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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.

Korn, Korn (1994)
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Korn, ‘Korn’ (1994)

Korn helped launch the nu-metal subgenre with their 1994 self-titled debut, unwittingly paving the way for bands like Deftones, System of a Down and Limp Bizkit. The band’s seamless integration of beefy, bass-y metal riffs with rap rhythms and Jonathan Davis’ experimental yelps, which sound like uncontrollable spasms of anger and disenfranchisement, spoke to a generation of metalheads that dug Nirvana and Tupac as much as Metallica. “We were trying to sound like a DJ had remixed our guitars,” James “Munky” Shaffer explained in an interview with Rolling Stone. Lyrically, Davis tackles tough, personal subjects, like his addiction to amphetamines (“Blind”) and his experiences being sexually abused as a child (“Daddy”). They didn’t play the latter song live for two decades following the album’s release due to the trauma attached to its creation and only brought it back when the band began to commemorate the LP’s anniversary with live shows in 2014. The type of vulnerability Davis tackled head-on is what set Korn apart from the nu-metal spawns that followed their wake, though none of them ever quite tapped the same intensity as the songs on Korn. B.S.

Sepultura, Chaos A.D. (1993)
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Sepultura, ‘Chaos A.D.’ (1993)

After years of dabbling in thrash and death metal, Sepultura broke free of rigid orthodoxy on their fifth album, Chaos A.D. This time out, they channeled slower, heavier grooves in the vein of Metallica’s Black Album, tapped into rhythms from their native Brazil, experimented with operatic vocals (“Amen”) and focused on the textures of their sounds, such as the sound of frontman Max Cavalera’s unborn son’s heartbeat before “Refuse/Resist.” They also added hardcore, punk and industrial influences to the mix and went for a cleaner production, allowing the singer’s sociopolitical lyrics to shine through. “You try your best to carry your life in a positive way, but there’s always something or someone to fuck it all up and make you pissed,” he told Thrasher in 1994. “That’s where my ideas for lyrics come from.” Even in Chaos A.D.’s most obtuse moments, such as former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra’s zany cameo on the conspiracy theory–themed “Biotech Is Godzilla,” politics make up the heart of the LP. The gut-rattling “Refuse/Resist” rails against overzealous police, the swelling “Territory” puts dictators in the crosshairs, the bass-heavy “Propaganda” carries the message “don’t believe what you see” and the thrash-y “Slave New World” rages against state repression. Meanwhile, Cavalera’s drummer brother Igor ratcheted up the band’s grooves with tribal-sounding percussion, and the whole group explored indigenous music on the acoustic instrumental “Kaiowas,” which would foreshadow their next album, 1996’s daring and equally influential Roots. K.K.