It’s somewhat foolish to even re-hash the enormous influence of Black Sabbath on heavy music and music in general. The readers of Monster Riff know Sabbath’s towering influence all too well. It’s not breaking news that Sabbath is an influence for almost all Stoner and Doom bands, and to suggest this would be, well, good satire.
When Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut came out on Friday, the 13th of February, 1970, heavy metal music was officially unleashed from the depths of hell. The track “Black Sabbath” off the record ominously trudged in with the sound of rain, tolling church bells, and one of the greatest riffs ever.
Sabbath took the Blues Rock sound of bands like Cream and Vanilla Fudge and added a devious twist, slowing the tempo, emphasizing the bass, and injecting howling lyrics full of mental anguish and dark undertones. The boys from bombed-out Birmingham, England, were initially despised by rock critics, but it may have only been because the world was so unprepared for so revolutionary a sound.
The rest, they say, is history. Black Sabbath has since sold more than 70 million records worldwide and influenced countless musicians. Sabbath’s early records from the Seventies remain it’s most popular. But plenty of new generations of fans have devoured them and, possibly, picked up a guitar and emulated them. Formed in 1968, the original members of Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Bill Ward, and Geezer Butler are now all in their 70s.
About the List
Of all of Sabbath’s classic tracks, which are the most popular today? We set out at Monster Riff to discover this. The popularity of Sabbath’s songs could be measured in many ways: by record sales, reader polls like this one by Rolling Stone, or other methods.
For this article, we decided to focus on the songs’ popularity by a particular metric on Spotify, which is, as you surely know, a popular music streaming service. The metric is a “popularity score” based on an algorithm that the music geeks at Spotify like to use. It is measured as a value between 0 and 100, with 100 being the most popular.
The score is based mainly on how many times the song has been played and also on how recent the plays are. Black Sabbath tracks being played more recently in greater sums have a higher score than songs played more in the past.
When I gathered the list of data and sorted it, I was surprised by the results, especially the number-one most popular Sabbath track. We should note here that this isn’t a list of the best Sabbath songs, which is a subjective view. This simply indicates which songs are most popular on a specific streaming service (Spotify).
The data was pulled from Spotify and shared on a site called Kaggle, a machine learning and data science online community. The user who pulled the data last updated it six months ago. So, listed below are the most popular Black Sabbath songs on Spotify as of six months ago.
One more thing to note. The popularity score metric is relative to the popularity of all the millions of songs on Spotify. The reason this list only includes seven Black Sabbath songs is that these were the only ones included in the data set.
Sure, Black Sabbath is a super-popular band, especially among us of the heavy underground. But compared to candy-pop stars of today like Taylor Swift, Sabbath’s Spotify numbers pale in comparison.
For example, the most popular song on Spotify today, according to this metric, is “Unholy” by Sam Smith, featuring Kim Petras. “Unholy” was the only song with a perfect 100 popularity score. The others at the very top are by artists like Bad Bunny, Chris Brown, and Harry Styles. Bad Bunny’s song “Me Porto Bonito” had a score of 97, and Harry Style’s song “As It Was” had a score of 95.
But who among us in the heavy underground gives a shit about artists like that anyway? (No offense, Bad Bunny). So, read on to see the most popular Black Sabbath tracks, and let the debate begin!
Black Sabbath’s Most Popular Songs
7. “Children of the Grave”
Album: Master of Reality (1971)
Number of Spotify Listens: 116,950,107
Popularity Score: 29
In his autobiography, Ozzy called “Children of the Grave” the band’s “most kick-ass” track from its early era. I certainly agree with him. It’s maybe my favorite all-time Sabbath song, one that continues the anti-war lyrical themes of “War Pigs” and “Electric Funeral.” Off the classic Master of Reality album, “Children of the Grave” bursts with energy and exuberance, took Sabbath’s sound to a new level, and arguably laid the foundations for Thrash Metal.
Geezer’s cautiously optimistic lyrics about hope for a better future are somewhat defied by the ominous tone of the music. Ozzy howls, “Must the world live in the shadow of atomic fear?/Can they win the fight for peace, or will they disappear?”
This song from 1971 grapples with questions still with us today.
Album: Black Sabbath (1970)
Number of Spotify Listens: 7,835,410
Popularity Score: 30
“N.I.B.” is the only song on this list from Sabbath’s classic debut album. Musically, “N.I.B.” is perhaps best known for Geezer Butler’s fuzzed-out bass riff and an epic Iommi solo. This song saw Sabbath most in touch with their heavy Blues-based Rock roots. They developed the song during their early residence at the Star Club in Hamburg, and it’s become a classic.
Lyrically, the song has been the subject of tons of intrigue over the years. Geezer wrote it as a tongue-in-cheek satanic love song and initially named it Nib. Nib was a nickname the guys had for Bill Ward’s pointy beard. Geezer added the punctuation marks to make the title look more intriguing.
Well, it worked! Many have theorized, especially in America, that “N.I.B.” refers to a Nativity in Black or Name in Blood. Geezer said in the early ‘90s that this is pure speculation, but it was too late to refute the claims by then. Nativity in Black is a disputed title for “N.I.B.,” but it was used as the album title of two Black Sabbath tribute albums released in 1994 and 2000.
5. “Heaven and Hell”
Album: Heaven and Hell (1980)
Number of Spotify Listens: 103,341,833
Popularity Score: 32
“Heaven and Hell” is the only Sabbath song on this list that is minus Ozzy, but there’s a good reason for that. It’s a well-loved song among critics and fans alike. Sabbath’s first record with Ronnie James Dio featured this title track described as epic and majestic, featuring Dio’s incredible voice and a dazzling Iommi solo.
Unlike some other Sabbath songs, “Heaven and Hell” could even be described as uplifting. Dio has often said it’s his favorite-ever recording. He wrote the lyrics and said in one interview that the song is about the ability of everyone to choose between doing good and doing evil. We all have “heaven and hell” inside of us, Dio suggests in the song, and that’s the damn truth.
4. “War Pigs”
Album: Paranoid (1970)
Number of Spotify Listens: 235,168,101
Popularity Score: 33
It should be no surprise that “War Pigs” remains one of the most popular songs in Black Sabbath’s catalog. It is probably their most overtly political song, but it didn’t start that way. “War Pigs” was initially conceived as an openly Satanic song called “Walpurgis” that dealt with the witches’ sabbath.
The label execs hated the Walpurgis idea, so the band shifted gears and devised the anti-war protest masterpiece. The song was written at the height of the Vietnam War, and Geezer Butler unleashed his fury about the war and the draft in the masterful lyrics.
Geezer has said that “War Pigs” is “totally against the Vietnam War” and about how rich folks start wars for their benefit and “get all the poor people to die for them.” For his part, Ozzy claims the group knew nothing about Vietnam and that the song is just anti-war, plain and simple.
Either way, it’s a classic track that endures today and speaks with just as much urgency as the war in Ukraine rages on. As Ozzy sings, “Day of Judgment, God is calling/On their knees, the War Pigs crawling/Begging masses for their sins/Satan laughing, spreads his wings.”
3. “Iron Man”
Album: Paranoid (1970)
Number of Spotify Listens: 387,284,771
Popularity Score: 37
“Iron Man” is Heavy Metal perfection. We may take it for granted, given how many times we’ve heard this song through the years.
Iommi’s main guitar riff is perhaps the most important riff in Heavy Metal history. When Ozzy first heard it during rehearsal, he said it sounded like a “big iron bloke walking about.” “Iron Bloke” was the placeholder title for the track for a short time until Geezer developed the lyrics and evolved it into “Iron Man.”
How Ozzy’s distorted vocals at the beginning that say “I am Iron Man” were created has been the subject of debate. Some speculate Ozzy sang them through an oscillating metal fan. It’s more likely his voice was run through a ring modulator that creates a wobbly electronic effect. It’s the same device used to create the voices of the Daleks on Doctor Who. It’s also something that Iommi apparently used on his guitar solo in “Paranoid.”
Album: Paranoid (1970)
Number of Spotify Listens: 760,496,177
Popularity Score: 42
“Paranoid” remains one of Sabbath’s most popular songs, so you may be surprised by its backstory. “Paranoid” was somewhat of an afterthought in the recording of their second LP, which they initially wanted to name War Pigs. Producer Rodger Brian told them the album could use an additional song, so Iommi quickly composed the riff when the band broke for lunch.
Geezer loved the riff and wrote some simple, abstract lyrics about mental suffering and anguish. The band didn’t think much of the song, but the record label insisted it become the lead single and album title. The label was right, as “Paranoid” quickly became popular, hitting number 4 on the U.K. Singles Charts and peaking at number 61 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.
The song was such an afterthought that Ozzy was reading the lyrics as he sang on the original recording. The gloominess of the lyrics is well-known and is a good portrait of mental illness, but they drew controversy. Some perceived the song as encouraging suicide, mishearing the verse “I tell you to enjoy life” as “I tell you to end your life.”
1. “God is Dead?”
Album: 13 (2013)
Number of Spotify Listens: 30,201,534
Popularity Score: 58
Now, this is a bit of a shocker for me, but maybe it shouldn’t be. “God Is Dead?” was a single and perhaps the best-loved song off 13, released in 2013, which was Black Sabbath’s first studio album in 18 years at that time. It was also the band’s first studio LP with Ozzy and Geezer Butler since the live album Reunion (1998) that had two new tracks.
While “God is Dead?” doesn’t have as many Spotify plays as other beloved Sabbath songs, it is probably being played more recently by older fans of the band and new generations alike.
It’s a long song that is over eight minutes and is a reference to German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche, who is famous for pronouncing “God is dead” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The song is actually Sabbath’s second-longest song ever, behind only “Megalomania” from the 1975 album Sabotage.
This is not Sabbath’s greatest song ever, but it’s proven to be immensely popular. The song, along with the record, was produced by Rick Rubin, and it won the Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance in 2014. It was also featured in the sixth season of Sons of Anarchy, the FX TV show, so it probably got tons of plays, attention, and juice because of that, too.
So, there you have it: the most popular Black Sabbath songs on Spotify, by one metric, at least. Are these the greatest Sabbath songs of all time? Maybe, maybe not. But these are the ones that have proven the most popular, especially accounting for Spotify plays in recent years.
I was surprised that the title track of their debut album didn’t make the cut. The song “Black Sabbath” is, in my opinion, their best song, and it signals the birth of heavy metal music to many. Another song that didn’t make the list is “Sweet Leaf,” the ode to Mary Jane, which could be the first Stoner Rock song.
And as a big fan of Psychedelic Rock, I’d be remiss not to mention “Planet Caravan” and “Electric Funeral.” Both these songs fused psychedelia into the Sabbath sound. And “Electric Funeral” could be the first Psychedelic Doom song ever written, influencing countless bands to come. But “Planet Caravan” and “Electric Funeral” are more likely Sabbath deep cuts loved by die-hard fans and not necessarily casual fans looking for the standards like “Iron Man.”
Let the debate begin! Were you surprised by the list? Do any songs deserve to be on here? Let us know in the comments, and thanks for reading.