best metal albums ever photo

The 100 Greatest Metal Albums Of All Time

From tales of 'Moby Dick' and the 'Rime of The Ancient Mariner' to the scorched earth of European black metal. Words by Joseph Earp

By Joseph Earp, 22/6/2020

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Metal is so diverse — so important — that choosing the genre’s 100 “greatest” albums is a deliberately self-sabotaging exercise.

It would have been easier, after all, to break metal down into its sub-genres: the 100 greatest thrash albums, the 100 greatest doom albums, and so on. Easier still would have been dividing the canon up by country, or by year.

But easy is not the name of the game when it comes to lists like this. Indeed, the value of picking 100 of the all-time greatest metal albums is that it reveals affection and influence through extremely difficult decisions. It’s gun-to-your-head stuff, having to choose which Black Sabbath records to include and which not, the kind of decision-making process that’s only exciting because it’s so bloody difficult.

Making that challenge harder, I decided to write a list that was distinct from the very many other “100 greatest metal albums” lists out there. Rolling Stone have a great one; the author and critic Mike Thorn another. I tried, whenever possible, to keep my lists separate from these ones. Furthermore, whenever I had a choice between including a well-known record and a surprising one, I took the latter route.

That means for some, this list will seem shockingly contemporary — there are a couple of albums in here that are less than a year old. My aim was to fill out the canon; to offer up some records that wouldn’t otherwise be in contention.

In turn, that modus operandi meant that there are some omissions that will seem heretical — no Pantera, only a handful of records from Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, and Metallica. But my hope is that not including these — great, great albums — has left space for newer or more unconventional work from bands that wouldn’t usually place in a canon like this.

This list is also a reflection of the fact that for too many years the genre was too white, straight and male. Including more contemporary acts from diverse perspectives helped adjust this balance a little, but there is much more to be done.

Here is the list of the 100 greatest metal albums of all time.

#100. Exodus — Bonded By Blood

Which major metal act has a better debut than Exodus? Bonded By Blood is a mere eight tracks and 40-odd minutes long, but it stays with you for days, those infamous guitar solos tattooing themselves onto the skin inside your ears. ‘Deliver us to Evil’, a lurid invocation of hell itself, might be one of the most uncompromising tracks in the band’s entire back catalogue, trembling itself into a state of pure horror.

#99. At The Gates — Slaughter Of The Soul

A matter of months after the release of Slaughter of the Soul, Swedish melodic metal titans At The Gates would go into hibernation for just over a decade. Who can blame them? When you release an album as exhaustive and original as Slaughter, it’s hard to know what to do next, let alone try and top yourself.

‘Suicide Nation’, a blur of drums, screams and lyrics about the spiritual death of America, is still one of the most brutal songs in the band’s back catalogue. And then there’s the guitar solo that comes slicing into ‘Cold’, baroque noodling that might be the Mount Everest of metal breakdowns.

#98. Deicide — Deicide

Deicide’s debut is one of the most astonishing commercial successes on this list — released in 1990, it held the title as the best-selling album in death metal for literal decades. Which is even more shocking when you consider how downright odd this thing is. A series of hulking, oil-blackened choruses and death metal growls, it’s the halfway point between the speed and the extremity of Anthrax and the invention of Slayer, while somehow also being stranger and more abrasive than either act. It’ll blow the back of your head off.

#97. Lord Mantis — Spawning The Nephilim

Opening with the sound of the infamous head explosion scene in David Cronenberg’s telekinetic thriller Scanners, Lord Mantis’ debut record is a deliberately messy work. With sludgy basslines and fattened choruses, the album always feels on the verge of collapsing under its own weight, particularly when songs stretch past the five minute mark. But that’s the joy of the thing. The band would get more streamlined as the years went on, but this is their “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” record. It’s also their best.

#96. Boris — Pink

One of those “metal” bands that skirt just on the outsides of the genre, Boris owe as much to hard rock and punk as they do to sludge. That is, except in the case of Pink, their masterpiece. An out-and-out work of doom brilliance, it’s one long crescendo, songs falling apart onto each other like drunks stumbling out of a pub at closing time. The opening track, ‘Farewell’, is one of the most exciting songs to see the band play live — a serve of lightness and beauty that eventually curdles into pure horror.

#95. Lingua Ignota — All Bitches Die

There’s not a more isolated album on this list than All Bitches Die. The magnum opus of Lingua Ignota, AKA Rhode Island-based musician Kristin Hayter, the five-track behemoth was recorded alone, in the deep of the woods. You can tell. It’s the old song a witch murmurs to herself while collecting bird bodies from the floor of a forest, one long and cracked occult melody. Hayter would eventually release a more ambitious record in CALIGULA, but this masterwork has a striking purity of vision.

#94. Tomb Mold — Planetary Clairvoyance

Released only a year ago, the dust is still not settled on Tomb Mold’s masterpiece, Planetary Clairvoyance. But perhaps it never will be. The album is so experimental, alive and sleek that it feels impossible to settle or to sum up. Each time you return to the seven tracks of ugliness, it reveals something new; some dark chamber, buried underneath a collection of the most upsetting and immediate melodies in modern metal.

#93. Obituary — Slowly We Rot

Twelve songs worth of pure, unceasing thrash, the title of Obituary’s Slowly We Rot is something of a winking joke. There’s nothing slow about this record: at times, tracks get so fast they threaten to become one long hum, their complexity so overwhelming that all you can do is sit back and listen. Layer over that some barked, bloated vocals and a guest feature that sounds like the chanting of the Devil himself and you have one of the distinct works of the late eighties. Oh, and how can you not love an album that ends on a song titled ‘Stinkupuss’?

#92. Helmet — Betty

Helmet would never release a stranger, more distinct record than Betty. That’s saying something. Their breakthrough album, Meantime, is a flabby noxious work of experimentation, and they’d push that envelope even further with the extremely divisive Aftertaste. But it’s Betty that sees the band experimenting with jazz and noise, creating a freewheeling, complicated thing that opens up like a corpse flower on repeat listens. ‘Biscuits for Smut’ is a hubcap flying down the road after a car crash, and the best song the band ever recorded.

#91. Corpsessed — Impetus of Death

Hailing from Finland, with only three full-length albums under their brain-matter splattered belts, Corpsessed are one of the most exciting acts of the contemporary European metal scene. Combining the mud-soaked textures of sludge with impossibly fast-paced songs and long guitar solos, they’re constantly pushing their art beyond the boundaries of any sensible taste. And nowhere does that pay off better than on Impetus of Death, their 2018, bone-splintering masterwork. It’s as brutal as a punch to the jaw.

#90. High On Fire — Blessed Black Wings

Like a loping horror from an H.P. Lovecraft short story, Blessed Black Wings is a writhing, complicated thing, absorbing influences from just about every metal subgenre to create something distinct and strange. Ostensibly a sludge record, the album moves at a thousand miles an hour, with opening track ‘Devilution’ layering frenetic drumwork underneath some of the most hideous lyrics this side of Carcass. We might not necessarily agree with critical consensus that this is High On Fire’s finest hour — there’s another of their records sitting higher on this very list — but it’s still one of the most absorbing listens of the early two thousands.

#89. Iron Maiden — Powerslave

We could have easily included all 16 of Iron Maiden’s records on this list, so significant is the English group’s impact on the genre. But instead, we restricted ourselves just to two of their masterpieces, the first of which, Powerslave, changed the game when it was released in 1984. Mixing up the instrumental tracks for which they had become known with a 13-minute-long adaptation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the record blurs the line between the old and the new to hideous effect. ‘Aces High’ might be the best known song on the record, but the whole piece is astonishing, from its thrumming opening to the terminal collapse of its end.

#88. Dio — Dream Evil

If you like your metal simple, stripped-back and to the point, then Dio’s Dream Evil is the album for you. “Do you like the dark?” the band’s lead singer Ronnie James Dio spits on the opening track, summoning guitars around himself like a black cape. It’s a lot, of course — it’s so oversized that it eventually threatens to tip into total self-parody, complete with maniacal laughs and rolling drum solos. But that’s exactly what makes it work — if this thing were even half as ridiculous, it’d be a fialure.

#87. Immortal Bird — Empress/Abscess

Chicago’s Immortal Bird might be one of the most underrated acts on this list, an uncompromising outfit with two masterpieces under their belt that are only properly recognised in the most niche of sludge sub-cultures. That should change. Empress/Abscess, their furious debut, opens with a deafening flurry of guitars, the sound of a thousand ancient beasts taking off from their perch, and only gets odder from there. Take this record into your heart now, and you can claim you were there from the beginning when Immortal Bird inevitably take over the world.

#86. Bathory — Under the Sign of the Black Mark

Sweden’s Bathory broke a lot of new ground over the course of their career — 1990’s Hammerheart is often cited as the first Viking record; 1994’s Requiem as the oddest and most distinct thrash record ever released. But it’s their third album, Under the Sign of the Black Mark that really sees their experimentation taken to the next level, as the band deconstruct the death metal genre down to its most primitive, basic form. ‘Enter the Eternal Fire’, a nearly-seven minute long aural pact with the Devil himself, sounds like nothing else recorded before or after.

#85. High On Fire — Death is This Communion

Death Is This Communion is perhaps the most underlooked album in High On Fire’s discography, frequently ignored in favour of Blessed Black Wings, released two years earlier. But while Wings is enjoyably oversized, the pleasures of Death are more direct and unfussy: ‘Waste of Tiamat’, one of the record’s longest tracks, is an enjoyably old-school sludge metal delight, while the three-minute long ‘Rumours of War’ gets in and out before you’ve even properly noticed it.

#84. Funeral Leech — Death Meditation

Death Meditation is the youngest album on this list, released only this year, so consider it a genuine testament to the band’s singular power that it ranks this high. Long, complex, but devastatingly to the point, the album feels like a mountain of rubble getting dropped on your head. It’s not always easy to recognise a work of genius on first listen, but Death Meditation is exactly that: a testament to the dread intelligence of a group that are only getting started.

#83. Judas Priest — Screaming for Vengeance

Something of a concept album, Judas Priest’s eighth album, Screaming for Vengeance is littered with references to the vicious intelligence of birds — a screaming, feathery horror. Of course, in the pop culture consciousness, it’s undoubtedly most notable for spawning ‘You’ve Got Another Thing Coming’, a perennial radio favourite and the band’s signature song. But to reduce a record this strange, thick and baroque to just one single is a crime. Discount the hits, and you have an aching work of theatrical genius, a cultural reset of commercial metal that people are still trying to rip off today.

#82. King Woman — Created In The Image of Suffering

Created In The Image of Suffering is the only full-length record by King Woman, a scarred obelisk of genius standing tall in a deserted wasteland. But even if the group never release another record again, they’d still have earned their place in the annals of great modern metal bands with this masterpiece alone. Created is just so distinct, mashing up the melodic metal of a group like Baroness with an emotional nuance and complexity that belongs entirely to themselves. The whole thing’s brilliant, but ‘Hierophant’ might be the high point — a thick, viscous ballad about loss and forgiveness.

#81. Metallica — ...And Justice For All

…And Justice For All is the summation of an entire period in Metallica’s career, an attempt to take their jazzy rhythms, abrupt tempo shifts and long running times to its logical conclusion. They’d never make an album like it again. And for the better — it’s not clear how you would even top the bloated excess of Justice, a record with a shortest song that breaks the five-minute mark, and which culminates in the pure chaos of the title track. Of course, it’s also one of Metallica’s more politically-minded works, obsessed with nuclear fallout and the end of the world. But that’s not what makes it great. Its pleasures lie entirely in the knotted immediacy of those choruses, and the sheer scale of the ambition. We’ve still not seen anything like it in the three decades since its release.

#80. Blood Incantation — Hidden History of the Human Race

Hidden History of the Human Race doesn’t fuck around — within the first ten seconds, it’s already devolved into a mess of growled vocals and one of the most complicated drum parts in recent memory. And that’s the thrill of the thing: its messiness. Of course, if you tune into the lyrics, you’ll hear stories of intergalactic slave traders and a battle for the very essence of the human soul. But you can also just let the thing wash over you like a wave of barbed wire, this knot of unceasing brutality. It deserves much more praise than even the rapturous critical notices it first received.

#79. Witchfinder General — Death Penalty

Named after the British horror film of the same name, Witchfinder General were one of the earliest bands in the post-Black Sabbath explosion of European metal acts. They only released three records across their time together as a group, and of that three, only their debut is a masterpiece — sadly, the two follow-ups, Friends of Hell and Resurrected, are more interesting as curios than fully-fledged successes. But what a success Death Penalty is. Taking the formula laid down by Master of Reality and making it deeper, grossing and meaner, the band released one of the most singularly uncomfortable debuts of the era. ‘No Stayer’, a collection of shrieking guitar solos, is three long minutes spent in a torture chamber.

#78. Dispossessed — Warpath Never Ended

Dispossessed played their last show in November of 2019, a suitably fiery exit for a band that had crafted some of the most extreme and unrelenting metal Australia has ever seen. Left in the smoking ashes of their wake: Warpath Never Ended, heralded as the work of the “most uncompromising, unapologetic and important band in Australia” by Vice.

It’s still early days for the record yet, given that it’s only been out for a little over a year. Wait ten more, and this ragged piece of genius will undoubtedly reveal its pleasures even further.

#77. Voivod — War and Pain

Canada’s own Voivod don’t come up often enough in discussions of all-time great metal bands. But what other contemporary act has a back catalogue to rival theirs? 1986’s Thrashing Rage is the most deliriously unpleasant EP in modern metal, while Rrröööaaarrr sees the group experimenting with the prog rock that a band like Tool would eventually take right to the stratosphere. But it’s their debut, War and Pain, that deserves the most attention. Blurring the boundaries between metal and punk, the record is a collection of bloated dirges that keep tipping into pure, frenetic anarchy and then back again. It’s a death rattle of a record, never staying still enough for listeners to properly parse. ‘Nuclear War’, the closer, is seven minutes of pure, ravaged bliss.

#76. Author & Punisher — Women & Children

The heir apparent to industrial metal titan Godflesh, Author & Punisher is one-man metal act that uses loops and pedals to create some of the most haunted music of the last 50 years. It’s not the kind of thing that you can turn on while pottering around, or preparing for a dinner party — Women & Children is an album that requires the entirety of your attention, a vicious series of interlinked runes. Standout track? ‘In Remorse’, five minutes of clanking and screaming that settles into a despicable groove all of its own.

#75. Baroness — Purple

Baroness is a gateway metal band — the act to play for your friend who reckons that the genre is nothing but screams and impossibly dense guitar solos. Which is not to imply that they’re somehow lesser than their contemporaries. Purple, their masterpiece, is a melancholy invocation of pain and loss, set to thick slabs of instrumentation. The opening track, ‘Morningstar’, might be one of the most urgent songs in Baroness’ entire back catalogue, whereas ‘If I Have to Wake Up (Would You Stop The Rain?)’ is an almost six-minute long elegy to a lost loved one.

#74. Faith No More — Angel Dust

There’s no voice quite like Mike Patton’s in modern metal. Just as influenced by Freddie Mercury as Ozzy Osbourne, the man uses his distinctive croon to push what would otherwise be run-of-the-mill metal ballads into strange new places, burbling and shouting his way through one of the weirder careers in modern music. But his voice and the music that surrounded it reached a purity of form with Angel Dust, a weirdo collection of abstract paintings unusually accepting of the kitsch. ‘Be Aggressive’, an ode to sucking dick, might be the band’s masterpiece.

#73. Swamp Witch — Dead Rituals

Forming in 2009, Oakland California’s Swamp Witch chose themselves an apt name: their second full-length, Dead Rituals, feels like something pulled out of a bog. Caked with mud, riddled with white worms, it’s four tracks and almost 40 minutes long. The touchstones are obvious — everyone from Electric Wizard to early Black Sabbath can be heard on a song like ‘Catacomb Saint.’ But this is no mere idle mimicry, and the band have a ferocity and wit that is entirely their own. There’s no way to listen to Dead Rituals but to put on headphones, and let the thing ooze into your ears.

#72. Ministry — Psalm 69

What do you do when you’re forced to follow-up the most successful album of your career? The answer, if you’re Ministry, is go fucking bezerk. Hot off the heels of The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste, the album that had catapulted them into the mainstream, the industrial metal titans decided to shift up their sound entirely, releasing a work that combines psychobilly, blues, thrash, and doom. If it stayed still for a second, maybe it’d be easier to describe Psalm 69, but as it is, the record is a kaleidoscopic blur, trying a thousand ideas each and every second. The album’s breakout track, ‘Jesus Built My Hotrod’, might be the most antic and unusual metal single this side of Faith No More.

#71. Vile Creature — Cast of Static & Smoke

Vile Creature are a duo who make self-described “anti-oppressive, queer, vegan doom metal.” They’ve only got two full-lengths to their name at present — their follow-up record, Glory, Glory! Apathy took Helm! is set for release in a matter of days. But it’s with their 2018 masterpiece Cast of Static & Smoke that they made their mark on the contemporary scene, setting spoken-word sequences to pure, unending doom carnage. The record’s only four tracks long, but each is more impressive than the last, culminating in the sonic destruction of ‘Sky, In Descending Pieces’. Listen, and be awed.

#70. Tool — Lateralus

It’s downright astonishing that Tool ever made it as a major commercial act. Which is not to say that they’re not brilliant, and influential, and important — all those things are definitely true. But they’re also weird, weirder than perhaps any other band that managed to sneak into the Billboard Top 10 during the early two thousands. Just look at Lateralus, a mix of prog rock experimentation and the immediate, ugly riffs of metal, that touches on themes as disparate as the connectivity of all souls to the importance of opening your third eye. It’s a self-help lecture slathered in dripping guitars and complex rhythms that somehow changed the direction of American popular music. Go figure.

#69. Neurosis — Souls At Zero

Neurosis are sometimes dubbed as one of the most important bands in the “post-metal” canon. But that tag is a misleading one. Sure, Neurosis make music that constantly pushes at the boundaries of the genre, working with noted grunge producer Steve Albini and experimenting with ambient and instrumental work in a way that few other bands have even attempted. But they’re unmistakably a metal act, and Souls at Zero, one of their many masterpieces, proves it. Ten miles of bad road, the album borrows its name — and general sense of perverse, evil pleasure — from a Clive Barker short story. The almost ten-minute long title track crawls on its hands and knees, while closer ‘Empty’ collapses into a puddle of folk. There’s nothing like it.

#68. Kreator — Pleasure To Kill

Kreator had been a band for four years by the time that they released their masterpiece, Pleasure To Kill: time they had spent pushing the very boundaries of thrash. But surprisingly, given their previous fondness for experimentation, Pleasure might be one of their most compact and accessible works. Despite its inhuman speed, it’s a collection of squat and compact choruses that frequently stray into doom and death metal territory. ‘Under The Guillotine’, with its descending blade of a chorus, is more fun than a song about total societal revolution has any right to be.

#67. Spirit Adrift — Chained to Oblivion

Spirit Adrift are a band that thrive on experimentation: each of their three full-lengths pushes in new and surprising directions, borrowing from ’80s hair metal, sludge, and Black Sabbath-inspired riffs in equal measure. The most successful of all such gambits? Chained to Oblivion, the heaviest record the band ever put out — and the most beautiful, too. That’s presumably in part due to the battle for sobriety that lead singer Nate Garrett had just won; the album sounds like someone falling in love with their craft — and themselves — all over again. It might be the most cathartic record on this entire list.

#66. Sunn O))) — Monoliths and Dimensions

Sunn O))) had been around for almost a decade by the time they released their masterpiece, Monoliths and Dimensions. You can tell. The thing’s an obelisk, this impossibly dense work of black magic that a band only gets to release when they’ve honed their skills on the stage for a long, long time. Its real strength? That it so frequently leaves the most important things unsaid, always ducking away from easy interpretation, and burying its most distinct pleasures under layers of fog and confusion.

#65. Neurosis — Through Silver In Blood

Through Silver In Blood was made by three men going through some of the hardest times in their life — the band’s lead guitarist, Scott Kelly was homeless and wrestling with addiction; lead singer Scott Von Till later described himself as a young man suffering. “People were battling different things, and there were different, heavy things going on at that time,” Von Till would tell Rolling Stone. You can tell. Through Silver In Blood starts with the bubbling mercury of the title track, and then gets more unpleasant from there, eventually breaking down into a series of screams and drum rolls called ‘Enclosure in Flame’. It’s a tough, tough listen. But a cathartic, important one too.

#64. Mercyful Fate — Melissa

One of the most important bands to emerge out of the first wave of European black metal, Mercyful Fate pioneered the use of corpse paint onstage, and the sub-genre that would eventually come to be known as progressive metal. Held in place by the melodic shrieks of lead singer King Diamond, and the sludgey guitar work of Hank Shermann, the band released a string of masterpieces, two of which we have included in this very list. Melissa, their debut, still sounds like nothing else — rich with screams and buckled by the sheer hatred of a song like ‘At the Sound of the Demon Bell’, it’s a fiery masterpiece. Drink up every last second of it.

#63. Suffocation — Effigy of the Forgotten

The story of death metal in the nineties is impossible to tell without a mention of Suffocation, the New York-based act who reset the genre’s boundaries with their debut record Effigy of the Forgotten. Packed with growled vocals and some of the first slam riffs ever laid to tape, the thing is astonishingly technical, with drummer Eric Morotti quickly emerging as the album’s MVP. ‘Seeds of the Suffering’, almost six minutes worth of drum rolls and melodies that turn on a dime, features more complexity and nuance than a lot of modern metal bands manage in their entire careers.

#62. Witch Mountain — South of Salem

As inspired by dirty delta blues as the sludge metal bands that have gone before them, Witch Mountain steep their songs in atmospherics like they’re brewing their own whiskey. On South of Salem they take that inspiration as far as it will possibly go, creating epics that sound a little like John Lee Hooker — if you’re having a stroke. The guitar tone on album opener ‘Wing of the Lord’ is so thick you could spread it over toast like molasses.

#61. Liturgy — Aesthethica

Liturgy’s Hunter Hunt-Hendrix has received a hostile reception from certain corners of the metal fandom, disliked for her emphasis on non-metal influences like Swans and Glenn Branca, and criticised for dropping long philosophical tracts, including lectures and a manuscript. According to these critics, the band don’t truly count as a metal act, and the critical mainstream’s acceptance of them speaks to a blindspot that the media has when it comes to “real” metal. That blindspot is definitely real, but the argument that Liturgy don’t make metal isn’t, and you needn’t look further than the group’s masterpiece Aesthetica for proof. Blackened serves of European-inspired doom, the record takes the template laid down by ’90s acts like Mayhem and injects it with ambience, scuzz rock, and a growing sense of horror.

#60. Mortiferum — Disgorged From Psychotic Depths

It’s hard to believe that Mortiferum’s Disgorged From Psychotic Depths was only released late last year. The record feels like some malignant spectre of the eighties and nineties European scene, with the same quaking riffs and towering guitar solos of bands like Emperor and Mayhem. It’s an entire statement of self, six hulking tracks of old-school doom and sludge metal, held in place by some of the most astonishing vocal work of the last decade or so. Listen to the opener, ‘Archaic Vision of Despair’, and tell me you’re not immediately sold.

#59. Body Count — Body Count

Even today, some three decades after it was released, Body Count’s debut record feels shockingly modern — opening track ‘Smoked Pork’ is a skit that culminates in the murder of a police officer, while ‘KKK Bitch’ is a scathing attack on institutionalised racism and those in power who refuse to do anything about it. And that’s not even to mention the urgency of the music, which trades thrash, grindcore, power metal and doom at whim. Don’t hold it against the album that it spawned the rap metal genre, either. No explanation other than that it was Satan himself who birthed that noxious trend.

#58. The Body — The Body

Sometimes, experimental metal records are typified by the mainstream as the paper-weight playthings of “hipsters”, whatever that term means these days: wanky serves of avant-garde navel-gazing that don’t go as hard as “real” metal. Of all the many rebuttals to that myth, The Body’s self-titled debut might be the most definitive. An assemblage of crushing, barely melodic chords, the album is like a musique concrete recording of a construction site, albeit one that you can headbang to. At three minutes in length, ‘Culture Destroyer’ is one of the shortest songs the band ever released — and the most upsetting.

#57. Rob Zombie — Hellbilly Deluxe

As a culture, we don’t put enough respect on Rob Zombie’s name, either as a filmmaker or a musician. Sure, some of his work sounds a little dated — the production on ‘Living Dead Girl’ is so late nineties you can pretty much hear its cornrows. But the nostalgic excess is part of the charm, particularly when it comes to his major label debut, Hellbilly Deluxe. ‘Dragula’ is a work of Jeff Koons kitsch; a towering, intoxicatingly silly masterwork, with one of the best choruses of the decade. But the record has subtler pleasures too: ‘Spookshow Baby’, all grating guitars and Zombie’s guttural groans, is the sexiest metal song this side of the Marilyn Manson discography.

#56. Manilla Road — Open The Gates

First wave metal’s obsession with antiquity has never been explored to better effect than on Manilla Road’s Open The Gates. With songs inspired by the poetry of Tennyson and Ancient Roman author Marcus Manilius, the thing is shrouded in the heavy veil of history, fortified by choruses that feel like they’ve been buried under the ground for a thousand years. It was a marked change from the band’s early albums, which were gentler, and more interested in the cosmic. And they’d never return again to this level of extremity, instead setting narrower sights. But no matter. Open The Gates works even as an anomaly, a bust of Ozymandias, sinking into the middle of the desert sands.

#55. Melvins — Houdini

Kurt Cobain has a co-production credit on Houdini, the masterpiece of sludge metal tycoons Melvins, and you can hear his influence all over the piece, from the grungey sound to the compact, oddly accessible choruses. Indeed, while Helmet were out there shifting up the sound of mainstream metal by combining it with jazz and avant-garde experimentation, Melvins were sanding things down to the basics, creating brief, simple slabs of metal that communicate their pleasures at lightning speed. ‘Night Goat’ is a miniature masterpiece that the years have only improved. Drink it up.

#54. Alice Cooper — Raise Your Fist and Yell

These days, Alice Cooper is probably better known in some circles for his shock theatrics than his actual music, as though he were a corpse-paint covered clown rather than one of metal’s most interesting and innovative pioneers. All those who need to be reminded of his skills should return to Raise Your Fist And Yell, his 1987 camp classic. An intoxicatingly odd album, the thing is dotted with political songs of rebellion — opener ‘Freedom’ — guest spots from horror movie star Robert Englund, Freddie Krueger himself — woozy metal ballad ‘Lock Me Up’ — and lopsided love songs — ‘ Not That Kind of Love.’ It doesn’t sound like anything else on the planet.

#53. Rainbow — Rising

Rising is one of the last metal albums that Rainbow would ever release: following the departure of Ronnie James Dio, the band would eventually lean harder into their pop-rock roots. That’s a shame. With its expansive, Hawkwind inspired breakdowns and complicated, baroque synth parts, Rising is a work of glorious excess, that sounds like no metal album before or since. After all, what other ’70s metal act would have the foresight to hire a full string orchestra, as Rainbow do on the nearly nine-minute long ‘Stargazer’? It’s a lot, of course, but that’s what makes it so brillaint.

#52. Exhorder — Slaughter in the Vatican

The exclusion of Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power from this list will seem frankly unforgiveable to some. But for my money, that thrash metal classic is exceeded in every way by Exhorder’s Slaughter in the Vatican. The two records were even frequently compared in the press, with each band variously accused of ripping the other off, though Exhorder would never reach Pantera’s level of acclaim and success. A shame, that. Slaughter in the Vatican is a work of grinning brutality, full of musical and lyrical quips and jokes, and carried off with some of the most impressive production of the nineties. The guitar solo that comes bursting forth to shred ‘Exhorder’ to pieces at the halfway mark remain astonishing.

#51. Grief — Dismal

There’s no stretch of music more brutal and uncompromising on this list than the opening 30 seconds of Grief’s ‘Rhinoceros’, a uniquely distressing serve of feedback and impossibly heavy riffage that sounds like the whole world is being cleft in two. Perhaps thankfully, the rest of the record never reaches such extremes again — instead, it’s a surprisingly agile collection of sludge metal songs, culminating in the deliciously old school horror of ‘The Drone’.

#50. Judas Priest — British Steel

Judas Priest were already five albums deep by the time they released British Steel, their masterpiece. You can tell. A record so committed to tearing up the status quo could only be made by a band that had such an important hand in drawing it up in the first place — it’s the sound of five talented musicians tearing up the house from the inside. Speaking of houses: the album was recorded in Ringo Starr’s old abode, the deliberately lo-fi and intimate production adding an extra layer of subversion over the top of these distinct and strange metal anthems. ‘Breaking the Law’ is probably the best-known song in the Judas Priest back catalogue, of course, but ‘You Don’t Have To Be Old To Be Wise’, a shimmering collection of melodies jumbled up against one another like garden tools propped up in the corner of a shed, is where the thing really shines.

#49. Gojira — From Mars To Sirius

French wunderkinds Gojira sometimes get lumped in with prog metal outfits like Tool. And sure, their album From Mars To Sirius is full of the same technical precision and complexity that makes an album like 10,000 Days so impressive. But it also has an immediacy and a brutality which most other prog bands lack. Apocalyptic opener ‘Ocean Planet’ is probably the heaviest song in the Gojira back catalogue, while ‘Global Warming’ transforms the anthropocene into a series of rapidly more abrasive riffs. It’s an album about the end of the world, that sounds like the end of the world.

#48. Mammoth Grinder — Extinction of Humanity

Mammoth Grinder had only been a band for three short years when they released their astonishing debut, Extinction of Humanity, which is unthinkable, given that it sounds like the kind of blistering, co-ordinated assault on the senses that musicians can only release when they’ve known each other for half a lifetime. And it’s a miracle in other ways, too: ‘Frozen’ somehow starts out as a sludge metal epic, before gradually transforming into something faster and stranger. It’s a magic trick the likes of which modern metal far too often lacks, and one of the many moments that solidified Mammoth Grinder’s place in the contemporary canon.

#47. Black Death — Black Death

Black Death are regularly cited as the first all-Black metal band, serving as a disruption to the sadly homogenised scene of the eighties. But that’s not to say the group are only notable for such an inauspicious tag. No. Their debut record, the self-titled Black Death, can go toe-to-toe with any other death metal album of the ’80s. With songs inspired by George A. Romero’s classic zombie masterpiece Night of the Living Dead and the balladry of ’70s rock’n’roll, the album’s a patchwork monstrosity, a mess of disparate voices, tones and themes. It’s batshit, but beautifully so.

#46. King Diamond — Fatal Portrait

In 1985, Mercyful Fate vocalist King Diamond departed the band that had made him famous after falling out with guitarist Hank Shermann. At the time, Diamond’s future as a solo act seemed far from certain. After all, metal bands of the era were perpetually disintegrating, one way or the other, with attempts to jump ship and start new groups usually failing.

But within two years, Diamond had certified his place in the metal canon with the release of a single album, the Oscar Wilde-inspired Fatal Portrait. Packed with long, complex songs and gorgeously heightened lyrics, the work is more oversized and kitsch than anything Diamond released with Mercyful Fate. But that’s the intoxicating power of Fatal Portrait, from its opening organ solo to the crushing squeals of ‘Halloween’. Modern metal still lives in Diamond’s debt.

#45. Rotting Christ — Thy Mighty Contract

Rotting Christ might be one of the most consistent bands on this entire list. Throughout their decades together, the Greek metal pioneers have never once released a dud, dropping a late-career masterpiece as recently as 2019 with The Heretics. But of all of their records, none is quite as accomplished — as horrendously ugly and vicious — as their debut, Thy Might Contract. Soaked in the symphonic riffs of Emperor, and carried by the low roar of lead singer Sakis “Necromayhem” Tolis, Thy Mighty Contract will blast your brain bone dry.

#44. Darkthrone — A Blaze In The Northern Sky

Shortly after the release of their first album, Soulside Journey, the members of Darkthrone hit a crossroads. Three of the Norwegian metal band’s members — Fenriz, Nocturno Culto and Zephyrous — wanted to make the kind of blackened metal pioneered by Morbid Angel. The bassist, Nilsen did not. So he quit. His loss.

The second Darkthrone record, A Blaze In The Northern Sky, is one of the pioneering works of the death metal genre, a black spell that combines the immediacy of thrash with bone-char choruses and the distinctive groans of lead singer Nocturno Culto. Darkthrone would release one more masterpiece in their time together as a band, but the early genius of Blaze seems more astonishing decades after it first dropped.

#43. Metal Church — Metal Church

Metal Church’s debut is perhaps the single oddest metal record of the eighties. Opening with a guest spot from a Dalek, flowering into the bizarrely melancholy ‘Gods of Wrath’, it’s an album that tries six different things every single second. And what a hit rate — even the most outrageous and odd ideas land, with the compact ‘(My Favorite) Nightmare’ inspiring literal decades worth of imitation. Metal Church would never do anything like it again. But neither would any other band.

#42. Autopsy — Severed Survival

Chris Reifert was only 17 when he joined all-time great metal band Death, and 19 when he decided to create his very own addition to the pantheon, the pioneering death metal act Autopsy. That band’s debut record, Severed Survival, has the snotty energy of a masterpiece made by teenagers — ‘Service for a Vacant Coffin’ is a steaming serve of genius that knows it’s exactly that.

Less impressive is the trend the band started of “gore lyrics”, intensely violent imagery that would quickly become sullied by the death metal genre’s least interesting imitators throughout the late ’90s. But hey, you can’t blame Autopsy for the copycats, and Severed Survival has enough vicious imagination that you’d never want to wipe it from the canon, even if it meant tidying up the grosser excesses that would follow.

#41. Cirith Ungol — King of the Dead

King of the Dead is Ventura California band Cirith Ungol’s best album. And they know it, too. “This is the album which I feel is our best effort,” drummer Robert Garven would declare many decades later, after the band had broken up, reformed, and then broken up again.

Though they’d release at least one more great album in the form of Paradise Lost, the invention of King of the Dead is a singular moment in their discography. Taking power metal and the sword and sorcery lyrical content that had defined much of the ’70s and early ’80s, the band made their songs tougher, longer and louder. The result: what is widely called one of the first doom metal albums, not to mention one of the most inspired.

#40. Anthrax — Among The Living

Being canonised has hurt Anthrax. Sure, everybody knows that they’re great, but sometimes, their big, unwieldy reputation makes them sound oddly static; their fans mired in nostalgia. After all, saying Anthrax is your favourite thrash band is a little like saying Charles Dickens is your favourite author, or Quentin Tarantino your favourite filmmaker — it doesn’t really reveal much. Which is a shame.

In fact, Anthrax are considerably stranger and more inventive than the shackles of fame would have you believe. The proof is Among The Living, their “signature” record and a work of bubbling genius that ducks away from easy interpretation. I mean, this is an album that starts with a chanted chorus of the word “hatred” repeated over and over, like the foley from a Dario Argento movie, and culminates in the velvet curtain of ‘Imitation of Life’. Among The Living isn’t some relic; it’s a trashbag covered in gasoline, full of a reeking energy of its own.

#39. Trouble — Psalm 9

Trouble’s gambit was a simple one: take the sound of early metal bands like Judas Priest and Black Sabbath, and combine it with the colourful flourishes of an act like Cream. The result? Dark treasures brushed with gold, with songs like ‘The Tempter’ combining the pantomime theatricality of the ’70s with something meaner and stranger.

The band would eventually succumb to all sorts of interpersonal troubles, breaking up time and time again. But Psalm 9 is their crown jewel, thick with some of the most avant-garde vocal performances that doom has ever seen.

#38. Possessed — Seven Churches

Seven Churches is the metal musician’s metal album, not as adored as widely by the public as it is by some of the most original and fascinating gamechangers in the entire genre. Justin Broadrick, he of Jesu and Godflesh, was obsessed with the record, as was Kam Lee of Massacre, Mick Harris of Napalm Death, and even Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree.

Worth noting too just how scattered those imitators are — Seven Churches is so strange, diverse that it gives out pretty much whatever you want to bring to it. Give it a few more years, and maybe this masterpiece will finally be recognised for what it is.

#37. Celtic Frost — To Mega Therion

Canadian journalist Martin Popoff once called Celtic Frost’s debut To Mega Therion “the most consistent example of early death metal that exists.” That’s needlessly dismissive of the other albums being released at the time, but it certainly captures the internal cohesion of the work.

From the opening track ‘Innocence Wrath’ to the six-minute-long dirge that finishes things off almost an hour later, Therion is its own self-contained universe. And who could hear those first haunting, doubled-up vocals without getting goosebumps?

#36. King Diamond — Abigail

Abigail isn’t just a concept album — it’s a concept album with a plot denser than most movies. Telling the tale of a young couple who travel to a far-flung country in order to take up residence in a castle that one of them has inherited, the record touches on typical King Diamond themes: murder, love, re-incarnation, horror and ghosts.

But don’t think that you have to listen to the record in one go, with your headphones clamped on, trying desperately to follow the comings and goings of the cursed La’Fey family. The real joy of Abigail is that the album still works if you’re totally ignorant of the plot, with a track like the chameleonic ‘Black Horseman’ standing entirely on its own.

#35. Venom — Welcome to Hell

It would be wrong to say that without Welcome To Hell, the second album by British metal act Venom, thrash metal wouldn’t exist — bands like Anthrax were already beginning to experiment with impossibly fast songs as early as 1981. But certainly it’s true that without Welcome To Hell, the sub-genre would be a lot less interesting.

Venom might not have invented the formula single-handedly, but they sure did show how one might go about subverting and extending it, crafting a gloriously repetitive set of songs marked by strange, empty production and guitar solos that sound as though they’ve been turned on and off by a switch.

#34. Winter — Into Darkness

Barely anything has been written about Winter, New York City’s most distinct extreme metal band: even their Wikipedia page is as blasted clean and desolate as one of their songs. But no matter. In fact, it adds to the allure of the group that they are little more than faceless cyphers.

Their one and only record, Into Darkness, is so pale and featureless that it makes sense to imagine that the musicians who made it are too. ‘Goden’, an almost nine-minute long climax that feels more like a Wagnerian opera in slow motion than anything made by Winter’s contemporaries, is one of the most apocalyptic songs of the early ’90s.

#33. Mercyful Fate — Don’t Break The Oath

You could crawl up and live the rest of your life in King Diamond’s falsetto. The Mercyful Fate frontman is one of the most distinct and talented performers in metal, a corpse-face-painted magician whose theatrics are the product of a singular imagination, never again replicated in the genre.

He’s a singular force on any record on which he appears, but it’s Don’t Break The Oath, the masterpiece that he recorded with his band Mercyful Fate, that really stands out. Opening track ‘A Dangerous Meeting’, slathered in bells and long, brutal breakdowns, would be nothing without his voice, coiling black loops of smoke in the sky.

#32. Sodom — Agent Orange

Tom Angelripper has been obsessed with war his entire life, ever since he was a coal miner teaching himself how to play bass in his spare time throughout the late ’70s. But that fascination would finally reach its logical endpoint with Agent Orange, the napalm-burnt thrash masterpiece he would record with his band Sodom.

‘Magic Dragon’ hums with the sound of helicopters; ‘Baptism of Fire’ is filled with the imagery of burning villagers; and ‘Remember The Fallen’ is a treatise, of sorts, on the tragedy of those souls lost throughout the Vietnam War. It’s a concept album, kind of, marked by its brutality and its horror. But it’s also an oddly melancholy record, ending not with a bang, but with a slow, rhythmic series of whimpers. It might be the finest thrash record ever written.

#31. Cynic — Focus

Cynic didn’t receive the kindest of introductions when they first started making music: Travis Ryan of Cattle Decapitation remembers seeing the group open for Cannibal Corpse and getting themselves violently booed off the stage. But the culture eventually came around on the group, recognising their debut album Focus as one of the most unusual masterworks in metal.

Today, decades after it was released, it only sounds stranger and more engaging than ever — slathered with vocoder and reverb-saturated voices, it’s extraordinarily kitsch, the work of bizarro genius that inspired everyone from Tool to Faith No More. Let it overwhelm you.

#30. Dark Funeral — The Secrets of the Black Arts

At a staggering 19 tracks in length, Dark Funeral’s masterpiece, The Secrets of the Black Arts, is a self-declared magnum opus, the biggest thing that the band ever attempted. Not to give the impression that this a flabby thing. Each second — each thrumming, repeated riff — is as necessary as the next, the band walking antic circles around themselves with increasing speed.

‘My Darkest Desires’, is a rat-king of interwoven screams; ‘Dark Are The Paths To Eternity’ some kind of bizarre cross between thrash, doom and extreme metal. It would be two years before the band released their next album — understandably so. After something like Secrets, they probably all needed to catch their breath.

#29. Necrophagia — Season Of The Dead

Released but a few short months before Death’s Scream Bloody Gore, the record that is sometimes referred to as the “first” death metal album, Necrophagia’s Season of the Dead is a work recorded at metal ground zero. There’s an urgency and a playfulness here that you only get when you’re making music years before the form has been pushed in every which direction — a freedom to mess with shapes and textures, as on the bait-and-switch of ‘Forbidden Pleasure’, or the slow build of ‘Ancient Slumber’.

Necrophagia would never reach these highs again, getting themselves tangled up in a little too much kitsch and in-band disputes. But no matter. Even on its own, Season of The Dead is enough to secure Necrophagia their position in the metal firmanent.

#28. Carcass — Surgical Steel

Very few bands have ever managed to release one of the best albums of their career some three decades after they first formed. But Carcass aren’t like most bands. The extreme metal pioneers took a seventeen year break after the release of the mixed Swansong, eventually returning with a ball of barbed wire called Surgical Steel. 

Opening with the bait-and-switch of an old school set of sweeping guitar solos, the record eventually breaks apart into some of the most thrumming and abrupt songs that the band ever released. “Time to die,” goes the howled chorus of ‘Thrasher’s Abbatoir’. “Die in pain.

#27. Mayhem — De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas

The story of Mayhem is one of the strangest and most shocking in modern metal history: guitarist Euronymous had been murdered and lead singer Dead had committed suicide before the band’s debut album De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas had even been released.

But don’t let those lurid stories detract from the music itself. Before they totally self-combusted, Mayhem released some of the most distinct European black metal that the genre would ever see, with songs like ‘Freezing Moon’ and ‘Buried by Time and Dust’ combining the urgency of thrash with a reverb-heavy production style unmatched in the era.

#26. Iron Maiden — Piece of Mind

By 1983, Iron Maiden lead singer Bruce Dickinson had honed his craft in a way that takes most musicians decades. He could write songs in his sleep; craft melodies that buried themselves so deep in the pop culture consciousness that they’re still musical clichés, decades later. And so he decided to challenge himself.

Piece of Mind, the band’s fourth album, is thus the sound of a supremely talented creator trying new things, from the baroque flourishes of ‘Die With Your Boost On’ to the rhythmic blasts of ‘Quest For Fire’. And then of course, there’s ‘The Trooper’, one of the most famous metal songs in history for a reason, and a piece of living, rippling history sung by our most distinct poet.

#25. Black Sabbath — Paranoid

The first of three Black Sabbath records included on this list, Paranoid is the prototypical metal album; the riff-heavy, black magic soaked work of art that comes to mind when non-metalheads are asked to describe what the genre sounds like. Which is not to say that it’s lost any of its power through repetition and overexposure. In fact, quite the opposite.

Listen to a song like ‘Iron Man’, one of the band’s signature tracks, and their relentless desire for experimentation will reveal itself anew. There’s a reason this band are recognised as one of the heroes of the entire movement: it’s because they’re the fucking best.

#24. Eyehategod — Take As Needed For Pain

New Orleans is the spiritual home of sludge metal, the city from which many of its most original iconoclasts emerged. Indeed, the sweltering Louisiana heat is all over Take As Needed For Pain, one of two masterpieces released by demented rabble-rousers Eyehategod.

Assembling heavy and blues-inspired riffs like they’re building a Deep South wicker man, the band flatten one single sonic idea over six minutes with a masterpiece like ‘Crimes Against Skin’. Then there’s ‘Kill Your Boss’, a simple and direct promise of revolution that sounds like it’s being sung by Satan himself.

#23. Candlemass — Epicus Doomicus Metallicus

There’s perhaps no album on this list that so changed the direction of a sub-genre as directly as Candlemass’ Epicus Doomicus Metallicus did with doom metal. Indeed, the sub-genre’s name is cribbed from this record, not to mention its obsession with bloated song lengths, impossibly heavy guitars, and reverb-saturated vocals.

But although the genre would be littered with pioneers for many decades after Epicus first dropped, the album is still the high point of the entire artform, a 42-minute long invocation of pure evil. Closing track ‘A Sorcerer’s Pledge’ manages to move through starry-eyed folk to crushing horror and then all the way back again.

#22. Cattle Decapitation — To Serve Man

Named after the one of the more brutal Twilight Zone episodes, Cattle Decapitaiton’s To Serve Man is 13 tracks of pure, unceasing horror, ending with a climactic blow to the head appropriately titled ‘Chunk Blower’.

When the record first dropped, back in 2002, it was unfairly dismissed by critics. But the 18 years since its release have been very kind to the record, making its rougher, more abrasive edges seem even more inspired in retrospect. Soak your headcheese in it.

#21. Pig Destroyer — Terrifyer

Terrifyer is ostensibly a grindcore album — it has the speed of that genre, as well as the complex, rhythmic drumming. But of course, as any true Pig Destroyer fan knows, trying to pigeonhole the group is like trying to pack mud into a keyhole.

A song like ‘Boy Constrictor’ blends crust punk, doom metal, extreme metal and thrash into one heady brew, while ‘Gravedancer’, the only time the record ever really slows down, sounds like something wrenched from the Morbid Angel back catalogue. The whole thing’s done in just under half an hour, but it’ll leave a gaping exit wound in its wake that you’ll have to nurse for some time.

#20. Black Sabbath — Vol. 4

By their fourth album, the cracks had begun to show in Black Sabbath. Not in their music, mind you, which was more exciting and inventive than ever. Rather, it was their personal lives that were suffering, as lead singer Ozzy Osbourne succumbed further to drug addiction, and guitarist Tony Iommi battled his own demons.

As a result, Vol. 4 might be the saddest, most defeated metal album in history. A song like ‘Changes’ aches with loss and sorrow, while even the more urgent ‘Supernaut’ has an undercurrent of horror, as the band try and fail to face up to what they have become.

#19. Gorgoroth — Pentagram

Gorgoroth have attracted repeated controversy over the years for their shocking onstage antics, even getting themselves investigated by police after a legendary performance in Krakow that involved naked models, sheep blood, and occult symbols.

But it’s not just their theatrics that upset the apple cart: the group’s music is just as boundary-shattering, with their eight-track album, Pentagram, remaining one of the most chaotic debuts in modern metal. Combining the speed and single-minded intent of bands like Anthrax with the theatricality of Alice Cooper and Emperor, the thing’s a series of desperate, wet shrieks, culminating in the dripping hook of ‘Maaneskyggens Slave’. It will decimate you.

#18. Slayer — Reign in Blood

Which thrash band is more fond of resetting the table than Slayer? Emerging as purveyors of long, doom metal-inspired stories of barbarity and death, by the time they had released two records, the three-piece were ready to change things up again. And so they released Reign In Blood, one of the all-time classics of the thrash metal genre. Gone was the muddied, complex production of their early work, replaced instead by a clean, precise sound that let listeners soak in every last riff and growled chorus.

‘Raining Blood’ is their signature song for a reason — at just four minutes in length, it’s the band’s entire statement of self, dripping in wit, irony, wordplay and frenetic guitars. Or at least, the entire statement of a single moment in their history. Within two years, they had already moved on, trading up the stylings of thrash for something stranger and darker on South of Heaven.

#17. Beherit — Drawing Down the Moon

Drawing Down The Moon, Finnish black metal band Beherit’s first album, doesn’t fuck around: those echoey opening words are a reading from Anton Lavey’s Satanic Bible. And what follows is even stranger, as the band combine the electronic wizardry of ambient music and electro with a vocal performance that feels like it was dredged up from the bottom of a bog.

Some critics have tried vainly to fit Drawing Down the Moon into a movement or a scene. But it’s useless. Beherit sound like no other Finnish act; a song like ‘Saloman’s Gate’ like no other work of black metal ever written. Which might be why the work is so disturbing. Play ‘Black Arts’ to yourself late at night with the lights off to get a chill more severe than anything produced by horror cinema.

#16. Acid Bath — When The Kite String Pops

On January 23rd, 1997, Acid Bath came to abrupt end when that band’s bassist Audie Pitre was killed by a drunk-driver at a traffic stop. It was a two-fold loss. Pitre was one of the most inventive and fascinating bass players of the late ’90s; Acid Bath one of the most unique sludge metal pioneers the genre had ever seen.

For proof, one need go no further than When The Kite String Pops, their debut record and masterpiece. Over an hour in length, the work churns through sludge metal, blues and rockabilly, sometimes combining multiple genres over the length of the one molasses-slick song. ‘Jezebel’, a rhythmic blast of groove metal that quickly morphs into a knot of strangled screams is proof that metal need never stop grasping at impossibilities.

#15. Death — Scream Bloody Gore

Whether or not Death’s Scream Bloody Gore is truly the “first” death metal album, doesn’t really matter. After all, debates about the genre’s genealogy turn every album into a pitstop on the side of a long highway, rather than analysing them for what they truly are. And no album screams out (pun intended) more for close analysis than Scream Bloody Gore.

Rich with morbid lyrics and some of the most lush and baroque guitar solos in metal, the album is constantly resetting its own boundaries, transforming from track to track. ‘Regurgitated Guts’ is the high point of Death’s entire career, a black adder of a song that eats itself alive.

#14. Black Sabbath — Master of Reality

Black Sabbath’s first album kickstarted mainstream metal as we now know it. Their second album changed the direction of the entire movement again. And their third, Master of Reality, spawned at least three genres — doom, stoner rock, and death metal. Opening track ‘Sweet Leaf’ set the template that would later be adopted by everyone from Candlemass to Sleep, while ‘Lord of this World’ has the deep-fried exterior that Acid Bath would later make their entire shtick.

During Master of Reality, we started getting more experimental,” guitarist Tony Iommi would later tell the press. “Ultimately, I think it really confused us.” If this is a band confused, then God forbid the record they could have made if they understood what they were doing to themselves, and to metal as a genre.

#13. Saint Vitus — Saint Vitus

Saint Vitus’ self-titled debut was held up in legal battles for two long years, delayed thanks to a lawsuit against distributor SST Records. But maybe that was a good thing. After all, the doom metal genre needed time to prepare itself for an atom bomb like Saint Vitus, a sonic reset that traded the reverb-heavy sound of the time for muddied drums and bloated, strange vocal lines.

Then there’s the matter of the breakdowns scattered throughout a song like ‘Saint Vitus’, a string of chants and drum fills that hollow out an already delightfully and intoxicatingly thin track. The band would release a string of masterpieces throughout their career, but this is still the blueprint — the brutal, pale giant, towering over an entire scene.

#12. Disembowelment — Transcendence into the Peripheral

Australian death-doom-grindcore metal act Disembowelment played together for a short four years — and never live. Instead, they settled for releasing one of the most extraordinary debut records of the nineties, Transcendence into the Peripheral, before disappearing off the face of the Earth, a move that seems even more extraordinary three decades later.

After all, what other record sounds like Trascendence, an echoey series of shrieks and howls that lasts for just under two excruciating hours? The band weren’t going for longevity, clearly. Instead, they aimed for cult fame, and achieved it in near record time.

#11. Portal — Outré

Australian extreme metal titans Portal were disappointed with their first album, Seepia, considering it flatter and less atmospheric than they had hoped. So with Outré, the follow-up, they tried to reset their sound entirely. Gone were the short, compact songs of their debut, replaced instead with H.P. Lovecraft-indebted nightmares like ‘Heirships’.

Only adding to the horror is the anonymity of Portal’s musicians, who go by names like ‘The Curator’ instead of revealing their true identities. Outré and the people that made it are an assemblage of corpses with all of their fingerprints shaved off.

#10. Bethlehem — Dark Metal

No other album on this list has the bizarre, echoey production of Dark Metal, the debut album from German extreme metal pioneers Bethlehem. The thing sounds like it was recorded in an ancient tomb, screeched vocals and guitar solos bouncing around the moss-covered walls. Then there is the matter of the songs themselves.

There’s a reason that Dark Metal spawned so many imitations, many of them not even half as impressive as this work of hideous beauty — it’s a work of striking and original black magic.

#9. Electric Wizard — Dopethrone

There’s perhaps no record more self-destructive than Electric Wizard’s Dopethrone. “Most of us were stuck in some drug addiction or alcoholism at the time, and it was just pure hate,” the band’s lead singer Jus Oborn later explained to the press. “It was us against the world, and we just wanted to make the most disgusting, foul, putrid record that anyone has ever recorded.”

They succeeded. Across 9 songs and more than an hour of slow-motion horror, the band push doom metal as far as it can possibly go. The result? An album that buries you alive while you listen to it, pouring rich black soil into your mouth and your ears.

#8. Carcass — Reek of Putrefaction

On first glance, the cover for Reek of Putrefaction looks pretty horrible: a mess of oranges and reds, all slick and wet. But look closer, and the thing gets worse. Those aren’t abstract shapes — they’re images of real-life autopsies, assembled like a Jackson Pollock painting. What better way to sum up the modus operandi of one of the most disquieting bands in metal? A song like ‘Burnt to a Crisp’ is a full-frontal assault that only gets more despicable the closer that you pay attention to it, a ragged cry not just against one or two humans, but humanity in general.

Reek of Putrefaction is a lot, of course — not the kind of record that you want to listen to when you’re hungover, queasy, or otherwise sensitive. But in its sheer extremity, it reveals itself to be one of the most distinct, complicated listens in all of modern metal.

#7. Sleep — Dopesmoker

Dopesmoker is a record without a mythology. Sure, it was inspired by the band’s interest in Middle Eastern music, and its front cover speaks vaguely to an extraterrestrial narrative, what with its line of gun-toting, hooded cultists. But the joy of the record is that it comes loping into your ears without anything in the way of an analytic framework, or some grand narrative.

This is metal at its most primal and sun-bleached; the kind of music designed to resist explanatory paragraphs precisely like this one. The title track is over an hour in length, the kind of vast desert abyss that you can get lost in for the rest of your life. Don’t try to explain what it “means”. Just let it happen to you. And then when you’re done, listen to it again.

#6. Morbid Angel — Altars of Madness

Has there been a more influential death metal act than Morbid Angel? The California four-piece changed the game when they released their debut record Altars of Madness, early in 1989, setting off a wave of imitators and changing the direction of an entire scene. No Altar of Madness, then no Norweigian black metal scene, let alone later heroes like Pestilence and Carnage.

Which is not to say that the album is only interesting for its historical aspect — far from it. Altars sounds as fresh and distinct as though it were released yesterday, with opening track ‘Immortal Rites’ thrumming with more invention and intelligence than most bands managed in their entire career. “It changed everything,” is how journalist Robban Becirovic of Close-Up Magazine would later put it, simply. That somehow feels almost like an understatement.

#5. Slayer — South of Heaven

By the end of the eighties, Slayer had blocked themselves into a corner. Their acclaimed fourth album, Reign In Blood, was as fast, furious and intense as thrash metal had ever been, and it was hailed by critics and audiences as not only the band’s masterpiece, but one of the true masterpieces of the form. They had taken a style of making music to its logical endpoint. There was nowhere else for them to go.

So instead of doubling down on the thrash style that had made them famous, the band instead went in the opposite direction.

Instead of doubling down on the thrash style that had made them famous, the band instead went in the opposite direction.

“We knew we couldn’t top Reign in Blood,” guitarist Jeff Hanneman would later tell Decibel Magazine. “So we had to slow down. We knew whatever we did was gonna be compared to that album, and I remember we actually discussed slowing down. It was weird — we’ve never done that on an album, before or since.”

The risk paid off. South of Heaven wasn’t given the proper respect when first released, and even today some see it as Reign In Blood‘s lesser follow-up. But each year makes it only clearer that the record is the highpoint of the band’s entire career, a Bible-black collection of threats, curses and promises of destruction held together by sheer force of will. ‘Mandatory Suicide’ is the most astonishing metal track of the late eighties, by a crooked country mile.

#4. Emperor — In The Nightside Eclipse

By the mid-’90s, European black metal had come close to total destruction at least twice. Members of the innermost circle had committed suicide, murdered each other, and discredited their entire body of work by becoming Nazis. What had once seemed like the most exciting and inventive metal scene on the entire planet was falling apart in controversy and disarray.

The band crafted glittering castles, perched on a hillside and coated in mist.

And the music was suffering too. What had once seemed so original and unique had fallen prey to copycats and dimestore imitators. The sound of early bands like Mayhem had been watered down into derivative attempts to ape what the Americans were doing. The form, it seemed, was finally at its stalest.

And then Emperor’s In The Nightside Eclipse dropped. Far grander than anything that had come before it, Nightside took the bloated running times of sludge and doom but none of the stasis or heaviness. Instead, on songs like ‘Beyond The Great Vast Forest’ and ‘A Fine Day To Die’, the band crafted glittering castles, perched on a hillside and coated in mist. In the process, the band laid down the template for symphonic metal, a genre that would never once reach the highs of Nightside. It’s not just the start of a sub-culture, then. It’s the total summation of one.

#3. Mastodon — Leviathan

Long tours suck. Most bands know this. But few bands connect the endless slog of life on the road with the plot of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. That’s what happened when Mastodon’s Brett Hinds read a battered secondhand copy of the novel while playing shows in support of the group’s first album, Remission.

Chasing something that you’ll never reach is the name of the game when it comes to making music and hunting whales, Hinds realised, and thus Leviathan was born: a heavy metal opera based on the most famous American novel of the 20th century.

When it first dropped, the album was almost immediately recognised as a masterpiece. It’s topped dozens of lists like this — so many, in fact, that ranking it this high might seem like an irritatingly safe choice. But sometimes, the works of art that the culture and the critical consensus decide to glorify really are that: works of art. ‘Iron Tusk’ is far from the heady pontification about whale-hunting that one might expect: instead, it’s a primal work of pure terror, an experience, not a concept.

Then there’s ‘Hearts Alive’, the almost 14-minute-long blackened ocean that ends the record. Carried by some of the most incredible production of modern metal, so precise that you can hear every single drumbeat, it’s the band demonstrating every single one of their talents, all at once. It’s a masterpiece nestled inside a masterpiece, and one of the most powerful closers the genre has to offer.

#2. Godflesh — Streetcleaner

As a genre, industrial metal is astonishing un-poetic, trading in the aesthetic trappings of other sub-cultures for sheer brutality. But there’s no album more sparse in the entire canon than Streetcleaner, the brainchild of metal legend Justin Broadrick.

Ten miles of cold concrete, the album starts with a series of linked curses — ‘Like Rats’ and ‘Christbait Rising’ — before becoming more disturbing still, with the six-minute-long ‘Head Dirt’ pulverising the listener into submission. “There is a pure nihilism in there,” Broadrick later said of the album’s unrelenting brutality. “Totally anti-everything. I couldn’t come to terms with anything. It was all a struggle, and I just wanted to lash out at every target I possibly could.”

That’s the genius of the record. Other bands targeted contemporary politics; war; avarice; greed. Streetcleaner is far from that precise. It’s not a takedown of the “modern condition” or any such nonsense. It’s a long, vicious howl against the very injustice of being alive.

#1. Neurosis — Times of Grace

Nobody knew what to make of Neurosis’ Times of Grace when it was first released. Dropped on the heels of Through Silver in Blood, the band’s biggest commercial and critical success to date, Times of Grace was stranger; meaner. Opening with the ungodly blast of ‘The Doorway’, then going quiet, then loud again, the record is a cycle of inhalation and exhalation that gets heavier than perhaps any other album released in the last few decades.

Times of Grace was simply too much for the genre and culture in which it dropped.

It didn’t so much confuse critics as it did escape them altogether. “With time and patience, Times of Grace may prove one of the group’s most satisfying works for long-time converts, but it will most likely seem too exhausting to the uninitiated,” Eduardo Rivadavia of AllMusic wrote at the time. And he was right, in a way. Times of Grace failed to recreate the commercial magic of its predecessor, instead beloved only by the most devoted Neurosis fans.

But how many masterpieces have been properly recognised in their time? Like Citizen Kane, like Van Gogh’s sunflowers, Times of Grace was simply too much for the genre and culture in which it dropped. Gone were the stylistic trappings of the scene, or the prettier flourishes. Instead, Neurosis traded on pure, blasting invention, sanding down their skills to the most basic form imaginable, and creating the record the way that a car crusher crushes cars; by neatly deconstructing something beautiful.

Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @Joseph_O_Earp.

Below is a Spotify playlist featuring one song from each of the 100 albums listed here, with the exception of Carcass’ Reek of Putrefecation, which is sadly not available on Spotify in Australia:

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