Over their lifespan and lineup changes, Iron Maiden has released 16 studio albums along with plenty of compilations and live records. Seeing as how I absolutely adore this band (check out this little ditty), I figured I’d be remiss if I didn’t rank the creme de la creme of their discography. This is a new segment I’ll be doing every so often, that is, ranking a top 5 of varying subject matter (aptly titled “My Top 5’s”). So without any further fluff or stalling, here we go!
Honorable Mention: Iron Maiden (1980)
Overview: I couldn’t, in good conscience, include a Top 5 list of Iron Maiden albums without including the one that started it all. Though it falls just a bit short when compared to its immediate successors, Iron Maiden’s eponymous debut offered us a glimpse into what would ultimately make the band such a force in the coming years. Though it’s a bit raw (even Eddie, the mascot on the front of the album, has improved in look over the years), it checks a lot of the boxes: prog-metal undertones, winding compositions, evil and sinister lyrics and themes. This album may not be Maiden’s finest hour, but it certainly packs enough of a punch to be revisited even almost 40 years on.
Strengths: Iron Maiden is almost Punk Rock in how unpolished it is, but it uses this to its advantage. Maiden took what groups like Judas Priest and Motorhead were doing at the time and injected the energy and aggression of punk bands. Granted, the album is far too complex to even be considered a punk effort, but the attitude of the genre seeps through a bit. Songs like “Phantom of the Opera” and the title track show off the nefarious Maiden sound we would all come to love. It is about as evil sounding as it gets for 1980, and it’s probably why this album is revered to this day.
Weaknesses: It goes without saying that most debut albums, save for Van Halen or Appetite for Destruction, are not an entirely accurate depiction of what the band has to offer. Bands are allowed to grow into their own, and Iron Maiden was no different. For one, singer Paul Di’anno, while an adequate vocalist in his own right, didn’t have the power or range his replacement Bruce Dickinson possessed. As a result, some of the songs may not have the same grandiosity the later Maiden tracks would have. The production quality is also a bit lacking when comparing this record to some of its younger brothers. Iron Maiden is still a great introduction to the band, but if you are looking for some of the group’s more quintessential and anthemic works, perhaps you should try an album a few more years down the road.
Fun Fact: This album (and, by extension, the band) actually got discovered by a man named Neal Kay, owner of a heavy metal sound house/rock club called The Bandwagon in London. The Bandwagon garnered notoriety by hosting “hardboard” guitar battles, in which contestants would go on stage and, using cardboard cutouts of guitars, have air guitar battles with each other. One night, Dave Murray and Steve Harris walked up to Kay, handed him a demo tape and asked him to take a listen. Kay was blown away by what he heard (understandably so), and the demo began to receive heavy rotation at the club. The demo would later morph into Maiden’s debut and the rest, as they say, is heavy metal history…
5. Number of the Beast (1982)
Overview: The first of the Bruce Dickinson-era albums, Number of the Beast takes everything Iron Maiden had done on their first two records and magnifies it, particularly in the vocal department. Dickinson was galaxies ahead of former singer Paul Di’anno in every sense of what it meant to be a frontman: better range, more articulate, more charismatic, better stage presence. It was because of these traits that Maiden evolved from a New Wave of British Heavy Metal group into a full fledged arena ready outfit, capable of putting on elaborate stage shows to match their elaborate pieces. The songs on this album reflect that, as they possess much more depth of field, musically speaking, and feel more anthemic.
Strengths: This record contains some of Iron Maiden’s most classic tunes: “Number of the Beast,” “Run to the Hills,” “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” and my personal favorite, “22 Acacia Avenue.” These songs, musically weren’t much different from songs off of the previous 2 albums, but the way they were presented and produced showed serious growth from the band. Dickinson’s air-raid siren vocals, coupled with a more polished sound made these tracks feel like arena bangers, and as with most Maiden records, Number of the Beast still sounds great today.
Weaknesses: With this being the first Dickinson album, Number of the Beast still sounds like the band getting used to one another in certain areas. Where later albums have a theme and feel to them, Beast meanders at times and can be a hard album to get fully invested in from side to side. Plus, although it may be a personal bias, songs like the title track and “Run to the Hills” have been so beaten into the ground, being that they are two of Maiden’s most recognizable hits, that it makes it kinda hard to “get up” for these songs every time you hear them. This is still a phenomenal album, especially for the first turn as a Dickinson-fronted effort, but someone had to occupy this spot.
Fun Fact: Bruce Dickinson was still technically/contractually the lead singer of the NWOBHM group Samson when the album was released, so when it came time to write for Beast, Dickinson had to take on a “moral contributor” role. This meant he was heavily involved with the writing process, but was never officially credited with any of the songs on the record. Pretty sneaky, sis…
4. Killers (1981)
Overview: Paul Di’anno’s swan song, Killers, was a marked improvement from the band’s debut album while still simultaneously having a similar feel and atmosphere. Songs were trimmed of excess “fat” and the production quality spiked considerably. You can really hear the band behind Di’anno take leaps and bounds in terms of musical growth, and even the cover art has that classic Maiden feel to it.
Strengths: The entire front side of this album is a party from start to finish. It features two fantastic instrumentals in “The Ides of March” and “Genghis Khan,” the latter of which is some of Maiden’s finest work. “Another Life” is the album’s high water mark and shows just how far the band came from record 1 to record 2. While they would grow even more over the next couple of albums, this bad boy is an underrated masterpiece and houses many of the band’s more forgotten yet classic material.
Weaknesses: The front side of this album bangs, this we all know. However, the back of Killers really drags after the title track kicks off side 2. The songs aren’t bad, they just don’t pack as much of a wallop as side 1. This may sound a bit nit-picky, and it is because I love this album (and own it on vinyl), but when you get into what separates a very good Maiden record from a great one, it’s the little things that add up.
Fun Fact: This is the only Iron Maiden album to feature two instrumental tracks, both of which appear on the front side of the record.
3. Piece of Mind (1983)
Overview: Piece of Mind is the first Maiden record to feature the classic lineup we all know and love, with drummer Nicko McBrain replacing Clive Burr. Accordingly, this album is the one where Iron Maiden really sounds like they hit their stride. Every track on Piece of Mind has purpose and you can tell that although Maiden turned into a machine on this record, they still had fun making it. Make no mistake about it, for the next few albums after Number of the Beast, the boys were firing on all cylinders, and Piece of Mind represents the birth of this musical renaissance.
Strengths: This record houses the concert staple “The Trooper,” among other classics and when it comes down to it, Piece of Mind is just damn fun to listen to. “Die With Your Boots On” can be considered a spiritual relative to “The Trooper” and is equally as action packed, but the absolute gem of this LP is “Still Life,” a wonderful metal track that is equal parts fist pumping and creepy and is one of my favorite Maiden tunes of all time. The closer, “To Tame a Land,” is a great way to end the album and sets up the precedent of having an epic opus close out a Maiden record much like the next two albums to follow Piece of Mind.
Weaknesses: The first three songs to kick off the album don’t really do it for me, so for a while there I thought that with the exception of “The Trooper,” which appears on just about every Iron Maiden compilation album, I wasn’t a huge fan of the LP. That obviously isn’t the case, but it goes to show how if a record doesn’t start with a bang, be it fair or unfair, it can turn certain fans off with less than adequate attention spans (14 year old me was not about to sit through an entire album end to end).
Fun Fact: Riding high off the success of Number of the Beast, Iron Maiden faced a new challenge: social conservatives! I kid, mostly, but suffice it to say that some of the more religious fans of music were none to pleased with a band talking about numbers of beasts and depicting Satan controlling people on an album cover. The boys were taken to task by pretty much everyone who misinterpreted the album and the popular theory was that Maiden had back masked satanic messages into their last album. So what did our esteemed band members do to remedy this? Why, put a back masked message on the album, of course! At the beginning of the song “Still Life,” drummer Nicko McBrain can be heard burping and then delivering the satirical line “What ho said the t’ing with the three ‘bonce’, do not meddle with things you don’t understand…” when played backwards. You can listen to it (and the fantastic song following) here.
2. Somewhere In Time (1986)
Overview: Consider this a late addition to the squad, as I really didn’t give Somewhere In Time a fair shake until recently, but dear God is this album good! As far as arena ready Maiden records go, this one is up there with the best. The album catches some flack for using synthesized guitars layered in to give the songs some bounce (much like a certain other 1986 offering from a revered metal group, wink wink, nudge nudge), but I think it really adds to the tracks. The layering is subtle, but it gives the songs on the album more weight and depth, which in my opinion is always welcomed.
Strengths: Where to begin? The opening track, “Caught Somewhere in Time,” is about as fantastic an opener as there is on a Maiden record. From there the album doesn’t slow down until the closer in “Alexander The Great,” another of the aforementioned epic finishers to a Maiden LP. The entire record has such an anthemic quality to it, you can almost feel Dickinson and the guys flying all over the arena. Somewhere In Time is about as close to perfection, along with the number 1 album on this list, as Iron Maiden was or is ever going to get.
Weaknesses: Not much, if we are being perfectly honest, is weak about this album. On the whole, the songs are a bit long winded, with an average run time of 6:40 per song (I did the math by hand, thanks for my service). Most of the tracks use every bit of their allotted time to their advantage, but pieces like “Wasted Years” and the first couple minutes of “Alexander The Great” aren’t as magnificent as some of their more hyperactive brethren. Other than that, this is a pretty flawless effort.
Fun Fact: Depending on how keen your eye is and how deep your fandom for the band runs, the front and back covers of Somewhere In Time house no less than 30-some-odd references to any and all things Iron Maiden. Some examples: the street on the front side where Eddie is vanquishing his faceless foe is called “Acacia,” named after the classic Maiden song “22 Acacia Avenue,” a clock on the back side reads 23:58, which references the track “2 Minutes to Midnight” from the previous record, and a personal favorite of mine is on the marquee beneath the clock that says “LATEST RESULTS: WEST HAM 7 – ARSENAL 3,” a nod to bassist Steve Harris’ support of English Football (Soccer) club West Ham United.
1. Powerslave (1984)
Overview: Iron Maiden’s finest hour. Powerslave is what happens when a band is in their creative and artistic prime, when every member is locked in and ready to give their all. There are 0 fluff pieces on this record and the album as a whole is just exciting and punchy from start to finish. The energy this album exudes cannot be overstated and it is not only the best Maiden record of all time, it may very well be one of the best METAL records of all time.
Strengths: Along with “Caught Somewhere in Time,” “Aces High” is one of the greatest opening tracks to ever grace a Maiden record. It offers a “tip of the iceberg” look into what Powerslave holds in its grooves: dizzying vocals, dazzling twin guitar harmonies, and lyrics about badass subject material (in this instance, dog fighting in war planes). The rest of the album really takes off (no pun intended) after that, with songs like “2 Minutes to Midnight,” the title track, “Flash of The Blade,” and one of my all-time favorites, “Back in The Village.” Even the instrumental “Losfer Words” is a seminal Maiden piece and shows off their musicianship as a whole. Hell, even the album art is classic and iconic. So much so, that I bought the album only knowing 3 of the 8 songs on it, but believing it was going to bang because of the cover.
Weaknesses: Much like its immediate successor, Powerslave can be a bit long winded. The songs are, for the most part, a bit more concise than the ones found on Somewhere In Time, but the average really gets bogged down by the epic “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” “Mariner” clocks in at almost 14 minutes and can drag in parts. Luckily, it is housed at the end of the record and is entirely skip-worthy if you’re not feeling particularly bold that day. “The Duelists” is also one of the weaker points of the album but even then, it can still go punch-for-punch with most of the other songs on Powerslave.
Fun Fact: At 13:45, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was easily Iron Maiden’s longest song for almost 3 decades, until “Empire of The Clouds,” off of 2015’s The Book of Souls, took its place on the somewhat dubious throne. Its runtime? An ass numbing 18:01! Pack some snacks and a pee bottle if you’re planning on taking on that beast!