Before we begin, we would like to ask the readers to please not send us angry comments saying “this band sucks” or “why is that band on the list?” This is NOT, we repeat NOT a list of the best metal bands ever. This is the 10 most RECOGNIZABLE metal bands of all time. These are the bands that the majority of people, whether they are a metal or non metal music fan, mention or identify the most when the topic of heavy metal music is brought up. When fans want to teach non metal people about heavy metal, they talk about these artists. These are the bands that metal aficionados use to begin to introduce others to heavy metal music. Many people start with bands like Metallica, Motley Crue and others when they begin to listen to heavy metal music.
Most of the metal bands on this list have mainstream and cross genre appeal. If you walked down the street and asked the first 100 people you passed to name a few heavy metal artists, they would probably mention many of the bands featured here. At least seven out of ten people who are not fans of metal have heard of these groups.
The artists can become recognizable for a myriad of reasons from radio airplay to excellent marketing. In some instances, a band is recognized for being in the news with regard to explicit lyrical content or images. Others are known as pioneers of the genre, so people always know them first. Whatever the reason may be, these are the bands we would call the most recognizable metal bands of all time.
10. Cannibal Corpse
Cannibal Corpse is arguably the most recognized extreme metal band of all time. They are one of the bands that really put death metal on the map. This is mostly due to the use of obscene album covers, like Tomb of the Mutilated, and violent and misogynistic songs like “Stripped Raped and Strangled”, “Meat Hook Sodomy” and “Fucked with a Knife” In the mid 1990’s the group was attacked by Senator Bob Dole and various other politicians for “undermining the national character of the United States” and were categorized as one of the musical groups with the most offensive lyrics along with rap group 2 Live Crew. Many countries like Germany and Australia even banned their music. Lighten up people, it’s just music! The funny thing is that all of what Cannibal Corpse does is meant to be tongue and cheek. Fans of the band are well aware of that. However, all of this attention including the band’s small role in Jim Carrey’s 1994 film Ace Ventura: Pet Detective practically made the band a household name in the 1990’s.
Still even to this day if you tell the average person that you listen to death metal, the vast majority of them will respond with: “What, like Cannibal Corpse?”. If you piss people off enough (especially parents), popularity can sometimes follow. This a brilliant marketing strategy that metal has been using since its inception. There has always been a lot of controversy surrounding Cannibal Corpse and that was probably their goal all along.
Who wasn’t aware of Pantera in the 1990’s in early 2000’s? If there was anyone that didn’t at least have some knowledge of them, we would like to talk to him/her. Pantera blasted out of relative obscurity with 1990’s Cowboys From Hell. Their popularity then increased by leaps and bounds with the subsequent releases of Vulgar Display of Power and Far Beyond Driven. These were two of the best selling metal albums at the time of their release and remain two of the best selling extreme metal albums ever. This is an unbelievable feat as the band received little to no radio airplay and these albums were released at a time when metal’s popularity was seeing a major down turn.
Pantera became popular mainly due to their extremely catchy riffs, their take no shit attitude and their image as a blue collar metal band. They pioneered the groove metal sound. They were a huge influence on the subgenre of nu metal, which saw a huge surge of mainstream popularity in the late 1990’s, and the current hugely popular category of metalcore. Pantera is the band that made people love metal again. The band has remained one of the most recognizable metal bands despite breaking up in 2003. This is due mostly to the band’s huge legacy.
Unfortunately, they have remained significant in the minds of people outside of metal because of senseless violence. Guitarist “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott was gunned down by a fan while on stage. The mentally ill fan blamed Abbott for the Pantera break up. For whatever reason people remember them, Pantera has left a lasting legacy on metal that will never be forgotten.
Korn were the pioneers and main face of the highly popular mid to late 1990’s nu metal movement. This is a time when metal saw a ton of radio and MTV airplay. Korn rolled onto the scene with their 1994 self-titled album. The record received a bit of play on radio, but again this was still a slow time for metal. It wasn’t until MTV began playing the video for the song “A.D.I.D.A.S.” from the band’s second album, Life Is Peachy, that metal’s mainstream popularity would once again begin to take off. With 1998’s Follow The Leader, Korn really blew the doors off, paving the way for popular acts like Limp Bizkit, P.O.D. and Linkin Park.
During this time, everyone knew who Korn was from fans of rap and boy bands to parents and teachers. The fan base at live shows were really not what die hard metal fans had become accustomed to, but heavy music was certainly at the forefront of almost everyone’s mind.
Because of the death of nu metal in the early 2000’s, Korn’s popularity has declined. However, if you ask most people about heavy metal, Korn is still one of the first bands the average person will mention. That is mostly due to that huge surge of nu metal in the 1990’s being burned into people’s brains.
7. Alice In Chains
Some people love to lump these guys into grunge because they are from Seattle and wore flannel, but for most people in the know Alice In Chains is a heavy metal band first. Even guitarist, Jerry Cantrell, identifies them this way saying: “We’re a lot of different things … I don’t quite know what the mixture is, but there’s definitely metal, blues, rock and roll, maybe a touch of punk. The metal part will never leave, and I never want it to.” Of course because the band was mislabled by the likes of MTV and various radio DJs, it gave the band an immense amount of airplay that continues to this day. Alice In Chains brought sludge metal to the mainstream with popular albums like Facelift and Dirt. Later they would add even more alternative elements into their music helping to coin the term alternative metal. This slight change in sound has helped the band to remain relevant to this day.
The vocals of late lead singer Layne Staley have also helped the band to remain distinguishable. Almost everyone knows that popular acts like Staind, Seether and Creed stole Staley’s singing style.
Alice In Chains is still one of the most requested bands on rock and metal radio. People who were not fans of metal back in the day, but loved mainstream music and grunge were exposed to Alice In Chains. Many of them presently still listen to the AIC in between Coldplay, Of Monsters And Men and other popular pop/rock acts. Because of their cross genre appeal, Alice In Chains remains one of the most recognizable metal bands ever.
6. Motley Crue
Motely Crue was at the forefront of the popular 1980’s glam metal scene, but they were so much more than just glam metal. Yes, they looked the part, but their music has always had a lot more substance than the other band’s that they were lumped together with. Albums like Shout At the Devil, Girls Girls Girls and Dr. Feel Good were ripe with great riffs, excellent guitar solos and spectacular arrangements. They were definitely heavier and more talented than other glam metal bands, but The Crue have always been a marketing machine. Therefore, why not ride the wave of glam metal popularity by looking like all the other Sunset Strip bands? This is exactly what they did.
Their live show are also something of legend. The vast majority of music fans are well aware of their elaborate sets and Tommy Lee’s spinning drum kit.
Motley Crue became popular in the 1980’s because of a look and they have remained relevant through the years because their music and marketing abilities have stood the test of time. They even have a biography called The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band that is currently being made into a Hollywood film. We’re also pretty sure that Pam Anderson and Tommy Lee’s sex tape didn’t hurt the cause either. Ask any person about 1980’s heavy metal and they will almost certainly mention Motley Crue. With that said many of these same people will also talk about them when asked about heavy metal in general.
Everyone knows that the universal heavy metal symbol is fingers in the shape of devil horns. You see it on images, at live metal shows and even in mainstream popular culture, but where did it’s use come from? Well from the late Ronnie James Dio of course. Dio grew up in an Italian household where his very religious grandmother used it to ward off evil spirits. Dio saw this and thought it would look cool in his profession, so he began using it and the rest is history.
Dio is also certainly recognizable for his work with Black Sabbath after he replaced Ozzy Osbourne and for his solo work, especially for the song and music video “Holy Diver”. This track was even recently covered by Killswitch Engage helping to bring Dio’s music to a whole other generation.
We would like to tell you that Dio has remained significant in people’s minds because of his music. While that is certainly true with metal fans, he remains more recognizable in popular culture because of that lasting image of him throwing up the devil horns. Ronnie James Dio passed away in 2010 leaving behind a lasting legacy. For whatever reason people remember Dio, he will always be one of the most important figures in the development of heavy metal and for that, he will never be forgotten.
4. Judas Priest
In the early 1980’s when many artists were shying away from the phrase, Judas Priest was one of the first bands to embrace the term heavy metal. With highly accessible songs that toed the line of hard rock, like “Breaking The Law”, “Living After Midnight” and “Heading Out to the Highway” the band began to build a massive following. Other British bands like Iron Maiden and Saxon followed suit bringing a surge to the popularity of metal in the early 1980’s now known as The New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM).
Judas Priest’s leather clad, spiked clothing soon became the style that everyone identified with heavy metal. Of course it was also a highly gay clothing style, but people would not begin to figure out that connection until later. NWOBHM was the first hugely popular form of heavy metal, so everyone knew who Priest was, fan or not.
The band continued to be recognizable even after metal’s popularity declined as lead singer, Rob Halford, became one of the first heavy metal musicians to come of the closet in 1998. As most people know the popular 2001 Mark Wahlberg film, Rock Star, was based on Tim “Ripper” Owens who replaced Halford in Judas Priest in 1996. Halford rejoined the band in 2003 and they recently released their latest album Redeemer of Souls to much fan fare (You can check out our review of the album HERE). Judas Priest is still the band that most identify with heavy metal music and style. Because of all they have done and continue to do for the popularity of heavy metal music, they will always be one of the most significant metal bands in history.
3. Iron Maiden
After discussing NWOBHM with regard to Judas Priest, who could be next? It would have to be the best live metal band of all time, Iron Maiden. Maiden became highly recognizable not only because of their excellent music and the fact that they helped pioneer the use of harmonized guitars in metal, but because of their imagery and amazing live performances. Maiden was one of the first metal bands to employ a mascot, a skeleton named Eddie, that graced most of their album covers and merchandise. Talk about a band that knew how to sell themselves and heavy metal music. Maiden were amongst the first. Now when many people think of Iron Maiden or even heavy metal as a whole, one of the first pictures that comes to mind is Eddie.
On top of that, they have always been a band that tours more than anyone else. They tour until they can’t tour anymore. Then they release an album and tour again. Maiden has been known to go on tour for years at a time. They were one of the first metal bands to sell out stadiums and large sports arenas and they can still do so in many countries to this day. They have remained relevant by continuing to keep themselves in the news through cross promotions and other ventures. They have their own beer. Lead singer Bruce Dickinson is an accomplished pilot. They poke fun at punk music and get into arguments with other metal musicians like Ozzy Osbourne and Rob Halford. Whatever you can think of to market a band, these guys have done it and have done it consistently.
Don’t get lost in any of this though. Maiden is a supremely talented band and Dickinson is one of the most recognizable metal singers ever as he set the standard for what a heavy metal front man should be. Maiden continues to be one of the most popular acts in metal. When an ordinary music fan is asked about metal vocals or metal in general, Maiden is always one of the first bands to come up.
2. Black Sabbath/Ozzy Osbourne
We put these two together because they go hand and hand. Black Sabbath with Ozzy Osbourne on vocals are the godfathers of heavy metal music. The band blew the doors off the music world with the release of their self-titled debut in 1970. Later that year, they would release Paranoid, the album that truly shaped heavy metal. The band boasts arguably one of the most recognizable metal guitarists in Tony Iommi and one of metal’s most recognizable bassists in Geezer Butler. Drummer Bill Ward is also very well known both inside and outside the metal world.
However, it is singer Ozzy Osbourne that is the true face of the band. Yes, the band had other amazing singers like Dio, Ian Gillan and others but Osbourne will always be associated with them first and foremost. He invented the high pitched vocal style that is still used in many metal subgenres today. Many people outside of metal certainly know that Black Sabbath helped to create the genre. However, the majority of non metal music fans know of Sabbath because of Ozzy. Whether it is because of his highly popular solo career, especially 1980’s albums like Blizzard Of Ozz and Diary Of A Madman or because of his reality television days in the early 2000’s on MTV’s The Osbournes, Ozzy has become a household name.
There is no denying the impact Ozzy’s popularity has had on the band. Because of it many contemporary metal fans and outsiders have gone back and given a listen to the early works of Sabbath. The band even recently released a box set of all of their 1970’s albums that feature Ozzy on vocals. The band continues to remain relevant with the release of their amazing 2013 album, 13, and through lots of cross promotional marketing. The band actually just released converse sneakers featuring art from various album covers. Because they are where everything began with regard to metal and because of the pop culture fame of Ozzy, you will be hard pressed to find a person who has not heard of Black Sabbath.
Everyone and their grandmother knows who Metallica is. When the vast majority of us tell our co-workers that we listen to heavy metal, the most common response is: “You mean like Metallica?”. Their fame and popularity goes way beyond the world of heavy metal. This is evidenced in the fact that The Black Album is one of the best selling metal albums of all time, with over 16 million albums sold in the U.S. alone. This is unheard of in heavy metal this day in age and was really never commonplace in metal at all. The most amazing part is that the album still charts on the weekly Billboard 200 from time to time and it’s been 23 years since it was released! These numbers mean that the album is being purchased by both metal fans and people who are not really big fans of heavy metal at all.
Metallica pretty much flew under the radar as a part of the Big 4 of thrash metal in the 1980’s. It wasn’t until the band worked with producer Bob Rock on The Black Album in 1991 that things really began to take off. Rock turned the band’s sound into a more accessible, straightforward form of heavy metal. They literally blew up overnight from the success of songs like “Enter Sandman”, “Sad But True” and “Nothing Else Matters”. Their new found worldwide fame caused many to go back and listen to their earlier works bringing huge sales numbers to their old albums. Now albums like Ride The Lightning and Master of Puppets are amongst the highest selling metal albums ever. They are also considered by many both inside and outside of the genre to be two of the best and most important metal albums of all time. However, they may never have garnered that type of attention without the following the band built in the 1990’s.
Even though subsequent albums have been met with a lot of criticism from diehard fans and critics, the band has remained recognizable because of the continued popularity of The Black Album and because the band has become somewhat of a marketing juggernaut. At this point their prowess could rival that of Kiss and Gene Simmons. They have their hand in everything from television shows to cross promotional merchandise. They even released a fairly popular 3D concert film in 2013 called Through the Never (You can check out our review of the movie HERE). There really is nothing the band hasn’t done to keep their name out there. Even their live shows are something of legend as they continue to sell out stadiums across the world. Take a poll the next time your are at one of their shows. Many Metallica fans in the audience either are passive metal fans or not even fans of other metal bands at all. Metallica has found that cross genre formula that makes them not only the biggest metal band, but one of the biggest bands in the world, period.
What other metal bands are recognizable worldwide both inside and outside metal circles that did not make the list? Should someone else have been #1? Let us know in the comments section.