This guide includes the major Metal genres, and my description about each one. Also included are the some of the best and definitive albums from each genre.
Of all rock & roll's myriad forms, heavy metal is the most extreme in terms of volume, machismo, and theatricality. There are numerous stylistic variations on heavy metal's core sound, but they're all tied together by a reliance on loud, distorted guitars and simple, pounding rhythms. Heavy metal has become one of the most consistently popular forms of rock music ever created, able to adapt to the times yet keep its core appeal intact.
The first seeds of heavy metal were sown in the British blues movement of the '60s, specifically among bands who found it hard to adjust to the natural swing of American blues. Arguably the first true metal band was Led Zeppelin. Initially, Zep played blues tunes heavier and louder than anyone ever had, and soon created an epic, textured brand of heavy rock that drew from many musical sources. Less subtle but perhaps even more influential was Black Sabbath, whose murky, leaden guitar riffs created a doomy fantasy world obsessed with drugs, death, and the occult. Following the blueprint laid down by Zep and Sabbath, several American bands modified heavy metal into more accessible forms during the '70s: the catchy tunes and outrageous stage shows of Alice Cooper and Kiss; the sleazy boogie of Aerosmith; and the flashy guitar leads and wild party rock of Van Halen (not to mention the distinctively minimalist grooves of Australia's AC/DC).
In the late '70s, a cache of British bands dubbed the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (including Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Motorhead) started playing metal faster, leaner, and with more menace than ever before. They helped influence a new American metal scene known as thrash in the '80s, which took shape as a reaction to metal's new mainstream pop breakthrough, which came courtesy of Def Leppard's Pyromania. Metal enjoyed its greatest presence on the charts during the '80s, thanks to a raft of glammed-up pop-metal bands, but thrash bands played complex riffs at breakneck speed, sometimes dispensing with vocal melody altogether. Thrashers like Metallica and Megadeth built rabid cult followings that pushed them into the mainstream around the same time that grunge wiped pop-metal off the charts.
Mainstream metal in the '90s centered around a new hybrid called alternative metal, which (in its most commercially potent form) combined grinding thrash and grunge influences with hip-hop and industrial flourishes, though it broke with metal's past in downplaying the importance of memorable riffs. Meanwhile, the underground grew harsher and bleaker, producing two similar, thrash-derived styles known as death metal and black metal, which produced some of the most abrasive, intense, hyperspeed music and graphic shock tactics the metal world had yet witnessed.
Led Zeppelin IV (aka ZOSO) (1971) Encompassing heavy metal, folk, pure rock & roll, and blues, Led Zeppelin's untitled fourth album is a monolithic record, defining not only Led Zeppelin but the sound and style of '70s hard rock.
Paranoid (1971) Paranoid was not only Black Sabbath's most popular record, it also stands as one of the greatest and most influential heavy metal albums of all time. Monolithic and primally powerful, Paranoid defined the sound and style of heavy metal more than any other record in rock history.
Machine Head (1972) Led Zeppelin's fourth album, Black Sabbath's Paranoid, and Deep Purple's Machine Head have stood the test of time as the Holy Trinity of English hard rock and heavy metal, serving as the fundamental blueprints followed by virtually every heavy rock & roll band since the early '70s. And, though it is probably the least celebrated of the three, Machine Head contains the "mother of all guitar riffs" — and one of the first learned by every beginning guitarist — in "Smoke on the Water."
Alive! (1975) Alive! was the album that catapulted Kiss from cult attraction to mega-superstars. Culled from shows in Detroit, New Jersey, Iowa, and Cleveland on the Dressed to Kill tour, the record features producer Eddie Kramer doing a masterful job of capturing the band's live performance on record.
Van Halen (1978) Sheer visceral force is one thing, but originality is another, and the still-amazing thing about Van Halen is how it sounds like it has no fathers. The songs on Van Halen still sound vital, surprising, and ultimately fun — and really revolutionary, because no other band rocked like this before Van Halen, and it's still a giddy thrill to hear them discover a new way to rock on this stellar, seminal debut.
Back in Black (1980) The tawdry celebration of sex is what made AC/DC different from all other metal bands — there was no sword & sorcery, no darkness, just a rowdy party, and they never held a bigger, better party than they did on Back in Black.
British Steel (1980) British Steel offers the band's catchiest, most accessible set of tunes, while retaining the precision guitar assault and quasi-operatic vocals that had come to define their sound. "Breaking the Law" and "Living After Midnight" became genuine hit singles in the U.K., and deservedly so, while the album became their first to reach the U.S. Top 40, going platinum in the process.
Diary of a Madman (1981) The follow-up to the masterful Blizzard of Ozz, Diary of a Madman was rushed into existence by a band desperate to finish its next album before an upcoming tour. Yet despite the fact that some songs could have used a longer gestation period, there are numerous moments of brilliance on Diary of a Madman — at least half of it stands up to anything on Blizzard, and the title track is a jaw-droppingly intricate epic that represents the most classically influenced work of Randy Rhoads' all-too-brief career.
Blackout (1982) Blackout was the Scorpions' first majorly successful album, due to its clever balance of pop/rock (the title track), power ballads ("When the Smoke Is Going Down"), and catchy heavy metal ("Dynamite," "No One Like You").
Holy Diver (1983) After participating in five classic studio albums (three with Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow and two with Black Sabbath) in the late '70s and early '80s, it seemed that singer Ronnie James Dio could do no wrong. And with the release of his self-monickered band's debut album, Holy Diver, in 1983, Dio struck gold once again by injecting catchy melodies into the classic metal riffery of his previous groups.
Appetite for Destruction (1987) Guns N' Roses' debut, Appetite for Destruction was a turning point for hard rock in the late '80s — it was a dirty, dangerous, and mean record in a time when heavy metal meant nothing but a good time. As good as Axl Rose's lyrics and screeching vocals are, they wouldn't be nearly as effective without the twin-guitar interplay of Slash and Izzy Stradlin, who spit out riffs and solos better than any band since the Rolling Stones, and that's what makes Appetite for Destruction the best metal record of the late '80s.
British Metal, in an odd way, is as a much a reaction to the lumbering arena heavy metal groups of the mid-'70s as punk rock. Taking their cue from the grimy riffs of Black Sabbath, British metal groups were faster, tougher, harder, and louder than their predecessors. Frequently dressed in leather and playing fast, pounding riffs, they stood apart from the AOR-oriented metal bands that dominated hard rock since the early-'70s. Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Motorhead were the leaders of the movement and they gained a dedicated following in both Europe and America, even though they didn't cross over into the mainstream.
Budgie (1971) Though not nearly as celebrated as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep, or Deep Purple, Budgie was one of the finest heavy metal bands of the early to mid-'70s. For those seriously interested in metal's development, bombastic treasures like "Homicidal Suicidal,"and "Nude Disintegrating Parachutist Woman" are essential listening.
Demons & Wizards (1972) This is the album that solidified Uriah Heep's reputation as a master of gothic-inflected heavy metal. From short, sharp rock songs to lengthy, musically dense epics, Demons and Wizards finds Uriah Heep covering all the bases with style and power.
Jailbreak (1976) Thin Lizzy found their trademark twin-guitar sound on 1975's Fighting, but it was on its 1976 successor, Jailbreak, where the band truly took flight. Thin Lizzy is tough as rhino skin and as brutal as bandits, but it's leavened by Phil Lynott's light touch as a singer, which is almost seductive in its croon.
Strong Arm of the Law (1980) A mere six months after releasing their stunning sophomore album, Wheels of Steel, Saxon managed to top themselves with Strong Arm of the Law. All the ingredients fell into place with this record, and though it lacked the obvious hits of its predecessor, its greater consistency from start to finish marks it as the band's definitive work for most fans and critics.
The Number of the Beast (1982) Even though Iron Maiden were on the brink of worldwide superstardom after their breakthrough sophomore effort, Killers, vocalist Paul Di'Anno left the band at the conclusion of their 1981 world tour. Many fans wondered if this would signal the end to one of metal's most promising new bands, but their worries were soon erased after hearing the 1982 masterpiece The Number of the Beast. Ex-Samson singer Bruce Dickinson replaced Di'Anno, and his strong, operatic vocals proved to be one of Maiden's most distinctive trademarks. Like its predecessor, not a single weak track is included — "Invaders," "The Prisoner," "22 Acacia Avenue" (a follow-up to 1980's "Charlotte the Harlot"), and "Gangland" were all rocking highlights; the quieter "Children of the Damned" and "Hallowed Be Thy Name" were also featured. The Number of the Beast is quite simply one of the best heavy metal albums ever released.
The least metallic variation of heavy metal, pop-metal became the most popular form of hard rock during the '80s. Some pop-metal bands emphasized metal's most important building block — the guitar riff — more than others, but pop-metal's main attraction were the huge, catchy hooks that owed a great deal to the fist-pumping choruses of arena rock. Pop-metal and hair metal were effectively wiped off the musical map by grunge in 1991; some pop-metal bands continued to record for smaller labels and cult audiences, but the music's reputation had suffered too much to restore its former glamour.
Pyromania (1983) The band's songs on Pyromania are driven by catchy, shiny melodic hooks instead of heavy guitar riffs, although the latter do pop up once in a while. The intensified focus on melody and consistent songwriting (and heavy MTV exposure) made Pyromania a massive success — and the catalyst for the '80s pop-metal movement. Pyromania is an enduring (and massively influential) classic.
Under Lock & Key (1985) Though purists often cite Tooth and Nail as their favorite, Dokken's third album Under Lock and Key remains the best introduction to the band's sound. Released in 1985, the album showcases the band's every facet, including hit singles ("In My Dreams," "It's Not Love"), heavy metal bursts ("Lightnin' Strikes Again," "Til the Livin' End"), and ballads ("Slippin Away," "Jaded Heart"). It also contains prime examples of the band's best tunes (mid-paced rockers) in "Unchain the Night" and "The Hunter," both of which feature fantastic solos from guitar genius George Lynch.
Slippery When Wet (1986) It is probably true that Bon Jovi's breakthrough success with Slippery When Wet, their third album, had more to do with lead singer Jon Bon Jovi's mop of curls and winning smile than with anything in the grooves of the record. Nevertheless, the album contained competent contemporary pop/rock, from its Eddie Van Halen-inspired guitar solos to the singer's enthusiastic, husky wail.
Whitesnake (1987) The Led Zeppelin-ish "Still of the Night" offered headbanger appeal, but it was the big chorus of "Here I Go Again" — one of the very small number of non-power ballad '80s hard rock singles to actually top the pop charts — and the quiet ballad "Is This Love" that really sold the album in spades. The rest of the album generally holds interest as well, and it's easily the band's best.
Pump (1989) Where Permanent Vacation seemed a little overwhelmed by its pop concessions, Pump revels in them without ever losing sight of Aerosmith's dirty hard rock core. Which doesn't mean the record is a sellout — "What It Takes" has more emotion and grit than any of their other power ballads; "Janie's Got a Gun" tackles more complex territory than most previous songs; and "The Other Side" and "Love in an Elevator" rock relentlessly, no matter how many horns and synths fight with the guitars. Such ambition and successful musical eclecticism make Pump rank with Rocks and Toys in the Attic.
Over the years, the term power metal has been used to describe everything from NWOBHM bands to hardcore-tinged thrashers like Pantera. As a movement, though, power metal crystallized during the mid-'90s, mostly as a reaction against the harshness and lack of melody in death and black metal. Power metal was primarily (though not exclusively) a continental-European phenomenon, with a handful of '80s veterans reviving their careers, plus a number of newer bands who'd started out playing death metal but wanted to sound more like the music they'd grown up with.
Keeper of the Seven Keys Part 1 (1987) Influenced by Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, Helloween specialized in blistering yet melodic heavy metal with a strong gothic orientation. On Keeper of the Seven Keys, Pt. 1 (arguably Helloween's best album), lead vocalist Michael Kiske has no problem singing in a high, ear-splitting pitch — often demonstrating just how great an impact Rob Halford has had on him. There are no hormone-driven odes to women in tight dresses (a recurring theme in metal and hard rock) on Keeper; from "Future World" to "Twilight of the Gods," Helloween sticks to the type of gothic, fantasy-oriented lyrics it was known for. Helloween's contributions to metal were never outstanding, but as Keeper showcases, the band did have its moment.
Tales From The Twilight World (1990) Tales from the Twilight World was Blind Guardian's third album, and the one that broke them to a wider audience in Germany and helped score them a deal with the German division of Virgin Records. It's no surprise, then, that it was their best-crafted record up to that point, as the band had mastered its fusion of technical speed metal, powerful Judas Priest-esque grooves, and a dramatic, neo-classical feel.
Days of Purgatory (1997) Days of Purgatory is perhaps the best starting point for anyone first discovering Iced Earth, as it presents much of the band's early material with superior sound quality and musicianship, most notably from vocalist Matthew Barlow. The band is at its inventive best in the nine-minute epic "Travel in Stygian."
Glory to the Brave (1997) Glory to the Brave is indeed a classic power metal record — no frills or progressive elements here, just speed-laden, melodic, grandiose anthems about honor, glory, and slaying dragons.
Chosen Ones (1999) The track listing for The Chosen Ones: Greatest Hits was determined by fan balloting, and the results make a case for Stratovarius as one of the most unfairly overlooked metal outfits of the '90s, as well as providing a perfect entry point for American audiences who have been kept in the dark by the scarcity of the group's albums up until 1998.
Progressive Metal blends the attack, volume, and aggression of metal with the grandiose, pseudo-classical ambitions of prog-rock. Progressive metal first surfaced in the late '80s, led by such bands as the Pink Floydian Queensryche. At the time, prog-metal was fairly underground, and it remained that way throughout the '90s. However, it was popular enough to produce a handful of crossover hits, most notably Queensryche's "Silent Lucidity." But even though it never became a huge seller in the '90s, progressive metal always had a dedicated following, and bands like Queensryche and Dream Theater stayed on major labels throughout the decade.
Abigail (1987) Widely recognized as King Diamond's solo masterpiece, Abigail is also unquestionably one of heavy metal's greatest concept albums.
Operation: Mindcrime (1988) Queensryche scored their breakthrough success with the ambitious concept album Operation: Mindcrime, which tells the story of a fortune hunter whose disillusionment with Reagan-era American society leads him to join a shadowy plot to assassinate corrupt leaders. Despite the occasional flaws, it's surprising how well Operation: Mindcrime does work, and it's a testament to Queensryche's creativity and talent that they can pull off a project of this magnitude.
Images & Words (1992) Dream Theater's first album with new vocalist James LaBrie is an excellent mix of progressive metal stylings with heartfelt vocals and thought-provoking lyrics.
Chasing Time (1995) This is Fates Warning's best-of collection, spanning from Night On Brocken to Inside Out, but not including the Matheos solo recording First Impressions. The songs included are a decent representation of the group's output and make for an interesting historical timeline of the band's growth.
The Divine Wings of Tragedy (1997) Symphony X had already established a devoted following prior to the release of The Divine Wings of Tragedy, but it was this release that propelled them to the forefront of progressive metal bands. While this recording may not be quite the classic that it is often heralded to be, it is a noteworthy addition to the annals of progressive metal.
In the early '80s, speed metal became the most popular form of heavy metal in the American underground. Crossing the New Wave of British Heavy Metal with hardcore punk, speed metal was extremely fast, abrasive, and technically demanding — the bands played fast, but their attack was precise and clean. In that sense, speed metal always remained true to its metal roots.
No Remorse (1984) There have been dozens and dozens of Motorhead compilations released over the decades, but the first one remains definitive, even if it's not perfect. No Remorse is a classic album, no doubt.
Metal Church (1985) The band's incredibly tight musicianship is a highlight all on its own, and vocalist David Wayne's piercing screech (similar to Accept's Udo Dirkschneider) was considered very hip at the time, believe it or not. Concluding with a full-throttle cover of the Deep Purple standard "Highway Star," this album remains an overlooked classic of straight-ahead American-bred heavy metal.
Pleasure to Kill (1986) Metal band Kreator had been around for awhile before they released Pleasure to Kill in 1986. Many in the underground metal scene were already paying special attention to the German outfit's proto-death sound, but the cult status was shed after this critically and commercially successful sophomore effort hit record-store shelves. Fans of the group simply must own this seminal European metal offering.
The Legacy (1987) Comparable to Slayer, Megadeth, and Metallica, Testament is one of thrash metal's more accessible and best-known bands. Testament quickly earned respect in thrash circles with its debut album, The Legacy, a relentlessly heavy and promising effort focusing on such subjects as the occult, witchcraft, nuclear war, and global destruction.
Never Neverland (1990) In the 1980s and early '90s, there was often a very fine line between "hard rock" and "heavy metal." But with Annihilator, there was never a question -- this was most definitely a metal band to the core. Comparable to Metallica and Judas Priest at their heaviest, Never Neverland is a blistering gem that takes no prisoners either musically or lyrically.
Thrash was essentially the sound of underground heavy metal during the '80s, dominated by a driving, percussive approach to rhythm guitar and furious levels of aggression. Thrash was often technically accomplished, taken at fast tempos, and emphasized heavy, sometimes atonal guitar riffs over melody. It provided a harder, heavier, more authentically metallic alternative to the accessible pop-metal bands who dominated the charts in the late '80s, and despite a dearth of airplay, it became quite popular, so much so that when Metallica and Megadeth streamlined their sound to make it more accessible in the early '90s, they became instant superstars.
Bonded By Blood (1985) Had it been released immediately after it was recorded in 1984, Exodus' Bonded by Blood might be regarded today alongside Metallica's Kill 'em All as one of the landmark albums responsible for launching the thrash metal wave. Bonded by Blood is an album whose influence far exceeds its actual notoriety, and it remains a crucial piece of the thrash metal puzzle — essential.
Morbid Tales / Emperor's Return (1985) Though they'd been together for barely a year and had yet to play their first concert, Celtic Frost brought a remarkably accomplished vision to the recording of their first album, 1984's Morbid Tales. With its highly focused thrash metal intensity and peculiar mix of satanic and esoteric lyrics, the album would sow the seeds of Celtic Frost's overwhelming influence in years to come.
Master of Puppets (1986) Even though Master of Puppets didn't take as gigantic a leap forward as Ride the Lightning, it was the band's greatest achievement, hailed as a masterpiece by critics far outside heavy metal's core audience. Some critics have called Master of Puppets the best heavy metal album ever recorded; if it isn't, it certainly comes close.
Peace Sells...But Who's Buying? (1986) Arguably Megadeth's strongest effort and a classic of early thrash, Peace Sells combines a punkish political awareness with a dark, threatening, typically heavy metal worldview, preoccupied with evil, the occult, and the like. Vital, necessary thrash.
Reign in Blood (1986) Widely considered the pinnacle of speed metal, Reign in Blood is Slayer's undisputed masterpiece, a brief (under half an hour) but relentless onslaught that instantly obliterates anything in its path and clears out just as quickly. The album almost single-handedly inspired the entire death metal genre (at least on the American side of the Atlantic), and unlike many of its imitators, it never crosses the line into self-parodic overkill.
Among the Living (1987) Generally considered the band's best album, Among the Living broadened the scope of Anthrax's subject matter with socially conscious lyrics addressing prejudice, violence, drug abuse, and the hollowness of the music business, as well as a politically correct ode to the "Indians."
Nothingface (1989) Arguably the best of the Denis Belanger-era Voivod albums, Nothingface is highly recommended to just about any aficionado of twisted, original heavy metal or prog rock. Jason Newsted of Metallica has praised Voivod as one of his favorite metal bands on numerous occasions, and after hearing Nothingface, it's easy to understand why.
Vulgar Display of Power (1992) One of the most influential heavy metal albums of the 1990s, Vulgar Display of Power is just what is says: a raw, pulverizing, insanely intense depiction of naked rage and hostility that drains its listeners and pounds them into submission. Even the "ballads," "This Love" and "Hollow," have thunderingly loud, aggressive chorus sections.
Chaos Ad (1993) Chaos A.D. was the record where everything came together for Sepultura, when they graduated from being an excellent, if derivative, band into one of metal's most unique voices. Endlessly playable (there isn't a wasted or unnecessary note on the album), passionately performed, and a sign that a new metal underground was finally bearing artistic fruit, Chaos A.D. ranks as one of the greatest heavy metal albums of all time.
Death Metal/Black Metal
Death Metal grew out of the thrash metal in the late '80s. Taking the gritty lyrics and morbid obsessions of thrash to extremes, death metal was — as its name suggests — solely about death, pain, and suffering. These relentlessly bleak lyrics were set to loud, heavy riffs that owed as much to the lumbering metal of Black Sabbath as it did to Metallica. Death metal never attracted a wide audience, but to some diehard heavy metal fans, it was a preferable alternative to Metallica and Guns N' Roses — who were selling millions of records in the late '80s and early '90s — or the pop-metal of Poison. It kept a small, dedicated cult throughout the '90s.
Black Metal (1982) No single track here would match the impact of first album nuggets like "Witching Hour" and "Angel Dust" in terms of future influence (the aforementioned "Countess Bathory" possibly being the sole exception), taken as a whole, Black Metal is right up there with its predecessor Welcome to Hell.
Deicide (1990) With a shockingly tight performance and a handful of evil anthems, Glen Benton and company managed to craft a death metal classic with their eponymous debut.
Human (1991) Human started to break Death to a wider audience, after Chuck Schuldiner nearly disbanded the group. Schuldiner's playing has improved immensely since Scream Bloody Gore, as have his compositional skills. He writes strange, dissonant, harmonized guitar lines and is one of the few death metal songwriters who changes moods and textures over the course of an album; Human's second half is actually almost subdued by death metal standards.
Covenant (1993) Covenant started to bring Morbid Angel up out of the underground, as MTV gave them wider exposure on its late Headbanger's Ball. Guitarist Trey Azagthoth plays complicated, heavily detuned riffs, some with a lightning-fast picking style and others in a slower groove. Drummer Pete Sandoval is one of the genre's fastest, and his jackhammer style helps complete Morbid Angel's core sound. Their incredible chops and nonstop intensity may be exactly what you've been looking for, or you may find the lack of variation wearisome.
Heartwork (1994) Heartwork marks Carcass' return after the self-imposed hiatus that followed 1991's Necroticism: Descanting the Insalubrious. It's also the pioneering grindcore outfit's breakthrough release, successfully grafting melody onto the existing muscle of Carcass' punishing antimusic. igor boyar