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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.

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.

Slayer, Seasons in the Abyss (1990)
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Slayer, ‘Seasons in the Abyss’ (1990)

Although it wasn’t the sort of genre-defining or landscape-changing work that 1986’s Reign In Blood was, Slayer’s fifth LP, 1990’s Seasons in the Abyss, might actually be the most focused start-to-finish album the band has made to date. Seasons seamlessly blended the thrashy aggression of their early work with the doomy swagger of 1988’s South of Heaven. Themes of violence, death and gore permeated the lyrics of tracks like “War Ensemble,” “Expendable Youth,” “Hallowed Point” and especially “Dead Skin Mask” – the Ed Gein–inspired meditation that remains Slayer’s quintessential serial-killer song – while bassist Tom Araya, drummer Dave Lombardo, and the peerless guitar tandem of Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman matched that intensity in songs that ranged from the frenzied (“Born of Fire”) and eerily atmospheric (the title track, for which the band would issue an evocative video, set at the foot of the Sphinx). “I just think we just wanted to keep being Slayer,” King once said. “There were a lot of bands that had built careers by copying what we had done and we wanted to show everyone we could still do it better.” D.E.

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.