While reading through a copy of Martin Popoff’s the 500 Greatest Heavy Metal albums, two things immediately struck home: a lot of the albums had nothing to do with metal, and the ranking of Maiden albums was just… wrong.
For the record, here they are: in order of best to worst. Live albums are ranked separately. The criteria for selection are the overall feel of the album, quality of all songs considered as a whole, and to a lesser extent artwork and production.
1. Killers – Not a dog on this one, and every title segues neatly into the next one, ensuring I listen to every song, every time. The best thing about this album is the quality of the lyrics, which really shine. Special note that Martin Birch arrived, and man every album he ever produced made it all worthwhile. The Derek Riggs cover of Eddie the axe murderer tied it all together in an absolutely brilliant and shining gem of an album which still pulls it weight against the finest metal and hard rock albums, and is my personal favourite album.
2. Seventh Son of a Seventh Son – Popoff doesn’t like it, I love it. Depending on the time of the year, sometimes it’s closer to number one. This was the concept album that I can’t only listen to one song from, a mark of greatness. Some malign Can I Play With Madness, but I say it fits despite its radio-friendly chorus.
3. Piece of Mind – It’s musically one of the strongest, featuring Nicko McBrain at his drumming technical best and all of the band at the top of their game. But the last three songs are weaker, particularly lyric-wise. Although Harris has written a lot of the best, his lyrics are often mediocre as show-cased in Quest for Fire and To Tame a Land.
4. The Number of the Beast – Sometimes this one comes in at number 3, since overall the songs are stronger. I think a lot of them have been overplayed in concert, ruining them somewhat. I come back now and then after prolonged absences and realize what a great album this was. Although overall the songwriting is better than Piece of Mind, Piece of Mind just has higher highs at its best.
5. Powerslave – The definitive Maiden heavy metal album. A monster of an album which only loses steam in terms of lyrical diversity. Harris gets no points for writing poor lyrics and cut and pastes from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but yet the bombastic music combined with Dickinson’s absolutely masterful performance that it works. Two songs about swords may have been one too many, maybe another topic next time.
6. Somewhere in Time – Some say the band sounded tired, I say the band sounded reflective. Stellar songs like Wasted Years and Stranger in a Strange Land elevate the album into greatness, but I have never been a fan of Heaven Can Wait and it’s football stadium-ready chanting. A fitting interregnum before moving on to SSOASS. Derek Riggs continued his streak of amazing cover art, running from Killers to Seventh Son there is very little to choose from in terms of quality, which is all of a truly godlike standard.
7. A Matter of Life and Death – Back with a bang after sorting themselves out with the two precursor Dickinson comeback albums, this album featured a rust-free Bruce Dickinson and a very strong set of songs. I explain the album’s strength by the larger than usual presence of Smith and Dickinson in the song-writing. Both of them have outgrown Harris in stature, probably because Harris burned out in the 90s from pulling more than his fair share of the load. The best part is that Maiden were taking chances again and putting together lengthy songs worthy of the adjective epic. The spiritual successor to Seventh Son arrived at more than 20 years later? Perhaps.
8. Iron Maiden – A solid album with a truckload of classics, but hampered by muddy production and poor vocal range from Di’Anno. Admittedly when you heard him live it all made sense, but it was Killers where he really took charge. A strong album with no weak songs and plenty to crank up.
9. The Final Frontier – A very good album, layered and complex in all the right places. Some of the songs need editing, but Dickinson and Smith make this album work with some of Harris’s best contributions since Seventh Son perhaps indicating that his creative burnout had finally resolved itself. A personal negative point was that the album lacked a theme to tie it all together, but it is a minor criticism of an otherwise strong album with all the band firing on all cylinders.
10. Brave New World – The return of Smith to the lineup, and it showed. As usual Gers and Harris tracks were the weakest, but Murray actually made some positive contributions while Dickinson showed that at this point he was the strongest songwriter of the bunch, something fairly obvious as he knocked out stellar solo album after album making a mockery of Maiden’s output during the same time frame. The production was infinitely improved by Kevin Shirley’s arrival at the mixing board. It almost made you forget that idiotic Ed Hunter video game. Almost.
11. Dance of Death – Positive points included improved sound and finally starting to capture that live studio sound Maiden so obviously wanted. It was a half-baked progressive cake, but I loved them for trying. Although Brave New World was better (and safer), Maiden showed what was coming next, and it was good. Montsegur and Paschendale are as strong as any Maiden songs out there. I don’t like computer generated art, and this is crap.
12. Fear of the Dark – An album which inspired by the excellent non-Derek Riggs artwork, but ultimately fell flat. There were some solid songs, but at least two songs could have been pruned from the album which was in dire need of a firm hand at the production board for editing. Chains of Misery, The Apparition, Fear is the Key and perhaps The Fugitive could have all been on the cutting block which would have improved the album. Fear of the Dark remains a great song, and certainly Afraid to Shoot Strangers is still a personal favourite and was actually topical, a characteristic with a certain rarity among Maiden albums up until that point.
13. No Prayer for the Dying – I have a personal hate-on for Steve Harris’s barnyard studios. Frankly it sucks, or at least Harris has never been able to capture whatever atmosphere might be there. Smith left the band during this album, and it showed. Whatever energy Gers brought to the band on the stage was not enough to compensate for the loss of a key songwriter. Much of the album is mediocre and the best songs are the first two, Tailgunner and Holy Smoke. The lyrics to most of the songs are not Harris’s finest hour.
14. The X Factor – A disappointing and low key Blaze failed to capture the energy of his Wolfsbane performances, revealing him as too beer-hall rock and hall and medium stage charisma to make it work as lead singer of the world’s biggest metal band. Personal highlights like 2AM and a poorer version of Aces High (“Man on the Edge”) couldn’t make Bayley’s working man lyrics and roughhousing demeanour work in the studio. Cutting the brutally long and unnecessary intro to Sign of the Cross wouldn’t have hurt either. It was what it was, Maiden punch-drunk from the loss of Dickinson and in desperate need to put out an album.
15. Virtual XI – This album is unpardonable and captures Iron Maiden at their nadir. While the X Factor had scraps of good material, there was very little to excite the imagination in Blaze’s second album. The album art was execrable and the culmination of several years of mediocrity of single and album cover art.
1. Live After Death
2. Maiden Japan
3. A Real Live One
4. Live at Donington
5. Flight 666
6. Rock in Rio
7. Beast over Hammersmith
8. BBC Archives
9. Death on the Road
10. En Vivo!
11. A Real Dead One