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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.

Nightwish, Once (2004)
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Nightwish, ‘Once’ (2004)

A direct descendant of the power metal pioneered by Eighties heavyweights Helloween, Savatage and Blind Guardian, the subgenre of symphonic metal juxtaposed explosive sing-along hooks with lavish orchestration, whether produced via synthesizer or, in the case of a lucky few like Nightwish, full-scale orchestras. Fronted by classically trained soprano Tarja Turunen, the Finnish band embraced metal’s operatic side, and their contrast of arias and power chords turned out to be a popular one. But on their fifth album, Once, the band achieved their most pristinely balanced blend of force and melody. Backed by a full symphony, Turunen and lead songwriter and keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen indulged their classical and pop sides with equal success: “The Siren” and “Ghost Love Score” soar with Wagnerian power, while the gorgeous “Nemo” shows how accessible this music could be in expert hands. “I have obviously listened to my Panteras and Metallicas and you can hear it in the riffs of Once,” Holopainen stated in the band’s official biography, Once Upon a Nightwish, “but it wasn’t premeditated. I look for new ideas mainly from movie scores.” A.B.

Pig Destroyer, Terrifyer (2004)
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Pig Destroyer, ‘Terrifyer’ (2004)

Other grindcore records have come faster, noisier, more precise and far gorier – but there may never have been one as savage as Pig Destroyer’s third LP. The Virginia band, then a raw trio, harnessed the blur of blastbeats and hyperspeed riffs, but those elements were blown through the gnash and gnarl of Nineties alt-metal bands like Helmet and Unsane. “On a sheer sonic level, Pig Destroyer tries to create a lot of fast and dirty head dirt,” guitarist Scott Hull told CMJ New Music Report in 2003. “Not clean, not polished, but fast enough to make you irritated and dirty enough to make you want to take a shower.” Part of that resides in the lyrics of vocalist J.R. Hayes, inspired by transgressive authors like William S. Burroughs and Dennis Cooper, and shadow-lurking songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave. But Terrifyer pummels with dynamic range, breaking up the bulldozer with noise-punk (“Thumbsucker”), Melvins-style churgle (“Gravedancer”), a hardcore breakdown (“Restraining Order Blues”), triumphant doom (“Crippled Horses”) and a bonus disc featuring 37 minutes of sludgy metal and ambient noise. C.R.W.

Manowar, Hail to England (1984)
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Manowar, ‘Hail to England’ (1984)

After cutting his teeth with Bronx junk-culture punks the Dictators, guitarist Ross “The Boss” Friedman made a surprising stylistic U-turn when he co-founded one of the most self-serious and gloriously over-the-top acts in metal history. Formed in tandem with one-time Black Sabbath bass tech Joey DeMaio, Manowar began life as an upstate-New York free-livin’ and -lovin’ biker-metal outfit dedicated to “ridin’ on two wheels” and “giv[ing] some square the finger.” But by the time of this, their third album, they had evolved fully into the loin-cloth-wearing, sword-wielding, “death to false metal”–proclaiming band they’re known as to this day. With songs like the towering, Wagnerian call-to-arms “Blood of My Enemies” and the fan-hailing “Army of the Immortals” (“We were brought together/’Cause we’ve got the balls!”), Hail to England set the template for Manowar – if not the then-nascent power-metal genre as a whole – going forward. It’s all ridiculously over the top, but also incredibly focused and undeniably catchy – the title cut in particular packs excessively epic gestures into an airtight, hook-filled arrangement. An ex-member these days, Friedman once said of Manowar, with characteristic bare-chested bravado, “All our records have been cited as influential.” But, he added, “Basically, I thought that the version of the band that played on Hail to England was one of the best metal units of all time – period.” R.B.

Lamb of God, As the Palaces Burn (2003)
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Lamb of God, ‘As the Palaces Burn’ (2003)

After two raw but promising albums (one released under the name Burn the Priest), Virginia’s Lamb of God took their sound to the next level with 2003’s As the Palaces Burn. Devin Townsend’s production helped sharpen Mark Morton and Willie Adler’s razor-wire guitar riffs on tracks like “Ruin,” “11th Hour” and “Vigil,” while drummer Chris Adler pushed the music like a coachman whipping a team of hysterical horses, and vocalist Randy Blythe simply roared bloody murder into the maelstrom. Groove-oriented and jacked up to the extreme, this was thrash metal for a new generation, though a guest solo by former Megadeth guitarist Chris Poland on “Purified” also underscored the band’s debt to the style’s originators. “A lot of these songs really pushed the limitations on what we were capable of,” Chris Adler recalled to Revolver in 2003. “Once we got into the first couple tunes, we realized that this is not an easy record; there’s not gonna be kids playing this [on guitar] the week it comes out, you know? But at the same time it was pretty thrilling. Because once you got through the part that was just driving you crazy, when you went back and checked it out, it was just like, ‘Oh man, that is everything we wanted it to be, and more!'” D.E.

Darkthrone, Transilvanian Hunger
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Darkthrone, ‘Transilvanian Hunger’ (1994)

To the ears of Darkthrone’s Fenriz, who performed the guitar, bass and drums on the group’s fourth LP, Transilvanian Hunger, the record is “die-hard monotony.” “It’s for those who are really fucked up,” he told Decibel in 2009, “’cause there’s not really any entertainment there.” But there’s a depth to the LP, which also features the growls of his bandmate, frontman Nocturno Culto. Fenriz built its atmosphere with cold, almost classical riffs, played through fuzzy distortion, at a constant, methodical mid-tempo, giving it a hypnotic quality. The paper-thin production, shredded by Fenriz’s youthful inexperience and low-quality equipment (he recorded it on a 4-track in the band’s own studio) makes it so the guitars sound tinny, the drums muffled, as if under frozen soil, and the bass is an elusive question mark. Transilvanian Hunger’s raw, slapdash aesthetic subsequently served as ground zero for a legion of black-metal bands who copied the record’s lo-fi approach, aiming to sound “grim.” But the LP also courted controversy. Convicted murderer and Burzum frontman Varg Vikernes contributed some lyrics and cast a shadow over the record, which also initially bore the slogan “Norsk Arisk Black Metal” (“Norwegian Aryan black metal”) before pressure from distributors led to its removal; the band later disavowed their earlier statements, calling them “disgusting.” Conversation about the album has since reverted to being about the music. “Transilvanian Hunger [is] so fucking cold,” Fenriz said in another interview. “The sound was fucking perfect.” K.K.

High on Fire, Blessed Black Wings (2005)
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High on Fire, ‘Blessed Black Wings’ (2005)

Hailed by Dave Grohl as “the most brutal metal album I’ve heard in years” upon its release in 2005, High on Fire’s third full-length marked a major step forward for Sleep frontman Matt Pike’s stoner/sludge spinoff. The involvement of former Melvins/Sunn O))) bassist Joe Preston (on what would be his only album with High on Fire) and Steve Albini (whose mid-range–y production gave Des Kensel’s pummeling drums a serious tribal/industrial whomp) was certainly part of the equation: “We wanted a little more of a live, upfront, in-your-face sound, instead of like we’re playing in a canyon with a big low-end rumble,” Pike told the East Bay Express in 2005. But the album also found Pike pushing himself further as a guitarist, vocalist and lyricist, especially on tracks like Lovecraft-influenced “The Face of Oblivion,” the Motörhead-indebted “Cometh Down Hessian” and the epic “Crossing the Bridge,” which was far more self-analytical than your usual stoner fare. “I was going through really weird times when I was wandering around homeless and on a drunk binge,” Pike reflected at the time. “I just felt like I had fallen, and when I say [on ‘Crossing the Bridge’] ‘The warrior’s chains are self-inflicted,’ well, that’s me keeping myself down.” D.E.

Baroness, The Red Album (2007)
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Baroness, ‘The Red Album’ (2007)

Baroness had already released a handful of EPs by the time The Red Album appeared in the fall of 2007, but this full-length debut was what really put the Savannah band on the map, effectively serving notice that Mastodon and Kylesa (whose leader Phillip Cope produced the album) weren’t the only Peach State purveyors of contemporary progressive-metal brilliance. Expertly arranged tracks like “Rays on Pinion,” “Wailing Wintry Wind” and “Wanderlust” belied the band’s sludgy rep, utilizing nimbly twisting riffs, melodic guitar harmonies and dreamy, almost Pink Floyd–ian instrumental explorations that made the songs’ heavier passages – and John Baizley’s hoarse holler – sound that much more striking in contrast. “People’s reactions to The Red Album were pretty drastic compared to our earlier EPs,” Baizley reflected in 2008. “The thing is, though, at the core of it we’re not doing anything different. We’ve just logged more hours on stage so our writing faculties have broadened.” Baroness would further broaden their reach on subsequent color-coded records, but The Red Album remains a stunning testament to their original vision. D.E.

Entombed, Left Hand Path (1990)
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Entombed, ‘Left Hand Path’ (1990)

By the time Entombed released their debut full-length, they had primed the nascent death-metal scene for an auspicious arrival with a series of demos under the name Nihilist. What set them apart from bands like Morbid Angel, Autopsy and Death, though, was how the band members – who were still teenagers at the time of album’s release – homed in on the floor-shaking rhythmic grooves hiding within more straightforward Nihilist songs like “Supposed to Rot” and “Abnormally Deceased,” both of which resurfaced on Left Hand Path. The band’s syncopated gait and deep, volcanic guitar distortion, now known as the “Sunlight Sound” in tribute to the studio where they recorded, showed a deeper awareness of rock & roll than their gore-and-gristle­–obsessed lyrics let on. “We were really young,” drummer and co-songwriter Nicke Andersson told Decibel of the Left Hand Path era, “and without knowing it, we did something that nobody had really done before. It never became that fun again.” Although the band’s 1993 major-label debut, Wolverine Blues, brought them to U.S. shopping malls, Left Hand Path remains the infernal northern light that inspired thousands of bands in Scandinavia and beyond. I.C.

Bathory, Under the Sign of the Black Mark (1987)
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Bathory, ‘Under the Sign of the Black Mark’ (1987)

After summoning two albums of dirty, Venom-inspired punk-metal bombast, Bathory discovered high drama and a sense of subterranean evil on Under the Sign of the Black Mark. In the process of speeding up for hyper-fast “Equimanthorn” and slowing down for the regal subterranean processional “Enter the Eternal Fire,” the band inscribed the blueprints and morbid dimensions of what would come to be known as black metal. Thirty years later, bands like Emperor, Satyricon, Darkthrone and just about every other torch-bearing group of miscreants in white face paint resound the echoes of Black Mark. Bathory mainman Quorthon claimed to have arranged his shrieked vocals; blurred, repetitive guitars and drums; and eerie choral sound effects by trial and error. “We had a bit higher ambitions, making longer songs, better songs,” he told Slayer Mag. “I ended up as far away from rock & roll as possible.” Sadly, he died of heart failure in 2004 at age 38 just as a new generation was beginning to discover black metal. I.C.

Ministry, Psalm 69 (1992)
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Ministry, ‘Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs’ (1992)

The New Wave–gone-industrial malcontents of Ministry improbably managed to break into the mainstream by ditching their synthesizers for guitars and crafting a dense, nightmarish sound collage for their fifth LP, Psalm 69. Beneath torrents of rapid-fire riffs, mastermind Al Jourgensen spliced sounds together the way a stock villain crafts a ransom note ­– sampling George H.W. Bush speeches in the dystopian “New World Order,” and spoken word by Beat legend William S. Burroughs, who asked to be paid in heroin before his feature on “Just One Fix.” But the album’s true MVP may have been wasted Butthole Surfers frontman Gibby Haynes. To the dismay of their label, Sire, Jourgensen and the band blew all $750,000 of the album’s budget “up [their] noses” before finishing a single song. At the last minute, Jourgensen invited Haynes to lay down vocal tracks for what became Ministry’s first hit single, “Jesus Built My Hotrod.” The frontman recalled the night in his memoir: “Gibby came in absolutely shitfaced … babbling some incoherent nonsense. ‘Bing, bang, dingy, dong, wah, wah, wah, ling, a bong …’ But I knew there was something there. If only I could extract the magic, it would be like pulling a diamond ring out of a septic tank.” The result was a manic drag race into a swampy hellmouth of thrash Americana – and it worked. Psalm 69 went platinum and peaked at Number 27 on the Billboard 200, allowing other industrial acts passage into the charts, including Marilyn Manson, Rammstein and Orgy. S.E.

At the Gates, Slaughter of the Soul (1995)
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At the Gates, ‘Slaughter of the Soul’ (1995)

The relentlessly prolific Swedish death-metal scene of the late Eighties and early Nineties revolved around dueling power centers. To the east sat sleek Stockholm, with its dirty, punk-informed take on the genre, as gurgled forth by Entombed and Dismember. To the west lay the bleaker port city Gothenburg, where abiding love of Iron Maiden and classic heavy metal spawned a melodic revolution in Satan worship spearheaded by Dissection, In Flames and At the Gates. Early releases by At the Gates were more expressive and drastic, but Slaughter of the Soul was