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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.

Pantera, Vulgar Display of Power (1992)
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Pantera, ‘Vulgar Display of Power’ (1992)

After spending much of the Eighties as a regional Texas glam band, Pantera redefined themselves as a thrashy, proto-groove-metal outfit with 1990’s Cowboys from Hell. But it was on the aptly named follow-up that they truly hit their stride. “The mindset we took on, going into Vulgar Display of Power … [was] take the money riff and fucking go,” Phil Anselmo once explained, “[and] beat it into the ground.” And that they did. Here, the band shed any last vestiges of their flamboyant past (gone for good was Anselmo’s Rob Halford–like howl, still in evidence on CFH) and distilled their sound down to the essentials – Dimebag Darrell’s serrated rhythms and squealing solos; drummer Vinnie Paul and bassist Rex Brown’s lock-step pummel; Anselmo’s gruff bellow – cementing the approach that they would more or less follow for the remainder of their career. Furthermore, the material itself was incontestable. From the antagonistic thrust of opener “Mouth for War” to the galloping power-thrash of “Fucking Hostile,” the creepy murder balladry of “This Love” to the hulking, two-note stomp of “Walk” (later covered by everyone from Avenged Sevenfold to Disturbed), Vulgar boasts a shockingly high number of tracks that have become more or less standards of the genre. Re-spect! R.B.

Ozzy Osbourne, Blizzard of Ozz (1980)
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Ozzy Osbourne, ‘Blizzard of Ozz’ (1980)

Following his drunken, acrimonious exit from Black Sabbath, Ozzy’s music-industry stock was so abysmally low that he had trouble getting a new record deal – and not even his biggest fans would have guessed that he was on the verge of launching a major career comeback with his first solo album. Released in the U.K. in September 1980 (and six months later in the U.S.), Blizzard of Ozz was a remarkably strong and focused record whose highlights (including “I Don’t Know,” “Crazy Train” and the controversial “Suicide Solution”) were more modern-sounding than anything he’d done with Sabbath, yet still packed a serious metallic wallop. “The Blizzard stuff was a beautiful evolution from what was happening in the Seventies with metal to [metal in] the Eighties,” shred-guitar ace Steve Vai recalled in a 2011 interview. “It had a completely different attitude.” Much of the credit for that shift goes to the late guitarist Randy Rhoads, whose classically influenced fretboard acrobatics would profoundly influence an entire generation of metal guitarists. “The first album, none of us had played together,” he said in 1981. “We were putting the band together, writing the songs and being in the studio at the same time … the first album was, ‘Turn it up to 10 and if it feels good, just play it.'” D.E.

Megadeth, Peace Sells ... but Who's Buying (1986)
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Megadeth, ‘Peace Sells … but Who’s Buying?’ (1986)

Three years removed from his dismissal from Metallica, Dave Mustaine still sounds like rage incarnate on Megadeth’s second LP, Peace Sells … but Who’s Buying? The band had tapped into an otherworldly fury on its debut, 1985’s Killing Is My Business … and Business Is Good – which balanced thrash with lead guitarist Chris Poland’s jazzy licks – but they’d blown their recording budget on drugs, leading to a shitty-sounding production. Peace Sells was their redemption: seven taut declarations of contempt for humanity and one tongue-in-cheek, extra-guitar-shreddy cover of Willie Dixon’s “I Ain’t Superstitious.” In the months between albums, they’d matured as musicians and had the quality sound to show it. The throbbing, bass-heavy title track showcased Mustaine’s mordant wit (“What do you mean I’m not kind?/I’m just not your kind”), and it was catchy enough to become MTV News‘ intro theme for well over a decade, mirroring the song’s video, which features with a teen in the middle of the clip defying his dad by putting on a Megadeth video and saying, “This is the news.” “I was living in a warehouse at the time I wrote ‘Peace Sells,'” Mustaine recently told Rolling Stone. “We were homeless, and I wrote the lyrics on a wall. I didn’t even have paper. And I’m sure once we moved out of there somebody probably carved that wall out and took it.” The rest of the record showcases Mustaine’s knack for intricate yet hard-hitting compositions and lyrical vitriol. “The Conjuring” contains a real black-magic spell in its lyrics (so says Mustaine) directed at one of the singer’s would-be girlfriends, while “Wake Up Dead,” with its lyrics about infidelity, explains why he may not be so good with the ladies. And musically, the classical-inspired “Good Mourning/Black Friday,” “Bad Omen” and “My Last Words” explode with Wagnerian triumphalism. Throughout it all, Mustaine barks his vocals like he’s going for the throat. Whatever inspired the record, this time, it was personal. K.G.

Motorhead, No Remorse (1984)
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Motörhead, ‘No Remorse’ (1984)

Heavy metal has never been much of a singles genre, as most of its practitioners mark their growth and development in album-length increments. But Motörhead is the exception that proves the rule. Across its 40-year history, the band – essentially singer-bassist Lemmy Kilmister and a string of guitarists and drummers – hewed to a simple formula: vocals barked over the hyperactive throb of a bass line, hell-for-leather drumming, and bar-band-basic rhythm guitar. As Lemmy told Sounds, “Chuck Berry never changed. Little Richard never changed. I’d rather be like that and stick to a formula we’re happy with.” It seems more fitting, then, to represent Motörhead with an anthology. No Remorse may offer 29 versions of what is essentially the same thing, yet every track is singularly amazing: the yelping, bad luck refrain to “Ace of Spades,” the locomotive thunder beneath “Overkill,” the live-wire guitar on “Bomber,” the genius stupidity of “Killed by Death,” or the amphetamine overdrive of the live “Motorhead” from No Sleep ’til Hammersmith. Sometimes, a good formula is all you really need. J.D.C.

Slayer, Reign in Blood (1986)
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Slayer, ‘Reign in Blood’ (1986)

Reign in Blood, the first and last word on speed metal, starts at 210 beats per minute with the song “Angel of Death,” and it barely lets up for the next 29 blistering minutes. Its 10 songs are built on Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman’s rigid guitar riffs and abstract-expressionistic solos – metal’s equivalent to a Pollock paint splatter – all while drummer Dave Lombardo pounds out Olympic-ready tempos and singer-bassist Tom Araya hails Satan. But what set the band’s third album apart from Metallica, Exciter, Venom and all the other speed demons of the era was the way producer Rick Rubin, who’d made his name in hip-hop working with the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J, stripped the album of the echoey reverb in vogue at the time for a sound that seemed to punch you in the gut. “With their super-fast articulation in a big room, the whole thing just turns into a blur,” Rubin said in 2016. “So you don’t get that crystal clarity. So much of what Slayer was about was this precision machinery.” It’s what makes whirring declarations in the name of death like “Necrophobic” and “Criminally Insane” all the more impactful and the record’s final cut, “Raining Blood” – with its ominous intro – all the more terrifying. And it no doubt did them no favors with “Angel of Death,” a song about Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, which has lyrics that would have been incoherent with the typical rock production of the day; its lyrics outraged Holocaust survivors and cost the LP a distribution deal with Columbia, leading it to come out on Geffen. Writer Hanneman claimed the tune was a “history lesson.” Nevertheless, it solidified Slayer’s legacy of controversy and their need for speed. “We were young, we were hungry, and we wanted to be faster than everybody else,” Araya once said. K.G.

Black Sabbath (1970)
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Black Sabbath, ‘Black Sabbath’ (1970)

A few years after guitarists first started cranking their amps to eardrum-rupturing volumes and singers started wailing about Valhalla, heavy metal as we know it today was ratified in 1970 on Black Sabbath’s debut. The band, which had started as a blues group in ’68, drew inspiration from giallo horror movies (like 1963’s Black Sabbath, featuring Boris Karloff) and figured it could deliver the same thrilling, terrifying experience through rock & roll, leading them to write “Black Sabbath.” The tune, inspired by a frightening experience bassist Geezer Butler had (“I woke up in a dream world, and there was this black thing at the bottom of the bed, staring at me,” he once said), featured some of Ozzy Osbourne’s most ominous lyrics (“What is this that stands before me?/Figure in black which points at me,” as well as “eyes of fire” and a laughing Satan), and an eerie riff courtesy of guitarist Tony Iommi that used a chord once shunned by composers, known as diabolus in musica (“the Devil in music”) – the rain, thunder and bell sound effects were just grim icing. A few tracks later, on “N.I.B.,” Osbourne – whose stentorian voice, with its matter-of-fact inflection, has a harsh timbre strong enough to cut through Iommi’s guitar – sings about a deal with the Devil set to a stomping riff that presaged Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine.” And elsewhere, the group flexes its blues chops on “The Wizard,” the morbid “Behind the Wall of Sleep” (“Sleeping wall of remorse/Turns your body to a corpse”) and especially on “Warning,” the last of which features a flashy, extended Iommi solo. And on the jazzy “Wicked World,” on the U.S. edition, Osbourne sang about politicians sending people to war and others dying of diseases – topics that have since become rock cliché but at the time represented a chillingly frank worldview. “We used to do these auditions for record companies, and they’d just leave after the third song or something,” Butler recalled of the days before the album came out. “I’ll always remember one producer told us to go away, learn how to play and learn how to write some decent songs. We were rejected again and again by company after company.” But once the album was out, Black Sabbath started a movement. K.G.

Iron Maiden, The Number of the Beast (1982)
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Iron Maiden, ‘The Number of the Beast’ (1982)

By the time Iron Maiden hit the studio with veteran producer Martin Birch to record their third LP in 1982, the English quintet had already clawed its way to the forefront of the so-called New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Having replaced gruff lead vocalist Paul Di’Anno with Bruce Dickinson, a charismatic performer with operatic pipes, the stage was set for a creative breakthrough. There was just one problem: The band had exhausted its backlog of tunes. “They’d used up all the good stuff they’d had and they’d been on the road ever since,” Dickinson told biographer Mick Wall. “So it was quite good, in that way, because I wasn’t going to be asked to sing words that had already been written by Paul or songs Steve [Harris, bassist and chief songwriter] had written with him in mind. … We had time to think about the songs first.” Harris and his mates (including Dickinson, uncredited for contractual reasons) rose to the occasion, producing complex songs and heady lyrics that ideally suited the new singer’s dramatic range. The resulting LP, recorded and mixed in just five weeks, is one of metal’s all-time milestones: Galloping single “Run to the Hills” charted practically everywhere but in the U.S., where the video nonetheless became an early MTV staple; the title track remains a set-list fixture; and the closer, “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” was the first of Iron Maiden’s signature epics – and among the most durable. S.S.

Judas Priest, British Steel (1980)
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Judas Priest, ‘British Steel’ (1980)

In the Seventies, British metal – the down-tuned growl of “Iron Man,” the slow grind of “Smoke on the Water” – was about strength and heaviness, the sonic equivalent of I-beams. But as the cover of British Steel shows, Judas Priest was about to change that metaphor into something that cut like a razor. “When we first entered, our albums were very involved, our songs were very pre-arranged, a bit self-indulgent with the lead breaks,” guitarist Glenn Tipton told Musician. “But we shortened the length of the songs, we increased the excitement and the tempo in the songs, and we did something that everybody thought you couldn’t do, that was never acceptable as heavy metal: We introduced melody to it.” Despite the distorted roar of the guitars and the hectoring aggression of Rob Halford’s voice, the writing on British Steel was as lean and tuneful as any pop effort, from the power-chord refrain of “Living After Midnight” to the football-club sing-along that caps “United.” But the album’s most astonishing moment had to be “Metal Gods,” a swaggering evocation of rampaging robots driven by a drum and bass groove which can only be described as funky. For metal, slow and heavy would no longer win the race. J.D.C.

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 Puppe