The 20 best Slayer songs - ranking (2023)

IfHunteron November 30, 2019 at the Los Angeles Forum, they left a legacy like no other. Faster, angrier and far more evil than even their most respected contemporaries, the Huntington Park foursome might have been influenced by the NWOBHM and hardcore punk scene that was rampant in the early 1980s, but they weren't long in blazing a new trail who would change everything.

With subjects as inflammatory and unspeakable as Satanism, serial killers, torture, hate crimes, genocide, terrorism, human experimentation, war, prison neglect and Nazism, they could have acted as cheap provocateurs. Instead, they summoned some sort of limb that seemed to have been forged in the depths of Hell.

Bassist Tom Arya and guitarist Kerry King were the longtime faces of the metal institution, but also six-stringersJeff Hanneman(who passed away in 2013) and drummer Dave Lombardo were perhaps even more important ingredients in establishing their diabolical formula, while sticksman Paul Bostaph was and once a backupExodusAxeman Gary Holt have both left their mark. There have been ups and downs with these changing personalities over the years, and in their final phase some claimed the band had become almost self-parody. Yet even their most die-hard doubters couldn't deny that enduring poignancy and sense of danger at live shows, fueled by a manic, almost cult-like fan base.

When compiling a Top 20, there's always the temptation to list 1986's seminal third LP Reign In Blood in full, with a few select snippets from the pairs of classic albums on either side, but that would be a disservice to the true 38-year reign of Das saw Slayer continue to push boundaries and shatter taboos to ensure arena-worthy metal could never become boring - or stray too far from the fringes. So there are some ice cold classics that we had to leave out. We look forward to you taking on the anger in the comments...

20. Evil Knows No Limits (Show No Mercy, 1983)

The first truncated Slayer debut LP proves that - from the starting line - they haven't been screwing around. Listening now, the thin percussion lends the song something of an archaic quality from the crypt, but the combination of 100-mile thrash riffing, runaway lead guitar and happy Mephistophelic lyrics meant it felt like an all-out game -Changer felt back then. The pitch-black absurdity of the central sing-along - "Devilish! / My words defy / Evil! / Has no disguise' - takes it to another level of hell...

19. Repentless (2015)

Repentless was one of the first tracks to be released after the death of the great Jeff Hanneman - and the eponymous lead single from their last album. It certainly didn't hold back. Heading towards the jugular and on through the arterial spray, there's damn subtlety on display, with guitars poised for destruction and relatively simplistic lyrics seething with angry old man energy. ‘Arrogance, violence, world in disorder' screams Tom. ‘Dealing with madness every damn day / I hate life, hate the fame, hate the damn scene / Pissing match of egos, fuck their vanity!’ The blood-soaked music video behind bars initially feels like a tongue-in-cheek response to thatMetallica's bloodless St. Anger cut, but goes so far over the top that it feels like a landmark in and of itself.

18. Society's Skeletons (Seasons In The Abyss, 1990)

Slayer may be masters at unleashing the power of pessimism throughout their catalogue, but Seasons In The Abyss seventh track is head and shoulders above the rest. With a deceptively bouncy riff, the song quickly transports us to a post-apocalyptic hellscape. ‘Minutes seem like days / Since fire ruled the sky / The rich became beggars / And the fools became wise / Memories linger in my brain / Of the burning from the acid rain. . . ' In a way, it's a powerful lament about societal corruption, the decline of civilization, and eventually Armageddon. In another, it's a wild, nihilistic invitation to embrace the inevitable end.

17. Jesus Corrected (Reign In Blood, 1986)

Two minutes and 54 seconds of unstoppable sonic escalation, the final track on page one of Reign In Blood is a full throttle Slayer benchmark before we even scratch the surface. However, her ironic, anti-Christian message was an even more important milestone in her thematic development. ‘You go to church, you kiss the cross,’ Tom challenges the dogma. ‘You will be saved at all costs / You have your own reality / Christianity!' He first questions the prioritization of regret over good deeds before arriving at a hopeless conclusion that belief in an afterlife is ultimately absurd, that might be Slayer at his most poignant philosophical form.

16. Jihad (Christ Illusion, 2006)

Jihad fell just before the fifth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and was proof that Slayer still had a few feathers to ruffle well into their late careers. From the point of view of a jihadist involved in the above attacks, and concluding with a spoken-word passage taken directly from the writings of conspirator Mohamed Atta, he entered similar taboo breaches as 1986's Angel Of Death and pushed to uncertainty and outrage from mainstream media, drawn like moths by the sheer searing provocation but unable to handle it. ‘As a hero, strike the hearts of the unbelievers / Strike across the neck and at every end,' goes the nightmarish stream of consciousness. ‘When you reach ground zero you have killed the enemy/great satan!' Fuck it all.

15. At Dawn They Sleep (Hell Awaits, 1985)

Though the production isn't quite as innovative as the Reign In Blood that followed it, At Dawn They Sleep feels like a showcase of the virtuosic foundations upon which Slayer would build their devilish reputation. The song is inspired by the bloodthirsty story of Dracula ("Taste the sins of Hell / The blood I so long for'), but it's the combination of the incredible main riff, dueling guitar solos, Dave Lombardo's peerless percussion and a rare spotlight on Tom's bass work - which sits at the forefront of the mix - that haunts this underrated classic in the dreams of so many metalheads. Thrash with undeniable bite.

14. Schwarze Magie (Show No Mercy, 1983)

Echoes of the NWOBHM's epic gallop ring through many of Slayer's earliest releases, but it was Black Magic that let them tap into the more hectic, vicious sound that would become their trademark. With its buzzsaw riff fading in like a rapidly approaching swarm of killer bees before exploding in a burst of punk energy and bloodshot rage, you can practically hear the standards being set for every thrash band to come, while the jagged execution purers Slayer is. ‘Magic surrounds me day and night' Tom explains in a deep, devilishly demonic tone, 'Struck by the power of the evil light.' It's a pretty accurate assessment of where they were, all right.

13. World Painted Blood (World Painted Blood, 2009)

Expectations were high for Slayer's 11th LP after 2006's startling return to form with Christ Illusion. Though World Painted Blood didn't quite fit as a collection, their nightmarish title track and third single felt like a return to the apocalyptic brilliance that made the band famous. A final world-class statement from the classic line-up of Jeff Hanneman (instrumental mastermind here) and Dave Lombardo, emerging from purgatory with genuine intent and venom, showing a planet on the slide as Tom prophesies: "Disease spreads death / Entire population dies / Dead before you are born / Mass suicide…’ Dark but brilliant.

12. Autopsy (Reign In Blood, 1986)

At under 29 minutes, Reign In Blood is an unstoppable speed metal masterclass that sets the standard for any thrash album with its sheer power. Postmortem stands out a bit: a largely mid-paced smasher with a monumental opening riff and a chugging attack that felt like their black-blooded version of a formula Metallica had perfected with classics like Ride The Lightning and Creeping Death. When they go flat out as the 45-second career ends in Raining Blood, it feels all the more powerful.

11. South Of Heaven (1988)

A crucial evolution of Postmortem's controlled assault, the title track to fourth album South Of Heaven saw Slayer slow the pace even further and unleash untold new depths of insidious menace, with the promise that they could take their time while still getting the meat rip from our bones. Constructed of distortion-free guitars, dizzying drum fills and stripped-down vocals, it felt like metal titans slowed down to appreciate their heat and weight. ‘The root of all evil is the heart of a black soul,' Tom insists. ‘A force that has lived all eternity / A never-ending search for a truth untold / The loss of all hope and your dignity.” The sonic equivalent of being lowered into a lake of fire.

10. Totenhautmaske (Seasons In The Abyss, 1990)

With such a diverse and brilliant influence on horror films like Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Silence Of The Lambs, it seems almost inevitable that infamous Wisconsin grave robber and murderer Ed Gein will make an appearance somewhere in the Slayer discography. What wasn't inevitable was the transformation of happy creepiness and stomach-churning horniness into one of their greatest tracks of all time. From that iconic spooky riff to the dazed, catchy chorus - 'Dance with the dead in my dreams / Listen to their holy cries / The dead have taken over my soul / Temptation has lost all control' - to that insertion of a child's supplication at the end, it is as disturbing a treatment as any on screen.

9. Die by the Sword (Show No Mercy, 1983)

Show No Mercy's standout track might not have been the clearest signpost for the darkness and chaos that would follow, but it remains a vivid snapshot of an exhilarating moment. The influences in the game are clearly visible, from the scratchy darkness ofGiftand boastful theatrics ofJudas prieston the aggression and energy ofTote KennedysAndBlack flag. Elements of the sound - Tom's more melodic vocals, Dave's more jazzy percussion - still feel on their feet and feel excitingly unfamiliar. And yet the evil intent was so clearly at play: "Satan is watching us all / Smiles while some carry out his commands / Try to escape the grip of my hand / And your life will no longer exist!' Damn good.

8. Chemical Warfare (Haunting The Chapel, 1983)

Six short months after releasing Show No Mercy, Slayer revamped the game with the three-track EP Haunting The Chapel. The central track, "Chemical Warfare," pushed the band further into what would become central aspects of their sound (Dave Lombardo's double-bass attack being unleashed for the first time - reportedly played on a bare concrete floor), while becoming more direct turned to the real world horrors that would yield such rich artistic returns. Although tracks like "Expendable Youth", "Mandatory Suicide" and "War Ensemble" would clearly flesh out their vision of the horrors of war, there remains a sickening undercurrent of helplessness and alarm that has never really been surpassed.

7. Hell Awaits (1985)

The second album's title track, Hell Awaits, was a turning point, not just for thrash, but for the entire extreme metal underground that would open up in its wake. Opening with 60 seconds of behind masked demonic requests to 'Join us!' before it came to life with Luciferian intent, it was a testament to just how evil music can be. ‘As you can see, the gates of hell await' Tom explains breathlessly. ‘There's no price to pay, just follow me / I can take your lost soul from the grave / Jesus knows your soul can't be saved!' If the sheer speed on display wasn't enough to blow away early listeners, the use of death growls - years before they became an extremist standard - around the four-minute mark certainly did the trick.

6. Mandatory Suicide (South Of Heaven, 1988)

In a 1988 Kerrang! Interviewed to mark the release of South Of Heaven, Jeff Hanneman revealed that two of his brothers were conscripted into the Vietnam War: the great military folly of the United States in the mid-20th century that claimed the lives of nearly 60,000 young men and wounded another 300,000. Just 13 years after the fall of Saigon, Slayer reflected on this recent history for perhaps their most razor-sharp socio-political commentary. The bloated six-strings and toms shrill screams ('BUUUURN!’) add a sense of dread to an otherwise pretty damn catchy composition. A provocative T-shirt in circulation at the time got the message across: on the front, a young man hanged dead; on the back a letter confirming his acceptance into the ranks of a military academy.

5. Kriegsensemble (Seasons In The Abyss, 1990)

Continuing the cloaked themes of conflict and the ultimate futility of war, fifth album's opening track Seasons In The Abyss comes like a battle cry that takes no prisoners - one of the strongest opening tracks in metal history - while debunking the bloodthirsty status quo in the challenge western society. ‘Sport is war, total war' Tom sings wryly. ‘When victory is a massacre / The final blow is not practice / It's about how many people I can killOf course, with the incendiary power of a mortar blast and the unstoppableness of tank track, it inevitably rolled into a blissfully ignorant mosh anthem for excited fans – and was reportedly adopted as the soundtrack for the shipment of many soldiers the following year as part of the Operation Desert Storm offensive in Iraq.

4th Disciple (God Hates Us All, 2001)

After suffering somewhat in the '90s with solid but unremarkable titles like 1994's Divine Intervention, 1996's Undisputed Attitude and 1998's Diabolicus In Musica from 2001god hates us allsaw Slayer arrive in the new millennium with no nuances and all guns blazing for a truly devilish mid-career masterpiece. While tracks like New Faith and Bloodline deserve credit, it's the second track, Disciple, that stands out the most. All gnarly riffs and bludgeoning percussion, it's a strong instrumental in its own right, but the real joy is watching Kerry King's hilariously blasphemous lyrics spat out by avowed Catholic Tom Arya: "Hate heals, you should try it / Seek peace with acts of war / The beauty of death we all worship / I have no faith to distract me / I know why your prayers are never answered / God hates us all!’

3. Seasons in the Abyss (Seasons in the Abyss, 1990)

Some argue that the title track from Slayer's amazing fifth LP was their attempt to break into the mainstream. A dazed experiment in craggy nightmare psychedelia built around a doom tempo and topped with perhaps its catchiest chorus ('Close your eyes / Look deep into your soul / Step out of yourself / And let your thoughts run free!'), it's easy to see why, but looking back it has cast it in a less cynical light as an extension of the thrash dynamic they originally helped shape. Additionally, the track's message of embracing insanity is arguably the most positive of their entire twisted back catalogue, while the often-overlooked music video - shot on Egypt's Giza Plateau - adds another layer of esoteric intrigue.

2. Reign In Blood (1986)

Reign In Blood's cacophonous conclusion is, quite simply, one of the most iconic moments in all of heavy music. From that clap of thunder and pounding rain showers, to the banshee screams of the electric guitar, to a riff that feels like the most evil ever recorded, while being sophisticated enough to incorporate elements of Camille Saint-Saëns' classics electric to reflect masterpiece Danse Macabre. However, that sophistication is soon washed away in a barrage of heart-pounding fury, squeaky solos and pounding drums that suddenly burst back into the ambient noise of a passing storm. A fitting ending to one of the greatest albums of all time, surpassed only by the song that opens it...

1. Todesengel (Reign In Blood, 1986)

Even with the excellent material that had come before, fans experiencing Angel Of Death for the first time were blown away. Beginning with 100 seconds of pedal-to-the-metal onslaught - punctuated by Tom Arya's creepy scream - before unleashing the buffet of hellish riffs and screeching solos, this was the dividing line where extreme metal met the masses. Writing about the exploits of notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, Jeff Hanneman describes a catalog of unwavering experimental cruelty with an unwavering gaze ("Pumped with fluid in your brain / Pressure in your skull begins to push through your eyes / Burning flesh dripping away / Heat test burns your skin, your mind begins to boil') while Tom attempts to channel the fear and anguish of the 'patients' held at Auschwitz. The outrage predictably followed, but it has long since evaporated as the song's reputation as an untouchable masterpiece only grows with the inexorable passage of the years. FUCKIN' SSSLLAAAAAYEEEUUURRGGHHH!

Read this next:

  • In pictures: The Slayer fans from the Download Festival
  • The stories behind 20 of Slayer's greatest songs
  • We were at Slayer's first ever UK show
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Nathanial Hackett

Last Updated: 03/12/2023

Views: 6343

Rating: 4.1 / 5 (52 voted)

Reviews: 91% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Nathanial Hackett

Birthday: 1997-10-09

Address: Apt. 935 264 Abshire Canyon, South Nerissachester, NM 01800

Phone: +9752624861224

Job: Forward Technology Assistant

Hobby: Listening to music, Shopping, Vacation, Baton twirling, Flower arranging, Blacksmithing, Do it yourself

Introduction: My name is Nathanial Hackett, I am a lovely, curious, smiling, lively, thoughtful, courageous, lively person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.