Legendary hard rock group Black Sabbath played their last show ever seven years ago, on Feb. 4, 2017. To honor the “godfathers of heavy metal” on this occasion, it’s time to rank our favorite Black Sabbath songs!
Black Sabbath rode off into the sunset seven years ago with a final concert in their hometown of Birmingham, England. The band, fronted by wild child and media darling, Ozzy Osbourne, has its fair share of hit songs, as well as other tunes that evoke the, “Oh, I’ve heard that before, but can’t remember the name,” sense. In effect, these are Black Sabbath’s most notable songs, their “essential” top-10 list, if you will. So, with that in mind, let’s get to listing!
10. “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”
After a creative lull following the release of Black Sabbath’s fourth album, “Vol. 4,” guitarist Tony Iommi suffered from writer’s block and couldn’t get the ball rolling on new material. However, the band rented the medieval Clearwell Castle in Gloucestershire, England to get the mood right, and Iommi whipped up the song’s riff soon after. Thus, “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” is oftentimes referred to as the “riff that saved Black Sabbath.”
The song starts off as a straight-ahead rocker that is interspersed with flowery acoustic touches. It then transitions to a sinister riff, described by Guns N’ Roses’ lead guitarist, Slash, as one of the heaviest riffs of all time, and is capped off with a jaunty fade-out.
9. “Fairies Wear Boots”
One of the few songs in Black Sabbath’s catalogue with lyrics written solely by Osbourne, “Fairies Wear Boots” was composed after the band had a confrontation with a group of skinheads. The rhythm section, that being bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward, are especially in lockstep on the track, which eventually became a concert staple, creating a nice swing feel.
8. “Heaven and Hell”
This nearly seven-minute epic of a song was among the first to be written and recorded with vocalist Ronnie James Dio, Osbourne’s replacement. It’s arguably their most popular song of the 1980s, with over 120 million streams on Spotify, the most of any song during the Dio era. In fact, when Dio reunited with Black Sabbath in 2006, the band dropped their original name and went by Heaven & Hell for a four-year stretch.
Lyrically, “Supernaut” is a quite positive song, wanting us to live life to the fullest and take advantage of our opportunities. The line, “I’m gonna climb up every mountain on the moon,” especially portrays this theme, pointing towards an ambitious future.
It might be difficult to fully focus on the words, however, as one of rock’s most iconic guitar riffs is the focal point, instrumentally. Noted musicians like Beck, Frank Zappa, and even Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham (who once jammed with Black Sabbath) have listed this song among their all-time favorites.
Written during the band’s most experimental period, “Changes” is an uncharacteristically saccharine song (for Black Sabbath’s standards) that describes Ward’s split from his first wife. Iommi trades in his guitar for a piano on this song and creates an absolutely chilling melody. Charles Bradley’s cover version of this heartbreaker has also been the theme song to the Netflix series Big Mouth since 2017.
5. “Black Sabbath”
This is where it all started, as Black Sabbath performed “Black Sabbath” on their debut album…also titled Black Sabbath. The gothic three-note riff (a diabolus in musica, aka “devil in music” tritone), which kicks off the song and, effectively, the band’s career, is one of the earliest examples of the heavy metal genre. The band performed the song a whopping 1,025 times in concert, and even opened up with it during “The End Tour.”
Sticking with Black Sabbath’s first album, “N.I.B.” showcases the band’s musical ability at its peak. Butler’s fuzz bass intro recalls the days of Jack Bruce in Cream, Ward offers a powerful performance behind the kit, Iommi’s guitar fills slither through the arrangement with ease, and Osbourne interjects with a resounding “Oh yeah!” before each verse.
Butler, the group’s primary lyricist, said the song is “about the devil falling in love and totally changing, becoming a good person,” which, for the time, was new subject matter for popular music.
This tune is one of Black Sabbath’s shorter songs, clocking in at just under three minutes, and it’s also one of just two singles by the band to reach the Billboard Hot 100. Originally written as a “throwaway” track to fill out their album of the same name, “Paranoid” has become one of the more famous hard rock songs over time. It’s the band’s most popular song on Spotify, accumulating 977 million streams, and has been heard in movies ranging from Dazed and Confused to Kong: Skull Island.
2. “War Pigs”
Like a lot of music released during the ‘60s and ‘70s, “War Pigs” is an anti-war song. Politicians are described as “hiding themselves away” and “making war just for fun,” making this Black Sabbath’s most outwardly political moment.
Artists like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez may have been more subtle in their approach to protest songs, musically, at least, but I think the heavy music works in favor of the message in this case, almost as a warning to the dangers of war. An air-raid siren is heard during the sludgy, distorted intro before Ward peppers his hi-hat to propel the song into its first verse. Iommi is all over the arrangement and captivates listeners with two mammoth guitar solos (including one that gets sped up on tape at the end of the song).
1. “Iron Man”
Most can probably recognize this song within the first few seconds, as Ward’s plodding kick drum gives way to Osbourne’s famous “I am Iron Man” proclamation. I’m sure most of us have tried to imitate that vocal before, but to no avail. Surprisingly enough, the title “Iron Man” doesn’t actually associate with the Marvel superhero, but its namesake stems from Osbourne referring to Iommi’s guitar riff as sounding “like a big iron bloke walking about.”
The lyrics tell us of a self-fulfilling prophecy in which a time-traveling man sees what lies ahead — the apocalypse. As he tries to warn his fellow humans about what he saw, he’s mocked after being turned to steel. With nothing to lose, the man enacts revenge on the human race and causes the apocalypse he once feared.
Simply put, it’s a classic recording with a tremendous storyline and fantastic musicianship, leading to use in pop culture and extensive play on classic rock radio even to this day.