When it comes to heavy metal, or any genre of music for that matter, everyone starts at square one. With only a very little knowledge of the genre they want to become a fan of, as well as a burning passion to be a fan of that genre of music, the fan in question takes his or her first steps into that musical world. Compiled below is a list of twenty albums that reach across the entire spectrum of heavy metal music, from vast progressive instrumentation to songs about general blood and guts. Please note that these 20 records have not been ranked in terms of their appropriateness, and with that in mind, let’s begin…
- Metallica – ‘Metallica’ (1991)
Where else is a better place than by discussing perhaps the most successful metal album ever, to be written and released by any band in the heavy metal world? Not only has Metallica’s eponymous 1991 album been credited as the reason why some of today’s contemporary metal heavyweights exist in the first place (Trivium and Bullet for My Valentine just to name a couple), ‘Metallica’ sports a selection of heavy rock anthems that are still celebrated decades after they were first heard. “Enter Sandman”, “Sad but True”, “Wherever I May Roam” and “Of Wolf and Man” are perfect entry points if you’re looking for something easy to digest, but genuinely metal at the same time. But then go back and listen to the first 4 Metallica albums – they’re just as good.
- Iron Maiden – ‘The Number of the Beast’ (1982)
Time to talk about Iron Maiden. All of the classic Maiden releases with Bruce Dickinson on vocals are worth your time (‘Piece of Mind’, ‘Powerslave’, ‘Fear of the Dark’ etc), but ‘The Number of the Beast’ is unquestionably Iron Maiden’s single biggest career highlight, across their entire discography. There aren’t many albums that come to mind where by every single song is great, which makes the times where that does happen even better. This album is one of those times. The opening drums of “Invaders” all the way to the eerie instrumentation of “Hallowed Be Thy Name”, which is one of the best album closing tracks in the history of rock music. You. Need. This. Album.
- Black Sabbath – ‘Paranoid’ (1970)
As we all know, Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut album ‘Black Sabbath’ (1970) invented the genre and in some ways changed music forever. Lamb of God, the Melvins, Judas Priest, Clutch, Anthrax, Green Day – the list of artists influenced by Black Sabbath is endless. You could say then that Paranoid is arguably the band’s defining statement, with genuinely timeless material such as the title track “Paranoid”, “Iron Man”, “Planet Caravan” and “Fairies Wear Boots” making this album a classic and one you should absolutely check out. The album’s opening song “War Pigs”, with its incredible tidal wave of guitar at its conclusion on behalf of the mighty Tony Iommi, is enough to give this album your attention. Plus it’s Black Sabbath, so you can’t go wrong.
- Venom – ‘Welcome to Hell’ (1981)
Time to go DARK! Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin toyed with the occult on various occasions, but it was Venom that really pushed the demonic visual and musical aesthetic to the forefront. ‘Welcome to Hell’, along with its follow-up ‘Black Metal’, are perfect examples of what hard rock music can sound like when it’s been intentionally produced to sound devilish and truly evil. Every band in extreme metal exists purely based off ‘Welcome to Hell’. Without this album there would be no Slayer, Death, Metallica, Bathory, Morbid Angel, Mayhem, Possessed, Exodus, Kreator, Sodom. You get the idea. The best bit about this album though, is that it sounds terrifying without being too musically extreme to intimidate beginner listeners of the genre.
- Judas Priest – ‘British Steel’ (1980)
Some people consider Judas Priest’s landmark 1980 album ‘British Steel’ as the moment when heavy metal stripped itself of its Black Sabbath-led blues influence and focused solely on riffs and pretty much nothing else. Priest itself had dropped the Deep Purple influence and incorporated a straightforward approach to their musicality and songwriting. “Living After Midnight” and “Breaking the Law” are all-time classics without a doubt, but even material such as “Rapid Fire”, “Grinder” and “Steeler” is superb. If you’re serious about metal, this is an album you need in your collection. Also to add, Rob Halford is one of the best there ever will be.
- Mayhem – ‘De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas’ (1994)
The fact that De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is the only black metal album on this entire list (unless you’re one of those people who credits Venom’s work as black metal) should be perceived as quite the accolade. Mayhem’s breakthrough release, in my opinion, is one of the finest examples of this style of music alongside the first Bathory record and Emperor’s ‘In the Nightside Eclipse’. As can be expected, the controversy and circumstances surrounding Mayhem’s career sometimes make the music seem almost secondary, but don’t let the arsons and what not cloud your judgement when it comes to this band. If you’re seeking an entrance point into black metal, this is an excellent place to start.
- Dio – ‘Holy Diver’ (1983)
Time to go back to classic heavy metal for a moment. 1983 can be considered a relatively prosperous year for this type of music, with notable releases from Ozzy Osbourne, Def Leppard, Motley Crue, Metallica, Iron Maiden and Slayer, but ‘Holy Diver’ stands still to this day as one of the best hard rock albums of 1983 in my opinion. Alongside ‘Rainbow Rising’ and ‘Heaven and Hell’, ‘Holy Diver’ is the final of the three absolute classic albums from the late great Ronnie James Dio, and tracks such as “Don’t Talk to Strangers”, “Rainbow in the Dark” and the title song epitomize this entirely. If you’re keen on Diamond Head, Judas Priest, Angel Witch and the like, this is an album you should love.
- Queensyrche – ‘Operation Mindcrime’ (1988)
Queensryche’s third studio album ‘Operation Mindcrime’ is one a few progressive metal records to be found on this list. The January 1989 issue of Kerrang! Magazine ranked ‘Operation Mindcrime’ as the 34th greatest heavy metal album of all time, further solidified by the fact that it received gold certification a year after its initial release. The almost one-hour long concept album explores themes of disillusionment and the corruptive nature of human society, making Queensryche’s 1988 album one of the most expansive and challenging records on this entire list. Like with a lot of progressive and experimental albums, it will take some time to really dig its musical teeth into you, but once it’s achieved that, it won’t let you go easily.
- Death – ‘Scream Bloody Gore’ (1987)
This is where death metal started, in the opinions of many. Seven Churches deserves a nod for sure, but this is ground zero for everything that would come later. It’s completely understandable that the phrase “death metal” can appear daunting at first, which is why I feel getting into thrash first and then progressing onto early death metal is a more appropriate route. ‘Scream Bloody Gore’ perfectly represents everything that Death and their frankly genius visionary frontman Chuck Schuldiner were about at the time: songs about zombies and gore. The entire gruesome aesthetic of Obituary and Cannibal Corpse all the way to slightly lesser known bands like Cut Up, Aborted, Exhumed and Cattle Decapitation, comes from ‘Scream Bloody Gore’. If this album manages to sink its teeth into you, go and check out everything Death has done. It’s all great. Chuck is the David Bowie of extreme metal, in my opinion.
- Megadeth – ‘Rust in Peace’ (1990)
‘Rust in Peace’ is by quite considerable distance one of the most technical and rhythmically complex records Megadeth has ever put their name on, but don’t let this put you off. There are still genuinely good songs on this album, instead of ‘Rust in Peace’ being a guitar-solo filled mess that is more focused on being a show-off instead of musically interesting. Of course, – and Marty Friedman shred like their lives depended on it, but material such as “Holy Wars (the Punishment Due)” and “Sweating Bullets” rank among the highlights of this band’s entire discography.
- Slayer – ‘Reign in Blood’ (1986)
I’ve written about this album already on at least one occasion (be sure to check out my ‘Slayer albums ranked best to worst article’), but it’s Reign in Blood’, so why not do it again? In the 30+ years since its inception onto the world, Reign in Blood’ has been dissected, talked about and loved perhaps more than any other album in this entire genre. And with good reason: 28 minutes of the most beautifully intense and savage music to come out of the 1980s. “Angel of Death” and “Raining Blood” are the obvious standout tracks, but “Reborn”, “Altar of Sacrifice”, “Postmortem” and “Necrophobic” are also definitely worth your time. This album changed my life. It should change yours too.
- Machine Head – ‘Burn My Eyes’ (1994)
“Let freedom ring with a shotgun blast!” declared Machine Head frontman Robb Flynn (ex-Vio-Lence and Forbidden) on “Davidian”, the opening track from ‘Burn My Eyes’, one of the classics of the New Wave of American Heavy Metal. Following in the steps of Pantera (more on them later) and alongside contemporaries of the time such as Fear Factory and Sepultura, Machine Head’s debut full-length release is a fantastic way to branch out into more riff-dependent metal which harkens back to the days of Black Sabbath and 80s thrash, as opposed to the more extreme styles which were becoming prominent at the time of this album’s release. This is an album to check out for sure.
- Slipknot – ‘Slipknot’ (1999)
Just like with Slayer’s album ‘Reign in Blood’, I’ve already discussed this one (see my ‘Slipknot albums ranked best to worst’ article). Anyway, I consider all five Slipknot releases to be at the very least decent (ahem, ‘All Hope is Gone’), with the better ones being fantastic in my opinion. I ranked ‘Slipknot’ as the best of the five records in the previously mentioned article, and with good reason. The first 15 or so minutes of this album will rip your face off (not literally), but you get the idea. There is definitely the argument that this album is front-loaded, but who cares when the quality of the songs are THAT good? “Liberate” as well is perhaps the most underrated song in Slipknot’s entire discography. This is one of the highlights of modern metal, and an essential own.
- Pantera – ‘Vulgar Display of Power’ (1992)
Pantera are to the 90s what Black Sabbath was to the 70s, and Metallica and Slayer were to the 80s. That’s the level of awesome we’re talking about here. Everything from ‘Cowboys from Hell’ up to ‘Reinventing the Steel’ absolutely rips, but it’s ‘Vulgar Display of Power’ that remains the band’s most defining album. “Walk” has gone down in heavy metal folklore as one of its most recognisable songs, while tracks such as “This Love”, “Mouth for War” and “Fucking Hostile” remain all-time classics. People who say metal died in the 80s need to hear this album. It is brilliant. The only downside to Pantera when you’re listening to them is you wish they were still a band.
- Rage Against the Machine – ‘Rage Against the Machine’ (1992)
Now, how often is it that I get to talk about how brilliant Rage Against the Machine is, eh? While definitely not a conventional heavy metal band in any of the traditional senses of the term, Rage Against the Machine completely pioneered political hard rock by taking a different approach to socially conscious lyricism as opposed to Megadeth for example. Every album this band has put out has been killer, but it’s their self-titled debut that unquestionably is their golden achievement. “Bombtrack” is without a shadow of a doubt is one of the best album opening tracks in the history of not just heavy metal but rock music in general. Furthermore, if bands like Anthrax, Suicidal Tendencies and Municipal Waste seem a bit too hard for you at first, then this is a good album to ease you into that sort of thing.
- Killswitch Engage – ‘The End of Heartache’ (2004)
In the current climate of Warped Tour bands like Blessthefall, Asking Alexandria and Crown the Empire being labeled as metalcore, it is easy to forget how brilliant “metalcore” can be when done at its best. Killswitch Engage (and a plethora of other bands from that time) represented a changing of the guard, when nu-metal was on the gradual decline and people were searching for something that was more in spirit to the more visceral sounding music that came out of the 1980s and to a lesser extent the 1990s as well. ‘The End of Heartache’ is definitely more suited towards younger heavy metal fans, some of whom may feel disillusioned towards certain elitist attitudes which radiate from some corners of the “old school metal” fanbase. Nonetheless, tracks such as “Rose of Sharyn” and the title track “The End of Heartache” remain some of this band’s best material to date.
- At the Gates – ‘Slaughter of the Soul’ (1995)
Let’s talk about At the Gates, shall we? ‘Slaughter of the Soul’ is one of the albums that essentially popularized Gothenburg’s melodic death metal movement, alongside influential records by bands such as Dark Tranquility and In Flames. If thrash is too aggressive for you while death metal is too visceral, then it might be worth your time checking out ‘Slaughter of the Soul’ as it is an excellent entry-point into melodic death metal. On top of this, if you’re already up to date with the classic NWOBHM bands and are searching for something more extreme, check out this album. It may end up being just what you were looking for in the first place.
- Meshuggah – ‘Destroy Erase Improve’ (1995)
Meshuggah are one of those bands in the world of metal that have definitely garnered cult status in some respects, like Tool, Mastodon and others. That sort of legacy could be described as being kick-started with the release of ‘Destroy Erase Improve’ in the mid-1990s. It’s blend of extreme metal with avant-garde elements means that it is recommended to check out regardless of whether you’re a heavy metal newcomer or somebody who considers themselves fairly experienced and knowledgeable when it comes to progressive hard rock music. Nonetheless, give this album a go. It has been credited with essentially pioneering what would become to be known as djent in the modern musical climate, so that’s enough of a reason…right?
- System of a Down – ‘Toxicity’ (2001)
Time to go modern again. System of a Down’s “Chop Suey” is to my knowledge the first ever heavy metal song I heard, at the age of 9 or 10, so perhaps they should get the credit for getting me into metal instead of Metallica and Slayer. Anyway, ‘Toxicity’ is a very good introduction to the harder end of rock music, without being so upfront that it could possibly intimidate a new listener. Its balance of heavy metal and Eastern-European vibes with the band’s sometimes documented inspiration from hardcore punk groups like Dead Kennedys means ‘Toxicity’ is a sensible choice for an album to introduce you to this genre of music. Also, if you dig this record, go back and listen to the band’s self-titled album, which is also excellent. Two albums in one – how lucky are you?
- Dream Theater – ‘Images and Words’ (1992)
And here we are, the last album on this list of ’20 heavy metal albums for beginners’. Like I said earlier in regards to Meshuggah, Tool and Mastodon, Dream Theatre are one of those cult bands that have managed to garner a significantly large fanbase while still evading traditional pop songwriting conventions that some music acts fall victim to in order to gain higher levels of commercial success. The technically masterful instrumentation of guitarist John Petrucci, bassist John Myung and now-former drummer Mike Portnoy is one of the reasons why Dream Theatre stand tall amongst the increasing number of progressive bands you see becoming popular. ‘Images and Words’ can be considered the group’s commercial and critical magnum opus – if you’re looking to become a Dream Theatre obsessive – start your journey with this album.
So there you have it, 20 albums to help you delve further into the enormously varied genre of music that is heavy metal. Of course, your journey shouldn’t stop here. Part of the fun is exploring various bands and albums because you never quite know what you may come across next. There are so many bands that weren’t touched or discussed at all in this article that are worth your time: Gojira, Behemoth, Amon Amarth, Kreator, Emperor, Lamb of God, Deicide, Trivium, Sepultura, Children of Bodom, Overkill. That’s the beauty of it – you will never get bored of this style of music. So go knock yourself out, you’ll have a blast here.