The 20 Greatest Roadrunner Records Albums Ever

Various Roadrunner Records album art
(Image credit: Roadrunner Records)

In 1980, Cees Wessels founded Roadrunner Records in the Netherlands, primarily as a means to import North American metal releases into Europe. Just six years later, its operations expanded to New York City and later opened offices across the world. 

Over the course of almost four decades, they’ve signed a huge number of groundbreaking and culturally significant metal acts including Slipknot, Sepultura, Machine Head and many more. 

And so, after some serious consideration, we’ve selected 20 pivotal releases to map out the history of this iconic institution, listed in chronological order. Here are the greatest Roadrunner Records albums ever released (and for reference, just for the sake of our own sanity making this list, we've limited it to one album per artist).

King Diamond – Abigail (1987)

It would be remiss if we neglected to feature this Danish-born vocalist when recounting the history of Roadrunner Records. King Diamond – real name Kim Bendix Petersen – is such an important character in the  label’s development that we were spoiled for choice when selecting which album would make the cut. While Mercyful Fate’s 1983 debut Melissa and their 1984 follow-up Don’t Break the Oath are both spectacular, it’s his own second album which truly stands out. This conceptual masterpiece bears all the hallmarks of a King Diamond release dialled up as far as they can go. There’s not a spookier, more bombastic or indeed histrionic album on this list.

Obituary – Slowly We Rot (1989)

The late 80s and early 90s saw Roadrunner sign up a number of the most legendary death metal bands from that genre’s commercial peak. From Cynic to Deicide, Malevolent Creation to Immolation, it was an exciting time to be a fan. But it’s Obituary's classic debut Slowly We Rot which truly defines this era. Over the course of just 35 minutes, this Florida-based five-piece deliver some of the most inhumanly vile, sludgy death metal, topped off by vocalist John Tardy’s unique gurgling style; an extra dollop of filth on top of an grotesque sundae, which remains untouchable to this day.

Sepultura – Arise (1991)

To choose just one Sepultura release from their spectacular four-album run from 1989 to 1996 is an impossible task. We’ve plumped for their 1991 effort Arise, which put the Brazilian quartet before a worldwide audience and showed that they could really compete with the best bands from North America and Europe. The title track, Dead Embryonic Cells and Altered State are metal classics, and overall, Arise perfectly bridges their extreme underground beginnings to the groovier path they were to explore on later releases.

Suffocation – Effigy of the Forgotten (1991)

Death metal architect Scott Burns produced two albums on the bounce at the Morrisound studios in Tampa, Florida. There was the aforementioned Arise, but it could be argued that it was the debut album from New York’s Suffocation that proved to be even more influential, thanks to its almost certainly accidental invention of the slam sub-genre. It’s not hard to understand why so many people wanted to copy those elements, as songs like Infecting the Crypts and Reincremation still sound utterly deranged to this day. With relentless drumming, those maddening solos and Frank Mullen’s bowel-loosening vocals, Effigy of the Forgotten is a true classic. 

Type O Negative – Bloody Kisses (1993)

The first release on Roadrunner to go platinum and sell a million copies, Type O Negative’s third album remains an important landmark in the label's history and a genuinely incredible record in its own right. There really was no other a band like this Brooklyn four-piece; their unusual melting pot of romantic goth melodrama, gruff New York hardcore, moribund doom and poker-faced humour is perfectly realised here. It’s also an album with actual chart hits on it, thanks to the success of Black No.1 and Christian Woman, making them the most unlikely crossover story in Roadrunner’s history.

Life of Agony – River Runs Red (1993)

Brooklyn quartet Life of Agony were unfairly lumped in with the New York hardcore scene, thanks to geography and not a whole lot else. In fact, River Runs Red – produced by Type O Negative's Josh Silver – was so far ahead of its time that many bands in that particular scene are only just catching up to it now. Their 1993 debut is an incredibly moving conceptual piece about an attempted teenage suicide – a picture brilliantly painted, in part, by the dark, ominous music that the band have written, but mostly, thanks to the sublime lyrics and vocal performance of Mina Caputo.

Death – Symbolic (1995)

Before the release of Death’s penultimate album – their sixth full-length was their sole output on Roadrunner – guitarist and frontman Chuck Schuldiner had already established himself as a unique force in death metal. But despite this, it seems difficult to imagine that anyone could have predicted an album as majestic as Symbolic. Taking death metal as a base and as a set of tropes to deconstruct and imbibe with melodic, classical and progressive elements, Symbolic’s sprawling, wild and undefinable sonic palette is a testament to the genius of Schuldiner. And, although some may have not quite got it back in the day, in the modern era it’s rightly regarded as one of the finest metal albums ever created.

Fear Factory – Demanufacture (1995)

Fear Factory’s 1992 debut full-length Soul of a New Machine was an interesting take on US death metal by way of Godflesh and set in the distant future. Three years later, they fashioned an interesting idea into something unique. On Demanufacture, everything about FF was dialled up: their dystopian concept was fully fleshed out, guitarist Dino Cazares’ riffs were tauter, and frontman Burton C. Bell’s distinct good cop/bad cop dual vocal style was more dynamic. The result was a bludgeoning album with brilliantly immediate songs like Replica, Body Hammer or Self Bias Resistor.

Glassjaw – Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Silence (2000)

Long Island outfit Glassjaw do not look back on their time with Roadrunner fondly, citing a lack of support following the release of their debut. They’ve all but disowned many of the songs from Everything You Wanted To Know About Silence over the years, yet it remains a post-hardcore touchstone. Their debut was regarded as too cerebral for nu metal and too emotionally open for hardcore, but these days, many screamo bands will openly admit their debt to this band’s earliest work - yet few, if any, have come close to matching it.

Slipknot – Iowa (2001)

A number one album on both sides of the Atlantic... with blastbeats. We don’t need to tell you just how mad a sentence that is, but exposing the mainstream to legitimate extreme metal styles is just one of many things that Slipknot’s second album Iowa brought to the table. Everyone who wondered whether the Iowan nine could match the intensity of their, equally classic, debut were put firmly in their place by Iowa. It is unlikely that a heavier album will ever connect in such a way again, and almost all modern metal still struggles to recapture the seething, paint stripping nihilism of songs like People = Shit or The Heretic Anthem.

Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.