Whether you’re a fan of music’s most extreme genre or not, there are some metal albums that are simply required listening. This collection of seminal records aims to serve as a cross-section of metal’s most historically significant releases, a sufficient sampling of the metal world’s many subgenres and a curation of albums that are undeniably great.
The most legendary album by one of metal’s most legendary bands, Slayer’s major label debut was 29 minutes of brevity and aggression. Bookended by two of the most significant songs of that era, “Angel Of Death” and “Raining Blood,” this record is undoubtedly one of the defining moments in the heavy metal canon. Slayer remains one of the most commercially successful bands in the genre while simultaneously being a major influence on more extreme and less commercial subgenres, like black metal.
While it received only a fraction of the notoriety of the previous entry, Between The Buried And Me’s 2007 opus went on to change the landscape of modern progressive metal forever. It’s an hour of some of the most forward-thinking and complex music you’ll hear, complete with a polka section and a full-blown hoedown. Despite the band’s tremendous output that followed this record, it still remains their signature piece of music.
This one’s a no-brainer, as it’s ostensibly the first metal album. While “Paranoid” dropped just months after Sabbath’s debut and had all the hits, the opening moments of this record set the stage for the next 50 years of metal. The opening riff of the eponymous first track has got to be the most metal thing to have happened in human history.
It’s impossible to overstate Motörhead’s influence on metal. Who knows what the thrash movement of the 80’s would have been like without them? While their album “Ace Of Spades” is more popular, “Overkill” gets the nod here because of the opening track of the same name. Drummer Phil Taylor’s legendary double bass pattern that opens the album surely wasn’t the first, but it might be the most important.
Any time an album is responsible for naming an entire subgenre, you know it must be important. It wasn’t just the name, though. Their style and imagery went on to be a major influence for the black metal scene in Norway. Simply put, Venom is one of the most influential bands of all time, but receives very little mainstream recognition.
Sometimes great works of art just aren’t appreciated in their own time. This holds true for this cult classic from 1993. Over the years, it became one of the most influential technical death metal albums ever. The late Sean Reinert’s jazz-fusion influenced drum patterns are absolutely legendary.
Pantera sort of exists outside of time. They started as a glam metal band but morphed into something much different. During a time in the 90’s where grunge had seemingly killed metal’s mainstream appeal, the Abbott brothers and company gave the music industry a nice grooving kick in the ass. While it’s basically a toss-up between any of their output from this decade, “Vulgar Display Of Power” gets the spot because of that iconic album cover. Who wouldn’t want to get punched in the face by this record?
Undoubtedly the kings of French metal, Gojira’s widespread success is sort of a marvel when you think about it. Combining death, groove and progressive metal to write environmentally conscious songs from a country that isn’t exactly known for it metal scene isn’t an obvious roadmap to success. Yet their landmark 2005 release is just undeniable, and their later output is arguably just as good. “Flying Whales” is just so iconic.
The world’s introduction to King Diamond just needs to be experienced at least once. His signature ear-piercing falsettos are one of a kind. The band’s inclusion in “Guitar Hero: Metallica” with their track “Evil” as well as Metallica’s Mercyful Fate medley is both a testament to the band’s influence as well as a tremendous troll job. Countless Xbox vocalists must have made incredible fools of themselves in front of their friends trying to sing that song.
Death is one of the most important death metal bands ever, and including them on this list was easy. What wasn’t easy was choosing an album. The final Death record before Chuck Shuldiner’s passing is arguably their most polished and progressive (and best) record, so it earns its spot on this list.
To deny the impact of Slipknot on the modern musical landscape would just be willfully ignorant. They are perhaps the biggest metal band of the last couple decades. How many other bands out there could headline their own festival? Starting from the beginning of the Slipknot phenomenon just makes sense. “Wait and Bleed” ushered in a new era of metal.
While the kings of progressive death metal have ditched the death metal entirely in recent years, their middle years are untouchable. “Blackwater Park” might be the more popular pick, but “Ghost Reveries” is just better. It’s an incredible concept album that telegraphed where the band was headed while maintaining what made it so influential in the first place. It’s also the record on this list that’s most likely to make you cry.
Now, it’s definitely a stretch to mention this record in the same breath as some of the most legendary albums ever recorded, but that’s how good it is. It is an absolute must-listen, and a shining example of how far the genre has come. Their brand of progressive technical death metal is so squeaky-clean yet heartfelt, and the saxophone parts are as tasty as can be.
Back to the classics. Maiden just had to show up somewhere on this list. The band had already made a name for itself with its first two records, but the introduction of Bruce Dickinson’s prodigious soaring vocals brought the band to another level. With three of their most renowned songs ever, this album is a great starting place for any newcomer to metal.
Progressive metal is still one of the most prominent subgenres, and Dream Theater are inarguably the most important prog metal band. They popularized the nerdiest subset of metal in the 90’s, and while “Images And Words” may have had the bigger impact, “Scenes From A Memory” is their most critical listen. It sits comfortably among the most influential concept albums ever recorded.
Melodic death metal may seem like an oxymoron at first, but it has become one of the most enduring and successful styles in metal, thanks in part to this record. It’s possible that its impact has been overstated thanks to the band’s breakup that followed it, but still. While we were deprived of another album for almost 20 years, the legacy of At The Gates is palpable.
If Black Sabbath is responsible for the genesis of metal, Judas Priest can largely be credited for solidifying it, as well as establishing its flair and theatricality. Like many other bands on here, there are several albums deserving of consideration, but their commercial breakout gets the nod.
It can be easy to romanticize those that came before, but we can’t ignore the greats that are doing it right now. “The Satanist” is perhaps the best representation of where the metal underground has gone in the 21st century. It was widely received as one the greatest albums of its respective year, and it will surely stand the test of time.
Metallica is the biggest metal band ever. Period. They influenced countless bands that came after them and transcended the underground to become one of the most successful acts in music history, regardless of genre. “Ride The Lightning” is deserving of a spot because it refined the rawness of their debut and proved that thrash could be accessible, too.
This list would simply be incomplete without the late great Ronnie James Dio. He popularized the devil horns and sat at the helm of Black Sabbath and Rainbow, yet it’s his first album under his own name that demands to be listened to first. Pay tribute to one of the most essential voices to ever grace our ears with this record. Plus, that album cover is a masterwork of metal imagery.
We conclude this list with a (relatively) modern classic. 2004 doesn’t seem like that long ago, but we’re closing in on 20 years since Mastodon dropped this juggernaut on us. This monolithic band has adjusted their sound significantly over the years, and while “Crack The Skye” may be the better album, “Leviathan” was an emphatic declaration of their staying power. The opening riff of “Blood And Thunder” is one of the defining moments of metal as a genre this century.
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