The 20 Best Metal Bands of All Time
Metal music is about distorted guitar riffs, powerful bass lines, fast-paced drums, and aggressive vocals. The genre has changed a lot since it first became popular, with many bands adding new styles and approaches to the scene. Some metal bands, however, had more impact than others.
In this article, I will focus on the 20 best metal bands of all time and explain briefly why they deserve such a status. The following groups have shaped the sound of metal, helped to create new metal sub-genres, attracted millions of fans worldwide, and influenced musicians worldwide.
This is a subjective list and should be treated as an informed but personal opinion. The bands on the list have made metal history, but are many other great metal bands out there.
Some metalheads love to criticize Metallica, believing their music became too soft and commercial from the mid-90s onwards. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to deny that without the likes of James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, metal music wouldn’t be the same. But what is it that makes Metallica the best metal band of all time?
In the 80s, glam and heavy rock competed for the attention of the public. It was then Metallica came into the scene with a sound so unmistakably heavy that it was given its own name: thrash metal. In 1986, by the time they released “Master of Puppets,” Metallica became one of the very first metal acts to reach a mainstream audience. To this day, they’re the first band most people think of when they hear the word “metal.”
2. Black Sabbath
Many people consider Black Sabbath to be a proto-metal band, and they’re not wrong. While the songs of Tony Iommi and Ozzy Osbourne are metal through and through, they appeared in a context where metal music still didn’t exist. At the time they released their legendary self-titled debut album, Black Sabbath were simply trying to reinvent psychedelic rock. Needless to say, they were successful.
But more than reshaping the rock scene of the early 70s, Black Sabbath created the seeds of what would later become metal music. It’s impossible not to recognize the future sound of metal in the heavily distorted riffs, paganism-related topics, and angry counter-culture vocals of the early records of Black Sabbath. In a nutshell, they’re the godfathers of metal music.
3. Iron Maiden
Here’s one way to think about Iron Maiden in the context of metal-music history: they have the sophistication of an indie movie, but they look like a box-office blockbuster. In other words, Iron Maiden is a phenomenon (not just a band) that has shown the world what metal music looks and sounds like when it’s done correctly.
The gods of heavy metal have been around since the late 70s and continue to have millions of fans worldwide. Musicologists consider them important because of the way they incorporated elements of punk and progressive rock into the classic heavy metal sonority of the 80s. Love them or hate them, it’s impossible to deny that Iron Maiden has made metal louder, bigger, more popular, and more spectacular.
From Texas to the world, Pantera is one of the best metal bands of all time for many reasons. But I will give you the main three: they were super popular in the 90s, they virtually created the sound of groove metal, and they were extremely influential in terms of metal-music production.
While most 80s metal acts were trying to play their riffs as fast as possible, Vinnie Paul and company decided to focus on complex rhythms and heavy guitar effects instead. As a result, they pioneered groove metal, a sub-genre known for its focus on syncopation and down-tuned guitars. According to Rolling Stone, they also devised many of the recording, mixing, and mastering techniques that are still used in metal today. As the American guitarist Zakk Wylde has put it, “Production-wise, you can use those Pantera records as a Model-T Ford for extreme metal.”
5. Judas Priest
Metal is a globalized music genre that belongs to no specific place. However, it wouldn’t be silly to say that the style was born in the West Midlands. Surely influenced by their “neighbors” – the aforementioned Black Sabbath – Judas Priest proved to the world that Birmingham was the place where the best metal music of the 70s was being made.
Just like Black Sabbath, the likes of K.K. Downing and Ian Hill were at the forefront of the “new exciting sound” of heavy metal and never failed to deliver what their fans expected of them, up until today. In 2022, the members of Judas Priest were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Just like Metallica, Slayer was one of the bands that pioneered the thrash metal style. Their first five albums (from “Show No Mercy” to “Seasons in the Abyss”) are considered all-time masterpieces, and it’s undeniable that the likes of Tom Araya, Dave Lombardo, and Kerry King have created some of the most amazing metal songs ever made.
Even though Slayer’s impact was and still is immense, it’s their compositional, technical, and creative prowess that makes them one of the 20 best metal bands of all time. It only takes listening to the quasi-perfect magnum opus “Reign in Blood” once to realize that this band from Huntington Park, California knows its craft as well as anyone. Oh, and do I need to mention that Slayer still has the best guitar solos in the genre?
Led by the charismatic Dave Mustaine, Megadeth is considered to be one of the big four thrash metal bands alongside Metallica, Slayer, and Anthrax. Formed in 1983 in California, they captivated metalheads early on with their highly-influential 80s records, which culminated in 1990’s “Rust in Peace,” often voted the best metal album of all time.
Coming up with a list of the 20 best metal bands ever and leaving Megadeth out would be like making an omelet without eggs: so unthinkable that it’s impossible! But what is it that makes Megadeth different from other major metal acts? In one word, their resilience. While the likes of Metallica and Anthrax may have left some of their die-hard fans down over the years, these thrash-metal gods never stopped releasing high-quality albums. The latest was 2022’s “The Sick, the Dying… and the Dead!”
When Lemmy passed away on the 28th of December 2015, it was like a part of metal music died with him. The legendary rock-and-roller conveyed the spirit of the great Motörhead, the dirtiest, toughest, and most unapologetic metal band the world has ever seen. Motörhead deserves to be one of the 20 best metal bands of all time because of their irresistibly catchy songs. But this London collective is more than just catchy riffs and choruses.
To me and many other metal fans, Motörhead is a one-of-a-kind band because of their attitude. Metalheads love music that “punches” them in the face, speaks of carelessness and rebellion, and isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty. Motörhead was and will always be all of that.
Following the metal boom of the 80s, metal bands from the 90s realized that making solid thrash and heavy metal songs was no longer good enough. Well, at least Tool did so. This iconic 90s band reshaped metal by combining the sounds and textures of the genre with a new level of technical and compositional complexity.
The guys from Tool can write great songs, but it was their ability to go beyond the metal-music standard that allowed them to safely become one of the 20 best metal bands of all time. If you like weird time signatures, melodies so complex you can’t believe they sound good, and vocals you won’t find anywhere else, just go and listen to this legendary Californian group.
Ronnie James Dio is one of those bigger-than-life music personalities. After being a member of Black Sabbath and Rainbow, he decided to start his own band. The result was Dio, a metal-music favorite that grabbed the heavy-metal sonority by the horns and released some of the most epic (and assumedly “corny”) records of the 80s.
Dio’s debut album, the highly-acclaimed “Holy Diver,” is particularly emblematic of how the group managed to create the stadium-ready, fantastic, and energetic heavy metal songs that so many other bands attempted to, but without success.
Following the new metal experiments of the early 90s pioneered by the likes of Pantera and Tool came a new subgenre known as nu metal. As any metalhead should know, nu-metal divides fans. Some love it, others think it’s often bad, and others disregard it completely. Subjective notions aside, though, there’s no point in denying that the Des Moines band Slipknot has been one of the most popular and influential metal acts of the last 25-plus years.
Extremely recognizable due to the deranged costumes they wear on stage, the members of Slipknot sold more than 30 million records worldwide by presenting their fans (nu-metal haters included) with a unique brand of metal. Say what you want about them, but only Slipknot sounds like Slipknot.
12. System Of A Down
Ordinarily, metal music doesn’t play on the radio. However, the nu-metal songs of Serj Tankian’s System Of A Down were so irresistible and contagious that they got as much airplay as Britney Spears in the early 2000s. It’s no coincidence that “Toxicity,” System’s highest-regarded record, features a version of the Hollywood sign on its cover: after all, these guys have a knack for making music everybody likes.
We all have a metalhead friend who will talk poorly of System Of A Down. But is it because he or she is right? Or simply because some metalheads cannot cope with the existence of a metal act that’s commercially successful? Considering everything Tankian and his bandmates have achieved since 1992, I’m inclined to believe in the latter.
13. Dream Theater
Dream Theater was formed in the mid-80s and continues to release high-quality records today. More than their impressive longevity and reliable output, though, this Boston band is known for its extremely musical approach to metal. The kings of the progressive metal subgenre, the likes of John Petrucci, John Myung, and Mike Portnoy are successful because they’re never afraid to try new things, nor content with making music that’s merely “good enough.”
Because of their ability to compose and flawlessly perform very complex songs, Dream Theater is one of those rare metal bands that even metal haters around the world are forced to enjoy. In a nutshell, they’re arguably the smartest metal band around, thanks to their deeply poetic and philosophical lyrics, challenging song structures, complex melodies, and uncommon time signatures.
Led by the inventive Chuck Schuldiner, the Tampa Bay band Death pioneered the death metal subgenre. While the best thrash metal bands in the world combined light and darkness, mixing heavy riffs with classical music-style arrangements and poetic lyrics, Death decided to focus on darkness alone.
As a result, they became one of the most influential metal bands in history. Their sound is characterized by the extensive use of down-tuned, palm-muted guitars, explosive blast beats, and vocals so dirty they make our bones shiver. The archetypes of the death metal subgenre weren’t all invented by Death, but there’s no doubt this now-extinct American group changed the metal landscape by being one of the first to embrace the “dark side” to the fullest.
Speaking of metal music in the 2000s without mentioning Mastodon is pretty much impossible. The group from Atlanta, Georgia revolutionized metal in at least 17 ways by combining the doom-like, slow, and dark instrumentation of sludge metal with the technical complexity and structural freedom of progressive metal. Their 2004 magnum opus “Leviathan” is exemplary of their unique sound.
Remarkably, Mastodon has been ahead of the curve for more than two decades now, and continues to put out records as impressive as 2021’s “Hushed and Grim.” More importantly, they helped to revitalize a genre that many considered to be dead (or at least stale) following the end of the 90s.
Disturbed is by no means a consensually-beloved band. But isn’t that what always happens to the best in something? One of the most popular metal bands of the 2000s, Disturbed created their own version of nu-metal by combining the “sugary” catchiness of the subgenre with the hateful lyrics and guitar instrumentation of more extreme metal styles.
Like all meaningful art, Disturbed’s music made as many metalheads happy as angry. But if the haters were right, would Disturbed have sold a reported 13.4 million records worldwide and debuted at least three albums at Billboard’s 200 number one spot? I don’t think so…
Anthrax is the least-known of the four great thrash metal bands, but that’s not to say they deserve the least love. As PopMatters’ Adrien Begrand has stated, “Metallica combined British metal with a street punk attitude, Slayer took both doom and speed to their absolute extremes, Megadeth added unparalleled musical dexterity, and as for Anthrax, well, simply stated, Anthrax brought the heart.”
In other words, Anthrax is the fun and easygoing alternative to the other big three thrash metal bands, as well as the most eclectic. While their music is always based on thrash, they also experimented with sub-styles as disparate as groove metal, speed metal, and even rap metal.
Somehow, a band from a small Swedish town with less than 70K residents (Täby) managed to make music so good it turned into a worldwide phenomenon. Opeth is on the list of the 20 best metal bands of all time because of their unique sonority and flawless records combining metal and progressive rock influences.
In Opeth’s music, you can find the best of both worlds. There’s the musical and lyrical storytelling of prog and the sheer brutality of metal, often embracing death-metal influences.
19. Cannibal Corpse
It’s crazy to think that, underneath all the gore and violence, Cannibal Corpse is one of the most reliable, long-lasting, and professional metal bands around. They deserve to be on the list because they’re arguably the best in the world doing what they do: namely, taking death metal to the extreme (they’re sometimes branded as a brutal death metal band) with edgy lyrics and riffs that are messed-up and catchy in equal amounts.
As a result, Cannibal Corpse’s music is an open invitation to bang one’s head, embrace the filth, and have some fun. They have their critics, but do you really love metal if you’re not into this New York collective? Hardly so.
20. King Diamond
The craziest thing about the Danish band King Diamond is that they somehow still fly under the radar. Even though these heavy metal beasts have been putting out quality music since the early 80s, they are without a doubt the least-known group in this list, as well as one of the most underrated metal acts around.
King Diamond’s music is unequivocally set on the classic heavy metal sound, but it’s by no means outdated. Their acclaimed 2003 record “The Puppet Master,” for example, is evidence of their longevity. Still active, the Copenhagen group (now based in Texas) released its best works in the 80s.
Metal music is rock taken to its extreme, the climax of fast-paced, brutal, and technically challenging music. And while not everyone’s into such a radical sound, the best metal bands of all time have undoubtedly changed the landscape of music, in and outside of the genre.
This is a non-definitive list of the 20 best metal bands of all time, but it should give you an idea of who are the best players in the game, as well as how the genre evolved, transformed, and diversified over the years.
Metallica Featured Image (Top-Left) by: Kreepin Deth, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Slayer Featured Image (Top-Right) by: Selbymay, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Megadeth Featured Image (Bottom-Left) by: Kreepin Deth, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Slipknot Featured Image (Bottom-Right) by: Raph_PH, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons