Given that the 1980s saw more seismic changes in this hallowed genre than any other decade – the emergence of the death, thrash, speed, black and hair flavours of metal as well as the explosion of grindcore; not mentioning the continuing dominance of NWOBHM and doom, this list is bound to upset some people.
It is a testament to the unimpeachable strength of metal in this decade that there is only room for bona fide classics here. With this in mind, there will be no hair metal on my watch – it is an unsightly, festering, pus-laden boil on the otherwise flawless silken smooth buttocks of this fine musical form.
Not that it needs spelling out, but I will do anyway: this list reflects my own taste in music and isn’t by any means what you’d call scientifically or even logically constructed. And yes, I have actually heard albums by Ozzy Osbourne/ W.A.S.P./ Helloween/ Tank/ Van Halen/ Motley Crue/ GunsN’Roses/ Stryper/ Saxon/ Anthrax/ Red Hot Chili Peppers/ Faith No More/ Testament/ Def Leppard/ Twisted Sister/ UFO/ Girlschool/ Queensryche etc… I just don’t like them as much, if at all. Sue me.
This list is unranked but know this: all of these albums are evidence of true genius and should rightfully be listened to while standing on a hillock constructed from the bloodied limbs of your vanquished enemies, naked from the waist down and dressed as Idi Amin from the waist up while drinking a fine pale cream sherry from the hollowed out skull of your accountant (and if this is not practical, then lying face down on your kitchen floor in a blissful haze of Jagermeister will suffice).
Horns up, you metal rascals!
Judas Priest – ‘British Steel’ (1980)
Arguably the high water mark album of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal or NWOBHM, British Steel, saw Judas Priest codifying all of the metal conventions – from twin guitar assault and operatic vocal stylings to violent outlaw lyrics and BDSM fetish/biker look – they’d spent most of the 1970s setting up. Pretty much any track off this album could have been a single and three of them (‘Breaking The Law’, ‘United’, ‘Living After Midnight’) were hits. This said, the fairly explicit ‘Grinder’ (whose lyrics were presumably a partial influence on the gay cruising iPhone app) and the anthemic ‘Golden Gods’ probably rank higher as fan favourites.
ACDC – ‘Back In Black’ (1980)
It doesn’t get much bigger than ‘Back In Black’ when it comes to 80s metal and heavy rock, given that it’s sold over 42 million copies worldwide and has only been beaten in terms of sales by ‘Thriller’, ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ and ‘Led Zeppelin IV’. Crucially, it’s a fantastic album as well, with its quality, in part, no doubt down to the high pressure environment that it was recorded in, coming just six months after the death of Bon Scott. But Brian Johnson’s way with a ragged falsetto and a double entendre, riffs to die for and bangers of the quality of ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’, seal its place in the hallowed halls of rock.
Motorhead – ‘Ace Of Spades’ (1980)
No one wants to admit that all Motorhead albums prior to ‘Orgasmatron’ in 1986 are all essentially the same record. The reason why it’s not important however is that it’s such a fucking great record, that it stands to be repeated. While every self-respecting rock fan should own ‘Overkill’ and ‘Bomber’, the third part of the Motorhead Imperial Period trilogy has its own fair share of peaks including a rare slow number in the form of unreconstructed and rampant ‘The Chase Is Better Than The Catch’, the work ethic flaunting ‘We Are The Road Crew’ and the priapic ‘Love Me Like A Reptile’. On a separate note, why do bands not dress up as cowboys and pose for pictures on Margate Beach any more?
Sign up for the newsletter
Killing Joke – ‘What’s THIS For…!’ (1981)
While never True Metal, Killing Joke have been one of the most important influences on the genre over the last three decades, stamping their serrated tribal stomp all over Ministry, Nirvana, Metallica, Prong, Korn, Godflesh, Faith No More and Marilyn Manson amongst others. This, their second album – recorded before Youth ended up being sectioned to a psychiatric hospital and the rest of the band decamped to Iceland believing the Apocalypse was coming – is a masterclass in tension (no pun intended). Tightly coiled basslines, war drums, caustic, looped riffs and the mania of fragmented personalities compacted into end of the world dance music.
Iron Maiden – ‘The Number of the Beast’ (1982)
You could argue a good case for any of Maiden’s albums released in the 1980s to be amongst the best of the decade, including the self titled debut and Killers that featured Paul Di’Anno on vocals. However you slice it though, Bruce Dickinson’s 1983 debut as vocalist is a copper bottomed, titanium plated work of genius. Producer Martin Birch – responsible for helping cement the group’s classic sound on cuts such as ‘Run To The Hills’ and ’22 Acacia Avenue’ – got into a road accident with a car full of nuns during recording and his repair bill came to £666. Coincidence? Yes.
Venom – ‘Black Metal’ (1982)
Newcastle madmen Venom straddled the visionary/idiot divide with great aplomb for many years but despite being a laughing stock to many at the time, they produced two albums – Welcome To Hell and Black Metal – that were so ahead of their time, their effect is still being felt now, 30-years later. Not content with naming the Black Metal genre they also laid the groundwork for most of what we would call extreme metal today. When it came out in 1982, music simply had never been as nasty, as fast and as brutish as it was here. To add to the overwhelming atmosphere of enheavyment in the studio, the band sawed through sheet metal with chainsaws, interred a microphone with shovels and dirt and even recorded dog whistles in an attempt to make listeners’ pets to go mad and attack them while the record was playing.
Metallica – ‘Ride The Lightning’ (1984)
While there is no doubting the rifftacular mightiness of Master Of Puppets and the raw, brass knuckled assault of ‘Kill ‘Em All’ or the botched mix brilliance of ‘…And Justice For All’, there’s only one desert island Metallica album for me and that’s ‘Ride The Lightning’. Their finest moment, ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ features fearsome low end provider Cliff Burton at his very best before his untimely death in 1986.
Exodus – ‘Bonded By Blood’ (1985)
Exodus are the great grandfathers of thrash metal, given that they formed in 1980, pre-dating even Metallica – in fact this is where Kirk Hammett cut his teeth playing guitar before leaving to earn his fortunes. Bonded by Blood is their crucial album from 1985 and listening to it should make you understand the righteousness of wearing Nike Air Force Max, chugging Bud and banging your head until you can’t see straight, if there were any doubt in your mind. Bonded By Blood may have the worst cover art of all time – a devil and an angel as Siamese twin babies, as if rendered in watercolours by a drunk teenager (things didn’t improve that much when the reissue came out in a neon pink Nu Rave-style sleeve) – and may feature singer Paul Baloff sounding exactly like feckless gang leader Zed from Police Academy but one listen will reveal viscerally why the band had little or nothing to do with the rubbish Bob Marley album of the same name.
Celtic Frost – ‘To Mega Therion’ (1985)
In metal, as with most forms of modern music, it’s usually the vocals that make or break a group. So no matter how occasionally preposterous (and Celtic Frost certainly have been guilty of this from time to time) and bombastic this Swiss group are, you have to hand it to Tom Warrior – he’s one of metal’s great larynx shredders. His growl on The Usurper makes Tom Araya of Slayer sound pusillanimous and Eric Adams of Manowar sound like a latte sipping Belle and Sebastian fan. Put simply, because of Warrior, they were always compelling, and never more so than here. And, if there are any musicians out there scoffing that people are digging Celtic Frost then they should answer the following question: does your album feature artwork showing Satan using Christ on the cross as a catapult by HR Geiger and a French horn solo by a man called Wolf Bender? No? Well shut the fuck up already then.
Megadeth – ‘Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying?'(1986)
Given that Megadeth were a band with only one purpose – to allow Dave Mustaine to get back at James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich for kicking him out of Metallica in 1983 by selling more records than them – there has probably never been a failure as glorious. ‘Peace Sells…’ is in Megadeth’s premier league albums (basically Rust In Piece and anything with an ellipsis) and is probably best due to the brassy impertinence of Wake Up Dead and the all out awesomeness of the title track. The fact that the video (Dad: “What is this garbage you’re watching? I want to watch the news!” Son: “This IS the news!”) or the way he plays the first couple of bars of The Star Spangled Banner after singing “the United States Of America” doesn’t spoil this song speaks volumes. As a guitarist Mustaine just got better and better but he never quite repeated the punkish immediacy he captured here.
Slayer – ‘Reign In Blood'(1986)
Revisionists will try and have you believe that the rawer evilosity of ‘Hell Awaits’ and the lo-fi thunder of ‘Show No Mercy’ are somehow superior to the game-changing ‘Reign In Blood’ but then, they’d probably try and sell you a fucking bridge if they could get away with it. These two early albums are amongst six world beating platters the group have recorded but none of them come close to equalling this album, which is not only the best metal record period but actually the crowning achievement of all Western civilisation. It is fully deserving of its entry level status as no home should be without this artifact.
The Cult – ‘Electric'(1987)
Despite the bizarrely awful cover version of Steppenwolf’s ‘Born To Be Wild’, ‘Electric’ is a must have staple of the bullet belt metal canon. Rick Rubin’s production is drier than a glass of prosecco in the Gobi Desert on a rainless day, amping up the clean precision of Billy Duffy’s killer riffs on ‘Li’l Devil’, ‘Love Removal Machine’ and ‘Wild Flower’ to astronomic proportions. Elsewhere wolf child Ian Astbury’s Native American rock and roll god act is so heartfelt that it serves to make Bobby Gillespie look a bit disengaged and half hearted by comparison.
Bathory – ‘Under The Sign Of The Black Mark'(1987)
One of the most important influences on the True Norwegian Black Metal scene of the 1990s, Bathory’s third album caught him (they were to all intents and purposes a one man band) at a very interesting crossroads. Multi-instrumentalist Quorthon, had left behind the one dimensional Satanic hocus pocus of his early work and was becoming more and more interested in pre-Christian Norse religion as the cheap lo-fi sound was giving way to a more considered production and the last remnants of blues rock was being replaced by a more European aesthetic.
Napalm Death – ‘Scum'(1987)
People are always quick to talk about ‘You Suffer’ when Napalm Death are mentioned and sure, 1.3 second long songs if pretty rare now, were unheard of back in 1987 (the song earned the band a Guinness World Record). But if the Black Country grindcore pioneers had only been about comic microsongs however then there would be little reason to celebrate them now… and Scum is certainly still worth celebrating. It should be held aloft as one of the most intolerant – of sonic complacency, moral cowardice, bourgeois good taste and political injustice amongst other things – albums ever recorded. And when you hear the avalanche of sludge that is ‘Sacrificed’ and the booming death metal of ‘Siege Of Power’, you realise that ‘You Suffer’ is the equivalent of a skit on a brilliant gangster rap album – part of the overall charm but by no means the whole picture.
Mudhoney – ‘Superfuzz Bigmuff'(1988)
A good four years before Nirvana released Nevermind, Seattle rockers Mudhoney were the ones responsible for drawing the blueprint for 90s grunge. This mini album (make sure you get the deluxe reissue that features singles ‘Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More’, ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’, ‘You Got It (Keep It Out Of My Face)’ and ‘Halloween’) is the fucking bomb. It shows that at the outset Mudhoney were sicker than Soundgarden, had more riffs than Pearl Jam and were generally heavier than anyone else bar Earth touting a plaid shirt back in the day. The centrepiece is the monolithic biker rock anthem ‘In And Out Of Grace’. Never has pledging your life to self-serving waste, depravity and hatred sounded so tempting.
Death – ‘Leprosy'(1988)
Chuck Schuldiner’s ground breaking extreme metal unit were never that much more than a cult concern while he was alive but he recorded two albums which are now rightfully regarded as benchmarks in Death Metal, Scream Bloody Gore and Leprosy. As all of the ‘Big Four’ were boosted into the MTV mainstream in the late 80s, Death became the kings of the underground to many. Among their small legion of devotees were all of Napalm Death, who drew inspiration directly from this blistering album.
Morbid Angel – ‘Altars Of Madness'(1989)
Along with Death, Morbid Angel helped to spearhead the Florida revolution in Death Metal, inspiring Deicide and Obituary amongst others, helping to close the 1980s with speeds and levels of technical proficiency that would have been unthinkable at the start of the decade. Paying close attention to the grindcore coming out of the UK, the band melded the speed and brutality with next level horror-core lyrics and even some gothic elements (the sepulchral synthesizers on ‘Chapel Of Ghouls’, for example).
Godflesh – ‘Streetcleaner'(1989)
Justin K. Broadrick is one of the most important figures in extreme music of the last 30-years being, at various times, a core member of Head Of David, Final, Jesu and Napalm Death. His impact was probably felt the most with the first full length album by Godflesh however, one of the most bleak, caustic and nihilistic records ever released. The product of depression, despair and high pressure urban life, it’s lyrical bile was matched easily by its forward looking but relentless assault. Matching machine rhythms to sheet metal guitars, Godflesh showed the way forward for industrial music in the 1990s, as well as accidentally inventing Nu Metal.
Ministry – ‘The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste'(1989)
Cuban born Al Jourgensen’s Ministry project started the 1980s as a weirdly Anglophile synth pop group that owed a debt to the none less black Eurythmics and Howard Jones. By the end of the decade however, his band and label, Wax Trax had become synonymous with the rise of industrial music in America and its association with heavy metal. Their most consistently brilliant album opens with Thieves, which takes the tribal dance pulse of Killing Joke and marries it to machine tooled beats and thrash metal stylings.
Carcass – ‘Symphonies Of Sickness'(1989)
Scouse legends Carcass would go on to record the seminal ‘Heartwork’ in 1993 but it was at the tail end of the 80s, on their second album Symphonies Of Sickness, that they released one of the most memorable and extreme statements of the nascent grindcore genre. The John Peel favourites scoured medical textbooks, to come up with their forensically detailed and horrific lyrics which were designed to disgust and radicalize the listener in equal measures. Carcass might have been hard to stomach but they were vegetarian, socialist, feminist firebrands at heart and had more in common philosophically with Dishcharge and CRASS than they did with Slayer and Venom.