40 Greatest Metal Songs

This post is sure to bore the hell out of 95% of my readers. Feel free to go on to the next post, please. As my readers know, I am a huge fan of music. I'm also a fan of virtually every type of music, or at least a portion of it. I'm even learning to like country a little bit more. I drive people mad when riding in my car because I could go from James Taylor to Rage Against the Machine to Miles Davis in the course of a half hour. And yes, I even like heavy metal, or at least I like really good heavy metal. So when VH1 did a countdown of the 40 greatest metal songs, I tuned in.

For the most part, I thought the list was pretty good. It was relatively free of the mostly horrid big hair quasi-metal bands of the mid to late 80s. There were a couple of exceptions, like I Wanna Rock by Twisted Sister, but I'll even give them Quiet Riot's Metal Health. There was no Poison, Warrant, Winger, Cindarella and the various other clones of one another that infested the top 20 for years. That relative absence wins some points from me. But there were still some choices I didn't like and a few songs they definitely should not have left off the list.

The first song that didn't belong was Slipknot's Wait and Bleed, a forgettable song by a band we'll never hear from again (thankfully), at #36. Likewise Marilyn Manson's The Beautiful People (#28) and Korn's Freak on a Leash (#23). And putting System of a Down's Toxicity at #14? Not even in the ballpark (though I may be biased on that one - SOAD is an incredibly talented group of musicians, but the lead singer's voice hits my spine like nails on a blackboard. For some reason, he feels the need at some point in almost every song to inexplicably slide his voice up an entire octave, stopping to butcher every note along the way).

Even in cases where they got the bands right, i thought a couple times they picked the wrong songs. I was happy to see Skid Row on the list, for example. They got a bad rap as a hair band after having a couple ballad hits early on, but that was a band that could rage with the best of em. VH1 put Slave to the Grind on the list at #18, but Monkey Business would have been a better choice. I was also thrilled to see Rage Against the Machine, one of my all time favorite bands, on the list. But they definitely chose the wrong song (Bulls on Parade at #15); there were several other better choices, from Freedom to Killing in the Name Of to Fistful of Steel.

Likewise, Metallica undoubtedly deserves to have at least 2 songs on the list, as they did. But the two were Enter Sandman and Master of Puppets. I would have left the latter in and replaced the former with their most interesting song, One, from And Justice for All. Not only one of their most brilliant songs (just listen to Lars Ulrich's amazing double bass work in the middle), it was also easily among the dozen or so greatest videos of all time, with footage from the movie Johnny Got His Gun interspersed throughout.

Pantera also made the list twice, for Cowboys from Hell and Walk, but how could they leave off their seminal track, Cemetary Gates? It's one of the most recognizable guitar riffs in heavy metal and the drumming behind it is tremendous as well. The time and tempo changes alone should put that song on any list like this. And putting Paradise City by Guns and Roses on the list was a real stretch. Welcome to the Jungle has to go on any list of great metal songs, but Paradise City doesn't belong. If they wanted a second Guns song they should have gone with Mr. Brownstone.

I'd say the same thing about Motley Crue. They belong on the list, but for Livewire? You could pick any number of their songs that should go on the list before that one. Dio is on the list for Rainbow in the Dark, which was his most popular song but certainly not his best. The Last in Line is a much more interesting song. The drum part alone should get that song on the list. I think I also would have found a place for Godsmack's Alive somewhere on the list.

I was happy to see Iron Maiden on the list twice, and I think they got the songs right (Run to the Hills and The Number of the Beast). But they could easily have had a couple more songs in there, like Flight of Icarus, Can I Play With Madness or the amazing Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a tour de force song that sets Coleridge's epic poem to music brilliantly. Iron Maiden may be the most talented band in all of heavy metal. Steve Harris is an exceptional bass player, as the intricate triplet bass line of Run to the Hills or the transcendent The Clairvoyant show. The drumming has been top notch from the start with Clive Burrr and then Nicko McBrain. The two and sometimes three guitarist attack meshes perfectly. And Bruce Dickinson (no, not the one who has a fever for more cowbell) has the ultimate metal voice, like an air raid siren let loose.

Also missing from the list was Queensryche. I would definitely have replaced one of the above songs wth something from Operation Mindcrime, either I Don't Believe in Love or Eyes of a Stranger. Their most popular songs may have been softer stuff, but this is undoubtedly among the greatest metal bands of all time and Operation Mindcrime is a groundbreaking, monumental album in the history of rock (and if you ever get a chance to see them live, you'll be blown away - Geoff Tate actually does sound that good live, which surprised me enormously when I saw them; that's not a voice I ever imagined could maintain that level of perfection in a live setting, but he's the real deal).

The list also got the #1 song correct. When I first started watching it I thought, if Iron Man by Black Sabbath isn't #1, they've lost their minds. But it was, and rightly so. That's the song that gave birth to heavy metal and it holds up perfectly almost 35 years later. It may be the perfect metal song - dark, foreboding, thunderous drums and bass, wailing vocals, and all based around the perfect guitar riff. So there you go, for the 3 people who read this page that could possibly care, those are my views on the 40 greatest metal songs.

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You know i never watch TV, but on my last trip I was watching VH1 and I saw the top 40 Heavy Metal Songs. I have to disagree with your assessment of Master of Puppets - great song.

Another comment - Heavy Metal has disowned Led Zeppelin. In fact if I'm not mistaken the term "heavy metal" came from a review of Led Zeppelin's first album (Led Zeppelin I) way back in 69. Sure the later stuff was not typical heavy metal fare, but all those shreikers were copying Robert Plant. VH1 could have added Dazed and Confused to their list ...

In my opinion, the best two Metallica albums were And Justice for All and Ride the Lightning. Sucks that no songs from either album made the list. My favorite song from Ride the Lightning is Fade to Black, but it's also the least metal song on the album.

Was War Pigs on the list? It's my favorite Sabbath song, but I may be biased. I was introduced to Sabbath through the Faith No More cover of War Pigs (Ozzy left the band before I was born, so I never heard them the first time around).

Ed - I must be one of those three fans. I also listen to a large vareity of music. I still love metal, especialy when I'm lifting weights.

If the subject is SONGS, rather than videos, marketing, or looks, than here are my comments on their list.

Worthy of being listed: Iron Man, Welcome to the Jungle, Back in Black, Iron Maiden - though I agree with your comments Ed. Rainbow in the Dark

Overrated counting 1 - 40 - Master of Puppets, anything Kiss did (great marketers, showmen, lousy musicians, I admit I was the only rock & roller in my class that thought this though), Crazy Train, Twisted Sister was HORRIBLE. Judas Priest deserved to be on the list but near the end, Accept (really bad AC/DC posers), Slipknot, Quiet Riot, Scorpions, Faith No More (interesting song, but not 40 greatest METAL songs), Dirty Deeds, Man in the Box, Paradise City is POP, not metal.

Continuing down the over-rated list: Korn (wasted my money on their music), Motley Crue (reminded me of Kiss, great marketers/showman, lousy musicians), Skid Row,

Missing or Underrated - This gets into what is the difficulty of categorizing music- AC/DC - You Shook Me All Night Long, Highway to Hell, Live version of Whole Lotta Rosie, Smoke on the Water sounds like kid stuff now, but it was huge then, Purple Haze, Walk This Way, Sweet Emotion, War Pigs, Woman from Tokyo, Godsmack and Soundgarden's best, if you're going to count Iron Maiden, then you gotta consider Led Zepplin, especially Rock and Roll, Communication Breakdown, Black Dog, Metallica's version of Loverman, Fuel, Hair of the Dog, Stranglehold, Cat Scratch Fever, Free for All, Killing in the Name, Tush

By Mike Heath (not verified) on 06 May 2006 #permalink

It's good to see Slayer and Motorhead made the list. Kerry King is a good speed metal guitarist and Lemmy is just cool, big ass mole aside.

Reign in Blood is one of my all time favorite metal albums.

I was glad that Motorhead made the top 10 also. Ace of Spades is a classic, and just the unrelenting dirty rawness of their sound was much-needed when metal started becoming more about the hair and spandex and makeup. It's tough to argue with their whole top 10 actually, although I don't know if I've heard the Slayer tune.

This is only tangentially related, but the single best metal review I've ever seen comes from Ruthless Reviews.

The commentary is spit-your-drink out hilarious and it gives "rocking out with your cock out" a whole new and frighteningly literal meaning.

If "The Number of the Beast" is on there, then "Hallowed Be Thy Name" simply MUST be on there. It was the best song on the Number of the Beast album, period.

I agree about replacing "Enter Sandman." I'm a little biased, but you could pick one of at least a quarter of their pre-90s songs out of a hat and it would be worthy to replace it on the list. "Fade to Black," "Disposable Heroes," "The Call of Ktulu," "Orion," and "Seek and Destroy" to name a few.

By FishyFred (not verified) on 06 May 2006 #permalink

"the term "heavy metal" came from a review of Led Zeppelin's first album (Led Zeppelin)"

I don't think so. The term "heavy metal" as we understand that term was first used in the Steppenwolf song, "Born to be Wild." And they in turn lifted it from a novel, I can't remember though. I quick google search will figure it out.

Nice post Ed. I watched the special last night and thought many of the same things.

Particularly, I like listening to heavy metal vocalists with a lot of chops. That's the cool thing about rock. You don't necessarily have to have a lot of chops to be able to make great music (for instance, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Roger Waters, Ozzy Osbourne are not great singers in a technical sense, but have produced great music nonetheless). But you can still have great chops and use that fantastic technique to make great music.

What do you think of my list of the "big four" metal vocalists who really pioneered this style, and influenced later groups. Note, a lot of great vocalist like Geoff Tate, aren't on my list because they came later and were in many ways a product of the genre that the big four pioneered.

1) Ronnie James Dio, and the groups with which he has sang (Black Sabbath, Elf, Rainbow, solo);

2) Judas Priest/Rob Halford;

3) Klaus Meine/The Scorpions;

4) Bruce Dickinson/Iron Maiden.

Am I missing anyone?

I'm not much of a metal fan. Too little experimentation for my taste. But one thing I do know is that metal is all about the guitars not the vocalists.

"the term "heavy metal" came from a review of Led Zeppelin's first album (Led Zeppelin)"

I don't think so. The term "heavy metal" as we understand that term was first used in the Steppenwolf song, "Born to be Wild." And they in turn lifted it from a novel, I can't remember though. I quick google search will figure it out.

I think the term heavy metal was first used to describe a Jimi Hendrix performance, but yes, the first time the words "heavy metal" were used in song lyrics was from Steppenwolf.

However wikipedia tells me that there is some dispute on the matter, as to how exactly the term came into use.

It's tough to argue with their whole top 10 actually, although I don't know if I've heard the Slayer tune.

I believe the appropriate response (or so I am told) upon hearing that particular Slayer tune is to do the Vulcan peace sign or do something called the "air guitar" while bobbing one's head violently back and forth to the beat and uttering in a strange growly type of voice the word "Ssslaaaaaayyyyuuuhhhhhhhhrrrr....!". (At least that is my understanding.) So if you've ever witnessed such behaviour by anyone, then you probably have heard the Slayer tune.


Oh yeah, baby.

"But one thing I do know is that metal is all about the guitars not the vocalists."

Listen to any one of those vocalist I cited and you will see that metal is about the vocalists as well.

I've heard all of those bands and with the exception of the one hair band (can the Scorpions be called a hair band???), and isn't it true that they are all guitar bands? Nevertheless I would add Tool / A Perfect Circle singer Maynard James Keenan to your list.

Is the MTV list available online? I'd like to see the choices too.

I agree with some of your recommendations. As much as I like Master of Puppets, I would've preferred another song. One is ok, but I myself would pick Ride the Lightning. It's a raw and furious metal song by a young Metallica, and it's a great for headbanging.

I also agree with you about not including Cemetery Gates by Pantera and including Paradise City by GnR. Those decisions are pretty lame imo.

John Rowe: you're definitely missing the late, great David Byron.

By Major Bloodnok (not verified) on 06 May 2006 #permalink

Jon - great list, but you missed the godfather of great metal singing, Robert Plant. When they came out bang, bang with those two albums, that changed EVERYTHING.

regarding "heavy metal", while its true that Steppenwolf introduced the phrase to the music listerners, I have yet to hear the spirit of metal recorded any earlier than "Live at Leeds" by The Who. While they were playing rock and roll and one could argue that this is not metal, this is hard rock before there was such a thing. The Who were were very young and on that album taking it to the limit. Anybody know of an album earlier than that one pushing the envelope, I'd love to know about it.

I concur that Seek and Destroy or Ride the Lightning is worthy to make the list, I like Master of Puppets, its just not in the same class as those two songs. And like Live at Leeds, "Kill 'em All" pushed the envelope and influenced this list maybe more than any other album -especially VH1's list, where Pantera, Slayer, and Megadeath (whose guitar player was the Kill 'em All lead) all borrowed heavily from that style.

By Mike Heath (not verified) on 06 May 2006 #permalink

Tell you what. I can only add this to the discussion: the novel Johnny Got His Gun was freaky good. I read it right after reading All Quiet On The Western Front. And then I read Slaughterhouse Five. That was a good Summer.

Count me as another of your readers who likes metal, and there seem to be more than two or three after all huh?

My list of top songs would be quite a bit different from this one, though. These lists always seem to be highly slanted toward American/British metal, and much of the world's best metal comes from other countries (mainly Europe, and particularly Scandinavia). Also, no way in hell you'd find any of those angsty, angry, nu-metal bands on my list (i.e. Korn, Slipknot, Godsmack, etc).

My Metallica pick would be "Fade to Black" without a doubt, but "One" is also highly worthy.

I have to agree about an Operation Mindcrime song deserving a spot.

FYI, the list can be seen here: Link to the list on VH1.com. I didn't see it linked in Ed's post or any of the comments.

My immediate reaction is that this list is kind of stretching the definition of "metal" in order to include some hard rock acts, probably to allow the list to appeal to a more mainstream audience. You can try all you want, but you will never convince me that Guns N' Roses is metal. Hard rock, through and through. There's a difference. AC/DC is closer to metal, but I still prefer to put them in "hard rock." Same with Rage Against the Machine. All three are great bands, but they just don't scream "METAL!"

By FishyFred (not verified) on 06 May 2006 #permalink

I definitely agree that Enter Sandman should have been off -- and replaced with a song by a different band. Metallica are good fun and all, but don't deserve more than one spot on that sort of list. GnR, no matter which song, are straight up hard rock and shouldn't have been on at all (same goes for Rage, I feel). As far as Maiden, at least two songs should have been on, but neither of the ones they chose. Number of the Beast is an average album by them, and those aren't even the best songs off it. I would have suggested The Trooper as a necessity, along with Aces High and The Evil That Men Do. Well agreed about Queensrÿche being missing, but I personally would have wanted to see Screaming in Digital on there (but of course, I'm an idealist like that).

Now, I can't claim to have seen the entire list, but I can imagine a few things about it. One thing -- supported by seeing the name so much in the above comments -- is that AC/DC would have been on the list. I really don't get this. Aside from being, again, a hard rock band (and not even arguably metal, as GnR or Rage might be), they just aren't a good band. It's stuff like this that makes me say that VH1 just plain shouldn't be allowed to talk about metal. Sure, AC/DC and Rage Against the Machine get on the list, but what about Venom? Or Celtic Frost? Or Mercyful Fate? Where were Metal Church, Death, Helloween? VH1, leave metal to the people who have listened to more than five albums of it.

And if Raining Blood by Slayer wasn't on that list, I will see to it that Kerry King is sent to eat all of VH1's offices.

By Mephisto Stormbane (not verified) on 06 May 2006 #permalink

Upon actually reading the list, I can say one really positive thing about it: it included Caught in a Mosh by Anthrax. Easily one of my five favourite speed metal tunes ever.

By Mephisto Stormbane (not verified) on 06 May 2006 #permalink

Yeah. The nu metal crap must go- otherwise might as well include Rammstein since it's much better anyway (or In Flames, Stratovarius, if Rammstein is not metaly enough).

Helloween's "I Want Out" should have been there, and maybe a dash of Manowar or Danzig ("Mother"!). If people feel Zeppelin should be on the list, what about "Immigrant Song"? "Rainbow in the Dark" from Dio was an OK choice, although I'm partial to "Holy Diver" myself.

"You've got another thing coming" didn't perhaps need to be as high as #5, but otherwise Judas Priest got screwed - how the hell is "Rock you like a Hurricane" 10 points higher than "Breaking the Law"? For alternate Priest songs, what about "Painkiller", "Hellion/Electric eye"...

I think the primary distinction between "Heavy Metal" and "Hard Rock" is that Hard Rock tends to be blues-based, where Metal isn't. Overall, bands like AC/DC and Led Zeppelin are more Hard Rock, though there are exception like Zeppelin's "Achilles Last Stand."

I would say that Achilles Last Stand is almost a prog-rock song, (which explains why it's one of my favorite Zeppelin songs) with its suite form.

Again, though, one of the cool things about rock is that these genres can sometimes blend together.

I'm having a really hard time understanding why VH1 would stretch the definition of "Metal" to include the likes of Korn, Marilyn Manson, and Slipknot, but fail to include Tool, a band infinitely more talented than any of those three.

Wow, I guess I was wrong. I had no idea I had so many metal fans among my readers. I'm glad to see Jon jump in to the discussion. He's a major music fan with a degree in guitar from Berklee School of Music, so he's definitely got a handle on things. I would agree with his list of singers, though I would put Tate on the list simply because he may be the best o the bunch. But yes, he was later than the others and influenced by them, as opposed to the other way around. I can't tell you how impressed I was when I saw them live. I really assumed that his was a studio voice that couldn't be reproduced live even close to how it sounds on the albums. I was astonished that he wasn't just close, it was dead on. There wasn't a note he hit on an album that he couldn't hit perfectly on stage as well, and with the range of his vocal work that's saying a lot.

As for the line between heavy metal and hard rock, there are no hard and fast rules. Clearly, VH1 left Led Zeppelin out of the category. If Zep is included, then you have to put Dazed and Confused on the list and maybe more. Thanks for the discussion, everyone.

I don't see how you could have a list like this and not include at least one Megadeth song. Or Exodus - Toxic Waltz.

So what if this comment is days late--I just watched Spinal Tap for the third time, and am shocked and appalled that at least one of their masterpieces didn't make the cut. Where's "Stonehenge?" Or "Sex Farm?" Or "Tonight I'm Gonna Rock Ya (Tonight)?"

Jesus Christ you have bad taste in heavy metal.
Skid Row?
Motley Crue?
You thought the double bass on One was anything but ordinary? Wow.

By beervolcano (not verified) on 10 May 2006 #permalink

You thought the double bass on One was anything but ordinary? Wow.

I think it's more due to lack of exposure than to bad taste. But it is kinda funny though.

I'd argue either Black Sabbath or Sabbath Bloody Sabbath should've been #1. Iron Man is a good song--and it's probably their best known--but it's far from their greatest. Supernaut and War Pigs also should've been on the list, in my mind, before Iron Man shows up.

Metallica: Fade to Black or Call of Ktulu? There should, at the very least, be a representative of the epic instrumental subgenre.

Agreed on GnR. Although I wouldn't have been put Queensryche on the list for the same reason I wouldn't put most GnR tracks on it. Queensryche is prog rock, not metal.

Where did Ace of Spades place?

No Cemetary Gates? You've got to be kidding me.

And Beautiful People has definitely earned its place on the list. More than Godsmack, that's for sure.

Why diden't put Slayer's "Angle of Death"on the countdown.At least they put "Raining Blood"on. I also thought they should have put System of a Down's "B.Y.O.B"