Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax stand as the pillars on which much of heavy music as we know it rests. Each with its distinctive sound and impact, the Big Four collectively forged a sonic revolution that shaped the trajectory of metal in the 1980s. Metallica’s anthemic prowess and genre-defying evolution, Slayer’s unrelenting aggression and bleak themes, Megadeth’s virtuosic precision and socio-political commentary, and Anthrax’s infectious energy and crossover appeal together epitomize the spirit of thrash.
Their albums are like pillars of a musical temple, influencing countless bands across the musical spectrum. Decades on, their legacy endures, and the Big Four remain the bedrock of thrash, icons whose sonic echoes continue to reverberate in the ears of metal enthusiasts worldwide.
These are the Ten Best Albums from the Big Four of Thrash:
10. Anthrax – Spreading The Disease
The joyful celebration of thrash metal’s ascent, Anthrax’s 1985 sophomore album shows the band at their most endearing. The additions of bassist Frank Bello and vocalist Joey Belladonna served to highlight the strengths of the returning trio, resulting in unforgettable tracks like “Aftershock,” “Gung-Ho,” and “Medusa.” Following the well-intentioned yet inconsistent Fistful Of Metal, the nine tracks on Spreading The Disease were a giant leap forward for the band; offering the kind of immediate catchiness and instrumental intricacy that showed the world that the burgeoning genre wasn’t all about Satanism, cynicism, and misery.
9. Metallica – …And Justice For All
Long before the St. Anger snare drum became Metallica’s production controversy du jour, there was another infamous choice: the nearly-inaudible bass of Jason Newsted on his debut album with the band. While Hetfield and Ulrich claimed it was their artistic preference, theories about the real reason range from the sad yet acceptable (mourning the death of Cliff Burton) to the straight-up dark (it was part of a psychologically sadistic initiation). Driven by the dark opus “One,” …And Justice For All marked a commercial triumph for Metallica despite the contentious mix. Its intricate songwriting ventured into uncharted territories, embracing complex structures and unique time signatures. Nominated for the first metal Grammy, the album suffered a memorable loss to Jethro Tull in one of the Recording Academy’s most ridiculed decisions.
8. Slayer – Seasons In The Abyss
For a band that comes from the underground, few barbs sting more than the dreaded accusation of “selling out.” Slayer might have gotten a taste of the backlash when they decided to follow up the relentless Reign In Blood with the decidedly slower South Of Heaven, but that was nothing compared to the eruption of fury that came when they released a music video for the title track of Seasons In The Abyss. Fortunately for us all, the skeptics have been silenced by the sands of time. Seamlessly blending the melodic respites of South Of Heaven with moments of relentless speed reminiscent of the Reign In Blood-era, Seasons In The Abyss is the pure encapsulation of everything that makes Slayer great.
7. Megadeth – Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying?
Building on the strong foundation laid by their debut album the previous year, Megadeth Truly found their voice on this 1986 sophomore effort. Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? solidified Dave Mustaine and company’s reputation as a thrash force to be reckoned with, especially in context regarding the guitarist’s former band, Metallica. Mustaine’s songwriting brilliance shines through in the explosively arranged tracks like “The Conjuring” and the iconic title track, the latter of which exploded into the public consciousness as the theme music for MTV News.
6. Metallica – Ride The Lightning
On their sophomore album, Metallica began showing signs of sonic evolution reaching well beyond the meat-and-potatoes thrash of the genre-defining Kill ‘em All. While some purist headbangers might have felt alienated by the inclusion of a dark power ballad and a radio-friendly track, time has proven the elitists wrong and Ride The Lightning is now widely regarded as one of the greatest metal records of all time. The album introduced beloved classics like the thunderous “Creeping Death,” the melodic funeral march of “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” and the somber epic “Fade To Black.” Even though Metallica famously disavows the pop-metal “Escape,” it’s a worthy addition to the canon compared to some later material.
5. Slayer – South Of Heaven
They might have broken the mold with Reign In Blood, but Slayer’s fourth studio album marked another pivotal moment in the band’s descent into hell. After the breakneck speed of their previous album, headbangers were initially shocked and dismayed by the slower tempos and cleaner production of South Of Heaven. This initial trepidation eventually melted into enthusiastic acceptance, as mid-tempo grooves in tracks like “Mandatory Suicide” and “Behind the Crooked Cross” acted as bludgeoning weapons next to the hauntingly atmospheric title track. It might have taken a while for the proletariat to warm up to the record, but time provides clarity and South Of Heaven is now regarded as one of Slayer’s finest moments.
4. Anthrax – Among The Living
The magnum opus of east coast thrash, Among The Living encapsulates the very essence of the genre by delivering relentless, unwavering energy that borders on euphoria. A masterclass in sequencing, Anthrax pull no punches with the iconic trifecta of powerful and downright catchy tracks, “Among the Living,” “Caught in a Mosh,” and “I Am the Law,” that open up their third studio album. Scott Ian and Charlie Benante’s songwriting prowess shines throughout, while Joey Belladonna’s vocal delivery exudes charisma and precision. Tapping into the zeitgeist of their era, the band made it a point to address issues relevant to their teenage audience and weaving in references to Stephen King and comic books. Among The Living isn’t just an album; it’s a statement of the times and a celebration of all things thrash.
3. Megadeth – Rust In Peace
The turn of the new decade was a rough time for many of the quintessential thrash bands of the ‘80s. Rather than phoning it in like so many of their contemporaries, Megadeth kicked off the ‘90s with a bang and delivered their crowning achievement, Rust In Peace. Dave Mustaine’s intricate, razor-sharp guitar work and intelligent lyricism take center stage, crafting a sonic tapestry that is both technically awe-inspiring and thematically thought-provoking. The album shows Megadeth operating at the peak of their abilities, with standout tracks like “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due” and “Hangar 18” demonstrating the band’s sheer virtuosity and songwriting finesse. Touching on themes of war, politics, and the human condition, the record is a testament to Megadeth’s artistic and intellectual depth, making it an undisputed classic.
2. Metallica – Master Of Puppets
One of the crown jewels of thrash metal, Metallica’s third album shows an impeccable balance of technical prowess and songwriting brilliance. Lulled into a false sense of security due to a melodic intro, the listener is catapulted into a whirlwind of blazing riffs and thunderous rhythm the moment “Battery” kicks off. It never lets up from there, as each song on Master Of Puppets is a masterclass in speed and control. The title track is a sonic odyssey, shifting tempos and moods with surgical precision. “Disposable Heroes” is a tragic war epic, while “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” highlights the band’s ability to blend melody with aggression. Entrenched in lyrical themes that range from the futility of combat to addiction, James Hetfield’s words are knives in the heart that perfectly speak to the nonstop haymaker punches of the music itself. With Master of Puppets, Metallica set a new standard that countless bands will strive to reach until the end of time. “Master of Puppets” isn’t just a thrash metal album; it’s a timeless masterpiece of the genre.
1. Slayer – Reign In Blood
What? Did you really think it would be Master Of Puppets? Grow up.