Fifty years ago this week (September 18), the mighty Black Sabbath released their second album, Paranoid, in America. A bit tighter than their self-titled debut, which came out earlier in the year, Paranoid‘s title track became their biggest radio hit in America. The album also had “Luke’s Wall/War Pigs” and “Iron Man,” But the 41-minute album didn’t waste a second: it’s a perfect album.
In fact, seven of the eight songs made our list that we put together in honor of Paranoid‘s 50th. And yes, Black Sabbath did some incredible stuff with Ozzy’s replacement, the late, great Ronnie James Dio… and that’s probably a list for another day (and yes, both RJD and drummer Vinny Appice should have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the founding four members, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Ozzy Osbourne and Bill Ward) .
Here, we decided to stick with songs from the Ozzy eras of the band. 1970’s debut album (and the “Evil Woman” single) through 1978’s Never Say Die! and also 2013’s 13. Yes, we know that they put out two new songs in the ’90s, but those didn’t come close to making this list… which, like Paranoid, doesn’t waste a moment. The roots of every heavy metal band can be found in these thirty songs.
It was also the beginning of the end; the leadoff song on ‘13,’ Sabbath’s first album with Ozzy Osbourne since 1978’s ‘Never Say Die’; it was also their final album. Like a lot of other songs on the Rick Rubin-produced album, it had a lot of sonic references to the band’s 1970 debut; in the case of this song, it bore quite a bit of resemblance to “Black Sabbath.”
29. “It’s Alright” - ‘Technical Ecstasy’ (1976) - Yeah, we said that all of the songs on this list are from the Ozzy Osbourne era, but not all of them featured Ozzy on lead vocals. “It’s Alright” is a lovely piano-driven mid-tempo ballad featuring drummer Bill Ward on vocals. This song could hold its own along with a lot of the soft-rock hits of the ‘70s.
Sabbath saw that the drugs were taking over; this anthem isn’t about the weather, but rather about how cocaine is a hell of a drug, and it tends to be all-consuming.
“Why make the hard road? Why can't we be friends? No need to hurry: we'll meet in the end” seemed to predict their impending split - within two years, Ozzy would be out of the band and Bill Ward soon followed. And indeed, they did get back together decades later, but it was often without Ward.
Is it about madness, the ozone layer, or both? Tough to say, but elsewhere on the album, the Sabs asked “Am I Going Insane?”
On ‘13,’ Sabbath focused on their lengthier epics, but “Loner” was one of the few songs clocking in at under five minutes, and it holds up against much of their earlier catalog (as evidenced by its high placement on our list).
A heartbreaking piano ballad, the lyrics were inspired by Bill Ward’s divorce; oddly, Ward doesn’t appear on the song, which simply features Ozzy crooning, with Tony Iommi on piano and mellotron and Geezer Butler on bass and mellotron. But the song was universal enough that anyone could apply it to their lives; Ozzy re-recorded it decades later as a duet with his daughter Kelly, and it definitely took on a new meaning in that context.
Tony Iommi was the king of incredible riffs in the early ‘70s (you’ll note that we marvel at his riffs often on this list), and “Lord Of This World” has one of his best. Sabbath was often accused of Satanism -- an accusation they laughed at -- and the lyrics here warned of the consequences of choosing evil: “Your world was made for you by someone above/But you chose evil ways instead of love/You made me master of the world where you exist/The soul I took from you was not even missed.”
Black Sabbath has never been big on covers, but their first single, “Evil Woman” is a cover by a little known band called Crow, from their 1969 album ‘Crow Music.’ Funny enough, the song didn’t sound nearly as evil as anything from Sabbath’s first few albums.
One of Sabbath’s faster songs, it is often cited as an early precursor to thrash metal and has been covered by Sepultura and Helmet.
It’s one of Sabbath’s darkest songs, and that’s really saying something. But after describing the ways humans ravaged the earth, a few lucky souls escape the planet and make their home elsewhere: “Leave the earth to Satan and his slaves/Leave them to their future in their graves/Make a home where love is there to stay/Peace and happiness in every day.”
The 14 minute-plus epic that brought the debut album to a close, it shows the band’s prog-rock influence, but it’s also one of the bluesiest songs in their cannon. The third section of the song was another cover: “Warning” was by the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation. Most fans wouldn’t know it unless they checked the credits: it just sounds like a Sabbath song, and you can hear them evolving during the song. Fun fact: Aynsley Dunbar, like the original members of Sabbath, is a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer: he was the drummer on Journey’s first few albums.
18. “Jack The Stripper/Fairies Wear Boots” - ‘Paranoid’ (1970) - Even before punk rock, punks and metalheads had beef; Geezer Butler has said that Ozzy Osbourne wrote the lyrics to this one about a bunch of skinheads calling him a “fairy” because of his long hair. Ironically, a bunch of longhaired punks -- the Ramones -- would open for Sabbath a few years later. And wouldn’t you know it: they got booed fairly often.
Sabbath drummer Bill Ward has always cited jazz as an influence, and you really get that in this jam from Sabbath’s debut. Lyrically, it’s a working-class anthem on par with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son”: “A politician's job they say is very high/For he has to choose who's got to go and die/They can put a man on the moon quite easy/While people here on earth are dying of old diseases.”
The Ramones may not have gone down well with Black Sabbath’s fans, but on the title track to their final album with Ozzy (before their reunions), you could almost hear a “1-2-3-4!” In retrospect, the album’s title is ironic, given that both Ozzy and Bill would be out of the band in a few years. Years later, though, it served as a rallying cry, and Sabbath -- with Ozzy on vocals and sometimes, with Bill behind the kit -- was a huge touring band from the late ‘90s through the mid ‘10s.
A powerful anthem of self-reliance: the lyrics reject religion, instead urging the listener, “Don't let those empty people/ Try and interfere with your mind /Go and live your life/And leave them all behind.”
Black Sabbath are often viewed as the antidote to ‘60s and early ‘70s hippie rock, but like many west coast bands, the Sabs were against war. For the hippies, it might have been because discipline is, like, a drag, man. For Ozzy, Tony, Geezer and Bill, they grew up in Birmingham, England during a time when the wreckage from World War II was part of their landscape. They may not have lived through a war, but they knew what the aftermath looked like. So when Ozzy wailed, “Show the world that love is still alive you must be brave/Or you children of today are children of the grave,” it wasn’t about showing up to San Francisco with flowers in your hair, it was about survival.
Another anthem of self-reliance: “Got no religion, don't need no friends/Got all I want and I don't need to pretend/Don't try to reach me, 'cause I'd tear up your mind/I've seen the future and I've left it behind.” The song is one of Bill Ward’s finest moments with the band. It also inspired one of the best Sabbath covers: the version by 1,000 Homo DJs -- featuring Al Jourgensen of Ministry and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails -- is classic. But not as good as the original.
A couple of pieces of music that were put together for one track stretching to nearly ten minutes, “Behind The Wall Of Sleep” was a great lead into a short Geezer Butler showcase. But the final movement -- “N.I.B.” -- had one of Tony Iommi’s most fearsome riffs. The lyrics, by Butler, were deliciously evil: they were about Lucifer seducing a woman.
11. “Electric Funeral” - “Paranoid” (1970) - Another apocalyptic warning about the future if humanity kept on the course of never-ending wars, set to some of Tony Iommi’s creepiest guitar playing.
10. “The Wizard” from ‘Black Sabbath’ (1970) - Sabbath mostly left the Tolkien-inspired lyrics to their neighbors in Led Zeppelin, but here, “The Wizard” was inspired by Gandalf, the character from ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit.’ The song is also notable for Ozzy’s enthusiastic harmonica playing.
Of course Black Sabbath is probably still the heaviest band of all time. But they don’t get enough credit for their mellow side. “Planet Caravan,” though, is one of their best songs, and features gently picked and strummed guitar by Iommi, who also plays flute, and Ward lightly tapping on congas. It’s another song that inspired a great cover: Pantera even got mellow to record this one.
Stoner metal starts here. The cough at the beginning of the song is Tony Iommi, who was sharing a j with Ozzy at the time. The pro-marijuana theme might not have been totally responsible, but smoking inspired one of Iommi’s greatest riffs (we know, we’ve been saying that a lot, but hey, who had better riffs than Tony Iommi?).
Over a decade before Bruce Springsteen sang about the plight of Vietnam vets in “Born In The U.S.A.,” Sabbath looked at their situation in “Hand of Doom.” It doesn’t get much more dire than this: telling the tale of Vietnam vets who came home and became heroin addicts. While parents were worried about Sabbath’s devil-related songs, those were all in good fun. This one wasn’t: “First it was the bomb/Vietnam napalm/Disillusioning/You push the needle in.”
It’s understandable that religious parents would be unnerved by lyrics like “Would you like to see the Pope on the end of a rope? Do you think he's a fool?” The lyrics may criticize originated religion, but Geezer Butler, who wrote the lyrics, and who was raised Catholic, didn’t deny the existence of a higher power: “Could it be you're afraid of what your friends might say If they knew you believe in God above? They should realize before they criticize that God is the only way to love!” It’s a jam about tolerance and acceptance and respecting the beliefs of others.
OK, this one might actually be Tony Iommi’s greatest riff. But it’s certainly the one that saved the band. Iommi was dealing with writer’s block while working on Sabbath’s fifth album, and this riff came to him, breaking his slump.
One of Sabbath’s biggest radio songs, it sounds like a ‘Twilight Zone’ episode set to doomy guitars, and it’s amazing that no one offered lyricist Geezer Butler a gig as a screenwriter after this one. The main character in the song travels to and sees -- surprise! -- an impending apocalypse. As he returns to the present “he was turned to steel/In the great magnetic field.” Sure, maybe some explanation for time travel and transforming into steel might be required. Anyway! He tries to warn everyone in the present about the future. No one believes him, they all mock him and he decides to smite them himself, creating the apocalypse he had been trying to prevent!
Black Sabbath’s biggest international hit single (it topped the pop charts in Germany, hit #2 in Switzerland, and #4 in the UK) is also one of their shortest, coming in at less than three minutes. Geezer Butler told Guitar World that the song “was written as an afterthought. We basically needed a three-minute filler for the album, and Tony came up with the riff. I quickly did the lyrics, and Ozzy was reading them as he was singing.”
2. “War Pigs/Luke’s Wall” - ‘Paranoid’ (1970) - By the time bassist/lyricist Geezer Butler came of age, mandatory military service in England had ended, but as the Vietnam War raged, Butler was worried about being drafted. Like his bandmates, he grew up poor, and in his case, two of his brothers had fought in the war. “War Pigs” -- with lyrics like “Generals gathered in their masses, just like witches at black masses” -- compared war to pure evil. It’s not only one of the great metal or rock and roll songs ever, but one of the great anti-war protest songs of all time.
The first Black Sabbath song from the first Black Sabbath album, you could argue that this is ground zero for heavy metal. Geezer Butler’s occult fascination inspired the truly creepy lyrics, which were written by Ozzy Osbourne -- who has never sounded more haunted. Bill Ward’s drums are chaotic yet perfect and Tony Iommi’s guitar has never sounded more evil.