I won’t sugar coat the glaring facts on the ground: metal is probably the most misunderstood, maligned, intimidating genre around.
People shrivel up when you talk about it, the discomfort and uncertainty plain on their face. And maybe that’s just how metal fans like it.
Known for being introspective, pensive, and critical of inherited truths, metal is more than just throbbing instrumentals and carnal screams ‘n wailing.
It offers a powerful critique of the status quo, and invites its listeners to bravely explore taboo topics: satanism, paganism, anti-clericalism, anarchy, and maybe even socialism.
This list is for the brave in any case – I invite you to expand the boundaries of what you think you know about music, and brace yourself for one immersive ride.
Let’s dive into the best metal bands of all time.
1. Iron Maiden
Needing no introduction, Iron Maiden’s brand of metal is electric, with a voltage that could kill on impact.
With exhilarating, breathless guitar chords, they grip listeners by the neck and shake a few times for good measure.
Their music retains the power rock elements of the eighties and maintains an unarguable vitality and rhythmic audacity.
The first and best at incorporating a whole retinue of bizarre skeletons, ghosts, and phantasmagoric iconography into their musical-aesthetic brand, they have countless imitators.
Their sound, chock full of horror-film allusions, has a magnetism and strange power to this day.
Metallica can be single-handedly credited with bringing the genre into the mainstream, and to a stadium audience everywhere.
I’ve seen them live, and it is riveting, riotous, deeply moving stuff.
You can feel their stage presence from the nosebleed, no lie.
Their music features cascading, poignant melodies, and strangely raw and intimate lyrical flourishes.
The guitar chords on songs like “Master of Puppets” could give you carpet burn, they’re so tightly-constructed and amped-up.
But Metallica is not afraid of plumbing the depths of the psyche and unearthing the jagged diamonds that dwell therein.
Songs like “Nothing Else Matters” are as heartrending and jarring as anything to come out of the alternative rock and grunge movement.
3. Judas Priest
One of the original metal anthems “Breaking the Law” comes courtesy of yours truly, British metal kings, Judas Priest.
They formed in 1969 and were at the vanguard of a dynamic, vivacious, satisfyingly hostile new moment in music.
Their sartorial expressionism was heavy on spikes, leather, occultist trinkets, and glam rock elements.
They were not all pomp, however: their hair-raisingly compulsive pace and insightful, occasionally poetic lyrics added multiple dimensions of depth to their work.
Without a doubt they are one of the best heavy metal bands to come out of the 20th century.
4. Black Sabbath
The godfathers of the genre, British greats Black Sabbath were veritable game changers when they began their long careers in the late sixties.
Fearlessly dabbling with themes of paganism, countercultural excess, anti-establishment calls to arms, and hermetic insinuations, their music certainly did not go down well among respectable circles.
I consider the zingy, lightning-paced “Paranoid” one of the best rock songs of the century.
If you do one thing for yourself today, become a fan of Black Sabbath.
You’ll be in stellar company – they’re often considered the best heavy metal band of all time by obsessive fans the world over.
Thrash icons Slayer defined in many ways what it meant to be a metal band in the 20th century.
They were political vocalists above all, exploring taboo and controversial themes at every turn: genocide, corruption, hypocrisy, terrorism, fascism, and torture, among others.
Their modus operandi was to ruffle the feathers of the powers that be with hostile, caustic, delectably fevered melodies.
They are wildly influential to this day, and their brand of speed metal is enough to give you a well-earned migraine.
Popular metal bands don’t typically come with such a world class reputation.
Megadeth are one of the early pioneers of the genre and a top heavy metal band.
They formed in 1983 and transformed what metal meant.
Scathing, unapologetic, dirty, and carnal, their music possessed an arrogant sensuality that is damn near inimitable.
Along with Metallica, Anthrax, and Slayer they are considered one of the “Big Four” of thrash metal, and their sound was not for the faint of heart.
They explored themes of occultism, historical symbolism, war, decay, and religion.
Nothing was sacred and nothing was holy but everything was dark, dank, and sizzling hot.
Dual-power guitars and frenetic rhythmics make for a killer listen.
“Du Hast” has spawned a thousand and one cultural memes.
That’s unfortunately the beginning and end of most casual listeners’ understanding of the German metal musicians Rammstein.
They are veritable legends, however, and are a fundamental reason people associate gothic metal with Germany.
Their sound has a dark vitality, industrial flourishes, and what has been considered a droning, brute monotone.
Their pyrotechnic-heavy live shows and multitude of controversies have made their names synonymous with all things hard and dark.
Even listeners with a cursory interest in metal know Pantera, the preeminent American groove metal band.
Founded in 1981 by brothers Vinnie Paul and Dimebag Darrell (both tragically deceased), the band cast a powerful, inspirational shadow over rhythmic and glam metal during the genre’s resurgence during the mid-nineties.
They are best remembered for their explosively influential 1990 album, Cowboys From Hell.
They remain one of the most popular metal bands, particularly when it comes to the amount of casual listeners who tune in.
Named after a killer bacteria – how very metal of you, Anthrax.
Considered one of the big four of thrash metal, they were founded in NYC in 1981.
They’ve sold over ten million albums and have achieved broad commercial success.
Their songs make quirky references to cheeky humor and comic books, and they lean wholeheartedly into their bizarre crossover appeal.
Their frenzied tempos make for some moshpit-approved head bashing.
They always have their finger on the pulse of pop culture, regardless of how obscure or conventional.
How many other bands can successfully draw inspiration from Stephen King novels?
California nu metal nineties cult heroes Korn are every basement dwelling slackers favorite band – and I don’t mean that in a negative way.
Their music touched a nerve, hitting on themes of alienation, isolation, and apathy and they spoke to the peculiar anxieties that defined the turn of the century.
Melodic, with vocals disintegrating into intricate walls of guitar and drum beats, they created a full body listening experience.
They’ve sold more than 40 million albums and have achieved broad critical and commercial success.
They’ve gotta be on the top 10 heavy metal band list for sheer mainstream success alone.
Who knew one of the most influential, imposing metal bands of all time would come out of flyover agricultural state, Iowa?
Their spirited, chaotic, belligerent music and stage presence certainly doesn’t sound like the tunes polite Midwestern society would be grooving along to.
With down-tuned guitar, intrepid percussion, and vocals that range from growling to lullaby-soft the band defined nu metal.
They touched on themes of loneliness, nihilism, and disaffection, relating on a spiritual and psychological level with their legions of fans.
With hordes of cult-obsessive fans, Motorhead has a reputation that precedes it, and it has brought rock and glam aficionados alike over to the dark side.
Formed in London in 1975, they are one of the originators of the early metal sound, and their sensual, masculine, chauvinistic aura has an enduring allure.
They are often thought of as one of the key originators of the British heavy metal movement, and they never blinked when it came to themes like promiscuity, gambling, and drug abuse.
American death metal band, well, Death, are straight out of the eighties in terms of audaciousness, sartorial cant, and bold expressive arrangements.
Their music was melodic, rage-fuelled, and always in on the joke.
Their album Scream Bloody Gore is considered by critics to be the first true death metal album.
The impressive endurance of their speed, velocity, and strength of vision is captivating stuff for a first time listener.
The band tragically disbanded after lead singer Chuck Schuldiner’s wildly untimely death, but their legacy lives on in documentaries like 2016’s Death by Metal.
It seems like 1995 was a watershed year for modern metal, with countless American bands getting their start in that blessed year – Godsmack being one of them, of course.
Depending who you ask, they exemplify post-grunge, nu metal, or good ol’ classic metal.
The band cited Alice in Chains founder and lead Layne Staley (RIP) as an influence.
There is a sensual, sinister, melancholy cast to their sound that often draws comparisons to their grunge idols.
There is a ghostly patina that complements the percussive vigor of their music and they are some of the most talented metal musicians of their generation.
15. Led Zeppelin
While Led Zeppelin are certainly considered the kingpins of classic rock, during the early days of their musical tenure they were considered heavy metal.
And while their themes and foregrounded melodies place them more firmly in the rock camp (in my humble opinion) their razor-fast guitar riffs and intransigent posturing made them heroes for generations of sapling rockstars.
When it comes to their brazen, calculus-complex chords, metal rock bands the world over owe Led Zeppelin a huge debt.
Defined by throbbing, industrial-duty drum beats, and a vocal range that can be at once plaintive and unflinching, Disturbed are masters in the field.
Don’t believe me about the vocal dynamism? Try listening to their cover of “Sounds of Silence” – that’s some powerful stuff.
Formed in Chicago in the early nineties, they are also considered big players in the metalcore and nu metal subscenes.
They are certainly on the more melodic side of the divide, with less of the chaotic, frenzied, anarchic patina that defines the sound of some of their peers.
Their record sales confirm their status as one of the greatest metal bands of all time.
17. Cannibal Corpse
With a name like that, what other genre could they feasibly be? Formed in 1988, they put the morbid and vile in death metal, and proudly so.
With album titles like Butchered at Birth (1991) and Tomb of the Mutilated (1992), you can rest assured that their music never reached wide commercial circulation.
They’ve certainly developed a cult following, however, and they’ve released 15 studio albums during their careers.
They are shamelessly committed to themes of horror and gore and they’ve embraced the controversies they’ve been embroiled in in true heavy metal fashion.
Classic metal bands rarely come as outlandish.
18. Avenged Sevenfold
Why does it seem like so many bands originate from Huntington Beach, California?
Must be something in the tap water.
Avenged Sevenfold are big players in the metal game, and have reached serious levels of critical success.
Their hard metal sound, paired with their daring, thematically brazen imagery have garnered them a cult following.
Throughout their careers they have incorporated punk, metalcore, orchestral arrangements, country, pop punk, and screamo into their sound.
Never ones to be typecast, they offer up a dizzying variety of musical experiences.
19. Machine Head
The California sun is good for nourishing metal, isn’t it?
Machine Head, founded in 1991, certainly benefited from the rays.
They helped push metal back into the spotlight in the nineties and they never shied away from confrontational, aggressive sounds.
Their tunes synthesized thrash and groove tendencies, and paid homage to grunge influences, too.
Lead singer Robb Flynn defined his vocal style as “barking in key”.
A famous metal band with a compelling attitude and enviable insouciance.
20. Children of Bodom
I say Finnish melodic death metal – you say Children of Bodom.
Their eerie band name is taken from the unsolved Lake Bodom murders, one of Finland’s most unsettling cold cases.
That’s fair game for the name of a death metal band, if I ever heard one.
Their sound is hypnotizing, obscure, and niche.
With album titles like Follow The Reaper (2000) and Hatebreeder (1999) you know you’re in for a healthy dose of morbid themes and references.
For the lovers of darkness among us, they are one of the most popular metal bands around.
21. Coheed and Cambria
If you were ever curious about what a lovechild between progressive rock and alternative metal would sound like, American band Coheed and Cambria are here to rock your world.
With turbulent, disorienting, noisy instrumentals and textured vocals, their songs unexpectedly descend into some soft, rhythmic places.
Did you know that all of their albums, bar one, are concept albums based upon the science fiction series The Amory Wars?
Geekcore fantasy lovers, unite – there is substance behind the chaos where C&C are concerned.
Six of their albums have reached the Billboard Top 10, so fans certainly abound.
22. Five Finger Death Punch
Here’s another unapologetic metal band for you. With a name like that, they’re certainly not releasing nursery rhymes.
Hailing from Las Vegas, they incorporate the stylistic elements of groove metal, nu, hard rock, and thrash into their complex, inimitable sound.
Blending groovy melodies with assertive riffs and zingy choruses, their music is relentlessly energetic and soulful.
With inspirations as far reaching as Bowie, Layne Staley, and Pantera, you are guaranteed a mind-opening listening experience with these guys, one of the best metal bands in American history.
One of the most critically acclaimed metal bands to come out of the heady post-grunge days of the mid-nineties, Tool incorporated industrial instrumentals, alternative arrangements, and visual expressionism to originate an arresting, intrepid new style.
They synthesized psychedelic beats and cerebral themes of inner evolution into their music, for a strange brew that puzzled many of the uninitiated.
They have been described by Patrick Donovan as the “thinking person’s metal band”.
While they aren’t exactly Georgia peaches, Mastodon brings a progressive, chill, slacker vibe to a metal world dominated by California and New York.
They’ve been classified as “stoner metal” and if you choose to imbibe and give them a listen, do let me know how it goes.
Their 2011 album The Hunter saw them land in the Billboard Top 10 and garnered them a measure of critical and commercial success.
They shake up a progressive base with sludge- and grind-metal conventions, all with an experimental veneer thrown on top.
25. Napalm Death
British renegades Napalm Death chart the spectrum of obscure microgenres: from crust punk to grindcore to heavy metal.
Their songs are pithy, politically fiery, and packed with sheer noise.
Down-tuned guitars overdrive bass, shrieks that turn incomprehensibly to growls – it’s a spectrum of loud, discordant instrumentals.
They are the 7th best selling metal band in the States, evidence that their anarchic, humanist, socialist fare is not falling on deaf ears.
RIP Dio, you will always be our “Rainbow in the Dark”.
The theatrical, campy king of metal is considered one of the most enduring, influential vocalists in the genre’s history.
His themes were often centered around medieval mysticism, and he originated the “devil’s horns” hand gesture popular among metal fans.
Throughout his career he fronted Rainbow, Black Sabbath, and Elf, but his solo work was just as electrifying and exuberant.
One of the best metal musicians – may he rest in peace and darkness.
Washington rockers with an unlikely name, Queensryche have sold over 20 million albums since they formed in 1982 and are often considered one of the most enduring heavy metal bands of the eighties.
They are leaders in the progressive metal movement and their 1988 album Operation: Mindcrime is often thought of as one of the best heavy metal concept albums ever.
Go listen to “Eyes of a Stranger” and “I Don’t Believe in Love” to get a glam taste of eighties metal.
28. Killswitch Engage
American metalcore legends Killswitch Engage definitely look the part, and are considered founders of the subgenre.
Their songs ran the gamut from screeching, banshee-vocal heavy confections to those based around dreamy melodies, and otherworldly growls.
They expertly blended the light and dark aspects of life and emotion, embracing a subtle degree of earnest lyrical frankness that other metal bands often shy away from.
They might be more clean than dirty, but keep an open mind and you’ll see the magic happen.
29. Blind Guardian
German power metal legends Bling Guardian more than carry the heavy expectations we’ve come to place on German gothicism.
They’ve released 10 albums, as well as a fully orchestral album under the name Blind Guardian Twilight Orchestra – expect the unexpected, am I right?
Their poetic lyrics are heavily inspired by ancient legends, epics, high fantasy and fiction, with multiple references to the magical worlds of Tolkien and Stephen King.
They are considered a power metal “Big 4” band, along with Helloween, DragonForce, and Sabaton.
There seems to be a theme here, no? California + 80’s = killer thrash metal.
The ecosystem was fertile ground for some zinging guitars and wild, unruly vocal tangents.
Give any of their hits a listen and you’ll feel a cold, electric tingle down your spine.
This is unadulterated, high voltage metal, with no holds barred. Forceful, vicious vocals round out the experience and keep the stakes raised.
They’ve released 13 studio albums, and a 14th is in the works for 2023.
New Jersey and 80s to the core, Overkill are dizzyingly audacious and run on an insatiable reserve of energy.
With vocals reminiscent of chaotic, uncaged banshees this is a provocative and enticing listening experience.
There is the nuanced hint of tongue-in-cheek brashness and dynamism in songs like “Elimination” and “Necroshine”.
Overkill is always feeling out the boundaries of respectable taste and venturing beyond.
They were one of the most successful thrash metal acts of the 80s and incorporated a punk rock sensibility and swagger into their wild sounds.
A Polish extreme metal band?
That’s something pretty compelling and niche, even within the multifarious world of metal.
Warning for the weak: this fare is not for the faint of heart – it is dirty, unflinching, and confrontational.
The growls are animalistic, the subversive lyrics are incendiary, and the experience is only for dedicated metal lovers.
They explore occultist themes, with a heavy focus on Thelema (look it up, you won’t be disappointed).
One could call this heathenism at its very best.
33. Dream Theater
A luscious, evocative name for a prog metal band, no?
They may be a niche band to outsiders, but to those in the know they’re a power name: they’ve released over 15 albums in their thirty plus year tenure.
Along with Queensrÿche and Fates Warning, they are considered one of the “Big Three” pioneers of progressive metal.
Their execution belies a technical wizardry and maturity of vision that was often eclipsed by the loud and erratic glam metal of the day.
If you want metal with some classical and symphonic elements thrown in, treat yourself to Dream Theater.
34. Celtic Frost
Swiss heavyweights Celtic Frost were vital to the development of extreme and avant-garde metal that followed in the wake of their short-lived careers.
Formed out of the ashes of the much-maligned Hellhammer, they were generous with their references, drawing in inspiration from gothic, doom, and thrash microgenres.
They even incorporated sound bites of classic and electronica in their bizarre, intriguing synthesis.
You can also catch a whisper of new wave and dream pop references in their sound.
35. System Of a Down
The undisputed mainstream-crossover kings of nu metal, the best word to describe SOAD would be eccentric.
Their sound is fearlessly unlike anything that had come before or since, and takes listeners on a strange and surreal journey of sound, cognition, and sociocultural references.
Their music doesn’t shy away from the grotesque and the appalling, covering topics like consumerism, hypocrisy, and child abuse.
They even gave voice to the horrors of the Armenian Genocide in true eclectic fashion.
36. Mercyful Fate
Hailing from sweet and peaceful Denmark, Mercyful Fate dug into the darker side of life with lyrics about Satanism, occultism, and hermetic traditions.
They are considered to be part of the first wave of black metal in the early 1980s, but their sound also borrowed motifs from the progressive tradition.
While they don’t garner a lot of praise in the mainstream world, those who know know and bands from Slayer to Metallica have cited them as influences, or covered their tracks.
37. King Diamond
The pseudonym of Danish rocker Kim Bendix Peterson (former vocalist for Mercyful Fate), King Diamond is the venue for all of his most theatrical and outrageous tendencies.
He has a cult following due to his concept horror albums.
They reflect his literary and avant-garde aspirations.
His falsetto and the unusual intonation of his voice have made him a stand-alone figure in the metal world, and he stands as something of a free, flamboyant bird within the community.
An extreme metal band hailing from the British heart of rock, Liverpool, Carcass were as far from their fellows The Beatles as is humanly possible.
They were full morbid, with all the gore and excess and carnage implicit in the genre.
Interestingly enough, two of the key members are vegetarians and their lyrics often feature animal rights themes.
The metal world never fails to surprise, does it?
Give their melodic death metal album Heartwork (1993) a listen for an enriching, vitalizing experience.
39. Morbid Angel
Just what you would expect a Florida death metal band formed in 1983 to look like, Morbid Angel has all the dark, sulky glam that defined the genre as it came into its own in the eighties.
Their sound was atmospheric, frequently up-tempo, and vividly vocal.
They were one of the first heavy metal acts to gain critical success.
Their themes are an occult historian’s holy grail: Sumerican lore, barbarism, satanism, and anti-clericalism.
Florida rockers Deicide have produced 12 studio albums throughout their dynamic careers, and are no strangers to controversy, the ultimate bedfellow for any death metal band.
Their Satanic, anti-Christian lyrics have drawn lawsuits and uproar from religious authorities.
They take it in stride, incorporating the vitriol into their staunchly anti-clerical themes and doubling down on Satanic references.
Norwegian black metal as cold and icy as a Nordic winter? Tell me more.
Foundational to the development of the subgenre, and one of the heavyweights in Scandinavian metal more generally, their career has been absolutely saturated with controversy.
In 1993 their guitarist was killed by another former band member – yikes.
That just about sums up the dark, brooding, morbid themes and aesthetics that the band engaged with throughout their careers.
If it was horrific and clandestine – it was in Mayhem’s wheelhouse.
Sorry to be trite, but here’s another California metal band that got their start in that hallowed time – the late 70s and early 80s.
Thrash was the name of the game and no surprise, Exodus was all thrash with their frenetic pace and frenzied chords.
They were unrepentant, uncompromising, and motivated by a dedication to speed, experimentation, and exuberance.
Many consider them the oft-neglected fifth wheel of thrash metal’s “Big Four”.
Some even see them as the stylistic mavericks and innovators of the form.
British act Venom came of age musically during the tailend of the new wave of British heavy metal in the late 70s.
Call them thrash, speed, or black metal – one thing is undisputed: they were heavyweights that had an inordinate impact on the bands that followed, particularly within the pagan-tinged Nordic black metal scene.
They have a campy, cult following and punk legend Henry Rollins of Black Flag fame compared them to fictional glam band Spinal Tap.
German thrash metal – the phrase puts fear into the hearts of pop lovers everywhere.
Throbbing, industrial strength drums and relentless, full-force chords drive the tightly-constructed, compulsive pace of Kreator’s music.
Animalistic, sinister vocals ensure that only true metal fans will be drawn to their sound, which is certainly not for the casual listener.
With titles like “Satan is Real” and “Violent Revolution” you can taste the intransigence that powers their ethos.
Burzum is the music project of Varg Vikernes, who as you may not know, was the murderer of his former Mayhem bandmate Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth, mentioned above.
While in prison, he recorded two dark ambient albums using only synthesizers.
Upon release he began to produce fuzzy, atmospheric dark metal with elements of pagan mythology and neofolk.
Burzum means “darkness” in Tolkien’s fictional black speech, and that’s a pretty apt name for the spooky, haunting, cerebral fare of this former convict.
A Swedish classic black metal band that carries on the unsettling, sinister tradition of Nordic darkness.
I swear the snow takes Scandinavian metalheads to ghostly realms, where symbolism and ancient rites reign supreme.
Their fifth album Hammerheart (1990) is considered the world’s first viking metal album – a genre you probably didn’t know you needed.
Their sound combines ambient lullaby passages with primal roars, growls, and droning guitars.
47. Municipal Waste
A crossover thrash metal band with a name to kill, Municipal Waste do their home state, Virginia, proud.
With elements of basement punk, reckless posturing, and tightly constructed instrumental arrangements, their sound is like a raunchy punch to the gut.
Guitars that would make Eddie Van Halen proud pierce the frenetic soundscape and keep the listener ever-ready for an epic musical climax.
Songs like “Sadistic Magician” even bring to mind the early underground days of acts like Black Flag – it is epic and compulsive fare.
Swedish extreme metal found its form in spooky, intimidating, and industrial Meshuggah.
These were some unsavory looking characters, and they soon drew a cult following around themselves. Their technical death metal is nothing if not complex, and even academic, in its polyrhythmic structure and off-beat insertions.
They’ve incorporated groove, jazz-fusion, and progressive conventions into their sound as well.
A doom and stoner metal band from California – quelle surprise!
I mean, their third album was called Dopesmoker.
Down-tuned, languid guitar and hypnotic instrumentals keep their sound spaced out and unconventional.
The distorted vocals often disappear behind a steady wall of nonchalant drums and steady guitars.
Psychedelic tones and cannabis-inspired lyrical excursions have made Sleep something of a, well, sleeper hit, in their respective circles.
How could we disregard the heavily criticized black sheep of the metal world, Swiss act Hellhammer?
They’ve become something of a parody and their style and sound were pilloried during their short tenure.
Two of their members went on to found successful band Celtic Frost, but Hellhammer can’t be discounted completely.
They influenced black metal, despite being accursed outcasts of the genre.
If you like low budget, you’ll love the bizarre, raw legacy of Hellhammer.
Best Metal Bands – Final Thoughts
Feeling dark, moody, and ready to lock yourself in the basement and imbibe in all the thrilling tangents that heavy metal has to offer?
I suppose I’ve done my job, then.
Go enjoy the full spectrum of metal and get into the best bands the genre has produced – you’ll be the better for it.