The '90s were a turbulent decade for heavy metal. It saw the death of the hair bands, the rise of grunge and the short-lived popularity of nu-metal. The underground scene thrived throughout the decade, and there were some fantastic releases by big-name bands as well. Here are my choices for the top 20 heavy metal albums released in the 1990s.
Megadeth's fourth album is a thrash masterpiece. Dave Mustaine and Marty Friedman's riffs are outstanding, and there are also several really good solos throughout the album. The songwriting on Rust In Peace is really strong, with a lot of complexity and variety in song structure, tempo and style. Highlights include "Hanger 18" and "Tornado Of Souls." It is the best heavy metal album released in the 1990s.
While Cowboys From Hell paved the way, Vulgar Display Of Power cemented Pantera as a massively influential force in metal. They took thrash to the next level with more anger and extremity and harsher vocals. Dimebag Darrell's guitar work was incomparable, and this album found Pantera putting all the ingredients together into a lethal combination that was their strongest all around release.
Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk is more complex than Emperor's debut, and classical keyboards add depth and melody. The atmosphere is icy cold and bleak, and Ihsahn uses a combination of screaming, singing and spoken word vocals. Emperor improved in all aspects, from songwriting to musicianship to production, and this album is a black metal classic.
Metallica's self-titled album is better known as "The Black Album." Commercially this was Metallica's most successful album, with the hit singles "Enter Sandman," "Nothing Else Matters" and "The Unforgiven." It was a return to basics for the group, and it worked. The songs are more straightforward and less experimental than their previous couple albums, and that focus brought forth some outstanding songs.
The Chemical Wedding was Bruce Dickinson's last solo album before rejoining Iron Maiden (he released another while a band member in 2005) and also his best. Dickinson has one of the great voices in metal and that, combined with excellent songwriting and outstanding guitar work from Roy Z and Adrian Smith, made this CD so good. From uptempo anthems to mid-tempo groovers to power ballads, there's not a bit of filler.
Even though it sold probably a tenth the number of copies as the Metallica album that was also released in 1991, Sepultura's Arise is nearly as good, and has really held up well over the years. The Brazilian band's style of thrash is brutal and unforgiving with a lot of death metal influences and harsh vocals from Max Cavalera. In addition to their extremity, Sepultura also shows a lot of creativity and versatility on this album.
This is Slayer's second best album, after the classic Reign In Blood. Seasons In The Abyss combines the intensity of that album with a little more melody. The band refined their sound, but without losing any of their anger or aggression. From the bone rattling opener "War Ensemble" to the slower "Expendable Youth," Slayer shows they can crush at any tempo.
Following up the classic Rust In Peace was a difficult task, but Megadeth changed things up and went in a more focused direction. The songs on Countdown To Extinction were shorter and also more accessible. Songs like "Symphony Of Destruction" and "Sweating Bullets" are some of their best. The album made it to number 2 on the Billboard charts, and was the band's commercial peak.
When it comes to death metal, it simply doesn't get much better than this. Death is one of the most influential bands in the history of the genre, and Human is a classic. They were hitting on all cylinders with great musicianship, improved songwriting, insightful lyrics and an excellent vocal performance from Chuck Schuldiner. This is an essential album if you're a fan of death metal.
Chaos A.D. was in the middle of the run of exceptional albums Sepultura released between 1989's Beneath The Remains and 1996's Roots. Chaos A.D. was a masterful CD with music that was laser focused with complex rhythms and so many different elements packed into each song. The band took risks and infused some native sounds as well. The final result is an album that's a little slower in tempo than some of their previous releases, but the groove is stronger, and the experimentation worked.