Ten Metal Albums to Hear Before You Die


Experts. The world is full of them, now more than ever. There are panels full of them on cable news every night. They’re clogging up your Twitter timeline. You overhear them everyday on the train. Everyone everywhere is an authority on everything. Everyone’s an expert. Like “hipster” or “passion,” the idea expressed by the word is so convoluted it’s all but meaningless. So we’re well aware that when we tell you “We asked two metal experts to rate the most important albums of the genre” you’re rolling your eyes hard. But it’s true. When it comes to metal, Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman are—and we don’t use this word lightly—experts. They’re the authors of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, the unbelievably thorough tome we excerpted on our cover last month. You could say they literally wrote the book on metal. So we locked the two in a room with a bottle of brown liquor and didn’t let them out until they’d ranked the ten most important/best metal records of all time—Ten Metal Albums to Hear Before You Die. Feel free to tell them they’re wrong. – Brian McManus

See also: The Oral History of NYC’s Metal/Hardcore Crossover


10. Mayhem De Mysteriis Dom Satanas (1984)

Bands who complain about mid-album lineup shifts have nothing on Mayhem’s first full-length studio album. During its creation and before its release, vocalist Dead committed suicide, and bassist Varg Vikernes (Burzum’s Count Grishnackh) became convinced guitarist Oystein Aarseth (a.k.a. Euronymous) was planning to kill him, so he murdered the guitarist in the middle of the night. These episodes, along with the legendary Norwegian church burnings Vikernes and his associates were involved in threatened the creation of De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas and practically overshadow the musical quality of the album. But by the powers of Satan, Mayhem prevailed, and the epitaph of Euronymous stands boldy and bloodily on its own as one of the best and most influential slabs of Norwegian black metal. Even without the traditional keyboards of the genre, songs like “Cursed in Eternity” and the title cut evoke chills through rapidly sawed melodic guitar hooks, fleet, booming bass, ferocious blast beats and the sepulchral vocals of Attila Csihar, who has performed on two other Mayhem albums and currently fronts the group, which has cut down on the violence and arson, but still sometimes performs with decapitated animal heads onstage. — Jon Wiederhorn


9. Mötley Crüe Shout at the Devil (1983)

An LA band who’s actually from Los Angeles, the future Crüe members plied their trade in sundry lineups before coming together in the aptly named (if poorly spelled) Mötley Crüe. Taking umlauts from Löwenbräu beer bottles, and makeup and clothing from their stripper girlfriends, on Shout at the Devil they strut through 11 songs that proved dudes in high heels and garish makeup could write amazing songs. In particular, of course, one Nikki Sixx, sole author of “”Shout at the Devil,” “Looks That Kill” and “Too Young to Fall in Love,” the album’s top tunes. A grimy version of ‘Helter Skelter” was entirely appropriate and well-done, and perhaps a nod from Sixx, heavily influenced by the Beatles and the irresistible yet heavy pop confections of the Sweet. Dropping in 1983, the same year as Quiet Riot’s. Metal Health, Shout at the Devil solidified the band as frontrunners of the then semi-nascent metal scene. Still, it was Metal Health that became the first heavy metal album to reach #1 on the Billboard 200, unseating the Police’s Synchronicity in the process. (Shout at the Devil peaked at #17) That said, Shout at the Devil is the more electrifying and dangerous of the pair—two mandatory metal hallmarks. — Katherine Turman


8. Iron Maiden Number of the Beast (1982)

Forget “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” the true axiom should be: “All the History I Need to Know I Learned From Iron Maiden.” Thanks to bassist/band founder Steve Harris’ historical lyrics, on Number of the Beast, listeners are schooled about “Invaders, pillaging, invaders, looting” (the Norman Conquest, I believe, in ‘Invaders”); the plight of Native Americans running for their lives as European Americans “[chase] the redskins back to their holes” in “Run to the Hills;” as well as a song about late ’60s British TV show ,em>The Prisoner, in, yes, ‘The Prisoner.” Number, the band’s third album, introduces former Samson vocalist Bruce Dickinson as Paul Di’Anno’s replacement, and contains the iconic title track, which Harris said was allegedly inspired by a nightmare he had after watching the film Damien: Omen II—as well as the poem Tam o’ Shanter by Robert Burns. Musically, Maiden are as headily aspirational and complex as their lyrics, and while Maiden’s mien may be a bit more nerdy/intellectual than, say, the slightly baser thunder of Judas Priest, the urgently galloping twin guitars of “Run to the Hills” and Dicksinon’s powerful, semi-operatic tenor perfectly suit their dramatically crafted tunes. — KT


7. Guns N’ Roses Appetite For Destruction (1987) Appetite for Destruction was the American dream—at least for Midwestern metal musician hopefuls transplanted to L.A. in the ’80s—writ large and loud.. From the portentous and apocalyptic opening of ‘Welcome to the Jungle” until Steven Adler’s last definitive downbeat on “Rocket Queen” ends the aural journey, 1987’s Appetite is a dozen salvos without filler. “Think About You” might be the weakest track, but the album spawned six genuine singles—”It’s So Easy,” “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” “Paradise City,” and “Nightrain”—and to date has sold more than 35 million albums worldwide, proving that degenerate, dirty, desperate rock knows no boundaries. Mike Clink’s production (and babysitting) corralled the seminal band at its vital best. In retrospect, every lyric is prescient: “I’m a Molotov cocktail with a match to go.” And: “Some people got a chip on their shoulder / And some would say it was me…. So you can suck me / Take that one to heart.” It’s that genuineness and genuine volatility that ignited fan lust for this seminal band and record, and while GN’R circa 2013 may be a ginger-haired shadow of its former sloppy, beautiful, nihilist self, at least the songs remain the same. — KT


6. Motörhead Ace of Spades (1980)

Motörhead aren’t a metal band says singer/bassist/man about town Lemmy Kilmister. But by any other name, they would rock as hard. Sure, Lemmy’ll allow that his trio of merry maniacs (on this album, the classic lineup of guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clarke and drummer Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor ) spew “primitive brutality. You can bop to it if you’re very quick,” he once quipped. The title track, all 2:47 minutes of it, proves the celebrated Mr. K right. You’ve got to move quickly to follow Lemmy’s kickstarted moto-rev bass lines that launch 12 dirty, testosterone-filled paeans that comprise the band’s decisive fourth album. Telling brazen tales of rock ‘n’ roll truths—”you’re jailbait and I just can’t wait” (“Jailbait”); “Another hotel I can’t find / Another backstage pass for you” ([“We Are) The Roadcrew,” Lemmy and co. live it like they play it. Metal (or rock!) is never better than when, live, Lemmy spews to the faithful, fist-thrusting mobs: “That’s the way I like it baby, I don’t wanna live forever… and don’t forget the joker.” — KT


5. Pantera Vulgar Display of Power (1992)

Before Pantera recorded their second major label record, Vulgar Display of Power, the band heard Metallica’s “Black Album” and were disappointed by its lack of speed and ferocity. At the same time, they viewed the commercial effort as an opportunity to claw their way into the top tier of thrash. In the years that followed, internal and external forces set the band members against one another, but Vulgar Display is the sound of a unified groove-inflected thrash band with energy and anger to burn. The late Dimebag Darrell plays an unforgettable assortment of passages —the primal, simple main riff of “Walk,” the bluesy, ZZ-Top influenced power-groove of “Regular People,” the ominous and melancholy acoustic arpeggios of “This Love” —each of which creates a crushing foundation. The rhythm section of bassist Rex Brown and drummer Vinnie Paul anchor Dime’s playing with precision and power, but it’s vocalist Philip Anselmo that makes the album impact with such vital force, whether he’s screaming in a hardcore-influenced voice in the aptly-titled “Fucking Hostile” or crooning about childhood trauma and present-day beefs in “Hollow.” — JW


4. Judas Priest British Steel (1980)

Next to Birmingham’s Black Sabbath, younger city-mates Judas Priest were the second band to imprint their metal stamp on the world and the first to openly embrace the term “metal.” The band’s moment of epiphany was its sixth album British Steel, a quickly-assembled set of metal anthems that benefits from the impulsiveness and spontaneity of its creation. After opening with the fast-paced “Rapid Fire,” which many have called a prelude to thrash, the band plows through a set of simple, infectious numbers, including two of their biggest singles, “Breaking the Law” and “Living After Midnight.” Longtime guitarists Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing are in peak form, playing tandem harmonies and trading solos with the fluidity of experienced jazzmen. And Priest experiment with the trad metal formula a bit on “United,” which features crowd-stirring hand claps, “The Rage,” which begins with a grooving bass line and reggae-tinged guitars reminiscent of the Police, and “Metal Gods,” which includes robotic vocals on the chorus and the sounds of marching cyborgs near the end. Halford earns his Metal God vocal status throughout, with ragged-edged vibrato-laden vocals that soar to an eardrum-shattering screech at a moment’s notice. Of Priest’s many classic albums, this is the best. — JW


3. Slayer Reign in Blood (1986)

In less than 30 minutes of total playing time, Slayer’s third record effectively hangs, draws and quarters every album that dares to compete with its unrelenting brutality. Other bands have released faster, noisier or more graphically brutal records, but none have been this uncompromising and well-crafted. Without straying from their tried-and-true formula —ramped up Judas Priest-style riffs and growling vocals merged with hardcore tempos embellished with freewheeling, cat-strangling guitar solos —Slayer take their sound to new heights, inserting all the right minor key guitar harmonies, tension building tempo shifts, engaging rhythmic variations and bombastic drum fills to keep the concise songs ripping and musically rich. Reign in Blood is bookended with two of the best songs late guitarist Jeff Hanneman ever wrote. The vicious and controversial “Angel of Death” is a musically undeniable, lyrically intense play-by-play account of the atrocities of Nazi butcher doctor Josef Mengele, and “Raining Blood” is a textural epic that starts with thunder, rain, tribal war drums and guitar feedback, and builds into a galloping ride through the fetid horrors of Hell. If this is the sound of the afterlife, bring on the fire and brimstone. — JW


2. Metallica Master of Puppets (1986)

A heavy metal symphony with the emphasis on heavy, Metallica’s third album —their last with bassist and co-songwriter Cliff Burton —is a sonically diverse, rhythmically complex excursion of aggression that hasn’t withered with time one iota. Even the loudest songs are flush with melody and every tempo and nuance is explored with raging passion. There’s the rapid-fire skullcrushers (“Battery,” “Disposable Heroes” and “Damage, Inc”) the sluggish (by comparison) roar of ‘The Thing That Should Not Be” and “Leper Messiah” and the haunting quasi-ballad “Welcome Home (Sanitarium).” But some of the main musical highlights come in the experimental prog-thrash of the two eight-minute-plus songs —the structurally skewed, jaw-dropping title track, and the cinematic instrumental “Orion.” The only problem with Master of Puppets is it was so well received upon its release it opened the floodgates for waves of second rate imitators who rapidly over-saturated the scene. But even those who hated Metallica’s mainstream rock/metal transformation in the ’90s can’t blame the band for writing the most musically articulate thrash album ever. — JW


1. Black Sabbath Black Sabbath (1970)

But first, there was Sabbath. It began in 1970, with the softly falling rain, thunder, and ominous church bells that signaled the start of the (song and album) “Black Sabbath” and the beginning of metal as we know it. The plaintive harmonica-and-jazzy loose groove that is “The Wizard” moves further into the warm, welcoming darkness that is Sabbath. When you’re 12, stoned, lying on the floor of your best friend’s brother’s darkened bedroom, staring at the album cover (solitary figure, woods, house, fuzzy—what can it all mean?!), it doesn’t get much better. Ditto when you’re 40-something, drinking wine, and listening to Black Sabbath stream online. (And yes, Paranoid is as great as—or some say, better than—Black Sabbath, but this is the album that began the journey). In short, if you can listen to Ozzy Osbourne wail “Satan’s sitting there, he’s smiling / Watches those flames get higher and higher / Oh no, no, please God help me,” and not get chills, well, I don’t want to know you. Or, to borrow a phrase from Almost Famous: “One day, you’ll be cool. Look under your bed. It will set you free.” — KT

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