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The 100 best metal albums of the 90s

Alice In Chains - Dirt

Alice In Chains' debut offering, Facelift, helped to catapult a nascent Seattle scene into the mainstream. By 1991, and the releases of Nirvana's Nevermind, Pearl Jam's Ten and Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger, the whole world had been introduced to this brand new genre – grunge – and it had taken on a life of its own. 

But everything was just about to get darker – a whole lot darker – with AIC's sophomore record, Dirt. Heavy, bleak and brutally self-lacerating, Dirt was AIC’s epic junkie confessional. Sadly, it’d prove all too prophetic for Layne Staley.

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Darkthrone - A Blaze In The Northern Sky

Mayhem and Emperor grabbed the headlines, but Darkthrone cornered True Black Metal with their undiluted second album. 

A superb and extremely significant opus, A Blaze… signalled Darkthrone’s conversion from modern, technical death metal to ‘80s inspired black metal and was actually the first full-length Norwegian black metal album. 

In fact, Blaze contains quite a lot of death metal alongside the more Celtic Frost inspired material, and the combination of wall-to-wall riffs and unholy atmosphere still inspires fans and musicians today.

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Faith No More - Angel Dust

Faith No More made a lot of great albums. But with Angel Dust they made one hell of a masterpiece.

Angel Dust’s music is worlds away from anything Faith No More had previously put their name to. Just describing it is difficult – a twitchy, erratic symphony that spins through different movements and moods, always on edge. There isn’t a second in Angel Dust that isn’t crammed with whirling ideas and clashing sounds. But the band had lost no aptitude for melody either. The whole thing resounds with these combinations.

A lovely metaphor for the visceral artistry of Angel Dust can be found in the album’s sleeve art. On the front cover is a beautiful image of a swan emerging from an azure background. On the rear: skinned animals and chopped-up meat. Even now, after listening to Angel Dust, other rock music suddenly seems to have far fewer ideas.

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Iron Maiden - Fear Of The Dark

Bruce capped his original run with Iron Maiden’s finest album of the 90s. The title track remains one of the great crowd pleasers and a live staple.

History hasn't been hugely kind to this album, and many detractors will no doubt snort at its inclusion here, while some fans continue to defend it as one of Maiden's best. As always, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle: As with The X-Factor, there is half a classic Iron Maiden album in here somewhere. 

Only the most cloth-eared of people don’t love that title track, of course, and you can take your pick from Afraid To Shoot StrangersChildhood’s EndFear Is The Key and the criminally overlooked Judas Be My Guide for a song of equal quality. 

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Kyuss - Blues For The Red Sun

What Black Sabbath would sound like if they’d grown up in the desert. Although it was dubbed ‘stoner rock’, there was nothing flaky about it.

So many of today’s stoner giants – Josh Homme, Nick Oliveri and Brant Bjork among them – started out in Kyuss that it’s easy to see this Palm Desert band as, more than anything else, a conduit for later triumphs. But Blues For The Red Sun is a work of genius, and one upon which much was to be based during the 1990s. 

Distortion, nu metal, grunge… it’s all here, through songs like Green Machine, Molten Universe and Thong Song. Without realising it, Kyuss clearly defined a brave new world. And let’s not forget that Masters Of Reality mainman Chris Goss played his role in Blues For The Red Sun, having produced this masterpiece.

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Megadeth - Countdown To Extinction

Metallica were the people’s thrash band, but Megadeth were the connoisseur’s choice, and this was their second classic album in a row. 

Some people saw this as the band's answer to the previous year’s Black Album from Metallica. In fact it was the natural successor to Rust In Peace.

While Countdown… alienated a section of the die-hards, it’s difficult to believe now that anyone could cry ‘sell-out’ at Megadeth over a record that included the breathtaking Symphony Of Destruction, a track equal to anything on Metallica’s mega-shifting '91 classic. And although nothing else here quite matched that standard, Skin O’ My Teeth and Sweating Bullets are certainly not shabby, and the rest offer a consistent value.

Countdown… also moved Megadeth up to arena status in America.

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Ministry - Psalm 69

Just before this was released, there was some talk that Ministry had already peaked with their 1989 release The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste. How wrong they were. 

Psalm 69 was actually a title of convenience, as it’s actually called something unpronounceable and occultish in Greek – or just plain Ministry. The fact that it spawned a Top 40 hit and an MTV favourite in the demented Jesus Built My Hotrod (with Butthole Surfers man Gibby Haynes on vocals) may have been an albatross around their neck in later times, but in 1992, in the wake of …Teen Spirit and all, it seemed like they were taking over the world.

Al Jourgensen took industrial metal overground with batshit crazy, steel-plated magnum opus. Evidently, for Al, the drugs did work.

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Pantera - Vulgar Display Of Power

If Cowboys From Hell surprised anyone who had been aware of the hair metal line-up of Pantera, then the following Vulgar Display Of Power certainly laid to rest their 1980s ghosts. Diamond Darrell (it would be his last appearance as Diamond, opting for the decidedly less glam ‘Dimebag’ after this album) churns out an even heavier selection of downtuned riffs, while Phil Anselmo drops the more histrionic vocals in favour of an overall hardcore style. This proved to be a winning formula for the band.

Opening with the abrasively impressive Mouth For War, and delivering a second knock-out punch with Walk (the first metal single to debut at number one on the US charts), this is Pantera’s songwriting at its most impressive. There’s little to say about Fucking Hostile not relayed by the song’s title, and even when they drop the tempo, on the likes of Hollow and This Love, there’s an almost insidious heaviness to the band’s overall sound. Vulgar Display Of Power is very much, from start to finish, an unrelentingly heavy album.

This is, perhaps, why things took a while to take off for the band. Cowboys From Hell was closer in spirit to the thrash-metal sound which had slowly moved to the fore in metal. Yet in the early 90s, the big thrash pioneers like Metallica, Megadeth and even Slayer had become more mainstream in sound. For fans of heavier matter, the arrival of Pantera’s new, more brutal metallic approach couldn’t have come at a more apt time. Bearing this in mind, it was MTV’s acceptance of their videos that went a long way to breaking the band. This, you could say, is ironic.

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Rage Against The Machine - Rage Against The Machine

Rage Against The Machine’s debut was a Molotov cocktail exploding in the face of popular culture. 25 years on, its flames still burn brightly, having lost none of its power, impact or provocative fervour. It was the sound of Public Enemy yoked to Black Flag, of Dr Martin Luther King and Malcolm X set to a soundtrack of cutting-edge metal.

Rage arrived as the gloriously shallow, MTV-driven rock scene of the 1980s was flat on the canvas with bluebirds fluttering around its head, laid out by the emergent grunge movement. In America, a new generation of hip hop bands was providing a vital social commentary, marrying the gritty reality of the streets with the violent glamour of a Hollywood crime blockbuster. 

All this was happening against a backdrop of global turmoil, racial tension and the threat of war in the Middle East. In hindsight, their timing was perfect – in reality, their message is still as pertinent now as it was then. 

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Rollins Band - The End Of Silence

The record that took Rollins from hardcore punk renaissance man to bona fide alt-rock icon. 

From the now iconic artwork – which mimics Rollins' own tattoos – to the ominous, on-the-nose songwriting, this is the sound that has become synonymous with the band. Blues rock, jazz, swing and prog all propped up a rock hard alt-metal sound.

It was taut, ferocious, withering – much like Hank himself.

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Anthrax - Sound Of White Noise

It was a radically different Anthrax that emerged on Sound Of White Noise, with a new singer in John Bush and a new sound influenced by grunge. The result was a darkly powerful album, and the band’s biggest US hit. 

While Bush was a great metal singer, his gritty voice was also perfectly suited to material in an alternative rock vein. Lead single Only was described by James Hetfield as “a perfect song”. Black Lodge and This Is Not An Exit had the heavy aura of Alice In Chains, while the frantic Hy Pro Glo was a throwback to early thrash. An atypical Anthrax album, it was arguably their greatest victory.

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Carcass - Heartwork

The gore-fixated gods of grind streamlined their sound on their penultimate 90s record. The result was the finest British extreme metal album of the decade.

It was also arguably the point where melodic death metal became a cohesive idea, and Heartwork still sounds fantastic all these years later. 

Every song has at least one unforgettable hook, genius riffs come thick and fast and Colin Richardson’s production was an authentic game-changer. Melodeath may have been defined by the Swedes, but it was Carcass that made its definitive statement.

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Smashing Pumpkins - Siamese Dream

By the time of Siamese Dream, Billy Corgan was both writing the songs and playing all the instruments except the drums, with his perfectionist tendencies finding his bandmates – particularly guitarist James Iha and bassist D’Arcy Wretzky – relegated to the role of ‘the help’. 

Not fitting the grunge, metal or indie brackets, Corgan instead magpied from every genre to make an album to appeal to all tribes. The result was that Siamese Dream came on like a grunge Queen, with all the fearlessness and foolishness that suggests. 

Their records sold by the bucketload, and for a while they were one of the most-talked about bands around.

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Darkthrone - Under A Funeral Moon

The Norwegian troupe’s third album was dank, distorted and gloriously antisocial. 

Fenriz has since stated that the band were aiming to create "a pure black metal album", it seems they succeeded in turning the genre on its head and resetting the template.

Hailed by fans and connoisseurs as black metal's "ultimate manifesto", this was the genre taken back to the garage – or the cave.

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Eyehategod - Take As Needed For Pain

Much more than just Phil Anselmo’s drug buddies, Eyehategod were the masters of fucked-up dirge metal. 

Permanently up to their necks in chaos – not just the aforementioned drug problems, but also plenty of brushes with the law – Eyehategod took the slow tempos and dark shadows of Sabbath into the darkest territory imaginable.

Take in high doses or not at all.

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Entombed - Wolverine Blues

Scandinavian death metal trailblazers Entombed nailed a distinctive sound with their first two fantastic records, but it was with 1993’s Wolverine Blues that they really decided to throw caution to the wind. 

Wolverine Blues divided (and still divides) fans with its rock‘n’roll traits. Don’t let that deter you from its devilish brilliance though. From start to finish, this record is a bloody-knuckled bruiser. 

You only need to listen to songs like the hellish nightmare Demon or the oozing scab Hollowman to realise that they haven’t lightened up in the mood department either. This is the one that started death‘n’roll, and over 20 years on, it is still yet to be bettered.

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Sepultura - Chaos A.D.

In 93, Sepultura were ready, willing and certainly able to make the leap from cult status to being major players on the metal scene. With Chaos A.D., The Seps ditched the primeval thrashing for deep grooves and world music flourishes. 

Suddenly, greatness beckoned and Chaos A.D. was their ground-breaker. Hard hitting, powerful, challenging, confrontational, this was Sepultura on a new level. 

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Tool - Undertow

A continuation of what came on predecessor Opiate – but with a sicker, darker and more menacing tone – Tool’s debut full-length album saw the band begin the process of pulling away from the rest of the scene around them. 

They received plenty of attention for the catchy, growling groove of Sober, but it’s the likes of Bottom (featuring a contribution from Henry Rollins) and Flood that show the direction that Tool were moving into. 

Technically precise with more patience and musical subtlety, while still delving deep into the more perverse aspect of the human psyche, Undertow is a hell of a statement from a band growing in confidence.

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Type O Negative - Bloody Kisses

Led by the strapping dark lord Peter Steele, Type O Negative rose from the ashes of chest-thumping thrashers Carnivore and went on to create some of the most emotionally tortured goth-metal of the decade. 

Bloody Kisses is their magnum opus. Steele ramped up the dark-hued goth-metal grandeur – if Dracula had a favourite metal band, Type O were definitely it. 

Kisses was a more committed, elegant gothic doom masterwork than others in their back catalogue. Gargantuan hits Christian Woman and Black No. 1 perfectly showcased the band’s evolving songcraft, mordant wit and deviant sexuality, helping the album become Roadrunner’s first US Platinum release.

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Pearl Jam - Vs.

Success blind-sided Pearl Jam. As the title indicated, Vs. was the sound of band of who wanted to kick against fame. They dialled down the grand emoting. The album clanked and rattled to life with opener Go, and Blood was a blast of petulant fury that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Nirvana album.

Yet they couldn’t quite throw the baby out with the bath water. Rearviewmirror and the plaintive Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town gave lie to the notion that Pearl Jam were anything other than an arena rock band, and a classy one at that.

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