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  • Black Sabbath Albums From Worst To Best
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Few bands can claim to have invented an entire genre of music. The Beatles didn’t do it. The Beach Boys and visionary writer and producer Brian Wilson didn’t do it. Frank Zappa didn’t do it. Black Sabbath, a band once filleted by rock critics like Lester Bangs and targeted by generations of parents for allegedly ruining their children’s lives, did. In the course of their long career (44 years and counting), Black Sabbath altered the sound of music, became a cornerstone for every teenager who didn’t fit in and, in the process, redefined what was possible in rock.

Sabbath wrested rock away from saccharine producers, naïve hippies, and idealists, and gave it back to the folks that inspired blues music: the lonely, the desperate, the fucked-up, and the hopeless. Whereas blues offered a respite and a vacation from the dark night of the soul, Sabbath offered a trip to its heart. Their music allows you to confront your primal fears and, in the course of listening, transcend them. It also made — and makes — you feel completely alive. That’s the riddle of Sabbath; a song like “War Pigs” can unite a stadium and create a makeshift family.

For most of the fans who loved Sabbath the T-shirt that read “Black Sabbath Ruined My Life” was the ultimate inside joke. If Sabbath did anything, it was save our lives. Let’s go on a ledge: Black Sabbath might be the most influential band of our lifetime, the band that introduced what we think of as heaviness and wrote albums that will never be matched, much less copied. Black Sabbath changed the world, opening the minds of our embryonic cells to the never-ending well that is inspiration, the spirit, and the soul. Their music sparked one of the few revolutions that worked, a revolution of like-minded kids with guitars and dreams who didn’t want to fit in or work the system; they wanted to find their way out. Those kids founded bands like Iron Maiden, Slayer, Venom, and Celtic Frost. In the world of metal, Sabbath is magnetic north; all compasses point to it, the alpha and omega.

The visionaries that started Black Sabbath — guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, and drummer Bill Ward — rose beyond their humble beginnings in post-WWII England to become a global phenomenon, the fathers of heavy metal. To see how influential Sabbath is you only need to look at recent history; the band that once played dives in Germany and England decades later held a global press conference — the kind of event typically reserved for Hollywood elites — based on the news that they’d be writing a new record. Or, just go to your local record store — if there’s one left in your town — and spend time in the heavy metal section. That section of the store is there because of Black Sabbath. You might as well call it the Sabbath section.

Despite their ubiquity and the press around brand-new comeback album 13 — which just debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, their first time ever topping the charts — the roots of Black Sabbath aren’t the roots associated with success, with boundless creativity, even with systemic change. Their work ethic and sound was forged in industrial wastelands and hopeless, dead-end neighborhoods. The young Sabs played in scarred husks of buildings left after Germans bombed England during World War II. Their parents were of the generation that fought in that world-defining conflict; as children, the Sabs grew up around the emotions and problems that would fuel their best music: hopelessness, despair, addiction, and the unflinching hand of Fate. The apparition in their eponymous song — the figure in black, pointing — could have been a foreman consigning them to a life of hard labor only broken up by a few hours at the pub at shift’s end.

Early in their lives, the members of Sabbath appeared headed in a similar dead-end direction: Iommi worked in a sheet metal factory and thought his musical career was doomed when he lost the tips of two fingers, the most famous injury in rock history. He later learned to play around the injury — and altered his sound — thanks to the creative use of glue (with an assist from the Django Reinhardt catalog). Ozzy — who advertised his vocal services in an ad that said “Ozzy Zig Needs Gig” — worked in a slaughterhouse and a car horn factory. Butler and Ward came from similar humble circumstances.

The earliest versions of Sabbath were almost derailed when Iommi got an opportunity to play with Jethro Tull. He was poised for success — and even appeared in the Rolling Stones’ Rock N’ Roll Circus — but quickly decided that his future lay elsewhere. We’re all musically richer for Iommi’s decision to go his own direction, as he recounts in his biography Iron Man:

After I came back from London I said to the rest of the band: if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it seriously and really work at it, starting with rehearsals at nine o’clock in the morning. Sharp! We booked a place in the Newtown Community Centre in Aston, across the road from a cinema, and started a whole new regime.

Sabbath’s long career has yielded an array of musical riches: the blues drenched debut; the career-defining classic Paranoid; the progressive leanings of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath; the vocal heroics of the Dio era, and the eccentricities of Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan’s brief dalliance with the kings of metal. Like you would expect from any band with four-plus decades of history, Sabbath’s catalog is enormous and full of changes and detours, successes and also albums unworthy of the name Black Sabbath.

AC/DC — another product of the ’70s — kept their sound and approach intact when original vocalist Bon Scott died and was replaced with Brian Johnson. Sabbath changed with the vocalists and times. The one constant through every incarnation has been riff master Iommi, who loaned his wares both to classic albums and records that, while intriguing, could never compete with the classic lineup or the Dio albums.

In today’s hyperspeed musical world, four decades is the equivalent of a glacial shift. You could look at the pieces of Sabbath’s career almost like archaeological history. There’s the Ozzy era, which began when the band formed as the Polka Talk Blues Band and was called Earth before settling on the name on Black Sabbath, reportedly influenced by a Mario Bava horror matinee. The “classic” Sabbath lineup created their best-known albums, including Paranoid, Volume 4, and Master Of Reality, and lesser albums like Never Say Die! For some, this is the only lineup and the only Sabbath records that matter.

When Ozzy was fired for his addictions and teamed with Randy Rhoads to launch his solo career — the pair collaborated on the essential Blizzard Of Ozz and Diary Of A Madman records — the second wave of Sabbath began. The original lineup recruited vocalist Ronnie James Dio. Dio’s diminutive frame housed a voice that became synonymous with metal vocals. That lineup recorded Heaven And Hell, one of Sabbath’s greatest albums. The bloat of the late Ozzy albums disappeared and the edge returned. Dio’s vocal range allowed Sabbath to go into different directions, whether it was pensive songs like “Children Of The Sea,” rockers like “Country Girl,” or later, “After All” — a near-ballad given a proper outing during the Heaven And Hell tours that, sadly, were a farewell for Dio before he died of cancer in 2010.

The third wave is known as Purple Sabbath, which included the Born Again album and the tours with Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan (which produced some bootlegged concerts and Sabbath renditions of Purple classic “Smoke On The Water).” The lineup is responsible for many rock ’n’ roll stories that worked their way into Spinal Tap (see the individual write-up). The album is an oddity, but also a record that found a cult audience. The famous cover is also one of Sabbath’s perennial T-shirt sellers.

Sabbath throughout the late ’80s and early to mid ’90s was a fluid entity; Iommi partnered with vocalists Glenn Hughes and Tony Martin, and rejoined Dio for Dehumanizer. Metal was shelved as Nirvana ruled the airwaves. While Iommi-only Sabbath floundered, it set up the inevitable reunion of the original four.

A succession of reunions began in 1996. The original four reunited with shows in Birmingham in 1997 and a 1999 headlining appearance at Ozzfest that made the dreams of many longtime fans who’d never seen the original lineup together come true (this writer included). There was talk of a new record, but all we got were two subpar tracks on the Reunion double album: “Psycho Man” and “Selling My Soul.” Fans would wait more than a decade for most of the original lineup to get together and work on a new record.

The reunions continued. At this point Black Sabbath was big business. The Dio lineup reunited in 2007 — called Heaven And Hell for legal reasons — and later recorded the comeback album The Devil You Know. After Dio’s death, the original four got back together but quickly fractured when Ward left due to contract dispute. Rage Against The Machine drummer Brad Wilk replaced him on 13. The move alienated a section of fans; there’s even a Facebook page called “No Bill Ward, No Black Sabbath.”

Trying to list every band that has been influenced by Black Sabbath or every guitarist influenced by Iommi is a task meant for Sisyphus. Yes, Sabbath created a new musical genre. Yet there is nothing completely “new” in Sabbath’s sound; ultimately, it is the fullest expression of a language that began with the blues and evolved into rock music. It wasn’t about what Sabbath invented as how they took readily available tools and created an art form that would be defined by volume, speed, dexterity, and darkness.

Sabbath’s children are legion and ever-multiplying. In honor of their new album 13 — released in early June — we count down their albums from worst to best. Start the Countdown here.

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Comments (48)
  1. I’m cool with this.

  2. We totally need one for Iron Maiden.

    • Cosign. I’d volunteer but I missed a few there between Fear Of The Dark and The Final Frontier.

      • The trick is finding someone willing to listen to the latter-day output long enough to write about it ;-)

        • I’m more than willing to listen to the latter-day output, there’s some great stuff on those albums, Final Frontier in particular; honestly, it bugs me when people dismiss them out of hand (then again, I’m biased as Maiden are my favourite band).

          For the record:

          1. Powerslave
          2. Number of the Beast
          3. Piece of Mind
          4. Seventh Son
          5. Somewhere in Time
          6. Iron Maiden
          7. Killers
          8. Final Frontier
          9. Matter of Life & Death
          10. No Prayer for the Dying
          11. Brave New World
          12. Dance of Death
          13. Fear of the Dark
          14. The X Factor
          15. Virtual XI

      • Well I mean we already know those are gonna be at the bottom.

    • 1. Number of the Beast
      2. Peace of Mind
      3. Powerslave
      4. Seventh Son
      5. Somewhere in Time

      No idea after that nor the pre-Dickenson era.

      Honorable mention to “Live after Death.” One of the greatest live albums of all time. In fact if that was the only Iron Maiden album you owned you’d be ok.

      • 1. Powerslave (don’t let anyone tell you Number Of The Beast is better)
        2. Piece Of Mind
        3. Number Of The Beast
        4. Killers
        5. Seventh Son

      • Pre-Dickenson is really great. Don’t sleep on it.

        • Seconded. I’d put the self titled as my #1, but that’s just me.

          • I completely agree. The first Maiden album is their best and one of the best ever by anyone.

            1. Iron Maiden
            2. Piece of Mind
            3. Powerslave
            4. Killers
            5. Seventh Son
            6. Number of the Beast
            7. Somewhere in Time

          • 1. 7th son
            2. piece of mind
            3. number of the beast
            4. iron maiden
            5. powerslave
            6. killers
            7. somewhere in time
            8. brave new world
            9. fear of the dark
            10. dance of death
            11. a matter of life and death
            12. the final frontier
            13. the x factor
            14. no prayer for the dying
            15. virtual xi

  3. I’ve always been drawn to Vol 4 because of the specific highlights more than the album itself — Supernaut is their best-ever song, as far as I’m concerned — but this order makes perfect sense. The classics are the kind of classics that we never get anymore, but there’s so much gold buried in the back catalog. The Dio records are fucking brilliant, and completely different from Sabbath v.1.0.

    Killer list!

  4. What a great piece. A few random thoughts –

    1. I’m glad you acknowledge that Martin is underrated. Like Born Again, Headless Cross and Eternal Idol are really solid metal records if you just ignore the fact that they’re credited to a band called “Black Sabbath.” Weird how out of place Gillen sounds on the Eternal Idol stuff.

    2. I’ve never heard Seventh Star but now I sort of want to. I recall my Sabbath-obsessed dad literally throwing that cassette in the garbage.

    3. You make a good case for Sabotage, but I still think that record…kinda stinks? It’s always just sounded like a dentist’s drill to me.

    4. Heaven & Hell over Vol. 4 is lunacy, Justin. Lunacy!

    But again, great piece. You’re a braver man than I.

  5. A well written, but somewhat bizarre accounting of the one of the most interesting catalogs rock has yet to see.

    13 placing below albums like Born Again? I enjoy the latter, and the title track was brilliant, but this is just someone not paying attention or struggling mightily to comprehend the real genius of Sabbath.

    I think Sabotage is their best album. I’d probably follow that with Vol. 4 and then Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.

    I really like Never Say Die and find it a strangely underrated record. Technical Ecstasy also has moments of excellence. Not sure where the new one would place but definitely Top 10. I think it is fantastic.

    One note of correction: Rick Wakeman appears on “Sabbra Cadabra,” but all other keyboards on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath are done by Tony, Geezer, and Ozzy. More specific breakdowns of who plays what on what are contained in the liner notes that came with the original LP, and most CD versions.

    • Thanks, Thomas. Duly noted on Wakeman.

      In terms of your comment I think I would completely agree that I am ‘struggling mightily to comprehend the real genius of Sabbath.’ That’s what draws me back to the catalog over and over and over again. I’m thinking it’s what draws you back as well. There’s so much amazing stuff and so much to listen to and argue over that you could spend your life doing it. I kind of already have seeing as I started listening to Sabbath when I was barely a teenager.

      Born Again is a secret gem. There are so many amazing songs on it: “Trashed, “Zero The Hero,” “Disturbing The Priest,” etc. I adore the record. I honestly think an album like 13 feels sterile and all Pro-Tooled out compared to the raw beauty of Born Again. But hey, we agree to disagree and that’s totally cool. We both love the band.

      Thanks for reading and your thoughtful comments.

    • You seem to be closest to my Sabbath tastes as anyone here…I think the problem with NSD lies in the consistency from first to last song and the production…but it has its shining moments no doubt….same could almost be said for tech ech..but it is a bit more consistent and has my fave Iommi soloing on one track (You wont change me).

  6. It’s a great article, though I do find it kinda funny that the writer bashes Bangs for being dismissive of MoR so early on, yet he basically does the same thing with 13.

  7. Master of Reality is my personal favorite, but can’t really say anything bad about this list.

  8. 1. Vol. 4
    2. Sabotage
    3. Paranoid
    4. Master Of Reality
    5. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath

  9. The tritone interval is NOT a minor 3rd. The tritone is a diminished 5th aka augmented 4th. It is somewhat confusingly called a tritone because the interval encompasses 3 whole steps or tones.

    In recent years I have been partial to the first two Dio albums simply because of the long, awful shadow of ‘The Osbournes’. However, maybe enough time has passed that Ozzy can now resume simply being the original lead singer of Sabbath and the guy who introduced Randy Rhoads to the world.

    • I loved Randy seen him 3 times with ozzy in fact….but his attempts at Iommi solos live were almost comical….Zakk did a much better job in this area as he seemed as much influenced by the the classic English bluesy guitarists as the “California” Van Halen hammer on style which Randy played

  10. Great article. Like others I would raise “Volume 4″ up a few notches. Nice thought out list.

  11. Question – Is there a genre or era so far removed from the tastes of Stereogum’s core audience that prospective commentors don’t even have an opinion about it?

    Answer – Not yet.

  12. Paranoid is the album where everything came together for Sabbath, but Vol. 4 is where they found perfection.

  13. excellent article first off…but in his countdown it seems like this dude puts to much importance on Dio and Dio clone Martins Sabbath releases…. Heaven and hell is classic no doubt….but it only beats out Never say die and tech ech from the original fours albums imo. 13 sits about tie with Tech ech for me but should improve with further listens as most everything does. Now I got it better than NSD but not better than H&H.

    I usually go Sabotage one Sabbath bloody 2 then u can put Masters, Vol 4, Paranoid and Black Black in a blender for my third pick….I guess I loved the studio maturity of the band on Sabotage and SBS…something ironically ozzy did not like…

    • Thanks for reading. I’m not sure I put too much emphasis on them…the three Dio releases are in the top 10, where they belong, and the earliest a Martin release appears is at 12. NSD and Technical can’t touch the Dio albums in my opinion. And 13; I get that lots of people love it but I do think that the insatiable desire to have anything Sabbath related out there is skewing opinions.

      • That’s incredibly closed minded of you. Maybe you should try listening to 13 without dwelling on the Bill Ward debacle or the false impression that Ozzy’s voice was atuo-tuned (it wasn’t). I would actually rank it before Sabotage on the basis that 13 sounds like a Sabbath album, and aside from a few songs (Symptom of the Universe and Hole in the Sky), could have been by any other prog-rock band from the 70′s

    • Thanks Greg. I’m not sure I put too much emphasis on Martin — none of those albums even crack the top ten. All three Dio albums belong in the top ten; I just don’t think the latter day Ozzy albums are as strong. Viva Sabbath.

    • Yeah, Sabotage is an incredibly interesting and fun album. It’s weird to see it usually placed among the lower tier of the first six albums. I’d have it number 2.

  14. hi .. nice post

    • j­u­s­t a­s S­a­n­d­r­a e­x­pl­a­i­n­e­d I c­a­n­n­o­t b­e­l­i­e­v­e t­h­a­t a m­o­t­h­e­r a­b­l­e t­o g­e­t p­a­i­d $­8­0­7­3 i­n 4 w­e­e­k­s o­n t­h­e i­n­t­e­r­n­e­t. d­i­d y­o­u r­e­a­d t­h­i­s w­e­b p­a­g­e… b­u­z­z­9­0.c­ℴm

  15. I’m not pleased at all with this list, particularly with Never Say Die not being in the top ten. It is a difficult task to rate the superiority or significance of thirteen albums that are in my humble opinion not to be considered Sabbath albums at all. After Ozzy’s departure Black Sabbath became a corporate marketed brand. Dio, Hughes and Ian era albums were great but dont pour Pepsi in a Coke bottle and sell it to me as Coke, yes it may be delicious but its not what I paid for. Heaven and Hell, and mob Rules sound more like Rainbow than Sabbath.I’m grateful for Iommi’s dedication to the Black Sabbath brand but I still feel slighted for not having Bill Ward on 13. Listen to Bills drumming on Johnny blade, Iommis guitar on Into the Void, Geezers bass on wicked World and Ozzy’s vocals on War Pigs, for me that is Black Sabbath and anything less falls short.

    • Thanks for reading Mark. Like I mentioned in the essay, there are some people who think only the Ozzy albums matter. Sounds like you are one of them.

      I completely agree with your point on Bill Ward r/e 13. Wilk’s drumming just doesn’t work for me. Bill Ward is one of the greats and his playing can’t be matched. I don’t know if he could have saved the record, but he could have improved it.

    • Did you hear Bill play on the 2005 tour? not the video’s the band put up, but just ay given concert? He kept losing time, and his fills were just pitiful at that point. I honestly don’t think that if he drummed on 13 it would sound any different then the way Brad plays. Of course, it has been my opion since listening to Sabbath that Bill Ward was kind of overrated.

  16. I wish you would have folded “The Devil You Know” into this list. Bet you milled that one over in your head a bit before deciding against it. Good job! :)

    • I do consider it the last Dio Sabbath album but couldn’t include it because of semantics. It has to be a ‘Black Sabbath’ record. But in many ways it’s more of a Sabb album than the late 80s and 90s records.

  17. Are any other metal heads really happy that stereogum is slowly talking about more and more metal? It’s really nice to have a place to discuss this stuff, you commenters are always good fora great conversation. In terms of Sabbath:

    1.) Paranoid
    2.) Black Sabbath
    3.) Vol 4.
    4.) Sabbath Bloody Sabbath
    5.) Master of Reality

    Others, I don’t really care about I guess.

  18. woozefa  |   Posted on Jun 24th, 2013 -1

    i have never listened to an entire black sabbath album in my life. i wager i am not the only reader of stereogum who could claim this.

  19. I’d have 13 higher (around #10), Heaven & Hell lower (#7), and Master of Reality at #1, but still an interesting list. If nothing else it’s inspired me to go back and revisit some of the albums I hadn’t listened to in a while, which is always a good thing; Never Say Die is better than I remembered!

  20. “As mentioned in every documentary ever produced on metal history, “Black Sabbath” liberally uses the minor third progression, i.e. the Devil’s tritone, an interlude avoided during medieval times.”

    Look, if you’re gonna be blasé about that riff, at least try not to mangle your description of it. It’s emphatically not a minor third, it’s a diminished fifth, or tritone. Also, it’s not called “the Devil’s tritone.” If anything, it’s referred to as “the devil’s interval,” or if we’re gonna get super-nerdy about it, “diabolus in musica” (“the Devil in music”).

    Finally, it’s an “interval,” not an “interlude.”

    I hate being a douche about this stuff, but music critics don’t do themselves any favors by writing egregiously incorrect things about music. You don’t have to go to Juilliard for this; you could’ve just Googled it.

  21. I credit the author for spending quality time with the entire catalog. I’ve not ventured past the first Ozzy era except to confirm that the later stuff is just not my bag. The article got me listening to the Dio stuff once more, though, and I admit that much of it sounds good and tight. But none of the post ’78 stuff would crack my top five. I see it this way :

    1. Vol IV (Unhinged! And has there ever been a better album cover?)
    2. Master of Reality
    3. Paranoid
    4. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (High points are really high but inconsistent.)
    5. Black Sabbath (Some greats but a bit turgid overall.)
    6. Sabotage (Hole in the Sky is incredible, the rest pales.)
    – Never Say Die / Technical Ecstasy (Both pretty bad and I have no problem with rating the Dio stuff higher than these. Dig the NSD album cover though.)

  22. Anyone who’s ignored the first two Dio Sabbath albums is ignoring two of the very best heavy metal/hard rock records ever.

    1. Paranoid
    2. Master of Reality
    3. Heaven and Hell
    4. Vol. 4
    5. Mob Rules
    6. Black Sabbath
    7. Dehumanizer
    8. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath
    9. Sabotage
    10. Never Say Die
    11. Seventh Star
    12. Eternal Idol

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