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