Remember the Sabbath

Every cool riff has already been written. By Black Sabbath. Anything anyone else does is just basically ripping it off. You’re either playing it slightly different, or backwards, or faster, or slower, but they did everything already.

Rob Zombie, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, 2004

I don’t know that I’d call myself a ‘metalhead’ – I feel like as a genre it kind of lost its way in the 80s, and despite some bright spots here and there, overall it’s never really found its way back. But it would be hard to overstate the influence Black Sabbath’s first six albums had on me, both as a music enthusiast and as a musician. Seeing the original lineup live in 2004 rivaled any spiritual experience I’ve ever had.

As a teenager learning guitar, I once told an instructor my goal was to be able to put on Paranoid and play the whole album start-to-finish. That’s been at least 20 years ago, now, and if I’m being very honest, I still don’t know that I’ve reached it. I still discover inexplicably delicious bits in Tony Iommi’s guitar work, I may well spend the rest of my life unraveling it all – but I do play a mean War Pigs.

The thing about Black Sabbath is at this point it’s not even dad-rock anymore – it’s pushing grandpa territory. The eponymous LP (Black Sabbath, the album) turns fifty next year. Black Sabbath, the band, has put out nearly 20 studio albums over that span of time, and just as many live albums and compilations. While a lot of it was incredible, in my opinion, not all of it has aged well. Black Sabbath, the song, is kind of camp now – from this side of the satanic panic of the 80’s, it’s hard to remember devil-worship used to actually be scary. Volume 4 is part of the Sacred Six, but it’s definitely got some questionable choices – although admittedly I’ve never listened to it in a hot tub while doing lines of cocaine off naked women with Farrah Fawcett hair, which was apparently the artists’ intended listening environment. Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die show evidence of a band starting to lose their way, they’re not nearly as cohesive as the albums that came before. And I don’t see how the Dio era is even listenable to anyone that didn’t live through hair metal – there, I said it.

Despite all that, Black Sabbath (the band) doesn’t need me to defend them. Boomer-era nostalgia tends to leave a bad taste in my mouth these days, but even your most uber-hipster postmodernist post-punk would have a hard time dismissing the influence they’ve had – entire genres trace roots to Black Sabbath. Like Robert Johnson, so many musicians that came after credit them as an influence, it’s hard to imagine what music in the English-speaking world would’ve even been without them. Rob Zombie’s statement that every cool guitar riff was already written by Black Sabbath may not be too far off the mark; the blend of rootsy blues rock with classical and jazz influences as well as then-emerging hard rock and metal styles means their work covered a lot of ground. The endless box sets and best-ofs still go platinum and gold, and their work still gets introduced to new listeners every day, sometimes through unlikely avenues.

All that to say, there’s still a lot of people that LISTEN TO BLACK SABBATH. Their legacy is secure, and they don’t need me to curate it. But for me, personally, I wanted to take some time to think about what tracks I would point to in order to justify my esteem. I find it kind of interesting that whenever you’ve got bands with storied pasts and varied catalogues, fans frequently end up with highly personal perceptions of ‘definitive’. When I say “LISTEN TO BLACK SABBATH”, what tracks, specifically, do I mean? If someone told me they’d never heard a single Sabbath song, which ones would I be the most excited for them to hear for the first time?

It’s tempting, of course, in response, to just throw those first six albums in a playlist in their entirety. To avoid that, I decided to pick ten songs. What are the ten Black Sabbath songs everyone should hear before they die?

It turns out picking just ten is hard. Like, obviously, you can’t have Children of the Grave without Embryo, that’s basically one song. And, well, anyway it ended up being “The nineteen Black Sabbath tracks everyone should hear first to convince them I was right and they should just listen to the whole first six albums, like I said in the first place”. Spotify wouldn’t let me have a playlist title that long, though, so it’s called “Remember the Sabbath”. Also on YouTube Music.

The nineteen Black Sabbath tracks everyone should hear first to convince them I was right and they should just listen to the whole first six albums, like I said in the first place

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