The 20 greatest Black Sabbath songs – ranked
When four long-haired outsiders – thimble-fingered guitarist Tony Iommi, genius bassist Geezer Butler, tireless drummer Bill Ward and wildcard vocalist Ozzy Osbourne – came together in Birmingham at the tail-end of the 1960s, they never imagined the history-changing impact with which their collaboration would connect. Having metamorphosed from the Polka Tulk Blues Band into Earth, it was the influence of horror cinema (and introduction of the devil’s tri-tone) which would would see them round a bend, as Black Sabbath, from which rock music would never return.
Pioneering much of heavy metal as we still know it five decades down the line and opening a dark corner in the popular music landscape in which outcasts still congregate, fans of heavy music owe Sabbath everything.
Having managed a total of 19 albums before their eventual disbandment on February 4, 2017, true metal aficionados owe it to themselves to undertake a comprehensive trawl through the catalogue. From the unsurpassed peak of those first six albums, through the drug-fuelled breakdown that followed, the stunning resurgence of the Dio era and topsy-turvy later output featuring vocalists as talented as Ian Gillan, Glenn Hughes and Tony Martin, there are so many stories to be told and lessons to be learned.
As always, though, it’s irresistible to try and distil the very best of the best, so here’s our shot at narrowing down the Sabbath story to just 20 brilliant tracks…
20. Falling Off The Edge Of The World (Mob Rules, 1981)
The fact that it’s possible to comprise a separate Top 20 to go toe-to-toe with 99 per cent of other bands using the three Ronnie James Dio-era albums (four if you count 2009’s Heaven And Hell-labelled The Devil You Know) is testament to the underrated contributions of the diminutive New Hampshire frontman. Although The Sign Of The Southern Cross and surging title track run it close, this is our sole pick from 1981’s Mob Rules. From its ponderous orchestral intro and doomy bridge into the charging riff that breaks through around the two-minute mark, Falling Off The Edge Of The World was fist-pumping reassurance that Sabbath wouldn’t be slowing down (or getting any more understated) as the ’80s progressed.
19. Headless Cross (Headless Cross, 1989)
As they entered their third decade as a band, with Tony Iommi the sole remaining founding member, there were concerns that Sabbath had burned through their remaining reserves and were destined (like so many of their ’70s contemporaries) to stall and spiral into nostalgia-act blandness. The arrival of relatively unheralded vocalist Tony Martin for 1987’s The Eternal Idol changed all that. It was his follow-up offering Headless Cross, though, which sticks out in many fans’ minds. Layering up the synths and OTT ’80s arena-rock production, the title track’s (apparently true) medieval tale of the titular small town where the inhabitants would pray to the dark lord of a headless cross on the hill to be spared from the rampant pestilence of the time is brought thrillingly to life. ‘From the first evil night, when a black flash of light / Cut the crucifix half to the ground,’ Martin sings, unlocking arch new levels of melodrama. ‘There’s been no escape from the power of Satan / On a nation so brave and so proud.’ Chills with cheese on.
18. Sweet Leaf (Master Of Reality, 1971)
Kicking off Master Of Reality with the distorted sound of Tony Iommi choking on a massive hit, Sweet Leaf is the love song to cannabis that started the whole stoner metal subgenre. ‘My life was empty, forever on a down,’ Ozzy harks with fanatical conviction, ‘Until you took me, showed me around / My life is free now, my life is clear / I love you sweet leaf, though you can’t hear.’ A muscular, fuzzed-up riff powers through, but the song endures because of its focused, yet open-minded attitude attitude to mind-altering substances (a sharp counterpoint to so much of the fecklessness of flower power) in helping discover artistic potential buried within.
17. I (Dehumanizer, 1992)
Sabbath’s not-so-sweet sixteenth LP was the first in more than ten years to feature vocalist Ronnie James Dio and drummer Vinny Appice, and although it wasn’t quite a return to the charging highs of Heaven And Hell and Mob Rules, it did pack a couple of stone-cold bangers. This high-impact cut sees Iommi’s six-string unleashed as Dio abstractly assumes the identity of the titular (anti)hero: a wrathful but seemingly righteous unnamed force. ‘I’ll smash your face in / But with a smile / All together / You’ll never / Be stronger than me … On the edge of the blade / But no one makes the hero bleed!’ Its appearance on the same line-up’s “Heaven And Hell” 2007 reunion album Live From Radio City Music Hall is the definitive iteration.
16. Symptom Of The Universe (Sabotage, 1975)
For many fans, that first five-year/six-album stretch was ultimate Sabbath. If that’s the case then Symptom Of The Universe (like Metallica’s One) was the spectacular sound of the end of an era. A showcase of Iommi’s rhythm guitar mastery and Bill Ward’s tumbledown percussion (reacting, perhaps, to the relative experimentalism of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath), it is arguably their most air-guitar worthy anthem – until it collapses in on that cosmic concept with a jazzily out-there sign-off. ‘Mother Moon, she’s calling me back to her silver womb,’ Ozzy cries. ‘Father of creation takes me from my stolen tomb / Seventh Advent unicorn is waiting in the skies / A symptom of the universe, a love that never dies.’ Sonic transport to another world.
15. Die Young (Heaven And Hell, 1980)
Although not the best on the album, Heaven & Hell’s sixth track bristled with an energy and intent that suggested, more than any other, they were a band reborn. Keeping the best bits of the Ozzy era, jettisoning the rest, narrowing their focus and stoking the theatricality, it pulls the trigger on both barrels with no regrets. Dio’s lyrics – brasher and more immediate than those which fans had grown used to from Butler working alone – address the ultimate futility of life in the face of its ephemeral nature with impish daring and wide-eyed wonder. ‘Your back is to the wall,’ he sings, with real power. ‘Then chain the sun / And it tears away to face you as you run / You run, you run / So live for today / Tomorrow never comes…’ Fittingly, his bandmates go pedal-to-the metal like artists without a moment to spare.
14. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, 1973)
Building on a stylistic evolution kickstarted by Vol. 4, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath was something of a watershed moment for the band, with strings, synths and keyboards loaded into ever-more complex song structures. (Tony reportedly toyed with bagpipes and a sitar in the studio, but couldn’t master them to his own high standards.) The album’s title track, though, is a heads-down metal banger for the ages. ‘You’re wishing that the hands of doom / Could take your mind away,’ Ozzy sings. ‘And you don’t care if you don’t see again / The light of day.’ Its straightforward expression of self-destructive anger and aggression is one of the purest emotional outbursts in their arsenal, while the quiet/loud dynamics and complete overload of riffage ensured its enduring musical significance. That cry of ‘You bastards!’ still echoes today.
13. Children Of The Sea (Heaven And Hell, 1980)
Supposedly Ozzy had a shot at this Heaven And Hell highlight (with different lyrics and melody) as one of his last acts before being fired from the band. It was subsequently the first completed with new vocalist Ronnie James Dio and has become emblematic of their endurance in the years that followed. ‘In the misty morning / On the edge of time,’ go Dio’s opening lines. ‘We’ve lost the rising sun / A final si-i-ign.’ Although the fantastical imagery openly called to mind the sound and aesthetic Dio had channelled in Rainbow some years before, no clear interpretation of the meaning has ever been forthcoming, with some fans speculating it simply signified the start of Sabbath’s more epic ’80s era as a knowing counterpoint to 1971’s murkier Children Of The Grave.
12. Fairies Wear Boots (Paranoid, 1970)
Paranoid’s final tack is one of Sabbath’s most frequently misunderstood. The fantasy-obsessed proto-metal community – caught up in the popularity of J.R.R. Tolkien and pulpier sword-and-sorcery fiction – imagined the track as a narrative about some fantasy world where well-heeled fairies ran amok, perhaps conjured from the band’s imagination on one of their infamous hallucinogenic trips. In reality, it was a cheeky riposte to a gang of skinheads who had caused trouble at an early Sabbath gig. As easily identified by their Doc Martens as their bald heads, said skins were re-cast as the titular fairies for one of Sabbath’s most gleefully trippy works.
11. A National Acrobat (Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, 1973)
‘I am the world that hides / The universal secret of all time / Destruction of the empty spaces / Is my one and only crime…’ The work of a deeply intellectual lyricist, A National Acrobat might just be Geezer Butler’s abstract masterpiece. Existentially pondering the miracle of life – the invisible force that selects that one successful sperm from millions of others and miraculously fuses it to the egg to create human life – he casts Ozzy as the omnipotent, god-like force pulling the invisible strings. Starting with velvet-rich, bluesy riffage, it escalates to a frantic conclusion, as if evoking the energy of those countless gametes, rushing for one infinitesimally tiny chance to make it.
10. N.I.B. (Black Sabbath, 1970)
The title of the final track on side one of Sabbath’s self-titled debut has been the subject of much intrigue over the years. With its lyrics, according to Geezer Butler, tracing a bizarre tale of Satan falling in love and becoming a better person (‘Now I have you with me, under my power / Our love grows stronger now with every hour…’) the popular fan theory was that N.I.B. referred to a Nativity In Black. Geezer has confirmed that was pure speculation, though, and that the title actually just a reference to Bill Ward’s Luciferian goatee at the time, which resembled the nib of a pen. Along with the album’s title track, this was the song that paved the way for their future sound, moving away from blues and psychedelia in favour of a more bludgeoning metallic attack.
9. Snowblind (Vol. 4, 1972)
Graduating from the marijuana of Sweet Leaf, Snowblind is Sabbath’s brilliantly blatant ode to cocaine. A drug that was avalanching through the rock world by the start of the 1970s, it nonetheless remained a dirty secret for most artists. The unstoppable Brummies, however, paid tribute to their powdery muse with little shame on a supposed “cautionary tale” that was clearly far more of a celebration. Although the label managed to nix the idea of titling the album itself Snowblind (hence Vol. 4), they couldn’t suppress lyrics as outrageously transparent as ‘What you get, and what you see / Things that don’t come easily / Feeling happy in my pain / Icicles within my brain (cocaine!)’
8. Into The Void (Master Of Reality, 1971)
Down-tuning three-and-a-half steps, Tony Iommi opened up a whole new world of heaviosity on Master Of Reality. Its closing track is a one-way trip into darkness powered by a churning riff that’s still one of the heaviest in metal history. ‘Rocket engines burning fuel so fast,’ Ozzy chants. ‘Up into the night sky they blast / Through the universe the engines whine / Could it be the end of man and time?’ It might express desire to leave the world behind (‘to Satan and his slaves’) for the emptiness of space, but that weightless concept contrasts spectacularly with the track’s rocket-driven momentum and bulkhead heft.
7. Supernaut (Vol.4, 1972)
Supernaut was never one of Sabbath’s more commercially successful tracks, but over the years it has been held up by hardcore fans and fellow players amongst the greatest of their many towering achievements. Built around an Iommi riff that felt at once cutting, groovy and utterly relentless, and driven on by Bill Ward’s dynamic, splashy percussion, it sees Ozzy deployed to scant, spacey, and never-more-potent effect, ‘I want to reach out and touch the sky / I want to touch the sun, but I don’t need to fly / I’m gonna climb up every mountain of the moon / And find the dish that ran away with the spoon.’ When the band met Led Zeppelin a few years later, this was the song John Bonham wanted to play with them, and it has been covered by artists as varied as Ministry, Coalesce and Ministry/NIN side-project 1000 Homo DJs.
6. Children Of The Grave (Master Of Reality, 1971)
Laying the galloping foundations for the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (which would take the best part of a decade to properly catch on) there was a breathless urgency and unchained exuberance beyond the earthy weight of Children Of The Grave which ramped-up the Sabbath sound to another level. Geezer’s lyrics might have defied the at-times insidious sound with its pleas for a brighter future (‘Must the world live in the shadow of atomic fear? / Can they win the fight for peace or will they disappear?’) but the finished article whips along with such momentum you hardly notice. Ozzy has called Children… the “most kick-ass” cut on Sabbath’s early LPs. It’s hard to disagree.
5. Paranoid (Paranoid, 1970)
The band were just about finished with their second LP (then titled War Pigs) when producer Rodger Brian told them it could do with something a little extra to finally set it off. As the rest of the band broke for lunch, Iommi began noodling a new riff. Loving what the guitarist had come up with, Geezer was inspired to jot down some simple, deceptively abstract lyrics: ‘Finished with my woman / ‘Cause she couldn’t help me with my mind / People think I’m insane / Because I am frowning all the time / All day long I think of things / But nothing seems to satisfy / Think I’ll lose my mind / If I don’t find something to pacify…’ Although the band didn’t think much of their quick creation, the label insisted it become the album’s title track and lead single. Mere months after they had invented a genre, this was the track that changed the game.
4. War Pigs (Paranoid, 1970)
They might’ve felt like a heavyweight antidote to the easy-breezy hippy culture that was winding down at the time, but Sabbath were enthusiastically on board with its anti-war message. Originally conceived as an openly Satanic number called Walpurgis (sample lyrics: ‘Witches gather at black masses / Bodies burning in red ashes / On the hill the church in ruin / Is the scene of evil doings…’) the idea was knocked back by label bigwigs and the band pivoted to write the political masterpiece fans know and love today. At the height of the Vietnam war, Geezer unleashed all of his frustration and rage across eight minutes of instantly-iconic sound that would (for better or worse) remain enduringly relevant for decades to come.
3. Heaven And Hell (Heaven And Hell, 1980)
Although “supergroup” collaborations only rarely strike real pay dirt, the title track to Sabbath’s first collaboration with Dio was towering proof of a match made in Heaven (And Hell). Having fine-tuned their doomy formula over eight LPs with Ozzy, the Iommi/Butler/Ward axis were ready for a more virtuoso expression of their vision. With Ronnie James rolling in off three LPs with Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, he sought a move away from airy fantasy in favour of songs with a little more heft. Everyone feels fulfilled here, with Iommi and Butler’s striding unison riff segueing into thumping bass-and-drums before Dio’s incredible voice breaks through like a blood-red sunrise on the horizon. The progression through choral interludes, pyrotechnic solos and that galloping race to the finish line confirms Heaven And Hell as one of the greatest metal tracks of all time.
2. Iron Man (Paranoid, 1970)
Recorded with Ozzy mouthing through a spinning metal fan, that iconic opening line was the introduction to a track that would perfect doom metal right at its very beginning. Built around Tony Iommi’s outrageous central riff and mind-boggling string bends (Oz mimics the melody note for note), there is a metallic weight and evocatively clanking stiffness that sporadically loosens across the plaintive choruses and Tony’s runaway guitar solo. There’s nothing more metal than the concept, mind. Focused on a time-traveller who witnesses the future apocalypse but is transformed into a mute iron figure on his way back to warn the present (‘Is he alive or dead? / Has he thoughts within his head? / We’ll just pass him there / Why should we even care?’) we understand the frustration as he is forgotten and empathise with his wrath as he goes postal to collect a debt from those who owe him their lives. Heavy metal perfection.
1. Black Sabbath (Black Sabbath, 1970)
The song that started a subculture. The moment Tony Iommi lost the tips of his fingers in a factory accident at the age of 17 might have had a crucial impact on his playing style and Sabbath’s down-tuned sound, but this was the convergence of doomy sound and aesthetic that would capture imaginations around the world. Legend has it that when Tony and Ozzy’s previous band Earth were practising near one of Birmingham’s seedy late-night cinemas, someone suggested that people might be as willing to pay to hear spooky music as they were to see scary movies. Borrowing its name from a 1963 Boris Karloff horror anthology and built around Tony’s Satanic tritones and Geezer’s Hammer Horror lyrics, Black Sabbath ensured nothing would ever be the same again. Bow down at the ashen altar.
Read this next:
Ozzy Osbourne has been working with guitarists Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Tony Iommi and Zakk Wylde for the follow-up to Ordinary Man…
Ahead of the release of upcoming album The Persistence Of Memory, Richard Z. Kruspe has teamed up with Rammstein bandmate Till Lindemann for a new Emigrate cover.