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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, Master of Puppets (1986)
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Metallica, ‘Master of Puppets’ (1986)

It begins like a Western with ominous acoustic guitars playing a triumphal, Spanish-sounding melody, but the intro to “Battery” is just a preamble to the galloping, crushing, grim and pugilistic riffs to come in the next hour. From start to finish, Master of Puppets is a masterpiece. Just two years after they introduced prettier melodies to the savage thrash they helped pioneer on Ride the Lightning, Metallica perfected the sound on Master with intricately arranged songs that ran a little longer and covered more musical ground. “Master of Puppets,” a tune frontman James Hetfield wrote after becoming disgusted from seeing junkies pass out at a party, stretches to eight-and-a-half minutes and fuses thrash with hardcore sing-alongs; jazzy, lyrical soloing; and maniacal psychodrama – it remains the band’s most requested and performed song at concerts. Meanwhile, “The Thing That Should Not Be” is a full-on sludge rocker, “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” is the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest of metal ballads and the lengthy instrumental “Orion” – which features roaring lead bass by Cliff Burton, who died while touring in support of Master in 1986 – plays out like a classical composition, so full of musical drama that lyrics would kill its effect. Meanwhile, heavy, mid-paced rocker “Leper Messiah,” whose title references David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust,” foreshadowed the more groove-oriented, radio-friendly path the band would take on the Black Album in 1991. Only three years removed from Kill ‘Em All, they’d even perfected the pure sound of thrash: “Battery” hurls by at 190 punishing beats per minute, closing track “Damage Inc.” blindsides listeners with walloping stop-start rhythms at a death-defying pace, and “Disposable Heroes” is like a master class in thrash with its militaristic rhythms, catchy hooks and Hetfield snarling “Back to the front!” Master of Puppets is the sound of a band in top form, and it’s the album that made Metallica. “When I listen to Master of Puppets now, I just sit there and go, ‘What the fuck? How do you do that?'” Lars Ulrich said with a laugh in 2016. “It’s very gutsy music.” K.G.