There’s nothing like trying to do the impossible. With a genre that’s been kicking around in some form since the early 1970s, distilling its essence into 25 essential tracks is essentially ridiculous. Because there are so few slots, I established the rule that there could only be one track per band, except for Black Sabbath and Metallica because I make the rules and I like to be arbitrary.
Classic antecedents to heavy metal such as the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression,” and Blue Cheer’s “Summertime Blues” were passed over, while Led Zeppelin was allowed entry, since it made sense to me.
For the most part, there’s an emphasis on the heavier aspect, except when there isn’t. A few songs were hits. But heavy metal, at its heart, is not a commercially friendly music, despite whatever success it has had. Though don’t count me out just yet at compiling another list of pop-metal and power ballads. I’ve also considered writing up a list of the best albums with the word “The” in the title, so there’s really nothing I won’t try at least twice.
Shoutouts to Bill Billoney, Joey Leshko, and John Chernack, all who added key tracks, though don’t hold them accountable for the stuff you don’t like. That’s my doing.
Now get ready to bang your head! Or if your doctor has advised you otherwise, tap your foot.
25. “Master of Puppets” – Metallica
OK, maybe it’s not such a great sign when non-metalheads like the tune and sing it with enthusiasm at the office party. But I didn’t tell you what kind of office, and at least it’s a party.
24. “Communication Breakdown” - Led Zeppelin
Surely, even without Jimmy Page guitarists would learn these tones and that aggression, but damn if this doesn’t kick out the windows of an old car. For better or worse, Robert Plant was also among the first guys to reach for notes that even most women didn’t bother with. Shall we put the Stairway to Heaven on your Amex card, Sir Bob?
23. “Blackout” – Scorpions
There’s plenty of heavier German stuff, but the Scorpions’ hits were all pretty damn likable and you don’t get to the steamrolling heavy stuff without going through the tunes with the glorious choruses. “What the hell have I lost my taste?” Nah, I’m just following your lead, Rudy.
22. “Peace Sells” – Megadeth
It turned out to be a good thing that Dave Mustaine split from Metallica. As a chief architect of the thrash approach, Mustaine needed his own firm. Metallica weren’t likely to get as political or as into ellipses and they sure didn’t stick to the thrill of the speed-chase. Who’s buying? I’m buying.
21. “Mind Over Metal” – Raven
My old pal John Chernack, one of those guys in high school who had to be repeatedly asked to stop headbanging and drumming at his desk (ah, Mr. Caliguire, if you could only see us now), convinced me to add this one. Despite the group’s surprising amount of terrible album covers — a true feat, since the art got worse the more popular they became — they didn’t skimp on music. You can almost dance to this, but wait, here it comes…
20. “Toxic Waltz” – Exodus
I’ve read that metalheads wish this could be their school dance song. At my old school it might have had a shot. I mean, when they wrote up the time capsule in the yearbook, Slayer got mentioned as music of the era. Maybe this explains why I can’t take Def Leppard seriously and why I cut Quiet Riot from the list. (I kept Guns N’ Roses, but really, they’re folk music.)
19. “Under the Blade” - Twisted Sister
Not only am I taking “Under the Blade,” but I’m taking the early mix that sounded like the drummer was put in charge and he wanted to hear his bass drum above all else. While TS became a bit too cartoony at a time when the genre was getting heavier, they started out pretty damn serious. As serious as guys who looked like evil grandmothers from Boca Raton could be serious, of course.
18. “War Pigs” - Black Sabbath
I could’ve taken “Paranoid,” “Symptom of the Universe,” “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” “Supernaut,” “Children of the Grave,” “Into the Void,” “Fairies Wear Boots,” “The Wizard,” “Iron Man,” “Sweet Leaf”… but I had to draw the line somewhere. And Ozzy only knows how many cover bands I’ve watched do this song with a conviction you don’t hear when they cover “Wonderful Tonight.” Thank you, gents.
17. “Cowboys From Hell” – Pantera
Though the band had made other albums, Cowboys From Hell is often considered the beginning of their career. File under: Bands You Wouldn’t Want to Meet in a Dark Alley.
16. “Over The Mountain” - Ozzy Osbourne
My buddy Joey Leshko chose “Mr. Crowley,” which surprises me since he’s a drummer and I would’ve thought he’d go for the double-bass-drum-kick of “Over the Mountain.” But maybe he prefers to sing “Crowley” in the shower. You really can’t go wrong with anything from Blizzard of Ozz or Diary of a Madman.
15. “Hells Bells” - AC/DC
I always hear it for choosing a Brian Johnson-era AC/DC track. And then there are those of you who don’t think they’re metal. On this track, they’re close enough. But you really should focus on the Bon Scott stuff.
14. “Metal Thrashing Mad” – Anthrax
I’ve never understood how singers could reach those high notes. Or how there were so many guys who could. And do the guitarists now all have carpal tunnel? And the fans concussions? You’ll have to speak up. I can’t hear you.
13. “Am I Evil” - Diamond Head
Metallica covered it, and Lars “Motormouth” Ulrich calls it the heaviest song of all time. The song is proof that playing a game of “top this” is one of metal’s prime attributes. The level of competition to write something harder, faster, heavier makes the entire genre like a Pepsi challenge. Except when the laws of physics finally said it could go no further.
12. “Screaming for Vengeance” - Judas Priest
I struggled with this one. Any number of JP songs could’ve fit the bill. Finally, I went with this classic from 1982. Yes, “Victim of Changes” and “Beyond the Realm of Death” fans should be disappointed, but it just goes to show how rock solid JP were for so many years. (I swear to you, every time I see Kelly Ripa on TV, I yell out, “Never turn your back on the Ripa!” Unleashed in the East fans know what I’m talkin’ ‘bout even if my long-suffering girlfriend does not.)
11. “Welcome to the Jungle” - Guns N’ Roses
I’m more of a “Civil War” guy, but I get the energy of this track, and the Midnight Cowboy video was one for the ages. GNR without Slash, Izzy, and Duff means GNR are no longer GNR but a GnR-like substance. Sounds kinda like folk music, no? (Well, they did do that Dylan song.)
10. “Detroit Rock City” – KISS
Most guitar solos are just there, that’s all. But this one makes the song. KISS always sided on the pop or hard-rock side of heavy metal, rarely going for the full-on, and therefore were never considered an “official” metal band. Sorry, I misplaced the rulebook. If I were a hardcore metalhead, though, I’d be proud to have this song among the ranks.
9. “Runnin’ With the Devil” - Van Halen
I’m sticking with this one. David Lee Roth announcing the coming of the guitar solo is just too good an idea to let go of. That guitar tone alone is enough to get me interested. Their rhythm section is why I stayed.
8. “At War With Satan” - Venom
"This is horrible music," says one YouTube commentator. "This is terrible," says another. With endorsements like this, I can’t see how you wouldn’t be interested. I figure what evokes strong emotion is worth checking out. I’m not interested in hearing stuff that people describe as "uh, it’s OK, I guess." Added bonus? This cut is 20 minutes long, so you can listen to it three times an hour! That’s 24 times in an eight-hour shift. Anyone know who wins?
7. “The Number of the Beast” - Iron Maiden
Lots of devil stuff here at the top of the list. Not intentional. Just happened. Never met Satan personally, but I’ve heard things. Some folks prefer the earliest Maiden and that’s reasonable (who wouldn’t take all of Killers?), but I’ll settle for the Dickinson years. Between The Number of the Beast, Piece of Mind, and Powerslave, Iron Maiden pretty much wrote the playbook for the “galloping horses” edition of heavy metal.
6. “N.I.B.” - Black Sabbath
"My name is Lucifer, please take my hand." Well, he said "please." I could listen to this riff for an hour. In fact, I have. The song is so sturdy that not even an under-rehearsed, emergency Ozzy Osbourne band could mess with it. That’s indestructible power.
5. “South of Heaven” – Slayer
According to Bill “Hello Satan” Billoney, “South of Heaven” gets a lot of flak for being slower than most Slayer music. Even Kerry King calls it his least favorite Slayer album. But I think the doom level of the riff is a stone classic, and I have to believe that even if King didn’t like the album, he surely liked the opening cut. All bands put the junk at the end of the album where no one can find it.
4. “Satan’s Fall” - Mercyful Fate
I played with a couple different tracks here. Billoney says “Gypsy.” Chernack says “Nightmare.” I even toyed with “Melissa.” But in the end I went with “Satan’s Fall” because it’s long as hell. Shouldn’t all songs open with a guitar solo?
3. “Fight Fire With Fire” - Metallica
I first went with “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” considered “Seek and Destroy,” and ended up with this one. As I enjoyed my illegal downloads of the various tracks (no, no, just kidding, Lars! I paid for it out of my allowance, I swear), I noticed how low-budget the first album now sounds. Proof that while Bob Rock was a good idea for your continued success, ideas and enthusiasm still trump bucks. By the way, every night I yell out, “Jump in the shower, the end is near.” This song was my inspiration. I’m not hard to live with, I’m impossible.
2. “Black Sabbath” - Black Sabbath
One final Black Sabbath tune before I go. Sometimes I think I should start up a “Concerned Parents Committee” and dredge up all that PMRC type hysteria just so kids today will immediately want to check out old Black Sabbath albums. You heard it from me, kids, DON’T listen to Black Sabbath. It will ruin your life. Whatever you do in life, do NOT put this record on. I can trust you, kid, right?
1. “Ace of Spades” - Motorhead
Honestly, I could make a list of 25 Motorhead songs and call it “The 25 Greatest Heavy Metal Songs Of All Time.” And maybe one day I will. But for now, if you haven’t already, pick up No Remorse, their “Greatest Hits” album, and feel the sensation of sticking your head into a blender. If you don’t enjoy the experience, stick with harp music.