13 Bands Whose Best Album Isn’t Their Most Popular
Metal isn’t for everyone. Sure, metal can be for anyone — there are no rules for who gets to like metal, or how or why they like it — but at its best, the genre is driven by brutal honesty and challenging technicality, both of which are generally avoided by the masses because they’re not easy to swallow. And metal wouldn’t have it any other way — lovers of the genre know that the minute we try to make everyone happy, we almost certainly lose what makes this music special. If you’re looking for total acceptability, there’s everything else.
Of course, countless metal bands have moved past scene limitations via breakthrough albums that not even the mainstream world could ignore. However, while plenty of bands proved themselves marketable with these records, true fans know that they often aren’t the artist’s best effort, only their most popular. So to honor those huge names with underground gems, we put together this list of bands whose most popular album falls short of their more obscure output.
Here are 13 bands whose big album isn’t their greatest triumph…
Most popular: Reign In Blood (1986)
Even better: South of Heaven (1988), Seasons In The Abyss (1990)
Reign In Blood was Slayer’s game-changer, and will forever be remembered as a blistering 29-odd minutes of revolutionary thrash. But at the risk of infuriating purists, the record’s follow-up South of Heaven and the band’s decade-straddling classic Seasons In The Abyss are just better-written records. Unlike the frantic charge of Reign, these albums show off a sense of musical versatility and purpose of emotion that cemented the band’s powerful psychological legacy. It just goes to show that once you win the speed-and-heaviness arms race, you can truly start to grow.
Most popular: Altars of Madness (1989)
Even better: Blessed Are The Sick (1991), Domination (1995), Gateways to Annihilation (2000)
Like many bands from death metal’s first wave, Morbid Angel were doomed by old-school fan’s stubbornness. Sure, the band’s debut, Altars of Madness, is a frantic and arcane slab of Lovecraftian death metal, and deserves plenty of praise. But its follow up and several of the band’s other albums are easily deeper and more interesting than that release. But early adopters of this era of extremity were as archetypal as they came, so it’s no surprise that anything different than the first album was instantly blown off by many of them.
Faith No More
Most popular: The Real Thing (1989)
Even better: Angel Dust (1992), King for a Day, Fool for a Lifetime (1995)
There’s no denying the power of “Epic.” The single vaulted Faith No More and its host album The Real Thing to a level of rock stardom not normally reserved for funk-metal acts. But it’s widely regarded that the band’s following two records are miles more interesting and sophisticated than that release. Sometimes, a hit single can make an album a legend, despite those actually versed in the band knowing that they did so much better outside of the spotlight.
Most popular: rEVOLVr (2004)
Even better: The Haunted (1998), The Haunted Made Me Do It (2000)
It’s important to remember how much The Haunted had inundated metal by the time that rEVOLVEr came out. The return of former vocalist Peter Dolving was a massive event, and his use of clean vocals made the record a shoe-in for the then-booming metalcore scene. But let’s be real, The Haunted’s legacy was built on their rabid take on thrash metal, and the band’s first two full-lengths are where that’s most present. Timing got their fourth record the audiences the band deserve, but the first two discs are where their fire fucking rages.
Most popular: Spit (2000)
Even better: Until The End (2004)
Like so many bands during the nu-metal boom, Kittie were sold on their contemporary style and the gimmick of an all-female metal band. By 2004, the quartet had lost their luster to some – but those who were still on board were in for a treat. Until The End is an awesome record, with at least three songs – the title track, “Sugar,” and “Into the Darkness” – being the best of Morgan Lander and Co.’s career. A perfect example of an awesome band proving their worth to the worthy after all of the fair-weather fans aimed their attention elsewhere.
Most popular: A Blaze In The Northern Sky (1992)
Even better: The Cult Is Alive (2006), Old Star (2019)
Seeing as this year marks the 30th anniversary of Darkthrone’s A Blaze In The Northern Sky, we don’t want to NOT give the record its due. But it’s definitely a chronicle of a band who were just kids at the time, and since its release, the band have done way better stuff. The pitch-sticky hate-thrash of The Cult Is Alive and the groaning ache of Old Star are just two of the excellent albums that Fenriz and Nocturno Culto have released which could best their early output. There’s no arguing that some albums make history, even if they aren’t a band’s best.
Most popular: The Legacy (1987), The New Order (1988)
Even better: Practice What You Preach (1989)
Like other entries on this list, Testament fell prey to their first strike being perceived as their most deadly. The band’s debut and sophomore records were thrash classics, and became ingrained in the minds of fans who got into them just as the band blew up. But Practice What You Preach showcases how the thrashers grew as musicians and songwriters, and though there’s only one true speed-fest on there – the incredible “Nightmare (Coming Back to You)” – it absolutely fucking rules. A turning point for Testament, even if fans today don’t immediately see it.
Most popular: Sehnsucht (1997)
Even better: Mutter (2001), Reise, Reise (2004)
Of course Sehnsucht is Rammstein’s most popular album – because it contains their hit single. No matter what, the band will never escape “Du hast,” nor should they ever want to. But the records that followed Sehnsucht are easily better than their sophomore effort, and provide a laundry list of the band’s most powerful secondary songs – “Sonne,” “Links 2 3 4,” “Ich will,” “Mein Teil,” “Amerika,” and “Moskau.” The world will always know this band for that one song; the rest of us know better.
Most popular: The War Within (2004)
Even better: Of One Blood (2000), The Art of Balance (2002)
At the time, killer metalcore forefathers Shadows Fall being hailed as “the next Metallica” was kind of cool. Unfortunately, that title is always a pitfall, and this rad band were no different, never quite living up to the hype with the albums that were meant to do so. The War Within was supposed to be their big breakthrough, but it was the scrappy thrash worship of the two record before it that actually endeared metalheads the world over to this band. After all, why be the next Metallica when you’re already the only Shadows Fall?
Most popular: Dopethrone (2000)
Even better: We Live (2004), Witchcult Today (2007)
There are a couple of reasons that Dopethrone has always been Electric Wizard’s most beloved album – the rough-around-the-edges sound, the time when it landed in the metal scene, the cover with Satan taking a bong rip. But compared to the hostile occultism of We Live and the ultra-thick weed ritual of Witchcult Today, the record feels a little light. It’s not that it doesn’t bring the the acerbic stoner jams, only that it doesn’t feel entirely committed to the band’s sweaty MO. It’s not always about blowing smoke — sometimes, it’s about holding it in for as long as possible, and getting really fucking high.
Most popular: The Ultra-Violence (1987)
Even better: Killing Season (2008)
Of course Death Angel’s 1987 debut will always be their most beloved. The album is a classic of the genre that opens with a track about being a fan of the genre. But real talk, the band’s comeback has proven that they’ve only gotten better with age, and Killing Season shows that their second act may be more fertile than the first. The record is an agro classic, a perfect distillation of thrash’s attitude without ever forcing its speed or darkness. Sorry, purists, but the latter day shit wins here.
Most popular: Overkill (1979), Ace of Spades (1980)
Even better: Iron Fist (1982), Orgasmatron (1986), Rock ‘n’ Roll (1987)
Yeah, this one’s a given. Every Motörhead album rules, and Overkill and Ace of Spades rule more than a lot of them, but they’re just not the best. Iron Fist is as mean and brusque as they come, Orgasmatron is speed metal perfection, and Rock ‘n’ Roll sees Lemmy finally realizing what this band needed to be in the ’80s. These records give us deeper insights into who the band are than their two most popular, even if those albums mean the world to us. It’s hard to even pit them against each other, but we know it’s true.
Most popular: Primitive (2000)
Even better: Dark Ages (2005), Archangel (2015)
Someday, we’re going to talk about latter-day Soulfly the way we talk about Tucker-era Morbid Angel or early-thrash Voivod. We’ll admit that it’s very different from what we appreciate about this band at face value, but in the long run there’s something uniquely effective about these later releases. The truth is that once Soulfly was no longer trying to compete in the nu-metal Olympics, Max got fucking dark with it, and the result is some of his best and most brutal material. Archangel is where the band fully break through into death metal, but this author would argue that Dark Ages, when they’re still growing, might be their gnarliest masterpiece.