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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


‘Procreation (of the Wicked),’ Celtic Frost

Few musicians can wring as much darkness out of a string bend as Thomas Gabriel Fischer does on 1984’s “Procreation (of the Wicked).” One of the towering geniuses of heavy metal, Fischer, better known as Tom G. Warrior, first made his mark with crude, black-metal forebears Hellhammer before forming the more ambitious Celtic Frost with longtime creative partner, the late Martin Eric Ain. A standout from their debut, Morbid Tales, “Procreation” elevates the primitivism of Venom to something more avant-garde and more philosophical. Fischer’s lurching riff repeats and repeats in a phantasmagoric trance until the sacred and the profane coalesce into a simultaneous exaltation and lament that foreshadows Celtic Frost’s future explorations of extreme metal and high art. “It’s genuinely heavy and primitive,” Ain said of the song. “It was sort of like if Robert Johnson lived in our time and played heavy metal … it just seems really timeless.” —A.B.


‘Just One Fix,’ Ministry

Ministry madman Al Jourgensen reached metal godhood with “Just One Fix” — 10 years after the band began as Eighties New Wave synth-twerps. “I start with a sellout little pop record, and wind up playing this metal monster,” Jourgensen told Rolling Stone. “I’m just bass ackwards.” “Just One Fix” comes from Ministry’s 1992 breakthrough, Psalm 69: The Way to Success and the Way to Suck Eggs. It’s a rapid barrage of industrial guitar sludge and sampled voices from drugged-out flicks like Sid and Nancy (“Never trust a junkie!”), The Man With the Golden Arm, and The Trip. That’s Peter Fonda and Bruce Dern at the start, muttering, “Gimme that Thorazine, man!” For the video, Jourgensen upped the outrage ante by recruiting one of his literary outlaw heroes, William S. Burroughs, barking “Bring it all down!” Plus the bloodiest vomit ever depicted on MTV. —R.S.


‘Walk in the Shadows,’ Queensrÿche

With their gothic trench coats, piles of keyboards, and opera-trained lead singer, Queensrÿche were the sophisticates of hair metal. What could that possibly sound like? Behold, “Walk in the Shadows”: an arena-ready anthem resplendent in dueling electric guitar solos, razor-sharp harmonies, and Geoff Tate’s towering four-octave vibrato. And the whole thing is about vampires. After the ‘Rÿche’s first album, management pushed the progressive rockers to make a more polished, radio-friendly follow-up (less Bowie, more Bon Jovi). The result, Rage for Order, masterfully sneaked elements of brainy prog-rock into the glam-hair-hard-rock soup of the day, providing a blueprint for countless prog-metal bands — among them Dream Theater, Ayrean, and Transatlantic — to follow. —S.G.


‘Locust Star,’ Neurosis

Neurosis guitarist-singer Scott Kelly once claimed he wrote the multilayered “Locust Star” — the centerpiece of 1996’s Through Silver in Blood, the career-making album of Bay Area punks turned beautiful doom brooders Neurosis — backstage in Portland in a minute or so, which is quite a feat. Each of the song’s elements — the wobble and roar of the group’s two guitarists, the piercing caterwauls, the bass thumping like an anxious heartbeat — shape a six-minute gestalt that’s both unsettling and rich. “Star, reign down on you,” Kelly demands in the galvanizing chorus, pausing to reinforce that last word. “Punk, to me, was something that came from within and had no boundaries,” the band’s other vocalist, Steve Von Till, said at the time. “It’s protest music.” —G.H.C.


‘Night Goat,’ Melvins

Whichever way you prefer your “Night Goat” cooked — the 1991 seven-inch single on 1993’s Houdini, or the more recent acoustic from 2021 — it’s never stale. Featuring a teeth-gnashing intro, the low plough of Dale Crover’s drums, and Buzz Osborne’s primal bark, “Night Goat” is a monster of a jam that remains unsurpassed. Melvins are one of the few bands (other than maybe the Rolling Stones?) that every sub-genre of rock, from sludge to punk to metal to indie and beyond, has claimed as an influence. There are lots of reasons, but the brilliant thrust of “Night Goat” is the easiest explanation. As Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow said in 2016, “When Nirvana came out, it was like, what is this? The Melvins Junior?” —S.G.


‘Symphony of Destruction,’ Megadeth

Across their first four albums, Megadeth steadily evolved into the busiest and most formidably technical of thrash metal’s Big Four. But on 1992’s Countdown to Extinction, they regrouped and decelerated, circling back to the hypnotic midtempo chug of 1986’s “Peace Sells” for what would become one of the defining anthems of their career. Opening with a sample of a Mozart mass, “Symphony of Destruction” quickly establishes a steely central groove, built around a rumbling bass line and minimalist, stop-start power chords. “It was one of those songs where you play the riff, and all of a sudden, something inside you just perks up,” bandleader Dave Mustaine once recalled. The lyrics channeled the plot of The Manchurian Candidate to paint a portrait of a politician who attains godlike powers and leads humanity to ruin. Appropriately, Megadeth have never sounded more sinister — or more majestic.—H.S.


‘Green Machine,’ Kyuss

“We thought we were this heavy version of a punk band,” Kyuss guitarist Josh Homme has said about his groundbreaking group. These residents of Palm Desert, California conjured something as riff-laden and ominous as Sabbath but with their own slightly psychedelic and skewed, sun-baked bent. And no song better captures that than this propulsive 1992 cut off the Chris Goss-produced Blues for the Red Sun, in which singer John Garcia sings about how “he’s got a war inside his head” and is ready to rip it all up and start again. Despite being pioneers of Nineties stoner rock, the song isn’t about the joys of toking up; rather, Garcia is hellbent on “shutting down your greed for green, baby!” It was pure punk in the back, metal in the front — and heavy as fuck all around. —D.F.


‘Bring Me to Life,’ Evanescence

Led by a piano and singer Amy Lee’s dreamy, operatic voice, “Bring Me to Life” transforms from a dreamlike ballad into a surprisingly heavy, goth-metal moment that sounded akin to Tori Amos fronting Korn. The juxtaposition of Lee’s voice, Evanescence’s hard rock angle and the rap-vocal interjections from 12 Stones’ Paul McCoy brought them to the top of the charts and made “Bring Me to Life” a breakthrough nu-metal hit in 2003. Lee would explain later that she had written the song at 19 after a friend noticed the front she putting up while in the midst of an abusive relationship. That friend turned out to be Josh Hartzler, the man she would end up marrying a few years later. —B.S.


‘Curse You All Men!,’ Emperor

In four minutes’ runtime, Emperor squeeze about six different songs into one deadly, all-encompassing curse. It moves from an off-time, unheadbangable intro to a rising, galloping riff to a bracing pummel (“Curse you all men whose coil is strong,” frontman Ihsahn hectors) and then comes circus calliope keyboards, Viking chants, and maybe even a key change or two. Norway’s greatest musical athletes play 16th notes at 200 b.p.m. (that’s really fucking fast) for most of the song, propelled by drummer Trym’s battering-ram assaults. “The chord progression is moving a minor chord in chromatic steps back and forth, and still, I put a lead melody on that,” Ihsahn once explained. “We’ve kind of used common tones and managed to twist it into becoming something harmonic.” Ultimately, it’s a powerful and maybe even positive curse because no one ever comes out of it worse than they entered it. —K.G.


‘Bleed,’ Meshuggah

Meshuggah’s breakthrough album, 1995’s Destroy Erase Improve, was the Terminator 2: Judgment Day of extreme metal, pushing the genre into a realm of cyborg-like technicality. But during the next decade-plus, the mad-scientist Swedes found a way to combine their signature ballet mécanique with a surprisingly warm-blooded groove. The shining example of that evolution was “Bleed,” a song from 2008’s obZen that got incredible mileage out of a deceptively simple rhythmic hiccup — known as a herta in drum-geek parlance — played in militaristic unison by the entire band. “I just basically had to kind of change my approach to how I play the bass drums,” drummer Tomas Haake later said of his famously endurance-testing role in “Bleed,” orbiting around arguably the most iconic and widely emulated double-kick-drum part in metal since Lars Ulrich’s “One” breakdown. “It’s more like tap-dancing, so you play it softer, in a more fluid way.”—H.S.


‘Victim of Changes,’ Judas Priest

Judas Priest bridged the gap between metal’s firebrands (Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep) and their own dark, uncharted realms with the pummeling “Victim of Changes,” essentially rewriting metal’s rulebook. For the first four-and-a-half minutes, the band churns out a heavy, Peter Green-esque blues jam, while a young Rob Halford does his best Robert Plant strut. Then the song downshifts into a quiet, brooding bridge, and begins building momentum, until Halford dramatically explodes into a high-pitched scream of the titular line at the 6:40 mark with astonishing, genre-altering power. “Out of all the songs that Priest have ever made, it’s genuinely the one for me,” Halford told Kerrang. “It’s got the double intro guitars, the big slamming riff, the vocal, and the brilliant lead break from Glenn [Tipton], plus the outro section and the high-pitched screams. It’s really got everything in one metal song … it is probably the definitive Judas Priest number.” —A.B.


‘For Whom the Bell Tolls,’ Metallica

Metallica’s first truly heavy song took form, oddly enough, on their bassist’s acoustic guitar. “[Cliff Burton] used to carry around an acoustic classical guitar that he detuned so that he could bend the strings,” guitarist Kirk Hammett once said. “When he would play that riff, I would think, ‘That’s such a weird, atonal riff that isn’t really heavy at all.’ I remember him playing it for James [Hetfield], and James adding that accent to it and all of a sudden, it changed.” (Even in Metallica, no man is an island.) After crushing power chords, Burton summons lightning and thunder from the upper echelons of his bass before the band settles into a swinging groove and Hetfield gives his finest Hemingway book report (even if he skipped to the few pages). The song became the benchmark by which all heavy Metallica songs (“Harvester of Sorrow,” “Sad but True”) have been judged ever since. —K.G.


‘Killing in the Name,’ Rage Against the Machine

Rage Against the Machine’s explosive 1992 debut single, “Killing in the Name,” was a groundbreaking mashup of hip-hop, metal, and rock. The song was inspired by the police beating of Rodney King and the Los Angeles riots that followed. But the lyrics are elastic enough to apply to most any injustice — especially Zack de la Rocha’s furious “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” coda. As guitarist Tom Morello told Rolling Stone, “It relates to Frederick Douglass. He said the moment he became free was not the moment that he was physically loosed from his bonds. It was the moment when his master said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘No.’ And that’s why it’s encouraging to hear it shouted at the Fed goons who are shooting tear gas at American citizens.” —A.G.


‘Chop Suey!,’ System of a Down

It would be hard to imagine a better example of the pointlessness of major label content policing than System of a Down’s “Chop Suey!” Originally, the song — a playfully tuneful bit of nu metal prog — was called “Self-Righteous Suicide,” but the brass at Columbia Records took offense, insisting the title be changed. “I remember wanting to go to the mat and keep the title,” recalled producer Rick Rubin. “The band decided, ‘Let’s call it “Chop Suey!”’ which I thought was kind of funny.” Meanwhile, the phrase “self-righteous suicide” remained the lynchpin of the song’s refrain, while the words “Chop Suey!” were nowhere to be heard. —J.D.C.


‘Rock You Like a Hurricane,’ Scorpions

It took eight studio albums, but by 1984, the Scorpions finally hit pay dirt with one of the most ubiquitous mainstream metal songs of the decade. The band had steadily developed a trademark sound built around Rudolf Schenker’s economical yet contagious rhythm riffs, and his intro for “Rock You Like a Hurricane” — the riff that’s since launched a thousand airshows — captured lightning in a bottle. Coupled with Matthias Jabs’ wicked melodic leads and Klaus Meine’s clumsy yet oddly endearing double-entendres, the Scorps became instant, well-deserved megastars. Regarding disputes over how a rocking hurricane might sound — yes, metal fans are this nerdy — Schenker told Martin Popoff, “Some people think it [should] be faster, some people think it must be more crazy. But I think the double-meaning lyrics give the whole thing a kind of sexual hurricane.” —A.B.


‘Fade to Black,’ Metallica

A year after Metallica introduced thrash as the most extreme metal yet, they dialed it back on their second album with “Fade to Back,” a power ballad about feeling disaffected. Although some fans screamed sellout, the song, written in a depression after the band’s gear was stolen, also touched many who could relate to lyrics like “Growing darkness taking dawn/I was me, but now he’s gone.” For all its darkness, though, the track’s instrumental climax offers a transcendent glimmer of hope as Lars Ulrich’s double-kicks propel the song skyward. Its tuneful melodies and powerful riffs made the track a fan favorite and a set-list staple. “It’s a suicide song, and we got a lot of flak for it, as if kids were killing themselves because of the song,” James Hetfield told Guitar World in 1991. “But we also got hundreds of letters from kids telling us how they related to the song and that it made them feel better.” —A.B.


‘Smoke on the Water,’ Deep Purple

According to Nineties sketch comedy crew the Kids in the Hall, the opening riff to “Smoke on the Water” is “the Holy Trinity of Rock.” For guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, who wrote it in 1971, it was a lark, an inverted take on Beethoven’s Fifth. To Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover, it was simply another riff with potential as the band prepared to record it in Montreux, Switzerland. Then “some stupid with a flare gun” set fire to a Frank Zappa concert causing Glover to see a gray haze on Lake Geneva, and frontman Ian Gillan chipped in some dryly humorous lyrics and an ominous-yet-catchy chorus. It’s since become the first riff every budding guitarist learns. “We never thought for a minute it was going to have the kind of future it was gonna have,” Glover told author Steven Tow. “It wasn’t us that chose ‘Smoke on the Water.’ It was first of all some DJs, and then the public at large turned it into the song it’s become. Now, listening to it, it’s obvious. The riff is so simple and yet so different to anything else.” —A.B.


‘Kiss Me Deadly,’ Lita Ford

Lita Ford’s career got an auspicious start as a member of all-female Seventies rockers the Runaways. But 10 years after the Runaways peaked, and following two under-performing solo albums, she was still trying to find her footing as a solo artist. One turning point was hiring Sharon Osbourne as her manager, but more pivotal was the discovery of a wicked little demo by songwriter Mick Smiley that quoted a 1950s film noir. Opening with the very Runaways-esque line, “I went to a party last Saturday night/I didn’t get laid, I got in a fight,” “Kiss Me Deadly” is half hooks, half attitude — a perfect fit for Ford’s aesthetic. Backed up by Pat Benatar’s rhythm section and bolstered by sleek, radio-friendly production, Ford struts, swaggers, and shreds her way through the song, living up to the potential many knew she had. —A.B.


‘Mother,’ Danzig

This slick, Rick Rubin-produced song was always primed to be a Top 40 hit, but it took six years for it to finally claim its glory. Danzig originally released “Mother” as the lead single for 1988’s Danzig, but immediately faced the blowback of people claiming they were Satanists (its MTV-banned video, which featured a chicken being sacrificed on a cross, didn’t help). Lyrically, the song was a direct response to Tipper Gore and the PMRC’s crackdown on explicit music content, making for a delicious, devilish invite to the dark side. Thankfully, it would get a second life after the lightly remixed “Mother ’93” blew up. —B.S.


‘Heaven and Hell,’ Black Sabbath

By all logic, the departure of Ozzy Osbourne from Black Sabbath in 1979 should have hopelessly crippled the band as it headed into the Eighties. But they brought in Rainbow’s Ronnie James Dio, burrowed themselves into the studio, and cut their best album in years. The seven-minute title track is the highlight, and only Dio could write lines like, “The world is full of kings and queens/Who blind your eyes and steal your dreams.” Paired with a haunting Tony Iommi riff, the epic tune stands all these years later as one of the mightiest Sabbath works of any era. It also neatly sums up Dio’s entire worldview. “It expounds on my belief that the Earth can be a place for good and bad,” Dio said in 2010. “How you live is up to you.” —A.G.


‘Enter Sandman,’ Metallica

God’s greatest gift to sports-arena playlists was the simplest song Eighties thrash gods Metallica ever wrote. “It’s basically a one-riff song with variations of that riff on the bridge and chorus,” drummer Lars Ulrich said in a documentary on the Black Album. Kirk Hammett came up with the riff while listening to Soundgarden, trying to create the next “Smoke on the Water.” After hearing his ominous riff, singer James Hetfield proffered a mysterious title he had tucked away for more than six years that, according to him, “no one liked until we yanked it out again.” When “Sandman” came out in 1991, anyone who purchased Master of Puppets saw it as embarrassing MTV-bait. But the mainstream Godzilla earned its keep; the song sired multitudes of metalheads the world over and, 30 years later, it’s still making converts. —S.G.


‘Walk,’ Pantera

Pantera’s groovy but still heavy 1993 single would become one of the band’s signature and bestselling songs, even without breaking the mainstream threshold. With the song’s perfect scream-along hook, it’s Dimebag Darrell’s shuffle groove, paying homage to the Southern rock the Texas band grew up with, that makes the track stand out. “Walk” was inspired by the changing attitudes of their “friends” back home after they got signed to a major label. “Basically, my message is, ‘Take your fucking attitude and take a fuckin’ walk with that. Keep that shit away from me,’ ” vocalist Philip Anselmo explained. “I was just defending my own un-rock-star-ism, or however the fuck you want to put it.” —B.S.


‘Holy Wars…the Punishment Due,’ Megadeth

In May 1988, Megadeth played a show in Northern Ireland, at which frontman Dave Mustaine dedicated a version of “Anarchy in the U.K.” to “The Cause.” Misinterpreting that gesture as an allusion to the country’s centuries of sectarian conflict, the crowd rioted, and the band had to be rushed away in a bulletproof bus. The incident inspired this epic meditation on the destructive nature of personal and social division, opening with the sizzling thrash of “Holy Wars” and culminating in the heroically lumbering “Punishment Due,” capped by riveting solos from Mustaine and Marty Friedman. Mustaine cut his solo in one unruly take, fresh out of rehab and playing guitar for the first time in weeks. “He was flying,” bassist David Ellefson later said. “Hearing it come down, you could feel the emotion.” —G.H.C.


‘Living After Midnight,’ Judas Priest

Judas Priest spent the Seventies creating music for hardcore metal fans, but on 1980’s British Steel, in a move that was partially inspired by AC/DC, they broadened their appeal without sacrificing their edge. That’s most evident on the LP’s leadoff single, “Living After Midnight,” which was born by accident late one night while guitarist Glenn Tipton was working out a riff at England’s Tittenhurst Park, the former home of John Lennon, while everyone else in the band was trying to sleep. “You’re living after midnight down here, you are!” frontman Rob Halford recalled snapping at Tipton in his memoir Confess. “I stopped dead. We grinned at each other. ‘That is fucking great title for this song!’ he said. The next day, I wrote a lyric for it, about parting and having a good time.” The song reached Number 12 on the U.K. singles chart, and it remains their signature song. —A.G.


‘Am I Evil?,’ Diamond Head

Although Iron Maiden and Def Leppard are the biggest bands to emerge from the so-called New Wave of British Heavy Metal, Diamond Head’s “Am I Evil?” is by far the microgenre’s most influential song: Metallica have been covering it for more than four decades, and they’ve even jammed on it with Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax at the Big Four concerts. The song remains a masterclass in heavy metal dynamics, from its doomy, militaristic intro to its rising-and-falling central riff. For all the occult fun in the lyrics, “Am I Evil?” showed how storytelling could be reflected more vividly with a dramatic instrumental arrangement. “’My mother was a witch’ was a great opening line,” guitarist Brian Tatler told Classic Rock. “[Singer Sean Harris’] mum probably took offense, but she’s probably forgiven him now.” —A.B.


‘Rainbow in the Dark,’ Dio

Ronnie James Dio often recounted how he had to be convinced to keep “Rainbow in the Dark” on his self-named band’s 1983 debut album, Holy Diver, as he felt that its keyboard hook sounded too “poppy.” But with Dio’s ferociously committed vocal performance, Vivian Campbell’s snarling guitar work, and the song’s sublimely air-punching chorus, it’s hard to hear the song as anything other than pure Eighties metal perfection. “ ’Rainbow in the Dark’ was the first Dio song I really loved to death,” Slipknot/Stone Sour frontman Corey Taylor told Revolver in 2014. “[It was] just a powerful, high-energy rock song that was so good I wished I’d written it.” —D.E.


‘South of Heaven,’ Slayer

After they perfected speed metal with their 1986 album, Reign in Blood, Slayer knew they’d reached a pivot point. “We didn’t want to try to beat that album. It’d be kind of ridiculous,” guitarist Jeff Hanneman recalled to Decibel. ”So, we all talked about it: slowing the record down a bit to freak everybody out.” They did that and more on the opening, title track, which boasts one of the most spine-tingling riffs in the entire metal canon: a Hanneman-penned motif that sounds like a slow-motion descent into hell. More than 90 seconds transpire before the band kicks into a higher gear, with Tom Araya stepping forward to conjure end-times dread by invoking “chaos rampant in an age of distrust” and the “never-ending search for your shattered sanity.” The song’s patient construction showed that Slayer didn’t need breakneck tempos to assault fans’ senses. —H.S.


‘Shout at the Devil,’ Mötley Crüe

As anyone who saw the fourth season of Stranger Things knows, the religious right had a full-on conniption about supposed satanic imagery in metal music back in the Eighties. In 1983, Mötley Crüe decided to lean into the controversy by calling their second album Shout at the Devil, and placing a pentagram on the cover. The anthemic title track showcases all of the band’s strengths in a mere three minutes: soaring vocals, killer guitar work, and a chorus that seeps into your brain after one listen. And in the truth, the song has little to do with summoning up evil forces from hell. “It has always been a song about pushing back,” Nikki Sixx said in 2015. “It can be about the perceived enemy at hand, the devil inside, or someone on a wobbly campaign trail.” —A.G.


‘Caught in a Mosh,’ Anthrax

Even if Anthrax had never made another record after 1987’s Among the Living, their place in the thrash pantheon would be secure — thanks in part to that album’s classic “Caught in a Mosh.” Although it was initially written about the frustrations of dealing with idiotic and aggressively negative individuals on a daily basis, the mosh-pit anthem’s jackhammer assault, neck-snapping time changes, and anthemic gang chorus provide a wonderfully cathartic antidote to the toxic BS, serving up a textbook example of the transcendent and transformative power of metal. Of course, having an otherworldly rhythm section like Charlie Benante and Frank Bello doesn’t hurt at all in the “transcendent” department, either. —D.E.


‘The Trooper,’ Iron Maiden

The heavy-metal rhythmic “gallop” had been around well before the 1980s — Deep Purple’s “Hard Lovin’ Man” from 1970 is arguably the first example — but Iron Maiden perfected the style via Steve Harris’ distinct, fleet-fingered bass-playing style. Maiden have anchored many songs to Harris’ upper-register bass lines rather than the guitars, and the way he leads the charge on the rousing, bracing “The Trooper” is their best stampede. The song explodes out of the gate, and singer Bruce Dickinson maniacally and seemingly unceasingly barks lyrics inspired by the Charge of the Light Brigade from the Crimean War. “[‘The Trooper’] was a vocal twister indeed,” Dickinson told Martin Popoff. “As we’ve played it over the years, it’s gotten progressively faster and faster, and I’ve taken more chunks off the end of my tongue as my teeth have collided with it.” —A.B.


‘Round and Round,’ Ratt

Ratt scurried up to L.A. from San Diego and adapted themselves to the nascent early Eighties Sunset Strip hair metal scene. They hit the Top 20 with the garage-glam glory of “Round and Round.” The song had a lot going on, probably more than it needed: a brisk, bullying two-guitar attack, some nifty ride-cymbal swing, a highbrow literary allusion from singer and noted Shakespeare scholar Stephen Pearcy, comedy legend Milton Berle appearing in drag in the video, and a surprisingly vulnerable tone in the lyrics, especially Pearcy’s odd admission of self-abnegation, “tightened our belts, abused ourselves.” Hey, whatever works, you sexy rodents. The result was the catchiest hit of metal’s catchiest era. —J.D.


‘Peace Sells,’ Megadeth

The title track of Megadeth’s breakthrough album serves as a venomous response to anyone who assumes metalheads lack intelligence. “What do you mean, I ain’t kind?” he spits. “I’m just not your kind.” With David Ellefson’s jazzy bass line, Gar Samuelson’s stomping drum beat, and some tourniquet-tight crunching and shredding by Mustaine and Chris Poland, “Peace Sells” was a perfectly timed clarion call for the MTV generation, the song that made Megadeth a major player in the burgeoning thrash scene. “I wrote it because I was tired of people mocking metal in general and mocking people who are metal fans,” Mustaine told Rolling Stone. “It was hard for me to watch the way we were stereotyped on TV, just as dumbasses. For the most part, I think that a lot of musicians are very intelligent and very talented. It’s a bummer the way people had been stereotyped.”—A.B.


‘Immigrant Song,’ Led Zeppelin

Lots of rock bands of the early 1970s looked (and acted) like Vikings — Led Zeppelin were one of the few who could write a song about actual Vikings and make it sound like an already-in-progress pillaging. An anomaly on the folkish, largely acoustic Led Zeppelin III, this battle-cry banger was inspired by a visit to Iceland (“We did come from the land of ice and snow!” Robert Plant has said), Zep’s ode to Norse mythology remains, both musically and lyrically, a metal masterpiece in all but name. “ ‘Immigrant Song’ comes closest to being a pulp classic,” critic Lester Bangs said in his Rolling Stone review of the album, “with its bulldozer rhythms and Bobby Plant’s double-tracked wordless vocal croonings echoing behind the main vocal like some cannibal chorus wailing in the infernal light of a savage fertility rite.” Valhalla, he is coming! —D.F.


‘Back in Black,’ AC/DC

“Back in Black” may be the single greatest, wildest wake in rock and roll history. Released just five months after the “death by misadventure” of Bon Scott, the AC/DC singer who had presciently belted “Highway to Hell,” this jam recognizes that the wages of sin may be death but still parties on, anyway. When founding guitarists Angus and Malcolm Young asked new vocalist Brian Johnson to write a peppy tribute to his predecessor, he joked, “Well, no pressure there, then.” Still, he didn’t flinch. “I got nine lives … ” he screeches, “abusing every one of them and running wild.” Despite the morbid subject matter (and the album’s Spinal Tap-black cover), “Back in Black” sounds effortlessly alive, even within death’s long shadow. —G.H.C.


‘Hallowed Be Thy Name,’ Iron Maiden

Picture this: A prisoner is contemplating his final moments before being taken to the gallows, feeling sorrow and growing anxiety. Now imagine that story stretched over seven minutes, sung by the ever dramatic Bruce Dickinson and set to Iron Maiden bassist-songwriter Steve Harris’ greatest slow-burning, shadowy soundtrack, and you begin to understand the majesty of “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” which closed out Maiden’s The Number of the Beast LP. The song’s effect is truly cinematic as the protagonist’s bleakness turns into panic, as the music slowly ratchets up the tension adding to the prisoner’s spiritual transcendence. “If someone who’d never heard Maiden before – someone from another planet or something – asked you about Maiden, what would you play them?” Harris once posited. “I think ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’ is the one.” —A.B.


‘Angel of Death,’ Slayer

With its punishing musical attack, pitilessly graphic lyrics, and no-fucks-given attitude, “Angel of Death” remains the quintessential Slayer song, not to mention one of the most crucial thrash-metal anthems ever recorded. Written by the late Jeff Hanneman about the atrocious experiments conducted by Josef Mengele on Auschwitz prisoners, the song has repeatedly drawn accusations of anti-Semitism and Nazi sympathies since its 1986 release; the band, however, always unrepentantly insisted that it was meant as a “documentary” of Holocaust horrors rather than a celebration thereof. Either way, “Angel of Death” was the last song Slayer ever played onstage, capping the final show of their 2019 farewell tour in appropriately ferocious fashion. —D.E.


‘Stargazer,’ Rainbow

Ronnie James Dio’s signature songs might be “Heaven and Hell” and “Holy Diver,” but “Stargazer” is the man’s finest vocal performance on record. “I wrote that on the cello,” guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, who also wrote “Smoke on the Water,” once told Guitar World. “I had given up on the guitar between ’75 and ’78. I completely lost interest. I was sick of hearing other guitar players, and I was tired of my tunes. What I really wanted to be was Jacqueline du Pré on cello; so I started playing cello.” Luckily, Blackmore came to his senses and teamed with Dio to form Rainbow. On “Stargazer,” Blackmore’s Middle Eastern-flavored riffs and solos back Dio’s operatic tale of a wizard obsessed with building a tower to the stars at the expense of masses of enslaved citizens, creating a searing depiction of madness. —A.B.


‘Paranoid,’ Black Sabbath

Written and recorded in just slightly more time than it takes to listen to it, “Paranoid” was a last-minute addition to the 1970 album of the same name, yet became a surprise hit on both sides of the Atlantic. With its driving opening riff, surging rhythms, and bummed-out lyrics, “Paranoid” was not only a metal anthem for the ages, but also became an important touchstone for punk bands like the Ramones and the Dickies. “We were as shocked as anybody when that got in the charts,” Tony Iommi told MusicRadar in 2010. “We thought, ‘Bloody hell, there’s all this stuff here we’re trying to do musically and then something as simple as ‘Paranoid’ gets in the charts and everybody remembers it!’” —D.E.


‘Cult of Personality,’ Living Colour

It’s hard to talk about Living Colour without bringing up politics, in part because of what it meant to be Black men playing heavy metal in Reagan’s America, but also because “Cult of Personality,” as Greg Tate pointed out, “managed the feat of getting a Malcolm X sample on AOR radio.” (Churchill and J.F.K., too.) Still, despite lyrics that pair Mussolini with Kennedy and Stalin with Gandhi, the hardest-hitting content came from Vernon Reid’s guitar, thanks to a riff he described as having “a Led Zeppelin-ish vibe, but also a Mahavishnu Orchestra thing going on.” —J.D.C.


‘One,’ Metallica

Between M*A*S*H, Rambo, Platoon, and “Born in the USA,” making sense of the trauma of war was big business throughout the Eighties. In 1988, Metallica took the atrocities of war to their logical conclusion with “One,” a song about a wounded and suicidal WWI soldier who has lost his arms, legs, and ability to speak to a landmine — inspired in part by Dalton Trumbo’s classic novel, Johnny Got His Gun. Between its video, which saturated MTV with imagery from Trumbo’s film adaptation of the movie, and its seven-minute runtime, which rivals “Stairway to Heaven” and “Free Bird” with its obsidian and ironclad climax, “One” catapulted Metallica to stardom. Even now, when you listen to those plaintive guitars, Lars Ulrich’s machine-gun bass-drum barrages, and Kirk Hammett’s perfectly balletic solo, yearning for escape: There may be no better gateway to metal and its rebellious willpower. —G.H.C.


‘Run to the Hills,’ Iron Maiden

Having parted ways with their lead singer Paul Di’Anno, Iron Maiden soon recruited ex-Samson frontman Bruce Dickinson. “One [concertgoer] wrote a complaint,” Dickinson recalls in his autobiography, about “hearing his favorite songs played through an ‘air-raid’ siren.” Manager Rod Smallwood realized that the new singer’s signature shriek was not a bug but a feature, and quickly made sure it got the showcase that it deserved. That would be the first single off Maiden’s 1982 album, The Number of the Beast, a Western epic complete with a blistering, wah-wah-heavy solo courtesy of guitarist Dave Murray and some of Clive Burr’s ferocious drumming. But it’s that final “run/for/your/liiiiii-vvv-esssss” yowl that turned the song into a metal anthem, and it was the perfect introduction to the new voice of Maiden. “There are some songs you can feel in your bones that will be huge,” Dickinson said. —D.F.


‘Holy Diver,’ Dio

After making a name for himself as the frontman of Rainbow and Ozzy Osbourne’s replacement in Black Sabbath, Ronnie James Dio launched his own band in 1983. “Holy Diver” was Dio’s first single, and it set the stage for a three-decade career full of demons, dragons, and rainbows. Recorded with future Def Leppard guitarist Vivian Campbell, bassist Jimmy Bain, and Sabbath drummer Vinny Appice, Dio crafted the song about a Christ-like figure on another planet who sacrifices his life on a suicide jump meant to transport his soul to another world. “But the people on his planet, mirroring us as humanity, say, ‘Don’t go! They’ll kill you!’” Dio wrote in the liner notes to his Stand Up and Shout comp. “But what they’re really saying is, ‘Hey, we’re all selfish bastards,’ just like most humans are, and ‘We want you all to ourselves.’ In other words, ‘Fuck them, stay with us.’ It’s a reflection of humanity’s inner darkness.” —A.G.


‘Raining Blood,’ Slayer

“Raining Blood” embodies what heavy metal is all about: mood, power, grandiosity, transcendence. And, in this horrifically beautiful song, actual poetry courtesy of Jeff Hanneman: “Fall into me, the sky’s crimson tears/Abolish the rules made of stone.” Articulated with astonishing clarity by singer-bassist Tom Araya, those lyrics accentuate a highly progressive arrangement that keeps drummer Dave Lombardo on his toes, from the opening toms during the intro’s thunderstorm to the song’s violent, Grand Guignol-style climax before abruptly cutting to that same thunderstorm. “The intro is big with the two-guitar harmony part, and then that first beat that Dave does, that double-kick thing and it’s like this backwards gallop that gets the crowd going wherever you are,” guitarist Kerry King told Decibel. “We could be playing in front of Alanis Morissette, and the crowd loves that part.” —A.B.


‘Iron Man,’ Black Sabbath

Ominous, colossal, and yet so simple that even a novice guitarist can figure it out, Tony Iommi’s stump-fingered “Iron Man” riff is the very definition of Seventies heaviness. “I just thought it was the heaviest thing I’d ever heard,” Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler said in the liner notes to Paranoid: Super Deluxe Edition, “so I wanted to reflect that in the lyrics.” Taking an additional cue from Ozzy Osbourne’s observation that Iommi’s riff “sounded like some big iron bloke walking through the city,” Butler dreamed up a metallic anti-hero, whose attempts to save the world result only in alienation and destruction — an outcome symbolized by the lumbering rave-up that brings this immortal anthem (and Side One of 1970’s Paranoid LP) to its shuddering close. —D.E.


‘Crazy Train,’ Ozzy Osbourne

Released in September 1980, “Crazy Train” drew a defining line between Ozzy Osbourne’s Black Sabbath days and his solo career, and served as a signpost to where metal was heading in the new decade. Although the song’s lyrical concerns — mental illness, the specter of nuclear annihilation — would have certainly been familiar to Seventies headbangers, the music was sleeker, punchier, and highlighted by the dazzling (and soon to be profoundly influential) shredding of newly minted guitar hero Randy Rhoads. “I knew him for a very short amount of time,” Ozzy said of Rhoads in a 2021 Rolling Stone interview. “But what he gave me in that short amount of time was immeasurable in fucking greatness.” No one hearing this song could argue that. —D.E.


‘War Pigs,’ Black Sabbath

Anyone who feels metal is no place for politics must have snagged a scuffed copy of Black Sabbath’sParanoidLP, since it’s not only the fountainhead for so much heavy riffage on this list but also a premier example of Vietnam-era antiwar agitprop. That sense of political angst comes through right away on “War Pigs,” whose bludgeoning riff and relentless rhythm offer no quarter to the money-hungry politicos who have shipped hapless kids off to die; it’s a theme that would resonate through metal for decades to come, from Metallica to Bolt Thrower. The song ends with Ozzy Osbourne’s vengeful vision of the apocalypse, God and Satan rendezvousing to reclaim what power-hungry men have ruined, before Tony Iommi’s guitar hurls itself into oblivion. “Politicians are the real Satanists — that’s what I was trying to say,” bassist-lyricist Geezer Butler explained almost half a century later. —G.H.C.


‘Breaking the Law,’ Judas Priest

“Breaking the Law” is proof that economy can be just as effective in metal as grandiosity. Released right when the New Wave of British Metal was reaching its apex, these seasoned Seventies veterans showed their younger, faster, louder peers that they could still evoke teenage angst with the best of them. “Breaking the Law” is rage, catharsis, and pop accessibility neatly wrapped in patent leather and chrome studs. When Rob Halford hollers, “You don’t know what it’s like!” as glass breaks and sirens wail in the background, you can’t help but feel his frustration. “You hear it in all bands, they’d be playing a particular song for so many years that they get fed up with playing it,” guitarist Glenn Tipton told Decibel. “But the simple fact is, once you get on the stage with the audience behind you, you never get fed up with a song like ‘Breaking the Law,’ the audience singing along … It’s more exciting to play than it ever was.” —A.B.


‘Ace of Spades,’ Motörhead

The New Wave of British Heavy Metal marked the point at which the music went from slow and sludgy to fast and furious, and few songs epitomized that change of pace as completely as “Ace of Spades.” Between the high-voltage twitch of Lemmy’s bass and the manic gallop of Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor’s double-bass drum kit, the band clearly had the pedal to the metal. But while many fans would flash horns up to lyrics like “I don’t want to live forever,” Lemmy had second thoughts, telling journalist Mick Wall, “Actually, I’d like to die the year before forever. To avoid the rush.” —J.D.C.


‘Master of Puppets,’ Metallica

Metallica had already exerted a revelatory impact by adding an American spin on the New Wave of British Heavy Metal when they invented thrash, but the title track of their third album brought nuance and complexity to their speed-metal assault and opened up the entire genre to new possibilities. The twists and turns of this song are thrilling, from the supercharged verses to the somber middle section, from the thunderous shout-along bridge to guitarist Kirk Hammett’s searing solo run. “What surprises me the most is when I listen to the radio and something from ‘Master of Puppets’ will come on, and I’m amazed at how current and modern it still sounds,” Hammett told Rolling Stone. “I’m thankful for that. That doesn’t always happen.” —A.B.


‘Black Sabbath,’ Black Sabbath

Heavy metal was born, fittingly enough, in a nightmare. “I was asleep and I felt something in the room, like this weird presence,” bassist Geezer Butler once recalled of the origins of the song “Black Sabbath.” “I woke up in a dream world, and there was this black thing at the bottom of the bed, staring at me. … It just freaked me out.” Butler’s band, then known as Earth, had been trying to make it on Birmingham, England’s heavy blues scene for a couple of years when they concocted the idea to write songs that would frighten listeners like horror movies. Guitarist Tony Iommi struck three chords with a sinister quality, and Osbourne reacted to them by imagining Butler’s demon peering at him: “What is this that stands before me?” he bellowed. They called the song “Black Sabbath” in deference to the like-titled Boris Karloff fright flick and decided they liked it so much that they renamed themselves Black Sabbath, too. Finally, they had a song that was truly heavy and after producer Rodger Bain added a thunderstorm and a knelling church bell to the song’s intro, “Black Sabbath” became a true metal original. Today, “Black Sabbath” exudes the same raw, infernal majesty; it’s both scary and fun at the same time. It’s the feeling all metal bands have been chasing ever since and it still reigns supreme. —K.G.