Heavy metal. It started with Eddie Cochran, but it didn’t really exist until NWOBHM. Hot Chocolate made one of the early metal classics. Def Leppard stretched the genre to breaking point – and made millions doing so. Grunge didn’t kill metal – it saved it. The Sisters Of Mercy were a key influence on metal’s future.
That’s right: it’s the story of metal in the 20th century, unlikely as it might be, song by song.
The Novas – The Crusher (1964)
This relentless slab of garage surf rock from 1964 is an ode to 50s American wrestling legend Crusher Lisowski. Vocalist Bob Nolan puts in such an OTT performance that it literally pre-dates death metal vocalists such as Tom G. Warrior of Celtic Frost by some 20-plus years.
The Kinks – You Really Got Me (1964)
Up to this point had there been a rock riff so direct and in your face as You Really Got Me? Well, maybe there was, but it’s hard to think of one.
Pretty Things – Defecting Grey (1967)
Former R&B legends’ first real attempt at being experimental is a mind-bending formula of head-trips and exploding distorted guitar riffs.
The Turtles – Buzzsaw (1968)
Hard to imagine that the band who had an earlier worldwide smash hit with Happy Together were also responsible for this ultra-groovy, heavy fuzz monster of a tune.
Blue Cheer – Summertime Blues (1968)
Considered by many to be the first heavy metal record, their debut album Vincebus Eruptum blew minds and battered senses with an incendiary overload of crashing drums and blistering feedback. This earthquake-inducing re-working of the Eddie Cochran classic simply cannot be ignored in the history of the heavier side of rock music.
The Open Mind – Magic Potion (1969)
The Open Mind were one of the very first bands to inject blasting double-bass drums into a hard-rocking, early metal style. Their seriously rare self-titled 1968 album is slightly more whimsical and dreamy than this hard-edged UK psych 45.
High Tide – Futilist’s Lament (1969)
Punishing raw guitar and swirling effects make the stomach curdle and the head spin on this ultra-heavy dark-psych masterpiece.
Crushed Butler – Factory Grime (1970)
Coming across like a UK Blue Cheer formed on a council estate, Factory Grime is a gloriously gritty pre-punk grinder of a tune.
Sir Lord Baltimore – Master Heartache (1970)
Drummer/vocalist John Garner wasn’t messing around; he sounds seriously damaged by affairs of the heart on this rip-roaring, guitar-freaking killer.
Budgie – Guts (1971)
The bludgeoning low-end bass of Burke Shelley combined with the slow, Sabbathy groove of Guts makes this song a must-inclusion in the collection of any heavy hairy freak.
Ronno – Powers Of Darkness (1971)
Obscure B-side from this short-lived band, which featured (no surprises for guessing) none other than Bowie right-hand-man Mick Ronson on guitar. Black magic and Satan feature pretty highly in the lyrical department and the main riff is seriously infectious.
Tear Gas – Woman For Sale (1971)
Future Sensational Alex Harvey Band members riff hard on this track from their second and final full-length album.
Hot Chocolate – Go-Go Girl (1972)
Another surprise artist to be associated with the word ‘heavy’, but this 1972 B-side is exactly that. Maybe it was the success of Deep Purple that inspired a trend among more commercial pop bands to want to make heavier tracks. Maybe it was really what they wanted to do but the record companies just didn’t give them the freedom to express this side of themselves, thus merely ‘allowing them’ a few fewer commercial B-sides here and there?
Bang – Lions & Christians (1972)
America’s answer to early Sabbath take no prisoners with the first track from their debut album.
Sweet – Man From Mecca (1972)
The A-side (Little Willy) to this one of many lesser-known heavy tracks from British glam rockers Sweet couldn’t be more of a contradiction.
Pentagram – Forever My Queen (1973)
One of the most underrated hard rock bands of all time have finally achieved a cult status and recognition around the world in more recent years. They should have been massive but were cursed from day one. Both Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley wanted to buy their songs during the peak of mid-70s Kiss success.
Buffalo – Shylock (1973)
Aussie heavies Buffalo go for the throat here. Lead by the gritty vocals of Dave Tice, they also featured future Rose Tattoo star Peter Wells.
Black Sabbath – Symptom Of The Universe (1975)
Perhaps the only true masters of early heavy metal. Here on this track from their their sixth album, Sabotage, they sum it all up in one immense-sounding song.
The Ripper – Judas Priest (1976)
You’re in for a shock. The future of metal was changing and this band were going to be at the forefront of it. Rob Halford’s vocals would influence a future generation of screamers.
Motörhead – Ace Of Spades (1980)
Steppenwolf might have sung about ‘heavy metal thunder’ first, but the song that illustrates it best has gotta be Lemmy’s relentless ode to cards, dice and dancing with the Devil. Gambling may be for fools, but with a soundtrack like this, it’s the way we like it, baby…
AC/DC – Back In Black (1980)
With a riff that launched a thousand identi-riffs, the title track of AC/DC’s first record with Brian Johnson at the helm was a terrifying statement of intent. The chord stabs can’t be argued with while Angus wows us with two solos. As a metal anthem it’s oft copied, never bettered.
Misfits – Last Caress (1980)
‘I got something to say/I killed your baby today…’ A Dave Vanian-style vocal, a Ramones-style backing track and a handful of very sick lyrics… and horror punk is born. Future members of Metallica and GN’R vow to cover Misfits songs when they grow up…
Venom – Black Metal (1982)
Geordie guttersnipes Venom somehow contrived to invent not one but two all-new music genres: death metal and (as heard on this stomach-turning track) black metal. No one had ever heard music like this before. No one ever wanted to again. But inspired by the antics of Cronos and his cronies, hundreds of like-minded bands would soon spew forth.
Saxon – Wheels Of Steel (1980)
The Barnsley stormers shook up the NWOBHM with this strident song, one that harked back towards the golden age of Motörhead and AC/DC. It also had a contemporary sound, thanks in part to an in-yer-face production that enhanced its power.
Ozzy Osbourne – Crazy Train (1980)
After having been ousted from Black Sabbath, Ozzy’s first solo single proved he was still worthy of his Prince Of Darkness title. Teaming up with guitarist Randy Rhoads, Crazy Train fused a bass line reminiscent of Papa Was A Rolling Stone with one of metal’s greatest guitar solos.
Iron Maiden – Number Of The Beast (1982)
The title track of the first Iron Maiden album to feature Bruce Dickinson on vocals set the metal template that the Irons would take to record-breaking levels over the following decades. Adrian Smith and Dave Murray’s interlocking six-strings showed the world that twin-guitar bands didn’t have to sound like Thin Lizzy, while Dickinson’s air-raid siren howl and ’Arry’s thunderous bass sealed the deal.
Diamond Head – Am I Evil? (1982)
Made internationally popular by Metallica, this song is oddly one of the foundations on which the thrash genre was built. Oddly? Yep, because Diamond Head owed more to Led Zep than to Motörhead. However, Am I Evil? – with its pace, power and dark intent – was to be the blueprint for much that was to happen in the 80s.
Kiss – Creatures Of The Night (1982)
If Kiss had somewhat lost their way over the previous few years, this put them right back on track as one of the greatest anthemic bands of all time. Here was a song with a mighty riff and a massive chorus, reinvigorating their appeal to the metal audience – both new and old.
Dio – Holy Diver (1983)
After successful spells with Rainbow and Sabbath, Ronnie James Dio strode out on his own, making a formidable statement with the title track of the first Dio album. It encapsulated everything that had made his name – articulate lyrics, a mythically inspired melody, a soaring vocal plus a stirring guitar.
Def Leppard – Photograph (1983)
Leppard’s first hit in America – long before they had significant success at home – saw the band transcend their NWOBHM beginnings and morph into stadium-fillers. The epic ‘gang’s all here’ chorus and the guitar sound’s metallic sheen (courtesy of Back In Black producer Mutt Lange) would prove the blueprint for the pop metal explosion of the mid 80s.
Mötley Crüe – Shout At The Devil (1983)
While Mötley would go on to make waves with their later, poppier releases, it was the title track from their second album that solidified their status as one of the most metallic-sounding Sunset Strip bands. Shout At The Devil combined a shoutalong chorus and an ominous Satanic lyric (one misunderstood by the mainstram media, of course).
Scorpions – Rock You Like A Hurricane (1984)
This is the defining song of the great German band’s lengthy history. It’s a bold, powerhouse march, mixing a potent tune with intense musicianship. It’s one of those songs that helped to give big-hair music such a massive chart-busting boost.
WASP – Animal (Fuck Like A Beast) (1984)
There’s no trace of misty-eyed romanticism here as WASP turn the act of making lurve into a base, animalistic affair. Fuck Like A Beast tested the boundaries of metal’s decency and found them wanting. The irony was, however, that when Kerrang! magazine featured Blackie Lawless on its cover, newsagents WH Smith banned the issue because the singer was covered in blood – not because he was promoting use of the F-word.
Ratt – Round And Round (1984)
One of the cornerstones of the early days of MTV, not only is Round And Round the most famous track of Ratt’s career, but it also helped to make LA the commercial capital of the hard rock world in the mid 1980s. Deceptively simple, one of the reasons for its stature is the brilliant guitar sound from Warren De Martini – the man who gave hair metal its most cutting-edge riffs.
Killing Joke – Eighties (1984)
Killing Joke put the titanic might of Zeppelin and the riff-propelled metal doom of Sabbath through a hyper-cranked punk’n’funk filter to create a roaring apocalyptic holocaust. Latterly, Kurt Cobain translated its signature, grunge-presaging riff into Nirvana’s Come As You Are.
Faith No More – We Care A Lot (1985)
When Chuck Mosley pseudo-rapped that his generation did indeed care about ‘disasters, fires, floods and killer bees’ and the ‘NASA shuttle falling in the sea’ over the punchiest slap-bass riff we’d ever heard – cannily punctuated by ‘Big’ Jim Martin’s razor-wire guitar – it was the first indication that funk and metal could cheerfully co-exist.
Aerosmith – Walk This Way (1986)
Aerosmith spearheaded the rap-metal revolution by teaming up with Run-DMC to overhaul the ’Smiths’ 1975 song. It was marriage made in heaven with Steven Tyler’s screeched chorus playing perfect foil to the rapped verses, while the guitar riff sounded as great as it always had.
Slayer – Angel Of Death (1986)
Slayer scared the mainstream to death with Reign In Blood, and the album’s opening track is terrifying. Marrying contentious lyricism (the tale of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele) to the most deafening soundtrack, the LA thrashers redefined what being a metal band meant. It was faster, meaner and more brutal than anything that had gone before.
Guns N’ Roses – Welcome To The Jungle (1986)
Giving the LA metal scene a much-needed shot in the arm came ‘the most dangerous band in the world’. With Axl’s high-pitched wail and Slash’s monster riffs, Welcome To The Jungle turned rock radio on its head. Our new heroes had arrived.
Zodiac Mindwarp & The Love Reaction – High Priest Of Love (1986)
With such lyrical zingers as ‘You talk too much, button you lip/Just take a trip behind my zip’, Zodiac’s debut EP takes gonzo rock to a new high/low. Zodiac’s super-rock piggery influenced every gleefully low-rent sleave-rock band to follow in its clanking biker boots
Beastie Boys – (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!) (1986)
Slayer’s Kerry King plays guitar while spoiled white frat boys scream about their ‘right’ to smoke and read porn mags. Intended as a parody of the bratty and dumb, it became their anthem instead and paved the way for nu-metal.
The Cult – Love Removal Machine (1987)
Okay, so its guitar riff is the Stones’ Start Me Up in all but name, but who cares? Electric’s first single was the moment when Ian Astbury and co transcended their humble goth beginnings and became a stadium-bothering unit.
Anthrax – I Am The Law (1987)
Anthrax weren’t the first metal band to immortalise a comic book hero in their lyrics, but this almost funky homage to Judge Dredd was a evolution from their straight thrash origins.
Death – Baptized In Blood (1987)
‘The first word in death metal,’ ran the band’s tagline. And it was true. Based around the fevered muse of the late Chuck Schuldiner, this exemplary track brought in a native, stultifyingly humid atmosphere that spliced throbbing bottom end to thrash’s speed, bringing about new realms of lascivious horror.
Whitesnake – Still Of The Night (1987)
By 1987 David Coverdale had cannily morphed his British blues band into the hair-metal darlings of MTV. Yes, there were ballads, but there was no denying that the ’Snake had a true metal heart, and John Sykes’ feral riffing on the Zeppelin-esque Still Of The Night is perfect proof.
Queensrÿche – Eyes Of A Stranger (1988)
Queensrÿche’s concept album Operation: Mindcrime is the record that’s been the benchmark for prog metal ever since. Its stand-out track, Eyes Of A Stranger combined intelligent lyrics and complex music – including a brilliant twin-guitar line – yet still provided the opportunity for a damn good headbang.
Sisters Of Mercy – This Corrosion (1989)
Produced by Jim Steinman with typical pomp, this was alt.rock that didn’t give a rat’s arse about low-key indie-cred – instead This Corrosion was about theatre, spectacle, black leather, mirrored shades and lashings of baby oil. Has kept Scandinavian musicians in work for two decades.
Nine Inch Nails – Head Like A Hole (1989)
From Nine Inch Nails’ debut album Pretty Hate Machine, Head Like A Hole’s driving yet nasty rhythm put Trent Reznor’s breathtaking ethos of combining electro and industrial sounds within a slamming metal song into perpective. It introduced a new audience to industrial music, and inspired the likes of Marilyn Manson.
Alice In Chains – Man In The Box (1990)
One of the iconic bands who helped to shape the 1990s, Alice In Chains had a unique sound – one that was melancholy yet also uplifting. Few could match Jerry Cantrell’s songwriting vision, nor Layne Staley’s curiously haunted vocals. The first single from their debut album saw the Seattle masters at their prime, with a song that’s clever, slightly perverse and all-enveloping. Its detuned Sabbath-esque sludge is tempered by a stunning melody, while Cantrell and Staley’s call-and-response vocal lines on the chorus would set a template they would utilise throughout their recorded career.
Ministry – Jesus Built My Hotrod (1991)
The band that began as a virtual disco outfit have come to be lauded as one of the most important industrial metal names of them all. Jesus Built My Hot Rod encapsulates everything that made Ministry so special – the driving, forceful refrain, the heady samples, the slanted vocals from Al Jourgensen – all wrapped up in high-speed humour. This is dance music for those who love Killing Joke and Suicide.
Nirvana – Territorial Pissings (1991)
Nobody can argue about Nevermind’s place as one of the most important albums of all time – metal or otherwise. But its value doesn’t lie just in songs like Smells Like Teen Spirit and Come As You Are. Territorial Pissings reflects the fact that the trio’s punk roots were as firm as ever. Lyrically it’s about a confused individual finding his way in a harsh world, which is reflected by Cobain’s jagged, fucked-up, fuzzed-up guitar. Their songs certainly got darker post-Nevermind, but …Pissings is as metallic as Nirvana ever got.
Metallica – Enter Sandman (1991)
While Metallica helped to carve a new metal path in the 1980s, they transcended their niche with this song at the start of the next decade. And they did it without compromising their instincts and credibility. No major metal band had ever achieved such crossover success before. Metallica did it simply by improving on their basic model – a huge melody, slightly off-kilter disturbing lyrics, fret-melting guitar – and dragged it kicking and screaming into the general public’s conciousness with the assistance of über-producer Bob Rock. Suddenly metal went mainstream.
Pearl Jam – Once (1991)
Although we first heard the potential of Eddie Vedder’s soaring voice on a few tracks on the Temple Of The Dog album, it was really brought home on the opening song from Ten, Pearl Jam’s debut album. Few others can claim to have introduced their entire musical blueprint with the first track on their first record, but it’s all here. The unmistakable groove, the Vedder croon, lyrics that could barely contain the protagonist’s anger and frustration, the slow build… it helped to give a generation its own voice.
Soundgarden – Jesus Christ Pose (1991)
Not only did this song provide a checklist for all that made Soundgarden great – the vicious, screaming Chris Cornell vocal, Kim Thayil’s monstrous detuned guitar riff, thunderous rhythm section courtesy of Ben Shepherd and Matt Cameron – it also gave their frontman an opportunity to indict the rock stars who strike their ‘Jesus Christ’ poses in the media and then bemoan their ‘messianic’ status. It was the note-perfect precursor to the mega-hits they would have later in the decade with Black Hole Sun and Spoonman.
Kyuss – Thumb (1992)
While there was a stoner sound before Kyuss – and others like Queens Of The Stone Age would subsequently take this further – there’s little doubt that this was the band that defined what ‘stoner metal’ was all about. And they were never better than on Thumb. It’s the embodiment of stoner rock – a heavyweight blues base topped with a real psychedelic distortion.
Rage Against The Machine – Killing In The Name (1992)
Although the seeds were sown in the previous decade by Aerosmith and Run-DMC, the concept of rap-metal came into its own later in the 1990s. But never was it so virulently and powerfully pursued as here. Rage Against The Machine were a socio-political irritation, a band who were prepared to expose the ills and hypocrisy of the era, while matching this with some of the most intense music of the 90s – and KITN (with its syncopated riff and repeated profanity) illustrates it perfectly. They gave metal back its voice of conscience, and budding guitarists a new hero in the form of Tom Morello.
Dream Theater – Pull Me Under (1992)
The whole idea of progressive rock was in the doldrums and utterly debunked by the time Dream Theater came on the scene. Yet the New York quintet actually succeeded in giving the genre some much needed credibility. Pull Me Under proved it was possible to be complex and progressive musically, while having a powerful melody at its heart. This was prog metal for the masses
Pantera – Walk (1992)
At a time when something fresh was needed to boost the heaviest end of the musical spectrum, along comes metal’s brightest new guitar star, Dimebag Darrell – a man who virtually re-invented the riff with this strutting, heavy-as-lead groove. The band managed to grab the classic metal approach of Sabbath and Metallica, shake it up and give it a renewed sense of purpose in the grunge-dominated jungle.
White Zombie – Thunder Kiss ’65 (1992)
From Beavis And Butthead to horror movies, Thunder Kiss ’65 as established itself firmly in our consciousness. It has become the defining moment for White Zombie – its combination of metal, industrial, jungle and punk propelling the band into becoming one of the most celebrated metal acts. Without this song, the history of heavy metal would have been very different. And without Rob Zombie, the world a duller place.
Type O Negative – Christian Woman (1993)
1993 was Type O Negative’s year, the time when their gothic doom approach reaped its greatest reward, and Christian Woman encapsulated their identity and their confrontational nature. There was something unnervingly charismatic and appallingly attractive about the song. It was blasphemous, yet also captured the zeitgeist – an anthem for a dysfunctional generation who were fully prepared to break taboos, shock and offend.
Sleep – Dragonaut (1993)
Amazingly, this was a demo. Part of one sent to Earache Records, who were impressed enough to release it as Sleep’s Holy Mountain album. In the process, the San Jose band completely turned the doom genre on its head and sent the senses spinning. Unlike so many at the time, Sleep didn’t live in the shadow of Black Sabbath, they took it forward. Dragonaut was the ultimate weapon for those who believe doom needed freshening up.
Cathedral – Ride (1993)
Having evolved from the harrowingly bleak plod of their early releases, Cathedral’s second album saw them move into psychedelic, drug-induced realms whose groove-laden bounce and mad-sage blurting of surreal lyrics proved seminal for doom and stoner rock. Ride has proved one of the most memorable tracks they’ve written, with a Doctor Who theme-style riff to ring throughout the ages.
Machine Head – Davidian (1994)
When Machine Head released their debut album, thrash was lost in its own myth. But this song, more than any other, gave the genre a fresh taste for blood. While the world turned to the sounds of nu metal, Davidian proved that sticking to the traditional values gave a pointer to an energetic future. It was the most important thrash hymn for many years.
Monster Magnet – Negasonic Teenage Warhead (1995)
If stoner rock belonged principally to the West Coast of America, then Monster Magnet were out to prove that the East Coast could have its fun as well. With this song, the Magnet defined their sound. It gave them an identity that was different to anyone else by reinvigorating the idea of space rock, giving it a potent purpose not heard since the glory days of Hawkwind.
Marilyn Manson – The Beautiful People (1996)
While Manson had already made a mark as a protégé of Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, and someone who colourfully courted controversy, if he was to be anything other than a passing frightmare then he needed a song to perfectly showcase both his musical and artistic ideologies. This was it – The Beautiful People launched his legend, and still defines his philosophy better than anything else.
Rammstein – Du Hast (1997)
Perhaps it was inevitable that a German band would take the industrial groove, shake it about and give it a major overhaul. Rammstein did just that with their second album, Sehnsucht. And Du Hast typified their approach. It’s a gloriously ludicrous militaristic march, blessed with a firm beat and also a quirky sense of humour. A stage show packed full of drama and pyrotechnics would ensure that the band and their sound would appeal to the masses, not just a cult metal following.
Slipknot – Wait And Bleed (1999)
The disintegration of society at the end of the last century was brought to a crescendo by a nine-man, bemasked demolition machine from Iowa. Nihilism and dystopia were their pillars. Wait And Bleed became their rally call. It also proved to the world that there was an extreme talent beyond their boiler suits. This propelled Slipknot and metal into a new decade.