There is an argument to be made that any of the albums listed in the top 5 could be sitting at the #1 spot.
5. Black Sabbath (1970)
On Friday, February 13, 1970, Black Sabbath quite literally changed the face of heavy music. This eponymous debut with its haunting album art and gloomy, ominous down-tuned sound became the face of metal. The album was recorded in one day, adding a rawness and immediacy to the record. The band’s namesake opening track showcased Ozzy’s knack for mournful and at times bombastic vocal delivery. Iommi’s unique riffs, phrasing, and tone, the partial side effect of a factory accident causing the loss of two finger tips, inadvertently created a doomy and grim signature. These elements combined with Butler’s lyrical pessimism and Ward’s oft jazzy drum feel created something evil, twisted, and quite intriguing. By the time the tempo picks up, the band sounds darkly jubilant as it wages a psychedelic war down the stretch, a sound revived again on “N.I.B.”. Conversely, “The Wizard” sounds more like Led Zeppelin with its bluesy groove, than what the band became famous for. Among the album’s remaining tracks are two cover tracks, including Crow‘s “Evil Woman” which the band didn’t actually want to record. While it stands as a seminal and groundbreaking album for Sabbath and the genre, it still was not as strong as several of the albums that came after.
4. Vol. 4 (1972)
California and cocaine are the hallmarks of Sabbath’s fourth studio affair. It would mark a departure not only from recording in the UK, but also from working with producer Rodger Bain. The band chose to self-medicate and self-produce. While this might have resulted in disaster for lesser bands, Vol. 4 became a crowning success for the Birmingham Brummies who have often referred to this period and album as the height of their career. The guys sort of cut loose with this record, in no small measure fueled by the abundance of cocaine they were consuming (listen to “Snowblind). After the caliginous weightiness that was Master of Reality the band opened Vol. 4 with a track, “Wheels of Confusion,” that returned them to their bluesier roots and dragged Iommi’s normally evil riffage into the sunlight and added a bit of psychedelic nostalgia. Vol. 4 marked a band trying to break out of the box they’d been labeled with. “Cornucopia” and “Under the Sun (Every Day Comes and Goes)” are sludgy beasts, while “Changes” is a poignant piano driven ballad. “Supernaut” is a wild free-for-all and “St. Vitus’ Dance” is a sonic romp. I’m not sure the band knew what they were doing with this record, but they enjoyed the ride and fans were rewarded with the result.
“I hate to be cliche but Vol. 4 for me is the best. The power of the songs and the fact that they experimented with other song styles like the song ‘Changes,’ later to be completely owned by Charles Bradley, and the psychedelic ‘FX’. Just so many bangers on this album.” —Mark Aceves, ZED
3. Heaven and Hell (1980)
A decade after Black Sabbath unleashed its genre defining debut records, the band returned with its new vocalist, Ronnie James Dio, opening up a whole new world for the band in terms of fans and sound. While the resulting album is definitely Sabbath, it also showcased another side of the band with Dio’s writing and singing style proving to be more dynamic than his predecessor. As Iommi wrote in his memoirs, “Ozzy would sing with the riff. Just listen to ‘Iron Man’ and you’ll catch my drift: his vocal melody line copies the melody of the music. Ronnie liked singing across the riff instead of with it, come up with a melody that was different from that of the music, which musically opens a lot more doors.” For the first time in several years, Sabbath had a record packed with staying power. The title track is a doom masterpiece, and the opener, “Neon Knights” is a throat-crushing bruiser. “Die Young” is among the best songs the band has ever recorded, and tracks like “Children of the Sea,” “Lonely is the Word,” “Lady Evil,” and “Wishing Well,” are all still incredible tracks. This is personally my favorite Sabbath album, blasphemer that I am.
Erik Olson of Lord Dying believes Heaven and Hell deserves more attention:
“I feel like Heaven and Hell is Sabbath’s most underrated album. People often overlook the Dio era, but I love all those jams! Dio rules too. I don’t feel like the music is as dark as the first five albums but it still rules.”
2. Master of Reality (1971)
After bludgeoning the music world in 1970 with back to back statement records, the Birmingham quartet settled into the studio to record the album that would truly define the Sabbath sound and take it all to the next level. This is the record where they stopped trying to write hits and focused instead on defining their metal signature. Master of Reality is the album that helped create stoner, doom, and sludge metal, and even set the stage for grunge almost two decades later. While they had dabbled in the doom on their previous records, Iommi dragged his down-tuned guitar tone from the basement straight into the bowels of hell for Master of Reality. Bands like Corrosion of Conformity, Down, High on Fire, Candlemass, and countless others owe their creative gratitude to Black Sabbath and this record in particular. Songs like “Children of the Grave” “Into the Void,” and Lord of this World” are genre blueprints. Elsewhere, “Sweet Leaf” opens the album as an ode to marijuana, and “Solitude” wallows in mournful melancholy.
“My personal favorite is Master of Reality. Ozzy sings just as much about God as the Devil and the good and evil in both, it’s not just blanket “satan worship” for shock value, it contains very thought provoking an important lyrics, not to mention it’s the shortest and most riffs per square inch of any Sabbath record. It leaves you wanting more.. My favorite Sabbath riff would be the final riff of ‘Into the Void'” –Kyle Shutt, The Sword
Brian Tatler of Diamond Head also picks Master of Reality as his favorite Sabbath record. See what he has to say here.
1. Paranoid (1970)
While the band’s first album paved the way for everything that was to come, it would be their sophomore album released later that same year which really broke Sabbath to the masses and put them on the worldwide stage. While for many, some of the iconic songs have been overplayed by radio over a half century, they still remain classics, and this record had several, including the title cut, “War Pigs,” and “Iron Man” as well as deeper but equally popular tracks like “Fairies Wear Boots,” “Planet Caravan,” and “Hand of Doom”. Lyrically, Butler wades through a lot of apocalyptic imagery on this record. Some critics have hailed Paranoid as the ultimate heavy metal record which set the standard for decades to come. It certainly charted the course for thousands of bands. This record marked a counterpoint to the hippy dippy flower child frivolity of mainstream rock at the time.
“It’s hard for me to choose the best Black Sabbath album, although it would have to be one of the first five. They are all incredible for different reasons. The debut self-titled was so amazing and nothing had come out like this before it. Pretty much the first dark/heavy album ever, single-handedly starting heavy metal. However, I feel like they really caught their stride with Paranoid. The solo section on ‘War Pigs/Luke’s Wall’ is one of the best things I’ve ever heard. I guess I’d have to say Paranoid is the best album for that reason alone. So many bands, still to this day, continuously try to rip off Black Sabbath. Especially in stoner/doom, but for me there is only one Black Sabbath. Would’ve been so amazing to see them in 1970 touring the first album.” –Erik Olson, Lord Dying
“Paranoid. That has all the tunes. It’s cover to cover classic Sabbath, deadly riffs, insane vocals, pummeling P-bass filling in all the corners, and Bill Ward pushing the whole thing over the cliff with unhinged abandon! They were in their prime, everything there is to love about Sabbath is all here. Sonically, the record is incredible too, far and away the best sounding Sabbath record. I love each and every of the classic era albums, but I think Paranoid is the only one that really gets 10/10 for me. —Mikey Heppner, Priestess
“The best Black Sabbath album is Paranoid. The band was pretty much actively touring from the time they recorded the first album right up until they went in the studio to record the followup which would be Paranoid (originally intended to be called War Pigs but the record label rejected the title). The band was like a well oiled machine. They were hungry, and really integrating well together. I can’t imagine where we’d be without ‘War Pigs,’ ‘Iron Man,’ ‘Fairies Wear Boots,’ and the title track. It’s just a perfect album and it’s essential to the formation of heavy metal. Essential.” — Darin McClosky, Pale Divine
Special thanks to all the artists who graciously offered their thoughts for this list. As with any rankings list, we know your own rankings will not match up with ours. That’s the fun of making these, to open a dialogue about the band’s creative canon of work. Please sound off below with your thoughts on the best and most underrated albums. Horns up and metal on!