Home Music Music Lists

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.

Pantera, Far Beyond Driven (1994)
39

Pantera, ‘Far Beyond Driven’ (1994)

Pantera bassist Rex Brown once told Rolling Stone that with Far Beyond Driven, “the record company was pushing for something like [Metallica’s chart-topping] ‘Black Album.'” Pantera, of course, did not comply with this request, instead coming up with a record that boasted some of their fastest (opener “Stronger Than All”) heaviest (the Sabbath-y “I’m Broken”) and most downright misanthropic (the utterly depraved “Good Friends and a Bottle of Pills”) jams. At times – witness Dimebag Darrell’s Whammy pedal abuse on “Becoming,” Phil Anselmo’s wretched exorcising of paternal demons on “25 Years” or Vinnie Paul’s click-y bass drum sound all over the album – it seemed as if the band was attempting to inflict actual pain on the listener. And yet, shockingly, Pantera’s record company did in fact get their Number One album. To this day, Far Beyond Driven stands as indisputably the most extreme effort to have reached the top spot on the Billboard 200, not to mention to have debuted in that position upon its release. Credit the album’s success to Pantera’s undeniable dominance of the metal landscape in the mid-Nineties, as well as, in the words of Paul, their commitment to making a “balls-out heavy-metal record with no compromising.” And that they did, though with one concession – ditching the original cover art, which showed a massive drill bit penetrating an unlucky recipient straight up the ass. R.B.

Iron Maiden, Powerslave (1984)
38

Iron Maiden, ‘Powerslave’ (1984)

By the time Iron Maiden released their landmark fifth LP, Powerslave, in 1984, the British metal group had four seminal albums under their studded belts and had become such a powerful touring force that they were already planning to record a live album – what would become the epochal Live After Death – on their next world tour. “We took what was best from [our last record, Piece of Mind] and gave it the aggressive style of [1982’s] Number of the Beast,” lead singer Bruce Dickinson said at the time of Powerslave‘s release. “We’ve made a high quality record … artistically speaking, of course!” Dickinson’s pride in the album is justified: The singer’s stunning skill is evident throughout, as when he soars above tracks like the aerial-combat–inspired “Aces High” and the anti-war screed “Two Minutes to Midnight,” as bassist Steve Harris and drummer Nicko McBrain weaponize their trademark rhythm-section gallop and guitarists Adrian Smith and Dave Murray hand each other the shred baton like Olympian relay racers. Powerslave culminates with the classic 13-minute–plus opus “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (based on the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem of the same name) but not before Dickinson summons his inner Egyptologist for the album’s title track, which examines the inescapable mortality of even the most exalted and revered. T.B.

Black Sabbath, Heaven and Hell (1980)
37

Black Sabbath, ‘Heaven and Hell’ (1980)

Black Sabbath without Ozzy Osbourne was a nearly unimaginable thought during the first decade of the band’s existence, but by 1979 the group was running out of patience with the singer’s growing unreliability and chronic drug abuse (two closely related issues), so they fired him. Virtually nobody on earth was qualified to fill his shoes besides former Rainbow singer Ronnie James Dio, a diminutive man with one of the biggest voices in metal. “He could get really high and clear, but it always sounded thick and powerful,” James Hetfield told Rolling Stone after Dio’s death in 2010. “He sounded like he was eight feet tall even though he was quite the opposite.” Dio’s presence breathed new life into Black Sabbath – who had been slowly fading throughout the late Seventies – and led to incredible new tunes like the regal “Heaven and Hell,” the hard-charging “Neon Knights” and the dramatic “Die Young.” Dio was a lyricist, so he took some of the pressure off bassist Geezer Butler, and in the process gave the band an unprecedented grandeur. Suddenly, the group had a whole new generation of fans too young to remember the original Ozzy era in the early 1970s. “Everyone had that record,” Hetfield said. “Everyone was playing the cover songs in garage bands, including me. ‘Neon Knights’ was like the school anthem.” Black Sabbath carried on for decades more, with an endless parade of singers, but they never again quite recaptured the rejuvenated spirit of Heaven and Hell. A.G.

Van Halen, Women and Children First (1980)
36

Van Halen, ‘Women and Children First’ (1980)

With a high-powered electric piano, a hearty serving of pyrotechnic guitar and David Lee Roth’s lighthearted snark (“Have you seen junior’s grades?”) on lead track “And the Cradle Will Rock … ,” Van Halen introduced an amplified take on their trademark party-metal aesthetic on Women and Children First. The band, whose Eddie Van Halen originally wanted to name the group after Black Sabbath’s “Rat Salad,” had first appeared as usurpers to Sabbath’s throne in 1978 when they opened up for the metal progenitors on tour, nimbly going lick for lick with their forebears on heavy hitters like “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” and Eddie’s stunning “Eruption” solo, which inspired generations of young guitarists to shred. By 1980, they were headlining arenas with a harder, more metallic sound – without losing any of their looseness. “The music has grown and evolved but it hasn’t matured,” Roth said in a promotional interview for the LP. Women and Children First was Van Halen’s heaviest album at the time, thanks to the tribal drumming and guitar noise of “Everybody Wants Some!!”; the bass-heavy plunder of “Fools” and interlude “Tora! Tora!”; the technical guitar chugging of “Romeo Delight” and “Loss of Control”; and Eddie’s unabashed guitar expressionism on “Take Your Whiskey Home,” amid a few lighter, acoustic moments. Throughout, Roth, rock’s greatest jester, hoots, hollers, scats and squeals – something he’d scale back slightly on the group’s next LP, the typically darker Fair Warning. It all culminates with “In a Simple Rhyme,” a multi-movement track that contains the best of everything Van Halen offered in their early years – flashy guitar, softer moments and metal riffs, and Roth’s brilliant narration of his everyman spirit (“Ain’t love grand when you finally hit it?/I’m always a sucker for a real good time”), which perfectly set up the freewheeling ethos of mainstream metal in the Eighties. K.G.

Metallica, Kill 'Em All (1983)
35

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.

34

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)
33

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 ma