Heavy metal was still in its infancy in 1972. Though Black Sabbath were already four albums into their career, the wider genre was still struggling to establish its own identity, future heroes like Judas Priest still finding their feet amidst the shifting lines of rock and metal (and still lacking eventual frontman Rob Halford, who joined in 1973). Even so, the boundaries between hard rock and heavy metal were becoming increasingly blurred as bands like Deep Purple and Blue Oyster Cult helped lead the charge for the harder, heavier brand of rock music, inspiring future generations in the process.
’72 also saw significant gains in glam rock; David Bowie’s The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust became a genre-defining landmark, while Alice Cooper’s fifth album provided him with his biggest hit in its title track, School’s Out. Even the relative backwaters of Wolverhampton were given a glam makeover, Slade’s third album Slayed? topping the UK music charts in December that year.
With that in mind, here are 15 landmark albums that turn 50 in 2022.
1. Blue Oyster Cult – Blue Oyster Cult
With their self-titled debut album, Blue Oyster Cult joined the raft of bands that were steadily blurring the lines between psychedelia-influenced hard rock and the nascent heavy metal genre. Like many bands of the early 70s, BOC were still hashing out their identity when they released their debut, but had already found something of a winning combination with biker rock influences and esoteric lyrics. As if reflecting the changing tides, even critics who largely used ‘heavy metal’ as a derisive term found themselves sucked into BOC’s orbit with their debut, testament to the band’s undeniable talent and charm.
2. Scorpions – Lonesome Crow
Lonesome Crow is a very different record – and indeed, Scorpions a very different band – to what they would later become. Inspired by psych-rock, Scorpions debut strikes a darker tone than much of the band’s later material, barely recognisable from the arena-conquering behemoths they would become. The band’s ‘classic’ sound may not have come into being until 1975’s In Trance, but there are still shines of brilliance here, the twin guitar assault of the Schenker brothers proving a prodigious talent even at this early stage.
3. Thin Lizzy – Shades Of A Blue Orphanage
Thin Lizzy were almost completely unrecognisable on their eponymous 1971 debut album, lacking any of the thrust and much of the roguish charm the band would later hang their reputation on. Shades Of A Blue Orphanage is where the Thin Lizzy sound truly starts to take shape however, picking up more swing and groove that would be developed from Vagabonds Of The Western World onwards. Call The Police in particular could neatly slip in unnoticed amongst material on Fighting or Nightlife, even if the wider album lacked the bite that could shift it beyond the scope of the band’s folk-rock past.
4. Deep Purple – Machine Head
Deep Purple had already struck gold with 1970’s In Rock and its 1971 follow-up Fireball, but with Machine Head the band proved they were on untouchable form. So far as Deep Purple’s associations with heavy metal goes, Machine Head is the album historians can point to, a powerhouse of riffs and yelps that cast a long shadow over the nascent genre. Machine Head also closed Deep Purple’s run of chart-topping albums in the UK, proving that the harder stuff wasn’t barred from the upper echelons of commercial success.
5. ZZ Top – Rio Grande Mud
The Little Ol’ Band From Texas were growing more confident in craft and execution with their second record, Rio Grande Mud. ZZ Top’s first album (appropriately – and literally – titled, ZZ Top’s First Album) had already established that the trio had a great ear for groovy blues rock licks, but with Rio Grande Mud the band’s quirky personality truly began to shine through. The album also afforded the band one of their all-time greatest tracks; Just Got Paid nailing everything brilliant about ZZ Top in four minutes of slick, effortlessly cool rock ‘n’ roll.
6. Jethro Tull – Thick As A Brick
Ian Anderson had something of a bee in his bonnet when it came to writing Thick As A Brick. Bemused at critics’ descriptions of Jethro Tull’s previous album Aqualung as a concept album, Anderson decided to double down on the band’s next record and really write a concept album. Sarcastically. While a parody of the entire concept album erm, concept, Thick As A Brick would nonetheless later be hailed as a classic and one of prog rock’s all-time greatest records. Talk about a great punchline.
7. Wishbone Ash – Argus
Argus marked the point where Wishbone Ash became international stars, mixing hard rock with elements of prog and folk in a seamless balance that, along with the twin lead guitar approach, proved effective inspiration for the future development of heavy metal. Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris was open about Argus‘ influence on him when picking the 8 songs that changed his life, remarking “Wishbone Ash were such an influential band for me, not just with the twin guitars, but also the melodies and the vocals and Martin Turner’s bass playing.”
8. Rolling Stones – Exile On Main Street
The Rolling Stones took a hard left turn following on from their chart-topping masterpiece Sticky Fingers, stripping away all of the stadium-sized panache they had picked up over their nine (11 if you count American) releases to instead revel in rootsy Americana as you might hear in some backwoods roadhouse (or pretty much any Creedence Clearwater Revival album). Exile On Main Street proved to be another smash success for the band, whilst getting in on the country-rock movement right as it blew up. Speaking of…
9. The Eagles – Eagles
Unlike so many of their contemporaries, The Eagles were utterly confident in their sound from the off, becoming country-rock stars as the singles Take It Easy, Witchy Woman and Peaceful Easy Feeling each gatecrashed the Top 40 in the US, while their parent album Eagles reached No. 22 on the Billboard 200. While some sectors of rock revelled in getting heavier and harder for the decade ahead, The Eagles showed there was a whole other side of the coin ready to take the world on with 12-string acoustics, harmonies and a whole lot of Americana.
10. Uriah Heep – Demons And Wizards
Four albums in and Uriah Heep had struck upon lyrical gold with Demons And Wizards. Despite having the most power metal name ever (which likely explains why the 00s power metal Iced Earth side-project later nabbed it for themselves), Demons And Wizards is more (early) Rush than Iron Maiden, but nonetheless made a stamp on the nascent metal genre’s flirtation with fantastical themes. Songs like Easy Livin’ and The Wizard remain fan favourites even half a century on, testament to just how magic this line-up of Heep were.
11. David Bowie – The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars
David Bowie’s reinvention as Ziggy Stardust in 1972 is the stuff of legend – and rightly so. Effectively the point the artist ascended to superstardom, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust was a glam rock masterpiece that almost instantly captured the imagination and remains quite possibly Bowie’s definitive work even today. Its influence on the rock and metal world can never be overstated – galvanising everyone from The Smashing Pumpkins‘ Billy Corgan and Def Leppard (both of whom contribute to the 2022 A Bowie Celebration) to Bauhaus and Creeper, transcending genre lines to truly embody the notion of ‘and now for something completely different.
12. Alice Cooper – School’s Out
While Ziggy was taking glam to outer space, shock rocker Alice Cooper went in almost completely the opposite direction as he added a touch of sinister to the mundane with album #5, School’s Out. The album’s title-track became a defining hit for Cooper, topping the charts in both Canada and the UK while rising to No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in the US. Then-Cooper bassist Dennis Dunaway recounted to Classic Rock in 2021 that “[School’s Out] is the big one – the one that struck accord with every teenager that’s ever gone to school. And no matter how old you are, you can still relate to the clock ticking down to those final minutes where the bell rings and school is out,” perfectly capturing the universal jubilation that is the heart and soul of the song.
13. Black Sabbath – Vol. 4
Four albums in and Black Sabbath were showing no signs of slowing when it came to pumping out the kinds of records that defined heavy metal. If anything, Sabbath were getting more powerful – the likes of Supernaut and Snowblind certainly attests to that, but with Vol. 4 the band also exercised a degree of creative and commercial ambition, unveiling the neo-classical, symphonically tinged instrumental Laguna Sunrise and straight-up pop tune in Changes. Even as their drug issues spiralled out of control (Geezer Butler telling Classic Rock in 2019 “Half the budget went on the coke and the other half went to seeing how long we could stay in the studio), Black Sabbath still proved to be the shining stars of the nascent heavy metal movement.
14. Slade – Slayed?
Sticking to the Midlands, Wolverhampton’s Slade capitalised on the breakout success of the chart-topping singles Coz I Luv U and Take Me Back ‘Ome when their third record Slayed? climbed to the top of the charts in December 1972. Slade owed clear nods to the likes of The Beatles and The Kinks, albeit by glamming up their working class environs in pursuit of the rock’n’roll dream. The result was an album which glistened with hopeful energy, while the single Mama Weer All Crazee Now afforded the band yet another No. 1 to turn those dreams into reality.
15. Lou Reed – Transformer
Even 50 years on, Lou Reed’s Transformer remains a progressive – and indeed, transgressive – masterpiece, tackling taboo topics and subjects with inimitable intensity and poeticism. Buoyed from the support of newly-minted star David Bowie (who produced the record alongside Spiders From Mars guitar icon Mick Ronson, with Ronson providing much of the guitar and string arrangements heard on the record), Reed finally began to shuck off the cult obscurity of his years in The Velvet Underground to finally become recognised as an icon in his own right. The singles Perfect Day and Walk On The Wild Side would ultimately prove to be Reed’s most iconic (solo) hits, Wild Side breaking the top 20 in the US and UK in 1973 (in February and May respectively), while a star-studded rendition of Perfect Day topped the UK charts in November 1997 – 25 years after the original song’s release.