I used to call my list of best death metal albums “essential death metal albums”. After realizing this annoyed some people, and that they were mostly right, I decided to create this: a list of essential death metal albums that gives you a good death metal education. These are the classics, combined with a few newer, sub-genre-topping efforts.
Hopefully, I’ve succeeded this time. To me, this is a true essential death metal list, mixing styles, regions, eras and levels of brutality. If you want more background on the music style and its sub-genres, head over to my full death metal genre guide.
- Stefan Nordström
- Vocalist, guitarist, music writer
- Stockholm, Sweden
- Member of Desolator, Soliloquium and several other projects
Listen to Desolator
My old school death metal band, for fans of Morbid Angel, Immolation, Vader and more:
Listen to Soliloquium
My progressive death/doom metal band, for fans of Katatonia, Swallow the Sun, Daylight Dies and more:
Autopsy – Severed Survival (1989)
Autopsy’s first two releases are legendary, and at least one of them needs to be on a list of essential death metal albums. “Severed Survival” is badass, combining neanderthal aggression with excellent grooves and tempo-shifts. Classic riffs and hooks are all over this one, and it truly deserves its place in every nerdy death metal ranking.
Benighted – Identisick (2006)
Benighted are the kings when it comes to brutal death metal. The band may have stagnated a bit lately, but I hold their earlier albums as the finest material ever released in the sub-genre. My favorite is 2006’s “Identisick”, a frenzied, varied and unique take on brutal death metal. But several other of the albums are also elite level stuff. Benighted really knows how to sound unique, in a genre where so many bands sound just the same.
Blood Red Throne – Altered Genesis (2005)
The power of the riff is really important in death metal; and no band knows that as well as Blood Red Throne. 2005’s “Altered Genesis” is filled with catchy gallop riffs, well-timed breakdowns and macho death metal aggression. It’s a record that turns everything about the genre to 11. No progressive stuff, no innovation – just loud-ass, cocky death metal carnage.
Bloodbath – Resurrection through Carnage (2002)
What.. Bloodbath? But they’re like an old school tribute band and not a real one? Yeah, fairly true. Still, the band has written some of the best songs in the entire death metal genre. Bloodbath is also the prime and most famous example of the new old school death metal revival. Debut “Resurrection through Carnage” has some of the nastiest chainsaw guitars ever put to tape, and one of Mikael Åkerfeldt’s best vocal performances.
Cannibal Corpse – Tomb of the Mutilated (1992)
You can’t really exclude Cannibal Corpse from a list like this. It’s the most famous death metal band, and it has resulted in gruesome classics like “Hammer Smashed Face”, “Stripped, Raped and Strangled” and “A Skull Full of Maggots”. Most of the classics are placed on 1992’s “Tomb of the Mutilated”. It’s not my personal favorite from the band, but probably the most important.
Carcass – Heartwork (1995)
I was thinking long and hard on how to have a small touch of melodic death metal in this list, and maybe “Heartwork” is the best way? The album saw Carcass go from groove goregrind forefathers to super-catchy melodeath. But it was still pretty damn energetic and intense. Elitists may despise this album; I still think it’s damn good.
Dan Swanö – Moontower (1999)
With “Moontower”, Dan Swanö proved that old school progressive music does have a place in death metal. And it’s definitely a unique side of death metal that deserves to be checked out. I mean, can cheesy 80’s synths really go together with old school death metal growls? Hell yes! The result is a unique and interesting album.
Death – Human (1991)
“Human” is a progressive death metal masterpiece that I’ve spun an unbelievably amount of times. It saw Death move from their early brutality to a combination of virtuoso musicianship and well-calculated aggression. Of course, the addition of two musical geniuses from Cynic was a big part, but also Chuck Schuldiner’s growth as a composer.
Death – Scream Bloody Gore (1987)
Including two albums by the same band feels a bit lame, but Death is just such a central band to the evolution of the style. “Scream Bloody Gore” is the ultimate early death metal album, truly bridging the chasm between thrash metal and death metal. This is album is as simple and bare-bones as it is genius and historically important.
Death – Symbolic (1995)
Three? Well, shoot me, because this one is also awesome and in a different style. “Symbolic” sees Death going even more progressive and melodic, and the result is a fantastic metal album, shock-filled with classic songs and riffs. It’s very refined and cleanly produced, which might turn some extreme metal fans off, but the songwriting and musicianship is 10/10.
Deicide – Deicide (1990)
Whatever you personally think of the band, Deicide and their anti-god antics always have a place in lists like this, as countless bands have been influenced by them. The self-titled debut features hits like “Dead by Dawn” and “Sacrificial Suicide”, sing-along staples good enough for any death metal house-party.
Dismember – Like an Everflowing Stream (1991)
“Like an Everflowing Stream” is the ultimate Swedish death metal album. It’s mercilessly brutal and unsettling, organic-sounding as fuck, and the same time very catchy and melodic. A young band achieving perfection on their debut doesn’t happen often, but here it pretty much happens. 20 years after first hearing it, this album still dominates every time I put it on.
Entombed – Left Hand Path (1989)
Having “Like an Everflowing Stream” on here doesn’t exclude the other Swedish giant; Entombed’s “Left Hand Path”. Where Dismember leaned more towards Autopsy and traditional heavy metal for inspiration, Entombed found theirs in hardcore punk. “Left Hand Path” is very aggressive and abrupt, but also manages to feel occult and atmospheric at times, especially in the classic title track.
Immolation – Close to a World Below (2000)
Immolation is one of the best death metal bands ever, and there are so many good albums in their discography. But I think “Close to a World Below” best captures what the band is about, and also combines the old and new style in a good way. It’s also a good gateway to “weirder” death metal, if I’m allowed to call it that. It can take some time to get into the band, but once you’re in, you’re usually never out.
Infinitum – The Sixth Extinction (2012)
Let’s blur essential and best, just for one entry, because this fairly fresh technical death metal album is one of the best the sub-genre has to offer. Infinitum play a style that’s best described as a more melodic and sophisticated Suffocation. The riffs are incredible, and the way they’re intertwined is even better. Both Infinitum albums are underrated and very well-written, but 2012’s “The Sixth Extinction” is the winner!
Lykathea Aflame – Elvenefris (2000)
If you’re exploring death metal, you better check out something really weird, too! Most people would probably recommend “Obscura” by Gorguts for that, but I think this Czech band does it way better. Lykathea combine utterly brutal death metal, almost bordering on grind, with major key melodies and synths. And often, it works unexpectedly well! No matter what you think of it, there’s no denying that “Elvenefris” is one of a kind.
Morbid Angel – Altars of Madness (1989)
“Altars of Madness” is as classic and super-influential as death metal gets. The occult ideas, onslaught of frenzy and blastbeats, as well as the overall eeriness introduced a bunch of new standards in the genre. Not to mention, a whole bunch of the songs in its track list are instantly recognizable classics. “Immortal Rites” and “Chapel of Ghouls” are just the top of the iceberg.
Napalm Death – Harmony Corruption (1990)
It’s hard to make a list of essential death metal albums, or bands for that matter, without including Napalm Death. The band was one of the earliest bands to play brutal music, and its also a prime example of grindcore (later deathgrind). I actually prefer their later output in terms of how it sounds, but there’s no denying the importance of 1990’s “Harmony Corruption”.
Obituary – Cause of Death (1990)
One of the first two Obituary albums just has to be in here, as the band is a unique part of death metal history with an instantly recognizable sound. Stomping grooves, eerie lead guitars and loud-ass vomited vocals.. what more do you need, really? I think “Cause of Death” is slightly cooler than debut “Slowly We Rot”, but both are very entertaining albums filled with classic Florida death metal moments.
Opeth – Blackwater Park (2001)
Opeth’s breakthrough was a game-changer for progressive influences in extreme metal music. Equally admired and disdained in death metal circles, no matter which side you stand on, you can’t deny that “Blackwater Park” was a very important album. Personally, I love it. And it’s a good intro to the more varied forms of progressive death metal.
Pestilence – Consuming Impulse (1989)
Netherlands is a prime country for death metal, and what better place to start than this thrash-influenced riff-fest? “Consuming Impulse” is an album of a thousand catchy riffs and tempo shifts, and the icing on the cake is Martin van Drunen’s unique vocal delivery. He’s Netherland’s most famous death metal screamer for a reason, and this might be his top performance. Suffered from the chronic…. INFECTIOOOUUUUUUUUNNN!
Possessed – Seven Churches (1985)
Aside from Death’s “Scream Bloody Gore”, “Seven Churches” is the other super-important early staple of death metal. Where “Scream Bloody Gore” goes heavy on the stomping aggression, “Seven Churches” is more occult and atmospheric in its approach, providing the other backbone for the genre. I don’t think this album is nearly as good as Death’s, but its historical importance is massive.
Psycroptic – The Scepter of the Ancients (2003)
Some modern technical death metal deserves to be in here as well, and what better than Psycroptic’s wildest album? “The Scepter of the Ancients” is a really unique, adventurous and most of all catchy album from this Australian band. To me, it’s one of the best releases ever in the sub-genre. Just the manic vocal performance from Chalky in itself warrants a listen.
Suffocation – Effigy of the Forgotten (1991)
Suffocation’s debut “Effigy of the Forgotten” is the brutal death metal bible. Despite that I still consider 1995’s “Pierced from Within” to be better, the first album is simply more historically important. Many of the riff types that brutal death metal bands still use today originated on this album. And if that wasn’t enough, the vocals and songwriting shifts are unbelievably harsh for its time.
Vader – Litany (2000)
Poland is a very important, not to mention quality, country when it comes to death metal. I think Vader’s “Litany” is the ultimate example of what the Polish style can achieve. The album is an onslaught of blastbeats and abrasive hooks, complete with a drum-heavy, ear-shattering production job. Your ears may bleed, but you will enjoy it.
Death metal sub-genre guides
I hope you enjoyed my list of essential death metal albums. But this is not the end of nerdy music articles on this site, actually it’s far from it!
If you’re looking to learn more about different sub-genres, a good bet is to check out my guides by following the links below. And if you’re feeling like checking out something more underground, don’t miss out on my old school death metal band Desolator.