I could’ve done a straight-up “favorites” list like the black metal list I made earlier this year, but then there wouldn’t be the pretense of going up against the Rolling Stone list, the comedy of which is what prompted this list.
So, greatness it is. What are the criteria of greatness for an album on this list? The basic factors in the formula are:
-influence and esteem within the wide metal community
-representation of its particular subgenre
-uniqueness (yes, these two criteria are sometimes at odds)
-craftsmanship and performance quality
-emotional impact on me personally
...not necessarily in order of emphasis. A magician mustn't reveal his secret formulae.
The stylistic divisions between genres are often nebulous and rarely enjoy consensus; these are the sorts of things dorks such as myself enjoy debating endlessly, and although I am the supreme arbiter of such things, rest assured that specific tags have almost no bearing on the greatness of the music. In general, in determining genre, I don’t take into account nationality or time period (with NWOBHM being an unavoidable exception for obvious reasons), or even lyrical subject matter, which becomes problematic when you’re trying to determine where thrash ends and death begins, because what is death metal but thrash taken to its lyrical and musical extremes? But clearly there’s plenty of death and thrash and other genres with satanic themes, and that doesn’t make them black metal. Please spread the word on that.
Obviously this is all for fun, although I do think that certain narratives and hierarchies get codified in metal and need revisiting from time to time. Since the bulk of the genre remains well below the mainstream, Wikipedia relies heavily on the squares at Allmusic for ratings—critics who often don't know the difference between styles and use terms like death and black as if they were interchangeable. We wouldn't want you, dear reader, to be at their mercy.
As is my general rule for lists, only one album per artist allowed. (Warning: This could be one of those lists where, if you actually read it, you’ll feel all the suspense slowly draining out of the balloon once you get near the end. Or it could be one of those lists where you let all the air out of your head at the end with a sound not unlike air escaping a balloon. Either way, it’ll be more fun than just scrolling to the bottom and rolling your eyes.)
20. Welcome To Hell (1981)
The whole business of being credited with inventing black metal has probably worked in Venom’s favor in terms of longevity, but there’s a flip side: Fans of the Norwegian variety of the genre that developed in the ‘90s and is still prominent today who discover Venom in the quest for the source are likely to dismiss the band after a cursory listen. It’s a legitimate reaction; Venom’s brand of satanism is clearly disingenuous, as the band members freely acknowledge, and the music is hardly comparable to what we know as black metal today. The sound of Venom’s first two albums is basically Motörhead worship, infused with some galloping riffage typical of NWOBHM, only darker. (This might be a good time to point out that I don’t believe in speed metal. It does not exist.) They actually benefit from their awful production quality; the muddiness adds to the intrigue, a concept that the black metal pioneers definitely took to heart. The imagery for the most part is hopelessly cartoonish in light of the more earnestly evil paths of later extreme metal. Still, this debut comes across even today as something distinctly more brutal than anything else from its era, and despite the camp of its lyrics, there’s a palpable darkness behind these songs. Maybe it’s my punk background that adds to the allure, but I love every song on this record. Once I got over the hangup that it’s clearly not black metal (“One Thousand Days In Sodom” has a bass solo for chrissakes), it became easier to recognize this album as pivotal in the development of all the wickedness that came after it. If nothing else, kids heard Welcome To Hell and thought ‘I’m gonna make something even harsher and more depraved than this...’
19. Necroticism - Descanting The Insalubrious (1991)
I had the (possibly erroneous) impression long ago that there was a rivalry between Carcass fans and Cannibal Corpse fans as to who were the kings of death metal. I don’t specifically recall now, but maybe it was because those were the only two death metal bands I could name in, say, 1991. They both skirted the razor’s edge between the underground and the mainstream, but Carcass was seemingly undone by music industry logistics and its members’ wandering musical impulses before I ever even ventured into the genre. In fact, each album they released is pretty radically different from the others, to the point that to label any one of them just as “death metal” would be overly simplistic. I was introduced to the band via 1993’s Heartwork, which I now think of as the Black Album of death metal: instantly memorable, shockingly palatable given Carcass’s previous output, yet crushing and amazing in its own right. Necroticism was a little too extreme for me in those early days, but it’s pretty tame by today’s standards, and yet, not really. You have to love that Wikipedia makes a point of mentioning in its opening paragraph that “Many of the tracks describe economical ways to dispose of dead bodies.” It can function as a barometer for how far you’ve come in your metal evolution; it sort of sounds as harsh to me now as old Metallica did when I was a kid. If it starts to sound like Deep Purple some day, I’ll know I’ve gone too far.
18. OM (2006)
While this isn’t my favorite Negură Bunget album, it is their best and most important album. Writing this is unpleasant because of founder Negru’s recent untimely death, meaning I will never get to see the band live, because if they seriously carry on without him oh who has the energy any more to get miffed about such things. They will go down as one of the all-time great black metal bands no matter what, and this masterpiece of experimental tribal/folk/esoterica will never be eclipsed. It was the followup to my favorite album of theirs (‘N Crugu Bradului), so anticipation was huge, and I remember first listening to OM and feeling dizzy. It starts off as fairly conventional atmospheric black metal and gradually gets weirder and less defined until you start feeling ambushed by each burst of measurable metal, entering a carnival funhouse (“Înarborat”) and culminating in the orchestral gypsy folk of “Norilor”—hey, the title did at least suggest some sort of eerie calm, right? And then it’s back into the maelstrom, forget everything you know and surrender to the madness. Listening to it now, it feels like it could’ve signaled the end of black metal as we knew it, because after this, who would even want to return to traditional, boring old black metal? But it was more like everyone knew they couldn’t top this and so returned to their roots or went in a completely different direction, because if this opened any doors, I haven’t heard what came through.
17. To Mega Therion (1985)
The hardest part of making a list like this is trying to transport oneself into the past. Coming at To Mega Therion decades removed, it won’t strike you as particularly extreme, but what would the impression of the average citizen have been in 1985 upon hearing Celtic Frost? I have to think even to metalheads fully indoctrinated into thrash, Frost sounded pretty out there for its time. And this one is nowhere near as outlandish as its followup, Into The Pandemonium, which I still can’t listen to with a straight face. The benefit of hindsight, though, is that although it’s essentially a thrash record, you can legitimately hear inklings of future extreme subgenres in certain elements of Therion: the maniacal proto-blackish strumming in “Jewel Throne” and “Circle Of The Tyrants” (complete with creepy chanting), the ominous, doomy churn of “Dawn Of Megiddo”, the overriding prominent low end, Tom G. Warrior’s bestial UUNGHs and OOGHs, all harbingers of things to come. I don’t find much value in any other Celtic Frost album besides the unlikely 2006 comeback Monotheist, which was actually my introduction to the band (not counting the S.O.D. song “Celtic Frosted Flakes”) and remains the most thoroughly listenable entry in its catalog. One of the joys of making this list, though, was rediscovering how much TMT has to offer beyond just its historical significance. It's a beast of an album.
16. The Work Which Transforms God (2003)
There are four black metal albums on this list, but if I were to abandon my rules and lean more heavily on personal tastes, it would be about half black metal, and conceivably up to three entries might be Blut Aus Nord albums. It’s hard to say, because I’ve heard them all, but there are still albums by this band that I feel haven’t fully clicked with me yet that keep me coming back all the same. Sometimes you’re listening to Blut and you feel like you’re being lobotomized; each new release pushes into a new realm beyond any frame of reference except previous Blut albums. Last year, I swear to God, they released a song that’s basically disco black metal. Try wrapping your head around that. So for this list, I’m going with The Work Which Transforms God. It was my introduction to the band, it is widely regarded as their best, and I don’t know of anything that came before it that featured the kind of gut-churning dissonance that we explorers of the fringes of black metal now take for granted in anything remotely avant-garde. However, if you're uninitiated, and you start with this album and hate it, keep digging! This band has the richest and most varied catalog in all the realm.
15. Chaos A.D. (1993)
This list has one thing in common with Rolling Stone’s: There’s way too much thrash on it. (And no Testament. Sorry, but ever since I saw Alex Skolnick play live, Testament studio albums have seemed very boring.) Also, can I be honest: Nothing against Anthrax, but when you talk about the “Big Four” of thrash, it should be Sepultura in that group instead. Maybe they didn’t sell as many records as Anthrax but over the course of their career they were way more innovative and influential and they did sell records. I’m a big fan of Sepultura’s older stuff too, especially Schizophrenia, although really if you look at their trajectory with Beneath The Remains and Arise, they were on the precipice of a formulaic thrash rut. Chaos A.D. was a landmark in my pre-metalhead days. This was some shit that I could relate to as a scummy pissed-off punk rock kid. Has there ever been a more perfect opening cut on a metal album than “Refuse/Resist”? No. If you can somehow not get pumped up listening to this song, your favorite band is Supertramp. I never even realized there was such a term as "groove metal" until I started making this list, but I guess it makes sense, and this album is the pinnacle of that style. Listening to it now, I realize what I missed out on by never catching this version of the band live. Even though I’ve seen later incarnations play “Kaiowas” and most of the other key songs on here—and nothing against Derrick Green, who has done an admirable job on vocals since Max Cavalera’s departure—there’s no sense pretending that the band was the same. Truth be told, having also seen Soulfly live, I think Max’s energy encompassed much more than just his vocals. Anyway, sorry to exhume this moot debate. Chaos A.D. is a killer album, end of story.
14. Temple Of The Morning Star (1997)
Only Steve Austin could get away with a line like “My ass bleeds for you, sincerely”. Suffice it to say you might feel uncomfortable listening to this album even on headphones if there are other people around. No aspect of Today Is The Day's music is appropriate for polite company. Austin’s genius is in simultaneously celebrating and lampooning everything we were taught to fear in the Reagan/Bush era, and with a ferocity that would startle Satan himself. However, this pastiche of noise, screaming, found dialogue excerpts, and crushing riffs would not be as powerful as it is without the genuine underlying pathos that inspires lines like “I can’t be what you want me to be/I am dead”, the title track’s insistent refrain, chanted over a simple acoustic guitar pattern that you’ll never forget once you’ve heard it. Austin was disillusioned with American society way before it was popular, and as caustic as Temple Of The Morning Star may be, it functions as a cry for connection from a lonely man stranded in a shitty world. He provides a way in for anyone unfamiliar with the TITD aesthetic with the acoustic bits, and the wide range of emotions is what puts this one over the top for me. My introduction to the band was 1999’s In The Eyes Of God, a great album but even more extreme than TOTMS and I was not at all ready for it. It probably wasn’t until I saw the band live that I *got* it. [NOTE: Today Is The Day will be playing TOTMS in its entirety this Thursday at Club Garibaldi; you should go.] And then having a few opportunities to speak with the man himself, I definitely gained some extra insight into and appreciation for his philosophy and music. It truly helped me realize that there’s no valid way to judge public figures when all you have is their public persona to go on. Well, except for Gene Simmons. Gross.
13. Streetcleaner (1989)
Couldn’t I just put “Justin Broadrick” here and be done with it? The thirteenth-greatest metal album of all time is Justin Broadrick’s entire recorded output, yeah let’s go with that, officially. Obviously not all of what he does is metal, but his influence on the whole scope of metal can hardly be overstated. My personal favorite album he has made thus far is Jesu’s Conqueror, which usually gets lumped in with post-metal and I can’t believe I’m not putting it on this list (Napalm Death’s Scum has every right to be mentioned on this list as well), but in the interest of keeping it to one album per artist, and taking into account the impact that Godflesh had on the music world, Streetcleaner is getting the nod. And what a brilliant piece of work it is, without which bands like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails would never have existed, or at least would never have become what they became. Basically, “industrial”, as far as the wide world was aware, was one thing prior to Godflesh, and what it is now ever since Godflesh.
12. Bergtatt – Et eeventyr i 5 capitler (1995)
Look, I know I said Nattens Madrigal on the black metal list, but I can’t make up my mind between these two for very long. It’s a question of what sonic palette you’re in the mood for at the moment and how badly you need to exorcise some aggression. This debut is the more pensive of the two. There’s a serious case to be made for some of these lead guitar melodies. Ulver lace in melancholic Scandinavian folk elements without pretension, choral elements without slick production; they’re progressive purely by accident. Yet the most punishing stretches rival anything in their weight class. This album easily wins on influentiality and innovation, so in an objective sense, since it’s the one I’m currently listening to, it’s the better of Ulver’s two black metal albums. I’m sure of it.
11. Stained Class (1978)
I’ve never been a big Judas Priest fan. They might be the most overrated band in rock history. I mean Rob Halford is an amazing vocalist, and I enjoy hearing “Breaking The Law” from time to time as much as anybody, but in terms of what’s considered legit metal, they’re the cheesiest band ever (except maybe Dio). Still, it would be stupid not to acknowledge the band’s influence on the genre. This album certainly wouldn’t make my personal top-anything list, but it’s not here only as a token. Stained Class, the only Priest album that’s tolerable from beginning to end, is a virtual blueprint for NWOBHM, and also, it is the exception to the rule of cheese, where they all but abandon the prog cheese of their past but haven’t yet embraced the mainstream rock cheese that’s just around the corner. In less than a year, they’d make the abrupt switch from heavy metal to happy metal and never look back. The subject matter on Stained Class is dark, the riffs are heavy as hell, and Halford’s voice is approaching maximum power. In a way, it’s a real shame they didn’t build on this and take their sound into even darker, heavier realms, but luckily Iron Maiden picked up the thread and away we went. Stained Class is really the only Priest album I will ever get an urge to listen to (though admittedly, British Steel is a guilty pleasure when I hear it and is at least a nominal recovery from the drudgery of Killing Machine/Hell Bent For Leather, which doesn’t even contain a single song title that’s a verb suffixed with “er”) but it holds up as a fierce, timeless musical statement as well as being a crucial step in the evolution of metal.
10. Ghost Reveries (2005)
Okay, okay. Here’s where my personal tastes have demonstrably subverted the notion of influence. I know everyone is head over heels for Blackwater Park, myself included! It was actually the album that initially sold me on Opeth way back when. I saw them at The Globe on that tour and had no doubt that they were the greatest metal band on the planet. In the ensuing years I came to admire My Arms, Your Hearse above all, and I would still say that that is the defining moment that launched a thousand progressive death metal bands and the enduring standard by which they should be measured. On Ghost Reveries, you can tell that Mikael Åkerfeldt's interest in the deathy side of things was waning, and after one last gasp on the followup (Watershed), Opeth would be finished with metal entirely. The enduring legacy of Ghost Reveries is that it caps an incredible ten-year run of eight virtually unassailable albums, each one a clear evolution from the one before, until the astonishing 2003 outlier Damnation, a largely acoustic affair that, as its title suggests, risked alienating Opeth’s old-guard base. Those who stuck around were rewarded with this behemoth of an album, which has its own non-metal pieces in the beautiful closing ballad “Isolation Years” and the Eastern-tinged moody anomaly “Atonement”. These are mere breathers, though, amidst four death-prog epics: “Ghost Of Perdition”, “The Baying Of The Hounds”, “Harlequin Forest”, and, if I may be so bold, a penultimate track that still stands as my single favorite modern-day metal song: “The Grand Conjuration”. I will never forget the first time I heard it. I just about fell over as it ended. I still get shivers any time I even think about the song. It’s because of this song that I can’t seriously lament the demise of Opeth as a metal band. Even though Åkerfeldt wrote one more album in the same style, its only good song, “Porcelain Heart”, is a pale imitation of “Conjuration”, almost a mockery, and he probably knew in his heart that he could never top Ghost Reveries. (Okay, I admit I recently listened to Watershed and because I’m so starved for heavy Opeth I fucking enjoyed it.) I don’t dig the retro paisley-prog Opeth started cranking out next, but last year’s Sorceress at least hinted at some potential development into something new and vital. I can’t count Åkerfeldt out just yet. At least he hasn’t chopped his hair off.
9. Altars Of Madness (1989)
I am by no means an expert on death metal. To me it’s a stepping stone to greater things, an ingredient. So, the experts seem to agree that Altars Of Madness is one of if not the defining album of the genre. Also, it is quite objectively mind-blowing in its ferocity and in the technical skill of Morbid Angel. Its high placement on this list is part extrapolation and part me liking it more every time I listen to it. I remember first hearing this and thinking ‘holy shit, is every guitar player nicknamed Trey automatically a god?’ The incredible riffs are one thing, but Trey Azagthoth’s solos are like communiqués from the bizarro dimension, virtually impossible for denizens of Earth to comprehend. One thing that gets lost in the discussion of this landmark album is how psychedelic it is; this aspect is possibly only clear decades later, as it was such an overpowering sonic meatgrinder when it first appeared that its subtleties didn’t mean much. Listening to it now, it strikes me as the next logical evolution from Reign In Blood—you thought that was brutal and evil? Ha. From this point on it really was a race to out-evil each other on the metal front, with occasional new depths of depravity matched with actual, y’know, great music. Now, death metal had already existed prior to Altars Of Madness—so I’m told—and I’m not at a point in my life where I have the necessary free time it would require to excavate and analyze the roots of the style in order to develop my own ideas on where exactly it began, but to me, the early Death and Possessed material pretty much sounds like thrash, albeit a bit more extreme than most, particularly the vocals. Altars is probably the first album that sounds like something legitimately new to me. There are surely others, prior or concurrent; I think of Mayhem’s Deathcrush album, which preceded Altars by over a year and really, portions of that EP sound more like death than Death to me, so there’ve got to be some links missing from the conventional narrative as well as my own understanding. Maybe some day I’ll attempt to put this all together, maybe not, but at this point, I’d have to say that metal dudes enjoy the simplicity of assigning beginnings of genres to the genesis of their nomenclature; hence Venom getting tagged as the inventors of black metal and ditto Possessed for death metal. Who cares, right? We can all agree that Altars is amazing. Let’s move on.
8. Reign In Blood (1986)
There’s not much I can say about this album that hasn’t already been said. Personally I am more often inclined to spin Seasons In The Abyss; how’s that? But Reign In Blood’s influence and awesomeness cannot be overstated.
Or can it? Rock critics tend to give Reign In Blood credit for spawning everything from death metal to black metal to World War III, but the actual pioneers of those genres seem to paint a slightly different picture in terms of what their main influences were. Regardless, Slayer was the most extreme band a person like me could be aware of in my formative years, and it’s tough to argue that any band has or could ever usurp them as the kings of thrash. Even as a sheltered sixth-grader I was pretty sure that despite my music teacher’s insistence, Def Leppard was not really the devil’s music, but Slayer was pretty clearly evil and taboo. Even as Metallica and Megadeth began chipping away at my musical timidity, Slayer remained one step beyond for quite a while. Reign In Blood pushed boundaries without a doubt and remains a timeless visceral listening experience unlike any other. I’m just not sure it is the undisputed forefather of everything. After all, death metal was already debatably a thing in 1986. I wonder if RIB’s esteem will fade in years to come, especially if Slayer continues to plod along with replacement members. For now, number eight seems about right, but I’ll admit that it’s more of an honorary placement than representative of my actual appreciation for it.
7. Mr. Bungle (1991)
You bet your ass (is on fire). This album is all genres at once; it is based in metal, though, and hugely influential and, though equal parts genius and juvenile, a singular achievement in music that will never be equaled. Well, except for by the second Mr. Bungle album (Disco Volante), which is even better but only metal in brief spasms. This self-titled affair took the Naked City concept of mashing jazz and funk and noise and whatever else into the same song and set the maelstrom inside a metal-themed carnival replete with calliopes and waltzing organs and morbid clown imagery. The John Zorn-produced final product stands as one of the most demented and disorienting albums ever made. Sadly, it also proved to be a major influence on what would come to be known as nu-metal, although I struggle to comprehend the precise connection there. None of the bands of that movement who claim Bungle as an influence sound remotely like Bungle to me. Even I have declared from time to time that such-and-such band or album is the new Bungle, or the Bungle of genre X, but I cringe almost as soon as I type it. There will never be a combination of musical schizophrenia and lyrical depravity quite as dizzying and uproarious as this. You could argue that the genius of guitarist Trey Spruance was only beginning to emerge at this point, and Mike Patton was a few years from reaching the peak of his vocal gymnastic abilities, and Danny Heifetz barely gets to show off his mutant versatility as a drummer. Mr. Bungle is a blunt instrument compared to what all of its makers would go on to create. It’s also way more fun, in its own dark, subversive way. Trey in particular has made much heavier music sporadically between then and now, but I don't think he's written any riffs that top "Travolta" and "Slowly Growing Deaf" and "My Ass Is On Fire" and "Love Is A Fist". A part of me laments the fact that he never gave us any more of these (his great work with Faith No More notwithstanding), preferring instead to reinvent himself over and over ever since. Deep down, though, I realize that there's no genius in self-replication, and Trey has given me more of my favorite music than probably any other musician. Something about gifthorses and whatnot.
6. Oceanic (2002)
All due respect to Neurosis! Those guys laid the foundation for what Isis was building, but I’ve never quite been able to think of them as metal (feel free to have the debate amongst yourselves about where precisely to draw the line between metal and hardcore; I’m all ears). However, Isis’ Oceanic was the album that defined the enduring post-metal sound and it has never been topped, merely imitated by approximately 50 bands per year ever since. I used to listen to this and cry as the waves of sludgy bliss washed over my brain, getting more and more intense until they climaxed in the caliber of crescendo I’d only otherwise experienced at Mogwai shows. It’s also a lyrical concept album whose story could’ve been cut from ancient Greek tragedy: lonely boy meets girl/boy discovers girl has been in incestuous relationship with her brother/boy can’t cope and drowns himself. Okay, well it’s more poignant once you experience how evocative the music is of this grotesque melodrama, and that includes Aaron Turner's vocal roar contrasted with the gorgeous counterpoint by guest singer Maria Christopher. Bottom line, it’s incredibly rare in metal that the full scope of an ambitious work like this fits together so well, all its parts sublime on their own and complementing each other so perfectly. Masterpiece. Landmark. Few would even dispute these terms; put it in whatever genre you like.
5. Tonight’s Decision (1999)
I don’t know that this album was very influential. I’ve never heard another one that sounds much like it, except for the preceding and following Katatonia albums. My friend Amelinda likes to refer to Katatonia and other such aurally non-abrasive but still underground and depressive bands affectionately as “adult contemporary metal”; this is the kind of abuse you can expect to endure from the metal community if you branch out into clean vocals and harmonies and hooks, but you have to learn to embrace it and make fun of yourself. Like most bands of their ilk, Katatonia didn’t start out this way; they were pioneers of the death/doom genre, but they shifted pretty quickly into more melodic territory without sacrificing the gloom, and Anders Nystrom developed an unmistakable lead guitar style that came to full potency on Tonight’s Decision. Now, it could certainly be argued that the next album, Last Fair Deal Gone Down, is the true culmination of this doomy metal-meets-indie/psych-rock phase, but it’s definitely less metal and never hit me quite as hard as Tonight’s. The funny thing about Katatonia is that there can be no consensus amongst fans as to which album is their best. Their style has changed with almost every release, except that trio of very Tool-esque records beginning with 2006’s The Great Cold Distance, and even the most diehard Jonas Renkse worshippers probably hate at least one Katatonia album (*cough*NIGHTISTHENEWDAY*cough*). You could make a compelling argument that their 2016 album The Fall Of Hearts is their best, honestly, which is insane for a band that’s been going for 25 years. But no, Tonight's Decision is actually the best adult contemporary metal album of all time. If this list were ranked purely according to my personal affinities, Tonight’s Decision would be in the top three for sure. It absolutely changed my life. It’s the kind of album you listen to when you’re young and think ‘THIS IS ME, I AM DESTINED TO SUFFER FOREVER’ and when you’re older you think ‘I WILL NEVER LET ANY OF THIS BE MY REALITY’. And did I mention the guitars? Oh man, the guitars!
4. De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas (1994)
While most extreme metal styles reach a natural peak of progression after a few years and then essentially begin a long self-cannibalization process, black metal shows no signs at all of running out of new avenues of exploration, and fans of the genre owe all our gratitude to Mayhem. I think some fans regard this album like a Ford Model A, or like Joy Division—revolutionary prototypes that are primitive and boring compared to new and improved models. Those fans are wrong, though. De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is more like the Weihenstephaner of black metal: the source, the original, the inspiration for endless imitation and variation, but never improved upon. If you weren’t present and aware as the original black metal movement was taking shape, an appreciation for this album requires a deep delve into your own past, an examination and acceptance of the darkness inside you, as well as a reaching outward into a sort of hatred and despair you hopefully can’t empathize with at all, the kind that provokes people to burn down places of worship or to delight in a friend’s suicide or to wantonly kill. It’s out there, lurking like BOB, ready to take over individuals or whole communities or even nations. Maybe now, more than two decades after this music was spawned, we’re being made aware more than ever of the evil that inspired Dead and Euronymous to compose it and that violently dispensed with them before the album was even released to the world.
3. Ride The Lightning (1984)
Nothing Metallica could ever do will succeed in tarnishing their legacy to any significant degree because of the mind-numbing awesomeness of their first five albums. I say this with confidence because they’ve done every conceivable lame thing I can think of in the past 25 years aside from collaborating with Wayne Coyne, which is probably right around the corner. Truthfully I can't imagine giving a shit what they do any more, words I may or may not eat when the next member drops dead. They did plenty, changed everything, and then they started sucking, and that's just what bands do. I was a Master Of Puppets diehard for most of my years of active Metallica fandom, and I can’t say definitively what swung me to preferring Ride The Lightning, because “Orion” is still my favorite Metallica song, and every song on MOP is immaculate. Maybe I heard the title track one too many times on the radio—but more times than “For Whom The Bell Tolls” or “Fade To Black”? Doubtful. I think maybe over time it’s just that the perfection of side B of Ride The Lightning became impossible to deny. The leap from the garage-thrash of Kill ‘Em All to the gutwrench precision of “Trapped Under Ice” and the menacing onslaught of “Creeping Death” and, well, what needs to be said about “Call Of Ktulu”. Looking at side A, as sick as I may have been at one time of “For Whom” and “Fade”, these now stand as templates for hundreds of songs that have come afterwards, and now that I don’t listen to commercial rock radio any more, what do ya know? They don’t make me cringe. This album is still markedly primitive compared to the next two, and maybe it’s the sheer ferocity that puts it over the edge for me. Puppets and ...And Justice For All are more polished and ambitious and maybe even impressive, but Lightning threw down the gauntlet, and in considering the ensuing decades of thrash, hardly any of it has evolved beyond imitation of these songs (and/or Slayer).
2. Powerslave (1984)
It is hard to choose a favorite Iron Maiden album. I go back and forth between Piece Of Mind and Powerslave a lot. It’s hard to take issue with much of anything from Killers through Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son. Between the opening one-two punch of “Aces High” and “2 Minutes To Midnight” and the epic “Rime Of The Ancient Mariner”, though, Powerslave has to be the overall grandest statement in a catalog that’s full of grand statements. The Number Of The Beast gets all the glory and I agree that it can’t be fucked with, but Powerslave is where ambition pushed Maiden to their compositional peak. The title track and “Rime” to me are Bruce Dickinson & co. basically daring any other band to attempt to compose something so driven and dynamic, and on all ensuing albums they would only emulate this triumph but never surpass it nor evolve their style. Okay, unless you consider the glorious pop single “Wasted Years” a singular instance of evolution, maybe. Getting down to brass tacks, though, this number-two slot is essentially a vote for the band Iron Maiden, pick whichever of the first six albums you like, or lump them all together. They are the true succession from Sabbath, the inspiration that opened the door for the future of metal to spring forth from. Please tell me I don't need to tell you this.
1. Sabotage (1975)
There was a period of a few years when Black Sabbath (Ozzy-era only; I don't hate post-Ozzy Sabbath but that's a different band) was my favorite band of all time, and I highly recommend going through this phase if possible, but there are dangers you should be aware of. An obsession with Sabbath can lead very easily into dark psychological states including but not limited to severe depression, as these are what most Black Sabbath songs are about, as well as extreme substance abuse, as that was the condition under which Black Sabbath’s music was created. However, Sabbath can also be therapeutic in working through these very same issues. It might not be until decades later that you can adequately determine which side of that chicken/egg coin you were on. I can say that the song “Megalomania” was my only friend for a few weeks after a painful breakup, and it remains probably my favorite Sabbath song if I have to pick one. Also, the main guitar riff of the second part of the song, along with “Symptom Of The Unvierse”, are to me the invention of modern metal. You can point to earlier songs as primordial ooze, but this was the point when Tony Iommi seized on the essence of the metal chug, where it was no longer a placeholder or a backdrop for the song—it is the song. On top of that, Sabotage is the most compelling musical document ever of a person (Ozzy) losing his goddamn mind. I get no sense whatsoever that “Am I Going Insane” is rhetorical. Ozzy himself claims to have been on acid for the entire production of the album and to have no recollection at all of making it. I remember hearing that and feeling crushed—seriously, you don’t even remember making my favorite album you ever made?? But the miracle is that Ozzy ever made music. The guy seems incapable of artifice. If ever a man made his living by channeling the supernatural into something understandable to the point of being almost universal, it’s Ozzy.
The bottom line is that, as everyone basically agrees, Sabbath invented metal, whichever album or song you happen to single out, and until the late ‘70s, there was absolutely no one else I consider to be metal. Bands like Zeppelin and Queen and others toyed with metal motifs occasionally, yes, but a metal band doesn’t have acoustic ballads about their pets nor showtunes. I love Deep Purple but they weren’t metal. I loooooove AC/DC but they’ve never been metal. I hate The Scorpions and they were definitely not metal. Motörhead was entirely its own thing, the true metal/punk hybrid that was neither. You have to wait until Judas Priest really before there’s anything other than Sabbath that I’d call metal, and even Priest, I’m sorry, is a stretch. They just weren’t very dark. Fierce, yes, but metal is dark.
So, I could’ve put the first Sabbath album here if I really wanted to. It inarguably set the mood, the tone, for the gradual formulation of what would come to be known as heavy metal. The song “Black Sabbath” in particular is the concrete beginning of something that had not previously existed, but this isn’t a list of songs. And really, most of that first album, as well as most of Paranoid, Master Of Reality, and Volume 4, is not all that dissimilar to Cream, or Deep Purple, or any number of British blues-based bands leaning into something heavy. Sabotage may or may not be the one that changed it all, but it was the culmination of everything Sabbath had been working towards, and all roads to all forms of modern metal started here. It's not the most iconic or definitive Sabbath album; it broke the mold. There's a natural musical progression across the first five albums, and then there's this explosion of wickedness, a document of Ozzy's visions while peering through the hole in the sky into the future. He never came back from it, so he had to bring the whole world with him.
Why didn't I just make it a top-25 list? Because these ones don't take any community or critical consensus into account. They’re albums I just want to make a case for. Greatness in my eyes only, perhaps, but greatness none the less!
Countdown To Extinction (1992)
I’ve made my peace with this being my favorite Megadeth album. It’s the ultimate in gateway thrash but at the same time, prime Dave Mustaine dementia. It’s smooth, it’s polished, it’s catchy, it’s an unholy sellout, it’s irresistible. Actually, hold on—is it really that much more commercial than Peace Sells or Rust In Peace? I dunno, kids. Those are great albums but not really heavier than Countdown, they’re just rawer in terms of production and a little faster. Plus Mustaine’s vocals on Peace Sells are pretty horrible, and on Rust he sounds positively sane compared to, say, “Sweating Bullets” or “Psychotron”. I would agree that after Countdown, Megadeth went completely to shit (except I kinda dig Cryptic Writings—*DUCKS*), but man. “Symphony Of Destruction” is a pinnacle of simple yet sublimely effective mainstream metal, and the other aforementioned tunes plus “Skin O’ My Teeth” and “Foreclosure Of A Dream” are all brilliant. In the no-longer-raging debate regarding Metallica versus Megadeth, you have to concede that the Black Album is a far more radical departure into midtempo, digestible music than this. I can attest to the fact that Countdown (and its accompanying music videos) inspired rural/suburban kids to test the waters of ‘the hard stuff’ because it felt weird and taboo, whereas “Nothing Else Matters” and “Unforgiven”...yeah. Besides, Mustaine is one of the very few good lyricists who ever succeeded in metal; the guy has always written circles around James Hetfield, but metalheads are so used to boneheaded lyrics that this factor is largely overlooked. Now, maybe you’re mad that metal ever made it to whitebread kitty-petting flower-sniffing America, in which case you can keep on hating Countdown, but it was a major milestone for me and a turning point for the whole genre, more an ending in and of itself, but a beginning for a lot of disaffected kids.
Wolverine Blues (1993)
Did people freak out when Entombed abruptly abandoned death metal for this? I like the early stuff, and according to what I’ve read it was very pioneering for the Scandinavian scene, but Wolverine Blues was the invention of a brand new subgenre of music—sadly, termed “death ‘n’ roll”. It pains me to even type that. I assume they resorted to this because “deathrock” was already taken? God, I hope that’s the reason. Anyway, it was a stylistic shift very much analogous to Metallica’s Load, except not horrible. Death ‘n’ roll is actually still metal; Load is more like Rockica. Wolverine Blues is one of this list’s least brutal entries, so it would be a fantastic entry point into underground metal if you happen to be a curious onlooker. It's gnarly riff after gnarly riff, vocals you can understand, harsh but gloriously infectious. Check it out; maybe you can be the hero of the day who comes up with a better tag for it.
The Avenger (1999)
Amon Amarth was pretty much my introduction to extreme metal (thanks to the wisdom of Swatty) and The Avenger has always stuck with me as a sentimental favorite. You can try all you want to not let extraneous circumstances color your appreciation for art, but as a metal n00b back in 2000, standing on the corner of 5th and Wells swigging a bottle of vodka with these Viking-ass motherfuckers was kind of transformative for me. It capped a full day of discovery that most of the artists and fans in the extreme metal community were the warmest, most welcoming people you could hope to meet (disclaimer: I was/am a long-haired white guy), and they shared this all-consuming passion for music that I had always felt. Anyways, although they've since descended into blandness on record, Amon Amarth always put on a killer live show back in the aughts at least, and their band name is a Tolkien reference; come on, how could I not like them? The Avenger earns its place on this list also just for its riffs, and personally, Johan Hegg’s is a death vocal style I prefer. (Basically, all of my favorite death metal vocalists are Swedes.) What can I say, this album eased me into a thenceforth lifelong love of extreme music (like an old man into a nice warm bath—Costanza); I’m eternally grateful.
System Of A Down (1998)
System Of A Down is the only good nu-metal band ever. I will always love the shit out of this album, as well as most of System's other albums. It's too bad about Serge Tankian’s subsequent forays into crappy if well-intentioned experiments with other types of music and then basically his retirement from creating new things, but perhaps the world needed his activism more than his music. Anyway, I didn't feel obligated to include nu-metal, but I do embrace the stigma that it is the worst development in popular music in my lifetime and aside from System, I could probably count the songs I actually like from the whole nasty genre on one hand. This band is not like those other bands. I’m not saying you should give in to the nu; I’m saying forget about the nu and just bang your head.
The Cuckoo Clocks Of Hell (2004)
Yes, Buckethead, dammit. Most of what Buckethead does is admittedly not metal, but I defy anyone to listen to this album and label it as any other genre. Of all the great wank wizards of the ‘80s, he’s the only one who ever made metal. Lyrics, vocals, who needs ‘em; what we need is riffs, and The Cuckoo Clocks Of Hell is overflowing with glorious, crushing, blistering riffs, and his trademark frenzied noodling to go along with them. Now, I freely acknowledge that there might be a better, even heavier album in Buckethead’s catalog of 475 or so albums. I was on top of it all until about 2012; he put out six albums that year, and at least thirty in 2013, and after that who the hell knows. I’m open to suggestions for sure if there’s someone reading this who wants to recommend a few essentials from his absurd post-2012 output. I don’t doubt there are gems. This one stands as one of this (former?) fanboy’s very favorites and really a masterpiece of instrumental metal.
-Ministry’s ΚΕΦΑΛΗΞΘ should probably be on the list. I don’t know why I’m putting it down here instead of as a numerical entry. Possibly because it’s industrial, and I could only justify one industrial album. This one is virtually flawless and I’ve listened to it way more than most of the stuff listed here. Was it influential? I don’t know. Definitely on Rammstein. Was it a sellout? It’s certainly more commercial than The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste, but it’s still caustic and heavy as shit. I was militantly apolitical in the ‘90s, but it’s possible that some of Al Jourgensen’s blunt rhetoric made its way into my consciousness through this album. It was a perfect conduit for the expulsion of angst and disillusionment in my late teens/early 20s even if I didn’t fully grasp what Jourgensen (or Gibby Haynes, for that matter) was going on about, and I still don’t know of any more cathartic individual songs in recorded history than “Just One Fix”.
-Yes, I used to love Pantera, and they were a major stepping stone to my appreciation of metal. However, when Phil Anselmo threw up a white power gesture at a concert last year, I knew I was done listening to his music. Even if—let’s be perfectly clear—EVEN IF it was some joke about white wine or whatever bullshit he came up with to justify it, THERE IS NO VALID JUSTIFICATION FOR IT. This wasn’t the first piece of evidence of his white supremacist leanings, either; I was just unaware before and this prompted some digging. It’s a slippery slope, I know, and feel free to point out which musicians I did include have said or done unforgivable things without remorse or retraction, okay? The metal community has a well-documented racism problem. It’s tough to draw a straight line in the sand but I have to draw it somewhere. Anselmo is a bona fide celebrity, though, and he’s got legions of fans, and they’re not all a bunch of racists but plenty of them are, and as long as Anselmo has a platform the hate will continue to spread, so I’m removing myself from the list of people who will in any way support his efforts to be heard. For all I know there could be coded racist messages laced throughout his lyrics. He’s done nothing to confront the issue except deny that it exists. His half-assed apologies mean nothing. I thought it would be hard to delete Vulgar Display Of Power from my collection, but it was pretty easy.
-I acknowledge that Chuck Schuldiner is a deity and that Death was an incredible band. Go ahead and tell me I need to listen to them more. Seriously, go ahead. I actually listened to quite a bit of Death in compiling this piece, and I found that I prefer the later, more modern-sounding Death stuff (especially Symbolic), but that's not really groundbreaking, is it? In the end I have all kinds of respect but not much affinity for Death. I’ll keep trying, maybe.
-I acknowledge that Ronnie James Dio is a deity and was a great and influential singer. I have never cared for the music that he made, though. There is something so cheesy about the conviction in his voice as he sings these ridiculous lyrics, and so much of the music of Rainbow and Dio is so Scorpions-ish, proto-hair metal, blech I really can’t take it. Eternal gratitude for the devil horns, though.
-The Melvins are one of my favorite bands ever, and I do think of them as basically metal, yet…I get the feeling they don’t. But feel free to insert Bullhead somewhere in the top ten if you think it belongs there. That whole Seattle scene, including Soundgarden and Alice In Chains, I have incomparable love and respect for, and these bands are certainly metal-ish at times, but I’ll just keep grunge in the footnotes.
-Nothing Glenn Danzig has ever made is really metal. Hardly any of his post-Misfits output has been any good. Samhain had a few good songs I suppose. He’s a legend and a walking talking mockumentary. I love the guy and I can hardly stand him.
-Yes, Def Leppard’s Hysteria is by far the best hair metal album of all time; thanks for pointing that out. It’s just that hair metal isn’t metal.
-Power metal is metal but it all sucks.
-King Diamond/Mercyful Fate: I got to see the king at Metalfest in 2000 and it was life-changing indeed just to experience the man’s energy. Truth be told, I think he has been primarily influential in terms of face paint and theatrics and not so much musically. He’s a great performer, but a great singer? Ehhhhh....I dig those old albums but they’re not as sacred in my book as they are in a lot of people’s.
-Anthrax: As alluded to above. If party-thrash is your game, more power to ya. (Scatterbrain, anyone?) They were/possibly still are a good band, how would I know.
-You-Phoria’s official position on Anal Cunt is that the so-called artistry of Seth Putnam was an abomination and his every word and deed was abhorrent, and no one associated with this website would ever dream of laughing at his disgusting song titles nor find any merit in his cruel mockery of other musicians in songs such as “Morrissey” and “311 Sucks” and “Your Favorite Band Is Supertramp” and “Chris Barnes Is A Pussy”, because this is the world we live in, and these are the hands we’re given. But Laura King Of Rock used to play Anal Cunt on the radio all the time, that’s gotta count for something.
-Y’know, I’ve listened to a lot of Cannibal Corpse over the years. Revisiting it while I made this list, I realized I’ve heard Tombs Of The Mutilated a ton; it wormed its way into my awareness before I could even stomach death metal, and a lot of kids who barely ventured beyond thrash were somehow drawn to it. It may be the quintessential American death metal album. And I don't really like it. Props to Chris Barnes for essentially inventing the vocal style that most people associate with death metal; I don't care for it. It's possible that by the time I was able to appreciate Cannibal Corpse I’d already outgrown it. Barnes’ lyrics don't offend me, but they do nothing for me. Maybe in light of what else has spawned from death metal, Cannibal Corpse’s approach kinda bores me. Nothing against them, but my brain just goes ‘oh golly, “Hammer Smashed Face” again. Yawn.’