From Metallica and Iron Maiden to Black Sabbath and Slayer, these are the metal albums that changed everything and influenced millions worldwide
Metal has always been the black sheep of the music world, and the musicians and fans like it that way. Loud, angry and unapologetic, it’s an expression of the darker side of life that is intoxicating for millions of people all over the world. Towering guitar riffs, powerful vocals and thundering drums make it a genre that has set pulses racing for over fifty years.
Many of the most important and seminal metal bands emerged in the 1970s and 1980s in the UK and the US, although influential bands have also continued to break through globally in the 1990s, 2000s and right through to recent years. The proof is in the rise of bands like Germany’s Rammstein, Japan’s Babymetal and Sweden’s Ghost.
1. Black Sabbath, Black Sabbath (1970)
The band who started it all. Birmingham’s black-clad rockers, fronted by Ozzy Osbourne, pioneered metal with an album that was different to everything that came before. A witch-like shrouded woman on the cover and the sound of a storm and church bells giving way to the legendary, slow guitar riff of the title track, not to mention Ozzy’s unique vocals, showed what awaited the listener. Black Sabbath's menacing, dark sound and lyrics about a smiling Satan laid the groundwork for all metal bands who followed. “N.I.B.” was even written from the first-person perspective of Lucifer, and produced another crunching and sludgy, classic riff, courtesy of guitarist Tony Iommi.
"Black Sabbath's menacing, dark sound and lyrics about Satan laid the groundwork for all metal bands who followed"
Just to prove their greatness, they released a second album, Paranoid, later in the same year (just seven months after their debut!), featuring the legendary title track with one of the most memorable metal guitar riffs of all-time. Paranoid also included classics like “War Pigs” and “Iron Man” and is arguably just as influential on the genre as their debut.
2. Iron Maiden, The Number of the Beast (1982)
Leading the charge for the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM), London’s Iron Maiden brought the theatrics to metal. The band’s third studio album, it produced the massive, stadium-friendly metal anthems, “Run to the Hills” and the album’s title track.
Bruce Dickinson’s soaring singing and their galloping songs won Iron Maiden plenty of fans, and their fair share of critics in the US too, where social conservatives burnt and smashed copies of The Number of the Beast and erroneously accused the band of being Satanists. However, that hasn’t stopped the album’s huge success—entering the UK charts at number one in 1982 and going on to sell around 20 million copies worldwide to date. Plus, Maiden are now 17 albums in and still one of the biggest metal bands in the world.
3. Metallica, Master of Puppets (1986)
Metallica are probably the best-known and most well-loved metal band on the planet, and the sheer quality of their albums is certainly a large reason why. The definitive thrash metal band in the 1980s, their four albums from that decade are all classics. While Kill ‘Em All (1984), Ride the Lightning (1984) and …And Justice For All (1988) are all near-perfect albums, there’s one LP that stands out as Metallica's finest moment.
Master of Puppets was the band’s third studio album and their last before the tragic accident that claimed the life of bassist Cliff Burton. It showed the band at their roaring, riff-powered best—from the blistering opener “Battery” and the thrashing title track single to the instrumental genius of “Orion” and the relentless closer “Damage, Inc.”, they don’t put a foot wrong. It even became the first metal recording to be selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
4. Slayer, Reign in Blood (1986)
Seven months after Master of Puppets, Slayer released an album that proves why 1986 was one of the most important years for metal music ever. Another thrash metal classic from a Californian band, Slayer’s third album saw them surprisingly work with producer Rick Rubin (Beastie Boys, Run DMC) to unveil a beast of a record.
The controversial opener “Angel of Death” and the thundering closer “Raining Blood” are the highlights, but the album sounds as heavy and uncompromising today as it did in the 1980s. With Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman unleashing dualling guitar riffs, Tom Araya’s roaring vocals and bass, and Dave Lombardo’s pounding drums, Slayer proved themselves one of metal’s finest.
5. Judas Priest, British Steel (1980)
The sixth studio album from Rob Halford and his leather-clad metallers, British Steel saw the Birmingham band live up to the LP’s name. Their first commercial success, it saw Judas Priest propelled to become one of the NWOBHM favourites, alongside the likes of Iron Maiden, Def Leppard and Girlschool.
"Judas Priest's 'British Steel' paved the way for thrash metal bands, such as Metallica and Sepultura"
Standouts such as the up-tempo single “Breaking the Law”, the energetic opener “Rapid Fire” and the strutting, perfectly titled “Metal Gods” proved why British Steel paved the way for thrash metal bands, such as Metallica and Sepultura.
6. Korn, Korn (1994)
Regardless of whether you love or loathe nu-metal, with its combination of rapping and singing and big guitar riffs, there’s one band from Bakersfield, California who defined the genre with a blueprint in the mid-1990s, which led the way for the likes of Limp Bizkit and System Of A Down to follow. Korn’s self-titled debut album was a personal and heavy listen—both from singer Jonathan Davis’ stories of child abuse, drug abuse and bullying, to the sound of the music itself.
The explosion of emotion on tracks such as opener “Blind”, with Davis bellowing “Are you ready?!” to start the album with a bang, and the bagpipe-laden “Shoots and Ladders”, exploring the dark side of nursery rhymes, showed Davis and co. as upset as they were angry. The disturbing closer “Daddy” and this different style of metal appealed to a new generation of fans.
7. Megadeth, Rust in Peace (1990)
While they had already established themselves as one of American thrash metal’s “big four”, alongside Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax, with their first album on a major label, Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? in 1986, it was this record four years later that saw Dave Mustaine and his bandmates show exactly what made them different.
Featuring complex arrangements as well as fast rhythm sections, dualling lead guitars and lyrics about wars and religion, Rust in Peace saw Megadeth erupt into a new decade with skill and brutality. Singles “Hangar 18” and “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due”, as well as the suitably titled “Tornado of Souls” show the band at their blistering best and set the bar for technicality in metal.
8. Deep Purple, Machine Head (1972)
English rock quintet Deep Purple, much like Black Sabbath, were pioneers of the metal genre, due to the heaviness of the riffs they used and the energy they performed with. Their sixth studio album, Machine Head, showed Ian Gillan’s passionate vocals and Ritchie Blackmore’s powerful guitar riffs weaving together majestically.
From infectious opener “Highway Star” and the rousing “Pictures of Home” to the absolutely unmistakable riff of “Smoke on the Water”, this album was loved by many in the scene—even Ozzy Osbourne of Sabbath. It also went to number one on the UK albums chart and was clearly an influence on many NWOBHM who followed Deep Purple and Sabbath.
9. Motorhead, Ace of Spades (1980)
Rooted in blues and somehow achieving the miracle of getting punks into metal music, Motorhead and their iconic and outspoken frontman Lemmy Kilmister sounded only like themselves. A break-neck collision of metal, punk, rock ‘n’ roll and blues, with Lemmy’s gravel-gargling vocals on full display, this fourth studio album saw Motorhead sounding as rebellious as the outlaws they are depicted as on the record’s cover.
The ferocious proto-thrash sound of Ace of Spades saw them classified by a journalist as part of the NWOBHM, alongside the likes of Maiden and Priest, but they always sounded dirtier and more dangerous, influencing future thrash metallers like Metallica and Megadeth. Songs like the classic title track, “(We Are) the Road Crew” and “Fast and Loose” were the soundtracks to a life of drinking, gambling and womanising on the road.
10. Slipknot, Slipknot (1999)
Taking the nu-metal sound to a new extreme, and then pushing beyond the label, Iowa’s nine-headed Slipknot blew away the competition (and created plenty of pretenders who copied their style) with their punishing self-titled debut album and appealed to the masses with their twisted take. The maniacs wearing red boiler suits and horrifying masks captured the chaos of their unpredictable gigs with a jaw-dropping first LP. This was the sound of metal born in middle America, with all its ugliness and talent laid bare.
"Slipknot were maniacs wearing red boiler suits and horrifying masks who captured the chaos of their live shows on record"
Singles “Wait and Bleed” and “Spit It Out” saw them bring a new level of carnage to metal, as well as impressive percussion, turntables and samples to give it all a layered, dense sound. Metal has never been the same since, proving that metal continues to evolve and appeal.
Sepultura, Chaos A.D. (1993)
Anthrax, Among the Living (1987)
Pantera, Vulgar Display of Power (1992)
Dio, Holy Diver (1983)
Ozzy Osbourne, Blizzard of Oz (1980)
Read more: 10 Of the greatest rock songs in history
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