Rivaled only by Black Sabbath and Judas Priest in regards to influence and impact on the early development of heavy metal, Iron Maiden took the burgeoning musical style to a new and very unique level, starting in the UK in the late-1970s, and soon after, all over the world. Formed in 1975 by bassist Steve Harris and gradually rising within the country’s nascent heavy metal scene that would come to be known as the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, the band developed a clever hybrid of gritty heavy metal that reflected their East London upbringing and a strong progressive-rock tendency, with UFO and Jethro Tull serving as important signposts.
Built around twin guitar harmonies and Harris’ uniquely melodic upper register basslines, Iron Maiden took the flamboyance of Judas Priest’s landmark Sad Wings Of Destiny and brought in more energy, more aggression, more intricacy, which was immediately apparent on the band’s self-titled debut album in 1980. Thanks to some key lineup changes — the additions of singer Bruce Dickinson, guitarist Adrian Smith, and drummer Nicko McBrain solidified the “classic” Maiden lineup alongside Harris and guitarist Dave Murray — shrewd marketing that future metal bands would copy for decades, and visionary management, the band would quickly become one of the biggest acts in the genre in the mid-1980s. However, that’s only one third of a remarkable story. The 1990s would be as creatively and commercially dismal as the 1980s were successful, but the band would rebound in an astonishing way in the 2000s with a series of strong albums and groundbreaking world tours. Today, with a new generation having caught on to their timeless music, the band is more popular globally than they ever were before, one of the biggest moneymakers in the music business.
Like any other band that’s been around for well over three decades, it’s easy at first to separate the good albums from the worst, but with Maiden it quickly becomes an interesting conundrum when it comes to ranking them. The fact is, as sterling as their reputation is, there is no such thing as a perfect Iron Maiden studio album. Either an album has at least one little bit of gristle, or just isn’t as prime a cut as others, which is why when you ask longtime Maiden fans to name which album is best, you’ll likely get some strong differences in opinion. The fun thing about Iron Maiden is that the music means so much to people, that the fans’ choices of their favorite is often the first Maiden album they ever heard. For yours truly, a fan of 30 years and counting, that’s Powerslave; it is my personal favorite Maiden album, hands down. But it’s not their best, and the challenge of this massive list, which has been months in the works, has been to remove all sentimentality and assess this band with a strictly objective critical ear.
Will certain rankings ruffle a few feathers? Knowing the passion of metal fans, most likely (sorry kids, “Fear Of The Dark” is a terrible song). But the great thing about lists like these is that they provoke discussion, and there’s no better discography to dissect, celebrate, criticize, and discuss than that of the greatest heavy metal band that ever walked the earth. Okay, now that’s my personal bias speaking. Enjoy. Start the Countdown here.
Postscript: Because there will be some nitpicky fans that will likely demand to know why the live releases aren’t ranked in detail, here you go.
1. Live After Death (1985)
2. Rock In Rio (2002)
3. En Vivo! (2012)
4. Beast Over Hammersmith (2002)
5. Maiden England ’88 (2013)
6. Maiden Japan (1981)
7. Flight 666 (2009)
8. BBC Archives (2002)
9. Death On The Road (2005)
10. A Real Dead One (1993)
11. Live At Donington (1993)
12. A Real Live One (1993)