It should be no surprise to anyone who personally knows me that I’m a huge metal fan. For those, who didn’t know that – surprise! I’ve thought a lot over the years about which albums are the best. Every time I listen to something new, I try to gain a new perspective on music and how it’s evolved over the years. Anytime I find myself listening to an album over a period of months, it earns the respect of becoming a great album. When months turns to years, it becomes one of the best albums. Obviously, this entire post is purely opinion, so I won’t provide any rankings. Oh, and it should also be obvious that this post will contain vulgar language.
What got me into metal in the first place would be a multitude of reasons. My first excuse was a crazy hormonal development in my teenage years. That probably kicked it into high gear. Though, I realized it may have been excuse to conform to some kind of societal group. And, the group I assumed I fit in the most with were the goth subculture. As I quickly approached adulthood, I realized that pretending to fit in with them didn’t work out after-all since there were some lines they crossed I would not – namely drugs and alcohol.
I had to think back to where it started. The earliest I can remember is hearing a grungy guitar in the album Smash (1994), by The Offspring. I fell in love with that guitar sound. Prior to that, I listened to whatever my parents did: music from the 50-70s, The Who, Yes, Eric Clapton, etc.
It would be fair to admit that this may not have been the first time I heard that kind of sound, but it was the first time that the sound caught my attention. I first heard it on the radio and had no idea who it was. One day, I was visiting one of my best friends. As I walked by his brother’s room I heard this song. I walked in and asked who it was. Then I bought the album immediately. It was the first “metal” album I bought for me. I use quotations because at the time this was metal to me.
Then I discovered Korn. I can’t recall which song was the first I listened to, but I can say that the first album I bought was Follow the Leader (1998). I had been introduced to real metal, though now people consider this “nu metal”. It had everything The Offspring had, but better: strong bass notes, deep guitar riffs, better drums, and some screaming. In fact, Korn was the reason I started taking drum lessons and eventually became a drummer for several of my own metal bands.
Everything else is a blur beyond this point because it came so fast. Napster had gone into full swing and so had AOL chatrooms. I was discovering and downloading music left and right. There was no end! Ultimately, over the next twenty years I’ve found myself returning to some of these albums. I will also note that not all of these albums fit this criteria: some may be albums I simply recognize as being great based on the impact they had on metal music.
I realize I won’t mention a lot of great bands out there like Cannibal Corpse, Between the Buried and Me, and more simply because while I enjoy them and think they made great albums, I don’t consider them producing some of the best or most impactful albums to me. Again, this is a personal blog. If you want best metal albums then check out journals dedicated to the subject like Decibel, Heavy Blog is Heavy, Metal Underground, etc. This is not a top 20 list nor is it in order. It’s sporadic and written as I thought about them over the course of two months. Coincidentally, there are 20 albums and that’s simply because I decided that was enough.
Before I go into introducing my best albums ever, I want to be clear that I won’t be covering early metal bands – the bands that launched the metal genre. Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Motley Crue, Judas Priest, and others will not appear here for many reasons. Black Sabbath would raise the argument of Dio versus Ozzy, while the other bands could be basically every album they ever made. Metal wasn’t even considered a genre until these bands had been around. Also, I won’t talk about the “Big 4”: Metallica, Pantera, Slayer, and Anthrax. Similar to Ozzy and Dio, different members changed the sound. Basically, any metal band that released an album before 1990 will not appear.
Slipknot – Slipknot (1999)
Slipknot was one of the first – if not the first – true heavy metal album I listened to. Backed by an 8-piece band, this album was perfect for an angsty teenager. The first full song on the album, (sic), was a direct message to my brain that resonated with me. Phrases like “Fuck this shit! I’m sick of this! You’re going down! This is war!” and “You can’t kill me, I’m already inside you” still ring in my head 20 years later. Hell, this song was my alarm to wake me up every morning for a solid semester.
The album got better, though. It had solid riffs that were forceful, blasting drums, both singing and screaming, and sound effects to add to the sound. Songs like Eyeless, Wait and Bleed, and Surfacing still stand out as great songs from this – or any other – band. Despite the depths I’ve learned of metal, I still consider it one of the heaviest albums if not entirely due to the hatred you could feel from the entire band. While many death metal bands are about – well, death – the words become so numb because it’s been the same for decades. This album was pure poetic hatred. I still believe Surfacing should be the national anthem: “Fuck it all, fuck this world! Fuck everything you stand for! Don’t belong, don’t exist! Don’t give a shit, don’t ever judge me!” And if you disagree, then kindly go fuck yourself.
Opeth – Blackwater Park (2000)
Opeth has evolved more than most bands over the past few decades. They started as a death metal band with progressive inclusions, and evolved to a progressive rock band. From death screams to beautiful clean singing. In the middle somewhere is Blackwater Park, which one could say is the perfect introduction to them and probably metal in general. If you like more screaming then listen to their earlier albums or Bloodbath – also featuring Mikael Åkerfeldt, their lead singer – and if you like their clean vocals and jazzy style then listen to their recent albums.
I honestly don’t have a lot to write about them because if anyone really knows metal then they know who Opeth is. They’re one of the most influential bands and one of the most talented bands in the metal world.
Cryptopsy – None So Vile (1996)
This one may be a surprise to some people because Cryptopsy isn’t a well-known band, nor have they accomplished nearly as much status as other bands within the death metal genre. However, I think this band did define and launch the technical death metal subgenre (or subsubgenre?). None So Vile was vicious and fast. Flo Mounier, the drummer, performed one of the most technical drumming pieces I had ever heard up to this point. He still is one of the most technically best drummers out there, but I believe this album set the standard for what technical drumming and metal should be.
This album, as with their previous albums, blended jazz with death metal to create that technical aspect. I have to give a lot of respect to all the members of the band. Lord Worm, the vocalist, with the quick changes in scream styles. Eric Langlois, bass guitarist, performed some awesome riffs in a genre that typically disregarded the bassist.
Enslaved – Isa (2004)
Black metal had run into a rut. The same style had been done over and over again since the early 1990s with the second wave of black metal. For those who aren’t familiarized with black metal, it’s had a few waves:
- First wave was in the late 80s and early 90s, adopting thrash/speed metal with lyrical focus on anti-Christianity and Satanism. Bands like Venom, Bathory, Mayhem, and Celtic Frost come to mind.
- Second wave was an evolution where many consider it became its own subgenre, and unique sound. Mayhem, Darkthrone, Immortal, Emperor, Gorgoroth, and Enslaved were some examples of these bands.
- New wave. The subgenre separated into several different sounds by the turn of the millennium, creating a variety of tertiary genres within the black metal subgenre. Enslaved was one of them, creating what many would consider progressive (or post) black metal.
The entire album could be assumed to be one long song. Several tracks segue into each other, creating acts like a book. This album would define their sound for the next 15 years with a mixture of ambiance, tempo changes, and clean vocals to evolve the black metal genre. Of all the bands I’ll mention on this list, this has and continues to be one of my favorite bands of all time.
Emperor – Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk (1997)
The second wave of black metal reached its height with this album and it was a good thing Enslaved evolved their sound shortly after or they could’ve been prey to irrelevancy. Unfortunately, Emperor would only produce four albums before splitting directions. You could describe Emporer as an all-star lineup despite their star-shaped careers didn’t exist until post-Emperor:
- Ihsahn produces albums under his own name with relative success
- Samoth had success with a few bands like Zyklon and The Wretched End
- Trym has performed with Zyklon, Enslaved, Satyricon, and Abigail Williams
This album was vicious, driven by guitar work, and loaded with blast beats from the drums. This album was everything that black metal should be. It included clean vocals and lyrics that strayed from the typical Satanism as they focused on mysticism. Around the 2:40 mark of Ye Entrancemperium is a sound that has been difficult to be achieved by any other band with riffs that sound almost off-balance, like they don’t belong, before coming back to where the song left off. Yet, Emperor mastered this sound every time. Many of the bands on this list will have influenced an array of other bands that can mimic their sound to a key, but I have yet to find one to pull off anything like Emperor.
Meshuggah – obZen (2007)
The originators of the djent metal subgenre. While many core bands in the deathcore and metalcore genres were bursting into the scene, this band took a different approach: polymetered song structures with polyrhythms and distorted, palm-muted, low-pitch guitars. While using 7-string or 8-string guitars wasn’t anything new, this band took it to a level never heard of before with constant polyrhythmic song structure many have had difficulty deciphering.
They not only created the genre, but they perfected it. Mnemic, Animals as Leaders, Tesseract, and Born of Osiris have certainly taken advantage of the sound to create their own version and publicized the subgenre. When I first heard this album I placed it in the Deathcore genre with progressive tendencies. Bands like Suicide Silence, Whitechapel, and Carnifax had exploded onto the scene blending death metal with metalcore by adding breakdowns in their song structures. Meshuggah wrote an entire album of what I considered “breakdowns”. Although the definition has clarified since, my initial interpretation of it was a point in song that made me want to mosh. Which, by this definition, Meshuggah nailed on every riff in every song. Over time, a breakdown was defined as typically when the drummer slow’s the beat by half – essentially slowing down an otherwise fast song. By substituting a bridge or chorus with a breakdown, it provides the audience a moment of euphoric sensation. As I became a musician myself, I realized a breakdown was a cop-out to bridge two riffs together. While the deathcore subgenre still exists, it has mainly been frowned upon by metal fans. Meanwhile, the djent subgenre took off.
VOLA – Inmazes (2015)
You’re probably thinking, “what the hell, man? This album is new and so is the band!” Hear me out: This album is amazing and setting a new standard for progressive metal / djent. The djent genre has been around for about 10 years prior to this album, when it was questionable whether the subgenre would even stick to be considered a subgenre – or fade away like deathcore as a fad. Yet, bands like Periphery, Veil of Maya, Vildhjarta, Textures, Born of Osiris, Monuments, and others jumped into the scene either their own twists of it. Among them: VOLA.
Relying on purely clean vocals, this band had existed for nearly a decade before their debut studio album. Why this album appears is because I believe we’re seeing the evolution of a new genre in the making. It doesn’t quite fit in the djent genre, nor does it fit in the progressive genre. We could consider it progressive rock with djent tendencies, but it doesn’t fall into rock either. It’s a beautiful album and one that I haven’t gotten out of my head ever since I first heard the chorus for the self-titled song Inmazes (at about 4:16). This album has never left my downloads since.
Crionics – Neuthrone (2007)
More so than Cryptopsy, I think this album will have anyone reading this trying to figure out who this is. There was a point in time I found a passion for blackened death metal, a subgenre that married black metal with death metal. Amongst one of those bands was Crionics, who added industrial elements.
Personally, I don’t think the addition of industrial elements is done enough. Sure, bands like Aborym and… well it’s hard to come up with too many at the top of my head, which is the point. I love the addition of haunting sounds layered on top of metal and this band did it very well while also mastering a mix of black metal and death metal.
Dimmu Borgir – Death Cult Armageddon (2003)
This one was hard for me simply because Dimmu Borgir has released some incredible albums. They’re one of the few bands who have seemingly gotten better each album, though 2010 release (Abrahadabra) was questionable. When I think about my favorite songs from Dimmu Borgir, they come from the prior album Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia (2001).
When I think about which album is truly great of their, it’s the one album I always come back to and the first album of theirs I discovered. Dimmu Borgir had mastered black metal in the previous albums, expanding their usage of a symphonic orchestra. I don’t mean a keyboard or synthesized orchestra; this album features the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Adam Klemens to unleash a true “symphonic black metal” album that is simply incredible.
Haken – The Mountain (2013)
Okay, I get it, another new band. But, listen to this shit:
It’s awesome. Haken took the progressive metal genre to a new level by incorporating something completely simple: rock. By the time Haken exploded onto the metal scene, the progressive metal genre was so focused on doing everything better: faster riffs, advanced solos, faster drums, more technicality, and higher vocals. Along comes Haken and takes those elements and spins them in reverse and answer the question, “what if we made a metal album with the knowledge we have now to back when rock was a thing?” And they completely nailed it! Their follow-up album, Affinity, took a 1980’s sound and incorporated it to near perfection. Regardless, songs like Atlas Stone and Cockroach King still hold the keys to a perfect album.
Leprous – The Congregation (2015)
Another 2015 album. I had never been a fan of avant-garde metal, and it would be safe to say I actively avoided it. If I had to define it in one album, it would be this one.
You could debate Leprous is progressive metal, and that’s fine too. The vocal work from Einer Solberg is nothing short of phenomenal. While Einer is an incredible vocalist and plays the keyboards, he also composes the music – in general – himself. Moon was co-written with their newly acquired drummer, Baard Kolstad.
What stands out with this album for me is not the fact it’s progressive in nature and its polyrhythmic song structures, it’s the fact that the primary instrument is a keyboard. Metal has had a strong focus on guitars and drums since the inception, but rarely has a band written around the keyboard and added guitars as an accompanying layer. As luck would have it, my favorite songs from this band include Salt and The Cloak, which are from their previous album, Coal. The Congregation was moving towards their future albums where the keyboard took a stronger focus compared to their previous albums and as a whole I enjoy it more than any other album of theirs.
Emmure – Goodbye to the Gallows (2007)
This is where every metalhead is throwing their arms up in the air and getting ready to click the close button on their browser and say, “fuck it, I’m done with the internet tonight.” This album is the epitome of the fad deathcore. Before I want to talk about why, other bands like All Shall Perish, Despised Icon, Suicide Silence, Whitechapel, and Job for a Cowboy should be considered the forefront of the genre. Though, Job for a Cowboy has since broadened their horizons.
The reason I chose this album is because it was the perfect blend of death metal and metalcore. Deathcore was a tertiary genre of death metal with metalcore influences. Metalcore was often metal with breakdowns like Killswitch Engage, Hatebreed, Converge, and others. Deathcore was heavier and often faster while metalcore had a modern rock or pop feel to it. Then Emmure came along in their debut album and blended the two while mixing in a breakdown every other riff, or sometimes tying multiple breakdowns together.
I still love this album and some of their other works as well. It’s embarrassing to admit it. The reason I chose this album and this band in particular is because it’s stood up to the test of time. While All Shall Perish’s album, Hate, Malice, Revenge (2003) could be considered one of the albums that launched the genre, it has not stood up to the test of time very well.
Carcass – Heartwork (1993)
Back to the 1990s. I’ve talked about death metal and its tertiary genres, but never about the death metal subgenre itself. The name could be given to the band Death as the primary influence of the sound. Carcass, however, defined what the sound should be with this album. Morbid lyrics and gruesome album covers lead were the examples every band after followed.
While some may consider Swansong their best album, I do think Heartwork set the sound and example that every album after was modeled after, including the death mental subgenre entirely. Plus, Heartwork featured Michael Amott, who left after this album to form Arch Enemy with his brother. Just as ironic as Slayer’s anti-Christian themes while admitting themselves as following Catholic faith, Bill Steer and Jeff Walker are vegetarians. This is despite having song names like Vomited Anal Tract, Mucopurulence Excretor, Cadaveric Incubator of Endoparasites, and Corporal Jigsore Quandary.
Symphony X – V: The New Mythology Suite (2000)
I’ve mentioned progressive metal – or a variation of it – several times, but never covered a true progressive metal band. Until now. Symphony X had been at a crossroads with this album. Their previous albums had a strong focus on classical music with the accompaniment of metal. In this album, though, they switched roles and had classical music accompany metal. The entire album flowed as one composition with movements in the amongst the songs. Lyrically, the album told a story about Atlantis and Egyptian mythology.
If anyone were to ask me what progressive metal album would I point them to get started, and I would undoubtedly point this one out. It has a perfect blend of songs that go from blistering fast to slow and relaxing. The pacing throughout the album keeps you interested. Many other genres have one speed: fast or slow, but this album not only switches speeds between songs, but within the songs themselves too.
Fear Factory – Demanufacture (1995)
Fear Factory could potentially fall under the Nu Metal subgenre like Korn, but I’d also consider them in Groove Metal, which I haven’t talked about. With their industrial elements similar to Ministry or the previously mentioned Crionics, we could say that they’re Industrial Groove Metal. This is more fitting.
Fear Factory is known for Burton Bell’s aggressive vocals – not screaming, but not singing either. Dino Cazares has primarily been the band’s main songwriter for the past few decades and is known for his thrash-like industrial guitar riffs. I would consider his writing style like djent, before djent was a thing, adding a groove to the sound. Their previous albums had been more similar to death metal until almost dropping the sound entirely. This album was hugely influential to the metal world and helped make it become a bit more mainstream. I discovered this band in the Test Drive 5 (a Playstation video game) sound track, which was one of the biggest drivers to me discovering metal.
Behemoth – Demigod (2004)
Behemoth was born a black metal band and slowly incorporated death metal elements in the albums prior with Thelema.6 and especially Zos Kia Cultus. It was Demigod that had perfected the combination of black metal and death metal to define the subgenre blackened death metal. Nothing was overly technical, but the album was fast. It was a kick in the face with the song Conquer All encapsulating the entire album in one song.
The entire album contained a dark atmosphere that would be recognizable in black metal with mythological themes similar to Emperor. Guitars are written to marry both black metal and death metal seamlessly, creating a darkened fantasy. If anything, the songs are catchy, which has always been a strong point for Behemoth. Every album after Demigod has followed the same implementation of elements.
At the Gates – Slaughter of the Soul (1995)
Ironically, this is the only album I truly enjoyed by At the Gates. They went on to release a few more albums after this one, their third album, before disbanding into other bands like The Crown and The Haunted. To be completely frank, I ended up enjoying those bands overall more than At the Gates. That is true except for this one album. The acoustic and instrumental song “Into the Dead Sky” was thrown into the middle of an otherwise chaotic album, giving the listener a moment of calm and peace before being hit by distorted guitars again. To this day, Into the Dead Sky is one of the best instrumentals ever written.
Don’t let that song detract you from how great this album was overall, starting with Blinded By Fear.
Rhapsody of Fire – Triumph or Agony (2006)
If you were to take the soundtrack of Lord of the Rings and add metal to it, this is what you would get. If that didn’t excite you, Christopher Lee, who was in the trilogy as Saruman, performs on the album too. This was the first album under their new name. They were formerly under the name Rhapsody, but due to legal issues with the Rhapsody music platform, they were required to change their names.
Rhapsody is known for their symphonic power metal, and I consider this the best album in that subgenre. While many power metal bands exist, very rarely has an album stood out to me. This is one of them.
Mudvayne – L.D. 50 (2000)
Mudvayne’s sophomore album was designed for every song to build on each other. They flow seamlessly, yet you know when the songs change. Too often do we find bands that attempt to have an album that flows together, where it becomes difficult to tell songs apart. The album for Emmure I mentioned was much like the former, and I couldn’t tell when a song ended until the album did. Mudvayne, however, perfects this in L.D. 50.
While it would be hard to put Mudvayne in any particular subgenre, and that’s because it fuses heavy metal with jazz, progressive rock, and other genres. While they admitted that this album was extremely difficult to record, and a few songs were written on the last night of recording, it still turned out magical.
Devin Townsend – Empath (2019)
I’m going to end this list with the most recent album of greatness. Devin Townsend and metal go hand-and-hand. He performed with Steve Vai then formed his own band Strapping Young Lad to escape the pigeon-hole of becoming known as a singer for Vai.
Again, wanting to have a different sound than what Strapping Young Lad offered, he created a band under his own name: Devin Townsend. Around 2008, he had given up alcohol, smoking, and drug abuse and found difficulty in writing music. Then, he turned his focus to a self-discovery phase of writing without and created the Devin Townsend Project, releasing four albums with variations of styles. While I always enjoyed his work, this is where I think his creativity began to flourish.
In 2019, he released Empath, which I consider his best. All of his recent albums have a specific goal of defined sound or emotion built in them. While Empath could be seen as the emotion empathy, the album feels like it is a chaotic version of it, which makes complete sense because rarely are we completely empathetic with anything. The reason this album was chosen is because of what he said: “What I’m trying to do is just be creatively free.” I think he nailed it. If you put his entire discography in one album, it would sound like this.