Best Heavy Metal Albums Of The 1990s

The '90s were a turbulent decade for heavy metal. It saw the death of the hair bands, the rise of grunge and the short-lived popularity of nu-metal. The underground scene thrived throughout the decade, and there were some fantastic releases by big-name bands as well. Here are our choices for the top 20 heavy metal albums released in the 1990s.

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Megadeth - 'Rust In Peace' (1990)

Megadeth - Rust In Peace
Megadeth - Rust In Peace.

Megadeth's fourth album is a thrash masterpiece. Dave Mustaine and Marty Friedman's riffs are outstanding, and there are also several really good solos throughout the album.

The songwriting on Rust In Peace is really strong, with a lot of complexity and variety in song structure, tempo and style. Highlights include "Hanger 18" and "Tornado Of Souls." It is the best heavy metal album released in the 1990s.

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Pantera - 'Vulgar Display Of Power' (1992)

Pantera - Vulgar Display Of Power
Pantera - Vulgar Display Of Power.

While Cowboys From Hell paved the way, Vulgar Display Of Power cemented Pantera as a massively influential force in metal. They took thrash to the next level with more anger and extremity and harsher vocals.

Dimebag Darrell's guitar work was incomparable, and this album found Pantera putting all the ingredients together into a lethal combination that was their strongest all around release.

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Emperor - 'Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk' (1997)

Emperor - 'Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk'
Emperor - 'Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk'.

Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk is more complex than Emperor's debut, and classical keyboards add depth and melody. The atmosphere is icy cold and bleak, and Ihsahn uses a combination of screaming, singing and spoken word vocals.

Emperor improved in all aspects, from songwriting to musicianship to production, and this album is a black metal classic.

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Metallica - 'Metallica' (1991)

Metallica - 'Metallica'
Metallica - 'Metallica'.

Metallica's self-titled album is better known as "The Black Album." Commercially this was Metallica's most successful album, with the hit singles "Enter Sandman," "Nothing Else Matters" and "The Unforgiven."

It was a return to basics for the group, and it worked. The songs are more straightforward and less experimental than their previous couple albums, and that focus brought forth some outstanding songs.

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Bruce Dickinson - 'The Chemical Wedding' (1998)

Bruce Dickinson - 'The Chemical Wedding'
Bruce Dickinson - 'The Chemical Wedding'.

The Chemical Wedding was Bruce Dickinson's last solo album before rejoining Iron Maiden (he released another while a band member in 2005) and also his best.

Dickinson has one of the great voices in metal and that, combined with excellent songwriting and outstanding guitar work from Roy Z and Adrian Smith, made this CD so good. From uptempo anthems to mid-tempo groovers to power ballads, there's not a bit of filler.

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Sepultura - 'Arise' (1991)

Sepultura - 'Arise'
Sepultura - 'Arise'.

Even though it sold probably a tenth the number of copies as the Metallica album that was also released in 1991, Sepultura's Arise is nearly as good, and has really held up well over the years.

The Brazilian band's style of thrash is brutal and unforgiving with a lot of death metal influences and harsh vocals from Max Cavalera. In addition to their extremity, Sepultura also shows a lot of creativity and versatility on this album.

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Slayer - 'Seasons In The Abyss' (1990)

Slayer - 'Seasons In The Abyss'
Slayer - 'Seasons In The Abyss'.

This is Slayer's second best album, after the classic Reign In Blood. Seasons In The Abyss combines the intensity of that album with a little more melody.

The band refined their sound, but without losing any of their anger or aggression. From the bone rattling opener "War Ensemble" to the slower "Expendable Youth," Slayer shows they can crush at any tempo.

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Megadeth - 'Countdown To Extinction' (1992)

Megadeth - 'Countdown To Extinction'
Megadeth - 'Countdown To Extinction'.

Following up the classic Rust In Peace was a difficult task, but Megadeth changed things up and went in a more focused direction. The songs on Countdown To Extinction were shorter and also more accessible.

Songs like "Symphony Of Destruction" and "Sweating Bullets" are some of their best. The album made it to number 2 on the Billboard charts, and was the band's commercial peak.

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Death - 'Human' (1991)

Death - 'Human'
Death - 'Human'.

When it comes to death metal, it simply doesn't get much better than this. Death is one of the most influential bands in the history of the genre, and Human is a classic.

They were hitting on all cylinders with great musicianship, improved songwriting, insightful lyrics and an excellent vocal performance from Chuck Schuldiner. This is an essential album if you're a fan of death metal.

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Sepultura - 'Chaos A.D.' (1993)

Sepultura - 'Chaos A.D.'
Sepultura - 'Chaos A.D.'.

Chaos A.D. was in the middle of the run of exceptional albums Sepultura released between 1989's Beneath The Remains and 1996's Roots. Chaos A.D. was a masterful CD with music that was laser focused with complex rhythms and so many different elements packed into each song.

The band took risks and infused some native sounds as well. The final result is an album that's a little slower in tempo than some of their previous releases, but the groove is stronger, and the experimentation worked.

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Carcass - 'Heartwork' (1993)

Carcass - 'Heartwork'
Carcass - 'Heartwork'.

Grindcore pioneers Carcass eventually evolved into more of a death metal band, and in 1993 everything came together perfectly and they released one of their best albums.

Heartwork was as intense and punishing as their earlier material, but they managed to squeeze in a little more melody that made it even better. There are some monster guitar riffs on this album, and the songs are brutal, yet really memorable.

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Nevermore - 'Dreaming Neon Black' (1999)

Nevermore - 'Dreaming Neon Black'
Nevermore - 'Dreaming Neon Black'.

Dreaming Neon Black was Nevermore's third full-length album. The Seattle, Washington band delivered a really diverse effort, with fast, thrashy songs tempered by soaring ballads. Jeff Loomis and Tim Calvert showcase outstanding solos and do some serious shredding.

Warrel Dane shows a lot of versatility as well, with vocals ranging from aggressive screams to melodic singing. This is an emotional and powerful concept album.

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Blind Guardian - 'Nightfall In Middle Earth' (1998)

Blind Guardian - 'Nightfall In Middle Earth'
Blind Guardian - 'Nightfall In Middle Earth'.

Nightfall In Middle Earth is a concept album based on the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. It's a power metal tour de force with epic compositions. The interludes between songs have been polarizing, but they help tie the concept together.

Blind Guardian's combination of electric and acoustic guitars, other unusual instruments and the use of harmonies makes this an album that stands out above the power metal masses.

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Emperor - 'In The Nightside Eclipse' (1994)

Emperor - In The Nightside Eclipse
Emperor - In The Nightside Eclipse.

The Norwegian black metal scene of the early '90s was filled with controversy and criminal acts. Emperor were right in the middle of things, and their first full-length is one of the definitive black metal albums.

Most of the band (Ihsahn, Samoth, Faust and Tchort) were just teenagers when In The Nightside Eclipse was released, and it has the passion, anger and fury of youth, but the musical maturity of older bands. It's a chaotic frenzy of guitars, keyboards and drums that is cold and harsh with tortured, piercing vocals.

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Dream Theater - 'Images And Words' (1992)

Dream Theater - Images And Words
Dream Theater - Images And Words.

The second album from progressive metal legends Dream Theater is arguably their best. Images And Words was the debut of vocalist James LaBrie. The band's combination of catchy melodies and technical musicianship really struck a chord with prog fans.

Dream Theater even crossed into the mainsream with an 8 minute song as "Pull Me Under" garnered a decent amount of MTV exposure. "Metropolis" is also a classic song.

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Pantera - 'Cowboys From Hell' (1990)

Pantera - Cowboys From Hell
Pantera - Cowboys From Hell.

After several indie releases, this marked Pantera's move to a major label and their commercial and critical breakthrough. Dimebag Darrell, or Diamond Darrell as he was called at that time, shines with his creative riffs and blistering solos.

Phil Anselmo shows a wide vocal range, going from guttural growls to a piercing falsetto. The title track and "Cemetary Gates" are two of the best songs on this album.

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Death - 'Symbolic' (1995)

Death - Symbolic
Death - Symbolic.

Symbolic continued Death's string of excellent releases, even with the continual lineup changes. For this album guitarist Andy LaRocque and bassist Steve DiGiorgio were gone, replaced with Bobby Koelbe and Kelly Conlon.

Chuck Schuldiner's songwriting continued to improve, and the band's combination of technical skill and willingness to experiment and push the musical envelope made for a brilliant album that still stands the test of time.

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Therion - 'Theli' (1997)

Therion - 'Theli'
Therion - 'Theli'.

After starting as a death metal band, the Swedish group moved toward symphonic/operatic metal. The songs on this album are sometimes bombastic and grand, other times darker and more subtle.

There are tons of catchy hooks and melodies along with epic and atmospheric elements that make Theli one of the hallmark symphonic metal albums.

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Burzum - 'Hvis Lyset Tar Oss' (1994)

Burzum - Hvis Lyset Tar Oss
Burzum - Hvis Lyset Tar Oss.

Burzum's musical influence, quality and impact will always be overshadowed, which is understandable but unfortunate. Burzum is the one-man project of Varg Vikernes, also known as Count Grishnackh. In 1993 he was convicted of the murder of his former Mayhem bandmate Euronymous.

He continued to periodically release music while imprisoned, but Hvis Lyset Tar Oss remains one of Burzum's finest works. The four songs on the album clock in at over 40 minutes, and are very emotional and powerful. The song structures are relatively simple, but the atmospheric and dissonant tracks make a strong impact.

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Pantera - 'The Great Southern Trendkill' (1996)

Pantera - 'The Great Southern Trendkill'
Pantera - 'The Great Southern Trendkill'.

With The Great Southern Trendkill, in addition to their usual intense, crushing metal, Pantera showed some diversity on this CD with a couple slower tracks, which are actually really good.

The songs are fueled by anger, and Dimebag's guitar work is outstanding as usual. When it comes to Pantera's catalog, this album is often overlooked and underrated. It's worth revisiting.