10. Headless Cross (1989)
This is arguably one of the more consistent and solid Sabbath efforts since the original Ozzy/Dio eras. In fact, I consider it the best non-Dio/Ozzy record. Tony Martin returns on vocals, and Cozy Powell joins on drums. The songwriting shows Iommi continuing to create notable riffs while also moving the Sabbath sound in some new directions. This album highlights how underappreciated Martin’s vocal abilities were and Headless Cross marks his best output for Sabbath. Powell is also a secret weapon, with his signature stick work and unmitigated skills, he only elevates each song. The title track, “When Death Calls,” “Gates of Hell,” and “Nightwing” are among the album’s standout tracks. The only knock on this record is the bent towards 80s hair metal production techniques, but I can live with that given the end result.
Jeff Teets of MindMaze feels the Tony Martin era is largely underappreciated:
“The entire Tony Martin era is extremely underrated. Headless Cross and TYR in particular I think are really excellent albums that get overlooked because they don’t sound quite like typical Sabbath and Tony Iommi was the only original member in the lineup. But they had some heavy hitters in the band like Cozy Powell and Neil Murray, not to mention Tony Martin is probably one of the most underrated metal singers out there.”
9. Technical Ecstasy (1976)
It’s amazing what drugs can do for the trajectory of a band and the creative process. By 1976, Sabbath seemed to have peaked and were in decline, and the resulting album is Technical Ecstasy. It is the group’s most experimental album in terms of sound and direction, and this was purposeful on the part of the band which was trying to expand its sonic palette. As a result it is perhaps the most maligned of the band’s Ozzy era output. Unfortunately, most fans didn’t care for the new direction, which was further impacted by cracks within the band, lack of management, and Iommi being left to develop his grandiose ideas with little input from the others. That said, the album is book-ended by two of the Sabbath’s best songs in “Back Street Kids” (which has a bit of a UFO vibe) and “Dirty Women”. In between, aside from the fantastic “You Can’t Change Me”, the album comes across as somewhat discombobulated, with Ward taking vocals on the Beatles-esque “It’s Alright” which sort of sums up the album. It’s not a bad album, it just doesn’t feel much like Sabbath, which was in some ways what the band had been aiming for, to remain relevant even as the burgeoning punk scene was looming.
Pale Divine’s Darin McCloskey thinks it is an underrated gem:
“Technical Ecstasy is a fantastic album. It has a reputation for being one of the weaker albums from the Ozzy era but I think that’s a misconception. ‘Back Street Kids’ kicks things off with a chugging classic Iommi riff and the song basically narrates an autobiographical ode to their humble beginnings. ‘You Can’t Change Me’ is brilliant and the opening riff is the epitome of proto-Doom metal, heavy and down trodden. ‘She’s Gone’ is an amazing ballad and one of Ozzy’s best vocal performances. He puts so much emotion into every line he sings it almost sounds like he’s on the brink of tears. ‘Rock and Roll Doctor’ gets a bit of flack bit it’s a fun song and I love it when you can hear a band having fun.”
“The most underrated is Technical Ecstasy, it’s a little more prog in its arrangement and the songs are a little more drawn out, but if you’re not sold by the time you hear ‘Dirty Women’ then you just aren’t a Sabbath fan. Nothing gets on my nerves more than that stupid fucking ‘You can only trust yourself and the first six Black Sabbath albums’ shirt. Only non-Sabbath fans would wear that garbage. Posers.”
Hand of Doom vocalist/guitarist Gary Gläsmann sees this record as not only underrated, but makes the argument that it’s their best effort:
“Technical Ecstasy is Black Sabbath‘s best album. With epic songs like ‘You Won’t Change Me,’ ‘Dirty Women,’ ‘All Moving Parts (Stand Still),’ the mournful ‘She’s Gone,’ and arguably the most powerful Sabbath song ever written; ‘Gypsy,’ the couple of clunkers on there can be dismissed handily. The production value is leaps and bounds beyond any of their previous recordings. Ozzy vocals are nuanced and meaty; Iommi’s lead playing is exquisite and masterful; and recorded in full audiophilic splendor. He’s finally allowed some space to take extended solos, and the result is glorious.”
8. Mob Rules (1981)
The band’s second album with Dio at the helm also sees the addition of drummer Vinnie Appice behind the kit. Bill Ward had stepped down after the Heaven and Hell album. Mob Rules proved to be more difficult to make than its predecessor. Butler had returned to helping with the songwriting which altered the creative dynamic between Iommi and Dio, and they were having issues with drug use, including their producer Martin Birch (Deep Purple, Iron Maiden, Whitesnake). The album turned out to be a mixed bag. Side one is a crusher, featuring the monster anthems “The Mob Rules” and “Turn Up the Night” as well beastly classics like “Voodoo” and the doomy “Sign of the Southern Cross”. Unfortunately, the band seemed to run out of energy, muscle, and steam on side two, with only “Falling Off the Edge of the World” showing any lasting power. The album remains a classic in the Sabbath stable, but problems with track sequencing, a lackluster mix performance by Birch, and confusion among the band’s creative direction hurt it overall. There are also whispers that Dio held back some of his better song ideas for his debut solo album.
7. Sabotage (1975)
This is perhaps Sabbath’s most introspective album from the Ozzy period, as well as Osbourne’s own watershed for vocal expansiveness. The band spent nearly as much time fighting with its management (old and new), doing drugs, and dealing with internal strife as they did making music. Even there the frustrations continued as they had to re-record half the record after the masters were lost. Sabbath loyalists often consider Sabotage to be the final quality entry in the band’s catalog before it all went to shite. It is perhaps telling that in a 1992 Guitar World interview on Sabbath’s best and worst records, Iommi skipped over Sabotage. The album’s first half feels like a combination of Sabbath’s sun-fueled cocaine excess ala “Hole in the Sky,” and their Black Country roots via “Symptom of the Universe”. “Megalomania” serves as a bridge between the band’s doomish metal foundation and mainstream hard rock. The album’s second half is a hodgepodge of misfit WTF tracks that set up the transition to the band’s most experimental record, Technical Ecstasy.
Al Yeti Bones of Chief Gypsy Goliath makes the argument for Sabotage as Sabbath’s best:
“I’ve always loved the self-titled record. I thought it was the heaviest thing ever, but then I noticed an album in my buddy’s collection when we were like 16-years- old. Bill Ward was wearing these sweet red pants! The album was called Sabotage and when we put it on it was about to shake the house and my soul to the core. It kicks off with ‘Hole In The Sky’ and songs like ‘Symptom of The Universe’ followed suit and my personal all time favorite song, ‘Thrill Of It All’. This album changed my life. As if the previous records didn’t already, Sabotage helped construct my ethos for what heavy music actually was. Definitely my favorite Sabbath album.”
6. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1974)
Sabbath had so much fun with he nihilistic excess of the Vol. 4 recording sessions they attempted to replicate that vibe for their fifth album in four years, but the magic was lost in a haze of cocaine and exhaustion. Iommi’s creative chakra was blocked. Wisely, the band returned home and rented out a haunted castle full of dungeons and spirits. A perfect place for the Riff Lord to tap into his dark magic. It worked. The first riff he wrote turned out to be for the album’s title cut, and it set the tone for the rest of the record. In Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, the quartet managed to blend its doomish origins and the drug oriented groove of Vol. 4 with a bit of experimentation tossed in. It was Sabbath trying to find Sabbath without outside influence. Still, the drugs and alcohol remained. “A National Acrobat” has a fantastic groove, while “Fluff” dips into emotive whimsy with Iommi playing piano and harpsichord. “Sabbra Cadabra” is a driving chugger which features Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman who happened to be recording in the studio next door and took his compensation in beer. The album also showcased some of the experimentation that would show up on later albums such as the use of synthesizers and the mellotron on “Who Are You?” and flute and strings on the upbeat trip of “Looking for Today”. “Killing Yourself to Live” and “Spiritual Architect” are among the album’s strongest tracks. In all, a very balanced album that many, including the band see as Sabbath’s last great album before the foundation began to crumble.