The Greatest Heavy Metal Bands of All Time
What is heavy metal? Is Led Zeppelin heavy metal? Is Linkin Park? Is Pelican? Any genre of music is hard to pin down, and there are always bands that bring the best (or worst) parts of genres together. My idea of heavy metal might also be different from yours, depending on what elements we consider "essential" to a heavy metal band.
And which band started heavy metal? Is it Steppenwolf? Is it Black Sabbath? Is it Blue Cheer? Is it Judas Priest? All of these bands could claim to have originated heavy metal, and they could all be wrong. Again, it all depends on what elements are essential. Is it enough to sound like heavy metal? Or do you also need to dress the part? Is the answer in your album cover? In your devotion to dark themes?
And how to we define "greatest"? Is it the heavy metal band that sold the most albums? Is it the most influential band? Is it the most inventive band? Some bands were truly ahead of their time, while others were following a trend to its logical conclusion. Certainly all of these elements go toward making a band "the greatest," though some may predominate over others.
With all of this in mind I offer my own list of "Greatest Heavy Metal Bands of All Time," excluding some because I think they exist too far outside the genre, and others because I don't think they merit the adjective "great." Take it for what it's worth. If you disagree with me, I'd be happy to know why.
1. The 1970s: Origins of Heavy Metal
If you ask me, the first heavy metal album was the first Black Sabbath album. They had the look, they had the riff-heavy sound, and they had the satanic album covers. They were also a great band. In my opinion, every album the original lineup did with Ozzy was classic, and to those albums I would add the three albums they did with Dio (Mob Rules, Heaven and Hell, and Dehumanizer). I think that Vol. 4 is the best Sabbath album, though of course it's hard to pick a #1 out of that particular discography.
God damn Rob Halford can sing. Judas Priest were almost metal too early. Parts of both Rocka Rolla and Sad Wings of Destiny must have put people off at the time, but by the time this band recorded British Steel they had cemented their reputation as one of the all-time greatest heavy metal bands. Sad Wings is probably my favorite Priest album, just because it's so unusual.
Rainbow was formed out of the ashes of Elf, Dio's band, and one of the many Deep Purple lineups. The three albums they did with Dio are all classic, and Rainbow really brought a level of virtuosity that the genre hadn't seen before. Of these three albums, Rainbow Rising has got to be my favorite.
You could argue that AC/DC isn't a heavy metal band, and you might be right. Their sound was never far removed from the blues greats that inspired them, but they definitely had a big influence on the genre. In my opinion Back in Black will always be the definitive AC/DC album, but I have since grown into the earlier Bon Scott albums.
You only need one Motorhead album, and this would be Ace of Spades. The rest of their output is fairly similar, but Ace of Spades casts a long shadow.
2. The 1980s: The NWOBHM and Thrash
Iron Maiden is the band that launched a thousand imitators. Back in the early 80s their sound was so new, and their look was so striking that many people didn't even know what to make of them. Pretty much everything they did up until the departure of Bruce Dickinson is great, and some of their recent albums have also been surprisingly good. I think that most would pinpoint either Number of the Beast or Powerslave as their best album.
Metallica continues to be one of the most visible bands on the planet. This visibility has been both bad and good for the band. The albums they did with with Cliff Burton are their best, though I have a fondness for ...And Justice for All. These guys invented shredding. Or Dave Mustaine did. Depends on who you ask.
Dave Mustaine, guiding force within Megadeth, started his career as the lead guitarist for Metallica. He is something of an asshole in real life, but he made some great music. Everything Megadeth did up until Countdown to Exctinction is great, and Rust in Peace might just be my favorite metal album of all time.
Slayer has made so many great albums that I wouldn't know where to start. They tended to be more "underground" than either Metallica or Megadeth for most of the 80s, but their popularity has surpassed Megadeth's since then. Reign in Blood still gets me riled up, though Seasons in the Abyss is probably my favorite Slayer album.
3. The 1990s: Cross-Pollination
Whatever people say, Soundgarden were a heavy metal band in the best sense of the term. I've never really understood "grunge" as an appellation... and I'm from Seattle. Their cover of "Into the Void" should settle the argument by itself. Everyone should own a copy of Badmotorfinger.
Alice in Chains
Another band grouped under the grunge banner, but they were even more metal than Soundgarden. They're not quite as prominent as they once were, but Facelift, Dirt, and the self-titled Alice in Chains remain classic. Layne Staley will be missed.
Faith No More
Where grunge didn't suffice, many people in the 90s took to using the term "alternative." Faith No More weren't from Seattle, so that was they label they were stuck with. This band never got the credit it deserved, but their Mike Patton-era albums continue to influence a lot of people. King For a Day, Fool for a Lifetime and Angel Dust should have been much bigger hits than they were.
Yes, Venom had a song by the name of "Death Metal," but Death are just as often credited with creating the genre. They hailed from Florida, and never saw widespread success during their classic period, but their albums Human, Individual Thought Patterns, and Symbolic will rock your world.
Undertow, Aenima, and Lateralus are among the best metal albums ever made, and singer Maynard James Keenan is still one of the most unique vocalists ever. I wish I could say I liked this band at the height of their popularity, but it took me a while. I can remember seeing them on the second stage of a Lollapalooza, but I wasn't able to hear them.
I'm sure a lot of people find this band headache-inducing, but I have been a fan since the late nineties. I think Destroy Erase Improve is their best album, but I also like Obzen. If there is such a genre as Mathcore, no one is more Mathcore than Sweden's Meshuggah.
4: The 2000s: Metal Goes Global
Excellent band from France. Most of their lyrics touch on environmental themes, and their music comes on like a sledgehammer. I've owned all of their albums, and I think The Way of All Flesh is the best.
From Sweden, the country where metal often goes to get better. Opeth is a very eclectic, very technically proficient band, and some of their music can wear a bit thin. I didn't like their last album all that much, but Blackwater Park and Watershed are excellent.
Mastodon are an American band with progressive leanings. Their last album seemed a bit uninspired, but Remission and Leviathan are HEAVY. I sometimes wish they would stop emulating King Crimson and just play what comes naturally.
Dillinger Escape Plan
This is the band most often associated with the "math rock" label. In tone they are very similar to Meshuggah, and they've been around for about the same length of time. Miss Machine is a fantastic album. They are probably the only band that can truly sound "poppy" and evil at the same time.
5. The 2010s: Searching for the Next Big Thing
I haven't heard it yet, not to say it's not out there. Here's hoping something good surfaces soon...