10 Essential Metal Albums Released Between 1970 and 1995
By Andrew Daly
Compiling a list like this is challenging because when we talk about what makes a “great metal album,” we end up falling down a rabbit hole of subjectivity. And then there’s the whole issue of genres, sub-genres, what’s metal, and what’s not metal. The last part of that is significant as it pertains to this list, as the idea of what metal is can be murky. But for this writer’s purposes, classic rock is not metal. Hard rock is not metal. Hair and glam are not metal.
To qualify this thing even further, I’ve dialed into the period of 1970 through 1995 and focused mainly only on the genres that built up metal’s foundations: proto, traditional, thrash, etc., to aid readers just stepping into the genre, giving them a jumping off point for some of its most prominent bands.
And so, what follows are ten essential metal albums released between 1970 and 1995. Once you’ve digested these, where you go from here is up to you. Metal is filled with twists, turns, and steep drops, so hold onto your hat and saddle up for what’s going to be a bumpy ride.
# 10 – Master of Reality – Black Sabbath (1971)
Black Sabbath had a nasty habit of mailing it, resulting in uneven records with too much filler. This is annoying, as it’s frustrating to listen to great songs paired up with literal dumpster fodder. But that wasn’t the case with Master of Reality, which is an example of across-the-board metal mastery, with proto-stoner anthem “Sweet Leaf,” the doomy “Children of the Grave,” and the rifftastic “Into the Void” being just a few of the album’s highlights. But where Ozzy and company shine is through the poignant lyrics reflecting anti-war, drug culture, and the occult. Master of Reality isn’t just an influential heavy metal record; it’s a true socio-political snapshot of early ‘70s counterculture.
# 9 – Bomber – Motörhead (1979)
Many feel that 1980’s Ace of Spades is Lemmy Kilmister and friends’ finest hour, and that’s fair enough. But if you want to go deeper, look no further than ‘79’s Bomber. Brimming with Lemmy’s singular lead basslines and cigarette-stained vocals, Bomber is a masterclass in punk-meets-metal badassery through songs like “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” “Stone Dead Forever,” and “Bomber.” Sure, Ace of Spades is FM radio-friendly, but Bomber is the most accurate reflection of what made Motörhead great.
# 8 – Iron Maiden – Iron Maiden (1980)
Yeah, the theatrics of Bruce Dickinson are great, as is the music he’s made with Iron Maiden. But for my money, the Paul Di’Anno era, with its punky and gritty nature, is generally more enjoyable than the thinking man’s metal heard with Dickinson aboard. That’s not to say ol’ Bruce isn’t legendary—he is. It’s more to say that Iron Maiden was never better than when it unleashed the likes of “Iron Maiden” and “Running Free” unto unsuspecting listeners. And we can’t forget that a young Dave Murray and Dennis Stratton’s early hours musings provided us with the searing instrumental “Transylvania.”
# 7 – Blizzard of Ozz – Ozzy Osbourne (1981)
People don’t like to admit it, but Ozzy Osbourne lacked worthwhile ideas after Sabbath’s Vol. 4, save for a few songs from Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. And so, it was relatively shocking that he and Randy Rhoads, who did the heavy lifting, that Ozzy could craft an album as good as 1981’s Blizzard of Ozz. In fact, Blizzard of Ozz is so good that I’d wager it’s better than anything he did with Sabbath. That’s sacrilegious, but to my ears, songs like “Crazy Train” and “Mr. Crowley” are more enjoyable listens to Sabbath’s sometimes (especially late-70s) throwaway-filled albums.
# 6 – Screaming for Vengeance – Judas Priest (1982)
Focus on British Steel if you like, but Judas Priest bettered it by miles with 1983’s Screaming for Vengeance. Seriously, this thing is a tour de force of fury, with Rob Halford’s wails cascading across a track listing featuring essential cuts like “Screaming for Vengeance” and “Electric Eye.” Oh, and this thing also includes “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’,” which is cool, if not a smidge overrated. But what’s most exciting about Screaming for Vengeance is the buffet of licks served up by Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing, who showed that when they used to get along, as far as guitar duos go, few hit harder.
# 5 – Holy Diver – Dio (1983)
Few albums of any genre playback as evenly as Dio’s Holy Diver. It’s an incredible feat, given that the record is 41 years old and has been played to the point of nausea. You’ve heard it before and likely will again—Holy Diver is great, if not impenetrable. It’s all true; songs like “Stand Up and Shout” and “Holy Diver” stand up, and despite being campy, “Rainbow in the Dark” remains fun. But the real star of the show is “Straight Through the Heart,” which gloriously demonstrates the supreme virtuosity of Dio’s band, Vinny Appice (drums), Jimmy Bain (bass), and Vivian Campbell (guitar).
# 4 – Ride the Lightning – Metallica (1984)
Metallica fans are passionate and will most likely opine that I’ve slipped up by not slotting the Metallica, aka The Black Album, into this list. I could have done so, but then “real fans” would have strung me up for not including Master of Puppets. And so, I’ve done neither, choosing to focus on their best album, Ride the Lightning. Why? Well, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is still crushing, and “Creeping Death” is still unsettling. And then there’s “Fade to Black,” which is undoubtedly Metallica’s finest hour. Ride the Lightning perfectly balances well-crafted instrumentals with brooding lyrics, creating an atmosphere that’s hard to take in but highly addicting in the same breath.
# 3 – Rust in Peace – Megadeth (1990)
Rust in Peace isn’t just Megadeth’s best record; it’s maybe the best heavy metal record of all time. It has nothing to do with the notion that the Mustaine/Ellefson/Freidman/Menza lineup was Megadeth’s best (it was) or that they didn’t sell out like Metallica (they didn’t). No, it’s the combination of an embattled Dave Mustaine saddling up and crafting riffs that stop your heart, along with lyrics that are so cutting that the blood is still spilling from our ears to this day. Don’t believe me? That’s fine. But take a listen to “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due,” “Hanger 18,” or “Tornado of Souls,” and I challenge you to tell me I’m wrong.
# 2 – Images and Words – Dream Theater (1992)
Yeah, Dream Theater is kinda, sorta the Rush of the metal world. And yeah, they are probably a bit too deep for the average headbanger. The result is that some love to hate them, and for a long time, Dream Theater was ignored outside the prog-metal niche. But if you took the journey, you’d probably agree that Dream Theater’s bristling lyrics, dynamic instrumentation, and Devil May Care attitude toward what was “popular” in the ‘90s made them darlings of those who occupy their niche. You could pick out any number of their records, but ‘92’s Images and Words still reign supreme, with “Pull Me Under” and “Another Day” showing that James LaBrie and John Petrucci are one of the finest vocalist/guitarist tandems in history.
# 1 – Undertow – Tool (1993)
Tool shook the metal world up in the ‘90s by releasing Undertow, an emotionally unsettling affair when grunge and the remnants of hair metal were most popular on rock charts. Of course, what’s popular never mattered to Maynard James Keenan or Adam Jones, and they made that clear from the jump with songs like “Sober,” “Prison Sex,” and “Undertow,” demonstrating their general distaste for the zeitgeist. Ironically, this attitude only benefited them, leaving them able to tour as they pleased, barely releasing new music, yet remaining as influential as they were years ago. Few bands carry the inherent cache of Tool, and even fewer do so little, yet so much, to achieve it. And yet, 30 years after the release of Undertow, here we are, praising them to the highest of heavens, as we should be.
10 Essential Metal Albums Released Between 1970 and 1995 article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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