Every Black Sabbath album – ranked!
By Michael Hann
Highs and lows … Black Sabbath. Photograph: Ann Clifford/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
- Seventh Star (1986)
Seventh Star was meant to be Tony Iommi’s first solo album, until label and management decided no one was going to buy it, and insisted it be billed as Black Sabbath, even if only Iommi was pictured on the cover. That it isn’t really Sabbath is apparent from the power ballad No Stranger to Love. Power ballad? Sabbath? Madness.
- Dehumaniser (1992)
Dehumaniser? Well, it certainly makes you feel like letting go of your humanity. The return of Geezer Butler and Ronnie James Dio should have been a good thing, but the band forgot to write any good songs to take advantage of the optimism. Letters from Earth has a good Iommi riff, but the rest is subpar.
- Forbidden (1995)
What long looked likely to be the final Black Sabbath album would have been a sad little footnote to their career. The appearance of Ice-T on Illusion of Power – the album was produced by Ernie C of Body Count – signified a band who had lost their way as surely as a middle-aged executive buying a Harley-Davidson.
Geoff Nicholls, Tony Iommi, Dave Spitz, Eric Singer and Glenn Hughes in 1985. Photograph: Chris Walter/WireImage
- Tyr (1990)
The 15th Sabbath album doesn’t sound much like Sabbath at all. The riffs are conventional mainstream metal: it would have sounded perfectly of its time five years earlier, but by 1990 – with Ozzy Osbourne-era Sabbath being exhumed by grunge and stoner bands – something more like the band of 20 years before might have hit home a lot harder.
- The Eternal Idol (1987)
The first album with singer Tony Martin opened with an Iommi riff that offered hope of redemption: The Shining was more polished than, say, Wheels of Confusion, but it suggested Sabbath might be able to claw their way out of their hole. It often felt, though, as if the rest of the band were sanding down their leader’s riffs to fit an 80s template.
- Headless Cross (1989)
Some Sabbath loyalists make a case for Headless Cross being a neglected classic. They can make the case, but they’re wrong. It’s perfectly serviceable, but Martin was an identikit metal singer: he sings about Satan with all the menace of someone offering cheese samples at Morrisons deli counter.
- Technical Ecstasy (1976)
Butler claimed Technical Ecstasy was Sabbath responding to punk. Given it was recorded in June 1976, that suggests they were either way ahead of the curve, or that Butler is mistaken. Back Street Kids may back his claim, but most of the rest of Technical Ecstasy was a mess.
Ozzy performing in New York in 1982. Photograph: Larry Marano/Getty Images
- Cross Purposes (1994)
For the first time in more than decade, Sabbath sounded like a contemporary metal band, rather than a group trying to sound like a contemporary metal band (and on Cardinal Sin, Iommi and Butler gave Martin the kind of preposterously epic setting that Dio had deserved). It’s no Master of Reality, but it was the best Sabbath album since the early 80s.
- Born Again (1983)
According to Sabbath mythology, Born Again should have been smothered at birth. Actually, it’s pretty good: Ian Gillan, whose only recordings with the band these were, still had his voice, and the other three are pretty focused. Of course, Gillan’s lyrics were awful and very un-Sabbath, but it was the best record he had been involved in since his time in Deep Purple.
- Never Say Die (1978)
The final album of the original Ozzy era has a terrible reputation, but it’s a quirky and enjoyable record, as long as you don’t expect Sabbath Even Bloodier Sabbath. The title track has garage-band rawness; Air Dance is – dare one say it – oddly beautiful. It’s hit and miss, but it’s still better than almost everything from 1981 onwards.
- 13 (2013)
The original foursome reconvened for the first time since 1978 – and for the first record by any Sabbath lineup since 1995 – under the guidance of producer Rick Rubin, who fairly evidently told them there was only one thing people wanted Black Sabbath to do: sound like Black Sabbath. It didn’t scale the original heights, but 13 was miles better than anyone dared expect.
- Mob Rules (1981)
After the success of Heaven and Hell (1980), Sabbath essentially made the same album again, just not quite as well. But what could have been a productive 80s was derailed by rows about the mix (Iommi accused Dio of sneaking back to the studio at night to turn his vocals up) and by Dio’s departure.
- Black Sabbath (1970)
A tolling bell, the sound of pouring rain, then the riff that changed everything: Black Sabbath invented an entire worldview within the first 60 seconds of their debut. You can still hear the blues-rock band they had been – The Wizard; Evil Woman, Don’t Play Your Games With Me; an interminable cover of Aynsley Dunbar’s Warning – which makes it an album of greater promise than reality.
- Sabotage (1975)
The last of the run of great albums (the fact you can see drummer Bill Ward’s underpants through his wife’s red tights on the cover is a handy metaphor for a band that was about to lose its grip), and still fantastic. Symptom of the Universe barrels along, before reaching a fabulous acoustic section – it is an album full of invention. And Osbourne, rarely an expressive singer, was at his best here.
- Paranoid (1970)
The title track! Iron Man! Rhyming “masses” with “masses” on War Pigs! The second Sabbath album was a leap into a different dimension from their debut: a huge, grim, monolithic edifice that brooked no doubt. You didn’t think it was OK; you thought it was the greatest thing ever. Or you hated it. For many years, virtually every critic fell into the second camp. The fools.
- Vol 4 (1972)
The sleeve thanks “the great COKE-Cola Company of Los Angeles”, and you can hear it: Vol 4 is a powder-blown record, blank and unrelenting, grinding its teeth. Wheels of Confusion reduces the idea of the riff to its bare minimum. Snowblind – originally intended to be the title track – captures the essence of Vol 4. All your nihilist needs met in one place.
- Heaven and Hell (1980)
The opener, Neon Knights, served notice that Black Sabbath – with Dio replacing Osbourne – were revitalised. It wasn’t the only track on which the group sounded revitalised by the emergent new wave of British of heavy metal (see also: Die Young). The title track still had the Sabbath plod, yet they somehow sounded nimble with it. They were leading again, not following.
- Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973)
The fifth Sabbath album saw them stretching out – Looking for Today has a flute break! A flute! On a Black Sabbath record! – but without sacrificing intensity. From the cover – some sort of satanic ritual in bed – through the title track, to Killing Yourself to Live, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath helped codify metal and extend its boundaries.
Geezer Butler, Tony Iommi, Bill Ward and Ozzy Osbourne in the 70s. Photograph: Chris Walter/WireImage
- Master of Reality (1971)
Master of Reality was Black Sabbath’s most subtle album yet and their most bludgeoning. Ward’s jazzy drumming – somehow swinging and precise – propelled even the most straightforward of the tracks. (Children of the Grave would be a pretty good boogie without Ward; he makes it monstrous.) The previous album was called Paranoid, but this was the one that sounded paranoid. The cause was perhaps the subject of the album’s opener, Sweet Leaf, on which a looped cough gives way to an Iommi riff so brutal that it is almost a caricature, before Osbourne spends several minutes explaining just how much he likes weed. A masterpiece.