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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.

Def Leppard, Pyromania (1983)
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Def Leppard, ‘Pyromania’ (1983)

“We wanted an album that sounded the way Steven Spielberg’s movies looked,” Def Leppard vocalist Joe Elliott has said of the band’s vision for Pyromania. To achieve that end, the band and uber-producer Mutt Lange (AC/DC, the Cars, Shania Twain) spent nine months and nearly a million dollars recording the Sheffield heavy-metalists’ third full-length, employing the latest synthesizers (courtesy of “She Blinded Me With Science” star Thomas Dolby), bleeding-edge recording techniques like the use of drum samples, and heavily stacked, pitch-perfect vocals to bolster the album’s unprecedentedly massive sonics. But ultimately, it was Def Leppard’s evolution from a rough-around-the-edges hard-rock band into a unit capable of seamlessly melding heavy riffs with anthemic, mainstream-friendly melodies that pushed Pyromania into the sales stratosphere. The summer of 1983 saw the album moving more than 100,000 units per week, and deservedly so: Songs like “Photograph,” “Rock of Ages” and “Foolin'” didn’t just pack one hell of a wallop; they were world-class earworms. T.B.

Carcass, Heartwork (1993)
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Carcass, ‘Heartwork’ (1993)

Even now, it’s hard to summarize the quantum leap forward that Heartwork represented for Carcass. Originally a pioneering grindcore trio from Liverpool, guitarist Bill Steer, bassist-vocalist Jeff Walker and drummer Ken Owen had made a splash with raw, writhing blurts like “Genital Grinder” and “Manifestation of Verrucose Urethra,” featuring gruesome lyrics lifted from a medical dictionary. With the addition of second guitarist Michael Amott in 1990, Carcass grew more sleek and streamlined, and by 1993 complexity and gore had run their course. “On Heartwork – and this sounds embarrassing to say now – we took a stylistic cue from Metallica’s “black” [album] and Nirvana’s Nevermind,” Walker told Decibel in 2013. “We tried to make the songs more straight to the point. … I’m not trying to say we were influenced [by] or tried to sound like those bands, but we definitely wanted to cut the crap.” Factor in the band’s interest in classic and contemporary hard rock, Steer and Amott’s growing prowess with tightly wound riffs and freewheeling leads, a turn toward social commentary in Walker’s lyrics, and Colin Richardson’s stellar production, and what resulted was a collection of songs both uncompromising and instantly appealing – and an album that moved more than 80,000 units in a short-lived major label alliance with Columbia Records. S.S.

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