The '90s were a challenging decade for metal. The enormous growth of the genre in the '80s certainly carried over at the start of the decade, with powerhouse classics from the Big 4 of thrash kicking things off at a steady clip. But what followed was the wholesale retreat of metal from the mainstream as alternative rock, grunge and bands like Nirvana challenged for cultural supremacy. Suddenly, the sullen and relatively sloppy Seattle sound was in, metal's virtuosic grandstanding out. But metal never dies, and by the middle of the '90s new mutations were sprouting up; the most visible, a rap-metal hybrid called nü-metal. Here, we turn it up to 11 with our list of the Top 11 Metal Albums of the 1990s:

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    'Roots,' (1996)


    Sepultura have been all over the map, jumping from death metal and thrash metal to nü-metal and industrial with ease. 'Roots' found the Brazilian band experimenting with native rhythms from their homeland and bringing in guests like Korn's Jonathan Davis and Faith No More's Mike Patton to further mix things up. The result is considered one of the their most diverse albums ever, a disc forged in metal traditions but with a determined modernist slant.

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    'Follow the Leader' (1998)


    The second half of the '90s was all about nü-metal, and Korn were the definitive nü-metal band. The genre -- a stylized blend of metal guitars, down-tuned grunge edginess and hip-hop vocals -- first emerged on Korn's self-titled 1994 debut, but it was 'Follow the Leader' that brought it to the mainstream, peaking at No. 1 on Billboard and moving more than 14 million copies along the way. Singles 'Got the Life' and 'Freak on a Leash' were crossover hits and MTV mainstays.

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    'Blind' (1991)

    Corrosion of Conformity

    Corrosion of Conformity became cult heroes in the '80s for combining heavy metal with hard-core punk, then disappeared on an unannounced hiatus that only bolstered their mystique. When they returned with a revamped lineup and 'Blind' several years later, a more mainstream metal sound awaited their minions -- and was met with an ever-expanding audience. The politically charged 'Vote With a Bullet' is the quintet's quintessential cut.

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    'Dirt' (1992)

    Alice in Chains

    In the battle between metal and grunge, Alice in Chains are a rare band that is embraced by fans of both genres. The most metal of the Seattle bands, they were marketed as metal for 1990's 'Facelift,' then touted as grunge for 1992's 'Dirt.' The bandmembers themselves didn't bother much with labels, they just churned out some of the finest alt-metal with classics like 'Would,' 'Rooster' and 'Them Bones' leading their charge all the way to the headlining spot on Lollapalooza '95.

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    'Persistence of Time' (1990)


    Anthrax's playful side was put to sleep on 'Persistence,' a relentlessly lean and disturbing examination of societal ills like sexual abuse and racism that comes to a rather hippie-ish conclusion: give peace a chance. It's also the last album to feature Joey Belladonna on vocals until this year's 'Worship Music,' and he makes the best of it, firing away with an energy not heard since 'Spreading the Disease.'

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    'Painkiller' (1990)

    Judas Priest

    The gold-certified 'Painkiller' found Priest at a crossroads: it was the first album with current drummer Scott Travis, and the last with Rob Halford before he jumped ship to create Fight. It's also one of the all-time greatest comebacks in metal. After years of treading water, Priest hired veteran producer Chris Tsangarides and returned with a ferocious, dark and disturbing effort highlighted by the brutal guitar assault of Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing.

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    'Aenima' (1996)


    It's hard to categorize Tool, a group that arrived with the alternative gold rush of the mid-'90s, yet didn't subscribe to the genre's major tenants. Led by enigmatic frontman Maynard James Keenan, Tool play more of a relentless prog-metal groove -- the groove part being their tendency to drag out songs into sweeping passages of sonic exploration. But 'Aenima' is about more than jamming, no matter how many comparisons to King Crimson it gets.

  • Ethan Miller, Getty Images
    Ethan Miller, Getty Images

    'Rust in Peace' (1990)


    Metallica clearly won the Big 4 thrash war, but Megadeth emerged from the battle as a top contender, and 'Rust in Peace' shows why: the band's immense technical talent shines through, with rhythmic precision and six-string virtuosity augmented by some of the band's strongest songwriting to date. The addition of lead guitarist Marty Friedman and drummer Nick Menza certainly doesn't hurt. For a taste, check out the Eastern-tinged 'Hangar 18,' a clear album – and career – highlight.

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    'Metallica' (1991)


    This mega-selling album also marked the end of an era, as it hit stores just one month before Nirvana's 'Nevermind' signaled the arrival of the alternative nation. The Black Album found Metallica distilling their sprawling, epic metal machinations into radio-ready nuggets, and the massive success of singles like 'Enter Sandman,' 'Sad but True' and 'The Unforgiven' made Metallica international superstars -- much to the chagrin of hard-core metalheads everywhere.

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    'Seasons in the Abyss' (1990)


    Slayer took a detour into down-tempo metal territory on 1988's 'South of Heaven,' but returned with a vengeance on 1990's 'Seasons in the Abyss.' But this album isn't just about bringing back the full-tilt jackhammer thrash; it also offers a crisper, cleaner side of Slayer, with 'War Ensemble' and the title track leading the way among a bevy of metal masterpieces.

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    'Vulgar Display of Power' (1992)


    Now here's an album that truly lives up to its name. Brutal, raw, intense, terrifying, hostile -- we could go on and on. There's even a song called 'F---ing Hostile,' that's how badass this disc is. Considered one of the defining albums of the groove-metal genre, 'Vulgar Display of Power' is also a defining moment for Pantera itself, thanks in no small part to the unrelenting fretwork of the late, great Dimebag Darrell.