Was there ever a better, potentially more important year for heavy metal than 1980? I don’t think so. While Black Sabbath and band’s like Judas Priest had already put metal on the map, 1980 was the year where it began to take over the world. 1980 was the breakout year for the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) which helped light the fuse on the American hair metal scene. 2020 marks the 40th anniversary of that seminal year for our beloved genre, and to celebrate, we’re going to look back at 1980’s best and most enduring offerings.
One look over our list and it is eye-opening just how much metal has expanded and morphed over the last four decades, as some of the bands below are hardly considered “metal” anymore given the extremes of the genre today, but they were and are game changers. Moreover, they all stand the test of time which many of today’s metal albums cannot compete with. That said, there have been many modern metal bands that have created albums that have and will endure, but for my money (remember when we bought albums?), no year was stronger overall. 1980 marked the formation of iconic bands such as Manowar, Queensryche, Overkill, Grave Digger, Metal Church, and more. It was such a monster year that breakout albums from the Michael Schenker Group, Krokus, Van Halen, Cirith Ungol, and Angel Witch did not even make the cut.
10. Def Leppard – On Through the Night
We begin our list with one of 1980’s best debuts by a band that started its career as one of the NWOBHM’s Big 3 and ended the decade significantly more “light alloy” than metal. Def Leppard was on its way to becoming one of the biggest selling bands of all time. On Through the Night was packed with headbanging and memorable rockers such as “Wasted,” “Rock Brigade,” “Hello America,” “Rocks Off,” and “Answer to the Master.” The album was packed with unbridled youthful enthusiasm and energy. It remains Def Leppard’s most metal album, and its most raw. Interestingly enough, because of that, the band generally pretends it doesn’t exist, yet we have sonic proof. There is not a weak track on the record.
9. Diamond Head – Lightning to the Nations (aka the White Album)
Not unlike the aforementioned Def Leppard, Diamond Head’s debut set the stage for the NWOBHM with its raw performances and riff-centric rockers. This album would go on to inspire countless other up-and-coming bands, including Metallica. This debut has its own intriguing backstory which we will not recount here, but this record is about as DIY as it gets, and yet somehow these four young lads, barely out of high school, managed to create a seven-song debut packed with enough riffs to sink even savvy veteran bands. Diamond Head managed to meld the sounds of Black Sabbath (“Am I Evil”) and Led Zeppelin (“Sucking My Love”) into something inspired and fresh. This is a seminal classic by any standard.
8. Scorpions – Animal Magnetism
While all eyes seemed to be focused on England and the NWOBHM in 1980, over in Germany, the country’s native sons, Scorpions, were about to unleash their seventh studio album. Animal Magnetism took the heaviness of 1979’s Lovedrive and amped it all up another notch, delivering classic Scorpions mainstays like “Make it Real,” “The Zoo,” “Falling in Love” and the unhinged riff-rocker, “Don’t Make No Promises (Your Body Can’t Keep).” The latter made a perfect bookend to “Another Piece of Meat” from Lovedrive. The album marked the end of Michael Schenker’s brief time with the band and the full-time role of lead guitar for Matthias Jabs. This album would kick-start the band’s hard rocking preeminence throughout the 80s.
7. Saxon – Strong Arm of the Law & Wheels of Steel
Yes, we’re going to cheat here and give you a double dose of Saxon, the oft overlooked and unheralded heroes of the NWOBHM. In 1980, they released not one, but two of their triptych of signature albums which also included 1981’s Denim & Leather. These two records featured more classic hits than many other bands of the era ever managed to record in a career. Songs like “20,000 Ft,” “Heavy Metal Thunder,” “Dallas 1PM,” “Motorcycle Man,” “747 (Strangers in the Night),” “Stand Up and Be Counted,” and of course, both title tracks led the way. Biff Byford’s vocals became a voice of a metal generation as important and memorable as his contemporaries like Rob Halford, Ronnie James Dio, and Bruce Dickinson. Perhaps even more than Iron Maiden, Saxon represented the working-class ethos of the NWOBHM sound.
6. AC/DC – Back in Black
One could make a very valid argument that any of the remaining albums on this list could easily be in the #1 spot. AC/DC lands here because of those about to rock they might be the least “metal” of the bunch, yet no band in heavy rock has ever been as universally beloved by metalheads as Australia’s premiere riff-savvy garage rockers, AC/DC. After the tragic death of frontman Bon Scott in the wake of the band’s breakthrough record, Highway to Hell, many thought the band had met its demise. The addition of Brian Johnson led to the band delivering what is the pinnacle release of the group’s massive career. Every track on Back in Black is an iconic piece of heavy rock immortality. Every song on this record could have been a single and more than half the songs remain radio staples even today. They still shake us nearly five decades into their career.
5. Motörhead – Ace of Spades
While it seems almost blasphemous to put Motörhead behind the bands still to come on this list, even frontman and founder Lemmy Kilmister himself would argue that Motörhead was not heavy metal. “We are Motörhead, and we play rock and roll,” he would announce at every show. Yet, for all Motörhead’s punk ethos and straight forward rock and roll debauchery, no band on this list was as metal as they were. Motörhead were among the forefathers of proto-thrash, and helped build that bring between punk and metal. Lemmy alone is about as metal as metal gets, and the title track from this iconic record has been covered by more metal bands than any song in history. Ace of Spades is not even close to being the band’s best album, but it is the record that truly put them on the global metal map.
4. Judas Priest – British Steel
Judas Priest is the band that really introduced me to heavy metal in the late 70s, but in 1980 they released what many fans still consider to be their ultimate album. This is saying a lot considering half of their extensive catalog belongs on any “Top 50 of All Time” metal list. By the time Priest released British Steel, the band had stripped away its bluesy and progressive roots to deliver a pure metal record. Radio staples like “Breaking the Law” and “Living After Midnight” were counterpointed by less mainstream and more crushing tracks like “Grinder,” “Rapid Fire,” and “Metal Gods”. Beyond the sonic success of British Steel, it paved the way for them to become a dominant force throughout the 80s, dropping one masterpiece album after another. “United, united united, we stand, united we stand one and all…”
2. (tie) Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell
Many people thought Sabbath was dead when Ozzy Osbourne left the band after their 1978 Never Say Die! album. 1980 proved that the godfathers of metal would not only live but thrive with the introduction of former Elf and Rainbow vocalist, Ronnie James Dio. I may get hung up by my metal toes, but this remains my personal favorite among all Black Sabbath albums even today. Taking nothing away from the band’s catalog of vintage ground breakers, there was just something about that Dio collaboration with the riff-lord, Tony Iommi, that made for an absolutely epic record. Dio’s presence broadened the sonic palette for what the band could do. They seem re-energized and it comes across in the songs. From the fiery opener, “Neon Knights” to the broody and eerie chug of “Die Young” to the magical riffage of the menacing title track, Sabbath just nailed this record. Dio brought more of his classical groove to the table, with the band somewhat eschewing their prior bluesy and jazz-oriented nuances. Every track on this record is a timeless beast.
2. (tie) Ozzy Osbourne – Blizzard of Ozz
Like his former project, Ozzy embraced his newfound freedom to somewhat reinvent himself. While there has been plenty of turmoil and controversy surrounding his debut solo effort, the brilliance of the music itself overshadows all of it. After a decade with the riff-lord, Iommi, Osbourne tapped Quiet Riot guitar prodigy Randy Rhoads for Blizzard of Ozz. The resulting album took Ozzy to new heights and gave the metal world such anthems as “Crazy Train,” “Mr. Crowley,” and “Suicide Solution.” As with pretty much every album on this list, the listener would be hard pressed to find any track wanting. Each song laid the groundwork for the next and the cumulative whole made for one of the best albums of the year and of Ozzy’s legendary career. It also introduced the world to some of the musicians, including Rhoads, that would have a major impact on heavy metal for years to come.
1. Iron Maiden – Iron Maiden
Certain bands serve as the foundation of heavy metal, and in 1980, the next wave of game-changing headbangers would be led into the fray by England’s Iron Maiden. The band’s eponymous debut offered a mix of jet-fueled rockers with dark overtones and more progressive and epic pieces. Songs like the album’s title cut, “Prowler,” “Sanctuary” and the bouncy, “Running Free” served as fist-in-the-air, sing-along anthems, while deeper tracks like “Phantom of the Opera” and “Charlotte the Harlot” showcased the band’s musicianship and offered an edgy Rush-like vibe. All of this was overlaid by the somewhat punkish vocal attack of original vocalist Paul Di’Anno. The album introduced fans to a new era of dual guitar harmonies and Steve Harris’ timeless and unique bass style. Iron Maiden is arguably the quintessential NWOBHM album, delivering raw, yet exceptionally talented performances. While the band would go on to become one of the pillars of heavy metal for the last 40 years, their debut is a timeless reminder of where it all began and where the genre is today.
Music is, of course subjective. As always with such lists, you may or may not agree with these choices, but almost as much fun as listening to the music is discussing our thoughts and ideas on the music and artists themselves. With that in mind, if there are albums you think were overlooked that should be on this list, please sound off below and let us know your take on the Best Metal Albums of 1980!