In the annals of hard rock and heavy metal, some years have been better than others. Some have even qualified to be called the very best.
As 2015 hurtles toward the midway point, revealing—album by album, show by show—how it will stand as a hard rock moment in the future, let’s rank the 10 greatest such collections of 12 consecutive months from times past.
As Bon Scott once wailed, “It’s a long way to top, it you wanna rock-and-roll.” With that in mind, come dive into our countdown of a makeshift “devil’s decade”—the ten greatest years in hard rock and heavy metal.
“Black Sabbath” – Black Sabbath
Bands Born in 1970: Aerosmith; Queen; Bang; Cactus; Lucifer’s Friend; Pink Fairies
Albums Unleashed in 1970: Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath; Led Zeppelin III – Led Zeppelin; In Rock – Deep Purple; Easy Action – Alice Cooper; UFO 1 – UFO; Kingdom Come – Sir Lord Baltimore; Hawkwind – Hawkwind; Very ’eavy, Very ’umble – Uriah Heap;
What Went Down in 1970: Let’s begin at one very crucial beginning. As a genre, heavy metal has a definitive birthdate: Friday, February 13, 1970, whereupon Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath erupted from humanity’s collective consciousness Lake of Fire and rock’s most extreme genre emerged wholly formed.
Heavy metal had been bubbling just below the surface for a while—check out our write up here of 1969 for some very particular examples—but Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Bill Ward recast 1970 as a new Year Zero.
“God Save the Queen” – Sex Pistols
Bands Born in 1977: Def Leppard; Misfits; Bad Brains; Discharge; Angel Witch; Mentors; Great White; Fear; Germs; Kix; X; Dickies; Black Death; Holocaust
Albums Unleashed in 1977: Alive II and Love Gun – Kiss; News of the World – Queen; Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols – Sex Pistols; Rocket to Russia and Leave Home – Ramones; Cat Scratch Fever – Ted Nugent; Bat Out of Hell – Meat Loaf; Motörhead – Motörhead; A Farewell to Kings – Rush; The Idiot and Lust for Life – Iggy Pop; The Clash – The Clash; Spectres – Blue Öyster Cult; Sin After Sin – Judas Priest; Lights Out – UFO; Bad Reputation – Thin Lizzy
What Went Down in 1977: While 1977 is officially and properly hailed as The Year Punk Broke, those same twelve months launched a rocket assault of mainstream hard rock and ambitious heavy metal.
The Sex Pistols provided the year’s big story, expanding upward and outward on the extreme rock raucousness and rage first tapped into by Alice Cooper, the Stooges, the MC5, and, then most recently, four leather-jacketed musical hoodlums out of Queens, New York calling themselves the Ramones.
The Pistols-led punk revolution would immediately inspire the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM), followed by hardcore, then thrash, and, later on, grunge. That the Pistols pulled this off by way of just one official album release (Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols) before imploding is not just astonishing—it’s perfect.
Elsewhere in England, Queen opened News of the World with the hugest drums sounds ever recorded on “We Will Rock You” and Judas Priest spread their black leather wings considerably on Sin After Sin, breaking through to the radio with their unexpected Joan Baez cover, “Diamonds and Rust.”
Stateside, Kiss conquered all comers with both Love Gun and Alive II; Ted Nugent permanently nailed his place in the monster metal riffs hall of fame with “Cat Scratch Fever;” and mountain-of-talent Meat Loaf teamed with songwriter Jim Steinman and producer Todd Rundgren to reinvent ’60s teen pop themes on the scope of volcanically Wagnerian operatic overwhelm with Bat Out of Hell.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit”– Nirvana
Bands Born in 1991: Down; Acid Bath; Behemoth; Cradle of Filth; Hank Williams III
Albums Unleashed in 1991: Metallica – Metallica; Nevermind – Nirvana; Use Your Illusion I and II – Guns N’ Roses; Ten – Pearl Jam; Blood Sugar Sex Magic – Red Hot Chili Peppers; Badmotorfinger – Soundgarden; Gish – Smashing Pumpkins; No More Tears – Ozzy Osbourne; Decade of Aggression– Slayer; For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge – Van Halen; Sailing the Seas of Cheese – Primus; Temple of the Dog – Temple of the Dog; Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge – Mudhoney; 8-Way Santa – Tad; Attack of the Killer B’s – Anthrax; Butchered at Birth – Cannibal Corpse; To Mother – Babes in Toyland; Uncle Anesthesia – Screaming Trees; Pretty on the Inside – Hole; Roll the Bones – Rush; Slave to the Grind – Skid Row; Wretch – Kyuss; Spine of God – Monster Magnet; War Master – Bolt Thrower; Bullhead – Melvins
What Went Down in 1991: Nirvana released Nevermind on September 24, 1991. Perhaps you’re familiar with the music and/or that event. Occasionally, someone reports something about it.
Alas, for all the praise heaped on this ultimate achievement by Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl, and producer Butch Vig, it’s not just that Nevermind kicked open the door for a new era of mainstream hard rock; it’s that Nevermind kicked open the door for the monumental endtimes of mainstream hard rock.
Nirvana’s breakthrough provided the tidal wave that raised the musical ships piloted by Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins, Mudhoney, and others of their up-from-the-underground ilk that dominated the first half of the decade with brand new sounds. However, Nevermind’s crossover also helped fuel the final mighty onslaught of Guns N’ Roses and a gargantuan evolutionary leap forward made by Metallica.
Consider the similarities in all three groups’ sonic and philosophical roots. Metallica pioneered thrash by infusing their heavy metal with punk. Guns N’ Roses created a genre unto themselves by melding metal, punk, ’70s glam, and arena rock. Nirvana’s grunge, while most directly flowing upward from punk, absorbed all those influences and filtered them through Cobain’s Beatle-esque song sensibilities.
What Nevermind did was shine a massive light on all the elements that these previously perceived-as-enemy camps shared in common and the fans embraced them all as one-and-the-same: for the first time in decades, rock was rock was rock. And that rocked!
Nevermind, Metallica by Metallica (aka “The Black Album”) and GNR’s Use Your Illusion I and II—among numerous others—thereby defined and brought forth the moment that Little Steven Van Zandt describes as “the last time that rock existed as our common language.” All that happened in 1991.
“Whole Lotta Love” – Led Zeppelin
Bands Born in 1969: Judas Priest, Thin Lizzy; UFO; Mountain; Uriah Heep; Mott the Hoople; Hawkwind; Coven, Leaf Hound; Dust, Bloodrock, Wishbone Ash; Argent, Atomic Rooster, Attila
Albums Unleashed in 1969: Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin II – Led Zeppelin; Goodbye – Cream; The Stooges – The Stooges; Kick Out the Jams – MC5; Beck-Ola – Jeff Beck Group; Blue Cheer – Blue Cheer; Ball – Iron Butterfly; Pretties for You – Alice Cooper; As Safe as Yesterday and Town and Country – Humble Pie; Grand Funk and On Time – Grand Funk Railroad; Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls – Coven; At Your Birthday Party and Monster –Steppenwolf; In the Court of the Crimson King – King Crimson; Near the Beginning and Rock & Roll – Vanilla Fudge; Mott the Hoople – Mott the Hoople; Beginnings – Slade
What Went Down in 1969: The road to Black Sabbath was not paved with nothing. 1969 exploded as an extraordinary year for hard rock, with bands and events pushing the form to faster, louder, heavier, and darker outreaches with ascending fervor.
Aside from remarkable group formations (Judas Priest, Thin Lizzy, UFO, Mountain) and classic-on-arrival albums (Led Zeppelin’s first two; Cream’s last; debuts by Alice Cooper, the Stooges, Grand Funk, King Crimson, and the MC5), the world and culture and even life itself took on a denser, dirtier, and more diabolical tone.
Bryan Adams may have scored a pop hit with the light-hearted rocker “Summer of ’69,” but that actual swelter season was not for the faint of heart. The relative peace and grooviness of the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival (which was closed, pointedly, with Jimi Hendrix’s masterful shock deconstruction of “The Star-Spangled Banner”) gave way to revelations of longhaired Beatles-freak cult leader Charles Manson dispatching his homicidal hippie Manson Family to slaughter innocents on “creepy crawl” raids.
That violent downturn bled into rock itself by way of the Rolling Stones’ free concert at the Altamont Speedway in December, where Hell’s Angels bikers pummeled fans all day and night before finally stabbing a concertgoer to death (all of it brilliantly captured in the documentary, Gimme Shelter).
From that initial smoldering of Hell on Earth, heavy metal inevitably arose. And we’ve all rocked a lot harder ever since.
“The Number of the Beast” – Iron Maiden
Bands Born in 1982: Dio; W.A.S.P.; Voivod; Dirty Rotten Imbeciles; Spinal Tap; Agnostic Front; Armored Saint; Carnivore; Corrosion of Conformity; Kreator, Possessed; Death Angel;
Albums Unleashed in 1982: The Number of the Beast – Iron Maiden; Screaming for Vengeance – Judas Priest; Creatures of the Night – Kiss; Coda – Led Zeppelin; Diver Down – Van Halen; Three Lock Box – Sammy Hagar; Metal on Metal – Anvil; Live Evil – Black Sabbath; Wild Dogs – The Rods; Extraterrestrial Live – Blue Öyster Cult; Zipper Catches Skin – Alice Cooper; Everything Went Black – Black Flag; One Vice at a Time – Krokus; Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing – Discharge; Power Play – April Wine; Oriental Beat – Hanoi Rocks; The Record – Fear; Devil Soldier – Loudness; Troops of Tomorrow – Exploited; Damnation Alley – Bitch
What Went Down in 1982: Iron Maiden spearheaded the New Wave of British Heavy Metal’s notion of “metal played with punk attitude” by way of their first two albums, Iron Maiden and Killers, on which the group was fronted by brawny, brawling vocalist Paul Di’Anno.
As happens, the band and the singer parted ways, so for a replacement, Iron Maiden reached out to Bruce Dickinson, an operatic-scaled sonic swashbuckler who’d been performing with fellow NWOBHM outfit Samson. Talk about an immediate fit! Dickinson slipped into Maiden straightaway like a hand sliding into a steel-spiked, chain-metal glove, and the result was the band’s worldwide breakthrough LP, The Number of the Beast.
Heavy metal deservedly hailed the rejiggered Iron Maiden as nothing less than demonically transcendent deities, and all other extreme rock acts knew the game had been upped.
After debuting in August 1981, MTV hit its stride over the course of ’82 by broadcasting ton upon ton of hard rock music videos, from Van Halen to Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon. As the decade progressed, heavy metal would come to dominate Music Television as no other single genre ever would (at least for as long as the network still played music videos).
“Eruption/You Really Got Me” – Van Halen
Bands Born in 1978: Anvil, Dokken, Dead Kennedys; Whitesnake; GBH; Girlschool; Saint Vitus; The Rods; Descendants; Social Distortion; Angry Samoans; Thor; Tygers of Pan Tang;
Albums Unleashed in 1978: Van Halen – Van Halen; If You Want Blood You’ve Got It and Powerage – AC/DC; Hemispheres – Rush; Double Live Gonzo and Weekend Warriors – Ted Nugent; Kiss – solo albums; Jazz – Queen; Never Say Die – Black Sabbath; Road to Ruin – Ramones; Live and Dangerous – Thin Lizzy; Some Enchanted Evening – Blue Öyster Cult; Molly Hatchet – Molly Hatchet; Painkiller – Krokus; Nervous Breakdown – Black Flag; Static Age – Misfits; Rose Tattoo – Rose Tattoo; Bloodbrothers – Dictators; Impeckable – Budgie; Lexicon Devil – Germs
What Went Down in 1978: Punk’s 1977 depth-charge sent shock waves throughout all of rock, reinvigorating the medium from the hugest arena-packing superstars to the scrappiest up-and-comers.
One group that simultaneously embodied both those extremes from their first impact onward was California’s party-metal wrecking crew, Van Halen. The group stupefied all comers immediately as they were fronted by Diamond David Lee Roth, arguably the most flamboyant and dynamic master-of-unholy-ceremonies rock had yet produced, piloted by Eddie Van Halen, inarguably the most visionary and gifted and adventurous rock-and-roll guitarist to ever pick up a six-string to that point and break open all its previously unimaginable possibilities.
Kiss kicked ass with four simultaneous self-titled solo releases by each of its members, with guitarist Ace Frehley’s platter proving to be one of the mightiest hard rock albums of its era. Ted Nugent maniacally defined himself as the Motor City Madman with the one-two demolition crunch of the studio LP Weekend Warriors and the landmark concert collection, Double Live Gonzo. The Nuge also got his own pinball machine.
Black Sabbath Mach I gasped their last on Never Say Die, a hated record at the time that has since been rediscovered, while Black Flag landed their first blow with Nervous Breakdown, an EP that went largely unnoticed at the time, but which continues to influence and inspire new generations of extreme rock explorers. As always, one stadium entrance closes, a million more garage doors open….
“Master of Puppets” – Metallica
Bands Born in 1986: Bolt Thrower; Prong; Terrorizer
Albums Unleashed in 1986: Master of Puppets – Metallica; Reign in Blood – Slayer; Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? – Megadeth; Live Like a Suicide – Guns N’ Roses; Somewhere in Time – Iron Maiden; Turbo – Judas Priest; 5150 – Van Halen; Eat ’Em and Smile – David Lee Roth; The Ultimate Sin – Ozzy Osbourne; Who Made Who – AC/DC; I Against I – Bad Brains; Obsessed by Cruelty – Sodom; Orgasmatron – Motörhead; Brain Death and Game Over – Nuclear Assault; To Hell With the Devil – Stryper; Morbid Visions – Sepultura; Night Songs – Cinderella; Constrictor – Alice Cooper; Epicus Doomicus Metallicus – Candlemass; Intermission – Dio; Rrröööaaarrr – Voivod; Beyond the Gates – Possessed; Carnivore – Carnivore; Fatal Portrait – King Diamond; The Dark – Metal Church; Atomizer – Big Black; The Final Countdown – Europe; Trick or Treat – Fastway; Slippery When Wet – Bon Jovi; Fight for the Rock – Savatage; Rage for Order – Queensryche; Vinnie Vincent Invasion – Vinnie Vincent Invasion; Kommander of Kaos – Wendy O. Williams
What Went Down in 1986: 1986 is as definitive a before-and-after line in heavy metal as could possibly exist. More than just The Year Thrash Broke, ’86 is the year that Metallica defined anew the possibilities at rock at its furthest extremes on Master of Puppets; Slayer essentially shut down the entire first wave of heavy metal that Black Sabbath began by pushing the music as far as it could have gone on Reign in Blood; and Megadeth kept pace with their rivals by way of Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? Anthrax actually fired the first shot in that extraordinary assault with 1985’s Spreading the Disease.
Nothing in rock was the same after that four-pronged attack. Thrash largely supplanted hardcore punk, as those groups learned to play more technically and could expand out in new directions (as a cultural touchstone marking the moment, 1986 was also when Black Flag broke up). Hard rock heard what was rattling up from the underground and took note. In Seattle, and elsewhere, traditional punk bands embraced metal for the first time and put what would become 1990s rock into an incubator.
On MTV and rock radio, hair metal began its mousse-imbued conquest of pop culture. Bon Jovi broke huge with Slippery When Wet. Cinderella scored a hit with Night Songs. Europe blasted off with The Final Countdown.
The second half of the ’80s began right on time, then, announcing that the era would, indeed, be hailed forever as the definitive decade of heavy metal.
“Billion Dollar Babies” – Alice Cooper
Bands Born in 1973: AC/DC; Kiss; Journey; Bad Company; Bachman-Turner Overdrive; Montrose; Bad Company; Dictators
Albums Unleashed in 1973: Houses of the Holy – Led Zeppelin; Sabbath Bloody Sabbath – Black Sabbath; Aerosmith – Aerosmith; Billion Dollar Babies – Alice Cooper; Queen – Queen; Tres Hombres – ZZ Top; Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd – Lynyrd Skynyrd; Who Do We Think We Are – Deep Purple; New York Dolls – New York Dolls; Raw Power – Iggy and the Stooges; Tyranny and Mutation – Blue Öyster Cult; Montrose – Montrose; Never Turn Your Back on a Friend – Budgie; Call of the Wild – Amboy Dukes; Sweet Freedom – Uriah Heep
What Went Down in 1973: It’s hard to argue against hard rock’s Class of 1973 standing as perhaps the form’s finest ever.
AC/DC, Kiss, Journey, and Bad Company came together. Debut albums dropped from Aerosmith, Queen, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Montrose, and the New York Dolls.
The upperclassman went on a productive tear as well: Led Zeppelin gave us House of the Holy; Black Sabbath begat Sabbath Bloody Sabbath; Alice Cooper scored huge with Billion Dollar Babies; ZZ Top scored the earth with Tres Hombres; and Iggy and the Stooges heralded punk-things-to-come on Raw Power.
What a commencement year!
“Back in Black” – AC/DC
Bands Born in 1980: Ozzy Osbourne; Exodus; Manowar; Metal Church; Loudness; Vixen; Minor Threat; 7 Seconds; King’s X; Tank; Meatmen; Bulldozer; Minutemen
Albums Unleashed in 1980: Back in Black – AC/DC; British Steel – Judas Priest; Blizzard of Ozz – Ozzy Osbourne; Heaven and Hell – Black Sabbath; Iron Maiden – Iron Maiden; Unmasked – Kiss; Ace of Spades – Motörhead; Animal Magnetism – Scorpions; On Through the Night – Def Leppard; Scream Dream – Ted Nugent; Jealous Again – Black Flag; Group Sex – Circle Jerks; Strong Arm of the Law and Wheels of Steel – Saxon; End of the Century – Ramones; Cultosaurus Erectus – Blue Öyster Cult; No Place to Run – UFO; Angel Witch – Angel Witch; Lightning to the Nations – Diamond Head; Sandinista! – The Clash; Rock Hard – The Rods; Decontrol – Discharge; Rockin’ Into the Night – .38 Special; Los Angeles – X; Progressions of Power – Triumph; Wild Cat – Tygers of Pan Tang; Michael Schenker Group – Michael Schenker Group
What Went Down in 1980: “It’s the end, the end of the Seventies/It’s the end, the end of the century” sang the Ramones on their 1980 collaboration with Phil Spector, End of the Century. In terms of rock culture, the close of metal’s first decade really did feel like an apocalyptic ending but, at the same time, a new, previously impossible-to-envision dawn of hard rock leapt upward from the ashes.
No event more clearly demonstrates this transformative notion than the remarkable 1980 experienced by AC/DC. The year commenced as tragically as possible for for the group, with frontman Bon Scott succumbed to an alcohol-fueled death at age 33 on February 19, 1980. Rather than waste time mourning or, worse, breaking up, AC/DC soldiered on exactly as Bon would have yelled at them to, hiring new vocalist Brian Johnson to sing lead on Back in Black, their flawless slab-of-metal tribute to Scott that stormed record stores—and the rest of existence as we know it—on July 25, 1980.
In the UK, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal took full flight. Iron Maiden issued their self-titled debut. Judas Priest leapt to the front of the NWOBHM pack with their masterpiece British Steel. Motörhead bestowed Ace of Spades, starting with its title track, unto the human experience. Even Black Sabbath took on a NWOBHM influence, powering Heaven and Hell, their astonishing comeback album with new singer Ronnie James Dio, with punk-paced songs and electrifying intensity.
Punk-wise, hardcore commenced soaring vociferously out of Southern California, with Black Flag leading the charge, backed by the Circle Jerks and other skate-rat marauders.
Ten extraordinary years lay ahead come 1980. Hard rock responded with appropriate gusto, velocity, and fearlessness.
“We’re Not Gonna Take It” – Twisted Sister
Bands Born in 1984: Soundgarden; Sepultura; Primus; Nuclear Assault; Warrant; Living Colour; The Cult; Death; Celtic Frost; Candlemass; Whiplash; Atheist; King Kobra
Albums Unleashed in 1984: 1984 – Van Halen; Ride the Lightning – Metallica; Defenders of the Faith –Judas Priest; Stay Hungry – Twisted Sister; Powerslave – Iron Maiden; Love at First Sting – Scorpions; Grace Under Pressure – Rush; Animalize – Kiss; Haunting the Chapel – Slayer; Signs of Life – Billy Squier; Perfect Strangers – Deep Purple; Fistful of Metal – Anthrax; Out of the Cellar – Ratt; VOA – Sammy Hagar; Jailbreak 74 – AC/DC; At War With Satan – Venom; Rising Force – Yngwie J. Malmsteen; Don’t Break the Oath – Mercyful Fate; Bathory – Bathory; Apocalyptic Raids – Hellhammer; The Last in Line – Dio; No Remorse – Motörhead; W.A.S.P. – W.A.S.P.; Tooth and Nail – Dokken; Too Tough to Die – Ramones; My War, Family Man, and Slip It In – Black Flag; All Those Wasted Years and Two Steps from the Move – Hanoi Rocks; Zen Arcade – Hüsker Dü; Slide It In – Whitesnake; March of the Saint – Armored Saint; Dancin’ on the Edge – Lita Ford; Overkill – Overkill; Morbid Tales – Celtic Frost; Dreamtime – The Cult; See You in Hell – Grim Reaper; In the Sign of Evil – Sodom; Crusader – Saxon; War and Pain – Voivod; Psalm 9 – Trouble; Saint Vitus – Saint Vitus; Let Them Eat Metal – The Rods; Leatherwolf – Leatherwolf; No Man’s Land – Holocaust; Walkin’ the Razor’s Edge – Helix; Metal Queen – Lee Aaron; All Fired Up – Fastway; Bon Jovi – Bon Jovi; Black Death – Black Death; Let It Be – Replacements
What Went Down in 1984: 1984 was Peak Heavy Metal. Culturally, aesthetically, philosophically, and of course, musically, ’84 actually looks and feels like “the most Eighties” year of the 1980s and, with that being the definitive decade of metal, hard rock also made its most high-profile stand during those twelve months of nonstop denim-vested, puffy-haired, horn-throwing triumph.
Metal ruled everything everywhere in 1984, beginning with 1984 (indeed) by Van Halen. The group’s ultimate summation of everything it had ever done and ever could do proved so awesomely over-the-top and intoxicatingly transcendent that it couldn’t help but tear VH apart at the seams, sending David Lee Roth out in pursuit of solo platinum and the rest of the group shopping for a new frontman. Fortuitously, Sammy Hagar happened to nail the biggest hit of his career, “I Can’t Drive 55,” in the summer of ’84, just in time for those particular planets to align.
Beyond Van Halen (and Sammy), rock radio and MTV went hard rock crazy by way of Twisted Sister, Scorpions, Ratt, Billy Squier, Rush, and Bon Jovi. Just past the mainstream loomed Dokken, Helix, and Grim Reaper. On the underground side, the likes of Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, and Venom made terrifying headway.
Punk also tore off in fascinating directions, with mind-ripping innovations from Hüsker Dü, Butthole Surfers, Replacements, and, especially, Black Flag, whose My War album fired a definitive, earthquaking cannonball through the walls that still separated punk from heavy metal.
As with Manson and Altamont in 1969, a true crime event also seemed to cast a metal-tinged pall over day-to-day life in summertime 1984. On Long Island, New York, teenage heavy metal fan, drug dealer, and self-proclaimed “Acid King” Ricky Kasso horrifically murdered and mutilated a peer he’d accused of theft, telling the victim “Say you love Satan!” before finally killing him. The wild-eyed, longhaired Kasso was arrested shortly thereafter in an AC/DC t-shirt emblazoned with a scary devil face. Later that night, Kasso fashioned that very shirt into a noose and killed himself.
The Ricky Kasso-heavy metal connection profoundly assisted in igniting the 1980s’ “Satanic Panic,” which would hit a crescendo in 1985 when the Parents Music Resource Center, a watchdog group headed by senator’s wife Tipper Gore, mounted hearings in Congress to lobby for government labeling of “evil” rock records. All that got rolling 1984. As mentioned earlier: 1984 was Peak Heavy Metal.