No genre has blended expert musicianship, fantastic theatrics, and headbanging like heavy metal. While not always suitable for mainstream tastes, fans of metal are a loyal legion. With many sub-genres, from death metal to progressive, nu-metal to stoner rock, we take a look at 55 of the best metal bands to have taken the stage.
Formed in the early 1980s by Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield, Metallica rose to international fame with their 1986 masterpiece Master Of Puppets. They are considered one of the first and most influential thrash metal bands, and their subsequent 1988 album …And Justice For All would net them a Grammy. However, their 1991 self-titled album provided a more mainstream sound, growing their fanbase substantially. Overall, Metallica is one of the greatest and most successful metal bands of all time.
Formed in 1981, Slayer was one of the first major thrash metal bands. The band initially built an underground following, touring the West Coast and with the release of their debut, self-funded album, Show No Mercy. It was their 1986 record Reign In Blood that put Slayer on the global map, with shorter, faster songs that merged metal and hardcore punk. As is a theme throughout their career, labels balked at publishing songs that so explicitly discussed topics like torture and concentration camps.
3. Iron Maiden
Few metal bands have been more prolific or influential than British rockers Iron Maiden. Releasing nearly an album per year throughout the 1980s, they established themselves as a premier heavy metal act. After Paul Di’Anno sang lead on the first several albums, the band shot to the top of the charts when Bruce Dickinson took over as lead singer for their 1982 mega-hit album The Number Of The Beast. Featuring hits like “Run To The Hills,” this album alone would’ve cemented Iron Maiden’s place atop the list of metal gods, and they would go on to release 41 studio albums over their career.
4. Black Sabbath
Often considered one of the first heavy metal bands, Black Sabbath’s 1970 self-titled debut album was a commercial success, though few critics had anything positive to say. They followed this up later that year with Paranoid and then 1971’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. These three albums came to shape the sound of the metal genre for generations to come. Famously, lead singer Ozzy Osbourne was replaced by Ronnie James Dio, after struggling to curtail his substance use.
5. Judas Priest
Formed in 1969, Judas Priest spent much of the 1970s unifying their sound and their members. While they had, to that point, found a fair amount of success as a headlining metal act, it was their 1980 album British Steel that represented their first mainstream success. With songs like “Breaking The Law” and “Living After Midnight,” Judas Priest became one of the first metal acts to get heavy airtime on mainstream radio. Famously, they were (unsuccessfully) sued for placing subliminal messages in their songs that asked children to harm themselves.
Led by Lemmy, Motörhead is one of the greatest metal bands to ever grace the stage. Their 1979 albums Overkill and Bomber established them as one of the premier heavy metal bands. They followed this up with one of their most iconic hits, “Ace Of Spades,” and an album of the same name the next year. Motörhead remains influential in the metal and punk scenes today and is considered by many to be the greatest metal band of all time.
Formed in the early 1980s, Pantera initially struggled through the middle of the decade as a glam metal band. They transitioned to a heavier sound at the end of the decade. While it was their fifth album, they referred to their 1990 album Cowboys From Hell as their official debut. They built on the success of the album with 1992’s Vulgar Display Of Power before hitting the top of the charts with 1994’s Beyond Driven.
One of the first East Coast thrash metal bands, Anthrax rose to prominence on the quality of their second album, 1985’s Spreading The Disease. This was the first album that Joey Belladonna had taken over as the lead singer of the group. On their subsequent tour of Europe, they famously gigged right outside of Chernobyl mere days after the nuclear disaster occurred. Anthrax would solidify their place among the metal greats with 1987’s Among The Living.
While Megadeth’s debut 1985 record Killing Is My Business… And Business Is Good! received a bit of success, it was their 1986 record Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? that made waves amongst metal fans around the world. While the band would struggle with infighting and substance use issues, they reeled off a series of platinum albums including 1988’s So Far, So Good… So What!, 1990’s Rust In Peace, and 1992’s Countdown To Extinction. Today, Megadeth continues to thrash and adorn everything with ellipses, as in their 2021 The Sick, The Dying… And the Dead!
Los Angeles-based heavy metal band Tool came on the scene with their first album, 1993’s Undertow. They established themselves as one of the biggest alt-metal acts in the world with 1996’s Ænima. The band has frequently combined its music with visual arts and narratives of personal evolution to great success. Their 2001 album Lateralus and 2006’s 10,000 Days cemented their position as one of metal’s all-time greats. Their albums often involve complex releases, accompanied by visual art, and as such, are often considered an act that transcends typical genre classification.
11. System of a Down
The Armenian-American heavy metal band System Of A Down rose to prominence with their self-titled, debut album in 1998. Famously, to promote their second album release, they held a free concert in Hollywood that had to be canceled when nearly 15,000 fans showed up at a venue designed for far fewer people. Their second album, Toxicity, debuted at number one on the charts.
While the Swedish heavy metal band Hellhammer was relatively poorly received during their short, three-year tenure, their music has been elevated as a key influence on the genre of black metal. Their 1984 EP, Apocalyptic Raids, is thought to be the heaviest album ever recorded up to that point that would help spawn black metal, doom metal, and death metal.
After leaving Black Sabbath in 1982, Ronnie James Dio and Vinny Appice formed a new band, Dio. Led by the former for nearly thirty years, Dio released their most successful album, 1983’s Holy Diver, featuring the mega-hits “Rainbow In The Dark” and “Holy Diver.” While the band ended the 1990s on hiatus, they returned with the success of 2000’s Magica. The band stayed together until their leader’s death in 2010.
The Brazilian metal band Sepultura is considered one of the most integral acts in groove, thrash, and death metal. After releasing several albums across the 1980s, they rose to the top of the metal world with a slew of hit records, including 1989’s Beneath The Remains, 1991’s Arise, and 1996’s Roots.
15. Mercyful Fate
Part of the first wave of black metal in the 1980s, the Danish metal band Mercyful Fate is considered one of the most influential acts of their generation. They built up a cult following with their 1982 self-titled EP, 1983’s Melissa, and 1984’s Don’t Break The Oath.
16. King Diamond
After several members of Mercyful Fate left the band, they came together to form King Diamond. They released their debut album, Fatal Portrait, in 1986, which included the hit “Halloween.” The band released a series of albums across the 1990s, solidifying their place as one of heavy metal’s best acts.
17. Cryptic Slaughter
After the members became friends playing grade school soccer, they formed their thrash band, Cryptic Slaughter. They recorded their first demo, Life In The Grave, in 1985, which gained popularity amongst the tape-trading scene active at the time. After their 1986 album Convicted came out, they were considered the fastest band in hardcore. Many consider their 1987 record Money Talks to be their very best work.
One of the “big six” bands of the Bay Area’s 1980s thrash scene, Testament is one of the most popular and important thrash metal groups ever. Their debut albums, 1987’s The Legacy and 1988’s The New Order, received critical acclaim and commercial success. They gained mainstream success with their 1989 record, Practice What You Preach, making them one of the most successful thrash bands ever.
Formed in Georgia in 2000, Mastodon is one of the new century’s best metal acts. After receiving critical acclaim for their 2002 debut, Remission, they declared themselves one of the premier metal acts with their 2004 Moby Dick-inspired concept album, Leviathan. The record was deemed Album of the Year by several music publications. The band has continued to write and put out hit records as of 2021.
Formed in Florida in 1984, Death is one of the most influential and important death metal bands of all time. Their debut studio album, 1987’s Scream Bloody Gore, is often considered the first true death metal record. The band would continue to release music until 2001 when leadman Chuck Schuldiner passed away. Without Death, there would not be death metal as we know it today.
21. Cannibal Corpse
Another Florida-based death metal band, Cannibal Corpse was founded in 1988. While they have never received significant mainstream attention or radio airplay (likely due to their name and the themes in their music), they have a massive and loyal cult following. They rose to popularity with their 1991 album Butchered At Birth and 1992’s Tomb Of The Mutilated. They charted on Billboard Top Album Sales for the very first time with their 2021 release, Violence Unimagined.
Formed in 1986 in Liverpool, Carcass is considered a pioneer of the goregrind subgenre, merging the ideas of death metal with grindcore. Their 1993 album, Heartwork, is considered one of the first true examples of melodic metal. After disputes with record companies, the band broke up before the 1996 release of their album Swansong. The band reformed in 2007 and has continued to tour and put out new music ever since.
23. Napalm Death
The English grindcore band, Napalm Death, was formed in 1981. Bringing together crust punk and death metal, they are considered one of the first true grindcore bands. Their debut 1987 album, Scum, immediately made a lasting imprint on the metal community. Napalm Death has released sixteen albums in total and is one of the top-selling metal bands of all time.
The Florida-based heavy metal band rose to mainstream success with their 1992 album, Legion. They are one of the top-selling death metal acts of all time, even though the themes of their music have consistently been controversial to establishment figures. Their Satanic messaging drew ire from the public, and they were even banned from ever returning to a city in Chile for promoting a show with a poster featuring Jesus Christ with a bullet hole in his head.
Iowa-based heavy metal band Slipknot rose to public prominence with their self-titled debut album in 1999. This led to great anticipation for their 2001 release, Iowa, which included singles like “Left Behind” and “My Plague.” After a brief hiatus, they returned with 2004’s Vol. 3: (The Subliminal Verses) receiving critical acclaim and wide commercial success. Slipknot is also known for its energetic live shows, spine-defying headbanging, and “choreographed chaos.”
After landing a label with a demo tape, Chicago-based metal group Disturbed made a splash with their debut 2000 album, The Sickness. Their second album, 2002’s Believe, debuted at number one on the Billboard 200. This was the first of five consecutive albums to debut at the top of the charts. Disturbed has been one of the most mainstream-successful metal acts of the 21st century.
The nu-metal band from Bakersfield, Korn, was formed in 1993. After releasing 1994’s self-titled debut album and 1996’s Life Is Peachy, they would enjoy mainstream commercial success for the next decade. This included their hit albums 1998’s Follow The Leader and 1999’s Issues, which both debuted atop the Billboard charts. Korn is one of the top-selling metal artists of all time and one of the very best in the nu-metal genre.
The Norwegian black metal band Mayhem was formed in 1984. They were instrumental in the birth of the black metal genre, though their controversial live performances and the deaths of their singer and guitar player in the early 1990s complicated the band’s trajectory. After their first EP garnered underground success, Mayhem released their classic album De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, though the band temporarily disbanded prior to the release when their guitar player was fatally stabbed by another member of the black metal scene.
The California thrash metal band Exodus formed in 1979. The initial lineup included Kirk Hammett, who would leave the band in 1983 to join Metallica. Along with Metallica, they are considered pioneers of the Bay Area’s thrash metal scene. They achieved their pinnacle of success in the second half of the 1980s with a run of albums, including 1985’s Bonded By Blood, 1987’s Pleasures Of The Flesh, and 1989’s Fabulous Disaster.
30. Morbid Angel
The death metal band Morbid Angel was formed in 1983 in Tampa, Florida. Instrumental in the evolution of death metal, they are one of the first bands to introduce the guttural vocal style now synonymous with the genre. Their first three albums, 1989’s Altars Of Madness, 1991’s Blessed Are The Sick, and 1993’s Covenant, are considered three of the most classic death metal albums of all time.
British heavy metal band Venom was formed in 1978. Their first two albums, 1981’s Welcome To Hell and 1982’s Black Metal are considered two of the most important albums in the evolution of extreme and thrash metal. The latter album was so successful and influential that the sub-genre of black metal was named after it.
The German industrial metal band Rammstein got their start in 1994 when they won a local contest, allowing them to record demos that landed them a record deal. Their second album, 1997’s Sehnsucht reached the top of the German charts and built enough momentum to begin touring globally. The band’s blend of industrial and metal has led to wide mainstream success, with many gold- and platinum-rated albums.
German thrash metal band Kreator was founded in 1982. Their second album, 1986’s Pleasure To Kill, earned them a massive underground following in the thrash scene. Their subsequent albums, 1987’s Terrible Certainty, 1989’s Extreme Aggression, and 1990’s Come Of Souls, are all considered excellent thrash albums, though they actually achieved their biggest mainstream successes in the 2010s with 2012’s Phantom Antichrist and 2017’s Gods Of Violence.
American thrash metal band Overkill came together in New Jersey in 1980. They had their first mainstream success with 1987’s Taking Over, their second studio album and first with a major label. The band then released a string of hit albums over the next seven years, including 1988’s Under The Influence and 1993’s I Hear Black. After more underground success, Overkill had a mainstream resurgence in the 2010s.
Burzum, meaning ‘darkness’ in the Black Speech of the J. R. R. Tolkien universe, was the black metal project of Varg Vikernes, started in 1991. While the group never publicly performed, the recordings are considered influential entries in the history of black metal. Vikernes spent fifteen years in prison, starting in 1994 for the murder of Mayhem guitarist Euronymous. After his release, he announced the end of Burzum, but not before releasing the 2020 album Thulean Mysteries.
The Swedish black metal band Bathory was formed in 1983 and is considered a pioneer of black and Viking metal. All Scandinavian metal that came after them was influenced by the group. After defining the black metal sound on their first four albums, Bathory changed their sound for the 1990 album, Hammerheart, which was the first example of what is now called Viking metal. The group disbanded in 2004 when Quorthon, the primary songwriter, passed away.
37. Municipal Waste
Formed in 2000, the thrash metal band Municipal Waste initially built up a loyal following through live performances and a series of EPs. Their 2007 record The Art Of Partying received critical acclaim from the press and elevated them as one of the genre’s premier acts.
38. Breaking Benjamin
The alt-metal band from Pennsylvania was formed in 1999. Bridging the gap between metal and radio rock of the early 2000s, Breaking Benjamin first came to prominence for their 2002 debut album, Saturate. They built on its success with 2004’s We Are Not Alone. After a hiatus from 2010 to 2014, the band has continued to produce hit albums, with a clear consistency in sound across their entire catalog.
The Swedish extreme metal band Meshuggah was formed in 1987. They are known for their complex song structures, featuring polymeter and polyrhythm. After several early records, the group started to see wider success with their 1995 record, Destroy Erase Improve.
Formed in San Jose, California, this heavy metal band came together in 1990 and has been described as “the ultimate stoner rock band.” They gained critical acclaim for the 1992 record, Sleep’s Holy Mountain, though conflict’s with their record label led to the band’s dissolution by the end of the decade. After not releasing an album for fifteen years since their innovative Dopesmoker, they surprised everyone when they returned with 2018’s critically acclaimed The Sciences.
41. Pagan Altar
The English doom metal band Pagan Altar was formed in 1978 in London. While the band has few recordings from their early days, they gained notoriety for their 1982 Judgment Of The Dead and a demo tape that was heavily bootlegged. After a twenty-year hiatus, the band reunited in 2004 and began recording new music and touring once again.
42. Lamb of God
The heavy metal band Lamb Of God was formed in 1994 in Richmond, Virginia. Their first album under their current name was 2000’s New American Gospel, which received acclaim and comparisons to Pantera. The band has been prolific, releasing ten studio albums, including two that went gold.
43. Dream Theater
The progressive metal band Dream Theater came together at Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1985. Their 1992 release Images And Words has been their greatest commercial success, and they have recorded an additional fourteen albums. The band is considered one of the pioneers of the progressive metal genre, bringing the complexity of classical composition to the aggression and instrumentation of metal.
44. Five Finger Death Punch
The Las Vegas heavy metal band Five Finger Death Punch came together in 2005. Their 2007 debut album, The Way Of The Fist, sold over a half-million copies in the United States. Their follow-up, 2009’s War Is The Answer, quickly went platinum. Each subsequent album has been a mainstream success, making them one of alt-metal’s most successful acts.
Formed in Massachusetts in 1995, Godsmack has been one of the most successful mainstream metal acts of the past twenty-five years. They self-produced their first album, 1996’s All Wound Up, which got a boost from local radio, launching them into the limelight. Since then, the band had a string of highly successful releases, including three straight number-one albums namely 2003’s Faceless, 2006’s IV, and 2010’s The Oracle.
The German power metal band Helloween came together in 1984. Referred to as one of “the fathers of power metal,” they have released sixteen studio albums. Their second album, 1987’s Keeper Of The Seven Keys: Part I, earned critical praise and further built their fan base.
Formed in 1980, the Washington-based heavy metal Queensrÿche has become one of the leaders of the progressive metal scene, along with Dream Theater and Fates Warning. Their third album, 1988’s Operation: Mindcrime, is considered by many to be their magnum opus and one of the greatest heavy metal concept albums of all time. They followed this up with the 1990s hit album Empire. While they split with the original lead singer, the band continues to tour and record music.
New York-based heavy metal band Manowar came together in 1980. They are known for drawing from Norse, Greek, and Roman mythology to create fantastical concepts and imagery. In 1984, they set the Guinness World Record for the loudest concert ever, a record they have broken twice since. Proclaiming “death to false metal,” Manowar maintains a deeply devoted cult following.
The British supergroup Rainbow was formed by Deep Purple’s guitarist, Ritchie Blackmore, with Ronnie James Dio on vocals. They released their self-titled debut album in 1975, which got rave reviews for its fantastical themes and epic sound, including the radio hit “Man On The Silver Mountain.” While the band’s sound and lineup would shift over a series of iterations, their first several albums were cornerstones of the growing metal movement.
50. Electric Wizard
The doom metal band from Dorset, Electric Wizard, came together in 1993. Their 1997 album Come My Fanatics… and 2000’s Dopethrone are considered two of the greatest doom and stoner metal albums ever recorded. The band has continued to melt faces in the decades since.
51. Machine Head
The Oakland heavy metal group, Machine Head, was formed in 1991. Their aggressive sound made them influential in the changing American heavy metal sound. Their first four albums garnered them a large European following, but they came under controversy for releasing a song right after the September 11 attacks, which was deemed insensitive and the ensuing months nearly led to the band breaking up. They would regroup with one of their best albums, 2007’s The Blackening, and continued to put out hit albums for at least the next 15 years.
American heavy metal band Danzig came together in 1987. They were a noticeable departure from much of the heavy metal scene, incorporating a bluesy tone into their metal instrumentation. They are best known for their hit single “Mother.” While they have experimented with more industrial sounds, they returned to their strengths as a powerhouse metal band.
The Tampa, Florida-based death metal group Obituary came together in 1984. They are one of the forefathers of the death metal genre and, except for a split from 1997 to 2014, they continue to tour today. Their 1990 album, Cause Of Death, is considered one of the most important death metal albums of all time. They would go on to release several records across the decade that made the Billboard charts. The band returned in 2015, after the death of their former bassist, and have re-commenced where they left off in 1997.
The Swedish progressive metal band Opeth came together in 1990. Their complex compositions merge ideas from folk, classical, and jazz music with death metal instrumentation, creating a unique sound all their own. The band has released thirteen studio albums and finally gained mainstream success in the United States with their 2008 album, Watershed.
55. Type O Negative
Goth metal band Type O Negative formed in New York City in 1989. Dubbed the “Drab Four” for their songs’ lyrical content, they went platinum for their 1993 record Bloody Kisses. With several hit albums, the group built up a loyal fanbase and enjoyed mainstream success. The band dissolved when lead singer, Peter Steele, passed away in 2010.
The staff behind Music Grotto create thorough editorial pieces from our relationships with media/music journalists and writers all over the world. We directly publish pieces written and researched by accomplished writers and our adherence to strict editorial processes ensures quality opinions and facts are expressed in all of our featured pieces.