Black Sabbath: Every album ranked from worst to best
True facts: even half a century after they first emerged with their self-titled debut, Black Sabbath are still the best band. Sure, Metallica, alright Maiden, fine Nirvana, Soundgarden and Alice In Chains. But where would any of these bands be without them? What Sabbath did wasn’t just be very good, there was a line between what them and Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Hendrix and their other contemporaries were doing that only strengthened with time – they first made a virtue of that sinister heaviness that would turn into heavy metal, and from there, everything else.
“When you’re sitting around in the practice room and someone breaks in on a Sabbath riff, everyone joins in – they’re just classic riffs.” You know who said that? Dave Grohl, who was spotted energetically fanboying around Tony Iommi at the Kerrang! Awards in 2018. Rock would be here without them, but it would look very different indeed.
As we continue to celebrate their big birthday year, and with their epic Paranoid recently having its own big five-oh, what better time to look back at five decades of riffs, heaviness, and wondering ‘What is this that stands before me?’
19. Forbidden (1995)
One does not simply dunk on Black Sabbath. However, Tony Iommi even named the chapter dealing with it in his Iron Man autobiography, ‘The One That Should’ve Been Forbidden’, so it’s fair game, really. In fairness, there are some decent, mid-tier Iommi riffs, but what’s this? Ice‑T popping up to rap over The Illusion Of Power so suddenly he might as well have parachuted in and knocked singer Tony Martin over as he landed? That’s absolutely what this is — and that’s just the first song. Thus was reached the lowest point of Sabbath’s career, and a forgotten full stop until 13 properly closed recorded matters. Two years after Forbidden’s release, Ozzy-era Sabbath reunited to thunderous applause, and this was forgotten. If anyone actually noticed it in the first place.
18. Cross Purposes (1994)
There’s a really weird bit on here when the song Cross Of Thorns simply… fades out. Not such a big deal, except that it happens while poor old Tony Martin is in the middle of delivering a line. Like someone’s gone, ‘Yeah, nah, that’ll do, I reckon — job’s a goodun.’ It’s possibly the only memorable thing on Cross Purposes, an album currently unavailable officially, but deemed worthy of a live album at the time (why?). It’s passable enough, but there’s no hidden gems, and it’s all done with an auto-pilot feeling that gives it the enthusiasm of a Sunday League team turning up and hoping to get a nil-nil draw.
17. Seventh Star (1986)
Tony Iommi intended for this to be a solo album. The label wanted it to still be Sabbath for brand recognition purposes. What you get is some decent Iommi riffs and a lot of songs that are – intentionally – of a different, more commercial stripe than Sabbath’s usual low-end metal, with former Deep Purple singer Glenn Hughes pouring vocal syrup over the top. Case in point: No Stranger To Love, a power ballad that drops Sabbath’s usual minor key for such things for a bit of schmaltz and a confusing chorus line, ‘Living on the streets, I’m no stranger to love’. Does that mean there will be love or there won’t be love? Anyway, it’s the banger-when-you’re-pissed-enough highlight on a record that sits awkwardly in the Sabbs’ canon on account of not really being meant for it.
16. The Eternal Idol (1987)
Say hello to Sabbath’s second longest-serving vocalist, Tony ‘The Cat’ Martin. He’s very good: a charismatic singer with a big wail and a knack with mystical words, perfect to fill a role once performed by Ronnie James Dio. He’d make genuinely great albums with Sabbath, but this introduction isn’t one of them. There’s something just… It’s really low-powered and unconfident. The songs are neither heavy enough, nor epic enough to show what the new boy can really do, and though it’s functional, The Eternal Idol just doesn’t have the magic of what came before or after.
15. Never Say Die! (1978)
Asked in 1981 for his thoughts on his then-last album with Sabbath, Ozzy wasn’t diplomatic. “It was the worst piece of work that I’ve ever had anything to do with,” he said. “I’m ashamed of that album. I think it’s disgusting.” You can see why his memories weren’t fond: the drugs had stopped working, Ozzy had already quit once and come back, everyone was fed up, and they were in freezing cold Toronto listlessly throwing ideas at the wall to see what stuck. A punky opening track was a good idea, Bill Ward singing a song, not so much. But a lack of enthusiasm both creatively and in the performance makes it the sound of a tube being squeezed. This malaise and sense that something was over was only highlighted when they took a young Van Halen out on the subsequent tour, and got their arse handed to them nightly. After that, Ozzy was fired, and both he and the newly Dio-fronted Sabbath came out swinging. So, in a way, this had to happen to get the next chapters…
14. Born Again (1983)
One would think that Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan would be a fine man to front Sabbath. One would think. Apparently chosen for the post-Dio job over Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, Whitesnake’s rock’n’roll-Roger-Moore David Coverdale and, um, Michael Bolton, Born Again quickly became more project than regular album, with a plan to release it not under Sabbath’s name. Gillan has held his hands up and called himself “The worst singer Sabbath has ever had” – a slightly unfair assessment, as the problem here is that the combination is like putting your shoes on the wrong feet. There’s bangers to be had – Zero The Hero, Trashed, Disturbing The Priest – but it largely fails to fit together. Talking of failing to fit, the Born Again tour featured a Stonehenge so enormous the band had trouble fitting onstage around it. So now you know where Rob Reiner got the idea for Spinal Tap…
13. Technical Ecstasy (1976)
It’s easy to forget that Technical Ecstasy is actually pretty good, given its place in history as The One Where The Cracks Started To Show. There’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Doctor, for one thing. For another, Dirty Women is so good the band resurrected it on their The End tour. But what’s missing is the hungry, stoned-out blues of their first three albums, and the coke-guzzling creativity of the next three. Trying to sort out their management problems by managing themselves, Geezer Butler has admitted that the extra pressure affected the music, although using the same studio where The Eagles were recording Hotel California meant they could still find plenty of gak (literally – Geezer recalls having to scrape the stuff from recording equipment). But ultimately, it didn’t help them reach the highs of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath or Vol. 4, and Ozzy quit in frustration after its release, before returning for Never Say Die!. Still, Dirty Women’s a blinder…
12. Mob Rules (1981)
The second album with Dio before he upped sticks and went solo was an album of peaks and valleys. Sign Of The Southern Cross is an incredible, stately work of magnificence. Turn Up The Night is a pulsing, blues-laced number. The Mob Rules is a gung-ho charge that sees Dio bellowing with all his might about what happens ‘If you listen to fools’. But as an album it’s disjointed. A new drummer, Vinny Appice, brought a cool new vibe, but the way material was written was strained, not helped by the fact that Dio’s solo contract had emerged while he was still in the band. “We started writing songs differently for some reason, and ended up not using a lot of really great material,” said Tony Iommi. “That line-up was really great, and the whole thing fell apart for very silly reasons – we were all acting like children.” Like we say, peaks and valleys, peaks and valleys.
11. Tyr (1990)
Essentially Headless Cross: Part II, Tyr is once again Tony Martin taking Sabbath through a world of mythology and mysticism, as Iommi continues to expertly mix doom riffs with massive, epic choruses. Some fans were put off by the album’s heavy use of keyboards, but the atmosphere they add to Iommi’s thunder and the thump of songs like Anno Mundi and Jerusalem more than justifies them. It also features possibly the band’s most energetic song, the galloping Lawmaker, which could easily be mistaken for Iron Maiden. It’s a long way from Master Of Reality, but as has been pointed out, Tony Iommi does have an ability to move forward when needed, and this is an underrated example of the best of his searches for pastures new.
10. 13 (2013)
On top of everything else great about 13 – bringing Ozzy, Tony and Geezer together for the first time since Never Say Die!, proper big, hairy-arsed Sabbath doom songs – Tony Iommi wrote and recorded it while he was undergoing intense treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. As in, on the days he wasn’t in the hospital having life-saving treatment, he was working on riffs and songs. Because, as he said, “It was better than sitting around feeling sorry for myself.” And so, what was already a very special occasion became a true celebration of the human spirit and, ahem, never say die attitude. True, it would have been nice to have Bill Ward, but it’s still an awesome, celebratory full-stop to the story, rather than petering out on Forbidden.
9. Sabotage (1975)
By 1976, Sabbath were so out of it that Bill Ward ended up wearing his wife’s tights on the cover of Sabotage, having misplaced his trousers. Business problems and being sued by former managers also inspired the album’s name, and led Bill to comment that it was the only album ever made “with lawyers in the studio”. But Sabotage was also the ultimate wingspan of the band’s ‘70s creativity. In one corner, you have the usual muscular riffs and grooves that make up Hole In The Sky and the chugging Symptom Of The Universe, an aggression that Tony Iommi put down to the behind the scenes frustrations. But in the other, there are almost Beatles-ish moments like Am I Going Insane, the haunting blues of Megalomania, and the fantastical flight of fancy, Supertzar. So good did Ozzy consider the latter’s riff that he didn’t want to sing over it, so they got a choir in instead. It may have been a headache to make, but the results are sublime.
8. Dehumanizer (1992)
The rise of grunge actually gave Sabbath a bit of a boost in the early ‘90s. Thus, this return of Ronnie James Dio, Geezer Butler and Vinny Appice for the first time since Mob Rules became Sabbath’s biggest album in a decade. But it was more than nostalgia – after the mystics and theatrics of the ‘80s, this was a more raw, in-a-room outing, where the heaviness of I and Computer God could properly breathe and rumble. Dio’s voice, meanwhile, positively shines, really showing off what a herculean set of lungs he had, nowhere moreso than on After All (The Dead), one of the most doom songs in the Sabbath canon. It would be an all-too-brief reunion, however, with Dio departing again soon after. But still, a hell of a way to stoke the fires.
7. Headless Cross (1989)
Tony Martin is fucking brilliant. And if he was given something of a false start on The Eternal Idol, here the musical return to form means he swaggers in with the confidence of James Bond after just being crowned king. Just listen to the way he hits the high notes in the chorus of the title-track. Blinding. In a similar manner to how Heaven & Hell saw the band turn a creative corner and nail a new sound post-Ozzy, Headless Cross found Tony Iommi steering the Sabbath ship into more fruitful waters after a frustrating, confused period. Tony Martin properly gets his teeth into it lyrically as well, echoing the magic of Geezer Butler’s early days pen, but in a grandiose manner all of his own. Atop a superbly dark riff on When Death Calls, he warns not to ‘Laugh in the face of death, or your tongue will blister and die’ so convincingly you actually believe he’s a magician who’s Been There and Seen Things. A truly glorious moment. Just a shame it’s STILL NOT AVAILABLE ON STREAMING SERVICES.
6. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973)
Vol. 4 had made Black Sabbath enormous. Proper, megastar huge. The idea to return to Los Angeles and make its successor in a similarly cokey environment of Caligulan excess seemed like the thing to do. Just one problem: Tony Iommi had writer’s block. He was so burnt out that at the final show on the Vol. 4 tour at the Hollywood Bowl, he collapsed. A month in LA yielded nothing, and Tony began to worry he was done. But, relocating to Clearwell Castle in Gloucestershire, things quickly turned around. Rehearsing in the castle’s dungeons and encountering ghosts, a heavier, darker album than its predecessor began to emerge. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (the song) is one of the best things they ever did, A National Acrobat is the biggest groove Geezer Butler has ever grooved, and Sabbra Cadabra is a turbo-charged blues arse-shaker. Far from being spent, Sabbs were a truly unstoppable force here.
5. Black Sabbath (1970)
Rain. A bell. A tritone. ‘Oh no, no, please God help me’. A harmonica. A wizard. A wall of sleep. A wah-wah bass. Taking Lucifer’s hand. An evil woman. A huge, lengthy freakout. A drum solo. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Even easier that it was quickly blasted out in two days during a stop in London en route to a gig in Switzerland. But Sabbath’s debut was the work of countless hours grinding away in blues clubs and The Star Club in Hamburg, until their lengthy jams could turn on a sixpence. The haunting, evil tones of the title-track and the inverted cross in the artwork marked the band out as a darker proposition to contemporaries like Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Jimi Hendrix easily enough, but there’s so much more here than aesthetics. It remains a magical record, and whether the truism that it birthed heavy metal is strictly accurate, it remains a stunning place in which to start the story nevertheless.
4. Heaven & Hell (1980)
Was firing Ozzy the best thing that could have happened to both parties? In 1980, it would appear so. The Double‑O kicked off his solo career with the massive Blizzard Of Ozz, while Sabbath bounced back from Never Say Die! with a new singer, Dio, and a record that sported a vast new sound. Gone were bluesy jams and experimental fancy, replaced with shiny behemoths like Children Of The Sea and Heaven & Hell which fully unlocked the potential to write songs towering enough for Dio’s voice. It turned their fortunes around for the start of a new decade in which a new generation of bands like Iron Maiden were already making waves. Never say die, indeed.
3. Vol. 4 (1972)
We’ve talked a lot about drugs in this list. Like, a lot. But, really, it’s unavoidable sometimes. The studio for Vol. 4 cost $60,000. The drugs came to 15 grand more than that. Gak was being delivered in soap powder boxes. It was a heady time to be in Black Sabbath, especially if your head was full of cocaine. Vol. 4 is the album where success and excess really introduced itself to the Birmingham Four, but creatively, it’s also where the creativity from such things began to come out. The band’s first three albums had been largely made up of jams, riffs and songs from roughly the same time on the blues circuit, and jamming at gigs. Here, they had a cleaner slate, a big budget, every desire catered for, and way more time to make music in. It’s how you ended up with a more majestic feel to Snowblind, Wheels Of Confusion and Supernaut, and even a piano ballad in Changes. The sound of a band realising they’re going to go upward whatever they do.
2. Master Of Reality (1971)
Weed music just doesn’t come any juicier than Master Of Reality. It wasn’t just that Sweet Leaf with all its loving lyrics to getting stoned opened with Tony Iommi coughing after a bong rip, either. Even the album’s angriest moments, like the nuclear war warning Children Of The Grave, have a red-eyed vibe. And when it goes fully blissed out on Solitude, it’s mellow perfection.
But there’s more to it than that. Truthfully, not since the early ‘70s has anyone been able to spin and toy with a riff quite so fluidly and powerfully as Sabbath do here. The rhythmic tennis between Geezer Butler and Bill Ward is musical butter, able to swing and turn a corner as smoothly as a finely-sanded Tom Jones, as Iommi’s leads melt through them in a manner that’s almost calmingly satisfying. And, having downtuned as far as was possible before it messed with Ozzy’s singing, a new door of heaviness was opened. They had longer in the studio than on their first two albums, but Master Of Reality was still completed in double-quick time, though most bands could try for a thousand years and still not even fall into the groove Sabbath were in here if they were pushed by Tony Iommi himself.
1. Paranoid (1970)
Think about this: Black Sabbath’s debut was released on February 13, 1970; 217 days later, they had written, recorded and released Paranoid. While also keeping up an intense touring schedule. Even considering the workrate of bands in the late ‘60s and early-‘70s, even knowing that they had a war-chest of riffs and ideas from their blues club days, it is an unfathomable achievement. And this is before you count having a Number One single quickly written on the hoof as filler, and an anti-Vietnam War take in the lyrics that was considered so spicy that they band’s U.S. label wanted them to change the title from War Pigs – a decision ultimately made easier when the commercial potential of the title-single was first spotted, then vindicated when it hit paydirt.
A name change couldn’t alter what was going on or what the album represented, however. The previous summer at Woodstock, anti-war sentiment was high, as a 300,000-strong audience of predominantly young, college-aged and draft-eligible Americans gathered to celebrate ‘Three Days Of Peace And Music’. With Hendrix playing a fuzzed-up version of The Star Spangled Banner, and Country Joe & The Fish’s Vietnam Song (‘Whoopee, we’re all gonna die’), sarcasm, irony and dark humour were starting to creep into the hippie movement, as ‘Nam cast an ever-darker shadow.
Paranoid may not have been the record responsible for the change in tone – from the prettiness of peace to the horror of war and the ugliness of those who perpetuated it – but the vibe and timing drew as good a line as any in the sand as far as the despondency felt by those protesting the war went. At one time, musical opposition brought to mind sunny California beaches, acoustic protest songs, nice Mexican weed and pretty hippie girls putting flowers in machine guns. When you’re from hard 1960s Birmingham, however, it was more difficult to see things in such swinging terms. Though the album isn’t wholly about Vietnam – Paranoid’s about depression, Fairies Wear Boots is about getting your head kicked in by football hooligans – the moments that are stand tall, dark and ugly. Hippie-dom is dead, it said, this is reality.
War Pigs, originally meant to be titled Walpurgis, is a takedown of politicians playing chess with young lives without getting their hands dirty themselves. When accusations of being in league with the Devil arose around the band’s image and the song’s ‘Satan laughing spreads his wings’ line, Geezer Butler’s attitude in response was, “Satan isn’t a spiritual thing, it’s warmongers. That’s who the real Satanists are, all these people who are running the banks and the world and trying to get the working class to fight the wars for them.”
Even more chilling is Hand Of Doom. When Ozzy sings ‘Disillusioning, you push the needle in’, he’s talking about men returning from Vietnam who, having been drafted and sent to kill in a poorly-managed war in a country most couldn’t point to on a map, were dumped by the U.S. government. A number, damaged by their experiences, began using hard drugs like smack to deal with it.
Add the nuclear warning of Electric Funeral, and Paranoid is a record that went where others were not. For some, the message was loud and clear, for others, the absolute perfection of the music was all. And fairly enough. The stoned, acoustic strum of Planet Caravan is, after all, about little more than two souls flying through space together. Iron Man is a vessel for One Of The Greatest Riffs Of All Time. Rat Salad is an electrifying jam where Bill Ward, for that moment, is the best drummer on Earth.
But, atop their debut, Paranoid confirmed wholly that Sabbath were different than their peers. They were sinister, dark, evil, a reflection of what they saw around them, heavy in both volume and subject, threatening, challenging. But at the same time, Paranoid is magical, mystical, an occasionally hazy dream. But never do these contradict one another, never do they tangle. Fifty years on, Paranoid remains the perfect album by the perfect band.
Black Sabbath’s new Paranoid: Super Deluxe Edition vinyl boxset is out October 9 via BMG.
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