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The Top Heavy Metal Albums of All Time

The Top Heavy Metal Albums of All Time

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by Martin Popoff

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The result of an extensive poll asking heavy metal fans to list their favourite high-octane albums, this compendium combines those survey results with Popoff’s original interviews with world famous rockers who reveal recording session secrets in addition to their own heavy classics and ear-splitting faves. When all of this is melded with Popoff’s


The result of an extensive poll asking heavy metal fans to list their favourite high-octane albums, this compendium combines those survey results with Popoff’s original interviews with world famous rockers who reveal recording session secrets in addition to their own heavy classics and ear-splitting faves. When all of this is melded with Popoff’s unique and celebrated insights into the metal of yesterday and today, an essential resource becomes a rock-writing standard. From AC/DC to ZZ Top and from Black Sabbath to Pantera, both headbanging chart-toppers and lesser-known gems are catalogued and critically appraised. With reviews of early metal albums of the 1960s, as well as the latest hits, The Top 500 Heavy Metal Albums of All Time blends praise with criticism to produce an honest assessment of the most influential and important heavy metal recordings. Also featured are photos and appendices that revel in mountains of metal minutiae. “Martin Popoff has no doubt supplied the raw material for all manner of intense debates among the former denizens of basement bedrooms everywhere.” — The Toronto Sun

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“Martin Popoff has no doubt supplied the raw material for all manner of intense debates among the former denizens of basement bedrooms everywhere.”  —The Toronto Sun

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ECW Press
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The Top 500 Heavy Metal Albums of All Time

By Martin Popoff, Michael Holmes


Copyright © 2004 Martin Popoff
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55022-600-3


6585 points (Elektra '86)

Greatest heavy metal record of all time, you say, and man, Master of Puppets has been deemed so by a skull-fryingly large margin. Alas, Metallica found themselves third-time lucky with this celebrated song-heavy symphony of scrapes. And I do mean third: Kill 'Em All was instantly recognized as the work of a band with more fire in the belly than anything flashing fast as of yet. Ride the Lightning was a completely unexpected and pleasantly surprising step up in sophistry for the band (and my superlatives belong there, for I personally think it's a bolder creative triumph than Master). Ergo, there you go: Metallica had arrived — at least in the hearts of us grim underground pounders — long before Master of Puppets arrived. They were the best at the newly intensified metal sound: the fastest guns, the youngest of spirit, the most optimistic of possibility. Strange year, 1986. Bad year, really. Metal was in a malaise, adrift, a transition. Indeed, playing Master, one surmises (without denying its brilliance) that it feels like the work of a more exciting year, say 1984. As a result, it is 1986's industry-eclipsing highlight, a ruthless piece of work when nothing and nobody was working too successfully on a creative level. The album succeeds first through the forceful midriff-pounding cannons of Fleming Rasmussen's merciless midrange tones. There is a crowd, center-stage, at the front, the space between band and fan compressed, diminished, erased. In this hotspot, the Bay Area's favorite denim-clad devils go about their business thrashing the daylights inside and out of the new extreme metal, recasting it as something one is able to process and make pleasurable; the thrash is compacted, impacted, punky but crafted to a puerile polish by the quick right hand of Hetfield. And speaking of James, what you got out of his booze-splashed craw was a vocal that was simultaneously extreme and personable, a sort of redneck howl from a guy that was cognizant of his genre's quandary with respect to the fragile balance between anguished vocal-chord grinding and the minefield of melody. So there he was, croaking and crooning his way through an assortment of large, dry, loveable songs, each an anthem (save for anthem-abdicating instrumental Orion), each deliberately dotting a plectrumed place on the thrash landscape, from the old-school blast of Battery and Damage, Inc., down through stuffed-full metal mannas like the title track and Disposable Heroes, decelerating now through the shaggy crags of The Thing That Should Not Be and Leper Messiah, wasting away at the restless resting place of Welcome Home (Sanitarium). Of course, that isn't the record's sequence (Master of Puppets is organized cagier than that. Synopsis: run in, run out), but that exercise gives you a sense of how much ground is covered on this album, all with an impressive unity that makes you forget the little bits of production — f'rinstance, the fact that the record begins with acoustic guitar. So there you have it ... but it's not exactly tidy. You have what is now the dominating metal band on the planet, making their third great record in a year neither here nor there for the genre as a whole, with the real, fresh, virginal excitement already having run its course over the two records the band had already released. Master of Puppets is also the work of a band that has lost, in a disheartening gradual slide over a long half of its long existence, a lot of its good will with the fans. Still, it won the whole damn thing, pointing to a maturity in our poll respondents to put aside the value-shifting vagaries of the sands of time and reward pure, unadulterated headbanging done righter than right.

Lars Ulrich on Master of Puppets ...

"It's kind of interesting talking about your previous records when you are in the middle of making another one; it's like different perspectives. But Master of Puppets, in some way, is probably the most concise one of the first four. With Lightning, we were starting to shape our sound. With Justice, we took it too far. But Master of Puppets is the most concise of those ... for better or worse, the most concise. To have it considered No. 1 is obviously a pretty amazing thing. I have a lot of respect for that record. It's difficult for me to rate them. I can't say Master of Puppets is better or worse than any of those records — they each are completely their own thing. Master of Puppets is obviously the record where it started breaking. When I think of that record I'll always think of the Ozzy tour, the stage set with the crosses; I'll always think of Cliff. Any time anybody asks me about records there's all these memories that come into play. And you know, I know this is like the oldest cliché in the book, but those records become time capsules; they become mile markers of your past. When I think of that record I think of being in Denmark drinking Danish beer, all this shit [laughs], recording at Sweet Silence. I realize now, sort of two-thirds of the way through making a new record ... we sat around today with our manager and talked about a bunch of stuff and it's really hard to objectify or be objective about our own stuff. I let other people rant and rave about the merits of the records and give opinions, but I have to say it's a record that I'm incredibly proud of. It seemed to just sort of come together. We were honing it on Lightning, and Puppets came the closest to a bull's-eye for that type of stuff. And then on Justice, I think it became too bloated and too introverted."


4760 points (EMI '82)

In some manner, The Number of the Beast is less of a confident rock-starry thing versus the anchored heft of Killers. There's a frantic quality that points to the naiveté of the debut, perhaps fueled by the cracked-open world of wonders that presented itself through the acquisition of a lead-singing, finger-pointing, pint-sizing dynamo in leg warmers called Bruce Dickinson. But three records runnin', Maiden's advantage was their track-to-track variation, each anthem an island, many with a nugget of novelty (look to spiffy intros and look to well-defined themes), all featuring a chemistry born of the band's odd, fat-stringed leadership structure. Lowlife lowlights for me are the two most popular songs, Run to the Hills and the sweet-and-sour title track, but much of the rest steams and redeems — The Prisoner, 22 Acacia Avenue and bristling, bustling epic Hallowed Be Thy Name being particularly ... crafty.

Bruce Dickinson on The Number of the Beast ...

"I'm not sure it's still the favorite, but it is certainly the most notorious. What's that word? It's a 'seminal' album [laughs]. In other words, it's the album that really started the whole darn thing in the eyes of a lot of the people on the planet. And while diehard Maiden fans know the thing was well underway with the first couple of records, the third album of any band is always kind of a make-or-break situation. If the band is doing really well with its first and second albums, and doesn't do a great third album, there's a kind of profound sense of disappointment that very often may mean the beginning of the end. But a really great third album can kick everything into gear, and in our case it was a great record. That really set the scene for the albums that followed. I mean, likely for us, we followed it up with an album that in my opinion, is actually better. But of course, albums are not just about music, they're also a product of their times. And Number of the Beast, because it occupied a space and achieved such a legendary status by virtue of its position in the career of the band ... it would be very hard to dislodge that. But in my opinion, Piece of Mind is a superior record."

Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden:

AC/DC — Highway to Hell

Rainbow — Rising

Led Zeppelin — II

Jethro Tull — Aqualung

Deep Purple — In Rock

Deep Purple — Made in Japan

Deep Purple — Burn

Black Sabbath — Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath — Sabbath Bloody Sabbath

Judas Priest — Sad Wings of Destiny


4363 points (Def Jam '86)

Artfully inspiring seeing this short slapper of a neck-snapper vault to No. 3 on our list, Slayer turning on their love light, leaving behind the somehow stuffy, manacled sound of old for what is real, raw, bloody, groovy and oddly personable, the heaviness and danger and chaos of the band tumbling and tangling while they knock the daylights out of rock history in under 30 minutes. Reign in Blood is the cusp album for the band, one that contains the brushfire of the original premise, but also the songful breakthrough of the pair of realization albums that would follow. As others thrashed around them, Slayer suddenly found themselves with a sound and a chemistry built from a defiant and ingrained self-confidence, smarmy laziness, and a refreshing disdain for much heavy music outside of what their own power-plant generated. These habits perhaps accidentally and randomly crossed paths to create a record that is the dark document at the top of the putrid pile known in umbrella terms as "extreme metal," or more accurately thrash, a term in total that works out to be less nasty than what these irrepressible God-killers would embody.

Tom Araya on Reign in Blood ...

"On Reign in Blood, we went in and recorded the songs and we were finishing up doing the mixes and final takes, and I looked up and they had the totals, the list of songs, and it had 28 minutes. And I'm like 'Is that the right time? Is that the total time for all the songs?' And Andy Wallace looks up and goes, 'No, no, there must be a problem. That's not right. That can't be the total time. Let me check.' You know what I mean? And then he's like, 'No, that's the total time.' So we were kind of shocked, so we looked at Rubin and we told Rubin, 'Well, ten songs constitutes an album, right?' 'Yup.' 'We've got ten songs on this record, right?' And he goes 'Yup.' 'Is there problem?' 'Nope.' [laughs]. So that was it, end of discussion. And I'm like, 'Cool.' And then you know, every album after that, we don't really pay attention to the time. We just sort of write songs and put them on an album. If we like them, they go on, if we don't like them, they don't go on tape."


4049 points (Music For Nations '84)

I still prefer this cusp record over winner of the whole chicken chimichanga with half-price pitchers, Master of Puppets, because there's an excitement of discovery here that is merely the discovered two years and many metal worlds later. Ride the Lightning is the place where metal was reborn, or more specifically, where extreme metal became art and more specifically again, where extreme metal discovered the abstract elusive artistry of hit songs, an effect due in large part to the tuneful, musical drum style of Lars Ulrich, who had begun to craft sparse, non-obvious fills that stick in the mind long after the next double-bass flurry has erupted. Whether bludgeoningly fast (Fight Fire with Fire, Trapped Under Ice), mountain-movingly slow (For Whom the Bell Tolls, Fade to Black), or two speeds at opposite ends of mid-velocity's sweet-spot (Escape and the note-stuffing Creeping Death), Metallica were well beyond the dependent, one-dimensional riff-centricity of Kill 'Em All, crafting anthems that lesser banged heads could potentially love, or at least untangle. The impressive result was an album where the eight parts did not need the cooperative of the whole, where each song was a city state expanding the definition of extreme metal, allowing those unattuned to such caustics to enter this harsh world piecemeal, one toe at a time, one hook leading to the next, the picture becoming clearer, less disorienting and less foreign with each connection made.

Lars Ulrich on Ride the Lightning versus Master of Puppets, productionwise ...

"Both of those are recorded at the same place but mixed by different people. I think I might like the mixing on Ride the Lightning a little better than Master of Puppets. I thought on Master of Puppets the mixing was a little.... There's a lot of reverb on a lot of things. Sometimes I think it sounds a little watered-down. But I think the performances are better on that album. On Master of Puppets, we had our chops together a little more and we were a little more rehearsed. On Ride the Lightning, we were more like writing in the studios where we were recording it. Things like For Whom the Bell Tolls are quite difficult for me to listen to, especially for the drums and stuff. I can hear the tentativeness in the drumming. We wrote it, like, the day before or something like that. When I hear it now I somewhat cringe [laughs]."


3900 points (Atlantic '80)

AC/DC had been working on this album in London when Bon Scott died, but it's near impossible to picture him singing these songs that have so indelibly joined the rock lexicon the way they are. Brian Johnson was in possession of pipes as hair-raising as Bon's, but the listener felt a greater sense of unease listening to Brian, who regularly sounded like his voice might blow out, fleshy bits coughed up and squirming like eels mid-stage as the pint-sizers crowd around dumbfounded. But the band behind him was a different one than that of Highway to Hell — sounding rounder, warmer, bluesier, more sophisticated — packing riffs that fused to the rhythms, riffs that were more note-dense. Songs therefore became synergistic with each other, part of an oddly somber party, a book with chapters each imbued with dark humor, some of it imagined, some of it simply slathered flat black on the mind as blank stares fixated on that nihilistic album cover.

Malcolm Young on Back in Black ...

"Should you carry on with the name? All sorts of thoughts went through our minds. We were just sitting around not doing anything, because of respect, too, you know, and not knowing and not caring. We just got a hold of each other one day and just said 'Look, we've come up with lots of music before Bon died, so why don't we just get together and sit down and at least ... at least we can do something; we can play guitar.' So we did that and a lot of good music came from that. Because something kicked in there. We didn't have to do it, but inside, there was stuff coming out that probably wouldn't have ever appeared. It made us grow up really quick, I think."


PARANOID / Black Sabbath
3326 points (Vertigo '70)

Distilling their ideas into riff-wrapped nuggets, Sabbath create, painfully early, their tombstone and testimony, Paranoid becoming the timeless turtle of the catalogue, its title track, War Pigs and Iron Man supporting an overrated cast of slovenlies. But despite the record's unevenness, and despite its toneless and hard production chill, it is, in total, a sequence of events revolutionary at the time, Sabbath, along with Deep Purple, creating heavy metal as we know it, only gradually but quite thoroughly, as it exists today. The record feels and creaks as old as the debut, but it does indeed get serious about overhauling previous conceptions of power chords and their potential stacking and configuring, whether by hook, crook or accident. And it obstinately remains the sales leader of the catalogue, despite considerably more impressive creative triumphs later on.


Excerpted from The Top 500 Heavy Metal Albums of All Time by Martin Popoff, Michael Holmes. Copyright © 2004 Martin Popoff. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Martin Popoff is the author of The Collector's Guide to Heavy Metal and Riff Kills Man! 25 Years of Recorded Heavy Metal. He is a regular contributor to CMJ and Guitar World. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.

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The Top Heavy Metal Albums of All Time 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
bobshow66 More than 1 year ago
Whether you agree or disagree with Popoff's list, this book provides a wealth of information on what many consider essential heavy metal albums. It includes top ten lists from many of the artists included and helpful appendices to cross reference the information. A fun source of debate and discussion among metal fans.
JetsJetsJets More than 1 year ago
I wish I could review the book itself - this is a warning to anyone downloading the ebook that for over a month I could not get the file to open correctly. The publisher did not send a new file or attempt to correct the download. I am waiting for my refund from B&N as we speak. I hope B&N takes the file down until it is corrected.
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