Most “best of decade” lists came out the first week of January 2020 so why get lost in the crowd? Better late than never, this list showcases ten of the greatest hard rock masterpieces of the past decade, based on the criteria of one single source – this author’s opinion.
The list focuses on any recordings in the rock/hard rock/heavy metal genres, but includes no death or speed metal nor metal core or straight pop rock. It’s mostly based in the hard rock category while lightly crossing into the rock genre. Nonetheless, anyone who enjoys old school hard rock / heavy metal and wants to hear new music should give each of these albums a good listen.
- Everybody Wants – The Struts (2016)
While being one of the lighter albums on the list, The Struts official debut was simply the most interesting album of the past decade. The English group first released Everybody Wants in their homeland in 2014, re-releasing it two years later in the U.S. with an adjusted track list.
The modern production quality is stellar, the songs are unique and the band brings an energy and new sound that the music world desperately needs.
Vocalist Luke Spiller is rock’s next great frontman. Delivering an original approach while clearly channeling the ghost of Freddie Mercury, Spiller is a vocal chameleon whose voice changes song to song, sometimes verse to verse, but is always exactly right for the song he is singing.
Many highlights come to the forefront, including explosive album opener Everybody Wants, the mystery-encased Black Swan, the biographical Mary Go Round and the self-promoting Young Stars. It was clear the band went into the studio expecting to create a hit record and approached it as such. The production quality has all the markings of an arena-rock megaband, which is interesting, if not downright ballsy, for a debut record release from a mostly unknown band.
The highlight of the album culminates in the penultimate track Only Just A Call Away, an emotion-filled track that feels like a modern take on 80s classic ballads such as Love Bites, Heaven or I Remember You.
Perhaps The Struts captured lightning in a bottle with Everybody Wants. Their second album, Young and Dangerous, had some strong tracks yet left a lot to be desired, while their latest release, Strange Days, is a bonafide train wreck and total failure.
- United – Harem Scarem (2017)
Toronto Canada’s Harem Scarem has been delivering melodic hard rock masterpieces since their inception in 1991. The band came on the scene strongly toward the end of the hair metal generation and delivered their eponymous debut release, followed by their cult classic Mood Swings. Whereas many bands run out of strong material after their first few efforts, Harem Scarem was just getting warmed up.
The band’s signature sound derives from vocalist and band leader Harry Hess’ uniquely layered voice and virtuoso Pete Lesperance’s masterful guitar prowess. The sound is solidified with drummer/vocalist Darren Smith who delivers powerful backing vocals equal to his power and solid timing behind the kit.
As melodic hard rock changed in the 1990s, so did Harem Scarem’s sound. Taking a slightly slower, darker detour during the heart of the grunge years, the band searched for its identity with Voice of Reason and Karma Cleansing. They came out of that less advised phase with two of their masterpieces, Big Bang Theory and Weight of the World. Fast forward to 2017, and everything that has led to this point culminated in what may be considered to be their best overall work, United. (Although it’s truly hard to argue against the powerhouse instant classic Big Bang Theory.)
United is truly almost a perfect melodic hard rock album. It’s the playbook that defines exactly how to write, record and perform this style of music. Catchy, instantly memorable hooks, huge harmonies and clean, tasteful guitar is the blueprint for success. This is the greatest band that the majority of mainstream music listeners have never heard, which is truly sad, considering the world has had to endure its fair share of the likes of Dangerous Toys, Jackyl, Pretty Boy Floyd and Poison. For whatever reason, Harem Scarem has remained the secret of the dedicated few who have had the determination to seek them out.
The album’s opener and title track encapsulates the essence of the band. Those only willing to explore a single song would be well advised to enjoy United. Here Today Gone Tomorrow, Bite the Bullet and Indestructible all deliver the trademark Scarem sound and attitude. The album’s zenith can be found in the standouts No Regrets, Heaven and Earth and The Sky Is Falling. All three should be on any soundtrack used for long road trips. There isn’t a bad song on the album, a truly remarkable accomplishment, although Sinking Ship and, perhaps Gravity, would be the two tracks to skip if time doesn’t permit a full listen to this should-be classic.
- Stand Your Ground – Jack Starr (2017)
Jack Starr is a metal lifer. Originally lead guitarist for Virgin Steele, Starr hit the scene around the same time as classic metalers Iron Maiden, Manowar, and others of the early wave of new heavy metal, Starr has been serving up his brand of metal magic for four decades. Two things are certain on any Jack Starr album – the guitar work will be masterful and the singer will be outstanding. Stand Your Ground delivers both in spades.
Going out on his own in the mid 1980s, Starr debuted with an album called Out of the Darkness. A good album, no doubt, but it was 1986’s No Turning Back that helped Starr make his mark in the metal community, an album many metal insiders consider to be a classic. In fact, Starr spent the rest of his career trying to top that masterpiece. Mission finally accomplished almost 30 years later with 2017’s Stand Your Ground.
Todd Michael Hall, a recent contestant on The Voice, carried the heavy torch previously held by Mike Tirelli, one of metal’s most underrated vocalists. He delivered in a big way. Stand Your Ground has absolutely no weaknesses, delivering powerful, anthemic metal from the first note to the very last. Worlds Apart, Sky Is Falling (no connection to the Harem Scarem song of the same name) and Destiny are all instant metal classics while The Enemy, Stand Your Ground and To The Ends are the album highlights. The latter has a classic metal feel that harkens back to a time when metal was new, special and inspiring. Starr and his talented bandmates capture that feel throughout the album, but especially so in To The Ends, perhaps Starr’s best song in a long, storied career.
- For All Kings – Anthrax (2016)
As great as Anthrax’s preceding album Worship Music was, it was evident that something was just a bit off. It turns out that the vocals were actually written for former vocalist John Bush, who left the band just before the recording sessions commenced. Now armed with an album written for his much higher natural voice, Joey Belladonna excels, solidifying his place as thrash metal’s best vocalist.
Start to finish, For All Kings is pure, unadulterated energy. Adding new lead guitarist Jon Donais (formerly Shadow Fall) helped contribute to the album’s success. Donais plugs the one weakness Anthrax has faced since its inception – a great lead guitarist. The production quality of For All Kings is Anthrax’s best by a long shot. Charlie Benante continues to distance himself from others in his field, rewriting the book of how to be a world-class thrash drummer. A true legend, Benante is not slowing down with age; he may in fact be improving.
The track list could stand on its own being repackaged as a “greatest hits.” Album opener, You Gotta Believe, may be the best album opener since Metallica’s Fight Fire With Fire. Monster at the End is the perfect bridge to the album’s title track and best-of-show contender. If For All Kings isn’t the best song on the album, then track 4, Breathing Lightning is. An uncharacteristically commercial-sounding song for a traditionally heavy band, the outro music surprisingly hints at the Beach Boys California Girls. Back to its heavy ways, Suzerain, Blood Eagle Wings and This Battle Chose Us are metal standouts.
It’s hard to argue against classic Anthrax from its heyday, especially albums such as Spreading the Disease and Among The Living. For All Kings delivers songs of similar quality, but with lead guitar solos and production quality that far surpass either of the aforementioned classic Anthrax albums. Of this top ten list. For All Kings also gets the nod for best album art, edging out Jack Starr and Helloween.
- The Book of Souls – Iron Maiden (2015)
Can it be called a comeback if the band didn’t actually go away? Iron Maiden continues to reinvent itself and, with the exception of the ill-advised Blaze Bayley era, put out instant metal classics with regularity.
Book of Souls is a 2-CD epic journey through a whopping 92 minutes of metal with no filler. After singer Bruce Dickinson’s run in with tongue cancer, the band took chances, expanded its boundaries and charted new territory. Never before was there a piano-dominant Iron Maiden song, nor a song eighteen minutes in length. Yet, Empire of the Clouds keeps the listener riveted as it tells the tale of a grand airship that faced its premature demise. Written solely by Dickinson, it’s odd subject matter from someone who is a full-fledged commercial airline pilot when he’s not fronting England’s greatest metal band.
If Eternity Should Fail kicks off the album in typical Maiden fashion, full of energy and memorable hooks. A definite candidate for album’s best track, along with Tears of a Clown, written in memory of Dickinson’s friend, comedian Robin Williams. “Who motivates the motivator; Facade it has to go; He knows it sooner or later; Smile for cameras all okay; But tomorrow is another day he must get through.” A beautiful, yet chilling snapshot into what Williams may have been feeling before his self-inflicted demise.
Speed of Light is classic Maiden, meant to get people out of their seats with hands in the air. Death or Glory and Man of Sorrows are memorable and The Red and the Black doubles as Maiden’s latest anthem and as one of its most recent band brews made by Robinson’s Brewing of England.)
Three songs exceed ten minutes, solidifying Maiden’s place as epic anthem writers. The Book of Souls delivers new music in the classic Maiden sound that shows this band is as strong and popular as ever.
- Stay Gold – Butch Walker (2016)
Definitely the least heavy album on the list, Stay Gold is one of Butch Walker’s finest works to date. Having formerly been the guitarist of hard rock outfits Southgang and Marvelous 3 qualifies his inclusion on this list.
Walker’s eighth full-length release not so subtly showcases some of his influences. Hints of Springsteen and Petty abound on this album, but more in a tributary than plagiaristic sort of way. The strong title track sets the tone for this solid album, and may be one of Walker’s all-time best tracks.
Wilder in the Heart tells the story of an awkward reconnection with a lost love, long after the love is gone. East Coast Girl has “top ten hit” written all over it while Mexican Coke may or may not be about cola made with natural sugar.
Ludlow Expectations and Can We Just Not Talk About Last Night feel autobiographical and are relatable. Irish Exit showcases Walker’s wide range of musical abilities.
Walker started his career as a lead guitarist for a hair metal band, evolved into a hit writing machine and lead vocalist for Marvelous 3 and now has evolved again into one of the world’s greatest, most thought provoking singer/songwriters. All the while, Walker has gained his greatest fame writing and producing others, including Avril Lavigne, Fall Out Boy, and seemingly every pop band from the early 2000s, such as Green Day, Bowling For Soup, All Time Low and SR-71. Thankfully, Walker saved some of his best material for Stay Gold, an album that will long be considered one of his best.
- Firepower – Judas Priest (2018)
Judas Priest has a long history of putting out metal classics, but it has been a while since they were churning out masterpieces such as British Steel, Unleashed in the East and Screaming For Vengeance. Firepower is the first album that deserves to be mentioned in the same conversation as those metal classics.
Sans KK Downing who is no longer with the band, the classic Priest sound is still intact. In fact, the album contains all the traditional Priest components they are known for, including energy, killer guitars, soaring vocals and, well, firepower. The production quality of the album is stellar; the blueprint for what a metal album should sound like.
The title track gets a lot of run among metal faithful, yet it’s hardly the album’s best work. Lightning Strike, Evil Never Dies, Never the Heroes, Spectre and Rising From The Ruins all top the title track. The album’s best song, No Surrender, is as good as Priest’s classics such as Breakin’ the Law, Electric Eye and You Got Another Thing Coming. With or without KK Downing (and now Glenn Tipton suffering from Parkinson’s Disease), Priest still finds a way to not just stay relevant, but continue to create some of metal’s best sounds long into their fifth decade.
- My God Given Right – Helloween (2015)
German metal masters Helloween could have made this list more than once. 7 Sinners (2010) or Straight Out Of Hell (2013) were considered for inclusion, but the edge goes to 2015’s My God Given Right.
The band’s new lineup has been in place for a solid decade with this release, and it has become a well oiled machine. While long-time Helloween fans still miss the ethereal vocals of German metal god Michael Kiske and the heart and soul of original vocalist/guitarist Kai Hansen, current vocalist Andi Deris and guitarist Sascha Gerstner are more than able replacements.
Four different band members contribute tracks to this album, all containing the signature Helloween sound. Gerstner contributes Heroes, Like Everybody Else and the fantastic Wicked Game while vocalist Deris brings four tracks to the mix, including three of the album’s strongest: If God Loves Rock n Roll, Lost In America and My God Given Right. Founding member Michael Weikath delivers Battle’s Won, Creatures in Heaven and Claws, with Battle’s being the standout. Living on the Edge comes from Markus Grosskopf, of whom an argument can be made as metal’s most talented bassist.
Helloween of today sounds relatively nothing like Helloween of the late 1980s, yet both versions of the band are absolutely outstanding. The Deris version of the band would be considered heavier than the Kiske/Hansen era, yet both deliver some of the greatest metal ever created.
- Open Wide – Nitrate (2019)
Once time travel is invented and perfected, this album will become an all-time classic. Had it been released in 1989 instead of 2019, there’s no doubt we’d be talking about it the way we talk about Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet, Warrant’s Cherry Pie and White Lion’s Pride. The album contains all the elements that made the aforementioned bands huge. But, let’s face it, timing is everything in this business.
(Editor’s Note: This is in no way meant as a condemnation or a negative; in fact, I can relate to this very conundrum with the release of my own album, Rock City, also about 30 years past the height of the hair metal generation. But as I always say, better late than never. And maybe we’re just ahead of our time for the next wave?)
Open Wide is a melodic rock masterpiece, the brainchild of Nitrate’s bassist/keyboardist Nick Hogg. Hogg assembles top notch musicians to create instantly memorable melodic hard rock classics. This is Nitrate’s second effort, and first to feature vocalist Philip Lindstrand. Drummer Pete Newdeck performed double duty by also mixing the album, while Marcus Thurston handled lead guitar duties. Harem Scarem’s Harry Hess mastered the record which is never a bad thing.
You Want It You Got It is typical 1980s arena rock while Night Time City and Only A Heartache Away follow flawlessly. Heartbreak Suicide seemingly borrows its title from the 1998 Danger Danger track of the same name, but delivers great melodic rock, nonetheless. In The Night is a classic power ballad while Shot In The Dark and Never Surrender keep the hits coming.
The album’s strongest track is the finale, the re-recorded Waiting On You from the band’s debut album, Real World. An instant melodic hard rock classic, Waiting On You defines the band’s sound and is a “must listen” for anyone who enjoys this genre of music.
Nitrate’s first two albums have featured different vocalists, with Sweden’s Lindstrand being the voice that better fits the music, despite some odd phrasings as English is not his primary language. The band’s follow up is currently being recorded and will feature yet another new vocalist, also from Sweden, Art Nation’s Alexander Strandell.
Anyone who loves 80s hair metal music but needs new music in their lives absolutely needs to discover Nitrate.
- Ritual – Tygers of Pan Tang (2019)
Tygers of Pan Tang are among the famous group of bands known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM), despite never really breaking through in America like their counterparts Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Saxon and others. Despite having several starts and stops and numerous member changes throughout the years, their latest release, 2019’s Ritual, is among their strongest.
A band that came to at least moderate prominence during the early 1980s when future Thin Lizzy and Whitesnake guitarist John Sykes shared the lead guitar duties with founding member, guitarist Robb Weir.
The newest incarnation features Italian vocalist Jacopo Meille and guitarist Mickey Crystal, significantly – yet positively – altering the traditional Tygers’ sound. Meille’s vocals appear behind a perfect layer of echo and delay, allowing them to blend seamlessly into the aggressive, heavy, yet catchy music. Even with a band that once featured the aforementioned guitar legend Sykes, the guitar work on Ritual is as good as any previous Tygers album.
White Lines is solid, while opening tracks Worlds Apart and Destiny are standouts. Love Will Find A Way may have been a bigger hit in another era but fits memorably on Ritual. Not every track is a home run, but many are, and the outstanding overall production quality makes Ritual a must-have album for any fan of modern melodic hard rock.
- Dystopia – Megadeth (2016) Honorable Mention
How cliche, eleven albums on a top ten list, right? The argument for number ten went back and forth literally for months before finalizing the positions for this article. All in all, Ritual is the overall better album and, therefore, gained the number ten spot on the list. However, had this been a list for best songs of the past decade, Dystopia would have been represented twice. The Grammy-award winning title track is pure metal greatness, yet still second to possibly the greatest Megadeth song of all time, Poisonous Shadows.
Megadeth’s 15th studio album, Dystopia, marked the debut of guitarist Kiko Loureiro (Angra) and the South American had some big shoes to fill. Marty Friedeman set the standard for lead guitar playing in Megadeth and his subsequent replacements have all fallen short until Loureiro. Possessing a completely different, yet equally talented style as Friedeman, Loureiro delivers lightning fast licks packaged in a pleasant, melodic approach.
Drummer Chris Adler (Lamb of God) was an unexpected addition to the album, pausing from his full-time band to lay down tracks for a band he considers personal heroes. The drumming was exceptional on Dystopia, absolutely front and center in the mix. You don’t just hear the drums on Dystopia, you feel them as well.
The Threat Is Real, The Emperor and Fatal Illusion were all memorable contributions. Dystopia is not a solid record start to finish; in fact there are some low lights such as Conquer or Die, Death From Within or the punk cover Foreign Policy (Fear) that seems wildly out of place. However, the best tracks are so strong, and the production quality so great that despite its weaknesses, Dystopia deserved strong consideration for being one of the decade’s best and came in ever so slightly short of hitting that mark.