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Judas Priest is heavy metal personified.

The most important innovator in the genre’s progression after Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, Judas Priest’s influence looms immensely on not only heavy metal’s music, but its visual presentation as well. Historically, the Birmingham band fits neatly in the genre’s second wave alongside Scorpions, UFO, Rainbow, and KISS, a crucial bridge between the music’s older progenitors and what would become the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal in the late 1970s.

More than any of the band’s peers, however, Judas Priest brought an unparalleled level of grandiosity to the music. Starting off as a fairly run-of-the-mill heavy blues rock outfit, named after the Bob Dylan song “The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest,” under the leadership of singer/songwriter Al Atkins, the band started to veer more toward the burgeoning heavy metal sound of the early 1970s when guitarist K.K. Downing took control of Judas Priest, after Atkins was replaced by a kid from nearby Walsall named Rob Halford, whose sister happened to be dating bassist Ian Hill. On the advice of the band’s record label, Gull, a second lead guitarist named Glenn Tipton was brought in to help flesh out the band’s sound, as well as to specifically build on the twin guitar style pioneered by British rockers Wishbone Ash, and after a rather bumpy start on the 1974 debut album Rocka Rolla, the band gelled in stunning fashion on the 1976 follow-up Sad Wings Of Destiny, which rewrote heavy metal’s rulebook, utilizing brash dexterity from the guitars, rampaging speed on the drums, and most notably, a singer with astronomical vocal range. Metal instantly became more extreme, more theatrical, more ostentatious, more powerful than ever before.

If Judas Priest had stopped there, their legacy would be set forever, but bent on honing that sound even further, broadening its audience more, the band continued to evolve with the times while, for the most part, still coming across as a leader and risk-taker. When the band ditched the hippy clothes for leather, spikes, and S&M gear in 1978, it didn’t raise alarm bells in the metal scene; on the contrary, everyone knew the look just fit. Then when Halford was the first major metal figure to come out as gay, surprise gave way to thoughts of, Oh, so that’s what “Eat Me Alive” is really about, and immediately after, acceptance and admiration by the entire metal community.

The breakthrough albums Unleashed In The East and British Steel in 1979 and 1980 coincided perfectly with the sudden rise of Britain’s younger, faster heavy metal phenoms. Then just a few years later, Screaming For Vengeance and Defenders Of The Faith introduced the band to an entirely new generation, especially in North America, where Priest would enjoy their greatest success. Over the course of 40 years, the band would have their peaks and valleys, flourishing in the early ’80s, losing their way late in the decade, redeeming themselves once more in the early 1990s, undergoing a major personnel change for a spell, returning triumphant in 2004, and seeing one of their key members retire six years later.

Because Judas Priest’s discography has been so eclectic over the past 40 years, there are certain specific tiers of Priest fans. You’ve got the older fans as well as the born-too-late crowd who steadfastly stand behind the band’s first four or five albums, followed by those who feel affection for British Steel, the Gen X-ers whose first albums were Screaming For Vengeance and Defenders Of The Faith. Then there are folks who became fans during the Turbo era, people who were in their early teens when Painkiller came out, or in the case of the Millennials, who have Priest’s complete discography at their fingertips, simply picking and choosing favorite albums or tracks, not clouded by sentimentality or bias.

And that, friends, is what makes ranking all 22 Judas Priest albums so damned difficult. How do you weigh Sad Wings, Stained Class, British Steel, Defenders, and Painkiller against each other when they’re so stylistically and sonically different? And what of the live albums, especially Unleashed In The East, one of the greatest live albums heavy metal has ever produced? Or because the lead vocals were completely re-recorded, does Unleashed qualify more as a studio album instead?

In the end, I decided to include all five live releases, and just bite the bullet and rank these albums as objectively as I could, including the band’s latest, Redeemer Of Souls, which came out this week. Like the Iron Maiden and Rush lists I’ve written for Stereogum in the past, all sentimentality for this band I’ve loved for 30 years went out the window — or at least as much as possible — instead focusing on the specific strengths and weaknesses of each record. So some album placements will undoubtedly make some people irate, but in projects like these, the ranking is never as important as the dissection of each album in appreciation and celebration of the artist. So please, read along, and by all means comment with your own thoughts on Priest and their legacy, or just toss in your own album rankings if you think I got it all wrong. No Judas Priest fan’s list is ever wrong. Well, that is, unless you have Ram It Down near the top. You might have some explaining to do then.

Feel free to follow me on Twitter at @basementgalaxy. I’m ready to defend my stance regarding Screaming For Vengeance.

Start the Countdown here.

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Comments (30)
  1. nice job with the list. also, props for having sad wings at #2 (it’s number 1 for me).

    the summary of the ripper owens era was done nicely as well. although he’s no halford, he’s got vocal chops. i had the pleasure of seeing his priest cover band in a bar in streetboro, oh in 1994. it was my friends and his friends. no one else but the bartender. we had a blast and on that night he nailed “victim of changes”.

  2. I haven’t even read through it yet, but this is the most exciting list I’ve seen here yet. I love metal, but for some reason never got into Priest. I’ll be using this as a guide. Thanks Adrien!

  3. Stereogum, when you weren’t looking somebody moved British Steel and Screaming for Vengeance out of the top 5. And that can’t be right.

    Blochead throws double devil horns and drops the mic.
    (a little new skool/old skool move)

  4. I’m expecting Vengeance fans to react strongly, and that’s understandable, it’s such an influential record for my generation. For me it’s a funny album, half brilliant, half filler, and I’ve felt that way for 30 years.

    As for British Steel, I like it a ton, but the edgier Killing Machine will always, always get preference. Besides, “Take on the World” trounces “United”.

  5. That cover photo is gayer than 8 guys blowing 9 guys. Seconds after it was taken a full on leather daddy orgy broke out.

    • Here’s the funny thing……I was born in 1966 and live in a relatively small town in far Northern California. All of us teens were heavy into Priest. And I can assure you it never even DAWNED on us that Rob was gay. I remember when I found out I was inititally shocked. And then thought “Jesus, we were some naive kids back then”

  6. This is great. I’m a relative Priest neophyte. My entry into metal was essentially the first six Black Sabbath albums, jumping five years, and starting in on Maiden. I do have British Steel, which is very good, but a very curious choice to be considered their flagship album (according to most mainstream media). I also have Sad Wings, which is really amazing – especially that run from “Victim of Changes” through to “Deceiver.”

    In your write-up for Sad Wings, you discuss all the great albums that came out in 76 and it’s so true. Such an amazing year for hard rock. Of course, I’ve seen many music critics deride it for being one of the worst years for music ever, but I think they only say that because most music critics seem to have a professional mandate to be wrong.

    My 76 ranking goes:
    1. Jailbreak
    2. Rising
    3. Agents Of Fortune
    4. Sad Wings Of Destiny
    5. 2112
    6. Rocks

    So…who’s going to do that Steely Dan list? King Crimson? Genesis? Slayer? The Band?

  7. My metalhead buddy was kind of furious when I just showed this to him lol but I give anybody who does these extensive list so much credit. 23 albums is A LOT of listening and to write such detailed reviews of each I salute you for your labors. Its easy to see you’re the definition of a fan and even though you didn’t cater to what is probably expected like British Steel in the top 3 or whatever gripe someone has I respect the effort. Especially since you have good reasons for each choice.

    That being said my buddy has been really trying to get me into metal as of late and its working because he started with Judas Priest. Ive always kind of hated the genre but that is changing the more times goes on and the better I get at headbanging. I still haven’t listen to even 5% of their catalog but here’s what my friend said you did wrong:

    “British Steel, Unleashed In The East, Hell Bent For Leather, Screaming For Vengeance have to be top albums for Judas Priest that dude doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about”

    • From what I’ve heard, Sad Wings Of Destiny is most often regarded as the band’s best work.
      Also, I think British Steel is the favorite album of people who have only listened to British Steel.

    • Thanks for such a great response. Hey, if it gets you trying out the music, them mission accomplished. And your bud’s rage is understandable, metal fans are a passionate bunch. I speak from experience!

      • Yup that’s one of the biggest draw for me towards metal, the passion! Told my buddy to bring over all his Maiden and Priest next time he’s over. And you’re welcome much respect and once again great article!

    • Your buddy is right.

    • honestly I take umbrage with your friend’s rankings! British Steel isn’t a top 5 album by any stretch (overrated as hell, even if it is good) and omitting Sad Wings from the 5 is a huge sin.

      I like Screaming much better than Adrien does but Defenders did everything it did and way better.

  8. Definitely not disappointed in this list, glad to see Stained Class as #1 as Beyond the Realms of Death is one of my favorite Priest songs and has my favorite guitar solo of all time. Great list and thanks!

  9. The review about Jugulator is more mythical than the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus…

  10. I know the “greatest hits”, and I love Painkller, but when it comes to classic British metal, I’ve always been much more of a Maiden guy. So this is awesome – just like the Rush one, makes me want to go back and explore a band I should know a lot more about. (Also, is it bad if I admit that I, um, kind of like Jugulator?)

  11. Painkiller is definitely the one for me.

    BTW, Touch of Evil is easily the greatest song ever written about being sodomized by satan.

  12. Great, great list…I don’t think I would change a thing. Really nailed how Defenders improved on Screaming in almost every way (I know that’s an unpopular opinion, but I’ll take The Sentinel over anything on Screaming) and the first time I heard Stained Class it became an instant classic. So great to see it get the #1 spot!

  13. Finally finished! It took me all evening on and off to read this. While my love for Priest and Rob rarely goes beyond Painkiller on repeat for days on end, my interest in their 70′s work is certainly piqued. While largely unknown to me, I did buy Rocka Rolla long long ago and thought all their oldest stuff sounded like that. Ok I was wrong! lol. I will be listening to all the other stuff all day tomorrow along with the new one. BTW, Rocks was playing on my turntable earlier today. Still my favorite Aerosmith album.

  14. Like a lot of commentators have said, I’ll give you credit for even reviewing this criminally underrated band. However, putting “Screaming…” at 9 is really odd. Also “Painkiller” & “British Steel” have to be top 5.

  15. Pleasure reading this list, very nice job. You obviously know your JP.

    Of course as any self-serving metal fan would do, I question a placement or two. I would have to put “Screaming for Vengeance” in the top 5 (and don’t agree that it’s got a lot of filler–I love “Fever” and especially “Devil’s Child”). I’d move that up and take out “Sad Wings,” which, as great an album as it is, is bettered by “Unleashed in the East,” since I happen to think “Victim of Changes” and “The Ripper” benefit from East’s “live” treatment and sound better than their studio counterparts.

    Great article!

  16. I’m REALLY glad Sgum did this. One, for the simple fact that is reminded me to go back and listen to all of their old stuff, which i’ve for some reason never done. Like a lot of people, i really only knew the big 80s albums. I loved those old songs they’d do live, but for some reason never enough to go back and get those albums apparently. Maybe those old ones just weren’t in stock a lot when i was younger, i definitely don’t remember seeing any older ones than Stained Class.

    But the 2nd reason is I’m glad they had the sense to ‘out-source’ this one to someone who clearly REALLY knows what he’s doing. Like everyone else, i’m really impressed with the detail, and ranking them just on the strength of songs and whole albums vs hits/sales is definitely the way to go, for all bands. I’m making my Stained Class/Sad Wings cd for my car as we speak, RAWK N ROOOOWL!

  17. To the writer of this article, your opinion of these albums is a pure fucking shit.To talk shit about Ripper Owens’ Priest Era albums is fucked at best. His contribution to the band was fucking amazing and they wanted it to be more heavy, not because it was the thing to do, but because they wanted to. You’ve got to be fucking deaf to not hear the greatness in those albums. I admit, I love the classic Halford stuff, but Ripper was a fucking monster compared to Halford…..not only could he deliver the high pitched awesomeness of classic Priest but he could bring it into a hellacious dark realm of growl and chaos. He was the kick in the ass that Priest needed and received 10 fold. Critics are not fans….they are assholes with big fucking opinions and chips on their shoulders, paid to spew their vomit inducing judgements on things that true fans love just for the almighty dollar in which it attains. CRITICS BE DAMNED. Without Halford, it was Priest 5.0……and even when Halford returned, the same Ripper Owens Era Heavy Sludge Guitar styled metal remained in full force. So here’s a big middle finger your way, Motherfucker, because Ripper brought it back the glory and kept it alive while Halford was off trying to goth.

  18. I never understood the hatred for Ripper at the time. Halford left the band high and dry and I will always side with the rest of Priest on the split. I would rank both Ripper albums at the middle of the pack. Defenders of The Faith is the best Priest album top to bottom,

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