The 20 best thrash albums of all time

Megadeth circa 1986 (Image credit: Getty Images)

Dominated by the old school (because we’re sentimental bastards) but undeniably diverse, our top 20 albums are essential listening for any dedicated thrasher. Disagree with our list? Too bad. We can’t hear you moaning because we’re listening to thrash! Cheers!

20) Annihilator – Alice In Hell (Roadrunner, 1989)

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One of the finest metal guitarists of all time, Jeff Waters was always destined for greatness, but this precocious debut album was, if we’re honest, taking the piss. Incredible musicianship, wonderful songs and with energy levels permanently in the red, Alice… raised thrash’s IQ and put its Canadian contingent firmly on the map once and for all.

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19) Sabbat – History Of A Time To Come (Noise, 1988)

While many of their UK peers simply emulated their cousins from across the Atlantic, Sabbat created their own world of paganised poetry and eccentric riffing, resulting in a debut album that eschewed the rule book in favour of a fiercely individual take on the thrash formula. An underground phenomenon, perhaps, but an album that sent ripples of inspiration through the metal world.

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18) Overkill – The Years Of Decay (Atlantic, 1989)

Already veterans of the east coast metal scene by the time they made it, Overkill flexed their muscles on The Years Of Decay and the results were remarkable. Both unashamedly committed to thrash ethics and admirably adventurous within those parameters, this was a formidable show of strength from a band that have never strayed from the righteous thrash path.

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17) Nuclear Assault – Handle With Care (In-Effect, 1989)

The opening impact of Nuclear Assault’s third album still wrenches breath from lungs. Handle With Care was turbocharged thrash imbued with the spirit of hardcore: remorseless aggression and speed married to astutely crafted metallic anthems (and the occasional joke). Nuclear Assault seldom get the props they deserve, but no thrash collection is complete without them.

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16) Kreator – Extreme Aggression (Noise, 1989)

By the time Kreator reached their fourth album, their youthful belligerence had mutated into something far more controlled and precise, but the ferocity that drove their early records remained in evidence on this gleaming monument to cutting edge thrash. As the incredible title track and the epic Some Pain Will Last prove, Kreator were on fire and making sure everyone else got burned too.

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15) Metallica – Kill ‘Em All (Megaforce, 1983)

It is faintly terrifying to see how young they look on the back cover of the debut album, but Metallica were already much more than naive dreamers when they pieced this raw masterwork together. The bullish clatter of Hit The Lights, the visceral sprint of Whiplash, the ageless might of Seek & Destroy… yeah, Metallica were pretty fucking amazing from the very start.

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14) Voivod – Dimension Hatröss (Noise, 1988)

The most distinctive and daring of all the 80s thrash bands, Voivod strode along their singular path making albums that sounded like nothing else on earth. Dimension Hatröss is the best of them: a turbulent sci-fi nightmare, brimming with grotesque hooks, exquisite lyrical weirdness and the late, great Piggy’s idiosyncratic and deeply peculiar riffs. It’s thrash, Lars, but not as we know it.

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13) Metallica – …And Justice For All (Elektra, 1988)

Progressive thrash masterpiece or bass-free self-indulgence? Oh fuck off, it’s obviously the former. From the pummelling of Blackened onwards, AJFA repositioned Metallica as metal’s premier sonic explorers, with songs that defied convention while never forgetting to be seriously fucking heavy. Harvester Of Sorrow, One, Dyer’s Eve, The Frayed Ends Of Sanity… classics, each and every one.

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12) Sepultura – Beneath The Remains (Roadrunner, 1989)

Restless souls from the mean streets of Belo Horizonte, Sepultura had already outgrown their primitive death metal roots when they made this, their third album. They would continue to evolve on later albums, but BTR was the Brazilians’ incisive love letter to thrash and its inherent energy and strength. 25 years later, it will still kick your face off.

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11) Testament – The Legacy (Altantic, 1987)

Although a year or two too late to qualify for thrash’s Big Four, Testament are many metalheads’ choice for an imagined fifth position. The Legacy bulges with skull- shattering heaviness and bewildering displays of technical prowess, but it is the sheer quality of the Bay Area band’s songwriting that made their debut album such an unequivocal triumph.

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10) Anthrax – Among The Living (Island, 1987)

Forget the shorts, the jokes and the detours into rap territory: Anthrax have always been a kickass metal band, and Among The Living thoroughly deserves its place in our top 10. With countless infectious refrains, razor sharp lyrics and some of the beefiest riffs ever written, songs like I Am The Law, Caught In A Mosh and Indians offer nothing less than metal perfection.

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9) Megadeth – Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? (Capitol, 1986)

An audacious second effort by Dave Mustaine and his prodigiously gifted band, Peace Sells… still startles to this day. Complex and unsettling, its finest moments – Wake Up Dead, The Conjuring, Devils Island and that title track – contributed hugely to thrash’s expanding vocabulary, not least due to Mustaine and Chris Poland’s extraordinary six-string chops.

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8) Possessed – Seven Churches (Relativity, 1985)

Our top 20 purposefully avoids bands that blurred the boundaries between thrash, death and (early) black metal, but Possessed are the one exception we had to make. Seven Churches is a thrash album through and through – it’s just darker, heavier and more brilliantly blasphemous than anything else that existed at the time. And yes, death metal began in earnest here too.

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7) Exodus – Bonded By Blood (Combat, 1985)

Talismanic standard bearers for the Bay Area thrash scene, Exodus defined the entire genre with their debut album. Led by the none-more-diehard Paul Baloff, they tore through nine flawless lessons in hard-riffing violence and deftly nailed the thrash blueprint for all time. ‘Metal takes hold, death starts to unfold… it’s loud like the world’s at and end!’ sums it up.

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6) Dark Angel – Darkness Descends (Combat, 1986)

Released mere months after Reign In Blood and Pleasure To Kill, Dark Angel’s second album managed to outstrip both in terms of speed and fury. With the mighty Gene Hoglan on the drums, this was always going to slay, but the LA crew also had the songs to back up their ferocity. It’s impossible to listen to The Burning Of Sodom without smashing something.

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5) Kreator – Pleasure To Kill (Noise, 1986)

The States may have dominated the thrash scene, but Germany’s contribution was huge. Kreator’s second album remains one of the few to challenge Slayer in the violence and mayhem stakes, its blistering tempos and Mille Petrozza’s deranged screeching conspiring to wrench open the gates of hell and let its nastiest demons run rampage. Rage has never sounded more exciting.

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4) Metallica – Ride The Lightning (Megaforce, 1984)

The album that sealed Metallica’s reputation as the new metal band of the early 80s, Ride The Lightning was a staggering achievement from such young musicians. The depth, ambition and musicality evident in Creeping Death, For Whom The Bell Tolls and Fade To Black still take the breath away over 30 years later. If you love thrash, you must love this.

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3) Megadeth – Rust In Peace (Capitol, 1990)

Thrash may have faded badly during the 90s, but it certainly entered the decade in supreme form. Megadeth’s greatest album upped the ante for the entire metal genre with songwriting, technicality and production all hitting unprecedented levels of efficacy. Holy Wars… The Punishment Due, Hangar 18 and Tornado Of Souls have become revered classics. Say what you like about Dave Mustaine, but he’s a genius.

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2) Metallica – Master Of Puppets (Elektra, 1986)

Younger Metallica fans may wonder why so many people bemoan the band’s meandering creativity over the last 20 years: Master Of Puppets explains why. Epic, ingenious, overwhelmingly muscular and precise, every one of its eight songs is a timeless classic. It was both Cliff Burton’s swansong and the album that propelled Metallica towards stardom. If you don’t own it, you suck at metal.

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1) Slayer – Reign In Blood (Def Jam, 1986)

Is there such a thing as a perfect album? Yes. It’s called Reign In Blood. Not quite 30 minutes of the most brutal, explosive and unrelenting extreme metal ever conceived, Slayer’s third album still sounds staggeringly powerful nearly three decades on. From the cudgelling attack of the opening Angel Of Death to the bleak horror of Raining Blood, Reign In Blood towers above every other thrash album for several reasons, but the most important of them is its swivel-eyed intensity: something that no other metal band have ever quite equalled. The evil riffs of Hanneman and King, Tom Araya’s menacing proclamations, Dave Lombardo’s octopus-like mastery of the kit… this is thrash metal at its purest and most destructive. It may never be surpassed.

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Dom Lawson

Dom Lawson has been writing for Metal Hammer and Prog for over 14 years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He also contributes to The Guardian, Classic Rock, Bravewords and Blabbermouth and has previously written for Kerrang! magazine in the mid-2000s.