The 50 best metal albums of all time

50 best metal albums

Heavy metal’s exact birth date is up for grabs. Countless bands can lay claim to being the genre’s originators, all of whom released albums and songs that helped usher in this new strain of music: Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Iron Butterfly, Blue Cheer, Coven… the list is longer than a 1970s bassist’s sideburns.

What is beyond dispute is that the ensuing 50-plus years have seen innumerable records released that have changed the course of music. But how do you distil more than half a century of musical history into 50 albums that sum up the most influential, inspirational and downright brilliant albums metal given the world? Easy - we called a star-studded panel of 50 musicians to curate a list that does just that.

This is the result. From landmark releases by metal’s founders through 70s hard rock classics, 80s thrash and glam metal gamechangers, 90s nu metal bangers and extreme metal ragers, right up to modern milestones that show metal is in great health, it’s a celebration of over 50 years of noise and chaos - as chosen by the people who live and breathe the music.

Coven - Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls (1969) 

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Chosen by: Mikael Åkerfeldt (Opeth)

“This was Coven’s debut album and the first album of its kind. I can’t think of any other band like them from that time. The whole Satanic thing was, of course, pioneering. Black Sabbath only really had one song on the topic of the occult. Coven had a 13-minute spoken-word black mass on the B-side of their album. 

“There’s some great songs on there, like White Witch Of Rose Hall. And the lyrics are intriguing. They’re like brief horror novels. Musically, it had more of an affinity with the West Coast bands like Jefferson Airplane than Sabbath. It had a strong hippie vibe with some quite unpleasant lyrics with not so much of a hippie vibe. The vocal delivery by Jinx Dawson is second to none, and there’s some super-nice vocal harmonies on there. 

“It’s an odd record all in all. Most odd records need some time to mature until people realise it’s a potential landmark. They probably made a bit of an impact in the middle of the Vietnam protest song scene and the generic hippie stuff about getting high and making love. And it’s refreshing still to this day. Why is it such a landmark? The short answer would probably be: Satan and Jinx Dawson.” 

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Black Sabbath - Black Sabbath (1970)

Chosen by: Neil Fallon (Clutch)

"Black Sabbath is one of those albums we’ve all heard so much, it’s easy to grow deaf to it. And maybe even take it for granted. It’s an exceptional album. Recorded in a single session, it captures something very elusive. It’s one thing to get a great performance, but to capture atmosphere, that’s a rare feat. And Black Sabbath has both. One could argue that Black Sabbath is, in certain regards, a live album, especially when it’s compared to the way music is recorded these days. 

“I have a very vivid recollection of the first time I heard Black Sabbath. I was raised in a fairly observant Catholic family, and when I heard Black Sabbath it scared the daylights out of me. I felt like I was hearing something I wasn’t supposed to hear, and God help me if my parents found out. 

“I wouldn’t say there was an immediate impact on me other than fearing a deeper circle of Hell at the time, but later on, it had a huge impact. JP [Gaster] learned to play drums by listening to Bill Ward. Needless to say, Ward’s playing, by way of JP, has had an immeasurable influence on what I do in Clutch. 

“I don’t particularly care for music, any kind of music, that’s played overly straight. I like swing. Most of the bands that get lumped into what’s unfortunately known as ‘stoner rock’ are bands that play with a heavy swing. That, for me, is what differentiates them from other metal bands. And that heavy swing goes straight back to Black Sabbath’s Black Sabbath, and why I still listen to it regularly, despite any threat of fiery damnation.” 

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Deep Purple - Machine Head (1972)

Chosen by: James Labrie (Dream Theater)

“Deep Purple’s Machine Head is the greatest metal album of all time. I remember – I might have been 10 at the time – hearing my sister play it and thinking, ‘Who is this?!’ She said, ‘You can play the album, go ahead,’ and I was just listening to it constantly. 

“I can still remember hearing Ian Gillan for the first time on the first track, Highway Star. He had this high, amazing scream when he went balls to the wall, but great tonality as well. Then you had Jon Lord, who brought the organ and made that instrument the greatest thing since sliced bread in rock’n’roll. And I think that Ritchie Blackmore was so integral to the guitar. The whole approach, with the solos that he did, the playing and all the little nuances he added throughout – yes, it was rhythmic, heavy and aggressive, but it was his unique touch that made Ritchie so classic. He was one of the best at that time. The whole band were just a formidable force. So, for sure, Machine Head definitely tips the scale for me.” 

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Alice Cooper - Welcome To My Nightmare (1975)

Chosen by: Rob Zombie

“When I was a kid, I wanted to be Alice Cooper. Anything that was visual hooked me in. I’d go to the store and see Alice Cooper records and go, ‘What is this, look at this cover, it must be cool.’ 

“I’m not sure if Alice invented rock’n’roll showmanship, but he took it to a whole new level – the blood, the guillotines. And this was Alice at his most theatrical. 

“The earlier albums started raw and got more grand, and this was like his equivalent of a Broadway show – a really twisted Broadway show. It had that creepy atmosphere that no one else could do like him. He was always there, on TV, but he was still a weirdo - he was still the guy that your parents didn’t want you to listen to. 

“I’ve been privileged to have got to know Alice over the years. He’s not what you expect but then he’s also exactly what you expect. He’s still got that warped sense of humour. And when it comes to theatrical rock’n’roll, he’s still the king.” 

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Kiss - Alive! (1975)

Chosen by: Scott Ian (Anthrax)

KissAlive! is my top choice of albums from the last 50 years, just because of what it means to me and the influence it’s had on my life. For me as a kid, Kiss were just the biggest influence on me as far as moving ahead in my life was concerned and knowing what I wanted to do with my life, which was play guitar in a band. Because of that album, that’s why anyone gives a shit about anything that I have to say or do, because Alive! put me on that path of wanting to be a guy in a band. 

“It just connected with me in a really strong way back in 1975. I loved the songs, I loved the look, and as a kid who was into comic books and horror, it was drugs for me as an 11 year old. It was the perfect place, perfect time for me to hear and see something like that, and they’re still one of the biggest bands in the world so I guess it worked! 

“I’m friends with Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss. I’ve known Gene for 30 years – he is well aware of what Kiss mean to me.” 

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Scorpions - In Trance (1975)

Chosen by: Johanna Sadonis (Lucifer)

The Scorpions are my favourite German band – 70s-era Scorpions to be precise – and this is my favourite German release ever. You just can’t deny the mastery of this timeless classic, which was certainly a landmark for Kraut country! 

In Trance is all killer, no filler. It’s catchy, but it also has a good portion of endearingly strange progressiveness. The standout songs for me are the moody, balladesque tracks like Life’s Like A River and Living And Dying, as well as heavy rockers like Dark Lady and Top Of The Bill

“I heard it for the first time as a teenager in the mid-90s in my completely black room in Berlin’s Neukölln on a homemade cassette tape. I was so deep into death, black and doom metal at the time that it took me a few more years to return to it. But when I did, I immediately saw the light. It’s one of those albums that once it gets you in its grip, it never lets you go. 

“This album is so important to me that it was just a matter of time for me to record a cover song. Lucifer covered Evening Wind in 2018. It was extremely difficult to decide which song to take as they are all brilliant. Maybe it’s not the last Scorpions cover Lucifer will do.” 

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Judas Priest - Sad Wings Of Destiny (1976)

Chosen by: Ben Ward (Orange Goblin)

“This was the first Judas Priest album I got into. Their first record, Rocka Rolla, was more classic rock, but this defined the style that they became known for. It’s where they found their niche. It was the point where they started to turn into the heavy metal legends they are now. 

“Musically, it was completely different to everything else that was around at the time. The guitar tone on Victim Of Changes and Island Of Domination – which is a personal favourite – stands out. They defined heavy metal, guitar tone-wise. It’s the start of that classic sound. And no one else sang like Rob Halford back then – the grandiose operatic vocals. The only thing that compared was Queen, with the four-part harmonies and Freddie Mercury’s voice. But no one had done it with music that heavy – Led Zeppelin were doing something similar, but not in the way Priest were. 

“I’ve always said that if an alien landed on Earth and asked you to play them a band that defines heavy metal, you’d play them Priest. Their influence is huge and it still lives on today.” 

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Led Zeppelin - Presence (1976)

Chosen by: Dave Mustaine (Megadeth)

“Zeppelin set my mind free with what you can do with the guitar. I don’t think we called it metal in the 70s, it was hard rock, but I have to go with Presence. That was the one that came out while I was a fan. Everything prior to that was released before I became a fan. Presence was killer. In the 80s, Diamond Head and Mercyful Fate kinda did the same thing, changing the way I looked at the guitar and what I could do, but Led Zeppelin were the starting point. I can still listen to that record every day without losing my mind.” 

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AC/DC - Let There Be Rock (1977)

Chosen by: Caleb Shomo (Beartooth)

"The song that made me fall in love with this album was Whole Lotta Rosie. I first heard it on the Live At Donington 1991 video, which is one of the greatest rock shows of all time. So I looked up what album it was on, got the record and just fell in love with it. 

“They were this wild group of crazy Aussie kids and their first singer, Bon Scott, is one of the greatest rock’n’roll vocalists who ever lived. That dude could do so much with his voice – screaming stuff, sleazy stuff. He was a total maniac with a crazy range. He did not give a fuck about anything apart from rock’n’roll. 

“People say they do the same thing over and over with their music, but what I love about them is that they don’t fuck around with anything else. They’re not going to put out a disco record. It’s just four on the floor, Gibsons going through Marshalls that are about to explode. It’s always got a good groove or it’s fast, high-energy stuff. That’s who they are, and they don’t fuck around with it. That’s why AC/DC are my favourite band. They take it seriously and at the same time they don’t care what other people think. That’s what rock’n’roll should be.” 

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Van Halen - Van Halen (1978)

Chosen by: Michael Starr (Steel Panther)

“I remember clearly hearing Van Halen’s debut for the first time. My brother brought me up to his room and said, ‘You gotta listen to this.’ The first thing I heard was Eruption, which was a showcase for Eddie Van Halen. I had never heard anything like it. My life changed at that point. 

“What they did on this record was different to anything anyone had done before. You had Eddie, who was the ultimate guitar hero. And then you had David Lee Roth, who was the ultimate showman. I call him ‘lightning in a bottle’. If you were to build a robot to be the lead singer in a heavy metal band, you’d model it after him. I had a meal with him once, and he’s everything you expect him to be: funny, talkative, charismatic and the smartest guy in the room. 

“But it really came down to the songwriting. These songs were bad-ass: Runnin’ With The Devil, Atomic Punk, On Fire. And then you had Ice Cream Man, which was this bluesy thing. The way Dave sang it, it sounded like he was having a great time and he was getting all the pussy all the time. Pussy and having a good time: that’s what Van Halen is all about.” 

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Merlin Alderslade
Executive Editor, Louder

Merlin moved into his role as Executive Editor of Louder in early 2022, following over ten years working at Metal Hammer. While there, he served as Online Editor and Deputy Editor, before being promoted to Editor in 2016. Before joining Metal Hammer, Merlin worked as Associate Editor at Terrorizer Magazine and has previously written for the likes of Classic Rock, Rock Sound, eFestivals and others. Across his career he has interviewed legends including Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy, Metallica, Iron Maiden (including getting a trip on Ed Force One courtesy of Bruce Dickinson), Guns N' Roses, KISS, Slipknot, System Of A Down and Meat Loaf. He is also probably responsible for 90% of all nu metal-related content making it onto the site.