Metallica’s ascent (or descent, depending on how you look at it) to the mainstream was gradual—it took nearly a decade before 1991’s The Black Album made it safe for jocks and soccer moms to listen. Before that it was the denim-jacketed burnouts smoking weed out of Jolt Cola cans who were waving the Metallica flag. These days? Who the hell knows who listens to Metallica in 2016? But it’s still a lot of people.
Looking back on the band’s catalog from a distance is interesting. Metallica’s first four records—their 1983 debut Kill ’Em All, Ride the Lightning, 1986’s classic Master of Puppets and …And Justice For All still prove that the band was way ahead of their time and their peers. The once-alienating Black Album doesn’t sound quite so wimpy. The Loads…well, they’re still loads. And even St. Anger and Death Magnetic have their moments.
Metallica will release deluxe editions of Kill ‘Em All and Ride the Lightning in April on vinyl and CD, which include remasters of the seminal records along with scores of live performances and unreleased tunes. So with that in mind, we thought it’d be a good time to re-listening and reassess the Metallica canon. Here are the top 25 Metallica songs—excluding covers and Lulu. In madness we dwell.
The song that alienated Metallica fans by the boatload, and made them curse producer Bob Rock for decades to come. Well, it’s a beautiful thing when decades pass, and an album or song ages better than those criticizing them. “Nothing Else Matters” makes the list firstly because it’s a good song, and secondly because it shows that the band had the ability to do whatever they wanted. James Hetfield wrote a love song…what the hell you gonna do about it?
“Frantic” is the first and only post-Black Album song on this list. It’s often the butt of jokes for the six words, “my lifestyle determines my death-style.” It’s a silly line, but no more goofy than, say, shoehorning the Winkie Chant from Wizard of Oz into “The Frayed Ends of Sanity” (come to think of it, “Frantic” wouldn’t sound out of place on …And Justice For All). It contains Metallica’s most memorable latter-day riff, not to mention a truly unhinged vocal performance from the mighty Hetfield.
This song is the finale to what many fans and metal scholars deem Metallica’s best album. It begins with a spacey, Vangelis-inspired intro from Cliff Burton before the swarm comes. From there, “Damage, Inc.” makes good on its promise of “fuck it all and fucking no regrets.” This is one of the great thrash anthems out there—bettered only by some other thrash anthem by the same band.
This was the longest and most unwieldy song Metallica had done up to this point. It’s complicated, but still thrashy. Lars Ulrich turns in possibly his best, and most intricate, drum performance, and the lyrics are mysteriously profound some 30 years later. Fans can blame Bob Rock for The Black Album, although in reality it was the pure grandiosity of “…And Justice For All” that likely led to it.
Another song that works through James Hetfield’s Christian Science upbringing, “The God that Failed” deals specifically with the death of his mother to cancer, and her refusal to accept treatment due to her strong beliefs. Sonically, the song has many layers, starting with simple drumbeat and Jason Newsted’s rumbling bass line. Hetfield and Hammett’s octave chords soon follow separately, then in epic unison, before getting devoured by a chugging riff. “The God That Failed” is obscured by The Black Album’s many singles. And although that record left a bad taste in many fans’ mouths, this song—and most of the album, for that matter—remains a sleek slab of metal that bands would kill to make.
If you’re a Metallica fan, you miss Cliff Burton every day, not only for his musicality on the bass guitar—which is on full display on this classic instrumental—but mostly for the otherworldly metalness he brought to the band. More than three decades later, Burton’s distorted bass exercise is still a thing of wonder. What was essentially a bass solo tacked on to Metallica’s metal anthem “Whiplash,” has since become a classic unto itself.
This is a metal anthem if there ever was one—onstage or on vinyl. If this doesn’t make you wanna put on a Heavy Metal Tuxedo (black metal tee, denim jacket, bullet belt and white high-tops) and cruise your town looking for trouble…well, you probably outgrew that 30 years ago. Or did you?
This is a stunning piece of prog-infused heavy metal—beautiful, eerie and intense. The late, great Cliff Burton had a heavy hand in this one, and his bass work here is what makes him Cliff-fucking-Burton. Metallica’s other notable instrumentals—“Call of Ktulu” and “To Live Is To Die”—are brilliant in their own right, but never quite reach the celestial heights of “Orion.”
Metallica tries its hand at a…ballad?! On just its second record? And comes out on the other side unscathed? Sort of. Some heshers got their denim jackets in a wad when Ride the Lightning was released in 1984. It wasn’t heavy or fast enough, they said. Well, “Fade to Black” still remains one of Metallica’s heaviest, dealing with topics of depression and suicide—it was all very real within a metal world that was still chummy with Satan and spending too much time playing D&D.
After the classical guitar intro, Metallica blows it to pieces and dispenses with any semblance of melody—only unmerciful pummeling. It’s a classic take on Cold War fear of nuclear annihilation, and one of the band’s heaviest and most relentless.
This may be the starkest and coldest song recalling James Hetfield’s tumultuous childhood. The lyrics are dire, and the resolution never comes. The acoustic-guitar opening—along with the song’s hook—gives “The Unforgiven” an Ennio Morricone tinge. It also boasts Hetfield’s best vocal performance, showcasing his newfound range, as well as a truly cinematic guitar solo from Kirk Hammett. Like The Black Album itself, “The Unforgiven” sounds thoroughly labored over—nary a hair is out of place.
This song is a self-referential speed metal anthem that kicks your ass, kicks your face (exploding feeling nears). If this song doesn’t make you wanna drink Jäger and light shit on fire, then you need to reevaluate your metal life choices.
“Disposable Heroes” is oft overlooked in the Metallica canon because, well, it’s on the same record as songs like “Damage, Inc.” and “Battery.” Yet, it offers a very pointed take on sending young soldiers off to die in order to serve a selfish country’s needs. James Hetfield packs in a lot of lyrics for this one, and they are chillingly bleak. The cry of “I was born for dying!” when the music drops out is both chant-worthy and stark. Clocking in at just over eight minutes, “Disposable Heroes” feels longer, mainly because it fucking never lets up. Orders are barked, guitars and drums go off like No Man’s Land, and no one is left standing.
This is pure teeth-gnashing metal, and 25 years later “Sad But True” is still an absolute behemoth. Metallica doesn’t slow it down too often, but when they do (“The Thing That Should Not Be” or their cover of Holocaust’s “The Small Hours”) it’s just as blistering as the band at their fastest. And even slowed down, James Hetfield’s downpicking is awe-inspiring.
Complete with multiple sections (sure, they’re hamfistedly stacked atop one another, but they absolutely rip), galloping guitars, and loads of death and mayhem, “No Remorese” is a quintessential heavy metal song. The track deals with the horrors of war—but not any specific war, as a full arsenal of cannons, swords and war machines are utilized to fulfill the evil that men do.
Take away the baggage associated with Metallica’s zillion-selling 1991 release and the FM radio overkill that came with it, and you’re left with a killer earworm of a riff. It’s hard to listen to “Enter Sandman” now without associating it with Metallica’s mainstream breakthrough, and the millions of non-metallers it attracted. But this is still heavy metal. And this is still one of their best.
Unlike “Disposable Heroes,” which storms out of the gate, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” unfolds slowly, as Metallica smartly utilizes dynamics for optimum tension (it also shows how far they’d come as composers from Kill ’Em All a year prior). The song is highlighted by Cliff Burton’s bass line, which lurks underneath the surface before the brief, crunching riff comes in. This is a more literary take on war, but it’s just as grim.
This song has found its true life in the live setting, most notably by way of the happy chant of, “Die!” It’s an anthem about an Egyptian plague that feels like it could’ve weaseled its way onto Iron Maiden’s Powerslave.
Yet another mammoth album opener from ’Tallica, this one sets the tone for …And Justice For All’s harsh portrait of American decay. “Blackened” wastes no time annihilating the planet: “Death of Mother Earth; never a rebirth / Evolution’s end; never will it mend,” Hetfield shouts rather prophetically. All of the mayhem is underscored by Lars Ulrich’s rapid-fire double-kick. This song has it all…except for Jason Newsted’s bass.
Metallica slows things down and ends up sounding like the song’s namesake fantastical beast. Rivaled only by “Sad But True” as the band’s doomiest riff, “The Thing That Should Not Be” lurches forth, making good use of Lars Ulrich’s caveman drumming; and the extra space gives more heft to Kirk Hammett’s lead work.
Metallica held out for years before finally making a music video. When they did it was a dark and wonderfully bleak piece of art, splicing together clips from the 1971 cult anti-war film Johnny Got His Gun with footage of the band in full black-and-white headbang mode. Of course, “One” is just as intense musically, instilling a sense of dread early on, and raging forth until the machine-gun breakdown and Kirk Hammett’s breakneck outro lead. The combination probably makes it the most theatrical song in the Metallica canon.
Appearing on the original Metal Massacre compilation in 1982, “Hit the Lights” was the world’s first taste of Metallica. And the band perfectly captured what they were all about on this thrash anthem, with its lightning-fast riff and punk rock sneer. And the battle cry that can be heard to this day: “No life till leather / Gonna kick some ass tonight!” You’re goddamn right we are.
A dark and murderous tale brought to life by a bludgeoning and grooving riff and a particularly menacing bark from James Hetfield. The lyrics are open to interpretation, but it’s clear that there are unpleasant things taking place here. “Harvester of Sorrow” might be one of Metallica’s most evil songs, as Hetfield’s final call sends a chill down your spine: “To see into my eyes, you’ll find where murder lies—infanticide.”
Metallica’s first true epic is a stone-cold classic for many reasons. Originally penned by Dave Mustaine as “The Mechanix”—reportedly about getting it on at a gas station—the song was reworked after the guitarist got the boot, making it the seven-minute apocalyptic hellscape we all love today. Mustaine released a version of “The Mechanix” featuring alternate lyrics (thank Satan) on Megadeth’s Killing Is My Business…and Business Is Good, further proving that this version is the only one that matters.
Metallica’s third record is the obvious bridge between the tight thrash of Ride the Lightning and the ambitious and semi-conceptual …And Justice For All. And the title-track is the epic centerpiece. Stunning in scope, but still brimming with rage, “Master of Puppets” takes a dark journey through addiction as it switches perspectives from the tormentor and the tormented. It also contains Metallica’s best riff, a descending, furiously downpicked lick that slices like a fresh scalpel and makes you wonder if Hetfield might have an iron wrist. The nightmare unfolds from there, and the only reprieve is a proggy middle section and a beautiful dual guitar solo that gives way to the addict pleading, “All I hear or see is laughter, laughing at my cries.” Thirty years on and “Master of Puppets” is still evil. And it still thrills. It’s Metallica’s masterpiece, and one of the best heavy metal songs of all time.