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The 100 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time

The most headbangable records ever, from Metallica’s Black Album to Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’

With a crash of thunder, the ringing of ominous church bells and one of the loudest guitar sounds in history, a heavy new music genre was born in earnest on a Friday the 13th early in 1970. Its roots stretch back to the late Sixties, when artists like Blue Cheer, Iron Butterfly and Led Zeppelin cranked their amps to play bluesy, shit-kicking rockers, but it wasn’t until that fateful day, when Black Sabbath issued the first, front-to-back, wholly heavy-metal album – their gloomy self-titled debut – that a band had mastered the sound of the genre, one that still resonates nearly 50 years later: heavy metal.

Although Black Sabbath’s members have scoffed at the metal tag over the years, their lumbering, overdriven guitar, acrobatic drumming and forceful vocals, all originally intended to be rock’s equivalent to a horror movie, have been copied time and again, decade after decade. Judas Priest dressed it in denim and leather. Metallica whirled it into a breakneck blur. Korn gave it a new rhythmic oomph. And Avenged Sevenfold ornamented it with catchy, head-turning melodies. In between, it’s been rejiggered for maximum extremity in underground subgenres like death metal, black metal and grindcore, and, beginning in the early Eighties, the genre as a whole had become a cultural movement capable of overtaking the pop charts.

Metal bands weren’t the first to embrace dark imagery in their music – that tradition goes back to classical composers like Richard Wagner and blues artists like Robert Johnson – but they approached these subjects with a unique pomp, a hyper-masculine might that gave the genre a musical language of its own. It could be virtuosic or it could be primal, but it was always loud. That codification, combined with many bands’ tough-as-nails demeanors, marked by scowls and black clothing, helped metal become a lifestyle that transcended the bands onstage.

Fans of the genre, whether you call them metalheads, headbangers or something else, are passionate, charismatic and bold, eager to debate, define and defend every nuance of their favorite bands’ music to the death. Because metal has become so varied in its rich history since Black Sabbath first thrilled listeners, it’s hard to please all of the headbangers all of the time.

So when Rolling Stone began picking the 100 Greatest Heavy Metal Albums, we set some ground rules. Although the genre’s late-Sixties and early-Seventies forebears – not just giants like Cream, Zeppelin and Deep Purple, but also less iconic yet equally heavy bands such as Mountain, Captain Beyond and Sir Lord Baltimore – created some truly unruly metal moments, their LPs often made folky, bluesy detours away from the maximalism that later marked the genre, so we ruled them out. We did the same with bands that specialize more in hypercharged rock & roll, like AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses, but are missing the X factor that separates their music from metal. Similarly, some bands that Rolling Stone deemed metal in the Seventies (sometimes as a pejorative) and made classic albums, like Kiss, Alice Cooper and Grand Funk Railroad, in retrospect sound more like hard rock than the genuine article and are absent here. Lastly, because we sought out only the most consistently perfect metal albums, genre signposts like Skid Row, Testament’s Practice What You Preach and even the first metal album to top Billboard, Quiet Riot’s Metal Health, didn’t make the cut because their track lists fizzle past the hits – making room for more great LPs. (We learned quickly that 100 is a small number.)

We had to make a lot of tough, critical decisions, and even polled some metal royalty, including Ozzy Osbourne, Rob Halford, Lars Ulrich and Corey Taylor, whose top picks we will be publishing separately, but ultimately we made a list that reflects metal’s diversity, power and legacy. It places skull-rattling records by the genre’s mightiest masters alongside ones by a face-painted Norwegian duo (Darkthrone), some Brits who made the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s shortest song (Napalm Death) and Americans who fused Pink Floyd with Mayhem for their own unique sound (Deafheaven). It also contains a few records Rolling Stone either smeared in the review section in years past or outright overlooked, making this list a mea culpa.

So without further ado, don your spiked gauntlets and raise your horns so we can present you with the 100 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time.

Slipknot, Iowa (2001)
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Slipknot, ‘Iowa’ (2001)

After Slipknot’s self-titled debut catapulted the mask-wearing, percussion-heavy nonet from Midwest obscurity to stardom, the band nearly imploded in a maelstrom of self-destructive indulgence. Instead of the cathartic release of the first album, singer Corey Taylor told Revolver, “Doing Iowa, I wasn’t letting anything go. It was just rage for the sake of rage. … Luckily, we got a dark, brutal, amazing album out of it.” For all its aural intensity – the breathlessly chugging guitars, the roiling swirls of snare and tom-tom, Taylor’s throat-rending vocals – what stands out about isn’t the emotional negativity but the perversely hook-heavy writing. Sometimes the two are wrapped together, like on the misanthropic chant-along “People = Shit”; sometimes they’re in opposition, as when sweetly melodic vocals float through the chorus of “My Plague.” It’s as if the band wanted a way to make its pain palatable – even addictive. J.D.C.

Neurosis, Through Silver in Blood (1996)
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Neurosis, ‘Through Silver in Blood’ (1996)

Neurosis, a San Francisco hardcore punk band formed by singer-guitarist Scott Kelly, bassist Dave Edwardson and drummer Jason Roeder in 1985, had trended slower, heavier and deeper over the course of several successive LPs, so when they went full bore into an even weightier sound it wasn’t without warning. With the arrival of keyboardist Noah Landis in 1995, the group’s mature lineup jelled, and a year later, the band dropped its transformative masterpiece: a titanic mix of hardcore, industrial and sludge-metal notions and sampled soundbites, balancing oppressive heaviness, hypnotic repetition and surprising vulnerability. “This was a difficult time for people, personally, and it all led to what would become this music that was really gut-wrenching to create,” guitarist and singer Steve Von Till told Decibel in 2016. “[W]e were going to take this to the deepest, darkest place we could find. And we had to live there to find it.” S.S.

Rainbow, Rising (1976)
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Rainbow, ‘Rising’ (1976)

Unhappy with Deep Purple’s increasingly funk-oriented direction, Ritchie Blackmore left his band in 1974 and formed Rainbow with Ronnie James Dio. And with Rising, Rainbow’s second LP, they produced an album that rivalled (some would even say surpassed) Purple’s finest work. “Everybody who’s heard it thinks it’s my best playing in a long time, which I suppose is a compliment,” the famously testy guitarist remarked in 1976, at the time of the album’s release. “Then again, what do they know?” But it didn’t take a musicologist to appreciate the quasi-mystical power of “Tarot Woman” (which featured an unexpectedly futuristic-sounding synth intro from Tony Carey), the arena-ready boogie of “Starstruck,” the twin Tolkein-esque epics “Stargazer” and “A Light in the Black,” or the fiery, dynamic fashion in which Blackmore and Co. dished them out. Sadly, Rising would mark Rainbow’s artistic peak, as Blackmore would soon steer the band in more commercially oriented directions. “He was perturbed that he wasn’t being played on the radio, and decided to go a different route,” bassist Jimmy Bain lamented to Classic Rock in 2014. “He didn’t think we were going to get successful, because Rising was too heavy.” D.E.

Slayer, South of Heaven (1988)
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Slayer, ‘South of Heaven’ (1988)

After Reign in Blood marked them as the fastest, most fearsomely furious band in thrash, the question facing Slayer was, “What next?” “We knew we couldn’t top Reign in Blood, so we had to slow down,” guitarist Jeff Hanneman recalled to Decibel. “We knew whatever we did was gonna be compared to that album, and I remember we actually discussed slowing down. It was weird – we’ve never done that on an album, before or since.” It definitely was slower. Even when the title track shifts into double-time, its tempo seems a comfortable trot compared to the double-kick fury that was Reign in Blood‘s “Angel of Death.” Yet the stately, sitar-like riff that opens the song is more ominously creepy than anything on its predecessor, and there’s something memorably morbid about the harmonized, twin-guitar hook that opens “Mandatory Suicide.” This was where Slayer proved that it was the writing, not just the band’s speed and stamina, that made its music matter. That the slower tempos gave Hanneman and fellow guitarist Kerry King a platform for more varied and expressive solos was just icing on the cake. J.D.C.

Mastodon, Leviathan (2004)
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Mastodon, ‘Leviathan’ (2004)

Although their most recent album, Emperor of Sand, cracked the Top 10, a decade and a half ago progressive metallists Mastodon were still relative unknowns. On a break from the band’s relentless touring regimen, drummer Brann Dailor happened to read Herman Melville’s 1851 whaling epic Moby-Dick, and he was struck by the parallels between his experience and that of the novel’s narrator and of the revenge-obsessed Captain Ahab. “Mastodon were like sailors as we drove around and played basements and clubs for years. We were on a quest for something that might not even be there, and we were sacrificing a lot by leaving our families and friends behind. It was a mixture of Ahab’s craziness and Ishmael’s lust for life and adventure,” he told Modern Drummer. The idea was hatched to make Mastodon’s second release a concept record about the novel, an album that would have to be big and mean enough to be worthy of the murderous white whale it celebrates. Mere seconds into Leviathan’s heaving opener, “Blood and Thunder,” it’s clear that the group succeeded: The listener is buffeted by surging waves of guitars, guttural screams and relentless squalls of drum fills. Deeper tracks like the fully unhinged “Megalodon” and the slow-building opus “Hearts Alive” only drag us deeper into Mastodon’s dark sound and vision. 
T.B.

Exodus, Bonded by Blood (1985)
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Exodus, ‘Bonded by Blood’ (1985)

If the so-called Big Four thrash bands – Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax – expanded to five, Exodus would complete the cadre, simply because of the way their debut, Bonded by Blood, explodes from the stereo. Frontman Paul Baloff, who, as legend has it would rip Mötley Crüe and Ratt T-shirts off fans at Exodus shows, wrapping them around his wrists as “war trophies,” sounds like a man possessed by mayhem, wreaking comic-book carnage all over the record. On one song he promises to teach doubters “A Lesson in Violence”; on the title track he urges fans to bang their heads against the stage until they bleed (“Murder in the front row!”); on another, he prays to Lucifer to “Deliver Us to Evil.” Meanwhile, the rest of the band – led by guitarist Gary Holt and foil Rick Hunolt (who eventually replaced Kirk Hammett after he left for Metallica in 1983) – provided melodic, tough-guy gang vocals to “And Then There Were None” and plied whiplash-inducing, breakneck-paced riffing on anthems like “Strike of the Beast” and the galloping “Piranha.” Exodus were so raucous while making the LP that the owner of the studio where they recorded claims that they caused more damage there than any other band. “You get a bunch of kids together with loads of alcohol and shit, and what do you think will happen?” Holt once said. “We had a party every night, invited up our friends from the Bay Area, and there’d be some drunken brawls. … It’s great to know we made such an impact.” Ultimately, Baloff’s alcohol consumption became too much for the band, which kicked him out in 1986, and, even though he returned in 1997 for intermittent live performances before his death in 2002, the group never again made a record as ragged and vital as Bonded by Blood. K.G.

Electric Wizard, Dopethrone (2000)
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Mötley Crüe, ‘Shout at the Devil’ (1983)

Two years after shaking up the Hollywood metal scene with Too Fast for Love, Mötley Crüe took on the world (and Lucifer) with Shout at the Devil. With a pentagram emblazoned on its album sleeve and an over-the-top glam-metal look that came off a bit like what would happen if the New York Dolls made it with a football team, the band went to great lengths to establish themselves as the tough, bloodthirsty new faces of metal. They also had a heavier sound. Starting with “Shout at the Devil” – a fist-banging anthem urging listeners to resist sin (something Crüe failed miserably) – and moving directly into “Looks That Kill” and “Too Young to Fall in Love” (and its overtly misogynistic “I’m killing you/See your face turning blue” couplet) the band custom-made each prospective single to be gritty enough to sit next to Judas Priest on the radio and exist in its own teased-hair universe on MTV. Elsewhere, they courted not Beatlemania but Mansonmania with a “Helter Skelter” cover, painted a gory tableau with the murderific “Bastard” and declared their own greatness on “Red Hot.” “During the period that we were writing songs like ‘Red Hot’ and ‘Shout at the Devil’ and ‘Bastard,’ we were really frustrated,” Nikki Sixx said around the time of the album’s release. “It was during Too Fast for Love, and we had a lot of problems. ‘Bastard’ was about an old business acquaintance that really hurt us. … Financially [he] took our tour money and ran with it.” Shout at the Devil, now certified four-times platinum, was Mötley Crüe’s revenge. K.G.

Judas Priest, Stained Class (1978)
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Judas Priest, ‘Stained Class’ (1978)

A crucial turning point in Judas Priest’s career – and in the history of metal – 1978’s Stained Class was where the British band jettisoned the last remaining vestiges of their early progressive-rock leanings, and went for the jugular with faster, tighter and more menacing songs like “Exciter,” “White Heat, Red Hot” and “Invader”; even the album’s lone power ballad, “Beyond the Realms of Death,” sounded downright economical compared to their previous work. Although Stained Class would later be used as Exhibit A in an infamous “backwards masking” court case (brought against the band by the family of a teenager who killed himself after allegedly listening to the track “Better by You, Better Than Me”), the album put Priest on the U.S. charts for the first time, and helped steal the thunder of British punk by igniting what would become known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. “It was an exciting time for the band,” frontman Rob Halford told Classic Rock in 2011. “There was a lot of self-belief in what we were about to do and a sense of adventure. When you think about the intensity of tracks like ‘Exciter,’ for example, or ‘Invader’ or ‘Savage,’ maybe it was a reaction to what was going on around us. It kind of turned the fires up under our feet: ‘We’re a fucking metal band, mate, and this is what we love to do. Get an earful of this.'” D.E.

Diamond Head, Lightning to the Nations (1980)
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Diamond Head, ‘Lightning to the Nations’ (1980)

First issued in a plain white sleeve with no song titles, Diamond Head’s debut album rode alongside the tidal wave of landmark New Wave of British Heavy Metal releases in 1980. Unique among peers like Saxon and Def Leppard, Diamond Head cleaned up hard rock’s sweat and excess, trimming song lengths and providing a streamlined answer to Led Zeppelin’s Page and Plant in the plaintive wails of Sean Harris and the muscular, stadium-ready guitar riffs of Brian Tatler. For Lightning to the Nations, the pair crafted intricate, almost orchestrally structured songs such as “The Prince,” “Sucking My Love” and “Am I Evil?” that went through riffs like they were a dime a dozen. Although ill-fated business luck hampered their progress, fans rated them highly. Lars Ulrich has called Lightning‘s highly memorable collection of straightforward riff-based anthems, “some of the greatest songs of all time.” Indeed, Metallica went on to cover five of the album’s seven tracks, notably “Helpless” and “Am I Evil?” in the recording studio as well as stadiums worldwide for more than 30 years. I.C.

Kyuss, Blues for the Red Sun (1992)
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Kyuss, ‘Blues for the Red Sun’ (1992)

Other guitarists had reveled in deafening low-end, but Kyuss co-founder – and future Queens of the Stone Age leader – Josh Homme made the practice into something almost scientific. His guitar, tuned down and fed through a bass cabinet, delivered a sound that would best be described as the crushed velvet of fuzz guitar tones, as luxurious was it deafening. Homme’s sonorous rumble may have been the cornerstone of the Kyuss sound, but the real strength of Blues for the Red Sun was the band’s alchemical ability to transform old-school blues licks into hallucinogenic epics like “Freedom Run” or “Thumb,” where the riffs seemed to stretch into the horizon. Driving riff workouts such as “Green Machine” rounded out the album’s heady blend. Homme credited the band’s songwriting chops to its early days playing “generator parties” – so called because the electricity came courtesy gas-powered generators – in the desert outside their hometown of Palm Desert, California. “There’s no clubs here, so you can only play for free,” he told Billboard. “If people don’t like you, they’ll tell you. You can’t suck.” And Kyuss didn’t. J.D.C.

Mayhem, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas (1994)
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Mayhem, ‘De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas’ (1994)

Has any metal album been overshadowed more by the circumstances surrounding its making than De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, the debut LP from seminal Norwegian black-metal quartet Mayhem? Dead (Per Yngve Ohlin), vocalist during the album’s gestation, committed suicide before it was recorded. And despite early claims to the contrary, you’re listening to a convicted killer, bassist Count Grishnackh (Varg Vikernes, also of Burzum) playing alongside his victim, guitarist Euronymous (Øystein Aarseth). Yet despite the unthinkable causes for its notoriety, Mysteriis remains a singularly potent document, its expressions of alienation and nihilism lent an icy severity by Aarseth’s lacerating guitar buzz, session vocalist Attila Csihar’s arcane croak and presentation of Dead’s lyrical gothic terror and the pummeling drums of Hellhammer (Jan Axel Blomberg). “We were repulsed by music about love and kindness – we just hated it,” Blomberg told Rolling Stone in February, when the present Mayhem lineup was playing Mysteriis complete on tour. “We wanted to make music that was the extreme opposite of that.” Mission accomplished. S.S.

Pantera, Far Beyond Driven (1994)
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Pantera, ‘Far Beyond Driven’ (1994)

Pantera bassist Rex Brown once told Rolling Stone that with Far Beyond Driven, “the record company was pushing for something like [Metallica’s chart-topping] ‘Black Album.'” Pantera, of course, did not comply with this request, instead coming up with a record that boasted some of their fastest (opener “Stronger Than All”) heaviest (the Sabbath-y “I’m Broken”) and most downright misanthropic (the utterly depraved “Good Friends and a Bottle of Pills”) jams. At times – witness Dimebag Darrell’s Whammy pedal abuse on “Becoming,” Phil Anselmo’s wretched exorcising of paternal demons on “25 Years” or Vinnie Paul’s click-y bass drum sound all over the album – it seemed as if the band was attempting to inflict actual pain on the listener. And yet, shockingly, Pantera’s record company did in fact get their Number One album. To this day, Far Beyond Driven stands as indisputably the most extreme effort to have reached the top spot on the Billboard 200, not to mention to have debuted in that position upon its release. Credit the album’s success to Pantera’s undeniable dominance of the metal landscape in the mid-Nineties, as well as, in the words of Paul, their commitment to making a “balls-out heavy-metal record with no compromising.” And that they did, though with one concession – ditching the original cover art, which showed a massive drill bit penetrating an unlucky recipient straight up the ass. R.B.

Iron Maiden, Powerslave (1984)
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Iron Maiden, ‘Powerslave’ (1984)

By the time Iron Maiden released their landmark fifth LP, Powerslave, in 1984, the British metal group had four seminal albums under their studded belts and had become such a powerful touring force that they were already planning to record a live album – what would become the epochal Live After Death – on their next world tour. “We took what was best from [our last record, Piece of Mind] and gave it the aggressive style of [1982’s] Number of the Beast,” lead singer Bruce Dickinson said at the time of Powerslave‘s release. “We’ve made a high quality record … artistically speaking, of course!” Dickinson’s pride in the album is justified: The singer’s stunning skill is evident throughout, as when he soars above tracks like the aerial-combat–inspired “Aces High” and the anti-war screed “Two Minutes to Midnight,” as bassist Steve Harris and drummer Nicko McBrain weaponize their trademark rhythm-section gallop and guitarists Adrian Smith and Dave Murray hand each other the shred baton like Olympian relay racers. Powerslave culminates with the classic 13-minute–plus opus “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (based on the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem of the same name) but not before Dickinson summons his inner Egyptologist for the album’s title track, which examines the inescapable mortality of even the most exalted and revered. T.B.

Black Sabbath, Heaven and Hell (1980)
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Black Sabbath, ‘Heaven and Hell’ (1980)

Black Sabbath without Ozzy Osbourne was a nearly unimaginable thought during the first decade of the band’s existence, but by 1979 the group was running out of patience with the singer’s growing unreliability and chronic drug abuse (two closely related issues), so they fired him. Virtually nobody on earth was qualified to fill his shoes besides former Rainbow singer Ronnie James Dio, a diminutive man with one of the biggest voices in metal. “He could get really high and clear, but it always sounded thick and powerful,” James Hetfield told Rolling Stone after Dio’s death in 2010. “He sounded like he was eight feet tall even though he was quite the opposite.” Dio’s presence breathed new life into Black Sabbath – who had been slowly fading throughout the late Seventies – and led to incredible new tunes like the regal “Heaven and Hell,” the hard-charging “Neon Knights” and the dramatic “Die Young.” Dio was a lyricist, so he took some of the pressure off bassist Geezer Butler, and in the process gave the band an unprecedented grandeur. Suddenly, the group had a whole new generation of fans too young to remember the original Ozzy era in the early 1970s. “Everyone had that record,” Hetfield said. “Everyone was playing the cover songs in garage bands, including me. ‘Neon Knights’ was like the school anthem.” Black Sabbath carried on for decades more, with an endless parade of singers, but they never again quite recaptured the rejuvenated spirit of Heaven and Hell. A.G.

Van Halen, Women and Children First (1980)
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Van Halen, ‘Women and Children First’ (1980)

With a high-powered electric piano, a hearty serving of pyrotechnic guitar and David Lee Roth’s lighthearted snark (“Have you seen junior’s grades?”) on lead track “And the Cradle Will Rock … ,” Van Halen introduced an amplified take on their trademark party-metal aesthetic on Women and Children First. The band, whose Eddie Van Halen originally wanted to name the group after Black Sabbath’s “Rat Salad,” had first appeared as usurpers to Sabbath’s throne in 1978 when they opened up for the metal progenitors on tour, nimbly going lick for lick with their forebears on heavy hitters like “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” and Eddie’s stunning “Eruption” solo, which inspired generations of young guitarists to shred. By 1980, they were headlining arenas with a harder, more metallic sound – without losing any of their looseness. “The music has grown and evolved but it hasn’t matured,” Roth said in a promotional interview for the LP. Women and Children First was Van Halen’s heaviest album at the time, thanks to the tribal drumming and guitar noise of “Everybody Wants Some!!”; the bass-heavy plunder of “Fools” and interlude “Tora! Tora!”; the technical guitar chugging of “Romeo Delight” and “Loss of Control”; and Eddie’s unabashed guitar expressionism on “Take Your Whiskey Home,” amid a few lighter, acoustic moments. Throughout, Roth, rock’s greatest jester, hoots, hollers, scats and squeals – something he’d scale back slightly on the group’s next LP, the typically darker Fair Warning. It all culminates with “In a Simple Rhyme,” a multi-movement track that contains the best of everything Van Halen offered in their early years – flashy guitar, softer moments and metal riffs, and Roth’s brilliant narration of his everyman spirit (“Ain’t love grand when you finally hit it?/I’m always a sucker for a real good time”), which perfectly set up the freewheeling ethos of mainstream metal in the Eighties. K.G.

Metallica, Kill 'Em All (1983)
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Metallica, ‘Kill ‘Em All’ (1983)

Metallica forged a new metal subgenre in the early Eighties by combining the speed of Motörhead with the intricate arrangements of New Wave of British Heavy Metal groups like Diamond Head and Venom, making for the supremely headbangable style known as thrash. Their first LP, Kill ‘Em All, is ground zero for the genre: nine shit-kicking rockers custom-designed to rattle brains, served alongside one bass solo (take one). Nearly three decades later, the million-notes-per-minute “Whiplash” still best describes just what the band was trying to achieve: “There’s a feeling deep inside that drives you fucking mad … /Adrenaline starts to flow, you’re thrashing all around, acting like a maniac – whiplash!” Frontman James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich had written and revised many of the songs from its early demos with original lead guitarist Dave Mustaine (now of Megadeth), and on the LP, the jagged riffs of “The Four Horsemen,” stomping drums of “Jump in the Fire” and locomotive-chugging “Metal Militia” charge out of the speakers sounding fresh. These songs inspired bands like Slayer and Exodus to take thrash into rougher, faster territories. Yet Cliff Burton’s imaginative, guitar-like bass lines – check out the wah-wah on “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth” – and Kirk Hammett’s impassioned solos made Kill ‘Em All more than a speed test; it was a new way of life. “It wasn’t until 2013 when we played it that I realized Kill ‘Em All had a cohesiveness,” Lars Ulrich said in 2016. “It had its own thing with the speed, but it’s simpler – the songs are longer but not quite as progressive. It’s a world all its own.” K.G.

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Black Sabbath, ‘Master of Reality’ (1971)

After recording what was more or less their live sets in the studio for their first two records, Black Sabbath faced a unique challenge on Master of Reality: actually writing an album. As with the LP’s predecessors, they teamed with producer Rodger Bain, who encouraged them to create a sound that was both nuanced and direct. Drummer Bill Ward played a timbale on the pulsating “Children of the Grave,” and the song was much funkier because of it. Meanwhile, guitarist Tony Iommi toyed around with noise on the outro of that song, flute on the ballad “Solitude” and synths on “After Forever” (which incidentally may be the first Christian metal tune, courtesy of chief lyricist, bassist Geezer Butler). He also tuned his guitar down on some songs to make it easier on his digits, some of which lacked fingertips after an industrial accident early in his adult life, leading to one of metal’s heaviest-ever riffs on “Into the Void.” But he still managed to make a classic in standard tuning: “Sweet Leaf,” the premier stoner-metal anthem, which features Ozzy Osbourne singing “Come on now, try it out” and begins with the sound of Iommi hacking up a lung while smoking a joint before giving way to a riff so massive it sounds as if it’s collapsing on itself. “I was outside recording an acoustic thing, and Ozzy brought me a joint,” Iommi once said. “I had a puff and nearly choked myself, and they were taping it.” Peer pressure never sounded so heavy. K.G.

Megadeth, Countdown to Extinction (1992)
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Megadeth, ‘Countdown to Extinction’ (1992)

By the Nineties, thrash bands were straying from breakneck, double-time tempos and experimenting more with radio-friendly riffs that grooved like hard rock, but with a harder bite. Although the shadow of Metallica’s game-changing Black Album loomed over the entire genre after that LP’s 1991 release, Dave Mustaine and Megadeth streamlined their sound without coming across as imitators. Balancing accessibility and thrash street cred with dazzling skill, Countdown to Extinction was less complex than their previous LP, the virtuosic Rust in Peace, yet it feels like a natural progression from that record. The smash “Symphony of Destruction” remains the wickedest hook frontman Mustaine has written, a well-earned crossover success, but Megadeth’s trademark blend of lurching riffs, nimble solos and precisely executed rhythms dominates the bulk of the record. As illustrated by the manic psychodrama of “Sweating Bullets,” the tense “Skin O’ My Teeth” and the ornate title track, Countdown was a perfect blend of mainstream-ready hooks and metal cred, and it scored the band a Number Two album on Billboard. The success led Mustaine to dabble more with writing accessible rock, something he’d later regret after making concessions on 1999’s misstep Risk. “Countdown came in at Number Two on the Billboard chart, so we thought, ‘Wow, this feels great,'” Mustaine once said. “‘Now we’re starting to get some direction. This is how you’ll be great. You listen to [music-industry] people who have some credibility.’ And we did, but it didn’t work. And you don’t realize that people that have credibility aren’t always right.” A.B.

Black Sabbath, Sabotage (1975)
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Black Sabbath, ‘Sabotage’ (1975)

Black Sabbath were in rough shape by early 1975, ravaged by substance abuse and in the midst of an arduous legal battle with their ex-manager. “We were literally in the studio, trying to record, and we’d be signing all these affidavits and everything,” bassist Geezer Butler once said of the making of their inauspicious sixth LP. “That’s why it’s called Sabotage – because we felt that the whole process was just being totally sabotaged by all these people ripping us off.” Strangely, the band’s haggard, decadent state only gave their music an added psychological depth. Although it lacks the clarity of their early classics, Sabotage captured a desperation unmatched by any of their other Ozzy-era LPs. The frontman holds nothing back, shredding his throat on lumbering opener “Hole in the Sky” and perfectly embodying the mentally addled narrator of “Megalomania.” Tony Iommi steps up with some of his all-time nastiest riffs on “Symptom of the Universe” – a clear thrash-metal precursor – while suite-like epics such as the synth-accented “The Thrill of It All” and litigation-inspired “The Writ” find the band putting its own demented twist on prog. In hindsight, Sabotage‘s weird sprawl forecasted the original Sabbath’s eventual decline, but it just might be the most darkly engrossing full-length they ever made. H.S.