Readers' Poll: The 10 Best Metal Albums of the 1980s - Rolling Stone
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Readers’ Poll: The 10 Best Metal Albums of the 1980s

Your picks include Slayer’s ‘Reign in Blood,’ Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’ and Iron Maiden’s ‘Powerslave’


Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Heavy metal went from sweaty clubs and basement record collections in the 1970s to basketball arenas and even your sister's Walkman in the 1980s. This was due to incredible new bands like Iron Maiden and Metallica, but also due to MTV. They didn't have a lot of videos in the start of the decade, so they were happy to give lots of airtime to acts like Quiet Riot and Judas Priest.

The grunge revolution was supposed to kill many of these 1980s metal bands, but you'd never know it by watching VH1 Classic or looking at the lineup of your local amphitheater. People remain fascinated by 1980s metal, and groups like Slayer and Anthrax still make a very healthy living. We asked our readers to vote on their favorite heavy metal albums of the 1980s. Click through to see the results. 


Iron Maiden-Powerslave

Courtesy EMI

10. Iron Maiden – ‘Powerslave’

Iron Maiden didn't record 1984's Powerslave to win over tons of new fans. Their audience was pretty massive by this point, and they wanted to give them something to absolutely cherish. Singles "Aces High" and "Two Minutes to Midnight" did crack the US Rock charts, but this was an album of long, complex tracks that show off Iron Maiden's stunning virtuosity. It was also the first time they released an album with the same lineup as their previous LP. This was finally the ideal Iron Maiden lineup, and it would last through the rest of the 1980s. There were many great albums in that time, but nothing quite as majestic as Powerslave

Judas Priest – Screaming for Vengeance

Courtesy Columbia

9. Judas Priest – ‘Screaming for Vengeance’

Judas Priest were at the peak of their commercial popularity when they cut Screaming for Vengeance in 1982. 1980's British Steel turned them into genuine pop hitmakers, and the launch of MTV a year later gave them an entryway into living rooms all across America. Suddenly kids in Topeka, Kansas and Akron, Ohio were slamming their heads along to "Living After Midnight" and "Breaking the Law." 

Screaming for Vengeance was their first opportunity to capitalize off this newfound fame. They didn't disappoint, crafting an unrelenting metal onslaught. At the last minute, they added "You've Got Another Thing Comin'" – a huge radio hit that remains one of their signature songs. The Priest stayed popular all through the 1980s, but this was the peak. Metallica and Iron Maiden started to eat away at their audience as the years ticked by. 

Metallica – Kill ‘Em All

Courtesy Megaforce

8. Metallica – ‘Kill ‘Em All’

Kill 'Em All took the metal world by shock in the summer of 1983. Hair metal groups like Mötley Crüe and Quiet Riot were just starting to take off, and suddenly, here comes these four unknowns from San Francisco playing thrash metal at lightning speed. All of a sudden, "Cum on Feel the Noize" didn't sound quite so daring.

Metallica songs like "Hit the Lights" and "Seek and Destroy" were instantly memorable, even if they made absolutely no attempt to cater to Top 40 radio. Metallica didn't even make videos, instead winning fans over by relentless touring. Kill 'Em All gained Metallica a huge cult audience, but crossover success seemed unthinkable at the time. Hair metal grew bigger and bigger as the years went by, but many of those bands are playing clubs now and Metallica are still packing stadiums. Some of the biggest cheers of the night come when they reach way back to songs from Kill 'Em All

AC/DC – Back in Black

Courtesy Albert/Atlantic Records

7. AC/DC – ‘Back in Black’

We're more inclined to view AC/DC as a hard-rock band, but many of our readers seem to disagree. MTV has named them one of the greatest metal bands of all time and they did appear on Headbanger's Ball, so we'll allow it. (Also, if a band like Poison is metal, then certainly AC/DC qualifies.) Anyway, Back in Black is the most important album of their long career. For the three of you who don't know the story, AC/DC cut Back in Black months after their original singer, Bon Scott, died. Few imagined that the band could survive, but they recruited Brian Johnston, headed down to the Bahamas and wrote 10 absolutely perfect songs, including "You Shook Me All Night Long," "Hells Bells" and "Shoot to Thrill." It was the most seamless lead singer transition in rock history. 

Metallica – Ride the Lightning

Courtesy Megaforce

6. Metallica – ‘Ride the Lightning’

Metallica fans have accused the band of selling out all the way back to 1984's Ride the Lightning. This was the album where they dared to record a power ballad, even though "Fade to Black" sounds nothing like Mötley Crüe's "Home Sweet Home" or White Lion's "When the Children Cry." It's actually a brilliant eight-minute epic about suicide, and it's the first time that Metallica showed a willingness to challenge their audience's expectations. Two other songs ("Right the Lighting" and "The Call of the Ktulu") date back to the Dave Mustaine days, while the rest were written with Kirk Hammett. There isn't a weak moment on the LP, and most of the songs remain in Metallica's repertoire to this day. They played the disc straight through at the Orion Festival in 2012. 

Metallica - …and Justice for All

Courtesy Elektra

5. Metallica – ‘…And Justice for All’

Metallica's 1988 dic …And Justice for All marked a major turning point for the band. It was their first disc since the death of bassist Cliff Burton, and the first time they created a music video. They swore they'd never make one, but by 1988, MTV was too big to ignore and they knew that "One" could be a hit if given the proper exposure. The video is built around footage from the 1971 anti-war film Johnny Got His Gun and it went into heavy rotation on MTV, winning Metallica a ton of new fans. Bassist Jason Newstead quickly settled into his new role in the band, and they were headlining arenas when they went out in support of the album. 


Iron Maiden – The Number of the Beast

Courtesy EMI

4. Iron Maiden – ‘The Number of the Beast’

Iron Maiden were a fairly popular metal band prior to the release of 1982's The Number of the Beast, but they knew that if they wanted to reach the next level, they'd have to make some changes. The biggest issue was their lead singer, Paul Di'Anno: he didn't quite have the vocal chops to handle the bombastic form of metal they wanted to attempt. So they tossed him out and brought in Bruce Dickinson, a freakishly gifted singer with an opera-ready howl.

The gambit paid off almost immediately. The Number of the Beast flew up the charts, and single "Run to the Hills" became an extremely rare hit for them in America. The disc brought the band into arenas and they've been there ever since, despite getting almost no attention from the mainstream media or landing hits on the radio. 

Slayer – Reign in Blood

Courtesy Def Jam

3. Slayer – ‘Reign in Blood’

Imagine how bizarre Slayer's 1986 disc Reign in Blood seemed before anybody heard a note of music. Slayer were one of the hottest thrash metal bands in the world, but they signed with Def Jam for their third record and began working with Rick Rubin, then known only for his work with rap acts like LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys. It seemed like career suicide, but few knew that Rubin absolutely loved heavy metal and had a clear vision for Slayer. Under his guidance, the Los Angeles band crafted shorter, faster and better songs than they'd ever created. It proved all doubters wrong and brought Slayer a huge new audience, and was not the last time that Rubin worked with a rock band. 

Guns N’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction

Courtesy Geffen

2. Guns N’ Roses – ‘Appetite for Destruction’

Much like AC/DC, we're a tad bit uneasy calling Guns N' Roses a metal band. They seem like a classic hard-rock act, but hundreds of our readers felt differently. The band did rise out of the LA Sunset Strip metal scene and, like AC/DC, appeared on Headbanger's Ball. We're going to allow it.

It's beyond any dispute, however, that Appetite For Destruction is one of the best albums of the 1980s, of any genre. There isn't a weak second, from the opening notes of "Welcome to the Jungle" to the end of "Rocket Queen." It was made during a very brief period when the group functioned like a true band. Songs like "Paradise City" were written as a band and all five members actually liked being around each other. They were mostly unknowns when they made it, and they didn't deal with success well. Many of them got into drugs and Axl became, well, more than a little crazy. They were handed the keys to the kingdom and they pissed it away. It's an absolute tragedy, but for a brief moment, they were the greatest band in the world. 

Metallica – Master of Puppets

Courtesy Elektra/Asylum

1. Metallica – ‘Master of Puppets’

Metallica fans will forever debate exactly when the band peaked. A small segment feel it's been downhill since the very first album, while others think they never topped The Black Album. (We're sure there's someone out there who thinks that St. Anger is their best, but we've yet to meet him or her.) A majority of fans, however, point to 1986's Master of Puppets as the band's best work. This was their third and final disc with bassist Cliff Burton, and the group was really in a groove. Nonstop touring had sharpened their songwriting, and the growing crowds at their shows proved to the band they were really onto something.

Four years of work paid off on Master of Puppets. The eight songs (all stretching beyond five minutes) represent thrash metal at its absolute finest. The title track has been at the center of nearly all Metallica shows during the last three decades, and in 2006, they played the entire thing live on their European tour. They've tried a few times over the years to regain the energy from Master of Puppets, but they always come up short. It was a moment in time and it's impossible to recreate. 

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