The 30 Best Metal Albums of All Time: Part II

August 5, 2011

Read “Part I” here.

Part II: The Golden Age of Heavy Metal

As the 1980s set in, metal as a genre began making fervent attempts at mainstream acknowledgement and ultimate embrace. 1982s “Number of the Beast” record by Iron Maiden was a smash, drawing in fans and deriders in almost equal numbers. It set up what would be the main sound of heavy metal for a brief time; released the same year, Motley Crue’s “Shout at the Devil” sparked the LA metal scene which melded pop and metal to create what were at first catchy yet heavy records worth hearing but which would eventually over-saturate the genre and the airwaves through hordes of near-talentless imitators and scenesters eager to cash in on the fad and almost kill the genre itself in the process. Backlash to such mainstream slabs of “metal,” emerged through the young, fast, angry creation of Thrash Metal, pioneered and perfected by “the big three” of Slayer, Metallica, and Megadeth. Later as a shift away from thrash, the global and overwhelmingly underground explosion of Death Metal would push Thrash to its extremities. Leading into the early 1990s as Grunge began to dominate the forefront of “heavy” music and its key figures lambasted and derided metal, most of metal became primarily underground yet key tweaking and fusing of metal with other sounds, like hip hop, prog-rock,  and garage rock, would open the door for another wave of mainstream metal to come.

11) Motley Crue: Shout at the Devil  (1983)

Most of what would become known as “Hair Metal” would be looked on by metal fans and purists as at best a guilty pleasure and at worse an embarrassment. Selling millions and creating lifelong mullet-wearing fans, seeping into the mainstream through the ubiquitous “power ballad” to which scores of high school dances were sound-tracked, the excess of the genre would almost implode metal and the “tough” reputation it strove for. A lot of this pop-metal music was trash, a lot of it was a fun if silly guilty pleasure. Shout at the Devil is the album that stands out as the best and most untarnished artifact of this type of metal. It was and remains a great record and though its success and sound would inspire a bloated and ridiculous scene, one that Crue themselves would fall victim to in much of their later work, Shout remains a solid and important step in the history of metal. Motley Crue’s debut, Too Fast For Love, was an excellent record deftly fusing punk influences with the intensity and feel of early eighties underground metal, sung with plenty of melody and featuring catchy choruses. The follow up, Shout at the Devil, dropped most of the punk influence and drew out the metal a bit more, almost in caricature (the pentagrams and bondage on Crue at this phase couldn’t have looked “authentic” or “serious” even then). They kept the pop, which in this fusion worked perfectly–the end result is a big, loud, over-the-top record that sounds both raw and catchy, polished and slightly dangerous. The title track is the best song a pop-metal band ever made and standouts like “Looks that Kill,” “Too Young to Fall in Love,” and “10 Seconds to Love” keep this record at full-tilt. It doesn’t hurt that Nikki Sixx, Tommy Lee, and Mick Mars are all solid musicians (Sixx perhaps incredibly so) and that singer Vince Neil at this point wasn’t yet a joke. The only reason to keep a record this good from a list like this is an unfair one–for the unfortunate influence this album had that led to the creation of bands like Faster Pussycat.

12) Metallica: Kill ‘Em All (1983)

Metallica managed to release the first real thrash record in 1983 with Kill ‘Em All. There were other bands that were crafting their own thrash records at the time–Metallica had circulated the majority of the songs that wound up on Kill in demo versions through the metal tape-trading circuit, and knowledge and love of this emerging style was growing fast in the underground. Exodus was trying to get their Bonded by Blood record out and a slew of other artists were doing likewise, some stumbling through legal and label issues while others were simply slower on the draw than Metallica. So despite admirable competition, Metallica pulled off the first official release of what would become known as thrash Metal, and the result is one of the best (if rough) metal records of all time. Hetfield had never wanted to be a singer and seems to have gotten stuck with the job due solely to having the least atrocious voice in the band; on the debut record the songs that had circulated in demo-form were now polished off with a revamped vocal technique in which Hetfield now barked out, growling with an occasional note of melody grafted onto the end of a word or phrase, but what came out worked perfectly. The real draw is the full on punch of the music–especially Hetfield’s fast yet technical, thrashing yet precise mastery on the guitar and Cliff Burton’s excellent bass playing (even providing an excellent extended bass solo in “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth”), but the entire band plays tight and excellent. The roar of the music was faster than Metal had ever been, harder than metal had ever been, simply more metal than metal had ever truly been. There’s room for musician showmanship around the entire record but things are so compact and fast that it never bloats itself in instrument wanking-off as arena rock had begun doing in the late 1970s. Yet unlike some later Metal, there was still melody drifting through every hard edge to make the music flow and stick in the listeners head yet so subtly that it never softens the force–“Jump in the Fire” almost begs for a crowd shout and sing along. “Whiplash” is ridiculously fast and catchy, justifying its title. “Seek and Destroy” slows down a bit to introduce a low crunch, “The Four Horseman” hits the high notes to thunder in the apocalypse, “Motorbreath” gives drummer Lars Ulrich room to gallop in with the kick drum and “Metal Militia” gives us a dated and rather cheesy outro by way of celebration of Metal’s praises but it is notable for Hetfield’s shriek-growl vocal approach that worked so well for  later metal songs like Exodus’s “Bonded by Blood.”

13)Dio: Holy Diver (1983)

Dio probably has the best pipes of any singer in Metal’s history. He had sang for bands like Rainbow and led up post-Ozzy Black Sabbath for a series of solid records and at least one classic (Heaven and Hell). His self-titled band delivered another series of solid metal records in the 1980s, the highpoint of which was Holy Diver. Released the same year as Metallica’s debut, it differs quite differently in approach. Dio never conceded to Thrash or Speed Metal–with vocals that soar so strongly, why hide them behind noise or condense them into a corner with technical and intense riffs? Dio delivers pure Power Metal in the vein of Iron Maiden but without the fantastical instrumental scope; his years in straightforward rock and roll kept his focus on delivering fast, full, but concise songs. The lyrics are littered with swords, dragons, rainbows, messiah figures, and other Fantasy tropes but if anyone can make you feel those as real it’s Dio. The title track here deserves to be on in anyone’s short list of all time metal song classics. “Rainbow in the Dark” even makes the omnipresent keyboard of the eighties rock in a metal vein. There’s not a weak song here: “Straight Through the Heart,” “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” and “Stand Up and Shout,” stand even today as metal songs that can deliver the goods in a heavy manner yet can be sung along with.

14) Megadeth: Peace Sells, But Who’s Buyin? (1986)

In many ways, Megadeth is less accessible than their thrash counterparts. Metallica’s broach of the mainstream drew a wide audience even to their earlier work and Slayer’s overall image and consistency of intensity has made them an institution among metalheads as their entire catalog draws a new generation of teenagers into the fold every year. Megadeth on the other hand is an odd combination of these various aspects, often to their detriment. Mustaine’s vocals are simply odd–it’s doubtful that even the most ardent Megadeth fan ranks them as “great.” But they work for the band and their instrumental in the overall sound of their unique approach at thrash. Upon being exiled from Metallica before their first official release, Mustaine formed his own band and unleashed every blazing riff saved up in his arsenal onto their debut Killing is My Business…and Business is Good. There are great riffs on that record, sometimes two and three competing lead sections intertwining together to near-overkill. Once that announcement of his guitar prowess was behind him, Mustaine and the guys crafted an actual classic album–Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying? The guitars are still fast and technical, but they have more room to breathe and thus actual songs begin to emerge in fast-paced bursts. Impending nuclear devastation is a lifelong concern and worry of Mustaine’s and he’s written roughly 60 songs or more pointing to that fear over the past 3 decades. That concern itself isn’t as bluntly evinced on this classic record but the overall fear of an unwanted global meltdown simply hangs over the entire thing. Hopelessness leading to regretful drunken driving in “Wake Up Dead,” and the witchcraft-tinged “The Conjuring” are intros to the centerpiece of a title song which announces itself with one of the most classic bass lines of all time, a sound familiar to a generation of MTV viewers who didn’t even know who the band was. The title song is an indictment of an entire system but sarcastically so; “Devil’s Island” more effectively indicts at least one part of the system in its meditation on capital punishment. “I Ain’t Superstitious” reinserts the blues into metal, an influence that thrash metal had consciously avoided but which works here. They follow that with a return to classical influence and pure speed on “My Last Words.” Peace Sells is the best and most consistent record in the bands catalogue, one that deserves a spot in any examination of the history of metal. Its flaws work as part of its appeal. Megadeth would make a few further classic metal records though the power in the youthful creative burst here has rarely been matched since.

15) Slayer: Reign in Blood (1986)

Nothing could likely have prepared listeners for the intensity and terror of hearing Reign in Blood for the first time in 1986. When Tom Araya, Kerry King, and company entered into the studio with producer Rick Rubin, nothing in their noisy and rough approach at proto-black metal had quite hinted at the full power of the thrash metal they would throw down on Reign and forever after. Moments in the previous Hell Awaits had shown Slayer could be scary, but from the moment Araya unleashes the soul-shredding shriek that opens the albums first song, “Angel of Death,” and Kerry King immediately launches into an insanely fast yet technical riff, listeners are pulled into something that had not been heard on record before. The first half of the album just builds relentlessly upon itself–faster and faster, harder and harder, heavier and heavier. King plays so fast that it becomes an athletic work-0ut for him to keep up with his own riffs. Lombardo lays down an intense rhythmic drum beat and Araya manages to bark and sing lyrics that keep up with the beat even when that becomes ridiculously hard to do, as in “Necrophobic.” No matter how heavy the songs become, the lyrics remain audible as Araya belts out his and King’s written words detailing the horror in daily life and history, a down-to-earth terror far more grounded (and therefore often uncomfortable) than those depicted in Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath songs. There are a few songs that slow things down in the middle of the record just enough to keep the train on the tracks however perilously so and then barely over the half-hour mark the band brings things to a close with the title track, marked by a (literally) thunderous intro in which listeners likely picture the downpour as King builds up to one last insanely difficult, technical, heavy, ridiculously fast riff. Slayer isn’t for everyone, and it’s hard to imagine the type of person who can only listen to stuff like this, but the darkness of the entire package works in that anything this fast and terrifying sonically can be rounded off and delivered in no other imaginable way. Reign comes off not as a celebration of terrible things but more as an observation of them and a cathartic purging of them. Slayer would deliver a few other classic metal albums in succession to this one (South of Heaven, Seasons in the Abyss) which sought to work by introducing a tad more melody and dialing back the speed, likely with the knowledge that repetition of the same album was pointless and outdoing it was out of the question. More than any of their peers, Slayer have unapologetically continued to do what they set out to do here–play fast, thrash metal with no concessions.

16) Metallica: Master of Puppets (1986)

Master of Puppets caps off the trilogy of Metallica’s classic era. Cliff Burton’s last record before his untimely death, the record showcases the culmination of what the band was building to and capable of. Kill ‘Em All had been the result of a young band kicking out of the gate to introduce a new way of doing rock to the world; they followed that up with an album that introduced song structure, lyrical consciousness and focus, and a better sense of melody with Ride the Lightning. Metallica had come into their own as a band that would play real metal without muddying it up with false attempts at shock or occult, instead crafting songs that told stories or addressed real issues. Master of Puppets brings it all together with an added hugeness of scope. Three songs on Puppets break the eight-minute mark and the rest are all well over five. Where the same year’s thrash statement made by Slayer in Reign in Blood was a quick, brutal assault, Puppets was a concentrated, epic meditation. Incorporating more of the European classical influences that were becoming important to the next stage of metal than arguably any of their predecessors, Metallica produced musical pieces that mixed full-on thrash breakdowns with epic guitar solos, quiet melodies, and intermittent beauty. The title track showcases every musician’s full potential and stands as one of the five most important heavy metal songs of all time. Metallica turns their social criticism from the death penalty focus of Lightning to another favorite subject of metal–war– in “Disposable Heroes,” and creates an authentic way to do a ballad in metal without condescending into power-ballad superficiality in “(Welcome Home)Sanitarium.” From the opening roar of “Battery” to the extended instrumental close of “Orion,” Master of Puppets stands as the single best work Metallica has ever done–And Justice for All would be a suitable epilogue to this trilogy of classic work and then Metallica would step fully into the mainstream very much akin to how Judas Priest had in British Steel with their self-titled “Black Album” in the 1990s. Metallica remain solid musicians with decent work but they would never quite be the metal band that had been in the eighties.

17) Guns N” Roses: Appetite For Destruction (1987)

Whereas Motley Crue released the classic Shout at the Devil at the beginning of (or arguably before) the pop-metal bandwagon and thus shouldn’t be overlooked or lumped in with sub-par copycats, Guns N’ Roses delivered their classic debut Appetite for Destruction at the height (and near-end) of the hair metal fervor…yet what they presented audiences with was something much better than what they were used to. Appetite uses the same basic playbook that the hit pop-metal of the time was working from, but it did everything better than the competition and it reinserted nasty heavy blues-riffs, trimmed the candy-coated sheen, turned up the attitude and brought back the danger. Appetite was looser and noisier and rocked harder than anything in popular metal had since Shout at the Devil had created the blueprint for the sub-genre. Slash embodied the guitar hero but in a way that was effortless and jaded, practically asking you to not to bother learning guitar because the train was off the tracks already anyway. Axl was crazy but no one knew how much quite yet. The band was drunk and drugged-up to the point that if they all had been master musicians it wouldn’t have worked, so who knows if anyone was really talented–it was just raw and it worked in much the same way late 1970s unpolished punk rock had worked. A lot of the anger, rock, and destruction is unhinged yet highly listenable: “Out to Get Me,” “Mr. Brownstone,” “Nighttrain.”  Somehow the band managed to inject pure pop magic into the mess and deliver classics like “Sweet Child O Mine” as well. “Welcome to the Jungle” is the last great LA mainstream metal song of the era and demolishes most of what came before it. GNR would flash a few great songs off and on following their debut but would never match the greatness of a record that seemed to just emerge accidentally out of the burnt-out Sunset strip milieu.

18) Death: Human (1991)

People argue about who the first or the creator of any genre is, and death metal is no exception. Many give credit to Chuck Schuldiner, who was the lead- guitarist and vocalist for Death. His band’s iconic logo and name itself certainly helps his candidacy stick as a top choice and the band’s seminal Scream Bloody Gore record in 1987 pretty much summed up a coherent vision of what such a sub-genre was all about and it became the blueprint to which most other death metal bands followed from thereafter. Death’s own work actually got better, pushing the boundaries of the what would seem highly limited genre. Schuldiner’s playing got exceedingly more technical and intense, yet his riffs retained a great sense of melody lost on many of his counterparts. His vocals never sought to change from the intentionally rough and ugly bark of the death metal growl, yet they remained clear enough as to be mostly discernible. Human is the band’s strongest work in that the playing, vocals, and lyrics all coalesce into a seminal statement. Moving from the mere gross-out lyrical content of Gore, Human instead tackles real issues and problems, especially those of a dark nature: Suicide Machine” and “Together as One,” deal with their subject matters bluntly but without reveling in them in a shock and awe manner. Schuldiner’s lyrics simply work for his sound without a sense of needless exploitation, a feat lost on imitators like Cannibal Corpse. Songs like “Cosmic Sea” even manage to introduce proggy, dream-like textures without subduing the sound or compromising the genre. “Vacant Planets” opens up enough for almost arena-ready solos. Human stands as the prime example of Schuldiner’s death-metal forefather qualifications and as a testament to what the often derided, misunderstood and lambasted sub-genre of Death Metal is capable.

19) Monster Magnet: Spine of God (1992)

The Doom and Stoner-Rock sub-genre of heavy metal can often have a very specific and limited appeal when it revels in its own excess (as Monster Magnet, albeit effectively, did on their follow up to this record 25…Tab or as the sludgier angrier High on Fire often do). Yet when it’s used as a grounding texture for other things to spring off of, it can be a breath of fresh air as it is on Monster Magnet’s terrific debut Spine of God. A mixture of Black Sabbath, winking Spinal Tap, Jimi Hendrix, Alice Cooper, and a dose of grunge, Monster Magnet’s first record is so silly yet so arty at the same time that you must either love it or hate it. It thrusts all of the tropes of metal into a blender and plays even the jokiest results as straightforward. The music is fuzzy where even the coolest riff is druggy; Wyndorf’s vocals are like a clearer more melodic Lemmy but his lyrics are a stoned geek treasure trove of monster movies, bad trips, comic books, eastern mythology, and metal shows. Later Magnet records would turn up the volume and drop a lot of the fuzzy-noise, glamming it up to often excellent results but their debut is simply the band doing what they want regardless of what others might want to hear. Opener “Pill Shovel” is the missing link between Black Sabbath and Type O Negative. “Zodiac Lung” subverts metal to a sort of “sounds from a background radio” while druggy folk music barely pushes it away. “Snake Dance” is as close to full-tilt as the haze gets but it rocks as such quite effectively. “Sin’s a Good Man’s Brother” hints at the blues through a layer of haze. “Ozium” tucks listeners in by closing with a metal interpreted dose of dream-pop. The entire record is engineered to sound like a hazy attempt at rocking out and it’s done so well that even a tee-totaller can appreciate it.

20) Rage Against the Machine: Rage Against the Machine  (1992)

When rap and metal fuse it is almost always a terrible thing. Such a hybrid has produced arguably the worst metal band in history to have their moment in the sun (Limp Bizkit). Yet despite all of the pitfalls, the melding has produced at least one remarkable band and that is Rage Against the Machine. Rage delivered a series of excellent records the best of which was their fist, their self-titled debut. What makes Rage work so well first and foremost is the intelligence, passion, and intensity of their lyricist, rapper, and lead-singer Zack de la Rocha. Taking a cue from hip hop and punk-rocks best moments, Zack approaches the mic with something to say. Using the power of the most intense and stripped down aspects of the genres the band blurs together, Rocha uses the sound to augment messages he must get out while has the time, saying things others were too timid to, using music as a force to address that which too many politicians had abandoned. Yet for this to work as great music, the politics and message has to be backed up by chords and sounds good enough to get listeners listening and hooks catchy enough to stick. Guitarist Tom Morello helps to deftly accomplishes this by being a virtuoso on the guitar, transforming his axe into a combination guitar and turntable, playing chords and making noises that no one had ever done on a guitar before. All of the noise and bluster is authentic though, something that helps the entire package lodge into its audience intensely. “Killing in the Name,” strips down those emotions to so basic a level that almost any teenager could relate, and then they were apt to stick around for the complexity and power found in the musical indictments of “Know Your Enemy,” and “Wake Up.” Rage Against the Machine were a singular force when they were at their height and no imitator ever came close to their power–arguably in hip hop Dead Prez carried the banner in their own manner later and System of a Down has occasionally touched on a similar ethos in their own way, but in “message music” and in the rap-metal hybrid, Rage remains unparalleled.


songs: “Bonded By Blood”- Exodus; “Caught in a Mosh” – Anthrax


3 Responses to “The 30 Best Metal Albums of All Time: Part II”

  1. […] 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 : Iron Maiden and 2010I loved heavy metal […]

  2. […] awhile so I’ll get that wrapped up soon as well; the last entry for it, part II, can be found here. Related to that, I am still taking any comments from metal fans and artists regarding religion and […]

  3. […] will do my best to wrap up the “God-shaped Hole” series and the “30 Best Metal Albums of All Time” thread at some point in the near future for anyone who happens to be reading those. Like this:LikeBe […]

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