Home Music Music Lists

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


‘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.