1. Black Sabbath
The song that started it all. The story goes that the proto-Sabbath, the blues-rock band Earth, were rehearsing close to a cinema showing late-night horror films in a seedy part of Birmingham, when one of the band suggested that if people would pay money to watch scary films, then they might pay money to hear scary music. So guitarist Tony Iommi played some tritones, the so-called “Devil’s interval”, and Geezer Butler wrote some hokey Hammer Horror-style lyrics about the devil. The band had found their identity, a whole new genre of music was founded, and the rest was history.
2. War Pigs
Sabbath’s second album, Paranoid, was their big breakthough, with the hastily written title track storming the singles charts. But it’s this anti-war anthem that’s become one of the band’s most enduring standards. Though traces of their blues-rock origins remain, the combination of Iommi’s gut-punch staccato guitar and Butler’s doom-laden lyrics defined the early Sabbath sound, even if it was still too far ahead of its time for the critics of the day. To quote Butler: “Satan isn’t a spiritual thing, it’s warmongers. That’s who the real Satanists are, all these people who are running the banks and the world and trying to get the working class to fight the wars for them.” War Pigs was written in 1970, but some things don’t change.
3. After Forever
Black Sabbath are sometimes seen as the originators of black metal, but in reality their religious views were Catholic rather than Satanic. This is one of the few songs that made that explicit, with lines like, “Could it be you’re afraid of what your friends might say if they knew you believed in God above”, and, “I think it was true it was people like you that crucified Christ.” It’s really an attack on atheism, though the line “Would you like to see the Pope on the end of a rope – do you think he’s a fool?” could easily be misconstrued, and it was.
4. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath
Black Sabbath’s fifth album saw them step away from undiluted metal with their most varied album to date, but the title track remains one of metal’s greatest anthems. Musically it used the loud-quiet-loud formula a generation before American alternative rock was credited with inventing the idea, and Iommi uses half an album’s worth of riffs in a single song. Lyrically it’s one of the greatest songs ever written about being totally pissed off with everything, the line “Bog blast all of you” summing it all up.
5. Symptom of the Universe
There is a reason metal fans revere Iommi as one of the greatest guitarists of all. It’s not about the solos, though he could shred with the best of them when he wanted to. It’s about the riffs. Sabbath’s sixth album, 1975’s Sabotage, was the last in a string of peerless LPs, and after the sophisticated, layered approach of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, this far heavier record put Iommi’s guitar centre stage. Symptom is the standout, and if the riff doesn’t make you want to play air-guitar, you’re already dead. And to demonstrate that they could still do light and shade, it goes all Jazz Odyssey at the end.
6. Air Dance
By the end of the 70s, Sabbath were losing their mojo. Drink and drugs were taking their toll, musical fashions were changing and the band were running out of ideas. The final album of their first spell with Ozzy Osbourne, 1978’s Never Say Die!, was a decidedly patchy affair. One of the album’s saving graces was this number, most unSabbath-like both musically and lyrically. It’s probably the only song they’ve ever done about an elderly former ballerina. There had been a jazz element in their music right from the early days – drummer Bill Ward’s background was in jazz, and he brought a swing to the band that most of their copyists missed – but here it’s bought to the fore, especially with Iommi’s fluid solo towards the end.
7. Children of the Sea
The arrival of former Rainbow vocalist Ronnie James Dio, who replaced the increasingly unreliable Osbourne in 1980, completely revitalised the band. Not only was he a class act as a singer, but he was musicianly in a way Ozzy wasn’t, which completely changed the band’s approach to songwriting, placing a far stronger emphasis on vocal melody. Dio also took on the job of lyricist, and his mystical fantasy themes picked up where he left off with Rainbow, as this brooding epic, steeped in vaguely Lovecraftian imagery, shows.
8. Heaven and Hell
There are songs on the first album with Dio, 1980’s Heaven and Hell, that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on one of the preceding Rainbow albums, but the monstrous title track that forms the centrepiece of the record demonstrates just how perfectly the new frontman’s operatic melodrama fitted Sabbath’s doom-laden instrumentation. It’s got one of Iommi’s great riffs, married to the sort of vocal performance that shows why Dio, who died in 2010, is often regarded as one of the finest hard-rock vocalists of all time.
9. Glory Ride
Dio’s first stint in the band ended in a clash of egos, and the band went through a revolving door of changing lineups including an ill-conceived collaboration with Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan and a blues-flavoured record with Glenn Hughes that was never intended to be released under the Sabbath name, as Iommi was the sole remaining original member at that point. Some stability returned with the arrival of the relatively unknown vocalist Tony Martin, and the albums he made with the band represent an often-overlooked chapter of the Sabbath story. This song from the first of those albums, The Eternal Idol, was a world away from War Pigs both musically and lyrically in its celebration of the Battle of Britain, but was very contemporary for the late 80s.
10. Dear Father
It all came full-circle with the 2013 reunion of three-quarters of the original band, including Osbourne but without drummer Bill Ward. The resulting album, 13, was far better than expected, a highlight being the closing track, with an evil-sounding growling riff and some exceptionally hard-hitting lyrics, even by Sabbath’s standards. Thirty years earlier, Dio’s first post-Sabbath solo album had cover artwork depicting a priest being tormented by a devil, causing a lot of controversy. A generation later, we know the reason that priest ended up in hell, and this song is all about why.