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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 (33)
  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,

  19. Awesome job Adrien……no one is ever going to be happy with someone else’s top whatever list but I think you pretty much know your shit about JP. That is all anyone should really ask for when writing an article; that the writer is familiar with the material they are writing about.

    Anyway, having Judas Priest being my first concert experience for the Screaming for Vengeance tour and seeing them for Defenders of the Faith, I was unfortunately a fan during the 80′s. However, those two albums hold a special place in my heart. I of course started buying all their previous albums during my teens. You couldn’t imagine my awe upon first seeing the British Steel album in the rack; the razor appearing to be half way through all the fingers. I still remember buying that album. I kind of lost track of them after the Turbo album. Although it is funny that I just found 20 Judas Priest Turbo stickers. They are round with the album artwork…….still in great shape. But I have no idea what the hell to do with them…..put them on my new 2014 car? I don’t think so.

    I’d say for the past few years I have been listening mostly to Sin after Sin. I’d say that would be my favorite album believe it or not. Maybe album #2 is in second and album #4 in third (or vice versa). Dissident Aggressor being my favorite song.

    Lastly, if anything, I’d move up their new album, “Redeemer of Souls”. So many great songs on that album…….can’t stop listening to it. Ritchie Faulkner is pretty incredible although I’m surprised on how many solos he plays on the album. He sounds quick and accurate……I’d say over 80% of the solos are from him. But they sound incredible playing together. I would have included the bonus songs on the album and taken out tracks 7-9 along with Never Forget and Creatures. Still waiting each year for the RnR Hall of Fame induction!

  20. I really enjoyed reading this list. However, I must respectfully disagree with you on your review of Ram It Down. While the lyrics are certainly cheesy and silly at times, I think the music is a lot stronger than you give it credit for. It’s heavy, energetic, and in-your-face. Priest’s willingness to experiment and adapt over the decades has truly been a testament to their longevity and Ram It Down is an underrated part of that. It’s actually one of their more fun, entertaining albums. Also, I think Jugulator is quite a bit better than Demolition. Ripper’s vocals are outstanding and the music is a lot more varied than the mid-paced, grinding madness of Demolition which gets SO BORING. That being said, I enjoyed reading this a great deal and can’t wait to see more.

  21. A few weeks ago, I ranked all the Judas Priest studio records with Rob Halford only. And while I was doing that, I came across this list. I nearly changed some of my rankings because of it. But I decided to stick to my guns. It was very difficult to do. I went back and forth on several of my choices and at times still do. But here’s what I came up with. Enjoy if you like reading another fan’s list.

    1.) Screaming for Vengeance, 1982. This is the album where Priest finally nailed down the sound and attitude we all know them for today. And of course, it’s got the all-time hit “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming” and the excellent “Hellion/Electric Eye” opener.
    2.) Defenders of the Faith, 1984. Priest continued to ride the momentum of its last album with this classic. You could argue this is as good as “Screaming.” There’s not a bad song on here. My fave? “Love Bites.”
    3.) British Steel, 1980. Some of you may be incredulous that I didn’t put this at No. 1. No doubt, this is a great album with some of their greatest hits, like “Breaking the Law,” “Living After Midnight,” and my fave, “Metal Gods.” This is definitely their breakthrough album that made them rock stars. But by a hair, I’m stickin’ with what I got.
    4.) Painkiller, 1990. This is THE metal album of Priest’s catalog. It also marks one of the most amazing comebacks in rock history after they had sold their souls to hair metal. (More on that later…jump to the bottom of the list if you can’t wait.) They changed drummers and it was like the band was totally recharged. Amazing, amazing record. Not a bad song on it. And then they broke up. Go figure. My fave: “A Touch of Evil.”
    5.) Redeemer of Souls, 2014. The next most amazing comeback in Priest history. K.K. retires. Rob’s voice is toast. The band is, quite simply, old. But they bring in a new 30-year-old guitar phenom and the band is reborn. Again, not a bad song on here, even the 5 bonus tracks are solid. Rob utilizes his lower register to near perfection, proving he is one of, if not the greatest, singer in metal history.
    6.) Nostradamus, 2008. This was the concept record Priest always wanted to make but never did until this came out. Sadly, it was a bust commercially. But for me, this is one of their best records. The song writing is superb, Rob’s voice is great and they do a masterful job of combing metal with opera and Broadwayeque theater. I really wanted to see them perform this entire album with all the theatrics. It may still happen but time is running out. They’re not getting any younger.
    7.) Hell Bent for Leather (also known as Killing Machine), 1979. I love this record and almost picked it ahead of British Steel. One of the things I love about ‘70s Priest is that metal was still evolving. No one really knew what metal was yet so bands like this could experiment with different sounds and styles of writing. It has the classics of “Delivering the Goods” and “Hell Bent for Leather” but it also has some lesser known rockers like “Running Wild” and yes, the disco-inflected “Burning Up,” which has a great groovy guitar riff with lyrics full of clever sexual innuendo. A must-have for any Priest fan.
    8.) Stained Class, 1978. “Hell Bent” beat this record out by a thread. Unlike their next two records, this is a dark album, which is why I love it. Metal is supposed to be dark and heavy. Personal fave: “Saints in Hell.” If that doesn’t say it all, nothing does. Perfect for Halloween.
    9.) Sin After Sin, 1977. This album has the heaviest, most metal song of their ‘70s records – “Dissident Aggressor.” Throw in “Sinner” and “Starbreaker” and wow, this album is way ahead of its time.
    10.) Sad Wings of Destiny, 1976. I almost picked this ahead of “Sin After Sin.” You really can’t go wrong either way. It’s got the classics “Victim of Changes” and “The Ripper” and the more obscure but no less excellent “Tyrant” and “Genocide.” This was a band that was starting to find its way and then some.
    11.) Point of Entry, 1981. This was kind of an odd album, which is probably why I almost forgot about it. It comes in between their two major breakthrough albums – “British Steel” and “Screaming for Vengeance.” It opens with the classic “Heading Out to the Highway” but then goes into the plodding but still interesting “Don’t Go” then the up tempo “Hot Rockin’” then the kind of forgettable “Turning Circles” before going into another classic, “Desert Plains” and the solid “Solar Angels.” The rest of the record is just OK. It’s like they didn’t know they were metal studs yet and were still experimenting…and for that, I respect them all the more.
    11.) Angel of Retribution, 2005. This was their reunion record when Rob returned to the band. This is a solid effort but breaks no new ground and the lyrics are pretty weak. They tried to throw in song titles of old songs into the new songs and I understand why – for nostalgic reasons – but it made the lyrics sound forced.
    12.) Rocka Rolla, 1974. Priest’s debut record. Not terrible but not great either. Poor production didn’t help. This was a band that was still trying to find its identity. You can hear the blues and prog influences. But you can also hear the galloping guitar riffs that metal would become known for in songs like the title track and “Cheater.”
    13.) Turbo, 1986. Sigh. OK, yes, it has the classic “Turbo Lover.” That was my introduction to Priest and I still love that song. I was a 16-year-old sophomore in high school when this came out so I am a true ‘80s child. The Turbo tour was Priest’s most successful. Hot chicks were finally going to their shows. But let’s be real here, they sold their souls to get that successful. And even though I say that, it’s really not an awful album. It’s a pop record. I still like “Out in the Cold” and “Locked In” even if the lyrics are cheesy. But I don’t think it would be a good idea to play “Parental Guidance” now. We don’t need to see a bunch of balding gray-hairds chanting “We don’t need no parental guidance here.”
    14.) Ram It Down, 1988. Double sigh. The band simply sounds lost on this record. Outside of the title track and “Blood Red Skies,” throw the rest in the garbage. They tried to give the fans what they wanted with a heavier record and while yes, it’s heavier than “Turbo,” the songs just aren’t there. They still sound like they’re paying too much attention to the hair metal bands that were dominating the airwaves at that time instead of making their own mark on metal. Thankfully, they did just that with “Painkiller.”

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