The 25 greatest three-album runs in rock and metal
Every classic album is cause for celebration. Whenever a band really hit their groove and rack them up successively, however, it tends to feel extra-special, proving that the players in question are no flash-in-the-pan, showcasing an artistic progression without any trade-off in quality. Whether hammered out in a matter of months or developed glacially over a decade-plus span, it’s ever so satisfying to pore over a band’s back-catalogue and bracket out an extended stretch when they were at their momentous peak.
Of course, the exact nature of that sweet spell differs from artist to artist. Metallica’s first five albums were close to perfection. As were Black Sabbath’s first six, and Iron Maiden’s first seven. For comparative purposes, we reckon that three is the magic number, though: a stretch long enough to be remarkable but sufficiently contained to encapsulate the careers of short-lived legends such as Nirvana and red-hot young guns like Code Orange. After much debate, here we present our cross-genre, cross-generational list of the all-time best three-album runs…
Fall Out Boy: Take This To Your Grave (2003) / From Under The Cork Tree (2005) / Infinity On High (2007)
Pop-punk was at an all-time high in the mid-2000s, and Fall Out Boy’s first three albums played an enormous part in that. Springing from Chicago’s suburban sprawl, frontman Patrick Stump, bassist Pete Wentz, guitarist Joe Trohman and drummer Andy Hurley were misfits in the truest sense of the term, with their disparate loves of old-school emo, punk, high-sheen pop, metal and hardcore combining into a hooky-as-hell whole. 2003 debut Take This To Your Grave is their emotional high-point, full of the breathlessly honest angst and excitement of adolescence. From Under The Cork Tree is the breakthrough, with mega-singles Sugar, We’re Goin Down and Dance, Dance making the boys household names. Infinity On High charts their course for superstardom with one foot still in the grassroots, as Jay‑Z’s megawatt intro contrasts with heart-wrought opener Thriller before This Ain’t A Scene, It’s An Arms Race and Thanks Fr Th Mmrs slingshot proceedings big time.
Darkthrone: A Blaze In The Northern Sky (1992) / Under A Funeral Moon (1993) / Transilvanian Hunger (1994)
Emerging from Kolbotn, Norway in 1986, Darkthrone considered themselves a death metal band for the first five years of their existence. Swayed by the more biting sounds of legends like Bathory and Celtic Frost (and, doubtless, the uber-evil exploits of their neighbours in Mayhem), they moved into black metal and quickly became the genre’s most musically accomplished Norwegian standard-bearers. Daubing on the corpsepaint and throwing themselves into the shadows, their sound grew harsher and more low-fi as A Blaze In The Northern Sky bled into Under A Funeral Moon and onto Transilvanian Hunger in one of the greatest documents of a band handing themselves over to pure eeeevil.
The Dillinger Escape Plan: Calculating Infinity (1999) / Miss Machine (2004) / Ire Works (2007)
From the time they exploded onto the metalcore scene in the late 1990s to the moment they blazed out at New York’s Terminal 5 in December 2017, The Dillinger Escape Plan did not fuck around. Having gained notoriety for their chaotic live performances, ’99 debut Calculating Infinity proved they could match up on record, showcasing a complexity and angularity that laid bare the method in their madness. The arrival of vocalist Greg Puciato in 2001 (following the departure of Dimitri Minakakis to focus on his professional and family life) was the final puzzle piece dropping into place, with his combination of machismo and swagger powering a more dynamic approach across the alternately ferocious/melodic likes of Sunshine The Werewolf and Unretrofied on 2004’s Miss Machine, and to an even greater degree on Ire Works’ Milk Lizard in 2007.
My Chemical Romance: Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge (2004) / The Black Parade (2006) / Danger Days: The True Lives Of The Fabulous Killjoys (2010)
Although 2002 debut I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love remains an intriguing introduction, it was across their latter three albums that My Chemical Romance fully unlocked that particular blend of aesthetic, emotion and sonic adventure with which they would win their legion of fans. Imbuing the angsty pop-punk of peers like Fall Out Boy with their own darker sensibilities, Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge cast them as high school outsiders, switching mischievously between melodrama (Helena, The Ghost Of You) and spiky defiance (I’m Not Okay, Thank You For The Venom). The Black Parade was their great pitch-black concept album, channelling the mystery and tragedy of death and the afterlife through the high-pomp pageantry of Queen and David Bowie. Then Danger Days saw them turn 180 and speed full-throttle into the light for their musical interpretation of dystopian sci-fi, which pulsated with all the knowing luridity and swagger of a well-made B‑movie. Plenty of artists have multiple personas, but very few are this consistently compelling.
Architects: Lost Forever // Lost Together (2014) / All Our Gods Have Abandoned Us (2016) // Holy Hell (2018)
A trio of albums that bridged the skin cancer diagnosis, death and hereafter of founding lead guitarist Tom Searle, Architects’ 2014 – 2018 run is perhaps the most emotionally dense and complicated modern metalcore has ever been. Although Tom’s condition had not yet been made public, Lost Forever // Lost Together was easily the band’s most sonically and thematically weighty work to date, with seventh song C.A.N.C.E.R hinting at the struggle to come. All Our Gods Have Abandoned Us feels like an emotional nadir, with Nihilist, Deathwish and Memento Mori reckoning on the transience – and ultimate inconsequentiality – of human existence. Holy Hell was the sound of the band powering on, with grief and defiance pouring furiously from the likes of Death Is Not Defeat, Mortal After All and Doomsday. Deafening proof that the only way out is through.
Nine Inch Nails: The Downward Spiral (1994) / The Fragile (1999) / With Teeth (2005)
It’s tempting to list Nine Inch Nails’ first three albums here, beginning with 1989’s Pretty Hate Machine, but the existence of the (superb) 1992 Broken EP muddies the waters somewhat. Still, mainman Trent Reznor went on one hell of a trip between 1994 and 2005. The Downward Spiral is his undisputed masterpiece: a dark industrial concept-album tracking the suicidal descent of its protagonist across the rage and sleaze of songs like March Of The Pigs and Closer to the ultimate desolation of Hurt. With Trent falling into his own spiral of abusing alcohol, cocaine and a variety of other substances, double-album follow-up The Fragile is a sprawling work of tortured genius. At over 100 minutes long and punctuated with numerous instrumentals, it is a challenging gaze into a tortured psyche. With Trent having gotten clean, 2005’s With Teeth reflected a renewed urgency and clarity, with tracks like The Hand That Feeds and Only paying off an 11-year journey through deepest darkness and back out into the light.
Deftones: Around The Fur (1997) / White Pony (2000) / Deftones (2003)
Deftones had already made a mark with 1995 debut Adrenaline, but it was their work across the three albums that followed that saw them metamorphose into the alt.metal masters we know and love today. 1997’s Around The Fur still shared some DNA with the thumping nu-metal scene from which they ostensibly emerged, but the pervasive sense of melancholy and frontman Chino Moreno’s almost androgynous vocals pointed at the grandstanding complexity to come. White Pony is the 10/10 classic, perfectly balancing beauty and menace, digital and analogue, pain and catharsis for a shimmering, intoxicating feel. 2003’s self-titled spilled further into experimentalism, still packing plenty of punch, but counterpointing it with the shoegazey sprawl of Minerva – a track foreshadowing the horizon-pushing development over the years that followed.
Green Day: Dookie (1994) / Insomniac (1995) / Nimrod (1997)
Emerging as part of the late-’80s/early-’90s 924 Gilman Street club DIY punk scene, few would have predicted from Green Day’s (admittedly excellent) early releases – 1990’s 39/Smooth, 1991’s Kerplunk! – that they would go on to be one of the most influential heavyweights in modern mainstream rock. Laden with hits like Basket Case, She and When I Come Around, 1994’s diamond-rated Dookie changed their course forever, with the following year’s Insomniac maintaining momentum through a slightly punkier, darker lens. Nimrod saw a significant maturation and diversification in Billie Joe Armstrong’s songwriting, with elements of folk, ska and surf rock added to the mix. With songs as incredible as Hitchin’ A Ride and Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life) getting time to shine, even the most entrenched of their punk buddies couldn’t complain.
Biffy Clyro: Puzzle (2007) / Only Revolutions (2009) / Opposites (2013)
There was a spark about Biffy Clyro right from the start. Across their first three albums – 2002’s Blackened Sky, 2003’s The Vertigo Of Bliss and 2004’s Infinity Land – it manifested itself as a gritty, grungy, post-hardcore angularity: the sort of sound that thrills the club-show crowd but feels unlikely to ever graduate into bigger rooms. After an unexpected three-year break, however, 2007’s Puzzle re-shaped their sound into something that sounded just as experimental and inspired, but felt less unwieldy – the jauntily incendiary Who’s Got A Match rubbing up against the heartfelt Folding Stars. Two years later, Only Revolutions would consolidate the new approach, with mega-singles Mountains, The Captain and Many Of Horror shunting them into arenas. 2013’s sprawling double-album Opposites felt like a victory lap, not just for Biffy, but as beating proof that even the most experimentalist outsiders can still ascend the music industry mountain.
Rage Against The Machine: Rage Against The Machine (1992) / Evil Empire (1996) / The Battle Of Los Angeles (1999)
In many ways, Rage Against The Machine’s three-LP catalogue of original material is as tantalising as it is thrillingly concussive. Dropping on the day of the 1992 presidential election that saw Republican one-termer George H. W. Bush ousted by charismatic Arkansas Democrat Bill Clinton, their searing self-titled debut remains the greatest protest album of the modern era, perfectly fusing hip-hop, punk and metal to incendiary effect. Its less-celebrated follow-up Evil Empire – still packing classics like Bulls On Parade, People Of The Sun and Down Rodeo – arrived seven months before the 1996 vote, which Bill Clinton would also win. Then 1999’s third (and, for now, final) album The Battle Of Los Angeles carried them to full superstardom on the back of songs like Guerrilla Radio, Testify and Sleep Now In The Fire a full year before the arrival of George W. Bush and America’s painful lurch into the 2000s. Thanks to these records, RATM remain the political band of our time, but one can’t help but wish they were still spitting fire in response to some of the shitshows over the last 20 years, too.
Baroness: Yellow & Green (2012) / Purple (2015) / Gold & Grey (2019)
Baroness are one of the few bands who can boast a truly perfect catalogue. With frontman John Dyer Baizley having acknowledged that the ‘coloured albums’ concept has been concluded, fans can look back at the five-record run beginning with 2007’s Red and 2009’s Blue and bask in the glow of a proggy sludge rainbow. Their last three records follow a particularly poignant arc, though. Dropping less than a month before the bus crash outside Bath that would change everything, 2012 double-album Yellow & Green felt like a culmination of everything thus far: two sprawling slabs of music welded together with pure confidence and invention. 2015’s Purple (the colour of bruising) was an incredibly powerful response to the short-term trauma of the accident – both psychological and physical – that fused pained lyrics to a defiant sonic bombast. 2019’s Gold & Grey is their more considered dissection of the lingering chronic pain and depression to this very day, probing forward in ever more unexpected, but never less powerful ways.
Motörhead: Overkill (1979) / Bomber (1979) / Ace Of Spades (1980)
Hard, fast and to the point, one could sample any three-record run from Motörhead’s 38-year, 22-album career and it would almost certainly hit the spot. Over a raucous 18 months at the end of the 1970s, though, Lemmy and his most notorious compatriots “Fast” Eddie Clarke (guitar) and Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor (drums) cranked out a trio of albums that would change the face of heavy music forever. Welding punk aggression to metallic weight, they coined a filthily infectious sound that would set the bar for which a whole generation of bands (including the mighty Metallica) would strive. Testament to their significance and longevity amongst such a celebrated back-catalogue, material from these three albums made up roughly a third of their live set right ’til the very end.
Paramore: Riot! (2007) / Brand New Eyes (2009) / Paramore (2013)
Given vocalist Hayley Williams’ enthusiasm for shunning the spotlight, it’s fitting that Paramore’s red-hot run from 2007 – 2013 feels like one of the most unheralded on our list. Arriving at the tail-end of the ’00s pop-punk boom, her band were too easily initially dismissed as also-rans, but Paramore offered a polish, vulnerability and powerful female perspective that set them apart from their apparent peers. Indeed, the progression from 2007’s Riot! through 2009’s Brand New Eyes to 2013’s self-titled LP feels like a progressive realisation of those qualities to their fullest extent. Riot! burns with the urgency, excitement and occasional ill-judgement of youth. Brand New Eyes is the sound of a band straining under the pressure of fame and newfound expectation. Then Paramore feels like a reaffirmation of identity by Hayley herself, as she responds to the departure of the Farros brothers with a stridently open-ended statement of future intent.
Slayer: Reign In Blood (1986) / South Of Heaven (1988) / Seasons In The Abyss (1990)
Held up alongside their thrash contemporaries, Slayer were always celebrated for their consistency. No slacking. No soft edges. No bullshit. Even still, their great unholy trinity remains the benchmark for truly evil mosh-pit fuel. Kicked off with the 29 minutes of unstoppable thrash savagery that is Reign In Blood, they stripped back the chaos for the cleaner-sounding, deeper-cutting South Of Heaven before spiralling into the nightmare strangeness of Seasons In The Abyss at the dawn of the 1990s. Unfortunately, that album would be their last with the classic Jeff Hanneman / Tom Araya / Dave Lombardo / Kerry King line-up until 2006’s Christ Illusion. Nothing else would feel quite as perfectly iniquitous in its aftermath.
Bring Me The Horizon: There Is A Hell, Believe Me I've Seen It. There Is A Heaven, Let's Keep It A Secret (2010) / Sempiternal (2013) / That's The Spirit (2015)
Bring Me The Horizon’s career has marked perhaps the widest stylistic span of any successful modern rock outfit, shapeshifting from the brutalist deathcore of 2006 debut Count Your Blessings to those passages of pure pop on 2019’s amo across just 16 years (so far). Their strongest run came at the apex of that stylistic arc, as their serrated early intent was first daubed in the slick sheen that would nudge them towards arena-straddling stardom. There Is A Hell Believe Me I’ve Seen It. There Is A Heaven Let’s Keep It A Secret is still a bludgeoningly heavy album, but the synth-laden sounds of It Never Ends and Blessed With A Curse felt like their first real graduation. The arrival of electronic specialist Jordan Fish for Sempiternal perfected the blend. By fifth album That’s The Spirit, the scales had tipped towards a polished rock sound that had more in common with Linkin Park than any of their metalcore contemporaries, but it was proof that BMTH’s attitude, intellect and uncompromised swagger would continue to shine through those surface level shifts in sound.
Nirvana: Bleach (1989) / Nevermind (1991) / In Utero (1993)
The epitome of the ‘burning bright and fast’ cliché. It’s easy to speculate that, if the grunge figureheads’ path hadn’t been cut short by the suicide of Kurt Cobain in 1994, Nirvana might have moved onto even greater things, but as it stands the three LPs that form the backbone of their catalogue present an almost perfect arc. The raw sound and unkempt edges of 1989 debut Bleach were the hallmarks of an awkward birthing process, combining the dirgy textures of Melvins with elements of punk-rock and heavy metal. 1991’s Nevermind was a quantum leap, backed by a major label and recorded by Butch Vig at Sound City studios, galvanising the 1990s grunge template and writing the band immediately into history as all-time greats. 1993’s In Utero was the reaction. Capturing a more abrasively naturalistic feel, and delving into pitch-black subject matter on songs like Heart-Shaped Box, Rape Me and All Apologies, it was the gravitationally heavy final testament of an artist reaching the end of his tether. A tragedy in three acts.
Slipknot: Slipknot (1999) / Iowa (2001) / Vol. 3: (The Subliminal Verses) (2004)
As great as they continue to be, it can be too easy to forget, sometimes, quite how thrillingly deranged Slipknot felt when they first hurled themselves into the spotlight. 1999’s self-titled debut detonated like a vat of toxic waste in the middle of the rampant nu-metal movement, with songs like (sic), Surfacing and Wait And Bleed amplifying the angst of the scene a thousand-fold. 2001’s Iowa saw them forge forward, somehow becoming more renowned as they became more extreme on songs as unapologetically nightmarish as My Plague and Left Behind. By 2004’s Vol. 3: (The Subliminal Verses) they were turning a corner towards the more carnivalesque, stadium-straddling populism they still peddle today, but Corey Taylor’s iconic cry of ‘I PUSH MY FINGERS INTO MY EEEYES…’ on Duality reassured us that real fire still burned in those boiler-suited bellies.
Code Orange: I Am King (2014) / Forever (2017) / Underneath (2020)
Code Orange still feel so young, so new, so revolutionary that it can be easy to forget the substantial body of work already at their backs. Having cut their teeth and learned their trade under the Code Orange Kids moniker with 2012 LP Love Is Love/Return To Dust, they dropped the ‘Kids’ and properly became the revolutionaries we know today with 2014’s disconsolately terrifying I Am King. 2017’s Forever marked a further step up, filling out their attack with sparsely deployed elements of electronica and tech-metal, while an abundant violence emphasised their intent to be the Thinners Of The Herd. This year’s Underneath marked another huge progression, constructing an intricate, original industrial metal nightmare from the ground up that’s as inescapably infectious as it is brain-bustingly heavy. And still, they’re just getting started.
The Smashing Pumpkins: Gish (1991) / Siamese Dream (1993) / Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness (1995)
As grunge seemed to be taking over the world in the early 1990s, The Smashing Pumpkins became the weirdo alternative face of alt.rock. And what a face. Bringing together guitarist James Iha, bassist D’arcy Wretzky, drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and (a still long-haired) Billy Corgan, they crafted a collection of seminal material that’s still never quite been matched. Combining gothic and post-punk ’80s influences like The Cure and New Order, elements of psychedelia, nods to contemporary rock acts like Jane’s Addiction and the wider Sub Pop sound, 1991 debut Gish was an intriguingly textured debut, welcomed with a slight breakthrough. Loaded with singles like Cherub Rock, Today and Disarm, 1993 follow-up Siamese Dream saw them truly crack the mainstream and become amongst the foremost faces of Generation X. Then the sprawling Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness proved that they didn’t belong under any banner but their own, veering from the driving Bullet With Butterfly Wings to the ticking delicacy of Tonight, Tonight like spirits from another rock dimension.
Tool: Ænima (1996) / Lateralus (2001) / 10,000 Days (2006)
Although Nine Inch Nails’ spiral into darkness and climb back into the light is actually the longest span on this list, Tool’s agonisingly drawn-out creative process and the relative dearth of stopgap releases in the interim feels more substantial. Having gotten their footing with 1992’s Opiate EP and 1993’s Undertow, 1996’s Ænima saw the LA oddities finalise their definitive line-up with the arrival of bassist Justin Chancellor and nail down their complex, contrarian, high-concept alt.metal sound across songs like Stinkfist, Forty Six & 2 and Hooker With A Penis. 2001’s Lateralus saw them push into the 21st century with even higher-minded ambition, exchanging some of the venom of the past for greater mathematical fascination as they toyed with the Fibonacci Sequence and blew a whole generation of stoners’ minds. Another half-decade later, 10,000 Days added passages of sprawling atmosphere and dared to explore autobiographical struggle on its astonishing two-part title-track. Music that’s worth the wait.
Iron Maiden: The Number Of The Beast (1982) / Piece Of Mind (1983) / Powerslave (1984)
It’s testament to Iron Maiden’s insane depth of quality that we could pick any three albums from that first seven-record run (Iron Maiden/Killers/Number Of The Beast? Powerslave/Somewhere In Time/Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son?) for this list and it would hardly seem objectionable. Hell, you could even make the case for a secondary entry for their post-2000 output: Brave New World/Dance Of Death/A Matter Of Life And Death. We’ve opted for the first three albums to feature “human air-raid siren” Bruce Dickinson on vocals: hit-laden breakthrough The Number Of The Beast, its more adventurous follow-up Piece Of Mind and 1984’s outrageously epic Powerslave. From the gritty insidiousness of Children Of The Damned and 22 Acacia Avenue via the swashbuckling attack of Die With Your Boots On and The Trooper to the proggy pomp of Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, they showcase the most defined period of evolution for Britain’s greatest metal exports.
Foo Fighters: Foo Fighters (1995) / The Colour And The Shape (1997) / There Is Nothing Left To Lose (1999)
Following the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994, the tragic frontman’s Nirvana bandmates saw their paths diverge. Both would try their hands at guitar in different projects, but where bassist Krist Novoselic began a slow fade into obscurity with Sweet 75, drummer Dave Grohl somehow climbed back to the top of the mountain. The low-key intimacy of 1995’s self-titled Foo Fighters LP, comprised largely of grungy ideas Dave had been too nervous to share in Nirvana, set the ball rolling. 1997’s unmatched The Colour And The Shape saw long-term collaborators Nate Mendel and Pat Smear come aboard to deliver the balls-out rock of Monkey Wrench and the deeper emotion of all-time classic Everlong. Then 1999’s There Is Nothing Left To Lose saw them, er, breakout properly, with pivotal percussionist Taylor Hawkins welcomed into the fold for the barn-burning masterpiece that would carry them into the new millennium as one of rock’s biggest bands. All three releases picked up their respective Kerrang! Album Of The Year award, too.
Mastodon: Leviathan (2004) / Blood Mountain (2006) / Crack The Skye (2009)
Of the seven albums and handful of smaller releases the Atlanta quartet have produced over their 20 years thus far, none have been less than excellent. Like their heroes Metallica before them, however, albums two, three and four are where the legend was born. A crushing concept album based on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, 2004’s Leviathan saw Mastodon emerge from the depths of the sludge metal underground with unstoppable intent. Blood Mountain began to showcase their more experimental tendencies, while still maintaining real heft. Then 2009’s Crack The Skye saw them spiral off into far airier territory, clinging to a bonkers concept, mining into deep personal traumas, and referencing the classic prog bands like King Crimson more than anything from their previous metal lineage. In ending their ‘elemental’ quadrilogy, it was proof that, for Mastodon, the Skye really was the limit.
Black Sabbath: Black Sabbath (1970) / Paranoid (1970) / Master Of Reality (1971)
As metal legend decrees, the genre was born when guitarist Tony Iommi lost the tips of two fingers on his right hand in an industrial accident as a teenager and down-tuned his guitar for those doomy first chords on the eponymous opener to Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut LP. In truth, however, the genre would properly take shape over the next year-and-a-half. Following a mere six months after that landmark debut, Paranoid ditched much of the lingering blues influence and added a sense of swagger, urgency and social relevancy, not to mention several stone-cold classics in War Pigs, Paranoid and Iron Man. Then Master Of Reality piled on the influence of the Sweet Leaf and dared to be even darker, heavier and stranger than before, from the galloping brilliance of Children Of The Grave to the twisted weight of Into The Void. Of course, Sabbath’s catalogue and legacy would only grow from here, but that world-wobbling first high sure is hard to beat.
Metallica: Ride The Lightning (1984) / Master Of Puppets (1986) / ...And Justice For All (1988)
So often is Metallica’s peerless 1980s hot streak raised in contrast to the relative mediocrity of the material that followed that fans can lose focus on just how utterly, absurdly brilliant those albums are in their own right. Many would prefer to start with 1981’s raw, raucous Kill ’Em All and focus on the San Franciscans’ first three albums – that holy trinity released during the lifetime of late, great bassist Cliff Burton – but we’ve moved our selection one along. Cliff’s combination of the ornate grandeur of classical music and the smashing immediacy of thrash was at its most potent on tracks like For Whom The Bell Tolls, Fade To Black and Creeping Death from 1984’s Ride The Lightning, even if Trapped Under Ice and Escape felt, comparatively, like fillers. Little needs to be added to what’s already been written about 1986’s Master Of Puppets: probably the greatest, most complete metal record of all time. But 1988’s …And Justice For All is the real triumph. Two years after Cliff’s death, where they could have gone off the rails, it is the sound of his bandmates paying honour to his legacy, while pushing daringly towards the future. From Blackened’s opening barrage via the atmospheric onslaught of One and Harvester Of Sorrow’s grandstanding theatrics right to the frantic conclusion of Dyers Eve, it is pure victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. Metal would never be the same, obviously. More than that, it’s hard to imagine it’ll ever get any better than this.
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