Traditional heavy metal or root heavy metal, as we like to call it, is the main classification of heavy metal. It is the origin point that all of the other metal classifications splintered off from. Root metal is that straight heavy blues scale, mid tempo metal with mostly high pitched vocals (not always) and strong bass lines. Root metal bands are the acts that most non metal fans or casual fans first think of when someone mentions metal, including bands like Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne, Deep Purple, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and post 1990 Metallica. Some root metal artists also fit into other subgenres of metal, most notably NWOBHM (Iron Maiden and Judas Priest), doom metal (Black Sabbath), and power metal (Dio and Accept). There are also some traditional metal bands that have been miscategorized, especially some that are wrongfully listed as glam metal like Ozzy, Guns N’ Roses, Skid Row and W.A.S.P.. These bands unfortunately got placed here because of the timing of their popularity and their overall look. However, they have much more talent and ability than most glam metal bands and their sound is undeniably heavy blues scale rock. Going off of this traditional blues metal definition, we have come up with a list of the 25 best and most essential root metal albums of all time.
#25. Blackout – Scorpions
Scorpions are one of those bands that can also fit into power metal because of the speed of some of their riffs and technical perfection of their musicianship. Sometimes they are also lumped into glam because of when they became popular. However, having begun their career in 1972, they are truly one of the originators of heavy metal. In 1982, they would release their eighth album, Blackout. The album contains great song writing, tight riffs, perfect drumming and great songs like “No One Like You”, “Can’t Live Without You”, and “Dynamite”. Although the band is probably best known for their 1984 release Love at First Sting, Blackout is easily their best album.
#24. Balls to the Wall – Accept
Known as one of the godfathers of power metal, German metal band Accept brought raw speed and the soaring vocals of Udo Dirkschneider to the world of heavy metal. In 1983 they released their quintessential album, Balls to the Wall. The album contained complex lyrics, well written music and pure metal riffs. All the tracks on the album are excellent making it hard to skip any of the songs. Many power metal bands and metal bands in general, like Hammerfall, Helloween, Fozzy and Amon Amarth have cited this album as a major influence. The lead track “Balls to the Wall’ is one of the most recognizable and iconic metal songs of all time.
#23. The Crimson Idol – W.A.S.P.
W.A.S.P. is one of those root metal bands that is often called glam because of their high heeled boots, teased hair, and use of makeup. However, their music is about as far as you can get from glam metal. This is especially true on their 1992 release, Crimson Idol. The album is a concept album about a fictional rock star and was originally written by lead singer, Blackie Lawless, as a solo record. However, he released it with W.A.S.P. because fans were clamoring for another album from the band. The result was widely recognized as the best W.A.S.P. release ever and one of the best metal albums of the 1990’s. The album contains the band’s fastest and most technical riffs, great vocals, and amazingly written lyrics. Popular tracks include “Chainsaw Charlie (Murders in the Morgue)“, “The Idol” and “Hold on to My Heart”.
#22. Sound of White Noise – Anthrax
1993’s Sound of White Noise marked the first Anthrax record with former Armored Saint singer, John Bush, which lead to a move from the thrash sound the band had become known for to a more mid tempo traditional heavy metal sound. The band added melody and technical blues scale riffs while still remaining aggressive and raw. The album is Anthrax’s most commercially successful effort to date debuting at #7 on the Billboard charts and getting strong airplay on radio and television with songs like “Only”, “Room for One More”, and the amazing “Black Lodge”. Commercial success does not necessarily make a great album and they certainly have some better albums from their thrash days, but as far as a root metal albums go, this one is nearly perfect.
#21. Master of Reality – Black Sabbath
The third release from heavy metal godfather’s Black Sabbath brought about a heavier and more down tuned sound that was a major influence on the birth of doom metal. The sludgy sound of the album came about almost accidentally, as Tony Iommi down tuned his guitar more than usual to make it easier to play with his recently injured finger. The resulting sound helped create one of Sabbath’s most influential albums ever and gave the metal world tracks like “After Forever” and “Sweet Leaf” that have been covered dozens of times by many different metal bands. Since its release the album has been certified double platinum and remains one of the Sabbath’s most popular creations.
#20. Rising – Rainbow
Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple formed this band in 1975 with members of the blues rock band Elf creating true blues based root metal. The most notable member of Elf was lead singer Ronnie James Dio who would later become one of the most iconic singers in the history of heavy metal. Their second album, Rising, was released in 1976 and was their only record to be certified platinum. The album showed the amazing neoclassical guitar work of Blackmore and the amazing soaring vocals of Dio that would become his signature. The album also marked the first time fantasy lyrics and themes were used on a heavy metal record. These themes would go on to define Dio’s career and influence many bands and subcategories of metal like power metal, folk metal and gothic metal. The material on the album is all top notch, well played and well written but the tracks that truly stand out are “Stargazer”, “Starstruck” and “Do You Close Your Eyes”.
#19. Crystal Logic – Manilla Road
With the 1983 release of Crystal Logic, Manilla Road abandoned their progressive rock past and created an influential heavy metal album that would define the sound that the band would become known for. The album contains the trademark root metal aspects of great riffs, fantasy themes and tight high pitched vocals. The album has had a major influence on the careers of many metal artists including extreme metal act, Darkthrone and power metal band, Dragonforce. Songs that are not to be missed include “Crystal Logic” and “Dreams of Eschaton”.
#18. Traveller – Slough Feg
Slough Feg is the most contemporary traditional metal act on the list. At a time when most metal bands were obsessed with fitting into a metal subgenre or being as heavy as possible, Slough Feg released some top notch straight traditional heavy metal albums. Their most notable release was 2003’s Traveller. It is a concept album based on a 1970’s role-playing game. The band’s main goal from the start was to reinvigorate the American heavy metal scene and if this album had had the proper marketing behind it, they would have done just that. The album contains a great nostalgic metal sound that can be heard on tracks like “High Passage/Low Passage”, “Vargr Moon” and “Addendum Galactus”. The songs and lyrics are well constructed and complex. The vocals are top notch and there are some amazing guitar solos that will remind the listener of the best of 1970’s and 1980’s blues based heavy metal.
#17. Heaven and Hell – Black Sabbath
Once again we have Ronnie James Dio on the list. The 1980 release of Heaven and Hell marked the first Black Sabbath album without Ozzy Osbourne on vocals and the first with Dio. The result was an amazing album that helped to solidify Black Sabbath as a power house in the world of heavy metal. It was their third highest selling record of all time and marked a time when the band members were all fully on the same page. The addition of Dio’s high register controlled vocals were an excellent contrast to the down tuned classic doom sound of Sabbath giving the metal community excellent metal tunes like “Neon Knights” and “Die Young”. Dio would only remain with the band through one more album and one can only wonder what other amazing albums could have been.
#16. Slave to the Grind – Skid Row
Skid Row is a band that is commonly miscategorized as glam metal because of their look and the occasional power ballad on their initial self-titled release. However, the vocal range of Sebastian Bach, the excellent musicianship and the heavily featured bass lines make them more of a traditional heavy metal act. Fans will really notice this on the band’s critically acclaimed second album, Slave to the Grind, released in 1991. The album marked a move toward more serious heavy metal themes with complex lyrics, heavy riffs and raspier and more aggressive vocals. Songs like “Monkey Business”, “Slave to the Grind” and “Wasted Time” deal with politics, drugs and religion. It was the first metal album to debut at number one on the Billboard charts and is widely regarded as one of the best mainstream metal albums of the 1990’s.
#15. Melissa – Mercyful Fate
Melissa was the 1983 debut album of the heavily influential metal band, Mercyful Fate. The band was fronted by King Diamond, one of the most important metal singers and artists of all time. Their debut dealt with macabre themes that would go on to heavily influence the categories of death metal and black metal. The guitar riffs were speedier than typical root metal helping to inspire speed metal and thrash acts like Metallica and Megadeth. This is one of the most acclaimed metal albums by both fans and critics and it contains absolutely no weak spots. The best tracks include “Evil”, “Black Funeral” and “Melissa”.
#14. Youthanasia – Megadeth
Much like Anthrax’s Sound of White Noise, 1994’s Youthanasia marked Megadeth’s move from speedy thrash metal to more mid tempo and commercially friendly heavy metal. It worked as the album debuted at number four on the Billboard charts and gave the band some of their most successful singles like “Train of Consequences”, A Toute le Monde” and “Reckoning Day”. Once again commercial success does not necessarily make a great album, but in this case Megadeth had one of their most well written and well produced albums. The slowed tempo allowed the band to show off even more of their musical talent and the song structures became a lot more complex. Certainly Rust In Peace is arguably the band’s best record, but as far as their later root metal/hard rock material goes, this is indeed their best effort.
#13. Diary of a Madman – Ozzy Osbourne
Diary of a Madman released in 1981 was the second solo album from Ozzy Osbourne and was the last metal album to feature influential metal guitarist Randy Rhoads. The album contains some of Rhoads best work with great technical riffs and soaring guitar solos. The material is well written with great lyrics and strong vocals from Ozzy on iconic tracks like “Flying High Again” “S.A.T.O.” and “Over the Mountain”.
#12. Machine Head – Deep Purple
Deep Purple’s sixth album, Machine Head, released in 1972 took the hard blues rock sound that the band was known for and added heavy distortion and down tuned guitars to create an album that is recognized as one of the first heavy metal records. The album was an instant classic reaching number one in England and number seven on the US charts. Guitarist Ritchie Blackmore showed off his amazing skills to their fullest creating a blueprint for the sound of traditional heavy metal guitar. Lyrically most of the songs were complex and well written and the vocals were top notch. This album gave the metal world amazing influential material like “Smoke of the Water”, “Highway Star” and “Space Truckin”.
#11. Painkiller – Judas Priest
The 1990 release of Painkiller marked the last time Judas Priest had Rob Halford on vocals until his return to the band in 2005. Although this is the band’s twelfth album, it is widely regarded as one of their best. It continued to feature Halford’s high pitched vocals and heavy blues riffs while adding more speed and melody creating a sound that would influence the next generation of power metal bands in the 1990’s. This album contains many Judas Priest fan and metal anthems including “Metal Meltdown“, “Leather Rebel” and “Night Crawler”.
#10. Piece of Mind – Iron Maiden
NWOBHM godfathers, Iron Maiden, are one of the most common bands mentioned when the topic of heavy metal is brought up. Although their style is somewhat faster than normal traditional metal, Bruce Dickinson’s signature vocals, the band’s fast blues scale riffs and the heavy mainstream recognition of the band allow them to be categorized as traditional heavy metal in addition to NWOBHM. Their fourth release, Piece of Mind, was a huge success with fans, critics, and the mainstream. It has all the elements that one looks for in a great metal album like cool lyrics, punishing riffs and amazing melodic vocals. Piece of Mind is Maiden’s highest charting album in the US and has reached platinum status. It contains two of the most recognizable heavy metal songs of all time in “The Trooper” and “Flight of Icarus”. This is a perfect album for those of you who are just getting into heavy metal.
#9. Abigail – King Diamond
Abigail was released in 1987 and was the second solo release of Mercyful Fate front man, King Diamond. It was a concept album about a haunted house in the mid 1800’s. The subject matter made for great heavy metal themes and lyrics. Songs include heavy metal staples such as “The Possession”, “Omens” and “Black Horsemen”. The song structures are amazingly complex. The guitar work is superb and the exceptional high register vocals of King Diamond helped to create an album that continues to influence metal bands to this day.
#8. Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath
The 1970 debut album of Black Sabbath is recognized by many as the first true heavy metal album and a major achievement in the development of the genre. It contained heavy distortion and major down tuned guitars that had not yet been heard in the genres of hard rock and blues rock. Black Sabbath was truly the first album to feature the heavy blues scale sound that root metal is known for today. The lyrics and sound were extremely dark and spoke on subjects that have become highly associated with heavy metal over the years including Satan, fantasy, and the macabre. “Nativity in Black”, “Black Sabbath” and the band’s cover of “Evil Woman” stand out as early heavy metal anthems.
#7. Holy Diver – Dio
Dio’s third and final appearance on our list comes with his debut solo album, Holy Diver, released in 1983. The fantasy imagery and lyrics from this album will forever be associated with metal and have influenced acts in the subcategories of power metal, black metal and folk metal. The album has been certified platinum and is recognized by most metal fans and critics as an essential album for any metal collection. It gave the metal world one of the best music videos ever in the title track “Holy Diver“. The song has been covered on numerous occasions, most notably by Killswitch Engage. The album also featured metal staples “Rainbow in the Dark” and “Don’t Talk to Strangers”.
#6. Appetite for Destruction – Guns N’ Roses
We know there is going to be some debate here and we welcome it. Guns N’ Roses can be a hard band to categorize. They are often mistaken for glam metal because of the time their music became popular. However, the amazing skill in the musicianship, the blues scale riffs and highly featured bass lines say different. There are also those who feel that Guns straddles the line of hard rock which is very true of their later releases, but Appetite for Destruction is undeniably metal. Because of the parameters we mentioned above along with the high pitched vocals of Axl Rose, we feel this album best fits into the category of root metal. Whether you agree or disagree with us, you have to admit that this was an extremely important album in the development of heavy metal. It gave the metal community the complex distorted blues guitar and solos of Slash and the spectacular bass play of Duff McKagan. The album also contains plethora’s of metal anthems including “Welcome to the Jungle”, “Paradise City”, “Nightrain”, “Mr. Brownstone”, “It’s So Easy”, “Sweet Child o’ Mine”, and “Rocket Queen”. It is a perfect blues metal album from front to back and can easily be replayed over and over.
#5. Metallica – Metallica
In 1991 Metallica would release the album that would forever change their sound and make them the biggest act in the history of heavy metal. With the release of Metallica or The Black Album as it has become known, Metallica left behind their thrash metal roots in favor of a clean and well produced straight, mainstream heavy metal sound. The result was an album that gave us “Enter Sandman”, “Sad But True”, “Wherever I May Roam” and “The Unforgiven”. Many rabid metal fans mark this as the day that Metallica died, but there is no denying that the heavy riffs, great vocals and technical musicianship contained on this record were hugely important to the development of heavy metal. This album is seen as a benchmark in the world of metal as it almost single handily increased the exposure and popularity of heavy metal helping to launch the careers of other bands in categories like groove metal, alternative metal and nu metal.
#4. British Steel – Judas Priest
British Steel, released in 1980, saw Judas Priest leave behind the commercial hard blues rock sound of their previous five albums for a heavier and more distorted traditional heavy metal sound. Guitarists Glenn Tipton and K. K. Downing took the metal sound one step further by creating a melodic and harmonized guitar sound that would be the base sound of NWOBHM and would later influence the metal categories of melodic death metal and melodic metalcore. British Steel brought the fans heavy metal staples like “Rapid Fire”, “Breaking the Law” and “Living After Midnight”. This is one of the most important records in both the development of metal as a whole and the splintering of more metal subgenres.
#3. Blizzard of Ozz – Ozzy Osbourne
Blizzard of Ozz was the debut solo album from Ozzy Osbourne released in 1981 and featured the amazing yet short lived collaboration of Ozzy and guitarist, Randy Rhoades. The guitar riffs on this record are second to none and have influenced everyone from Zakk Wylde to Dimebag Darrell. The lyrics and vocals of Ozzy Osbourne are amongst his best. The song structures are complex and well written. This is especially noticeable on the songs “Crazy Train”, “Mr. Crowley” and “Suicide Solution”. The album was not without it’s controversy, but without this record metal would not be where it is today.
#2. The Number of the Beast – Iron Maiden
1982’s The Number of the Beast is easily Iron Maiden’s greatest album and one of the greatest heavy metal albums ever. The album featured the debut of Bruce Dickinson on vocals, well written and perfect heavy metal lyrics, and excellent heavy and harmonized blues metal guitar. Tracks from this album like “Run to the Hills”, “The Number of the Beast” and “Children of the Damned” will forever be some of the most influential metal anthems. This album has the distinction of being one of the few that was a success with critics, true rabid metal fans, and mainstream metal fans. The style of the band at the time of the album helped to influence the heavy metal look for most of the 1980’s and was a major influence on the current appearance of most black metal artists. If you are someone that is just beginning your love of metal, this is definitely the first record you should pick up.
#1. Paranoid – Black Sabbath
Although their debut album is recognized by many as the first heavy metal record, their second album Paranoid is the one that put metal on the map. It brought even more down tuned and distorted blues riffs along with the amazing and dread inducing vocals of Ozzy Osbourne to create an instant metal classic. The 1970 release has gone platinum four times and contains the band’s most well known songs including “Paranoid”, “Iron Man”, “War Pigs” and “Planet Caravan”. These are the songs that many people first hear in their head when someone mentions the phrase heavy metal. It is arguably the most influential metal album of all time with everyone from Faith No More and Limp Bizkit to Pantera and Immortal claiming that it is what inspired them to get into metal. There truly will never be a better traditional (root) heavy metal album than this and many would argue that there will never be a better metal album, period.
What are your favorite traditional (root) heavy metal albums?
- The 20 Best Metal Cover Songs
- The 25 Best Thrash Albums
- The 25 Best Alternative Metal Albums
- The 10 Best Nu Metal Albums