The birth of heavy metal began 50 years ago with the debut release by Birmingham, England’s vaunted heroes, Black Sabbath. Certain proto-metal bands began building the metal sound in the late 60s, but it was the release of Black Sabbath in February 1970 that turned out to be the game changer, and it all started in 1968 with guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, drummer Bill Ward, and of course, vocalist Ozzy Osbourne. This is the quintessential Sabbath lineup, and for many purists, the band’s catalog of music includes only the albums recorded by this quartet. There existed a dark sense of unease within the music of Sabbath, and while critics did not originally grasp its sinister beauty, fans related almost immediately to its working class ethos.
One would think that Black Sabbath, the Godfathers of heavy metal, would have been the first band we created such a rankings list for, but it’s a difficult list to curate. Even purists argue over which albums are the best, or least. When you are talking about icons like Sabbath, a band that altered the landscape of heavy music, and that have been through numerous changes over the decades, the task becomes even more difficult. Do you include the Ronnie James Dio era? How about the Ian Gillan, Tony Martin, and Glenn Hughes eras? What about the temporary reformation as Heaven & Hell?
Osbourne’s departure in 1979 would lead to the band tabbing former Rainbow vocalist Ronnie James Dio. Other lineup changes would follow, but Tony Iommi remains the band’s lone constant across all 20 records. The life blood of Black Sabbath is in the riffs, and Iommi is arguably the most prolific riffmeister to ever strap on a six-string. He is the glue that crosses every iteration of Black Sabbath, and for that reason, we include all the records here. More time was spent on this rankings list than perhaps any other. This is to respect the legacy of Sabbath, and to try and merge the various eras of the band with some faithfulness to their place in the band’s immense and influential discography. In formulating my thoughts and this list, I also reached out to several of our more Sabbath savvy metal friends for their input on the band’s best albums, most underrated records, and Iommis’d best riffs.
20. Forbidden (1995)
Referring to any Sabbath album as the “worst” feels like heresy, but even Iommi refers to Forbidden as the band’s weakest effort. Iommi served as the only original Sabbath member. It would be the final record with Tony Martin on vocals before the band reunited with Ozzy Osbourne. Body Count guitarist Ernie C. produced and mixed the record, which on its own is a mistake. The drum sound is tinny, and there is a bit of a muffled quality to the album overall. Ice-T even delivers a spoken word section on the lead off track, “The Illusion of Power”. The rest of the lineup included drummer Cozy Powell, bassist Neil Murray, and keyboardist Geoff Nicholls. The album’s performances were fine, but the songs overall just were not up to snuff. The album might better be renamed Forgotten.
Josh Schwartz of A Sound of Thunder thinks Forbidden is better than people give it credit for:
“I actually like Forbidden quite a bit. ‘Rusty Angels’ and ‘Kiss of Death’ are great songs all around. I think the riffs from ‘Guilty as Hell’ and ‘Forbidden’ are two of the best riffs Iommi has written.”
19. Cross Purposes (1994)
This album marked the return of Tony Martin after Sabbath’s ill-fated one album reunion with Dio. Iommi and Butler also tapped former Rainbow drummer Bobby Rondinelli, and Nichols remained on keyboards. Sonically, Cross Purposes is a little all over the place and seemingly in search of an identity. At times the band has some classic Sabbath grooves (see “Virtual Death”), at other times it sounds more like Dio-era Sab (ala “Cardinal Sin” and “Back to Eden”) . There are some solid songs on the record such as the opener “I Witness” driven by a relentless Geezer bass line, and the very groove-laden “Evil Eye” with its Eddie Van Halen penned riffage. While Sabbath fans may see this as among the band’s weakest moments, it’s still heftier than most other bands stronger works.
18. Seventh Star (1986)
The infamous Sabbath not Sabbath Iommi solo album. After the departures of Ozzy, Dio, and a one album showing for former Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan, Iommi had enough. He opted to put together his first solo record, but he ultimately caved to label pressure and released it under the Sabbath moniker. Another former Rainbow frontman, Glenn Hughes would step in. This alone took the album in a decidedly more commercial direction. This would be the first Sabbath record not to feature Butler who was replaced by Dave Spitz (Great White, White Lion). Geoff Nicholls was made an official member of the band, and Eric Singer (KISS, Badlands), took over for Bill Ward. The album was not meant as a Sabbath vehicle so it is perhaps the most diverse in the band’s canon. “Heart Like a Wheel” is a straight on blues jam and there’s even a power ballad in the form of “No Stranger to Love,” which coincidentally begins with an almost identical keyboard lead in as “Die Young” from 1980’s Heaven and Hell record. “Danger Zone” sounds more like Foreigner or Dokken than Sabbath while “Turn to Stone” sounds more like Saxon. Hmmm Sabbath with Biff Byford on vocals… I can’t unhear it.
Sarah Teets of MindMaze feels this album deserves more love from fans:
“Seventh Star is so underrated in my opinion. The songs are great and I just feel like a lot of people never really gave it a chance because of it basically just being Tony Iommi at that point.”
17. Tyr (1990)
Tyr is an intriguing album in the Sabbath catalog. It was the second to feature Martin on vocals and the first to feature legendary drummer Cozy Powell (Rainbow, Whitesnake, Michael Schenker). To some degree, Tyr sounds like a lesser continuation of its predecessor, Headless Cross, but with different lyrical themes. It’s not particularly Sabbathy overall, and leans more into that Rainbow vibe the band adopted when Dio originally joined. I think Nicholls keyboards are also a little over abundant on this one. “Anno Mundi” and “Jerusalem” are notable tracks. The freewheeling “The Law Maker” has some Iron Maiden-esque groove to it and “The Sabbath Stones” is downright doomy. “Feels Good to Me” is a forced and sappy affair, but the album is saved at the end by the closer “Heaven in Black”. The production on the record leans heavy into Powell’s drums while Iommi’s guitar seems almost sedate at times in the mix. This record proved once again that Iommi is not afraid to stretch beyond the dark and menacing riffs that made him an icon.
16. Born Again (1983)
This era represents a strange moment in the history of Black Sabbath. The band had just lost its second iconic singer in less than four years. Iommi, Butler, and a returning Ward then tabbed, at the bad advice of management, another legendary vocalist in Deep Purple frontman, Ian Gillan. Gillan served up some fine performances on Born Again, but he simply didn’t fit the Sabbath style or sound. To be fair, this was not meant to be a Sabbath record, but the record label insisted it be released as such. The opening track, “Trashed” is an absolute monster and classic (with a horrible video) while “Stonehenge” sounded more like Pink Floyd. “Digital Bitch” feels like it fell off a Judas Priest record until you get to its punkish chorus. The sinister “Disturbing the Priest” or “Zero the Hero” might be the most Sabbath tracks on the record. Overall, the songwriting of Gillan and Iommi didn’t mix, and the production on this record got absolutely,–well, trashed. And that album cover, holy hell…