The Top 10 Heavy Metal Bands of the 1980s

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


The 1980s were a golden age for heavy metal, with a host of great bands emerging and making their mark on the genre. Here are our picks for the top 10 heavy metal bands of the 1980s.


When it comes to heavy metal, the 1980s was a definitive decade. It was a time when the genre exploded in popularity and spawned a host of new subgenres. From thrash metal to hair metal, the 1980s saw heavy metal evolve and grow in many different directions.

With so much great music being released, it’s no surprise that there are still plenty of debates about who the best bands of the decade were. However, there are a few bands that always seem to come out on top when these lists are compiled. So, without further ado, here are the 10 best heavy metal bands of the 1980s.


Formed in 1981 by drummer Lars Ulrich and guitarist James Hetfield, Metallica quickly rose to the top of the metal world thanks to their combination of brutal riffs, virtuosic musicianship and Hetfield’s distinctive vocal growl. The band’s 1988 album …And Justice for All was a massive success, cementing their status as one of the most popular bands in the world. They followed it up with the even more successful 1991 self-titled album, aka “The Black Album,” which featured the hits “Enter Sandman” and “Sad but True.” Over the next few years, Metallica continued to release successful albums and tour relentlessly, cementing their place as one of the most popular and influential bands in heavy metal history.


Formed in 1983, Megadeth is an American heavy metal band that has released fifteen studio albums. The band was founded by Dave Mustaine and David Ellefson, who were both former members of the band Metallica. Megadeth is known for their speed, technicality, and their aggressive style of music. The band has been nominated for twelve Grammy Awards, and they have won four.

Iron Maiden

Iron Maiden is a British heavy metal band formed in Leyton, East London, in 1975 by bassist and primary songwriter Steve Harris. The band’s first album, 1980’s Iron Maiden, was written and recorded quickly with a young Paul Di’Anno on vocals. However, Di’Anno’s onstage antics and personal problems led to his dismissal from the band, and he was replaced by Bruce Dickinson for 1982’s The Number of the Beast. With Dickinson on board, Iron Maiden became one of the most successful heavy metal bands of the 1980s, with a string of best-selling albums and successful world tours. Dickinson left the band in 1993 to pursue a solo career, but rejoined in 1999 and has been with the band ever since.

Iron Maiden is one of the most influential heavy metal bands of all time, and their impact can still be felt today. They are often credited as being one of the pioneers of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, along with bands like Def Leppard and Judas Priest. They have also been cited as an influence by many subsequent metal bands, including Metallica, Megadeth, Exodus, Anthrax, Testament, and Overkill.

Judas Priest

Judas Priest is a British metal band formed in Birmingham, England, in 1969. The band has sold over 50 million copies of their albums to date. They are frequently credited as one of the pioneers of the heavy metal genre. Their debut album, Rocka Rolla, was released in 1974 and their most recent album, Firepower, was released in 2018. The band has had several lineup changes over the years, with vocalist Rob Halford being the only constant member.

Guitarists K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton retired from Judas Priest in 2011 and 2018, respectively. The band is currently composed of guitarist Richie Faulkner, bassist Ian Hill, drummer Scott Travis, and Halford.


One of the most influential and groundbreaking bands of the 1980s, Slayer combined the speed and intensity of hardcore punk with the grandiose theatrics of heavy metal to create a sound that was both brutal and accessible. Founded in 1981 by guitarist Kerry King and bassist Jeff Hanneman, the band also featured drummer Dave Lombardo and singer/bassist Tom Araya. With Lombardo behind the kit, Slayer became one of the fastest bands in metal, paving the way for the thrash metal explosion of the mid-1980s. The band’s 1986 album Reign in Blood is considered a landmark achievement in heavy music, with its relentlessly fast tempo and Hanneman’s gruesomely detailed lyrics about serial killers and other dark subject matter. While otherMetal bands of the ’80s were focused on conventional song structure and melody, Slayer created an abrasive din that was designed to be as confrontational as possible. The band continued to evolve throughout its career, experimenting with different sounds and styles on albums like South of Heaven (1988) and Seasons in the Abyss (1990). While Slayer never achieved widespread mainstream success, their impact on metal cannot be overstated; they inspired generations of young musicians to pick up guitars and drums and start their own bands.


Anthrax is an American heavy metal band from New York City, formed in 1981. The band was one of the most popular bands of the 1980s and was considered one of the leaders of the thrash metal scene during the decade. The band has released 11 studio albums, several live albums and compilations, and has been nominated for several awards.


Formed in 1979, Exodus is considered one of the first thrash metal bands. They released their debut album in 1985 and have since released nine more albums. Their most recent album, Blood In, Blood Out, was released in 2014. Exodus has been cited as an influence by many other metal bands, including Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer.


Motorhead is a British heavy metal band formed in June 1975, by bassist, singer, and songwriter Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister, who was the sole constant member, guitarist Larry Wallis and drummer Lucas Fox. The band are often considered a precursor to, or one of the earliest members of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, which re-energised heavy metal in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Honorable Mentions

While there are many great heavy metal bands of the 1980s, there are only a few that can truly be considered the best. The following bands are some of the most popular and influential of the decade and have left a lasting impression on the genre.

Judas Priest

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