As fun as it can be to read top ten lists, we all know that they are merely the personal opinions of the authors. The list that follows is no exception, but I did try to make it a bit more scientific that most. For example, I only selected albums from bands with not just critical appeal, but commercial success as well. As an extension of that criterion, I also tried to only choose albums that sold poorly compared to the bands’ most successful releases. Because of these benchmarks, I did not count such genuinely underrated gems such as Testament’s 'The Ritual,' and Danzig’s '4p.' While both of those albums are indeed deserving of more recognition than they’ve received, they still sold about as much as the average entry in their respective catalogs. Finally, the last reason I picked these albums is because there was some sort of fallout after the album’s release: the band changed its sound, an important member (or two, or more) quit, etc. But enough pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo, here, finally, and in no specific order either, is the list!
1. AC/DC - 'Flick of the Switch' (1983) – It seemed like time had caught up to AC/DC in 1983. The band had done the impossible three years earlier: instead of breaking up after the untimely death of Bon Scott, the Thunder From Down Under soldiered on, replacing the extremely popular vocalist with an unknown singer named Brian Johnson. Not only did the band survive the tragedy, but their first album with Johnson, 'Back in Black, ' has so far sold 22 million copies and counting. Their follow-up, 1981’s 'For Those About to Rock We Salute You, ' didn’t sell as many copies (but then, only five albums in history ever have), but it did become the band’s first album to reach #1 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart. Except for Van Halen, Black Sabbath, Anthrax and a handful of others, not many bands have been able to achieve massive success with two vocalists. However, credit must also be given to wunderkind producer Robert “Mutt” Lange, whose golden touch had been AC/DC’s secret weapon starting with 1979’s 'Highway to Hell.' His working relationship with the band ended after 'For Those About to Rock,' however. Maybe he was too busy turning Def Leppard into the biggest rock band of the 1980s? The Young brothers must’ve felt that they had learned a lot from the master though, because they decided to produce their next album themselves. The result, 'Flick of the Switch,' was a rare commercial flop for the band. There were no hit singles on this album, although the infectious title cut would’ve been huge in a sane world. Instead, AC/DC went in an even heavier, rawer direction than the Lange-produced albums. 'Flick of the Switch' remains the band’s heaviest album, containing monolithic rockers such as “Rising Power,” “This House is on Fire” and “Brain Shake.” Still, at the end of the day, this album was not much of a departure from the rest of their catalog, so it remains a mystery why it bombed. AC/DC has completely ignored this album for over 25 years now, never playing any of its songs live. But it remains a cult favorite among hardcore AC/DC fans, and eventually went platinum in 2001, almost two decades after its release. And in a completely unforeseen move, the track “Guns for Hire” was included on the soundtrack to the blockbuster film 'Iron Man 2' in 2010. So maybe this masterpiece isn’t so forgotten after all.
2. Black Sabbath - 'Born Again' (1983) – Unlike AC/DC, Black Sabbath was most definitely not on top of the world in 1983. The primary architects of heavy metal had fired original vocalist Ozzy Osbourne four years earlier, which ultimately proved to be a blessing in disguise… for Osbourne. Against all odds, his solo career made him even more successful and popular than Sabbath ever was (though very controversial as well). Although the British doom masters were fortunate enough to capture lightning in a bottle twice by hiring ex-Rainbow vocalist Ronnie James Dio, who catapulted the band back to the top of the metal heap in the early 1980s, that success was short-lived when he decided to form his own band in 1982. Adding insult to injury, he took drummer Vinny Appice with him. And just like Ozzy, Dio’s self-titled band promptly became hugely successful. Meanwhile, Sabbath’s next move sounded perfect on paper: they hired Ian Gillan, the voice of the legendary Mark II lineup of Deep Purple, as well as welcoming original drummer Bill Ward back. This configuration of the band released the perfectly titled album, 'Born Again,' in 1983, the same year that Ozzy released 'Bark at the Moon' and Dio released their debut, 'Holy Diver.' The latter two albums both went platinum ('Bark' is now triple-platinum) and contain songs that are still in heavy rotation on rock radio, while 'Born Again' was the first Sabbath studio album to not attain any RIAA certification and is an almost forgotten footnote in metal history. That is a shame, too, because it easily holds its own against most other albums in Sabbath’s catalog. Gillan, one of the greatest voices in rock history, delivers a magnificent, memorable performance, and the rest of the band is just as powerful and brooding as ever. Guitarist Tony Iommi, who has written more great riffs than anybody, ever, constructed another cornucopia of classic ones here. Listen to “Zero the Hero” and then try to convince yourself that Guns N’ Roses didn’t borrow that riff for “Paradise City.” “Disturbing the Priest” and the title track are vintage Sabbath, although the album’s undeniably horrible production really made it hard to enjoy the music. Alas, this version of the band did not last long: Ward quit the band a second time before the start of the tour, and Gillan was lured back to Deep Purple. Even bassist Geezer Butler had had enough, leaving Iommi the sole original member. He would do an admirable job keeping the band afloat with a constantly changing lineup over the next 15 years, until the original lineup reunited. He maintained a friendship with Gillan, however, and they’ve even recorded together over the years. They even found the time recently to form the band WhoCares. Between that and the classic movie 'This is Spinal Tap,' which was partly inspired by the 'Born Again' tour, the album has achieved a sort of immortality.
3. Slayer - 'Divine Intervention' (1994) – This album actually sold as well as Slayer’s previous three studio efforts, but I still include it here because it seems to be so widely dismissed and even actively hated. A lot of old school Slayer fans regard 'Divine Intervention' as the beginning of the band’s decline from the top of the speed metal mountain. This is absolutely unfair; it is a more than worthy addition to Slayer’s hallowed legacy, as well as one of the finest metal albums of the 1990s. Every song is a thrash classic, from the epic “Killing Fields” to the Jeffrey Dahmer ode “213” to the brutal and sadistic “Sex. Murder. Art.” to the insanely aggressive closing track “Mind Control.” 'Divine Intervention' does have two things working against it, however, which may be why this album has yet to achieve the celebrated status it deserves. First, the album sounds like crap, frankly speaking. It is difficult to believe that uber-producer Rick Rubin was in any way involved with this album. It literally sounds as bad as Slayer’s first couple albums back when they were on the Metal Blade label. The production and mix here is just inexcusably bad. A few years ago, the band’s first three studio albums for Rubin’s record label were remastered and now sound phenomenal. Why wasn’t this album given the same treatment, since it actually needed it the most? Even more catastrophic is the fact that drummer extraordinaire and fan favorite Dave Lombardo was no longer in the band. While his successor, Paul Bostaph, is himself one of metal’s elite, the band’s dynamics weren’t the same without Lombardo. Still, 'Divine Intervention' is an album that is worthy of a lot more respect. Unfortunately, because of its perceived failure, Slayer used that as an excuse to move in a more nu metal direction for their next two studio albums (not counting their album of punk covers, 'Undisputed Attitude'). Slayer seldom performs any material from 'Divine Intervention' either, although another reason for this could be because Lombardo is back in the band.
4. Kiss - 'Dynasty' (1979) – It is unfortunate that this album’s biggest claim to fame is “I Was Made for Loving You,” Kiss’ notoriously infamous disco song. The theatrical rockers slow but steady slide from the peak of cool probably started a year earlier, with the broadcast of the disastrous made-for-television movie “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park,” but trying to cash in on the then huge disco scene was not the smartest business move Gene Simmons and company ever made. Yes, the song was a smash hit single, but it generated a lot of anger and disgust within the Kiss Army. 'Dynasty' is also now known as the first album in which Peter Criss’ drums parts were mostly performed by someone else. Quietly subbing for the Catman (it’s still never been officially acknowledged by the band, although both Criss and guitarist Ace Frehley discuss it in their respective autobiographies) was Anton Fig of “Late Night with David Letterman” fame. Criss only performed one song, the excellent “Dirty Living,” which he also sang lead vocals on too. As disappointing as his near-total absence is, the rest of the band shines. Frehley in particular picked up a lot of the slack and contributed more than usual to the recording of this album. His cover of the Rolling Stones’ “2000 Man” is brilliant, and is still a staple of his setlist, both as a solo artist and the last time he was a member of Kiss. If you can just disregard “I Was Made for Loving You,” 'Dynasty' is actually one of Kiss’ harder-sounding albums, and much better than the next two, 1980’s 'Unmasked' and the following year’s catastrophic concept album 'Music From “The Elder”.'
5. Pantera - 'Reinventing the Steel' (2000) – When fans rank their favorite Pantera albums (not counting the band’s relatively obscure 1980s output), this one usually ends up at the bottom. It’s also the band’s only major studio album to not go platinum. Is it because 'Reinventing the Steel' heralded the self-destruction of one of the greatest metal bands to ever grace this planet? Maybe it’s because it had been four very long years between this album and the previous one, 'The Great Southern Trendkill' and the hype was impossible to live up to? The goofy redneck cover art and not so clever album title? It certainly wasn’t because this was a lackluster affair. 'Reinventing the Steel' starts off with the ferocious track “Hellbound,” and never slackens the pace. From the thundering gallop of “Yesterday Don’t Mean Sh*t” to the frantically propulsive “Uplift,” it sounded like vocalist Phil Anselmo and the other three cowboys from hell were going to dominate the 2000s just like they did the previous decade. As usual, they eschewed mainstream radio airplay, although the single “Revolution is My Name” did get some exposure. Given the quality of 'Reinventing the Steel,' it’s difficult to believe how much tension was within the band at the time, particularly between Anselmo and the Abbott brothers. Ultimately, however, those internal issues pushed Pantera into an indefinite hiatus (thus negating the claims so proudly made in the song “We’ll Grind that Axe for a Long Time”) which tragically and permanently ended on December 8, 2004, when guitarist Dimebag Darrell was murdered on stage right here in Columbus. The surviving members have gone their separate ways now: drummer Vinnie Paul is in Hellyeah, bassist Rex Brown was in Down with Anselmo for a few years but left to join Kill Devil Hill, and Anselmo himself seems to always have half a dozen projects going on simultaneously. There doesn’t seem to be any chance of these three guys ever getting together in the same room again, let alone a stage. Even if they did reconcile, it still wouldn’t make sense to reform Pantera without Dimebag, so 'Reinventing the Steel' will have to serve as the band’s swan song, and it was not a bad way to go out at all. The album’s final track, “I’ll Cast a Shadow,” is not only a perfect bookend to Pantera’s all too short career, but it also proved to be incredibly prophetic in regards to Dimebag Darrell Abbott.
Stay tuned for the second half of this list, coming very soon!