Heavy metal and its sub genres are hugely influential. Since emerging in the late 60s and early 70s, metal has generated a cult following thanks to dark themes, unique melodies, and powerful guitar solos.
But who are the best metal rock bands of all time? Keep reading to find out!
“Painkiller” by Judas Priest
Song year: 1990
Judas Priest is an English heavy metal band from Birmingham. The band has been active since 1969, attracting an avid, worldwide fan base who continue to rank them as one of the best metal rock bands in history.
Their song “Painkiller” is laden with heavy themes about an alter ego sent to destroy the world’s evil and save mankind. It is a fast-paced track supported by traditional screamy lyrics, aggressive drum rolls, and impressive energy levels.
“Master of Puppets” by Metallica
Song year: 1986
Since their first album release in 1984, Metallica has continually made waves as one of the world’s best metal rock bands. Their signature rock music style consists of aggressive, gritty, fast-paced songs which cover heavy themes like mental health, drug addiction, and suicide. The band earned a place in the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.
One of their most iconic songs is “Master of Puppets,” which describes the powerful effect drugs have on people. In the song, people crawl toward and obey their “master” above all else. Singer James Hetfield tells this tale through evocative, fearful imagery and metaphors about life crumbling away.
“Wrong Side of Heaven” by Five Finger Death Punch
Song year: 2013
Five Finger Death Punch is an American metal rock band with eight studio albums, 33 singles, and one live album under their belts. The band is known for being passionate supporters of U.S. veterans.
Their song “Wrong Side of Heaven” is a deep and rousing ballad that has a military focus. It covers the theme of guilt and PTSD through the lens of a veteran. The narrator describes feeling like a failed hero as a result of their actions during wartime.
“Iron Man” by Black Sabbath
Song year: 1970
Black Sabbath is the pioneer of heavy metal rock music. The band started out in 1968 in Birmingham, England, performing music with previously unexplored horror and occult themes.
Their most popular record, “Iron Man,” is widely considered one of the greatest metal songs of all time. It is a science-fiction story about a man who goes to the future and witnesses the end of the world. When he returns to his time, he is turned into a metal monster and ultimately is responsible for bringing about the apocalypse.
“Holy Diver” by Dio
Song year: 1983
Ronnie James Padovano, known professionally as Dio, was a metal band frontman who sang for popular bands like Black Sabbath, Elf, and Rainbow. His band Dio released ten studio albums before his untimely death in 2009.
Dio’s famous song “Holy Diver” is about a Christ-like figure in an alternate universe. The main character plans to travel to another world to absolve his world’s people of their sins. Themes of greed, evil and religious rebellion are prevalent throughout the lyrics.
“Seasons In The Abyss” by Slayer
Song year: 1990
Slayer’s signature aggressive style and rapid-fire melodies have made them one of the best metal bands in U.S. history. They cover dozens of themes in their lyrics, from politics and occultism to religion and war.
Their song “Seasons In The Abyss” is an introspective record about death. It combines traditional horror imagery and lyrics about the deterioration of the human mind as death approaches.
“Hallowed Be Thy Name” by Iron Maiden
Song year: 1982
Iron Maiden got their start in 1975 in Leyton, East London. The heavy metal band’s influential sound is credited with defining the genre and inspiring a host of others. They combine heavy, catchy riffs, falsetto vocals, and unparalleled skill in every song they produce.
Their song “Hallowed Be Thy Name” talks about a man who is about to be executed. The man is afraid, which confuses him because he believes in life after death and that his immortal soul will live on.
“Before I Forget” by Slipknot
Song year: 2004
Slipknot will forever wear the crown as the best metal band of all time. Despite undergoing several lineup changes over the years, the group’s music remains powerful, thoughtful, and high-quality. Their live performances are chaotic and high-energy, as is their music. Indeed, they are known for their on-stage antics and the unique masks each band member wears.
“Before I Forget” is about choosing to be a good person and holding your ground no matter what others have to say. The song was written by frontman Corey Taylor and won a Grammy for Best Metal Performance in 2005.
“Laid to Rest” by Lamb of God
Song year: 2011
Lamb of God began in 1994 after the band’s initial members met in college. Throughout their existence, the band has released ten studio albums, one live album, and 28 singles. They have also received several Grammy nominations.
The song “Laid to Rest” put Lamb of God on the heavy metal map. It is a catchy metal anthem featuring an infectious melody, heavy beat, and powerfully sung lyrics. While there are various interpretations of the song, many feel it is about addiction or running from something that haunts you.
“Freak On a Leash” by Korn
Song year: 2009
Korn is a nu metal band from Bakersfield, California that combines metal, funk, hip hop, and various other influences for a truly unique sound. Their music focuses on themes of personal experiences, pain, and personal alienation.
“Freak On a Leash” is a metaphor for the music industry. Lead singer Jon Davis compares himself to a dog being walked around on a leash while the corporate world profits off him. It is a poignant look at greed and suffering, and the darker side of how people who make art are treated.
“Walk” by Pantera
Song year: 2009
Pantera is by far one of the most successful heavy metal bands of all time. The band has sold 20 million records, been nominated for four Grammy awards, and released nine studio albums. Their influences include Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, Metallica, Judas Priest, and Slayer.
Before disbanding in 2003, the quartet was responsible for revolutionizing the way metal albums were produced. One of their most recognizable songs is “Walk,” which describes one of the band member’s experiences with friends after Pantera started becoming popular. Its themes center around telling people with negative opinions and bad attitudes to walk away and mind their business.
“Empire” by Queensrÿche
Song year: 1990
Queensrÿche is a beloved heavy metal band with a dedicated fan base. Their initial work was considered glam metal, but the band evolved to progressive metal and art rock. Throughout its existence, the band has won six awards and been nominated for a handful of Grammys.
One of Queensrÿche’s major claims to fame is the way they revolutionized the genre with their concept album rock opera “Operation: Mindcrime.” Common themes throughout their music include the human condition, homelessness, corruption, and politics.
“Empire” is one of the band’s most popular songs from their fourth studio album of the same name. It focuses on drug trafficking in the U.S. and the associated breakdown of the human condition.
“Dr. Feelgood” by Motley Crue
Song year: 1989
Few metal bands in history are as controversial as Motley Crue. The band, which got its start in Essex in 1981, is notorious for destroying hotel rooms, partying hard, and living life to excess during the height of its popularity.
Their versatile music has charted on both Top 40 rock and pop lists, and many of their albums reached platinum or multi-platinum status. Altogether, the band sold over 100 million records globally and had nine top ten albums on the Billboard 200 chart.
The album “Dr. Feelgood” was their only release to reach number one on the Billboard charts. Its title track “Dr. Feelgood” is about a drug dealer named Jimmy who lives in Los Angeles. Jimmy is a well-connected personality with ties to major crime organizations. Despite his success and glamorous lifestyle, Jimmy’s world is heading towards destruction, but he doesn’t know it.
“A Prophecy” by Asking Alexandria
Song year: 2010
Asking Alexandria is a British band that combines metalcore, hard rock, and screamo. They are heavily influenced by Skid Row, Motley Crue, Def Leppard, Metallica, Van Halen, Slipknot, and Avenged Sevenfold.
Over the years, the group has grown as artists and lyricists. They set themselves apart from the traditional metal rock approach, focusing instead on more mature and thought-provoking lyrics. Their song “A Prophecy” explores drowning in feelings of helplessness.
“Rock And Roll All Nite” by Kiss
Song year: 1975
Kiss was formed in 1973 in New York City, and are well-associated with heavy metal, glam metal, and shock rock. Their live performances feature incredible pyrotechnics, smoking instruments, blood-spitting antics, and rockets. Their impressive discography includes 24 studio albums and several dozen world tours.
Kiss members originally donned comic book-like characters when they performed. Their signature black and white Kabuki-style face makeup and elaborate costumes are a key part of the band’s performance style.
“Rock And Roll All Nite” is their best-known and most beloved song. It is a memorable party anthem that became the group’s signature anthem.
“Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine
Song year: 1992
Rage Against the Machine is a contemporary metal band from Los Angeles, California. The band experiments with an eclectic range of genres, including rap metal, funk metal, and alternative rock. They have been nominated for entry into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame several years in a row.
The band is famous for using its music to express revolutionary, anti-capitalist political views. They are vocal about their disagreement with many U.S. government policies and interactions with foreign governments.
Their song “Killing in the Name” is one of the band’s most powerful protest songs. It describes the outrage and horror of the police brutality that triggered the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles.
“Symphony of Destruction” by Megadeth
Song year: 1992
Beloved for their complex guitar melodies and quality musicianship, Megadeth is one of the best metal rock bands of all time. Their music is largely responsible for popularizing the thrash and speed metal genres.
“Symphony of Destruction” is from Megadeth’s fifth studio album. It is a lyrically heavy song about a hypothetical scenario. In the song, an ordinary citizen is thrust into power, but an evil government controls everything behind the scenes. That fits in with their traditional music themes of politics, war, religion, death, and relationships.
“Patient Number 9” by Ozzy Osbourne
Song year: 2022
“Prince of Darkness” Ozzy Osbourne is best known for his role as the frontman for Black Sabbath. However, he also has maintained a successful solo career. Under his name, Ozzy Osbourne released 12 studio albums in the heavy metal, glam metal, and doom metal genres.
His most recent single, “Patient Number 9,” takes a look at a patient inside a mental institution. The lyrics describe the man’s struggle to fight against the institution’s assertion that the man is insane. The patient is comforted by the voices in his head and resistant to the staff trying to help him.
“Sober” by Tool
Song year: 2019
Tool is a Grammy Award-winning band from Los Angeles, California. They span several genres, including progressive metal, art rock, and alternative metal. Since their founding in 1995, Tool has released five studio albums that have achieved international commercial success.
Their most recent single, “Sober,” is a poignant description of a friend’s struggle with substance abuse. It was inspired by how they could only perform artistically under the influence.
“Tears Don’t Fall” by Bullet For My Valentine
Song year: 2005
Welsh metalcore and thrash metal band Bullet For My Valentine formed in 1998. They originally started as a cover band performing songs by Nirvana and Metallica before rebranding as their current name. Bullet For My Valentine uses thoughtful lyrics and catchy melodies to cover themes of romantic disillusionment.
“Tears Don’t Fall” is about a man falling in love with a girl he can’t please. Her sadness brings the man endless pain. And, no matter what he tries to do to make her better, nothing works.
“Du Hast” by Rammstein
Song year: 2015
German gothic metal band Rammstein is the steady heartbeat of the heavy metal rock world. Their lineup, music style, and lyrical choices have remained consistent since their founding in 1994. Rammstein is theatrical and controversial, utilizing industrial noise, violent, grinding guitar melodies, and aggressive rolling beats under operatic vocals.
Their song “Du Hast” was a mainstream global hit. It looks at the love-hate resentment that builds in long-term relationships.
“Thunderstruck” by AC/DC
Song year: 1990
AC/DC started out in the heavy metal rock world in Sydney, Australia in the early 70s. Critics and fans widely consider them to be one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time. Their groundbreaking, defining work was powerful, humorous, and full of innuendo while remaining simple and restrained.
Their popular song “Thunderstruck” alludes to certain power struggles, but is more about the celebration of life and about partying with your best friends.
“Rock You Like a Hurricane” by Scorpions
Song year: 1984
The Scorpions are one of the best metal rock bands of all time. Originally from Hanover, West Germany, the band has explored numerous genres, including heavy metal, glam rock, hard rock, and soft rock.
Their classic metal anthem, “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” is a song about wanting more after a night of passion.
“Pour Some Sugar on Me” by Def Leppard
Song year: 1987
Def Leppard is a new wave heavy metal band founded in 1977 in Sheffield, South Yorkshire. The band found success as a glam metal, pop rock, and heavy metal hybrid. They have sold over 100 million records globally, have two diamond albums, and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019.
“Pour Some Sugar On Me” is an iconic metal song. Every line is a careful and cleverly written metaphor centered on themes of sex and rock n’ roll.
“Would?” by Alice in Chains
Song year: 2010
Beloved heavy metal band Alice in Chains is a Seattle-based band founded in 1987. They have a unique style that consists of a combination of grunge, alternative metal, and sludge metal rock. Their spooky harmonies and gritty melodies have sold over 30 million albums worldwide.
“Would?” is about the aftermath of rehab. It was written about singer Andrew Wood, a grunge artist who died from an overdose in 1990.
“Bang Your Head (Metal Health)” by Quiet Riot
Quiet Riot got its start in 1975. They were the first heavy metal band to produce a number one Billboard hit on the pop charts. While the band experienced numerous lineup changes over the years, their signature metal sound and infectiously catchy lyrics stand the test of time.
One of their most popular songs is “Bang Your Head (Metal Health).” The song, which peaked at 31 on the Billboard Hot 100, is a celebration of heavy metal and headbanging culture.
“Dig” by Mudvayne
Song year: 1997
Mudvayne, a heavy metal band from Illinois, is known for its experimental metal music. Their elaborate performance makeup and costumes pair well with the band’s complex music style. They are responsible for creating “math rock,” a type of music where they coordinate numerical riffs with certain lyrical themes.
Their song “Dig” is a wildly aggressive and violent song that explores the band’s experience with the music industry.
Top Metal Rock Bands Ever, Final Thoughts
The best metal rock bands of all time are pioneers that explore complex themes. They pair clever and thoughtful lyrics with aggressive, in-your-face music stylings to tell their stories. The 20th and 21st centuries have seen hundreds of great metal bands hit the stage, but in our opinion, the bands on this list wear the crowns.