Lords of this World: The Definitive Black Sabbath Album Ranking

Black Sabbath‘s impact on the world of heavy metal needs no introduction here, but suffice to say that their end in February 2017 was a momentous occasion for the genre. The fathers of heavy metal coming to an end almost five full decades since their inception means that we’re now living through the only period of metal during which we can say with relative certainty that there will not be another Sabbath release. Bill Ward, Geezer Butler, Ozzy Osbourne and Tony Iommi’s names are etched into the history of music forevermore, but given the band’s tumultuous history, they are not the only key players here.

Arguments over the relative merits of Black Sabbath’s studio albums are often limited to discussing which of the first six Ozzy albums is best or tackling the endless Osbourne Vs. Dio debate, so much so that it’s easy to forget that the band actually released nineteen albums – with the ’80s and ’90s playing host to a revolving door of members during which only Tony Iommi was a constant. Indeed, there’s almost as many tepid lows in the band’s career as their are glorious highs, and despite having all of their records at our fingertips, many of us could likely only name a few that we revisit with any frequency. To truly evaluate the band’s entire history, you need to dig deeper.

As such, we’ve given ourselves the absurd task of ranking each and every Black Sabbath studio album. Iommi have mercy on our souls.

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19. Forbidden (1995)

Not only the worst Black Sabbath album, Forbidden is a strong candidate for most dreadful album of all time. A contractual obligation to free the band from IRS Records, it’s notable only for being laughably shit. Turgid songs, stunningly awful production, going-through-the-motions performances and a cringeworthy guest vocal from Ice-T. Everyone involved, including producer Ernie C., should hang their heads in shame. There is literally no saving grace to this pile of steaming aural cow dung. It would be 18 years until the next Sabbath album, 13. We imagine Iommi spent most of those years with his head in his hands. [AF]

 

18. Seventh Star (1986)

As far back as Born Again in 1983, Iommi had wanted to restart the band under a new name. Just imagine how different Sabbath’s legacy may look today had he got his wish. The closest he came was an album later with Seventh Star, which was released as Black Sabbath With Tony Iommi in lieu of it being dubbed an Iommi solo album. Indeed, the Sabbath moniker remained and thus this album is still a stain on their record. Iommi’s wish to release this as something else is clear early on, when the record’s stylistic differences make themselves known. Glenn Hughes’ lively vocals are jarringly at odds with Sabbath’s usual sound, but the comparatively conventional hard rock riffs are just as surprising. There’s some quality to be found here, but you’re better off listening to Iommi and Hughes’ 2005 album Fused – a far superior effort. [GP]

 

17. Tyr (1990)

Stylistically continuing a trend seen with 1987’s The Eternal Idol and 1989’s Headless Cross, 1990’s Tyr struggled to reach even those underwhelming standards, and its legacy has suffered due to its place preceding the return of Ronnie James Dio for follow-up Dehumanizer. Here, we see the band shift focus, with Tony Martin now singing about Norse mythology and the band embracing an understated gothic aesthetic. Born amongst a turbulent period for the band, Tyr is not the band’s worst record, but the songs are so lifeless that it may just be their most forgettable. [GP]

 

16. Technical Ecstasy (1976)

Ozzy Osbourne may be the final, unconventional piece of the Sabbath puzzle, but even his presence could not elevate this dud of an album. Technical Ecstasy’s sci-fi cover hinted at the band’s desire to move forward, but their soulless quest to stay relevant through a more polished and adventurous sound missed the mark spectacularly. The likes of ‘You Won’t Change Me’ and ‘Gypsy’ find themselves buried by directionless synths, whilst experiments like ‘All Moving Parts (Stand Still)’ prove underwhelming and ballads like ‘She’s Gone’ and the Bill Ward-sung ‘It’s Alright’ lack an all-important heart. Even the more straightforward rockers like ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Doctor’ and ‘Back Street Kids’ fall flat, sounding like pale imitations of past glories. ‘Dirty Women’ is perhaps the only song remembered fondly, boasting a doomy melancholy reminiscent of their earlier works – too bad it is tacked on at the end. [GP]

 

15. Cross Purposes (1994)

Perhaps Sabbath’s most forgotten album (which may be a result of its absence on some streaming services), 1994’s Cross Purposes is somewhat of an underrated gem in the band’s discography. Iommi, as per, churns out more than a few killer riffs and Tony Martin’s voice sounds better than ever upon his return post-Dehumanizer. The record benefits from its heavy approach, and there’s one or two fun – though certainly hit and miss – experiments to be found here as well (check out ‘Virtual Death’ for confirmation that the band had clearly enjoyed Alice In ChainsDirt two years prior). Even with some chips seemingly falling in the right place, however, something still feels wrong. Martin’s more streamlined voice comes across like Dio-lite, and a decade and a half since Ozzy was fired from the band, the absence of his rough-around-the-edges approach is still felt. [GP]

 

14. The Eternal Idol (1987)

In Tony Martin, Iommi had found a dependable if largely unremarkable frontman when the band went into the studio to record what would be the vocalist’s first of a tumultuous on-again-off-again five-album stint. After the failed experiment that was Seventh Star, you could argue that The Eternal Idol somewhat steadied the ship, with opener ‘The Shining’, as well as anthems like ‘Hard Life To Love’, ‘Glory Ride’ and ‘Born To Lose’ featuring some of Iommi’s greatest riffs of the ‘80s. The overall product, however, is only just short of forgettable, falling well too short to be truly considered at all noteworthy when stacked up against the band’s former works. [GP]

 

13. Dehumanizer (1992)

The return of Dio seemed a vital move after Tyr tanked, and Vinny Appice’s return meant the lineup was the same as the one that had released Mob Rules. The goalposts had shifted this time, however. Dio, now a legend in his own right, had more to lose this time around – and there were doubts on both sides from the get-go. Dehumanizer emerged amongst more inner turbulence and the result is an album that struggled to live up to the hype. Don’t write it off entirely, however. Not only did Dehumanizer chart higher than the band had in years, but it is far from a poor record, proving heavier and livelier than its immediate predecessors, if ultimately nothing more than solid at best. [GP]

 

12. Never Say Die! (1978)

It’s odd that Never Say Die! has become such an iconic album, with its title and artwork still readily emblazoned on the sort of generic Sabbath merch you’ll find in HMV. For most, this is an underwhelming addition to the band’s oeuvre, particularly compared to the rest of their Ozzy-fronted output. In truth it’s probably a touch better than most people remember, and is certainly an improvement on its predecessor. Though it did nothing to steady the ship, Never Say Die! showed that the quality was still there somewhere behind all the drugs and arguments. Bill Ward’s stellar work here is particularly worthy of note, going some way to sprucing up even the most lacklustre of tracks. [GP]

 

11. Headless Cross (1989)

Emerging during an era of the band that’s often derided for its lack of direction and unstable line-up, Headless Cross can stand proudly as the most cohesive concept in over a decade. Utilising the popular production techniques of the time together with imagery firmly from the occult produces an album that modernises (for the time at least) the eerie vibes Sabbath fans fell in love with in the first place. Cozy Powell’s thunderous drumming and Tony Martin’s powerful baritone compliment Iommi at arguably his most creative in terms of riffs. A multi-faceted record with slow tempered power and up-tempo barnstormers in equal measure. One not to be ignored. [GS]

 

10. Born Again (1983)

One of the best Sabbath albums that no one has heard, Born Again’s quality is often overlooked, lumped in with the disasters that would follow. Ward returned, and the ultimately ill-fated addition of ex-Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan initially seemed apt. He was a proven talent, but his playful lyrics and bluesy style merge bizarrely with Sabbath’s doom and gloom, offering something noticeably different and thus widely panned. There is, however, an energy and power to this record that’s sorely lacking from subsequent efforts. If you dismissed this due to a lack of Ozzy or Dio, we recommend you give it another shot. [GP]

 

9. 13 (2013)

With Heaven & Hell’s The Devil You Know, Messrs Iommi and Butler were able to reunite with Dio for the legendary vocalist’s triumphant final album, but one thing still remained before The End tour could finally close the book on the fathers of heavy metal – they had to make an album with Ozzy. In 2013, we got just that, and the results were surprisingly good. Iommi’s ability to craft stellar riffs remains second to absolutely fucking none and 13 demonstrates this, even if Rick Rubin’s production leaves a lot to be desired. Hearing Iommi on top form once again, accompanied of course by Butler’s dynamic basslines, makes the album truly feel like Sabbath. Ward’s absence is prominent, with the hard-hitting style of replacement Brad Wilk (Rage Against The Machine, Audioslave) differing noticeably from Ward’s jazzier swing, but elsewhere this is the sound of Sabbath, and that’s all it needed to be. [GP]

 

8. Mob Rules (1981)

Following an album like Heaven And Hell was never going to be an easy task. However, in Mob Rules, the band’s second album to feature Ronnie James Dio as vocalist and first to be made without founding drummer Bill Ward, Sabbath produced a set of songs that aren’t far off matching those of its predecessor. Indeed, tracks such as ‘Voodoo’, ‘Turn Up The Night’ and the stirring epic ‘The Sign Of The Southern Cross’ are amongst the finest in the Sabbath canon. Produced by the legendary Martin Birch, Mob Rules is an album that, whilst not the band’s finest achievement, remains underappreciated. [AP]

 

7. Sabotage (1975)

Sabotage demonstrates the best and worst of Black Sabbath’s first Ozzy-fronted incarnation. It’s an album full of ambition that sounds incredibly huge, revelling in all the excesses of the prog and metal of the day for better and worse. The album has some of Sabbath’s best riffs – ‘Hole in the Sky’! ‘Symptom of the Universe’! – but also parts where their worst tendencies get the better of them, most notably on the grandiose, choir-led ‘Supertzar’, and the single ‘Am I Going Insane’ feels an odd fit around the lengthier, more progressive songs on the album. Sabotage marked a turning point for Sabbath, and arguably set the stage for the glorious disaster that was to follow. [SW]

 

6. Vol. 4 (1972)

New country, new city, new drugs, new approach, new album. Vol. 4, recorded and produced in L.A. by the band themselves, was the fourth Black Sabbath album in three years. With such prodigious output, you can tell they start to run a bit low on ideas (‘FX’, for example), but there are still some real highlights. ‘Wheels Of Confusion’, ‘Supernaut’ and ‘Snowblind’ all see Mr Iommi peeling off some career-high riffs, whilst ‘Changes’ is a bold new step, regardless of your opinion of it. This is not the doom-laden Sabbath of before; there is a brighter, more optimistic feel about the whole album, which is probably why it took so many people by surprise in 1972 and still divides opinion today. [SC]

 

5. Heaven And Hell (1980)

A steady creative decline in the second half of the ‘70s, coupled with Ozzy Osbourne’s increasingly volatile drink and drug-fuelled behaviour, led Tony Iommi to take the difficult decision to fire the unpredictable vocalist. This once unthinkable move ultimately saved the band and led to one of the greatest albums in the Sabbath catalogue, Heaven And Hell. Featuring ex-Rainbow singer Ronnie James Dio behind the mic, Heaven And Hell is the sound of a band revitalised; an album that consistently matches (and some might say surpasses) anything the band had produced with Osbourne thus far. Alongside concise stormers such as ‘Neon Knights’ and ‘Walk Away’ comes one of the finest in the band’s oeuvre in the stirring epic ‘Children Of The Sea’. It’s arguable that the band never again hit such heights. [AP]

 

4. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973)

After Vol. 4 was birthed kicking and screaming out of a binge that would make even Hunter S. Thompson say “That’s a bit much”, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is the band resetting and refocusing, with slightly fewer drugs. Black Sabbath were exhausted and strung out, Iommi especially. The band spent some time apart and regrouped in Gloucestershire’s Clearwell Castle and under England’s grey skies they thrived, regaining a dark essence that wasn’t as present on Vol. 4. Take the doomy riffs at the tail-end of the titular track, as Ozzy screams, “Dreams turn to nightmares, Heaven turns to hell” – it’s a horror vibe that hadn’t been heard since their first record. At the same time, though, you can tell Sabbath were back to having fun on this record, with absolute-fucking-jams like ‘Sabbra Cadabra’ and ‘Looking For Today’. The album is also filled with iconic moments like Ozzy yelping “YOU BASTARDS!” on the title-track, and “You gotta believe me!” on ‘A National Acrobat’. Loads of the band’s best anecdotes stem from this period, from seeing ghosts and jamming with Led Zeppelin to torturing Bill Ward to the point he slept with a dagger. But, more importantly, this period spawned one of Sabbath’s most legendary albums. [JRK]

 

3. Black Sabbath (1970)

Roaring into existence as a distant bell ominously tolled through a gloomy thunderstorm, heavy metal took its very first breath back in 1970. Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut album will be remembered first and foremost for its place in the annals of heavy metal history. However, when reflecting on the album that started it all, we often get so lost in the mythic grandeur of its legacy that we forget just how fucking killer an album it is. The frightening riff of the eponymous opener is still enough to make your hairs stand on end, but this record is lined with classics throughout. ‘The Wizard’ kickstarted metal’s love affair with the world of Tolkien, whilst Satanic love song ‘N.I.B.’ is almost annoyingly infectious. Perhaps most impressive, though, is ‘Warning’, which begins as a somewhat faithful homage to The Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation’s original before spiralling off into a maelstrom of off-the-cuff solos and experimentation. It’s not hard to see how Iommi went on to become a Guitar God. [GP]

 

2. Paranoid (1970)

If their debut was the first confluence of heaviness and metal imagery, and thus the first iteration of a wholly new musical form, Sabbath’s second album was a process of taking lumpen pig-iron and refining it. Every track is perfect, from the warning sirens of the ‘War Pigs’ intro through to the psychedelia-gone-wrong of ‘Fairies Wear Boots’, with the band’s dour attitude hardened and focused into a series of anti-war salvos. This is the album that (certainly for better) defined metal in its early years, and it holds up spectacularly well today. Absolute 10, now get on your knees and worship. [DB]

 

1. Master Of Reality (1971)

That cough. The cough heard around the world by every metalhead and stoner. The one that begins one of the most iconic tracks on arguably the holy grail of all doom metal albums, Master Of Reality. This album is considered by a plethora of pundits to be the release that truly began the doom metal subgenre in the wild and wonderful overarching world of metal. Tony Iommis masterful guitar work is a sonic grimoire of riffs, and Geezer and Ward thunder along like a clock counting down to doomsday. The darkened lyricism of the album is burnt into the listener by the harrowing voice of a youthful Ozzy. Their synergy is exceptional on this release, especially given that Paranoids success launched them into a gruelling tour cycle that took an immense toll on all of them. 

48 years after its initial release, it is common knowledge that four of the first (and greatest) tracks known to the doom genre are pressed onto Master Of Reality in the shape of Sweet Leaf, Children Of The Grave, Lord Of This World and Into The Void. The riffs on these tracks alone are the concepts that would be utilised, and worshipped, by the likes of Sleep and Electric Wizard. They are the tracks that show that Iommi is, and always will be, the lord of the riff. However, the record also contains the blueprint for the introspective side of doom. Embryoand Orchid are beautiful moments of repose that still emanate the glory of the void, and the hauntingly elegant Solitudeshowcases that doom can be more than just riffs and raucousness. Master Of Reality is not just the crown jewel of Black Sabbaths discography, but one of the greatest recorded treasures in the realm of metal. [GT]

 

For more, check out this piece on Cirith Ungol’s masterful second album.

Words: Andrew Field [AF], David Burke [DB], George Parr [GP], Scott Crawford [SC], Stuart Wain [SW], Jack Richard King [JRK], Garrett Tanner [GT], Greg Smith [GS], Adam Pegg [AP]