Top 25 All-Time Best Metal Albums
by Cullen James
I originally wrote this list about a year and a half ago. I was asked by one of my blog’s regular visitors to compile a top metal album list, so I complied. It took me a lot longer than I thought it would, but I was pretty happy with the results.
When I first started thinking about how to go about compiling the list, I thought I’d just narrow down my top 25 and put them “in no particular order.” Though, I guess that’s kind of cheating. So, I have decided to commit to a list. My criteria were threefold: What did this album mean to metal? What did this album mean to me? Did it really rock?
I mean, think about it. There are albums out there that people go on and on about how important it was. But, when you finally get to sit down and listen to it, it sucks. So, if I left off one of your favorite metal albums, it probably sucks. Also, I guess I should add – as though you couldn’t guess – that there’s nothing subjective to this list. This is my opinion, but I am entirely right.
I was going to hyperlink the entries to their Wikipedia page or something and have pics and all that, but I didn’t.
Starting with #25 to #16.
Here we go.
#25 Testament - Practice What You Preach: I’m not sure how I discovered Testament, but I had their first four albums. Not only was their music good, but it was fun also. They really skipped around the extremes of the genre, topic-wise, singing about everything from demons and the devil to the environment and the human condition.
What really made Testament a great band, to me, was Alex Skolnick’s guitar playing and how well the rest of the band aligned to his style. Skolnick went on to form his own jazz group but he still plays with Testament on occasion as well as subbing in on guitars in Savatage and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. But these guys made fantastic music that lives on in the best of today’s metal.
#23 Van Halen - 1984: This was a hard one, and further down the list than it should perhaps be. One of the reasons this is ranking toward the end of my top 25 is that I have a hard time thinking of Van Halen as heavy metal, even though they arguably are the granddaddies of most modern metal acts. In fairness, I felt that if I put Crue and Dokken on the list, I needed to put Van Halen on there also.
Some may disagree with my choice of album, but this album was better known and more influential than any other VH production. It was also the last to feature David Lee Roth.
Eddie Van Halen is responsible for so many of the things rock and roll guitarists do today. He popularized the Floyd Rose double locking tremolo system which allows those "dive bombing" guitar notes. It is because of Van Halen that you could no longer just "know how to play guitar" and be successful. After Eddie, you had to be a great guitarist. Then Randy Rhodes appeared and the two of them set the guitar playing world on its ear. There may have been experimental guys doing some of this stuff (Robert Fripp, perhaps?) but this was mainstream stuff! These albums were going gold and platinum.
Van Halen always seems heavier than I remember. Every time Hot For Teacher cranks up I think, "Oh yeah, Van Halen rocks."
#22: Anthrax - Among the Living: Anthrax is a mainstay metal band to this day (in fact, they are back to their original lineup). It is unfortunate that their chosen name became controversial in recent years, but they have always stomped. And that is the best description of Anthrax’s tunes – music to stomp by.
Scott Ian (now a regular on whatever VH1 "Remember" show is playing) has a knack for writing these circular sounding rhythms that pound away at you. Just as you become accustomed to the rhythm, they change the pace with some blistering speed. Danny Spitz has always been one of the most off-the-wall lead guitarists. He obviously knows what he’s doing but plays off time, off key and discordant. Vocalist Joey Belladonna, drummer Charlie Benante and bassist Frank Bello are equally solid. Bello is especially memorable as he follows in the footsteps of amazing Maiden bassist Steve Harris.
Among the Living has excellent tracks on it like the title track, Caught in a Mosh and I Am the Law.
#21: Tool - Lateralus: I love these guys for the music they produce. I think they’re the best band that came out of the ‘90s produced. However, I hate them for the music and musicians they have inspired. Emo most certainly predates them, but Tool gave the Emo genre a shot of caffeineadrenalinecrack in the ass. They have also inspired a plethora of “minimalist” musicians who for some ungodly reason think that playing one note for 20 freaking minutes is somehow cool.
But Tool makes great music. I cannot believe how good their effing drummer is. Danny Carey is a kook, but he is unbelievably good. Listen closely to Lateralus and you’ll swear that he’s multitracked some of his drums. But its just him playing. There is some amazing polyrhythm going on here. What he does is essential to Tool’s sound and power.
#20: Dokken - Back For the Attack: Once again straying into hair metal here, but Dokken served one blazing album with Back …. Their previous and later albums lacked the vitality of this entry. Something here really clicked. I think part of the problem with Dokken is that you had two very strong and distinct musical personalities attempting to dominate the spotlight. Don Dokken is a great singer and George Lynch is a great guitarist and they both wrote some good songs. But they butted heads often and it eventually led to their break up. Lynch went on to do some cool things with his own band The Lynch Mob and later with Dokken again.
Great tracks on the album include Lynch’s instrumental Mr. Scary (which is what really cemented his status as a guitar hero among a throng of pretenders), Prisoner, and Dream Warriors which was the title track for the third installment of the Nightmare on Elm Street films. A bit of trivia about that: For the video, Lynch was playing a skull and bones guitar. This guitar, in the video, had a neck by guitar manufacturer ESP. However the guitar was built by J. Frog (click here to see J. Frog guitars carried by Ed Roman Guitars and read more about the story). At the time (and currently) Lynch was sponsored by ESP and they threw a fit about him using a different guitar in the video. So he had to switch necks. This caused a huge stink and many folks thought ESP was making this guitar. They eventually did produce some, but far inferior to the J. Frog original.
#19: Joe Satriani - Surfing With the Alien: The only instrumental album on the list. I tend to think that instrumentals can’t really compete against the bands with singers in heavy metal. Metal requires a singer to really give the song the depth and placement it needs. However, there are exceptions. Surfing With the Alien is the album that made guitar-based instrumental rock cool again. There were bands and musicians that were doing it before, there are some who do it better, but no one has had the impact on instrumental guitar rock that Satriani has. He taught Steve Vai, Kirk Hammett, George Lynch and a litany of other guitar slingers. This is his main legacy in the field, not so much what he has written (though that is profound and powerful also) but how he has inspired others to new levels.
#18: Dio - Holy Diver: I am no big fan of Dio, but his impact on the genre is undeniable. He popularized the operatic style of metal singing and is almost as iconic as Ozzy Osbourne. It’s fitting, I guess, as he filled frontman position in Sabbath after the Ozzman’s departure. Holy Diver is Dio’s best entry and is very listenable, even though I’ve always felt that Ronnie James has always sounded like an angry elf.
#17 Slayer - Seasons in the Abyss: There are those who would argue that this is actually the best Slayer album, And they could make a strong argument. I guess with Seasons … Slayer finally put out the album that had been stewing in their collective minds for many years. You can tell that there’s a sense of collective relief and joy on their part within the music. An artists pride is evident the quality of what they produce.
#16 Danzig - Danzig: Again a somewhat personal choice. There are plenty of bands from this era that had a similar sound to Danzig’s blues-based metal (though his sound has changed in recent years). But Glenn Danzig is important to metal primarily because of his punk band The Misfits. Their sound significantly impacted many of the early ‘80s LA metal bands – Metallica primarily.
This album is probably his best work under his own name. It’s a solid, blues-rock album and has some good jams on it. He has since become a parody of the things he sings about in his songs. Too bad, really.
Well, that’s the first part of the list. Agree, disagree or comment.