We are at it again. Having previously compiled the 100 Most Essential Albums of both the 1990s and the 2000s, the Last Rites staff set its sights on that golden age of heavy metal, the 1980s. Four hundred and ten albums were nominated for consideration. Through a process both tedious (algorithms) and terrifying (knife fights), this list was pared down to the anointed (and soon to be immortalized) 100. After a whole lot of writing and arranging, the hour is finally at hand.
But before we proceed, a few notes:
1. As with its predecessors, this list is unranked. All the albums appearing on this list are essential; further valuation is, we feel, superfluous.
2. As usual, we will be publishing the list in weekly, ten-album installments.
3. With the previous Essentials lists, in order that we might shine our spotlight on as many bands as possible, we instituted the “one-album-per-band” rule. While we felt this policy to be sound, it caused us no small amount of anguish to see some of our favorite records cut from the previous lists. So, this time around, as a salve for our mental wounds, albums that would have been excised from the 1980s list due to the aforementioned rule – some 32 albums in all – will receive recognition, token though it might be, via the “Also Essential” designation.
And now, Last Rites is proud to present the first installment of The Most Essential Albums of the 80s:
BLACK SABBATH – HEAVEN AND HELL
There’s been a lot of talk lately about Sabbath — for lots of reasons — but largely because 13 is the first new studio album with Ozzy since forever. But back in 1980, the very music landscape they helped shape started to mutate around them. Plus, a decade of excess saw a radical decline in quality near the end of the ‘70s, finally resulting in a monumental split, yet with both camps releasing four seminal albums over the few years to follow. Heaven and Hell was the first, and with Dio at the helm, helped herald a new age, and drew the first blueprints for heavy metal in the ‘80s. Who better, really?
Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell
Released: 25 April, 1980
Warner Bros. Records
Killing cut: “Lonely is the World”
Black Sabbath – Mob Rules
Released: 1 October, 1981
Warner Bros. Records
MERCYFUL FATE – MELISSA
Melissa is notable for three reasons. First, as Mercyful Fate’s debut full-length, for most listeners it was their introduction to the iconoclastic vocal talents of one Kim Bendix Petersen (otherwise crowned King Fucking Diamond). Second, it was an album-length demonstration of the frighteningly telepathic duo of guitarists Hank Shermann and Michael Denner, who deserve to be spoken of in the same breathless tone reserved for Tipton/Downing, Murray/Smith, and Hanneman/King. Third, holy shit those songs. Classic after classic after unforgettable classic pours out of the speakers, causing one to almost literally stagger back in awe at the alchemy that summoned this album into being. An untouchable landmark, and a sine qua non of some the most finely crafted metal to follow in the three decades since its release.
Mercyful Fate – Melissa
Released: 30 October, 1983
Roadrunner/Music for Nations/Megaforce Records
Killing cut: “Evil”
Mercyful Fate – Don’t Break the Oath
Released: 7 September, 1984
MANOWAR – INTO GLORY RIDE
Say what you will about all the pelted posturing and current era cash-grabbing, Manowar‘s 80s releases were unquestionably paramount in terms of providing a consistent example of how to do grade-A US power metal just right, and Into Glory Ride, the band’s sophomore release, hit with the heaviest fist. The ripping biker metal impression that dominated their debut still flashed with the opening “Warlord,” but every tune that followed struck with an epic, sweeping clout that thoroughly epitomized power. Furthermore, Eric Adams turned in what undoubtedly stands as one the top vocal performances of the era. DEATH IS LIFE!
Manowar – Into Glory Ride
Released: 1 July, 1983
Killing cut: “Revelations (Death’s Angel)”
ANGEL WITCH – ANGEL WITCH
Because Angel Witch as a band failed to craft the same towering legacy as some of their more popular peers, this eponymous classic often fails to be given the same air of respect as, say, Killers. This is, of course, a grievous mistake. Kevin Heybourne and company shared many basic similarities with early Iron Maiden, but veered from the core NWOBHMisms in different ways. They expressed their range through hints of heavier, almost thrashy material (“Angel of Death”) and a serious knack for sorrowful balladry and melody (“Sorcerors” and “Free Man”). Add to that the fact that Heybourne was one of the most gifted lead guitarists of the era, and you get an album absolutely jam packed with unforgettable metal, not to mention one of the true NWOBHM essentials.
Angel Witch – Angel Witch
Released: 12 March, 1980
Killing cut: “Angel Witch”
EXODUS – BONDED BY BLOOD
Delays in recording and release may have slowed the momentum Exodus had built leading up to their debut, but these issues could not stop Bonded By Blood from being one of the most influential and vital thrash albums of all time. Consisting of nine tracks that have all gone on to classic status (with “Piranha” being as perfect a thrash track as exists in the world), the album was a flurry of some of the most violent, heavy riffs the Bay Area scene had produced to date, providing warning to the burgeoning Teutonic scene that brutality was not theirs to hog. While a few later albums maintained the level of excellence set on Bonded By Blood, the departure of vocalist Paul Baloff meant that Exodus would never again find this level of primal intensity. As far as thrash debuts go, Bonded By Blood is every bit as essential as Kill ‘em All and Show No Mercy. Get your lesson in violence.
Exodus – Bonded By Blood
Released: 25 April, 1985
Killing cut: “Piranha”
HOLY TERROR – TERROR AND SUBMISSION
Criminally underrated doesn’t even begin to describe the full gist of LA’s Holy Terror. The band had a (sadly) brief, but savage impact on the 80s scene that left two richly complex, unparalleled thrash albums in their wake. Both Terror and Submission and its direct follow-up, Mind Wars, worked a masterful blend of raw, relentless intensity with piles of surprisingly melodic stretches that emphasized fiery, melodic lead guitar battling. And vocalist Keith Dean (sadly lost to cancer in late 2012) proved himself the perfect companion with his snarly rasp straight from the same school as David Wayne (Metal Church) and Michael Furlong (Wild Dogs). Really, one could make a solid case for either album to hit this list, but Terror and Submission wins simply because it happened to land first.
Holy Terror – Terror and Submission
Music For Nations Records
Killing cut: “Evil’s Rising”
DIO – HOLY DIVER
Well, I said “four seminal albums” in the Black Sabbath blurb, but Dio’s work with the Brummies also resulted in a stronger solo Metal career later in life; earlier work only got about as heavy as elven rainbows. Absolutely the most recognizable and arguably finest release from his eponymous band, Holy Diver is indelibly scrawled upon everyone’s ‘Top 5 D&D Metal Albums’ list (with no small debt paid to the title track video) and has one of the greatest album covers of all time — Murray never looked better. Beyond that, despite ‘dio’ translating to ‘god’ in Italian, Ronnie excelled at the rare feat of humanizing the fantastic. So much love.
Dio – Holy Diver
Released: 25 May, 1983
Warner Bros. Records
Killing cut: “Rainbow in the Dark”
SAXON – STRONG ARM OF THE LAW
Although the band’s sophomore effort, Wheels of Steel, really marked them as a contender among the NWOBHM, the following Strong Arm of the Law solidified Saxon as one of the greats of the era. From the machismo of the title track to the swagger of “Taking Your Chances,” the band quickly proved themselves to be a riff factory overflowing with charisma. With 20 albums spanning a career over 35 years in length, Saxon has also been one of the most prolific and enduring of the NWOBHM gang. Strong Arm of the Law most clearly exemplifies why this was possible. Rollicking “Heavy Metal Thunder” at its most pure, indeed, and an essential for newcomers to turn-of-the-decade bombast.
Saxon – Strong Arm of the Law
Released: 1 September, 1980
Killing cut: “Strong Arm of the Law”
WITCHFYNDE – GIVE ‘EM HELL
Witchfynde might’ve been Angel Witch‘s twin, separated at birth and raised by bar bands. Calling 1980’s Give ’em Hell metal by today’s standards is a stretch–it’s clear their overly ambitious ears were filled with as much prog and rock as NWOBHM–even with it’s, uh, venomous cover art. Calling Give ’em Hell hookless, however, would be plain dumb. Witchfynde’s secret weapon was the six-stringsmith Montalo, whose killer tone dressed up any rote riff lifted from the communal pub bucket with a snazzy tux. Just, you know, one fitted for a dangerous dude who cracks his scarred knuckles by making a fist. Melody and muscle. A bruiser you could take home to mutha.
Witchfynde – Give ’em Hell
Released: February 1980
Killing cut: “Ready to Roll”
SAVATAGE – HALL OF THE MOUNTAIN KING
If there are such things as perfect metal records, Hall Of The Mountain King certainly qualifies as one of them – mixing killer traditional metal riffage, progressive neo-classical bombast, guitar-hero shred, and Jon Oliva’s scratch-to-a-scream vocals into some seriously first-rate tunes, Mountain King remains Savatage’s highest point. From the opening drive of “24 Hours Ago” through the stellar “Strange Wings” to the Grieg-inspired title track, the Mountain King is rock solid, bridging the gap between the band’s earlier, more straightforward attack and the Broadway-leaning theatricality of later ‘Tage efforts. It’s pompous, rocking, melodic, epic, brilliant metallic glory. Madness truly reigns, forever.
Savatage – Hall of the Mountain King
Released: 28 September, 1987
Killing cut: “24 Hours Ago”
• • • • •
Ten down. Ninety to go. Come back next Monday for Volume Two.
There will be goats.