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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.

Melvins, Bullhead (1991)
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Melvins, ‘Bullhead’ (1991)

For much of their first decade as a band, Montesano, Washington’s Melvins replaced the antipathy and anomie of sludgier punk bands (Flipper, Fang, My War–era Blag Flag) with a Beefheartian push-pull. Their magma-toasted textures – like Black Sabbath convulsing in a warehouse space, usually in three minutes or less – would prove to be a crucial influence on the early works of buddies Nirvana. However, the band’s third full-length, Bullhead, is almost like their coming out as a metal band: The songs are longer, the feel more precise, the production not as fried. The hypnotic, bending, sloth-speed three-note riff of “Boris” would obviously inspire the Japanese band of the same name, grindcore gnashers Brutal Truth couldn’t resist covering the razor-sharp “Zodiac,” and the optimistic churn of “Your Blessened” would point the way to sludge-pop bands like Torche and Baroness. Said leader King Buzzo to Flipside in 1991: “People in Germany said it was a sell out.” C.R.W.

Napalm Death, From Enslavement to Obliteration (1988)
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Napalm Death, ‘From Enslavement to Obliteration’ (1988)

When Napalm Death burst out of Birmingham, England, with a throat full of anarcho-punk polemics and a sound like a Vickers machine gun, they cemented “grindcore,” a sound marked by the comically fast drumming of Mick Harris and notoriously short songs. Second LP From Enslavement to Obliteration is the only full Napalm Death album to feature their classic lineup and classic sound: the iconic blastbeats of Harris, the crust-gnarled gurgle-bark of Lee Dorrian, the jet-engine guitars of Bill Steer, and bassist Shane Embury, who would spend the next 30 years following the band through various strains of extreme metal. Enslavement is as much a magnum opus as an album of 22 songs lasting under 30 minutes can rightfully be, a blueprint-making blur that raged for animal rights, savaged racism and skewered the patriarchy. “They just put hardcore and metal through an accelerator – no one could be sure what the results were gonna be,” Earache Records founder Digby Pearson told Spin, “and we just went for it.” C.R.W.

Life of Agony, River Runs Red (1993)
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Life of Agony, ‘River Runs Red’ (1993)

Life of Agony plumbed the depths of depression for their 1993 debut, River Runs Red, which unfolds as a concept record about suicide. There are bleak odes to misanthropy (“Underground”), parental neglect (“This Time”), regret (“Bad Seed”) and killing yourself (“River Runs Red,” which begins with the line “I’ve got the razor at my wrist ’cause I can’t resist”). To make it all the more impactful, the group set the tracks, sung passionately by frontwoman Mina Caputo in her unique baritone, to a pastiche of gloom metal and hardcore punk, and they interpolated hip-hop–style theatrical skits telling the story of a man driven to take his own life, all produced by one of Type O Negative’s doommaster generals, Josh Silver. Bassist Alan Robert wrote the songs – which contain morbid one-liners like “Smiling’s just a phase and nothing can phase me” (from standout single “Through and Through”) and “Give me one good reason to live; I’ll give you three to die” (from “My Eyes”) – unsurprisingly during one of the lowest points of his life. “[It] was basically my diary,” he told Rolling Stone in 2017. The band has since seen the unifying nature of their lyrics, connecting with fans who say Life of Agony’s music helped them deal with tough times. “A lot of people go through the same struggles as us, and they have the same fears and insecurities, so our message is, ‘Come join us,'” guitarist Joey Z. once said. K.G.

Emperor, Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk (1997)
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Emperor, ‘Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk’ (1997)

Three years after Emperor released their stunning debut, 1991’s hyper-speed black-metal statement In the Nightside Eclipse, the band was in a sorry state. Two members had been serving prison sentences, one for arson, the other for murder, so singer-guitarist Ihsahn had to soldier on with a new lineup until his guitar foil, founding member Samoth, was released from behind bars. Once reunited, the guitarists penned an LP that retained its predecessor’s grandiose atmosphere but added greater focus and darker textures that cast long shadows. Most impressive is how Ihsahn’s neoclassical ambitions became more apparent, with theatrical warblings about Satanism and aggressive keyboard flourishes. Ethereal atmospherics soar over “The Loss and Curse of Reverence,” enmeshing themselves with his harsh vocals and drummer Trym’s incessant blastbeats. An imperial klaxon opens “Thus Spake the Nightspirit” before Ihsahn’s vocal croak and panicked synth lines stir up a sonic snowstorm; “Ensorcelled by Khaos” kicks straight out into pure black-metal savagery before a carnival-esque melody gives way to gothic triumphalism. Each song is a journey through curious sounds and grim moods that most extreme-metal bands only hint at, and the album ultimately represented a sea change, inspiring a new generation of extreme-metal acts to experiment with classicism and cite Emperor as an influence, bringing them to a larger audience. “Some people aren’t too into our lyrics, but they enjoy the extremity of our music,” Ihsahn said around the album’s release. “So they can listen to both Machine Head and Emperor, because it is the aggression that appeals to them. There was a point in time where [we] felt that certain people didn’t deserve to listen to Black metal, but the fact is that the people who really understand the music will get the albums anyway.” K.K.

Dillinger Escape Plan, Calculating Infinity (1999)
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The Dillinger Escape Plan, ‘Calculating Infinity’ (1999)

Rock bands had been experimenting with unconventional rhythms for decades – see: King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973), to cite just one example – but it never added up to a movement until the Dillinger Escape Plan released Calculating Infinity. Maybe that’s because nobody had ever pushed the idea to such extremes before. “Calculating Infinity was us effectively ripping up the music theory book,” guitarist Ben Weinman told The Independent. “It sounded disgusting, but we did it, and maybe we finally took that to the nth degree with this album.” But the album’s greatness didn’t just stem from the lurching, spasming rhythms, or the disjointed harmonies, or the way Weinman’s guitar sometimes sounded like a circular saw cutting steel. There was an underlying logic, a sense of structure that lifted songs like the cathartic, improbably catchy “43% Burnt” to a realm above the noise and fury of everyday hardcore. Adherents called it “mathcore,” a nod to the music’s constantly changing time signatures. Yet however much Calculating Infinity defined that movement, the movement never defined the Dillinger Escape Plan, as the band continued to alter strategies and subvert music theory right up through last year’s farewell effort, Dissociation. J.D.C.

Opeth, Blackwater Park (2001)
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Opeth, ‘Blackwater Park’ (2001)

Through the 1990s Swedish band Opeth had steadily built a reputation for their unique hybrid of death metal, doom and progressive rock, but it wasn’t until fifth album Blackwater Park that those elements truly coalesced. Much of the credit goes to the increasingly mature songwriting of guitarist-leader Mikael Åkerfeldt and the chemistry of the entire four-piece band, but the influence of producer Steven Wilson cannot be ignored. The mastermind behind popular prog-rock band Porcupine Tree, Wilson harnessed Åkerfeldt’s myriad influences and shaped the record into an immaculate, spellbinding whole. While there are more than enough moments of power and fury, the album’s melodic passages create a graceful ebb and flow throughout Blackwater Park‘s 67 minutes. It all makes for a haunting, labyrinthine journey, from the pastoral “Harvest” to the somber “Bleak” and the astonishing 11-minute opus “The Drapery Falls.” “I believe that if you are confined to one type of music, then you are missing out on so many worlds and colors,” Åkerfeldt told Metal Hammer in 2005. “You are depriving yourself of some great experiences, and if there is a message in Blackwater Park, then that’s what it is.” A.B.

Helmet, Meantime (1992)
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Helmet, ‘Meantime’ (1992)

Meantime sliced away the excess of Eighties metal while adding a streetwise, cruelly sardonic edge. By the time of Helmet’s second album, guitarist-bandleader Page Hamilton – who had a master’s degree in jazz and an association with avant-garde composer Glenn Branca under his belt – was well situated to give the genre a radical facelift. “In the Meantime” featured a towering staccato groove and stun blasts of noise guitar, while minor MTV hit “Unsung” blended a memorable stop-start riff with Hamilton’s eerily composed croon. Even on odd-time rhythmic workouts like “Turned Out,” a track that finds Hamilton howling out the name of noted VJ Downtown Julie Brown, bassist Henry Bogdan and drummer John Stanier (later of avant-rock luminaries Tomahawk and Battles) powered through with a crisp, borderline-funky drive. Meantime‘s taut, downtuned signature sound would influence everyone from Pantera to Deftones, Bush and Linkin Park, but Hamilton always seemed uneasy about his status as a genre-bound innovator. “I think it’s really destructive to draw lines of snobbery between jazz, classical and rock,” he told Guitar World in 1992. “Guitar players should get information from every source possible, whether it’s a George Russell or Charlie Parker book, a Bartók string quartet, or a Mötley Crüe album.” H.S.

Type O Negative, Bloody Kisses (1993)
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Type O Negative, ‘Bloody Kisses’ (1993)

When Type O Negative emerged from the ashes of the New York thrash band Carnivore, their sound, as manifested by the pummeling drums and reflexive sexism that riddled 1991’s Slow, Deep and Hard, wasn’t much different from its predecessor. Three years later, the band followed its debut with a radically different sound, one that wrapped the guitar crunch in gauzy synths and recast frontman Peter Steele as a deep-voiced crooner. “After Slow, Deep and Hard I realized anybody can scream their head off,” he later told Grimoire. “It takes not so much more talent, but at least more effort to attempt to sing on key and try to work out a melody that people might remember.” Some listeners took its nods to religiosity (the pipe organ on “Bloody Kisses,” the monkish vocals on “Christian Woman”) as evidence of a goth sensibility, while others pointed to the deadpan cover of Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze” and “Black No. 1” – an anthemic ode to a hair-dye-obsessed girlfriend – as proof that Steele and company were simply taking the piss. Either way, pop culture hadn’t seen anything this devilishly droll since the days of the original Dark Shadows. J.D.C.

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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