Judas Priest is one of the greatest bands in heavy metal – it’s hard to imagine the genre without them, and arguably they’re the second most influential metal group after only Black Sabbath. So, we’re totally stoked that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is finally – FINALLY! – inducting them later this year (yeah, it’s the “Musical Excellence” award, but we’ll take it). And as Screaming For Vengeance is about to turn 40, and the band is celebrating its 50th anniversary, we thought that this would be a perfect time to rank the band’s 50 best songs.
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“All the pressure that's been building up/For all the years it bore the load/The cracks appear, the frame starts to distort/Ready to explode!” Lots of Judas Priest songs are open to interpretation; that’s surely true of this one. But as Rob Halford wrote in his memoir ‘Confess,’ the song “saw me doing my party piece of smuggling gay lyrics onto our albums again.” But he noted, “I didn’t tell the band this… I figured some things were best kept to myself.”
A classic breakup jam with one of the band’s catchiest choruses. The song was written for the band by Bob Halligan, Jr., who would later write “Some Heads Are Gonna Roll” for the following album.
Judas Priest’s first album with Rob Halford back in the band had some brutal jams, but it also contained this ballad, which seems to reference the character on the ‘Sad Wings Of Destiny’ album cover: “Angel… Put sad wings around me now/Protect me from this world of sin/So that we can rise again.”
It’s wild that Judas Priest has been so amazing for so long, and they’ve always been a powerful live band to boot. The live album ‘Battle Cry’ came out as they were touring for ‘Redeemer of Souls,’ their first album with guitarist Richie Faulkner, and showed that they lost none of their power when K.K. Downing left the band. ‘Dragonaut’ is from ‘Redeemer of Souls,’ an album that proved that they’d be able to withstand the departure of their legendary founding guitarist.
You’d think that a so-called “legacy” group like Judas Priest would be comfortable just knocking out a few metal jams every few years to give them new material to tour behind. Happily, Priest is a lot more ambitious than that - ‘Nostradamus’ is a double album *and* a concept album, about… well, Nostradamus. The album saw Priest experimenting sonically, using orchestras and keyboards.
Rob Halford loves his status as “the Metal God,” but he’s always had his eye on more mainstream genres. “Last Rose Of Summer” isn’t a power-ballad… it’s just a ballad, period. And it’s one that wouldn’t sound too out of place on a ‘70s soft-rock station next to songs by Jim Croce or Carly Simon. That’s not a diss, by the way: it shows how much range Judas Priest had when they stretched outside of their comfort zone.
OK, it’s not their deepest song, but it sticks in your head. Listening to ‘Screaming for Vengeance’ again, 40 years after its initial release, you can understand why this launched the band to superstardom. And at the same time, it’s surprising that it wasn’t even more popular. They combined brutal heaviness and catchy songs incredibly well.
With great power, comes great danger. Damocles was invited by 4th century B.C. tyrant Dionysius II to trade places with him. Damocles took the offer - who wouldn’t? - but when he sat on the throne during a banquet and was surrounded by every imaginable luxury, he realized that a huge sword was suspended by a thin thread just above him. Any wrong movement could get him impaled. As Rob Halford said of the song, “You need to live the life you have the best you can every day, as it is all you've got."
A tragic piano ballad that probably made Freddie Mercury jealous. It’s about an old man looking back on his life and lamenting that we’ll all end up gone and forgotten. “A lonely grave, and soon forgot/Only wind and leaves lament his mournful song/Yet they shout his epitaph out clear/For anyone who's passing near/It names the person lying here as you/And you, and you, and you…”
Judas Priest was not part of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s new wave scene, but they were definitely aware of it, and that’s clear from the intro of “The Rage,” which sounds almost like the Police. The lyrics, however, seem influenced by the Clash. As Rob Halford told Billboard, “We've never been a social or political band, but lyrically I think there was some of that on this one. It's all about being denied things in life. They're very potent lyrics."
A song about an unspecified genocide. The spoken interlude provided the band’s next album, “Sin After Sin,” with its title.
Is it a commentary about how governments and corporations will treat people like meat, grinding them up and spitting them out, as Rob Halford has suggested? Sure, it might be. We’re also wondering if the gay dating app, Grindr, named itself after the song. Halford confirmed in a recent interview that he joined Grindr, “for about five minutes.” He noted, “It was too much drama and I had to delete it right away, and it's been deleted ever since, by the way."
One of the many highlights of ‘Sad Wings.’ On ‘Rocka Rolla,’ Priest was still a hard rock band, but here, you can hear them turning into the metal band that influenced every single metal band that followed them.
The opening song on ‘Defenders of the Faith,’ it showed that the band wasn’t letting up the intensity from ‘Screaming For Vengeance.’
Rob Halford said in a recent interview, “It’s like a rallying cry or a battle cry, if you will. It’s calling all the metal forces together and pulling them into focus.” There’s debate over whether or not this is the first speed-metal song. Whether or not it was “first,” it’s certainly one of the most influential.
Priest was still very much under the influence of fellow Brummies Black Sabbath here; “Dreamer Deceiver” is a mellow jam. It’s another song that showed Priest’s range: both in the band’s ability to play solo and bluesy, but also in Halford’s ability to go from really low to shriekingly high notes. “Dreamer Deceiver” bleeds right into “Deceiver,” a song that previews the speed metal that they’d develop further on subsequent albums.
‘Rocka Rolla’ is fun to listen to; it’s almost like hearing a different band. As we’ve mentioned, they were very much under the influence of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix during this era. They hadn’t yet found their voice. But, damn, this is a solid psychedelic hard rock jam.
Teetering back and forth between sludgy Sabbath stomp and something a bit faster, you can practically hear Priest finding their voice on the last song on ‘Sad Wings of Destiny.’
Let’s be honest: when our favorite bands are in their 50s and 60s, we worry a bit about their new albums. It’s probably fair to ask: can their new music even hope to hold up to the classics? ‘Firepower’ proved definitively that Priest was still a band to be taken seriously and “No Surrender” was one of the highlights.
Again, Priest was in their early phase of breaking out of blues-rock here, but it’s fun to listen to Rob Halford’s harmonica playing.
The first song on ‘Angel of Retribution,’ Rob Halford’s first album back with the band, had to hit hard. “Judas Rising” fit the bill and sounded like a mission statement, although Rob said at the time that that was not his intent. He told Blabbermouth, “I just like that expression. But it could be taken in both contexts. To me it's about the angel coming out of that 'Sad Wings of Destiny' artwork environment, where it was a very despondent, very doomy type of oppressive world, and now suddenly it's back in its full majesty and glory and it's overcome the odds and it's full of optimism and energy." And that was a good metaphor for the band itself: with all due respect to “Ripper” Owens, the fans were glad to have Rob back, and there was a lot of great music to come in the following years after this album.
It was a pretty commercial song, by Priest’s standards, and in fact, it got them a booking on England’s ‘Top of the Pops’ TV show, alongside Donna Summer, ABBA and Peaches & Herb.
The lead single from ‘Firepower,’ frankly, blew fans away. It’s a classic Priest anthem. As Halford said, "It's all about how you're able to react to confrontation. Don't let these things beat you down. Lightning is striking because it's the light that pulls you out of darkness."
One of the few songs on the album that uses synthesizers (courtesy of former Black Sabbath and future Deep Purple member Don Airey). This mid-tempo jam provided a bit of a breather in the brutally heavy ‘Painkiller’ album, and was commercial without feeling like a sellout.
‘Turbo’ was easily their most controversial album: they embraced synthesizers, started dressing like pop metal bands of the era and their writing got lot more commercial. But even if the music on ‘Turbo’ veered towards the mainstream more than the diehards would have liked, this song hit hard due to the lyrics, about Rob’s ill-fated relationship.
No, they weren’t referring to themselves… although Rob Halford would later trademark the title “Metal God.” It was a song about robots taking over (a la Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”). Rob noted in the Classic Albums documentary series, “A lot of science fiction books and anything that’s got a lot of fictional quality to it, that comes from good pieces of literature… I got inspired by things like ‘The Kraken Wakes’ and ‘Day of the Triffids’ (two books written by John Wyndham). And all those great black and white movies, made by those wonderful British movie studios. You can almost see and feel these robots, these metal robots, walking around, you know?”
Lyrically, it’s almost like a KISS song: “Look out, here's Starbreaker/Cruisin' into town/Set his mind to stealin'/Every little heart around/Step out on the sidewalks/If you're feeling game/He comes but once a lifetime/Never ever seen again.” But the music is classic proto-metal. On ‘Sin After Sin,’ Priest is narrowing their focus and you can hear the band finding their voice and their identity.
Judas Priest continued to evolve here: they began to shed the denim and blues-based sound of many of their peers (Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple) and really started defining their identity sonically and visually. This is the first album that used the angular logo (instead of the more gothic one from their earlier albums) and when the leather started replacing the denim.
“Shake down, rock 'em boys, crack that whip strap mean/Pulse rave, air waves, battle lies in every place we've been/Stealing your hearts all across the land/Hot blood doing good, we're going to load you with our brand!” We’re not sure exactly what Rob was singing about here, but by this point, Judas Priest was the definitive heavy metal band and they were surely “loading” millions of fans with ideas… and many of those fans would go on to form their own bands.
“The Hellion” and “Electric Eye” is one of the best openings for any album, ever. “Electric Eye,” released four decades ago, was probably inspired by George Orwell’s ‘1984,’ and seems rather prescient in an era where so much of what we do is recorded and filmed: “Always in focus/You can't feel my stare/I zoom into you/But you don't know I'm there.”
Yeah, yeah, we know how fans often feel about ‘Unleashed in the East,’ often referring to it as “Unleashed in the Studio.” In ‘Confess,’ Halford admitted that he was in bad shape for the shows that were recorded for the live album, and that he, in fact, re-sang the entire album in the studio. But he also noted that “the band were on point,” and he was right about that: their playing is brutally heavy and unbelievably exciting. So even as this version of “Running Wild” is a live/studio hybrid, the final product is still pretty great (and BTW, lots of live albums have some studio touch-ups, they just aren’t as well-known).
How did they sound this furious while recording an album in beautiful Ibiza, Spain? Maybe they were just annoyed that they didn’t love their prior album, ‘Point Of Entry.’ Now, they felt they had something to prove. At any rate, this is a great song to drive fast to. Pedal to the metal!
Co-written by the band’s original singer, Al Atkins with K.K. Downing, it definitely has a late ‘60s/early ‘70s heavy metal sound, and as Halford wrote in ‘Confess,’ “We knew we were in the same club as Purple and Zeppelin and Sabbath, but we wanted our own identity. We were pushing hard toward the sound we had in our heads.” You can hear that on this track. He also noted that the band was unhappy with the album’s cover (a takeoff on a Coca-Cola bottle) and the album’s sound. But this song, in particular, holds up really well, nearly five decades after its release.
A fearsome song inspired by the notorious murderer Jack The Ripper. The song inspired future Priest singer Tim Owens to come up with the nickname “Ripper” when he was singing in a Priest cover band called British Steel. There’s quite a bit of Queen influence here (both in the Brian May-like guitar tone, and of course in Rob’s Freddie Mercury-like wailing). But you wouldn’t confuse it for Queen, or anyone else: it’s unmistakably Judas Priest.
Priest kicked off their 18th album with one of their fastest songs ever and very aggressive lyrics: “With weapons drawn we claim the future/Invincible through every storm/Bring in the foe to be defeated/To pulverize from dusk till dawn.” Clearly, they were not mellowing out as they were moving towards their 50th anniversary.
In ‘Confess,’ Halford admitted that he wanted to improve as a lyricist on the ‘Sin After Sin’ album, and he had taken to reading ‘Roget’s Thesaurus’ to broaden his vocabulary. He noted that he was quite pleased with “Sinner,” saying it was a good example of how he honed his “natural style of tackling psychological and philosophical traumas via dramatic, apocalyptic tales of gods, devils and warriors fighting epic battles, in which Good - and heavy metal! - always vanquishes Evil.”
Written by Rob Halford with drummer Les Binks, the song starts out as a ballad before erupting into a rocker. The lyrics are about depression, and some of them cut close to the bone to Halford, as he wrote in ‘Confess,’ “It had some very personal lines: ‘I’m safe here in my mind/I’m free to speak with my own kind.’ With my own kind. Because, in 1978, the idea of being able to talk to other gay men, openly, freely and without stigma, seemed as likely as pole-vautling to Mars. I just knew: It will never bloody happen.” We’re glad that he was wrong about that. And even if that sentiment is no longer relevant, the song still is.
Judas Priest knew that ‘Screaming For Vengeance’ could be their breakthrough album in the U.S., and maybe that’s why they put this incredibly catchy jam on it. Why they buried it on the end of the album and didn’t release it as a single is a mystery to this writer, as it could have propelled the band to even greater commercial heights.
Rob Halford has often mentioned being disappointed by this album, but you can’t deny “Heading Out To The Highway” (and Halford has said that he still likes this song). While most of Priest’s songs should be filed under “heavy metal,” we might split hairs here and call this one a “hard rock” classic.
The early ‘90s were not a great time for legacy metal acts. As Halford wrote in ‘Confess,’ “It was a new decade and the music world was changing. A whole new generation, and genre, was coming out of Seattle… Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains had all emerged. Metal was shifting into a new cycle. It made us feel that this would be an important, pivotal album for Judas Priest. So, we decided to go for it and endeavor to make the strongest, most intent, and most powerful album of our career. We felt it was the record that would dictate the future of the band.” Well, it didn’t quite do that – Halford quit the band after the tour. But it did show that Priest, at least with Halford in the band, was as powerful as any other band in the world, despite music trends. And the title track is an undisputed classic.
Judas Priest doesn’t do too many covers, but they’ve really made two of them count. Priest’s version of “The Green Manalishi” has pretty much overshadowed the original, which was by the original Fleetwood Mac… this was before Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie joined the group. Fleetwood Mac’s original leader, guitarist/singer Peter Green apparently wrote it while he struggling with LSD… and it shows.
It kicks off with one of Rob Halford’s most fearsome screams. Powered by the double-bass-drum rhythms of Simon Phillips (who later went on to join Toto), this is one of heavy metal’s essential tunes. But don’t take our word for it: Slayer covered it on their classic 1988 album, ‘South of Heaven’ (Corrosion Of Conformity and Halestorm later covered it as well).
You can hear the DNA of every ‘80s speed-metal band in this song. It even influenced a Canadian metal band so heavily that they named themselves Exciter.
One of the weirdest covers ever, but it really works. “Diamonds and Rust” is a song originally by American folk singer Joan Baez, but Priest reimagined it as a metal classic. Years later, Priest and Joan Baez found themselves on the same lineup, at Live Aid in Philadelphia. Baez and Halford hung out, and the folkie complimented him on Priest’s version of the song, noting that it was her son’s favorite version.
Like “Heading Out To The Highway,” it’s a rare Judas Priest hard rock jam that fits in alongside party anthems by Van Halen, KISS and Aerosmith. But hey, it’s good to have a bit of fun sometimes! As Halford wrote in ‘Confess,’ Glenn Tipton was working on some guitar riffs in the house they were staying in (they rented Ringo Starr’s former home, which had previously been owned by John Lennon). Tipton woke Halford up in the middle of the night, whilst jamming on some riffs. Halford complained, “You’re living after midnight down here, you are!” “That is a f—ing great title for a song,” the guitarist replied, and a classic was soon born.
A mashup of two early Judas Priest songs - “Whiskey Woman,” written by original singer Al Atkins and K.K. Downing, and “Red Light Lady,” which Halford was working on. The song is a warning about addiction: in the lyrics, Halford sings about a woman struggling with alcohol and how it was ruining her relationship. Obviously, it wasn’t autobiographical, but Halford would soon have his own battles with addiction.
As Rob Halford wrote in ‘Confess,’ the song “was a howl of disgust at a venal, corrupted planet.” Which is probably why it still sounds so timely today! He also revealed that Glenn Tipton’s wild guitar solo was recorded as he was trying to avoid a mosquito buzzing around the studio.
Priest is obviously not a punk rock band, but by 1980, even they were somewhat influenced by the punk rock scene. You can hear it in this song. The dark reality of England during that time also inspired Halford to write socially conscious lyrics. “Judas Priest has never been a political band – it’s not our bag,” Halford wrote in ‘Confess.’ “But this song was, without question, a slice of acute social commentary…The heavy industry and the car makers in the midlands and around the country were struggling, and there was already talk of factory closures. Unemployment was shooting up.” So Rob tried to imagine what it would be like to be “a jobless young bloke at his wits’ end.”
In 1982, destiny was calling Judas Priest, and they answered. As Halford wrote in ‘Confess,’ “Our record label had been emphasizing to us that we were on the cusp of getting very big indeed in the U.S. If we made an album that fans there could appreciate and relate to, America was a golden chalice that was there for the taking.” And Priest grabbed that chalice, largely on the strength of “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming,” which got a ton of support on the then-new MTV. In retrospect, it’s not nearly as commercial sounding at “Living After Midnight” or “Heading Out To The Highway,” but it *was* the exact right song for the right time.
Not only did Judas Priest help to lead the way for how heavy metal would sound for decades to come, they also pioneered the look. And if you’re reading this, you already know that a lot of leather was involved. "The biggest myth about this new stage gear is that I had somehow masterminded the image as a cover and a vent for my homosexuality - that I was getting a thrill from dressing onstage as I'd like to dress in the street, or the bedroom," Halford wrote in ‘Confess.’ "This is utter bollocks… I had no interest in S&M, domination, or the whole queer subculture of leather and chains. It just didn’t do it for me… I was – and still am – pretty vanilla.” But it did give the band an image unlike anyone else at the time. Soon, every metal band was copying both Priest’s sound *and* their look. “Hell Bent For Leather” became Priest’s anthem, and it was a highligh of every show, especially when Halford rode on stage on a Harley as the song began.