The past twenty-one years have been a period of unprecedented change for heavy metal music. Since the ball dropped on the ’90s, the genre has seen countless rises, falls, mutations, and reinventions, all in the name of kids wearing black and banging their heads. While this has at times been infuriating — there are only so many elemental Portland black metal songs one can hear before using their extra dollar to put “Round and Round” at the top of the jukebox queue — it has also been exciting and educational. We’re now learning exactly what metal can be.
The best albums of the post-2000 world have reflected this constant churn within the scene. Some are complete departures from the music that metalheads of yore loved; some are returns to form with added elements of modernity; some are pieces of art so extreme that your everyday Maiden fan wouldn’t even know what to do with them. And yet they have altered how we experience the art form, giving loud music for ugly people new life and a chance at cultural survival.
Here are the 21 greatest metal albums of the last twenty-one years…
21. Pig Destroyer, Prowler In The Yard (2001)
Not everyone jumped to buy Prowler In The Yard when it first came out, and for good reason — this record is the ultimate expression of Not For Everyone. But those who did went on to shape the face of metal as a whole, and now the album stands as a hideous testament to that moment when death metal evolved into something chapped and perverse and truly upsetting. With just enough wily party riffs to make the whole thing seem unsettlingly fun, Pig Destroyer‘s full-length debut remains an album like no other. This is beautiful. This is art.
20. Mutoid Man, War Moans (2017)
What immediately set War Moans apart from most other album like it was its honesty. At no point during the 12 tracks on this record do Mutoid Man feel disingenuous or fantastical; there’s no melodramatic breakup song here, much less a track about bringing down the system and cutting off someone’s head. Instead, the record elevates the emotions of a world we all live in, seeming to understand our daily tribulations without casting them as any less important for being commonplace. That you can dance your ass off to it almost feels like a bonus.
19. Nile, Black Seeds of Vengeance (2000)
While countless metal bands had written about or expressed interest in Ancient Egypt, it was Nile’s Black Seeds of Vengeance that officially gave the era its metal soul. Carefully constructed but wily and unpredictable, Nile‘s second full-length record expresses both a brutality and a complexity that feel appropriately suited to match the nuanced historic world which it inhabits. Throughout this storm of riffs and fills always exists a theatrical ancientness, a cinematic understanding of a time we can never fully comprehend. This is the curse of the pharaohs right here.
18. God Forbid, Gone Forever (2004)
New Jersey’s God Forbid fought tooth and nail to get where they were in 2004, and Gone Forever is a brilliant culmination of that emotional journey. And yet, unlike so many of their metalcore peers, the band never get sappy or emo on this album; even their most heartfelt moments are without pretense, bellowed from a place of honest anger, grief, and resolve. In this way, God Forbid have written the most timeless album of the metalcore era, a record that is brilliantly affecting without ever feeling cliche or dated. All heart, no heartagram.
17. Slayer, God Hates Us All (2001)
It feels strangely prophetic that God Hates Us All dropped on 9/11. The album was a destructive return to form for Slayer, a moment where they seemed to throw caution to the wind and tell the world how they really felt. That a record so game-changing for metal music coincided with an event that entirely rewrote American life as a whole smacks of cosmic poetry, as though the universe decided that enough was enough and it was time for the U.S. of A. to look at its own fucked-up reflection again. After this, everything was different.
16. High On Fire, De Vermis Mysteriis (2012)
The last twenty years are littered with absolutely incredible High On Fire albums, but De Vermis Mysteriis is the record which rises to the top. Packed with a perfect mixture of High On Fire’s hard-hitting stoner-thrash numbers and their melancholy hesher-doom brooders, the album gives listeners everything they want, all the time. And while later releases would win earn the band countless accolades and eventually win Grammys, it was this battle cry from inside Matt Pike’s bruised shell that still rings through the previous two decades most intimidatingly. Behold the raging maniac in all his glory.
15. Immortal, Sons of Northern Darkness (2002)
Revered within black metal circles for years by 2002, Norway’s Immortal leapt into the global metal spotlight with Sons of Northern Darkness. The badger-painted three-piece finally embraced their thrashy wrestler metal sound to its fullest, penning a record of acid-riffed black-thrash tracks designed solely for kicking down the doors of Heaven. Abbath has never sounded more rabid than he does on this record, snarling with total venomous abandon. If this tur towards the listenable upset diehard black metal fans, well, good.
14. Khemmis, Hunted (2016)
In a single album, Denver’s Khemmis managed to merge heavy metal’s entire torrid history into some of the most powerful songs the genre has ever known. There’s old-school downer rock and stoner doom on Hunted, but there’s also death metal’s tooth-rattling punch, black metal’s towering spiritual menace, and even thrash’s fun-loving need for forward momentum. Elaborate yet beautifully lean, it is an album whose merits cannot be denied by even oft-dismissive mainstream listeners. A beautiful culmination of everything that brought us here.
13. Midnight, Satanic Royalty (2011)
In the ponderous, Internet-fueled subgenre swamp of metal, we sometimes need a record to cut through the mire and kick our collective asses. For the 2010s, that album was undoubtedly Satanic Royalty by Ohio three-piece Midnight. A ripping black thrash record that got to the core of the old school, Satanic Royalty reminded listeners around the world that fast, loose, and out of control cannot be forgotten as the core tenets of this culture. Though classic satanic thrash never truly died in the underground, this album was a vital component to it breaking the topsoil, grabbing the average metalhead’s foot, and reminding them that it was still here.
12. Arch Enemy, Wages of Sin (2002)
Before Wages of Sin, Arch Enemy were a name among metal bands; after it, they were a force that was impossible to ignore. Part of this is undoubtedly the arrival of vocalist Angela Gossow, who was as ferocious as she was statuesque and brought a new level of energy to the band. But this album is nothing without its music, and tracks like “Enemy Within,” “Ravenous,” and “Web of Lies” immediately put this record a few levels above all the other melodic death metal coming out at the time. These riffs are like volcanic air under steel wings, and brought European festival metal to the masses like never before.
11. Avatar, Feathers & Flesh (2016)
A bounce-riff power metal concept album about an owl trying to destroy the sun — not the record that the 2010s wanted, but absolutely the one it needed. With Feathers & Flesh, Avatar’s upward trajectory received a massive boost, the album’s catchy yet deeply affecting songs drawing in new legions of bewildered listeners. Combining everything from death-grind to folk metal, the band’s unorthodox approach paid off in spades, creating for them a niche all their own in which to play. Acrobats are exciting, jugglers are impressive, but the clown will always have you applauding on your feet.
10. Triptykon, Melana Chasmata (2014)
When Celtic Frost mastermind Tom Gabriel Fischer told the world he had a new project in the works, metalheads prepared to smile in good-humored support. Instead, Fischer gave us Triptykon, and on sophomore effort Melana Chasmata he gave the metal scene one of its most enthralling albums. A shadowy distillation of black and doom metal’s guiding principles, Chasmata exudes both imperial command and crumbling emotional grief at every turn, all carried by a stygian cloud of the witchcraft roiling within Fischer’s soul. The result is a piece of music that is as vast, intimidating, and touching as one could possibly hope for.
9. The Black Dahlia Murder, Ritual (2011)
Though 2007’s Nocturnal was a massive breakthrough for Michigan’s The Black Dahlia Murder, 2011’s Ritual saw the band’s songwriting and musicianship reach unbelievable new heights. Somehow both rip-roaringly fun and deeply macabre, the record was the perfect party album for a legion of horror-obsessed, riff-worshipping maniacs looking for death metal with all the fixins and none of gastronomy. Moving from mid-paced bludgeoners to quick-stabbing death-thrash tracks to claw-in-the-air werewolf anthems at the drop of a hat, Ritual remains a startling testament to how fucking rad modern death metal can be. You can’t kill the boogeyman.
8. Mastodon, Blood Mountain (2006)
After the smash success of 2004’s Leviathan, Atlanta’s Mastodon decided to blow the doors off of their own reputation with an album as varied and exciting as anything they’d ever done. Blood Mountain may not have Melville as its basis, but its dedication to both psychedelic vision and face-smashing stoner metal is commanding to an awesome degree. Whether it’s the beer-throwing speed of “The Wolf Is Loose,” the borealis-inducing journey of “Sleeping Giant,” or the trundling wizardry of “Colony of Birchmen,” this record has something that for metalheads of any genre allegiance. Get in the van.
7. Cannibal Corpse, Kill (2006)
It’s incredible to watch a band reinvigorate their career in real time. Years after countless fans had written Cannibal Corpse off as one-note, the band put out Kill, as energetic, exciting, and unfuckwithable a death metal album as anyone had ever released. The record shows Cannibal indulging in the warped, frantic take on the genre which made them famous in the first place, matching their lyrical brutality with sheer amounts of sonic force. That’s why this album didn’t need some arachnid cadaver eating a labia on its cover — with songs this awesome, all you require is the word, a single syllable which sums up this band’s entire ethos.
6. Lamb of God, Ashes of the Wake (2004)
Lamb of God had already made their name as a vicious, no-nonsense band on their previous two albums, 2000’s New American Gospel and 2003’s As The Palaces Burn. But it wasn’t until Ashes of the Wake erupted onto the scene that the Richmond face-melters became one of metal’s most legendary acts. The mixture of sonic rancor and groovy accessibility on this record made it so your average fan could pick up, put on, and be instantly sucked in by it. For many metal artists, that move towards being listenable has the potential to be a death sentence; for Lamb of God, it was obviously the push they needed to reach their full potential.
5. Power Trip, Nightmare Logic (2017)
At this point, Nightmare Logic has become such an iconic album for Gen-Z metal fans that it’s easy to forget how fucking vicious it is. But though it’s loved by millions, Power Trip’s second and tragically final studio album is a beast from the very beginning. Never in its eight perfect songs does it drop below the emotional pitch of angry, sweaty, and ready to watch some buildings burn. If it’s not Nick Stewart and Blake Ibanez’s thicker-than-thou guitars slapping you upside the head, it’s the late Riley Gale’s lyrics of believable revolution that makes this record a wake-up call for the hotter parts of the soul. If not now, then when; if not us, then who?
4. The Crown, Deathrace King (2000)
It’s simple: Deathrace King is perfect. The record checks every box: unforgettable Satan riffs? Check. Galloping death-thrash written to fill a club with fake smoke and dirtbags? Check. Lyrics about Blitzkrieg witchcraft and the Grim Reaper ending the world in, wait for it, a death explosion? Check. From front to beck, The Crown‘s magnum opus is the kind of album that makes you happy to be a metalhead, in part because it’s so awesome that if someone else doesn’t get it, well, fuck ‘em. The sonic equivalent of slipping on a heavily-patched denim vest and finding a way to stick your tongue out at somebody.
3. Gojira, The Way of All Flesh (2008)
Smack dab in the middle of their long transition from underground metal mind-benders to chart-destroying conquerors, Gojira hit things perfectly on the head. The Way of All Flesh is deeply angry in its environmentalism and introspection, a record by dudes who are still foaming at the mouth even as they’re looking at the big picture. At the same time, the rage on this album is never predictable or cliche; if anything, songs like “Ouroboros,” “A Sight to Behold,” and “The Art of Dying” show just how complicated and jarring true fury at the world can be. It’s impossible to hear this record and not at some point think, Fuck, what was HAPPENING to these dudes?
2. Slipknot, Iowa (2001)
Listening to Iowa is like watching a caterpillar emerge from its cocoon only to discover it has somehow become a hornet. Slipknot’s transformation from costume party to misanthropic cultural force surely mystified nu-metal’s many wannabe rock stars, but those who took the record to heart shed their fashionable skin and became the monsters they were always meant to be. From allying themselves with Satan to calling out the very scene that made them famous, the nine maniacs behind this record left no stone unturned and no bug beneath it uneaten. After the release of their self-titled debut, these guys had two options: lay on the polish or go crawling around in the sewer. They chose the latter, and the metal world will forever be stronger for it.
1. Soilwork, Natural Born Chaos (2002)
In the roiling genre shift of the early 2000s, Soilwork showed the world that you could make an album that was technically nuanced, hard to label, and, in the end, brilliantly complete. Natural Born Chaos is the ultimate metal album one can listen to from beginning to end, front to back. Every single track thereon is a beautiful coming together of what makes metal worth listening to — punches, soars, big choruses, earworm riffs, air guitar solos, moments of emotional pause, and the overwhelming feeling that within one’s self lies a strength beyond their comprehension. For years after its release, countless bands — including Soilwork themselves — would try to capture the aggressive, ethereal magic that lies on this record, but none could ever come close. Simply put, it does not get any better than this.
Words by Chris Krovatin