Black Sabbath are for many, the grandparents of heavy metal. They were the first band to play slowed-down, spooky music at a ridiculous volume. Tony Iommi treated the thunderous guitar riffs with as much attention as Ozzy Osbourne’s lead vocals. Lyrics about mystical beings were as common as critiques of war.
Fortunately, Black Sabbath also released a lot of albums. Most of them are bonafide classics. Some of them clearly are not, yet can be enjoyed as precious classic rock oddities.
Sabbath albums are not easily ranked. One has to contend with the separate eras, the different singers, and the different cults surrounding each of the band’s released material. I continue to believe that all of these periods deserve recognition.
Still, we attempted the impossible. We’re revealing the greatest Black Sabbath album, and we’re ranking the entire discography from worst to best.
19. Black Sabbath – Forbidden (1995)
Despite what you may have heard, Black Sabbath didn’t make too many truly awful albums. Forbidden, however, might be an exception though.
Part of that perception is due to the band, and particularly the record label’s desire to get in with the times.
This meant, particularly, adding rap elements to Sabbath’s sound. Megadeth would also collaborate with Ice-T decades later.
However, Black Sabbath’s involvement with Body Count, for many fans, resembled an undignified form of jumping on the rap-rock train wagon.
Sick and tired may be a brief highlight. However, overall, this is a rather embarrassing misstep. So much so, in fact, that this would be the end of an era for the Iommi-driven Black Sabbath.
18. Black Sabbath – Dehumanizer (1992)
Black Sabbath had made four respectable albums. Their live shows and albums, however, weren’t what they once were.
In order to mount a comeback, Sabbath planned a reunion. It wasn’t quite the one that most fans wanted, but a noteworthy one nonetheless.
Guitarist Tony Iommi was joined on this record by Ronnie James Dio and Vinnie Appice. Bassist Geezer Butler had also recently rejoined.
This left longtime singer Tony Martin out in the cold, an unfair, but commercially motivated decision.
While Dehumanizer received a lot of attention in the press, it was also very badly reviewed. The band seemed energized and determined to play heavier than they had in at least a decade.
Black Sabbath albums and songs, at the very least, pack a punch. Strangely, this doesn’t. More positive comments can be made about the quartet’s other reunion in the late 2000’s.
The songs, however, aren’t very inspired. Letters from Earth and Time Machine save the record some face. The line-up would reunite again, but, needless to say, not to treat fans to cuts off Dehumanizer.
17. Black Sabbath – Born Again (1983)
Born Again is one of the strangest albums in the Black Sabbath discography. It’s also a record widely ridiculed, but one that begins being reappraised for its musical merits.
On paper, this should work. Sabbath had replaced one famous singer with another before. Why not do it again?
Alas, right here, Sabbath albums are ranked on merit rather than what ifs.
I came to this album with a great sense of expectation. Its reputation had preceded it.
I, like other listeners, was told that this was a colossal flop, a giant embarrassment, a dubious curiosity in the band’s discography. Artwork aside, it is hardly as bad as some would have you believe.
Ian Gillan, the former vocalist of eternal hard-rock rivals Deep Purple, stepped in. He arrived, by the sound out to tape, with less enthusiasm than a eunuch in a whorehouse.
The album is widely remembered as a catastrophic failure. It features a horrific and often parodied artwork. The production is terrible. And Stonehenge was immortalized in This is Spinal Tap.
But, according to Gillan, it could have well been a better record. Production issues aside, the songs aren’t terrible. Fans of the band seem to agree.
Furthermore, the former-Deep Purple singer is still at his tenor-blasting best at this stage of his career. If only there was more to work with here.
Highlights? Stonehenge is a real laugh.
16. Black Sabbath – Never Say Die! (1978)
Black Sabbath was a force to be reckoned with in the 1970s. But, they would not end the decade on top.
Never Say Die! was an unlikely record. Few, band members included, thought it would see the light of day.
The quartet, chiefly Ozzy Osbourne, were going through various personal problems. This, together with their heavy touring schedule, began to wear on their relationships.
Ozzy would be fired before the recording of the record, return, and record only part of the songs that the band had written.
By the end of the recording, it was clear that the group’s chemistry had been affected. This didn’t help produce a great record.
Never say die might be the one worthy track of regard. Outside of it, the band had seemingly run of creative steam at this point in their careers.
15. Black Sabbath – Cross Purposes (1994)
Frequent changes to the line-up had left longtime fans of Black Sabbath confused by the time that Cross Purposes came out.
The fateful who had stuck around to all of the band’s incarnations were also still hopeful. After all, Tony Iommi was joined, once more, by Geezer Butler on bass and frequent, on-again, off-again vocalist Tony Martin.
Cross Purposes is a relatively good record, albeit not one oozing creativity as some of the previous ones had. It’s also not quite on par with the material Martin had worked on prior to being replaced by Dio.
Virtual death, I witness are the highlights. The band does sound comfortable in their respective roles. Still, while not bad, the feeling that the band is merely treading water can’t quite be escaped here.
14. Black Sabbath – Seventh Star (1986)
Commercially, it looked like Black Sabbath’s time had come and gone. Heavy metal was still very popular, but the band was in no shape to take advantage.
Tony Iommi set about making a solo record. This all sounded reasonable enough.
But this is a Black Sabbath album in name alone. Glen Hughes, another famed hard rock singer, takes on vocal duties.
This is one of the better 80s albums. However, it was relatively poorly received due to the absence of Osbourne, Geezer Butler, or Bill Ward.
In for the kill and In Memory are still strong songs.
13. Black Sabbath – The Eternal Idol (1987)
The public was now accustomed to a Black Sabbath version that featured only one of the original members, Tony Iommi.
The Eternal Idol carries on with this trend. It’s the first to feature singer Tony Martin who’d become a permanent feature.
It’s easy to dismiss the album as an attempt to cash in on the group’s legacy. However, this is far from an embarrassing effort. A host of well-known hard-rock musicians keep it on track.
There aren’t many memorable songs, however. Born to lose comes closest.
12. Black Sabbath – Tyr (1990)
Tyr finds Black Sabbath accepting their status as a moderately successful heavy metal band. It closely follows the formula of the well-received Headless Cross.
To their credit, while heavy Iommi riffs drive the record, the band isn’t merely imitating its most famous songs. Most groups would have chosen a different route.
It’s also likely, Black Sabbath’s only concept record focused (loosely) on Nordic lore.
Anno Mundi and Valhalla are good indicators of where the band was looking to go. It was a relatively successful record, albeit slightly less impressive than its predecessor.
11. Black Sabbath – Headless Cross (1989)
Tony Iommi’s Sabbath had been on a continuous commercial decline since the departure of Ronnie James Dio. Headless Cross, surprisingly, put a stop to this.
Having signed to IRS Records and having got some fan support back, the band, now with Cozy Powell on drums, approached this much more comfortably.
Headless Cross is something of a gem. Tony Iommi, once again, feels inspired to write simple, earth-crushingly heavy riffs. Meanwhile, Martin, whose job had seemed on the line, sings with ease and strength.
Admittedly, I like many others, learned late of this period in Black Sabbath’s existence. It’s rarely mentioned, and when it is brought up it’s usually with an ironic smile. But this is unfair. I can think of far, far more embarrassing releases from famous rock bands.
Call of the wild and Kill the spirit world are highlights. The album cracked the U.K. Top 40. And, while Sabbath wasn’t headlining stadiums, they were, and the band was once again respected.
10. Black Sabbath – Technical Ecstasy (1976)
Technical Ecstasy marks the first true misstep in Black Sabbath’s career. It is, with the benefit of hindsight, still a record that has its charms.
Fans of the band will appreciate their attempt at changing gears. It was a difficult but necessary transition.
Tony Iommi carries the burden of directing the album. The rest of the band members, however, were rather disinterested in the recording process.
Technical Ecstasy is also noteworthy for embracing a more straightforward rock sound. It’s a conscious attempt and a brave move. It didn’t, however, stop the band’s commercial decline.
Dirty women might be the album’s highlight. However, if one is willing to accept its shortcomings and notice its qualities, the record is best listened to as a whole.
9. Black Sabbath – 13 (2013)
Black Sabbath came back for a victory lap with 13. It is and likely will remain the last Black Sabbath album. That in itself doesn’t, however, tell the entire story.
The Tony Iommi lead version of Sabbath released their final album, Forbidden, in 1995. Since then, Black Sabbath has reunited several times.
The Ozzy Osbourne lead reunions were the most commercially successful. Still, they’d also reunited with Ronnie James Dio on vocals for what was dubbed Heaven & Hell. This was done, presumably because of legal implications.
Finally, one shouldn’t forget that the relatively strong 1980s albums were made, usually with only Iommi representing the original line-up. Back in business with Ozzy, he could not similarly use the moniker.
With all this in mind, 13 is a strong effort. The word effort deserves emphasis. Black Sabbath does try its best to sound like Black Sabbath for this one.
Personally, I felt a strong deal of gratitude for Sabbath’s work. A lot of people did. These positive vibes spilled into the way that 13 was received. Finally, I had to confront my own feelings and admit that I didn’t think the songs were stellar. It’s an opinion that Ozzy seems to share.
Even so, the fact that this doesn’t involve original drummer Bill Ward, who went out due to a contractual disputed, is a good indicator of the band’s objectives.
The band is produced by Rick Rubin. For his part, Rubin does his best to get the band to travel back in time. The result is a mixed bag of the group attempting to capture the elements that made them great.
God is dead? along with Zeitgeist are good songs. The band commits to the tunes and the idea of the record as a nice send-off.
It’s not an even record by any means. It doesn’t tarnish the group’s image either. Think of it as an unexpected present from one of rock music’s greatest bands.
8. Black Sabbath – Sabotage (1975)
Sabotage appeared nearly 18 months after Bloody Sabbath. It was the longest time spent between releasing records. The wear and tear of the recording & touring cycle were beginning to get to the band.
Yes, there are still memorable songs. Hole in the sky is as good an album opener as the band ever managed.
Symptom of the universe, The Writ, Am I going insane are also highlights of the record.
Meanwhile, compositions continue to expand. This is felt both in terms of the arrangement, as well as in pure length. Sabbath are not immune to the influence of prog rock.
And, while Sabotage is still a fine album, the band’s suspicious way of viewing the world around them informs most of the tunes. This is no longer a band ruling the world but one that fears it.
7. Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath (1970)
To call the Birmingham band’s debut the beginning of heavy metal is a controversial statement. Led Zeppelin’s debut album had been out for more than a year. Cream and Jimi Hendrix also loosened audiences’ inhibitions to heavy music. Even Blue Cheer had put out a record.
To call Black Sabbath the first of its kind, however, is accurate. No band had mixed the public’s obsession with occultism and horror with such a fitting musical landscape.
Much of the album sounds like slowed-down, distorted blues music. Black Sabbath, the track, is the album’s highlight. Meanwhile, N.I.B.’s inescapable riff would pave the way for other Tony Iommi gems.
It’s a strong start to their discography and a good indicator of what was to follow.
6. Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell (1980)
Heaven and Hell is one of Black Sabbath’s very best albums. It is also the first in a line of convincing comeback records.
Having fired Ozzy Osbourne and facing a considerable commercial slump, Sabbath needed to regroup.
The best way forward initially seemed to involve giving up on the Black Sabbath moniker. Tony Iommi met former Rainbow singer Ronnie James Dio. The two discussed forming a new band.
Soon enough, they were jamming with bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward. With three-fourths of the original group and a name that could still draw attention, they opted to call themselves… Black Sabbath.
Besides the title, it shares little with the band’s previous incarnation. This is, however, a driving, imaginative record filled with vigor and creative spark.
Heaven and Hell find the band painting on a large canvas. Dio’s musical fingerprints are to be found throughout the record. At times, this is almost a proto-power-metal album.
Highlights include Children of the sea, Neon Knights, and the title song, Heaven and Hell.
While this lineup would not last for long, it helped put Black Sabbath back on top both in the charts and in the affection of their longtime fans.
5. Black Sabbath – Master of Reality (1971)
Master of Reality finds the Birmingham quartet fully trusting their collective intuition. After all, these impulses were responsible wholly for their already massive success.
It’s a more dynamic record. It splits its time between full-throttle rockers and the incipient sound of stoner rock.
Children of the grave, Sweet Leaf, and Into the void are highlights. All are worthy additions to Sabbath’s list of greatest compositions.
The instrumental tracks, Embryo and Orchid, reveal two things. First, Tony Iommi could do more than plow through memorable, heavy riffs.
But it also shows that the band was prone to release any and all jams onto a studio record. It’s something that will be more acutely felt later in their career.
4. Black Sabbath – Mob Rules (1981)
Sabbath were keen to strike while the iron was hot. Heaven and Hell proved that they could still be one of the noteworthy hard-rock bands.
Mob Rules extends on that formula. Soundwise, however, this is an even more aggressive record. This is likely due to the emergence of the so-called New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands. These would come to dominate rock airwaves.
Highlights such as Falling off the edge of the world and Turn up the night prove Black Sabbath’s point.
However, while still a very good record, some of the exuberance of the predecessor is muted here.
Despite this, Mob Rules has aged well. Sonically, it proves Black Sabbath’s ability to stretch creatively within the heavy-metal spectrum.
In terms of personnel though, this would mark another setback. Ronnie James Dio and drummer Vinnie Appice left the band after the release.
It would take nearly 15 years for the line-up to reunite. This departure would also mark another low point in the band’s creative output.
3. Black Sabbath – Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973)
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath finds the Birmingham band continuing to revel in their dominance over the rock world. If this run feels like a sustained run, it’s partly because Sabbath was a highly consistent group.
This is their fifth album in less than four years. And Black Sabbath had become confident in showcasing more than one aspect of their personalities.
Sure, the album’s front artwork and the title track still play up Sabbath’s image as horror-obsessives. The back cover depicts an angelic image instead, encapsulating the dual nature of the band.
I also have fond memories of this record. It was the first Sabbath album I owned, on vinyl, no less. I’d bought it along with Paranoid and Volume IV at a used record store shop. All three of them were bootleg copies made in Bulgaria.
This is also one of the band’s best-trimmed records. Only the instrumental and appropriately titled Fluff might be the exception.
There’s also a tendency to embrace elements of progressive rock. Yes’ Rick Wakeman makes a small appearance. There are moments that resemble Queen at their pompous best.
Killing yourself to live, A national acrobat, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath are highlights of the record. It’s arguably the last of Sabbath’s golden age.
2. Black Sabbath – Vol. 4 (1972)
Vol. 4, just like Led Zeppelin‘s Houses of the holy, after it, finds Sabbath gazing at the world from the top of the heap. They’d become superstars. They had teenage fans everywhere, and parents feared their powerful grip.
The band’s vision, however, is hazy. But not even narcotics can stop the Black Sabbath’s reign of terror just yet.
Snowblind might sound like a cry for help. The band’s drug odyssey is one of their most inspiring heavy compositions to date.
Wheels of confusion and Supernaut work, and occasionally improve, on the template that they’d created for hard rock.
However, once again, the band dips into colorful territory. Laguna Sunrise and Changes are sensitive, almost Beatles-like songs. But they’re worthy additions to the record, very different from the cheesy rock ballad format utilized by many of their contemporaries.
1. Black Sabbath – Paranoid (1970)
Paranoid sometimes suffers from being just too well known, too frequently played. In fact, one could argue that no heavy metal album has quite as mainstream appreciated, well-known songs.
But the album is worth reappraisal. This is not just a hard-rock pummeling. There’s an element of demented psychedelia when enjoyed the whole way through.
I, like many others, learned guitar, in no small part, to play Tony Iommi’s riffs. We all got a lesson in effective minimalism and in tuning the instrument properly. In fact, Sabbath covers remain something of a rite of passage for many young rock bands.
War Pigs is a dynamic anti-war tune. Iron Man features the riff to end all rock riffs but also ends in a bizarre daze. Planet Caravan sounds like a rock ballad made by people perpetually on edge.
Still, there’s nothing quite better than the title track. Paranoid was a throwaway number. It was recorded to fill up space on the record. It’s precise, powerful, and hardly ever boring, even after the millionth listen.