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The 100 Greatest Heavy Metal Songs of All Time

Devil horns up! From Sabbath to Scorpions to Slipknot, from the Sunset Strip to Scandinavia

The 100 Greatest Heavy Metal Songs of All Time


THOUSANDS OF YEARS after the Bronze and Iron Ages, the true Metal Age dawned half a century ago. In 1970, Black Sabbath convincingly evoked the true essence of evil with the lumbering, three-chord opening guitar riff to the song “Black Sabbath,” consecrating the first pure heavy-metal crusher, and the ripples have been spreading virulently ever since. Judas Priest tuned into Sabbath’s darkly jagged melodies to create their own intricate, law-breaking mini-epics, Metallica revved up Priest’s tempos to give headbangers cases of whiplash, hair bands like Mötley Crüe and Quiet Riot spruced up the music for MTV, and nu-metal mutants like Korn and Slipknot gave it a bleak post-alt-rock and hip-hop edge. At the same time, its true believers have created extreme global offshoots like death metal, doom metal, and black metal.

In those five-plus decades, fans of metal have embraced the genre’s songs as intense declarations of individuality. To be a metalhead, you’re rejecting normalcy, you’re willing to believe in yourself and visit your dark side because you know the eardrum-slaughtering decibels and aggressive lyrics are the crucible in which you feel something new and unique. Years removed from its initial rumbles, metal is now a cultural force. Over time, heavy metal has topped the pop charts, served as the basis of hit movies, saved the day in TV shows, and even signaled prosperity around the world.

What millions of fans around the world have realized is that a good metal song transports you. Amid the deafening drums and growling vocals, the ideal metal tune relates power, resilience, and even hope. Where less cultured ears hear only noise and rage, metalheads recognize nuance. A song like Metallica’s “Fade to Black,” for instance, actually helps you escape your personal darkness rather than encouraging it. Metal has always been about overcoming fear and finding community among like-minded outcasts. It’s about togetherness.

The group of headbangers that Rolling Stone gathered to rank the 100 Greatest Heavy Metal Songs of All Time debated the merits of more than 300 worthy songs over several months. These people include writers and critics who have been writing for Rolling Stone for decades and contributors to metal-focused publications. Many list voters contributed to RS’Greatest Metal Albums list a few years back.

This time, we discussed the earliest metal songs going back to Blue Cheer’s deafening cover of “Summertime Blues” through recent instant classics like Power Trip’s “Executioner’s Tax (Swing of the Axe).” And while keeping our minds open to the basic definition of metal (weighty riffs turned up to 11), we debated the fine lines between hard rock and metal: Motörhead and AC/DC, hard-rock bands who recorded awe-inspiring statements of fury that cross over into metal, are here, while Guns N’ Roses and Kiss, whose music bears more of an overall hard-rock swagger, are not. Similarly, you’ll find songs by Def Leppard, Lita Ford, and Ratt, bands who defined a metal ethos for the time they came out even if their songs don’t sound as intense as, say, Emperor. In the cases of metal’s forebears, like Led Zeppelin and even Black Sabbath, who have shunned the “metal” tag, we picked the most metal songs in their catalogs. Our contributors submitted ballots of their personal picks for the top metal songs, we tallied them up, and we spotted a few pleasant surprises in how the ranking shook out.

So don your battle vests, raise your horns, and keep a neck brace handy as Rolling Stone counts down the 100 Greatest Heavy Metal Songs of All Time.

Hear this playlist on Spotify.

From Rolling Stone US


‘Dragonaut,’ Sleep

This San Jose, California band may be best known for crafting Dopesmoker, a concept album that consisted of a single 63-minute song. But it’s the glorious, doomier-than-thou opener of 1993’s Sleep’s Holy Mountain that holds the distinction of featuring the purest strain of their pot-fueled sound. Kicking off with Matt Pike’s straight-outta-“Into the Void” guitar riff, this paean to cosmic warriors who “ride the dragon toward the crimson eye/flap their wings under Mars’ red sky” is a bong load of both sludge metal and sci-fi and fantasy tropes — imagine a character in a Frank Frazetta painting coming to life and grabbing a drop-tuned Gibson Les Paul in between monster hits. “There was obvious worship for Black Sabbath,” Pike admits, with regard to the song’s sonic template. “But we were also listening to a whole lot of dub … and smoking endless amounts of pot.” —D.F.


‘We Will Rise,’ Arch Enemy

This highlight from Arch Enemy’s breakthrough 2003 album Anthems of Rebellion is a thrilling artifact of the early-aughts melodic death-metal boom. Daniel Erlandsson’s pummeling drums, Michael and Christopher Amott’s thickly layered guitars, and (especially) Angela Gossow’s venom-spitting vocals combine to deliver equal parts uplift and menace, encouraging the listener to empower themselves and seriously fuck shit up at the same time. On paper, a line like “In this sea of mediocrity/I can be anything/Anything I want to be” might read like a bland self-affirmation platitude — but launched from Gossow’s hell-scorched larynx, it sounds like a goddamn threat. —D.E.


‘People = Shit,’ Slipknot

“I’m in this band because of everything that I hate about everything in the world,” Slipknot drummer Joey Jordison told Rolling Stone in 2000. Actual children of the corn, the nine mutants of Slipknot came out of Iowa in the late Nineties with their scary masks and bone-breaking live shows, and made their eye-popping extremism the most explosive attraction on Ozzfest. They summed up their hate-everything worldview with succinct fury on the nu-metal maelstrom “People = Shit,” an undeniable statement of tribal misanthropy and outcast self-determination. —J.D.


‘Freezing Moon,’ Mayhem

“Freezing Moon,” one of black metal’s defining anthems, went through serious growing pains before its official release in 1994. The band’s frontman, Dead, a Swede who joined Norwegian black-metal innovators Mayhem in 1988, wrote its lyrics from the perspective of a vengeful ghost, but he died by suicide in 1991 before the band could record it in the studio. So Euronymous enlisted one of Dead’s favorite singers, Hungarian black-metal O.G. Attila Csihar from Tormentor, to attempt it. The result — with its funereal riff, cryospheric poetry, and seesawing drums — made for a grindcore monument that black-metal groups have aspired to copy ever since. Best yet: Euronymous’ gratuitous solo is a wonderful paroxysm over drummer Hellhammer’s swinging rhythms, an unsentimental celebration of the very suffering Mayhem had already and would continue to endure. —G.H.C.


‘Refuse/Resist,’ Sepultura

In the mid Eighties, thrash was already slightly subversive, but in Brazil — just emerging from 21 years of military dictatorship — thrash bands like Sepultura were downright subversive. Sepultura, though, not only thrived in their environment but managed to suggest a sense of national pride by bolstering their thrash-guitar style with a percussive groove derived from traditional Brazilian music. Still, when guitarist Max Cavalera saw the phrase “Refuse/Resist” on a Black Panther’s leather jacket, a sound immediately came to mind. “It reminded me of a riot,” he told Kerrang! “Cars burning and upside down, shit spread out all over the place, chaos everywhere. When I listen to it and close my eyes, I can see a riot even now.” —J.D.C.


‘The Cry of Mankind,’ My Dying Bride

An 11th-hour miracle, “The Cry of Mankind” evolved from guitarist Calvin Robertshaw finger-tapping the song’s eerie opening melody (which runs forever through the 12-minute song) and building out each part as the gloomsters of My Dying Bride divined them. Even after the “song” part of the doom-metal epic devolves into heavy atmospherics, they tried new things as singer Aaron Stainthorpe played the bottom string of a five-string violin to evoke a mournful ship’s horn. The effect is both bleak and romantic, as Stainthorpe — drunk on Byron, Keats, and Shakespere — moans like a lonely vampire over his bandmates’ crushing riffs. “I thought, ‘Rather than write about the typical heavy-metal subjects — the devil, blood, guts and mistreating women — why don’t I write about something more thought-provoking?’” he told Decibel. “I’m sure some people thought my lyrics were shit and not very heavy metal, but … I wanted to write about powerfully emotive subjects.” —K.G.


‘Bark at the Moon,’ Ozzy Osbourne

In the aftermath of fleet-fingered guitarist Randy Rhoads’ tragic death in 1982, it was imperative that Ozzy Osbourne find a player who could deliver the same flash, and he found a perfect foil in Jake E. Lee as heard on the title track of their first album together, Bark at the Moon. “The title for this song came from a joke I used to tell where the punch line was, ‘Eat shit and bark at the moon,’ ” Osbourne recalled in his The Ozzman Cometh liner notes. “It was the first song [Jake and I] wrote together.” Built around a distinct, staccato riff that combined muscle and melody with shocking dexterity, “Bark at the Moon” brilliantly played up Osbourne’s “Prince of Darkness” moniker with lyrics that read like a Hammer Horror movie, and its werewolf-themed music video won over a new generation of metalheads. —A.B.


‘Caffeine,’ Faith No More

“Caffeine” is the heaviest and most hair-raising song from Angel Dust — Faith No More’s masterful 1992 album about, as drummer Mike Bordin put it, “the beautiful and the sick.” Musically, it deploys a metal version of the old Holland-Dozier-Holland trick of pairing an upbeat sound with a sad message. “Caffeine” is slightly more depraved than Motown. “Pour shame all over us/ harden into a crust,” Mike Patton slur-screams. As the song progresses on the back of Jim Martin’s pulverizing blues-rock guitar and Roddy Bottum’s theatrical synths, Patton spirals Hamlet-style into madness. He allegedly wrote the song amid a sleep deprivation exercise that, in a kind of Method-acting way, let him embody the object of his contempt: society on autopilot. “Coffee shops and white-trash diner places were great for inspiration,” Patton told Circus in 1992. —S.G.


‘Photograph,’ Def Leppard

Def Leppard came out of the N.W.O.B.H.M., but they didn’t stay in that world very long. As physically presentable as any New Wave band, with hooks as big as their riffs, riding the teflon glide of Mutt Lange’s production on their 1983 breakthrough, Pyromania, these rock & roll clowns became the quintessential Eighties pop-metal band, extending the music’s reach to people who wouldn’t have come within a country mile of a Motörhead song. “Photograph” was their big, lip-smacking U.S. breakthrough, with its strutting cowbell thwunk, Joe Elliott’s comely spin on the standard metal-guy shriek, and a wistful, pretty melody on the chorus. No one ever got the fluff-dog formula down better. —J.D.


‘Forty Six & 2,’ Tool

By the time Tool were starting to put together their second full-length, Ænima, singer Maynard James Keenan was looking for ways to change up his cathartic, primal-scream way of writing. That involved him doing “a lot of esoteric research, reading a lot of mathematical and psychological books.” The result was a standout track that touches on the Jungian idea of the shadow self and New Age philosopher Drunvalo Melchizedek’s concept of a genetic mutation that would signal a more “unified” humankind. How better to evolve than with a song about a literal evolution? “‘Forty Six & 2” also features some killer stop-start syncopation, and one of their most rhythmic bass lines, courtesy of the band’s fresh blood: new bassist Justin Chancellor. “He wrote the most of the riffs on ‘Forty Six & 2,’ ” drummer Danny Carey says, “and if you go back listen to the takes, you could tell there’s a lot of spontaneous energy there.” —D.F


‘Deliverance,’ Opeth

A sprawling, 13-minute epic, “Deliverance” neatly encapsulates the various musical impulses that find a home in this Swedish quartet’s sound. First, there’s the suite-like, multipart structure in which the band changes moods, textures, and meters every minute or so; then there’s the contrast between the band’s prog impulses and its death-metal side, neatly mirrored by Mikael Åkerfeldt’s Jekyll and Hyde vocals — on one hand, a sweet Greg Lake tenor, on the other, a growling Cookie Monster. As powered by the double-kick attack of drummer Martin Lopez, the band sounds like a monster, but don’t be fooled. As Åkerfeldt admitted, “English rock bands, they could probably beat us up any day.” —J.D.C.


‘Slateman,’ Godflesh

“I’m basically a weak person,” Godflesh’s Justin K. Broadrick once said, “generally quite nervous and very, very weak.” The Birmingham, England, industrial-metal band perfectly captured that internal turmoil — and offered a blueprint for metal’s impressionistic potential — on “Slateman.” The drum machine on the track is like a mechanical animal showing no mercy, and the savage, weirdly suffocated-feeling guitars are just as vicious. But it’s Broadrick’s far-away voice, and buried by loam, blurred by wind, that’s most striking, seeming more and more wounded as the song goes on. “Slateman” is the rare metal song that overcomes you with its vulnerability, rather than its power. —G.H.C.