Metal is a many-headed beast, each one capable of melting your face with a blast of turn-it-up-to-11 thunder. Although metal these days is largely the province of death metal riffers and Cookie Monster vocals, this wasn’t always the case. In fact, many of the acts that one would have labelled metal back in the late 1970s and early 1980s are no longer considered metal at all. For this little roundup of the best metal albums of all time, we decided to look at metal’s entire history, selecting those artists that defined particular sub-genres or paved the way for future acts.
From the opening blitzkrieg that is “Battery” to the even more punishing “Damage Inc.,” Metallica’s Master of Puppets is 60+ minutes of nonstop warfare. James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kurt Hammett, and the late Cliff Burton forever changed the face of metaldom with their third LP, combining the spirit of hardcore punk, classical music, and metal’s favorite themes — drug use, demons, and death — into a militaristic thrashfest that divided metal into two camps: the brutal headbangers favored by mosh pitters and everything else that had come before. In that regard, Master of Puppets is also metal’s greatest failure since the vast majority of metal albums that came after it would be almost totally lacking in melody, groove, and experimentation and instead be obsessed with a single-minded, goose-stepping sturm und drang. That said, it’s impossible to ignore the majesty of the eight-minute-long instrumental “Orion,” the arena-rock fury of the title track, the killer riffage of “Disposable Heroes,” and Hetfield’s growling melodies.
Black Sabbath invented metal with its 1970 self-titled debut, but it wasn’t until their sophomore disc that Tony Iommi, Geezer Bulter, Bill Ward, and Ozzy Osborne perfected it. Killer riffs. Check. Death and destruction. Check. Satan himself. Check to the checkity check. While Iommi and company surely approached their subject matter with tongue slightly in cheek — the band’s whole approach was something of a marketing ploy after all — there’s no doubting their commitment to making the grooviest, bottom-heavy tunes around. And make no mistake, Black Sabbath at their prime was every bit as groovy as any jam band on the scene today. Take a listen to almost any track on Paranoid and you’ll hear a band playing loose and carefree. In fact, except for the title track and “Iron Man,” the entire album practically begs you to light one up and drift away. Seriously, there is no better song to get stoned to than “Planet Caravan.” Truth.
When Kyuss released their 1992 disc, Blues for the Red Sun, glam metal was on its way out, and thrash had just scored an MTV era coup d’etat with Metallica, Anthrax, and Megadeth achieving mainstream success. With all this focus on fast and furious riffing, metal was in need of a little trip back to its psychedelic roots. Enter Palm Desert, Calif.’s Kyuss. Led by 19-year-old Josh Homme, Kyuss combined Sabbath’s deep rumble and even deeper groove with a peyote-fueled freakiness and a dollop of sophomoric humor. Packed with left-field instrumentals and odd twists and turns on even the LP’s traditional tracks, Blues for the Red Sun birthed a genre of its own, stoner rock (see, Fu Manchu, The Atomic Bitchwax, Sleep, and Monster Magnet). After Kyuss split in 1995, Homme went on to found Queens of the Stone Age and Grammy winners Them Crooked Vultures, but his first band will always remain his most influential.
The mid-1980s was a dark time for metal. Yes, thrash was emerging as a dominate force, but with Metallica still years away from releasing their 16 million-selling self-titled “black album” (which, in hindsight, is a rather loathsome collection of watered-down arena rock), hair metal reigned supreme. And while much can be said about Mötley Crüe’s Shout at the Devil and maybe a smidgen here or there about Cinderella, the genre was ruining metaldom thanks to its overreliance on power ballads, silly pop songs, and Aqua Net. Fortunately, Guns N’ Roses burst onto the scene in 1987 with Appetite for Destruction, a skid-row love letter if there ever was one. “Welcome to the Jungle” is now a stadium rock anthem, but there was a time when it sounded like the most dangerous song on the radio coming from the most dangerous band in the rock world since The Rolling Stones. In the end, the album went on to sell 35 million copies, but Rose and the gang couldn’t keep it together as long as the Stones. Oh, what could have been?
Following the implosion of GNR, the near ubiquitousness of Metallica, and the rise of grunge, Tool emerged on the scene just as so-called alternative music, a.k.a. Lollapalooza rock, had become all the rage. But while their first EP was stellar, few noticed it. Their follow-up, 1993’s Undertow was better received, and it even spawned a hit single, “Sober” — yes, this was a day when hard rock actually showed up on the Top 40 charts. However, it wasn’t until their 1996 release Ænima that this prog-metal outfit emerged as a genre giant. Although Ænima scored several modern rock hits (“Ænema,” “Forty-Six & 2”), the album would have been overburdened by its math-rock pretensions — like most latter Tool efforts — if it hadn’t been for the band’s sly sense of humor. Seriously, how can you not love a song called “Hooker with a Penis” or one that’s a recipe for hash pastries that’s read aloud in German and is indecipherable from an Adolf Hitler speech?
The fact that few today would call AC/DC’s Back in Black a metal album is a testament to the hard thrash turn metal took after the mid-’90s’ onslaught of Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeth, and Slayer. But in the years before then, AC/DC was lumped in with all the other metal greats of the late’70s and early ’80s, most notably Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, the Scorpions, Sabbath, and Dio. (It’s also worth noting that Van Halen was still thought of as a metal act up through their final album with David Lee Roth, 1984.) As it stands, Back in Black is one of the grittiest albums in rock history; it’s also one of the catchiest. From the opener “Hells Bells” to “You Shook Me All Night Long,” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution,” AC/DC’s first album after the untimely death of original singer Bon Scott is the finest comeback record in the annals of pop music. But make no mistake, the exceptional guitar work from the always exceptional Angus Young is about as metal as metal gets.
One of the leaders of the Second Wave of British Metal, Iron Maiden has defined the image of metal far more than any other band. Although they weren’t the first group to wear spandex, they wore them proudly and with purpose — these guys were dynamos on stage and soccer-playing fools off. They sang about evil curses, murders, Egyptian pharaohs, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge — kinda. But their most important contribution may have been Eddie, the skeletal ghoul who has graced every single Iron Maiden album and inspired legions of metal acts to adopt a mascot of their own. At the center of all the accoutrements, there was bassist Steve Harris’ song craft. Few metal acts are led by a bassist and even fewer have developed a sound around them. In Maiden’s case, Harris crafted a musical style that sounds like an ever-building gallop, while a twin-guitar-attack harmonizes over the charging rhythm and metal’s preeminent singer, Bruce Dickenson, delivers an octave-ranging tour de force. Although the band really didn’t become Maiden as we know it until Dickenson entered the fold with their third LP, The Number of the Beast, Maiden’s sophomore effort, Killers, remains their best. In large part, Killers catches Maiden at the crossroads between Sabbath-style metal and Maiden’s own brand of hard-rock operatics. Killers is a loose disc. In fact, it’s kinda groovy, much like early Sabbath. And singer Paul Di’Anno’s vocals are gravelly and menacing. Big ups to “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “Wrathchild.”
Following two impressive entries, 2007’s Red Album and 2009’s Blue Record, the one-time Savannah-based act Baroness packed up their bags and moved to Philly. And with it, they dropped the Cookie Monster vocals and thrash- and death-metal tendencies and embraced a sound that simply refused to be defined by boundaries. Packed with delicate instrumentals, unexpected forays into Fleet Foxes-style harmonic folk, and Radiohead-friendly electronic tinkerings, Yellow and Green was the boldest album of 2011. But singer-guitarist John Baizley and company never lost who they were at heart among all the genre couch surfing: a metal band. Case in point, Yellow and Green‘s “Cocainium,” a track where their past riffing, disco beats, and folk-freakiness all come together to create one of the heaviest songs ever.
“Shout at the Devil,” Mötley Crüe
“Welcome to the Jungle,” Guns N’ Roses
“You Got Another Thing Coming,” Judas Priest
“Paranoid,” Black Sabbath
“Bring the Noise,” Public Enemy and Anthrax
“Epic,” Faith No More
“Peace Sells But Who’s Buying,” Megadeth
“There Goes the Neighborhood,” Body Count
“Chop Suey,” System of a Down
“Cherry Pie,” Warrant
“Jesus Built My Hotrod,” Ministry, with Gibby Haynes
“Vote with a Bullet,” Corrosion of Conformity
“Highway to Hell,” AC/DC
“Rainbow in the Dark” Dio
“Godzilla,” Blue Oyster Cult
“Mr. Crowley,” Ozzy Osbourne
“Rock You Like a Hurricane,” Scorpions
“Cult of Personality,” Living Colour
“Billion Dollar Babies,” Alice Cooper
“Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” Poison
“Wasted Years,” Iron Maiden
“Black No. 1,” Type O Negative
“Youth Gone Wild,” Skid Row
“Negasonic Teenage Warhead,” Monster Magnet
“Black Skinhead,” Kanye West
“Big Bottom,” Spinal Tap
“Eruption/You Really Got Me,” Van Halen
“Demon Cleaner,” Kyuss
“Bang Your Head (Mental Health),” Quiet Riot
“We’re Not Gonna Take It,” Twisted Sister
Mr. Bungle’s debut disc is arguably the strangest rock record of all time, and that’s saying a lot in a world populated with Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, and Ween. But Bungle’s self-titled first record stands out for its sheer perversity, a perversity that comes straight from the heart of singer-songwriter Mike Patton, the frontman of then funk-metal titans Faith No More and later leader of Fantomas and Tomahawk. Along with guitarist Trey Spruance, Patton and company created a disc that is less a work of art than a dick joke, albeit one told by a schizophrenic clown with multiple-personality disorder, a case of Tourette’s, and the ability to barf on command. Jumping from one genre to the next, often in the same song and just seconds apart, Mr. Bungle’s debut is more or less unlistenable on first listen. But give it a few spins and you’ll see that there’s a method to all the amusement-park madness. Oh, and “Girls of Porn” is hands down the catchiest song about masturbation ever put on record.
Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails first gained widespread recognition with a spot on the inaugural Lollapalooza festival tour and their debut Pretty Hate Machine, a tentative step in what would ultimately be called industrial metal. With NIN’s follow-up EP Broken, Reznor had fully emerged as an industrial giant, but it wasn’t until 1994’s The Downward Spiral that he became the genre’s standard bearer, beating out Ministry, whose 1992 disc Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs remains one of the grunge era’s most brutal works. Although The Downward Spiral featured plenty of electro-pop touches — see the hit single “Closer” — and spawned a future Johnny Cash ballad (“Hurt”), NIN’s sophomore LP was packed with punished beats and randy riffage, from “Mr. Self-Destruct” to “March of the Pigs” and “Big Man with a Gun.” Suprisingly, The Downward Spiral sounds just as fresh and inventive today as it did in 1994.
Mr. Bungle’s debut may be the single weirdest mainstream metal album ever, but System of a Down’s 2005 release Mezmerize is a close second. Case in point: “B.Y.O.B.,” a slash-and-bash affair that goes from thrash one second to dance pop and features some truly befuddling lyrics — “Kneeling roses disappearing / Into Moses’ dry mouth / Breaking into Fort Knox / Stealing our intentions.” Even weirder, the track is a dead-serious anti-war song. That bizarre mix of WTF and sincerity carries throughout this Middle Eastern-influenced metal album, from “Cigaro” with its refrain, “My cock is much bigger than yours,” to “Old School Hollywood Baseball,” a schizophrenic hardcore-disco-doo-wop rant about a celebrity baseball game with Tony Danza and Frankie Avalon. And the whole thing ends with a surprisingly tender ballad about teenage runaways (“Lost in Hollywood”) that is nearly undone by the lines: “All you bitches put your hands in the air and wave them like you just don’t care / All you maggots smoking fags out there on Sunset Boulevard.” Maddening.
For the past decade, the great state of Georgia has been at the heart of American metal-dom, thanks to bands like the aforementioned Baroness, Mastodon, Black Tusk, and Kylesa, the latter two being two of the dominate forces in sludge metal. Kylesa’s 2010 release Spiral Shadow is among the best from the Peach State crew, thanks in part to the band’s thick licks, insane drums, sing-shout punk harmonies, Middle Eastern-inspired noodling, and the group’s secret weapon, guitarist/co-lead singer Laura Pleasants. On Spiral Shadow in particular, Pleasants is at the forefront of the action, delivering dreamy, sexy-cool vocals the likes of which Kim Deal delivered on the Pixies’ Doolittle. The title track in particular features not only Pleasants at her finest, but the entire band. The guitar solo that starts the track is worth the price of admission alone.
North Carolina’s Corrosion of Conformity got its start as a hardcore punk act, but sometime in the early ’90s, the band pitched up a new bassist named Pepper Keenan and adopted an entirely new sound. The change can first be heard with the band’s release Blind, in particular the one track with Keenan on lead vocals, the assassination punker “Vote with a Bullet.” By 1994’s Deliverance, Keenan had not only become the band’s lead singer, but its indisputable leader. And in the process, Corrision of Conformity delivered an album that included bits of Hendrix-esque swagger (“Albatross,” “Heaven’s Not Overflowing”), country and western (“Shelter”), several instrumental interludes (“Mano de Mono,” “#21211313”), and some funk-metal doom (“Deliverance”).
When Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala left At the Drive-In, few knew the duo would unleash a modern, prog-metal masterpiece with 2003’s De-Loused in the Comatorium. The lone concept album on this list, De-Loused purportedly tells the story of a man in a drug-induced coma, but you don’t need to bother with any of that. Like nearly all future Mars Volta releases, the lyrics are ultimately indecipherable and largely inconsequential. None of that, of course, detracts from De-Loused‘s frantic pace, sudden tempo changes, Latin-inspired rhythms, noisy noodling, dreamy melodies, and thick, thick licks. While Bixler-Zavala’s nasally voice is something of an acquired taste, Rodríguez-López is arguably one of the finest guitarists around. If ADHD had a favorite album, it would be this.
Make no mistake, Tenacious D’s 2006 film Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny is not good, not even by stoned-out-of-your-gourd standards. The short films from their Mr. Show era are infinitely better. But compared to the band’s self-titled debut LP, The Pick of Destiny is far superior. For their initial release, Jack Black and Kyle Glass largely relied on songs made famous by their HBO appearances, but for Pick, the band crafted all-new tunes, including the opening rock opera “Kickapoo,” a thing of Bat of Hell beauty that brings together not only Meatloaf but Ronnie James Dio. And then there’s “Master Exploder,” arguably the hardest song that The D has ever written, although not the funniest by far. But it’s the climatic multi-part epic “Beelzeboss (The Final Showdown)” that goes down not only as the finest song on the album but quite possibly the Greatest Fucking Song in the History of the World. And unlike Charlie Daniel’s “Devil Went Down to Georgia” fiddle player, Kage and Jables actually beat Satan’s ass in a contest of musical badassery.
Reign in Blood, Slayer
A Vulgar Display of Power, Pantera
Angel Dust, Faith No More
Black Sabbath, Black Sabbath
…And Justice for All, Metallica
Welcome to Sky Valley, Kyuss
Superjudge, Monster Magnet
Among the Living, Anthrax
Hisigin Blues, Graveyard
British Steel, Judas Priest
Shout at the Devil, Mötley Crüe
Love at First Sting, Scorpions
Time’s Up, Living Colour
Pyromania, Def Leppard
Countdown to Extinction, Megadeth
Lights … Camera … Revolution,
Danzig 2, Danzig
Van Halen, Van Halen
Crack the Skye, Mastodon
River Runs Red, Life of Agony
Bloody Kisses, Type O Negative
The Number of the Beast, Iron Maiden
School’s Out, Alice Cooper
Tribute, Ozzy Osbourne and Randy Rhodes
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