40 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time


This article originally appeared in the September 2002 issue of SPIN.

From Black Sabbath to Korn, here is the definitive list of records to break your mother’s heart (unless your mother happens to be Lita Ford).

40. Spinal Tap – This Is Spinal Tap and Tenacious D – Tenacious D

Metal’s tough to satirize—even when it’s not actively tongue-in-cheek, it’s self-parodic. As Spinal Tap, actors Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer, deadpan as Stonehenge monoliths, bluster through eerily plausible “hits” like “Hell Hole” and “Sex Farm,” burlesquing every metal cliché in existence. The more stripped-down Tenacious D (Jack Black and Kyle Gass) swing a bigger schtick: absurdism, penis jokes, and the most heartfelt tribute to Black Sabbath’s second singer ever written.

39. Kid Rock – Devil Without a Cause

The first rap-metal icon who actually seemed to like metal, the pyrotechnic, dwarf-tossing, greasy-cheese-burger-guitar-solo sense of the term. (Fred Durst’s love of Tool doesn’t count). The Kid kicks outlaw clichés like he invented ‘em on the slow-ridin’ hit “Cowboy,” but the real pimp-ring gem is “Only God Knows Why,” where the American bad Ass flips everybody the “Freebird.”

38. System of a Down – Toxicity

Second album from L.A.’s finest Armenian-American metal band. Singer Serj Tankian trips out on the joys of jumping around and the mysteries of jet pilots smiling over the bay; the band slams no-nonsense riffs into half-remembered melodies that make them sound like Sepultura from the old country. A bout instrument that still cuts like an X-Acto.

37. Skid Row – Skid Row

Whether you’re facing prison time (“18 and Life”), rebelling against amorphous authority figures (“Youth Gone Wild”), growing despondent over lost love (“I Remember You”), or merely showing an interest in huge breasts (“Big Guns”), quasi-femme frontman Sebastian Bach understands you. A peerless concept album about being young, kicking ass, and having excellent hair.

36. Kyuss – Blues for the Red Sun

A desert-fried, punk-damaged translation of neo-Sabbath doom, Blues balances guitarist Josh Homme and bassist Nick Oliveri’s avalanche rumble with Brant Bjork’s Norse-god drumming. The album that packed the bong for countless stoner-rock bands to follow, including Home and Oliveri’s Queens of the Stone Age.

35. Ministry – The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste

On which heroin cowpoke Al Jourgensen ditches ’80s death-disco for self-destructo industrial metal, a sound somewhere between chocking the chicken and strangling an android. Songs like “Burning Inside” and “Thieves” administer DIY tonsillectomies; the grinding dirge-dunks “Never Believe” and “Cannibal Song” are Black Sabbath for the Sega Age.

34. Ratt – Out of the Cellar

On their major-label debut, these L.A. ozone-layer-depleters give Cheap Trick’s glitter-cannon pop craft a Dumpster-diving makeover. “Round and Round” and “In Your Direction” are the kind of swashbuckling doofus-metal anthems Dirk Diggler from Boogie Nights was too stupid to write; Ratt’s Stephen Pearcy is just stupid enough.

33. Danzig – Danzig II: Lucifuge

Producer/metal tastemaker Rick Rubin brings out the bell-toned tenor of former Misfits and Samhain vocalist Glenn Danzig, not to mention his wounded heart. A burly torch singer undone by his sympathy for the devil, Danzig channels Roy Orbison on “Tired of Being Alive”; “Long Way Back From Hell” hollers the blues from the lonely end of AC/DC’s highway to you-know-where.

32. David Lee Roth – Eat ‘Em and Smile

Diamond Dave’s first solo album is actually the last great Van Halen album: disco-metal in the epicurean spirit of Diver Down, mathematically shredded by guitarist Steve Vai and blasted by Roth’s elephant gun. Dave butchers “That’s Life” at the end, but it makes perfect, beautiful sense—if he’s not the hair-metal Sinatra, who is?

31. Deep Purple – Machine Head

Recording on the shores of Switzerland’s Lake Geneva, these hollow-eyed British stoners shred (occasionally), boogie (intergalactically), show off their huge organs, and contribute thoroughbreds like “Highway Star” and “Smoke on the Water” to classic rock’s table of warhorses. Moral: It’s all fun and games until “some stupid with a flare gun” burns down the Swissötel.

30. Sepultura – Roots

Death metal as world music as universal horror-flick soundtrack. After dipping a steel toe in the sounds of their native Brazil on 1993’s stellar Chaos A.D., Max Cavalera’s pre-Soulfly band go native, mixing tribal chants, polyrhythms, and norte americano ringer Jonathan Davis of Korn with political fury and into-the-abyss guitar.

29. Alice in Chains – Dirt

How bleak is this needle-and-the-damage-done song cycle? Let’s just say the most hopeful song is about the Vietnam War. Ten years before finally succumbing to heroin addiction, singer Layne Staley scratches out the rough draft on his epitaph; skimming grunge mold off a Southern-rock bog, guitarist Jerry Cantrell proves an able pallbearer.

28. Bon Jovi – Slippery When Wet

Jon Bon Jovi had it all—dreamboat looks (or great teeth, anyway), brilliant anthems (“Wanted Dead or Alive”), semi-decent anthems (“You Give Love a Bad Name”), makeup music for eighth-graders (Livin’ on a Prayer”), and a guitar player who wanted to be a cowboy (Richie Sambora). No wonder that Jersey sumbitch was always smiling.

27. Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger

Back when Chris Cornell was Seattle’s finest hair farmer and Kim Thayil was America’s smartest Ace Frehley disciple, Soundgarden were—despite their protests to the contrary—a metal band. The arena-rock vocals on Badmotorfinger sound like Ozzy (or maybe Steve Perry!) at the Fillmore East, but the gnarled guitar licks pounce like leather-clad Sasquatches.

26. Ozzy Osbourne – Blizzard of Ozz

Debut of the Ozzy and Sharon show, in which the Prince of F*&@ing Darkness (Ozzy) and the future present of Dead Guitar Heroes of America (Randy Rhoads) snort a batch of Womble dust, attempt to make a straight pop album, and accidentally invent speed metal.

25. Van Halen – 1984

Like Space Mountain with a big frizzy wig on, 1984 is the pinnacle of ’80s Ferrari-rock excess. Eddie shreds AstroTurf, Alex pounds plutonium, Michael orders another Jack and Coke, and Diamond Dave announces his intention to make mad passionate love to the entire continent of North America. And that’s just during “Jump.”

24. Iron Maiden – The Number of the Beast

The introduction of Bruce Dickinson as Satan’s howling mouthpiece defined the new British metal aesthetic—no gloss, no girls, two guitar players going for Baroque. What made Maiden seem Spinal Tap-ish was also what made them (arguably) the most influential metal act of the ’80s—they were pretentious, but their pretensions made them aim higher than anybody else.

23. Queens of the Stone Age – Rated R

The problem with writing about Queens of the Stone Age is that there aren’t enough synonyms for the word “heavy.” And Josh Homme’s black-hole guitar tone—constantly expanding and contracting, like an iron-studded blowfish—seems to require every one of them. If you triple-majored in biochemistry, horticulture, and philosophy, this is your metal.

22. Blue Cheer – Vincebus Eruptum

The best ’60s power trio that didn’t feature a guy named Hendrix or Clapton. Guitarist Leigh Stephens, singer/bassist Dickie Peterson, and drummer Paul Whaley churn out louder-than-God lava rock that melts down everything from rockabilly (hit cover of “Summertime Blues”) to blues (“Rock Me Baby”). Proto-metal, but also the birthplace of grunge.

21. Megadeath – Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?

The only jazz-metal album that doesn’t suck. Adding bop to their speed-metal blitzkrieg, Metallica’s arch-nemeses turn thrash inside out: pogoing arpeggios, knotty fretboard acrobatics, beats that tumble mullet-over-heels down the stairs. Singer/guitarist Dave Mustraine’s paranoid sneer conjures more bad mojo than a month of Black Fridays.

20. Poison – Look What the Cat Dragged In

“You gotta cry tough,” Pennsylvania pretty-boy Bret Michaels informs us right up front. By which he means that girl metal is twice as stupid and ten times cooler than boy metal and that talking dirty in your old man’s Ford is what rock ‘n’ roll is all about.

19. Motörhead – No Remorse

No one merged punk velocity and metal atrocity quite like these British biker thugs. Of their 932 albums, this two-disc best-of offers the most trounce to the ounce: ashtray-licking blues riffs, Lemmy Kilmister’s “Macho Man” Randy Savage bellow, those dive-bombing double kick drums. They looked like warthogs, but, God bless ‘em, they rocked like warthogs, too.

18. Aerosmith – Rocks

Eventually, they got their own roller coaster (at Disney-MGM Studios theme park). Here, these Beantown malcontents are their own roller coaster. While his loose-limbed band bolls Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and the New York Dolls in dirty Charles River water, Steven Tyler sings and wriggles like the Stones’ logo come to lustful life.

17. AC/DC – Highway to Hell

The final curtain for singer Bon Scott before he choked on his own vomit. Raw but not sloppy, sex-starved but not sexist, this is the last AC/DC effort that feels like the work of extremely talented shop students.

16. Def Leppard – Pyromania

Not a serenade, just a fire brigade. On their 1983 breakthrough, Def Lep dusted British pub metal with ’80s studio glitter (courtesy of hard-rock production don Muff Lange); “Rock of Ages” and “Photograph” drop-kicked ’70s dirtbag swagger into the space age. Joe Elliott screams to Valhalla, the guitars roar like two-ton blow-dryers, and drummer Rick Allen kicks ass even with a superfluous appendage.

15. Korn – Follow the Leader

Mook-metal’s darkest hour and change. Translating gangsta rap’s thudding nihilism for kids stuck in res-room purgatory, Head and Munky’s wiry, tuned-down riffing and singer Jonathan Davis’ latchkey lyrics reinforce key metal tenets: Girls can’t be trusted, adults just want to abuse you, life sucks, and nobody cares. A 21st-century Beavis and Butt-head would know every note.

14. Black Sabbath – Vol. 4

Never heavier and rarely crazier, Ozzy inhales a cornucopia of Columbian blow, travels through time, and delivers the first (and perhaps last) truly industrial metal album. Most valuable player: Tony Iommi’s harsh exit-wound guitar.

13. Slayer – Reign in Blood

“Bones and blood lie on the ground / Rotten limbs lie dead / Decapitated bodies found / On my wall, your head!” On this inadvertently avant-garde bloodfeast, singer/bassist Tom Araya narrates Holocaust-footage lyrics like an overeager sportscaster; guitarist Kerry King and Jeffy Hangman trade weed-whacker/bee-swarm solos until Satan gives ‘em a raise. Death metal was all downhill from here.

12. Rage Against the Machine – The Battle of Los Angeles

Page and Plant meet Chuck D and Flavor Flav. Harvard-educated guitarist Tom Morello twists riffs till his scales of justice squeal like wheels of steel; Zach de la Rocha chases ghosts through El Norte’s killing fields, winds up a raving loco on a street corner in the city of dreams, gets to the end of his rope, and finds a noose.

11. Mötley Crüe – Shout at the Devil

Per the liner notes, Shout was recorded on “Foster’s lager, Budweiser, Bombay gin, lots of Jack Daniel’s, Kahula and brandy, Quackers and Krell, and wild women!” “Krell” is Crüe-speak for cocaine, which might explain why the band dressed like sexually confused Decepticons while shouting in the general direction of Lucifer. Not particularly heavy, but hard; Dave Grohl in ’91 was basically Tommy Lee in ’83.

10. Judas Priest – British Steel

K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton’s massive twin-ax hooks and Rob Halford’s righteous hooligan lyrics partied hard, loved harder, and brought Priest as close as possible to mainstream rock without sacrificing metal’s leathery odor. The pop pinnacle of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

9. Tool – Ænima

With grunge in its death throes, these stinky-fingered Hollywood gnomes revived: a) the two-song LP side (what, you bought it on CD?); b) the acerbic ranting of deceased comedian Bill Hicks; and c) labyrinthine, proggy-assed concept albums. Singer Maynard Keenan gives Rollins-style angst a Robert Smith makeover; guitarist Adam Jones steers art-thrash over the dark side of the moon.

8. Kiss – Alive II

Every hipster claims to adore Alive!, but this sequel captures Kiss at the height of their kabuki powers, incinerating “Detroit Rock City” and “Calling Dr. Love” like dinosaurs from the planet Lovetron. Hirsute frontman Paul Stanley has said that this double LP is “as live as it needs to be,” which probably means “not very.” But who digs Kiss for their integrity?

7. Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin II

Before metal was metal, it was everything else. Jimmy Page’s expressway-to-Stonehenge breakdown on “Whole Lotta Love” is a freight train to No Wave; “Heartbreaker” beats Sabbath to sludge by a year; “The Lemon Song” pulls Moby’s break-beats-and-field-recordings trick 30 years early (no Pro Tools, so John Bonham just belts Robert Plant in the ‘nads till the juice runs down his leg); and “Moby Dick” still kicks the Melvins’ asses.

6. Van Halen – Van Halen

California surf-rock for kids in Nebraska who wanted to run away to New Jersey, Van Halen was metal as universal pop—loud (but not too loud), fast (but not too fast), heavy (but not too heavy), and funny (at least on side 2). David Lee Roth sings like he’s trying to nail your kid sister (which he is), and the rhythm section is almost robotically perfect. Oh, the guitar player ain’t bad, either.

5. AC/DC – Back In Black

Producer Mutt Lange gives Angus Young’s Zen-perfect riffs a platinum sheen, and pub-primed singer Brian Johnson ably fills the late Bon Scott’s trousers. Every song shrieks pure meathead rock, but for three and a half flawlessly lewd minutes, “You Shook Me All Night Long” makes being a meathead the acme of sexy cool.

4. Metallica – Master of Puppets

These bare-knuckled Bay Area thrash kings imagined “speed metal” as a stark urban landscape and redefined the architecture of the power ballad. James Hetfield’s rhythm guitar chisels a concrete jungle, then his Jagermeister-soaked bark reduces it to rubble. Cliff Burton’s bass provides the shadows; Kirk Hammett’s eerie, elegiac guitar solos bring the light.

3. Black Sabbath – Paranoid

They sounded way scary, but Sabbath were really just working-class yobs from Birmingham, England, who acid-tripped over the formula for Pure Evil Rock and figured writing doom-saturated anthems about war, fairies, and robots beat punching a clock at the steel mill. On Paranoid, Tony Iommi’s guitar and Bill Ward’s drums wrestle in the mire, Geezer Butler’s bass simulates a herd of iron men trampling the countryside, and Ozzy’s bad-mood-rising bellow blots out the sun.

2. Led Zeppelin – Untitled (Alias “Led Zeppelin IV” a.k.a. “Zoso”)

Led Zeppelin’s fourth studio album—1971’s unnamed “Zoso” (so called for the enigmatic symbols on its cover)—is the most famous hard-rock album ever recorded, not to mention a watershed moment for every grizzled old man who’s ever carried a bundle of sticks on his back. “Zoso” is not Zeppelin’s best album (Houses of the Holy) or their heaviest (Physical Graffiti) or even their “most metal” (Led Zeppelin II). However, it’s the defining endeavor for the band and the genre it accidentally created. Epic, ethereal, and eerily sexual, “Zoso” is the origin of everything that sounds, feels, or even tastes vaguely metallic, except maybe Metallica and that metal sludge from Scandinavia (which derives from Black Sabbath’s Vol 4).

1. Guns N’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction

The singer is a paranoid redheaded Midwesterner with an eight-octave throat and a white leather suit, and he’s too cool to realize he can’t dance. The longhaired guitarist plays blues/metal/punk/jazz/thrash riffs at Keith Richards’ pace; the shorter-haired guitar player smokes cigarettes and gets in fights. The bass player is from Seattle, before it became cool. The drummer thinks he’s in a disco band. And it all sounds like Hollywood at 2 a.m., only genuine and dangerous and absolutely necessary.

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