The 1980’s gave the Heavy Metal genre recognition after a full decade of being looked as a despised “noise” that started with Led Zepplin and Black Sabbath. I can honestly say that even with the pure metal and cheesy hair metal, the 1980s was best decade for the genre. After Iron Maiden & Judas Priest started the metal boom in the beginning of the decade, metal in general started expanding into new diversity around the world to trash metal, progressive metal, black metal, speed metal, hair metal, and so many more. So many bands that came out this decade are still remembered as one of the best. Unfortunately the 1990s metal isn’t as powerful or as recognized as the 1980s. At this time around, metal was facing a new genre of music called Grunge and Alternative Rock that took the musical spotlight from everyone. Plus the evolution of the genre throughout the 1990s went sour when they reached the awfulness of Nu Metal and big names like Metallica sold out with different, tasteless musical directions. But that’s not to say that metal in the 1990s were at all bad because we had new bands that went into the positive direction of metal when transforming into folk metal, sludge metal, technical metal, and other metal that sounds and feels as impacting as metal in the 1980s. If you don’t believe me, check out past Top 10 Albums list for each year of the the 1990s.
- Top 10 Albums of 1990
- Top 10 Albums of 1991
- Top 10 Albums of 1992
- Top 10 Albums of 1993
- Top 10 Albums of 1994
- Top 10 Albums of 1995
- Top 10 Albums of 1996
- Top 10 Albums of 1997
- Top 10 Albums of 1998
- Top 10 Albums of 1999
With that being said, I certainly enjoyed the good side of heavy metal in the 1990s. Not to mention that I got into Heavy Metal in this decade so I can’t overlook at this decade’s metal and stick in the past in the 1980s. Here’s the best Heavy Metal albums of the 1990s!
Number 10. – Painkiller – Judas Priest
I can disregard every Judas Priest before it and say that this is the definitive album of their discography and nothing they’ll do after will ever top it. Bold statement, I know, but think about how this album held your hand and gave you a ride so wild that you held on for dear life. This is without a doubt the wildest experience that heavy metal ever provided. Prior to the release of Painkiller, though, 1990 was a rough year for Judas Priest. Not only were there serious doubts as to whether the band could ever regain its classic form, but the members found themselves in the middle of a farcical trial in Reno, Nevada over whether their music contained subliminal messages and compelled two misguided young men to engage in a suicide pact. It was a circus, but Halford, Tipton, Downing, and Hill all showed up, clad in tidy suits, respectfully and calmly testified, and were rightfully cleared of all charges. It’s romantic to think that Painkiller was an angry, in-your-face response to that nadir of 1980s “Satanic panic” in America, but in actuality the album was completed long before the trial began. Painkiller was one of only a handful of standouts in what was a transitional year for heavy metal, which was starting to diversify, move underground, and leave its 1980s icons scrambling to stay relevant. In one fell swoop Judas Priest had reinvented itself, but despite the critical and worldwide commercial success of the album, the band was starting to fracture internally, with Halford drifting away from his bandmates. As important an institution as Judas Priest was for heavy metal, Halford had some very valid reasons to do a little soul searching throughout the 1990s.
Number 9. – When the Kite String Pops – Acid Bath
This is the album that started this new movement of sludge metal. For the fact that over 37,000 copies in the US with no publicity should tell you why this album is so massive. If the album cover that used the painting — made by notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacywhile in prison awaiting execution, didn’t intrigue you, then listening to it will. Like most metal, Acid Bath seems obsessed with the macabre, the gruesome, and the bloody, and in the case of this classic, almost entirely focused on the mind of the serial killer. The group tackles murder without any slasher movie excitement in glorification, nor third person analysis, but instead by going directly in the soured mindset, and showing often poetic and always graphic lyrical images of mutilated death, sexual assault, and about as many other horrible scenes they can muster. From the vague and tone-setting misanthropy thriving in The Blue, to the bloody sexual climax in Cassie Eats Cockroaches, the goal is always to indulge the listener in the darkest of the dark, with no safe spot to be found. Musically, variety is the main attraction point, and is the reason the album sticks out so much as a unique one. Songs here are well constructed, and played with focus and technical skill that never feels show-offy. The recording is clean and powerful by most metal standards, with everything taking up its own space and retaining a powerful guitar driven assault. It’s held back slightly by its meaty run time and a few lyrics that border on corny, but overall that doesn’t detract from an album that embodies it’s genre, while staying fresh and full of ideas 20 years from its release.
Number 8. – Vulgar Display of Power –
This is the Pantera album that fully realized their new, ultra-tough style into the style that they’d continue with for the rest of their career. Tough-guy anthems, menacing riffage, and an expression of outright… well… power make this album the one to kick off the genre of groove metal. While Cowboys from Hell was a strong album that was rooted halfway in thrash and halfway in the then-nascent groove style, Vulgar Display of Power eschews the 80’s thrash style completely for a much more pure groove metal sound. The sound is bigger, the tone is thicker, while the singing is less dynamic, it’s also more ferocious and more fitting to the sound and aesthetic of Vulgar Display. Everything is made beefier and fuller for conveying an air of undiluted macho rage, which Pantera pull off with the utmost strength. Pantera’s second album after going from glam to groove certainly showcases how far they’ve come from that style in only a few short years. This is a punishing affair and while it may not be at Cowboys from Hell’s level of consistency, it goes for a more ferocious and intense sound that roars in the listener’s face and smashes everything to bits in its fury. From the death charges of “Mouth for War” to the morose, snaking rhythms of “This Love” this album is one big, muscular beast. For all of its aggression, there’s still a catch, a hook, and many great songs to be heard here. For a truly hostile and strong piece from Pantera, this will do you well.
Number 7. – Ænima – Tool
When this came out it was either lauded as an ingenious masterpiece that was so far out there and unique that it towered over everything that Metal or Rock music had to offer at the time or it was dismissed as a pretentious affair, a presumptuous put-on that tried to pass itself off as an artful and refined musical statement. Latter sentiment was obviously fueled by later comments by Keenan, who as geeky introvert mused on the unfairness of the medias preference to favor generic and meaningless music in favor of what he termed “art” and that being reflected by the charts as well as the hordes of of people who seemed to radiate the message “hey, I listen to Tool, the shining beacon of the music industry which makes me one sophisticated son of a bitch”. The songs have all a dark atmosphere sorrounding them, this is a quite dark album. The drumming is interesting, but it is really the guitars that hold the song together. Most of the songs have multiple layers of structure, the most superficial being composed by the catchy riffs, while the deepest is composed by the deep lyrics and general atmosphere (you probably only reach this layer after some listens). Excellent album, which is a bit long no doubt but you can skip the somewhat weaker last 2 tracks. Highly reccomended for people looking for high quality and different sounding albums, whether it is progressive rock or alternative or metal.
Number 6. – Still Life – Opeth
As with many people, Opeth were my introduction to extreme metal, and also one of the first prog bands I really enjoyed, along with The Mars Volta and Tool. Still Life was my first experience of the band, and remains my favourite album of theirs, and one of my favourite albums of all time. Still Life represents the band at the peak of their career, between two styles. The dark, atmospheric sound of the early albums is still here, but the lengthy prog-influenced sounds of the more recent albums are displayed here for the first time. Still Life is possibly also the band’s most complex album, guitar-wise at least, with many time changes, heavy/acoustic switches and technical riffs and solos in most of the songs here. While Opeth are often criticised for staying on the same riff for too long, on this album they always seem to do something different at the exact moment you feel they should move on, with the possible exception of “Serenity Painted Death”, which thankfully has some of the better riffs on the album to save it anyway. The acoustic sections onStill Life are sublime, with “Benighted” and especially “Face Of Melinda” being beautiful, almost entirely distortion-free songs, with Mikael Akerfeldt’s clean vocals a huge step up from My Arms Your Hearse. The soft parts also work magnificently in contrast with the heavier areas, in particular on the insane opener “The Moor”, packed full of huge riffs, harmonies and time changes but also some brilliant melodic parts. “Moonlapse Vertigo” has some of Opeth’s catchiest guitar sections while “White Cluster” has some of their most technical, but my favourite song on here has to be “Godhead’s Lament”. Having the band to discover the folk style was the best thing for the best otherwise they would remain mediocre. It shows the spirit and soul that most Metal albums are seriously lacking but it enthuses upon so much creativity at the point where it’s artistic. Opening with a maelstrom of swirling riffs and masterful drumming, it goes on to provide a storming display of the band’s best heavy work and also one of their most beautiful acoustic passages. The songs here are lengthy yet never dull, and perhaps more than any Opeth album since, offers new sounds on each listen. I have heard albums that do prog, metal and acoustics better than Still Life, but none that manage to blend the three as fantastically as Opeth on this release.
Number 5. – Focus – Cynic
The base of Cynic is in a highly technical breed of thrashy death metal with an emphasis on melody and texture provided by keyboards and other nontraditional metal instruments such as the Chapman stick. Vocals come in three distinct flavors: snarling male growls not entirely unlike what one would hear on a dusty copy of ‘Seven Churches’, sporadic operatic female clean vocals, and synthesized male vocals with a ‘robotic’ tone. The most logical adjective to use is, of course, ‘progressive’, as Cynic never ceases to change the direction or tone of their music. This album rarely settles down, with consistently shifting textures that trade off and overlap in what can only be described as organic manner. Frequently a technique will be employed where instrumentalists will slip one by one into the next movement until they have all collected before performing such a maneuver again, making this an oddly flowing listening experience. ‘Focus’, while not aesthetically for everyone, is an undeniably seminal work in the dimension of metal and progressive music. While only a certain segment might enjoy what is presented on this album, what is presented is an utterly necessary compendium of sounds that must be appreciated for what they allowed to be created more than what they are in and of themselves.
Number 4. – Dirt – Alice in Chains
Dirt is one of the darkest, depressing, harrowing albums ever made. It’s full of so much despair and pain, it contains so much anguish that it’s sometimes really hard to listen to. It’s seen as THE heroin album, because of what Layne was going through and how vivid the lyrics were and the imagery they evoked. The album is definitely about Layne’s addiction, but I think the songs go beyond that. They go much deeper and it isn’t quite as one dimensional as that, even though at the album’s heart it’s about addiction I think the songs deal with deeply personal and emotional issues that go beyond Layne’s addiction. Sometimes, the lyrical content is incredibly vivid and other times it’s so cryptic and hard to decipher. It’s one of the most absorbing albums ever, I feel exhausted and drained after listening to it. The best thing about Grunge, for me, was the different styles the best bands had. From Nirvana’s Punk Rock sensibilities, to Pearl Jam’s classic rock leanings, to The Afghan Whigs’ soul influences. Each band from the scene had something different to offer. Alice In Chains were the band whose aesthetic was closest to Metal and I think Dirt is not only the darkest album to come out of the movement, but it’s one of the darkest albums ever. Dirt is Alice In Chain’s masterpiece, their career defining album and it’s one of the best and most essential albums of the decade. It’s actually chilling, Layne invites us into his hellish nightmare and completely changes our perception of music. It’s an album that floors me, it leaves me absolutely speechless
Number 3. – Paegan Terrorism Tactics – Acid Bath
It sucks that a band like Acid Bath comes in with something new and refreshing then disband so soon, leaving us listeners who know of the band to desire more. In comparison to When the Kite Sting Pops, this album is more groovy, consistent, and “mature” than the last album, which could be full blown chaos at times. This album doesn’t inspire the same level of terror the last one did, this album approaching darkness from the same angle that Alice In Chains usually did, through morbid and introspective lyrics, though this band is much darker than Alice. Dax Riggs’ favorite lyrical topics of drug addiction, abortion, bone dust, and grave flowers make a come back, and while his lyrical depictions are interesting. Acid Bath wasn’t just a run of the mill Louisiana sludge metal band. They were a fantastically crafted band that mixed the best of romance and macabre into a wonderful music mix which sounds a little like The Cure meets Cathedral. Acid Bath is bleak and dark as hell, but they are also melodic and sometimes gorgeous . Paegan Love Song is an anthem and Bleed Me an Ocean keeps up the intensity. This album is a grower. Upon a few listens each of these tracks will stand out and all prove strong on their own. New Death Sensation is haunting and offers an eerie listen. Venus Blue is amazing and is followed by the equally amazing and brutal 13 fingers which riffs like crazy. My only complaint is that 16 minute wait of silence which is attached to the Dead Girl track. That alone brings this down half a star, but it’s a minor complaint while taking in the album as a whole. Listen to this if you like grunge or metal or appreciate the darker side of life. You won’t be disappointed.
Number 2. – Rust in Peace – Megadeth
Is there any doubt in your mind that Megadeth’s magnum opus could not be this high on the list? Why not? This is the prime of Megadeth and even the best songwriting I’ve ever seen from the band. Everything I said that was good about “Killing is My Business…,” “Rust in Peace” is actually twice the awesomeness. It had the most innovative and the most groundbreaking guitar-riffs ever put in singular album. There isn’t a single bad song in “Rust In Peace;” the experience from beginning to end, each time you play “Rust in Peace,” is a fulfilling Metal experience. Ever since I’ve encountered this album, I haven’t encountered another Heavy Metal album that even approached to the effectiveness of this very album. It has a great balance of being so political and be so imaginative by putting the then US President, George H.W. Bush to be in this gigantic conspiracy of extraterrestrial activities. With an insane concept like that for an album, Megadeth spared no expense with what they were capable of in making this album. Even still to this day, I wonder how did they even pull off these songs that you don’t ever hear from any other Heavy Metal band. “Rust in Peace” is a classic, it’s a phenomenon, and most of all… it’s legendary!
Number 1. – Sound of Perseverance – Death
And so we come to Death’s last, and during their run in the 1990s from Human, to Individual Thought Patterns, to Symbolic, to finally their last album, they were the best 4 consecutive albums that a single band has ever had! I could have put those four albums in the list of the best metal albums of the 1990s, but that wouldn’t be fair for the rest of Metal bands in the 1990s because they weren’t superior to Death in comparison. Death’s 1995 album Symbolic had been an astounding release and Chuck had evolved each album in a fairly linear direction away from straight forward death metal, and with that album appearing to take the sound as far as it could go without falling out of the genre altogether. With only the occasional riff or lead reminding you that this is the same “band” that released albums like Human and Symbolic. The progressive element has been amped up to much higher levels and the more traditional death metal riffs are far less prominent, none of which is surprising when you consider the members of the band were never hired to play to death metal in the first place. The more progressive metal style of The Sound of Perseverance is not the only thing that makes this album stand out from the rest of the Death discography. Chuck’s vocals have a much higher tone than on previous releases, approaching black metal-like screams while remaining completely intelligible. The new vocals somehow create such a passionate roar as we simultaneously hear many of the high-pitched riffs that’s out for blood. The musicianship is truly impressive and from a purely technical perspective, there are not too many albums out there that could match it. Every track has moments of sheer brilliance with crushing riffs, exquisite leads and some fantastic drumming from the very impressive Richard Christy. The majority of the album’s highlights occur in the first half with Scavenger of Human Sorrow, Bite the Pain, Voice of the Soul, and the wonderful Story to Tell containing the most fluent and consistently enjoyable structures overall. It’s not surprising to me that there are many out there that consider this the finest Death album, as it would undoubtedly have drawn a whole new crowd to the band. Everything just comes together here, and sounds better than ever, from the mystic atmosphere to the driving grooves that had come to define Schulidner’s guitar wizardry. Not to mention the fantastic songwriting, filled with memorable hooks and powerful vocals, with what is probably the best riffing the band had done up to this point. This is a culmination of all of Death’s previous works, and their ultimate album that left the metal world a huge bang to remember.