The best heavy metal songs of all time? It’s an impossible task to come up with a definitive list, but the following picks can at least give you a direction for further exploration. The origins of heavy metal as a genre are, like any good genre, a bit disputed. What most fans can agree on, however, is the trio of metal bands that ushered in the heavy metal era: Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath.
So, what criteria did we use here in compiling this list? Popularity is one of them – this introduction is meant as a broad overview. Gateway metal bands that will have you digging much deeper into the gnarliest guitar solos and agonized lyrics. A big riff or two doesn’t hurt either.
Led Zeppelin – Immigrant Song
Even if you don’t count “Immigrant Song” as strictly heavy metal, it’s clearly one of the great hard rock songs of the 70s and inspired countless metal bands in its wake.
Black Sabbath – War Pigs
“Paranoid,” “Symptom of the Universe,” “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” “Children of the Grave,” “Iron Man,” “Into the Void,” “Sweet Leaf.” It’s impossible to pick just one Sabbath tune, but we went for arguably the heaviest riff we’ve ever heard. A heavy metal classic.
Deep Purple – Highway Star
The indelible riff to “Smoke on the Water” is, of course, the best known Deep Purple sound, but “Highway Star” is the better song in our humble opinion. Whatever your taste, it’s clear that this group was far ahead of its time.
Megadeth – Peace Sells
Dave Mustaine and company have plenty of contenders for a list like this (“Holy Wars… The Punishment Due” from Rust in Peace or “Symphony Of Destruction” come to mind), but this Megadeth tune is not only heavy, it’s pretty funny too.
Diamond Head – Am I Evil?
One of the early British heavy metal bands, Diamond Head’s essential “Am I Evil?” provided a template for a host of groups that emerged in years after their 1980 debut album.
Quiet Riot – Cum On Feel the Noize
Mixing the sweet pop chorus with heavier, distorted guitars was an inspired choice, so it was hardly a surprise that Quiet Riot’s take on this Slade tune was much more popular than the original. It eventually reached No. 5 on the Billboard charts.
Iron Maiden – The Trooper
While “Number of the Beast” may be one of the best heavy metal songs of all time, the intense guitar work and “ohhhh whoaaaa ohhhh” chorus puts “The Trooper” above all others in the group’s hallowed discography.
Metallica – Master of Puppets
“Master of Puppets” or “Ride the Lightning”? Technically both are thrash metal and you can feel the huge difference between these classics and, say, Black Sabbath’s slow, sludgy riffs immediately. Nonetheless, Metallica expertly rode the line between thrash metal and something more palatable, a sensibility that would eventually take full flight on The Black Album.
AC/DC – Back in Black
Some might say AC/DC is hard rock at most, but it’s hard to deny the influence that they’ve had on countless artists in heavy metal. This undeniable classic still stands tall.
Judas Priest – Breaking the Law
Judas Priest is yet another band that presents an impossible challenge. Is it “Beyond the Realms of Death,” “Painkiller” or even the more recent “Victim of Changes”? It’s a testament to the group’s staying power that they have reasonable picks from multiple decades.
Guns N’ Roses – Welcome to the Jungle
Those opening seconds and that scream still send chills down your spine. They’re among the most iconic sounds to open any album, ever. What follows from Guns N’ Roses is a masterclass in heavy metal.
Ozzy Osbourne – Crazy Train
What is there to say about this classic heavy metal tune, aside from the fact that it has one of the most charismatic frontmen working alongside a top-shelf guitarist and inventive production?
Dio – Holy Diver
The beginning minute or so of “Holy Diver” almost sounds like something you’d hear in black metal, but once Dio and co. emerge from the water, things get anthemic quickly. It’s one of the best heavy metal songs in a discography with plenty of highlights.
Def Leppard – Photograph
One of the great pop metal bands of any era, Def Leppard’s “Photograph” still stands out, decades later. There are far heavier bands out there, but few that mix pop elements so seamlessly.
Pantera – Walk
Before Philip Anselmo’s politics became bigger than his music, he was busy pioneering groove metal with Cowboys from Hell and this venom-filled song from Vulgar Display of Power.
Mercyful Fate – Evil
Melissa, from which this song is taken, was the first release by beloved metal label Roadrunner. As you might expect, it’s a barnburner that remains an inspiring listen, with King Diamond’s distinctive screamed vocals taking center stage.