman” single and throws in a bonus disc of alternate takes and early versions that showcase Ozzy, Butler, Iommi and Ward nailing down what Metal music is to a fuller extent. Going beyond that, an old vinyl, even with scratches, will fully bear witness to the ominous eeriness of the opening title track. The CD remaster restores it to sonic perfection and gives the instruments room to breath and awe while retaining most of the scare factor, but an old vinyl of this one shows the horror vibe the band chose to signify and identify themselves and their sound with to the fullest.

Okay. Audiophile and sound geek observations aside. This record is what metal is. Other bands (Led Zeppelin, Blue Cheer, Blue Oyster Cult, Deep Purple, even Cream) inadvertently created the groundwork for the genre, some then moving more fully into and embracing it after Sabbath and the like got it named, others avoided the term and the scene for the entirety of their careers, but it was Sabbath that knowingly and intentionally stepped into this groundwork and built the house itself. Ozzy’s voice was majestic in a wrecked sense long before drugs and abuse deteriorated it. Tony Iommi basically created every riff Metal has in its arsenal and every metal guitarist since must repeat, adapt, or deconstruct those riffs in the same way every pure rock and roll guitarist must with the riffs built by Chuck Berry. Iommi’s fateful factory accident which shaved off the tips of his right hand fingers forced him to adapt and create many of these riffs almost accidentally, which when matched with Ozzy’s intentionally horror-themed lyrics defined mainstream heavy metal forevermore. Bill Ward and Geezer Butler round the package out by being masterful drummers and bassists, respectively. The entire album, but especially “N.I.B.”, gives audiences the dark tunnel at the flip end of the love decade. “N.I.B.” is so close to being a hippie song, especially in its breakdown, that the dark divergences from that take on a whole other effect. Right down to it’s creepy cover artwork, Black Sabbath announces something new, something unexpected, something the mainstream will be nonplussed by for sometime, many even derisively so. Sure metal would get louder, faster, and permutate into a million fractured subgenres, but the compass of the genre is forever oriented by this album.

2) Black Sabbath: Paranoid (1970)

Released the same year as their creative breakthrough debut, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid is an equally important metal classic. Nothing as frightening as their moniker sharing title track from that debut is present here and a song or two (notably “Rat Salad”) could be done without, but what is notable about Paranoid is immensely so. Most importantly, songwriting and riffage talent galore runs rampant here. “War Pigs,” “Paranoid,” and “Iron Man” are three of the most important songs in Metal’s history and equally solid tracks like “Faeries Wear Boots” and “Planet Caravan” round out the album solidly. Sabbath’s sound, like much of the metal to come, may intentionally distance itself and even stand in middle-finger defiance of much of the then-perceived failures of the peace and love generation music and ethos, but Ozzy evokes much of the same sincerity and viewpoints of the best of that other genre and era (though perhaps more roughly and abrasively) in “War Pigs,” a song which condemns war with fiery indignation, picturing generals as “witches in black masses.” Such a lyrical statement was not meant to label war practitioners as “cool” anti-heroes either– evil when it is present on Ozzy-era Sabbath records is always a present force but one not worshiped or invoked, one which instead is suffocating and terrifying, depicted in the songs but not embraced. When “Satan laughs and spreads his wings,” Ozzy ripostes with a “Please God help me!” (Venom, the buffoons who later created Black Metal did so in intentional contrast to such Ozzy lyrics). The War Pigs are the victims of military and political leaders who orchestrate violence for their own reasons, much in the same vein as Dylan’s “Masters of War.” The true evil that Ozzy paints in the song and Iommi gives sound to is inhabited by the cruel manipulators of war in this song and the depiction of one of the hapless “War Pig” victims on the cover provoked the occurrence of perhaps Metal’s first act of censorship; the band intended to name the record “War Pigs” and in conjunction with the album artwork were told to change it to “Paranoid” at pressing time so as not to so bluntly draw the comparison visually the way the song itself does. So the album title and artwork as was a result make no sense, an interesting development for a classic work. Ozzy would later show other signs of hippy-tendency in his lyrics, as is the case with his many songs depicting environmental devastation and pleas that humans better care for “Mother Earth,” but “War Pigs” is the only socially conscious song on Paranoid. What’s left is what would forever be a fixture of metal lyrics–meditations on paranoia, substance abuse, isolation, depression, and confusion. Yet powered by Iommi’s, admittedly gloomy yet powerful, chords, Ward’s pounding drums, and Butler’s bass riffs such sentiments somehow remain energetic.

3) Led Zeppelin: IV (ZOSO)   (1971)

Led Zeppelin released their first two records in 1969, closing out the sixties with the larger-than-life, heavy-riff take on the blues that became known as heavy metal. Frontman Robert Plant especially but supposedly the rest of the band as well never embraced the label, often cringing in derision when critics or fans applied it to them. Yet their sound, stage presence, lyrics, album sequencing, cover art, notorious exploits on the road, and bizarre misadventures (including allegations of, yes, occultism) all coalesced together to make them undeniably the first heavy metal band–admittedly first only by a year when compared with Sabbath, and the two bands couldn’t have been more different in their relationship to the genre they helped create. Zeppelin’s third record, released in 1970, contains the irrefutable metal classic “Immigrant Song.” All three of their quickly released first three albums are classic in their own right, but everything came together in a timeless way with their fourth record in 1971, causing it to become one of the most classic records in all of rock music, due in no small part to the haunting 8-minute epic “Stairway to Heaven.” “Stairway” is a song that is 90-percent quiet build up which makes the 10-percent of it that is full-on metal all the more powerful. On repeat listens that ending section is cast back in the form of anticipation on the entire song making even the quietest notes pure metal, a trick that would be done in varying ways to differing degrees of success throughout metal’s history. “Stairway” may be iconic and timeless and it may have been over-played on classic rock radio so much that it should be in danger of losing its power (it isn’t though), but the rest of IV (ZOSO) is strong enough to support such a centerpiece. “Black Dog,” and “Rock and Roll” are crunchy-quick slabs of powerful rock and roll which rake through the blues to make stadium bombast, “The Battle of Evermore” and “Misty Mountain Hop” take Zeppelin’s folk and fantasy preoccupations to a new level.” Going to California” simply offers up a beautiful soft rock number before delivering a perfect pseudo-apocalyptic closer in “When the Levee Breaks.” Zeppelin might have tried to shirk the weight and stigma of the Metal label but could not because in their work and career they represented the good and the bad of the genre, the excess and silliness, the sweatiness and showmanship, the power and glory, the transcendent potential laden within heavy riffs, the literate qualities in songwriting techniques that plumb the depths of horror, fantasy, religion and literature for ways of expressing emotions that lie beyond those words–whether those emotions be primal or super-conscious. Zeppelin’s re-appropriation of blues riffs would influence the sound of other great (and many sub-par) metal bands and ultimately the sound would be more at home in what today is termed “hard rock” while more intentional metal acts would veer toward Sabbath’s down-tuned sludgier chords. Of course, both such sounds would often be subsumed when metal bands later drastically sped up the riffs and looked more to European classical music for groundwork, but the genre of Metal cannot avoid acknowledging the importance of Zeppelin as a formative force.

4) Alice Cooper: Love it to Death (1971)

Alice Cooper remains one of the most interesting figures in heavy metal. Nowadays as an evangelical Christian he continues to relentlessly record and release new material that remains rather solid and hard-rocking and usually further details horror-themed stories in the lyrics of those new songs though according to Alice he does so now as a way of depicting what life without God is like–he sees his career as sort of a way to proselytize through pure metal without conceding his passion to make sub-standard “Christian Rock.” Cooper can also be seen on various heavy metal documentaries and in interviews offering funny yet often self-aggrandizing quips fully claiming the honorific title of “Father of Shock Rock” while simultaneously lambasting folks like Marilyn Manson for “taking it too far.” Alice Cooper became the name of just the frontman fully on the 1975 solo-debut of Alice, Welcome to My Nightmare. Prior to that, “Alice Cooper” had been the name of the entire group, the title passing onto the solo artist at the dissolution of that group. Alice’s solo career has had many highs and lows but rarely has he lived up to the artistic peak reached in his group. Alice Cooper began as an acid-rock styled group offering up last-gasp era psychedlica. Beginning with 1971’s Love it to Death and lasting for five full-length albums, Alice Cooper became a full-on heavy metal group. Their shock-rock stage techniques gained them infamy and resulted in songs like “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” but the albums were good enough to make them more than a surface only flash in the pan. The best of these albums was Love it to Death and though it contains only one real major hit (“I’m Eighteen”) and one equally great but less successful hit (“Is it my Body?”), the entire thing works perfectly and captures the essence of Alice–both the frontman and the band. From it’s album cover to it’s nine minute bad-trip “Black Ju Ju,” the chilling organs in “Hallowed Be My Name,” to simply solid songs like “Second Coming” (was he already proselytizing?) and “Ballad of Dwight Fry.” Alice is probably right that he invented the shock-value frontman and exuberant metal stage show that his friend Rob Zombie and in-print nemesis Marilyn Manson, among many others, would later follow. His antics led to his infamous on-stage freak-out competition with Ozzy, a classic metal legend. Behind all of the masks and shows though Alice Cooper (Vincent Furnier) has a knack for slightly wicked pop hooks and catchy songs as evinced most fully on Love it to Death though almost equally on the three follow-ups Killer, School’s Out, and Billion Dollar Babies.


5) Aerosmith: Aerosmith  (1973)

Aerosmith is a band, like at least one other later on this list, which has tarnished its own image and reputation by several periods of mediocrity (or worse). Much of their comeback 1980s albums, though a step above the atrocious work of many of their glam-era copycat artists, fell victim to the metal mistakes of the pop-fusion times. Yet even those works had highlights which their turn of the millennium work did not; and let’s not even mention their major malfunction of an attempt to fully acknowledge their debt to the blues that was Honkin’ on Bobo or Steven Tyler’s biographical confessions of which supermodel’s urine he would drink or his presence on American Idol. All of that noise almost makes one forget the rock excellence exhibited by the group on their first 5 albums released between 1973 and 1975. Those records would have a diverse influence on every genre that evolved from the heavy scene, from Motley Crue and their sub-par imitators to Kurt Cobain who listened to Rocks repeatedly when writing his own work for Nirvana. The self-titled first Aerosmith record is a solid classic that would become the blueprint for many of the metal sub-genres, both in good and bad ways. “Dream On” is likely the first power ballad, and by far the best. Joe Perry’s riffs all over songs like “Mama Kin,” “Make It,” and “One Way Street” push the filtered pilfering of the blues to the next level from Led Zeppelin, and Tyler layered enough macho-tinged glam to position the work as something markedly different than what had come before. Metal would go in many different paths in the decade to follow Aerosmith’s first creative burst, but the fusion of pop and the blues into a heavier sound found on their first album would always pop up in various corners of what was to follow.


6) Judas Priest: Sad Wings of Destiny (1976)

Their 1974 debut Rockarolla had been nothing specially so it’s doubtful anyone expected the 1976 follow-up to be as seminal a work as it proved to be. The height of Judas Priest’s popularity wouldn’t really come until 1980s mainstream breakthrough British Steel which would earn Priest a slew of hits and attention and kick off a run of eighties metal albums that would sell big, rock hard enough, and dominate (along with Maiden) the center of Heavy Metal’s attention–the Maiden/Priest reign would end only when thrash decimated the ground Metal had seemed to be built on. Yet prior to those eighties hits, Judas Priest had a whole other series of notable work; their ’70s classics were definitive, ground-breaking works that took Metal away from Sabbath and rounded it out with a slightly different sonic approach, one that gave Heavy Metal more room to breathe. Judas Priest are the link between Sabbath and Maiden and the album run that began with 1976’s Sad Wings and ran through Sin After Sin, Stained Class, and Hell Bent for Leather are their strongest works. The first of those is the most notable. Sad Wings of Destiny opens on vinyl with a piano melody that hints of tragedy but doesn’t veer so close to it that you really know that’s where you are going. From there listeners are led through sketches of real life horror; gone are Ozzy’s devil-winged Satans, here are “Tyrants” ruling with iron fists and ordering state-sponsored “Genocide.” Later will come character sketches of Jack “The Ripper.”  Possibly due to wanting to give listeners what they know is coming first off, CD versions of the album have always flipped the A/B sides and started us off with 7-and-a-half minute classic “Victim of Changes” which gives excellent guitar-hero K.K. Downing room to wind through kick-ass riffs while Rob Halford croons in all his shrieking, occasionally falsetto vocals. The entire record stands as a definitive moment. It lacks the hits that Priest will produce–“Better By You, Better Than Me,” “Diamonds and Rust,” “Hell Bent for Leather,” “Breaking the Law,” “Living After Midnight,” etc.– but it packs the full potential of their talent and vision.

7) Van Halen – Van Halen  (1978)

Van Halen have had their share of musical missteps, both due to David Lee Roth’s buffoonery in their first incarnation and to Sammy Hagar’s leniency towards cheesy schmaltz during VH phase-two (and nearly everyone has tried to forgot they tried it with a third guy in the late ’90s). But there are a number of great singles spread across their career and even their lesser moments were often elevated significantly by the guitar prowess of Eddie Van Halen. I would say they had exactly two classic albums–I may be the only one who grants that honor to the Hagar-led and forgotten Balance record from 1995 but my other choice is one even many staunch Halen-haters might begrudgingly concede–their 1978 self titled debut. Most of their later work is not heavy metal in the slightest, more accurately “hard rock” and often even pop-rock, and though there are hooks galore and pop choruses spread all over their debut record, thanks to Eddie’s virtuoso techniques on lead guitar an entire generation of metal musicians and fans would find a new direction. Eddie Van Halen reinvented the way hard rock guitar was played, hell even how the guitar itself could be played. The fact that VH as a group came up in California was instrumental–the big bands that would dominate and define metal in the mid- to late-eighties and evolve it to an entire new sound (Slayer, Metallica, Megadeth) would study and admire the first creative blast of Van Halen, taking note of Roth’s stage presence and behavior and most of all Eddie’s guitar tricks. There are some perfect moments on Van Halen: “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” is one of the greatest rock songs of all time, certainly the band’s best. The quick instrumental blast of “Eruption” signaled the arrival of something new and sent teenagers around the world rushing to buy and teach themselves to play guitar. “Runnin’ with the Devil” and “Jamie’s Cryin'” are more than solid singles. The only thing that falters on the entire record is arguably “Ice Cream Man” which signals the future goofiness of Roth but in the context of everything else here even that can be forgiven.

8 ) Motorhead – Ace of Spades  (1980)

There are a handful of figures that metal-heads and often those with a bit of knowledge about the music on the periphery of metal point to as definitive of the genre and scene: Ozzy, Alice, Slayer’s Kerry King, Maiden’s Dickinson, etc. One of the largest and most frequently hailed is bassist and vocalist Lemmy from Motorhead. Motorhead is often credited with creating speed and thrash metal, sub-genres that would be integral to the evolution of metal’s sound and vision. Motorhead have unfailingly and uncompromisingly played rough-edged speed metal for more than 30 years. Speed Metal as a whole never retained the popularity of its Thrash counterpart, yet Lemmy and co. play it so well that they’ve sustained a three decade career, though obviously a cult one. The band’s finest album is 1980’s Ace of Spades and it edges above the group’s other solid work (like 1979s Bomber and Overkill) mainly due to the title track which became their signature song, the one that many who are otherwise unfamiliar with the band came to know and love and which Motorhead can play anytime to a room full of fans who will never tire of hearing it. The title track is hard to beat, and by opening up the album it gets the listener’s adrenaline raging; yet consequently nothing that follows on the record quite lives up to that initial burst. The rest of the record does sustain itself, though, delivering a series of quick, rocking numbers in fast succession: “Bite the Bullet,” “The Chase is Better Than the Catch,” “Emergency,” “Fast and Loose,” all coming at you without a breather yet without getting redundant either. Lemmy’s rasp and the speeding riffs of “Fast” Eddie Clarke cement this album as the best in Motorhead’s peak period.

9) AC/DC – Back in Black  (1980)

AC/DC released a slew of excellent Aussie rock ‘n roll albums with Bon Scott in the mid to late ’70s; Highway to Hell, Let There Be Rock, and Dirty Deeds Done Dirty Cheap (to name just 3 of 7 near-perfect albums in a row). Scott’s alcohol abuse led to an unexpected and untimely death as the decade drew to a close and most figured the band were done. Yet the excellent lead and rhythm guitarists Angus and Malcolm Young, respectively, who built the rock and roll foundation that Scott had so lively animated kept the band together, delivering Back in Black with a new lead singer (Brian Johnson) as tribute to their departed friend. Back in Black contains a handful of songs that would become classic rock staples (the title track, “You Shook Me All Nite Long,” “Hells Bells,” “Shoot to Thrill”) and the band became primarily a vehicle for full-tilt electrified stadium filling rock and roll, yet that doesn’t stop this album from being a classic for the metal genre. Opening track “Hells Bells” sets off with ominous bells clanging and one of the most memorable opening metal riffs of all time; the title track has the meatiest “crunch” of all, a sound imitators would later despoil but remains effective here at its source. “You Shook Me All Nite Long,” manages to be a radio hit 3 decades later despite being really dirty simply because Johnson and the Young brothers deliver it with an addictive catchiness that makes it irresistable. Later, whether due to Johnson or the direction the band would have eventually gone in anyway, AC/DC would rarely live up to the range and rock energy of their Bon Scott days. Later albums would recycle the same work infinitely, usually entertainingly so but not gloriously. Yet the tribute delivered to one of the greatest rock frontmen of all time that is Back in Black remains a metal classic.

10) Iron Maiden – Number of the Beast (1982)

Prior to 1982s Number of the Beast, Iron Maiden had been a fusion of punk and metal–though not without charm, because the two records they made with raspy barker Paul Di’Anno rocked hard enough and provided the group with a set of songs that they would perform from their classic catalog ever after. When the band broke with Di’Anno and recruited vocally soaring frontman Bruce Dickinson, the punk edge was abandoned and Iron Maiden became a full fledged over-the-top Heavy Metal band. Beast isn’t absolutely perfect and it’s arguably not Maiden’s finest work, certainly not in the sense of displaying their full talent, potential and scope, but as a concise expression of the state of metal at the moment of it’s release it retains it’s place on any list of this sort as a watershed moment for the entire genre. This is a metal record with fully discernible vocals and lyrics delivered through a high-ranged ringing vocal approach buoyed by balls-out guitar solos. The title track and the album cover drawn from that song’s lyrics caused controversy and accusations of satanism–compared with what the work actually was and what we’ve seen in more extreme bands since, such a claim is laughable now. But in 1982 a song inspired by Dickinson’s nightmare after watching a horror movie in which the narrator of the song expresses fear and apprehension over a demonic destruction of the world coupled with a (cartoonish at that) depiction of the devil on the album cover was enough to spark frantic fears among parent and teacher groups. Anyway, such accusations likely only fueled higher sales. The album itself mostly took lyrical cues from Priest albums like The Sad Wings of Destiny in focusing on the horrors of the real physical world–the villains of album opener “Invaders” and side 2 opener “Run to the Hills” are the British who become the first Americans as they decimate the native population of the new world; the threat in “Gangland” are violent youths. The title track remains one of the most memorable metal songs of all time, as well as power-ballad in disguise album closer “Hallowed Be Thy Name” which is a first person narration of a man waiting to be executed in medieval times–“Hallowed” contains one the most classic riffs in the entirety of heavy metal history. Maiden would go on to define themselves as a band with a string of classic albums– Powerslave, Piece of Mind, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, Somewhere in Time— and prove they had a shocking level of persistence and global appeal by churning out hit albums on a global scale as recently as 2009s The Final Frontier. Yet it was 1982s Number of the Beast that gave them their biggest success, that put them into the public eye at the highest level they would ever be, and which fully defined and raised the bar for what heavy metal after the height of Sabbath but in the pre-thrash era could be. Story songs with musical theatrics and discernible clear vocals sung in high-octane soars would soon fade from mainstream metal though bands like Maiden, imitators like Iced Earth, and the Power Metal sub-genre enthusiasts would diligently strive to keep it alive, but it would never define metal in the mainstream as it did on Beast.


Notable Songs from this era: “Angel Witch” – Angel Witch (1980); “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”- Blue Oyster Cult (1976); “Am I Evil?” – Diamond Head (1981); “Smoke on the Water” – Deep Purple (1972)

Next Up: Part II- Metal’s Golden Age


2 Responses to “The 30 Greatest Metal Records of All Time: Part I”

  1. […] posted I have written some alternate blogs that are a bit more thorough regarding metal: The 30 Greatest Metal Records of All Time: Part I , The 30 Best Metal Albums of All Time: Part II, part III is forthcoming. Also see: Metal! Addendum […]

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