Every Metallica Song, Ranked
Stacking up 151 tracks from across the multiple eras of the metal greats' tumultuous history
It’s difficult to believe, but we’re now farther removed from the release of Metallica’s psychotherapy-bred St. Anger in 2003 than that LP was from the world-conquering Black Album in 1991. Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the international side-eye that greeted Load in 1996; just last weekend, we passed the 15-year mark on Napster shutting down, largely as a result of drummer Lars Ulrich’s heel turn against his file-sharing fans. This is all to say: There are kids starting college this fall that have never lived in a world in which Metallica wasn’t at least a little bit a punch line, a sad state of affairs for the once-unassailable metal lords.
It’s worth taking the time to remember the original run that established Metallica as one of the greatest, most important American bands in all of rock history, and also to look back at their more controversial last 20 years of music, hopefully with less bleary eyes than the first time around. Hence, we have ranked all 151 songs in Metallica’s back catalog — official releases only, with only the most famous version of each song included — to parse which of their post-imperial hits can actually stand up next to their accepted classics in the year 2015. Back to the front, let’s ride the lightning.
151. “The Unforgiven II” (Reload, 1997)
150. “Cure” (Load, 1996)
149. “You Really Got Me” (w/ Ray Davies) (See My Friends tribute album, 2011)
148. “We Did It Again” (w/ Ja Rule & Swizz Beatz) (Swizz Beatz Presents G.H.E.T.T.O. Stories, 2002)
147. “Dragon” (w/ Lou Reed) (Lulu, 2011)
146. “Just a Bullet Away” (Beyond Magnetic, 2011)
145. “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” (“St. Anger” B-side, 2003)
144. “Wasting My Hate” (Load, 1996)
143. “Cretin Hop” (“St. Anger” B-side, 2003)
142. “Prince Charming” (Reload, 1997)
141. “Little Dog” (w/ Lou Reed) (Lulu, 2011)
We kick off with a couple of the band’s dullest jams from their dullest period, including the lifeless “Unforgiven II” (No. 151), the Speed 2: Cruise Control of metal sequels. We also have two of the band’s least-forgiving Lou Reed collabs (“Dragon,” 147, and “Little Dog,” 141), and the two least-memorable covers from Metallica’s strange Ramones cover EP (“Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue,” 145, and “Cretin Hop,” 143). And yes, that collaboration with Ja Rule and Swizz Beatz (“We Did It Again,” 148) is a real thing, though Metallica didn’t actually record with Ja so much as let him bark over some of their unused riffs — making for arguably a stranger experiment than anything found on Lulu.
140. “We’re a Happy Family” (“St. Anger” B-side, 2003)
139. “Poor Twisted Me” (Load, 1996)
138. “Attitude” (Reload, 1997)
137. “Pumping Blood” (w/ Lou Reed) (Lulu, 2011)
136. “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World” (“St. Anger,” 2003)
135. “The Ecstasy of Gold” (We All Love Ennio Morricone tribute album, 2007)
134. “- Human” (S&M, 1999)
133. “Hell and Back” (Beyond Magnetic, 2011)
132. “Bad Seed” (Reload, 1997)
131. “Cheat on Me” (w/ Lou Reed) (Lulu, 2011)
More Lulu, Reload, and Ramones, as well as the band’s cute-but-inessential cover of the climactic The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly theme “The Ecstasy of Gold” (135), which has also been the intro music for the band’s concerts since ’83. There’s also the first appearance of the smothering S&M live album (“Human,” 134), in which the San Francisco Symphony hopefully at least convinced some metal-fearing parents that Metallica knew too much about classical music to actually be satanists (or whatever).
130. “Too Late Too Late” (“Hero of the Day” B-side, 1996)
129. “Carpe Diem Baby” (Reload, 1997)
128. “Sweet Amber” (St. Anger, 2003)
127. “Rebel of Babylon” (Beyond Magnetic, 2011)
126. “Thorn Within” (Load, 1996)
125. “Damage Case” (“Hero of the Day” B-side, 1996)
124. “The House Jack Built” (Load, 1996)
123. “53rd and 3rd” (“St. Anger” B-side, 2003)
122. “Fixxxer” (Reload, 1997)
121. “Frustration” (w/ Lou Reed) (Lulu, 2011)
The first appearance of St. Anger, courtesy of the confusing and unsatisfying “Sweet Amber” (128), and two of the band’s more aonymous Motörhead covers from the “Hero of the Day” single (“Too Late Too Late,” 130, and “Damage Case,” 125). The two “Reload” entries here (“Carpe Diem Baby,” 129, and “Fixxxer,” 122) are also notable for being arguably the two worst titles in Metallica history, but at least “Fixxxer” has a pretty cool intro.
120. “Ronnie Rising Medley” (Ronnie James Dio – This Is Your Life Tribute Album, 2014)
119. “2 X 4″ (Load, 1996)
118. “Purify” (St. Anger, 2003)
117. “My World” (St. Anger, 2003)
116. “Ronnie” (Load, 1996)
115. “Where the Wild Things Are” (Reload, 1997)
114. “Commando” (“St. Anger” B-side, 2003)
113. “Brandenburg Gate” (w/ Lou Reed) (Lulu, 2011)
112. “Hate Train” (Beyond Magnetic, 2011)
111. “Bleeding Me” (Load, 1996)
Arguably the first sign that something was seriously wrong with post-Black Album Metallica came in the form of the empty strut of Load two-hole batter “2 X 4″ (119), while other late-’90s Metallica cuts “Where the Wild Things Are” (115) and “Bleeding Me” (111) were interesting enough in their ethereal production to help make up for their total lack of actual momentum. “Hate Train” (112) might also rank among the worst Metallica song titles, though it’s also at least 20 percent brilliant.
110. “Mistress Dread” (w/ Lou Reed) (Lulu, 2011)
109. “Sabbra Cadabra” (Garage Inc., 1998)
108. “Mama Said” (Load, 1996)
107. “No Leaf Clover” (S&M, 1999)
106. “Astronomy” (Garage Inc., 1998)
105. “Lords of Summer” (Internet-only release, 2014)
104. “The Outlaw Torn” (Load, 1996)
103. “The Struggle Within” (Metallica (The Black Album), 1991)
102. “King Nothing” (Load, 1996)
101. “Low Man’s Lyric” (Reload, 1997)
A handful of the band’s worst singles, including the worth-a-shot southern-fried balladry of “Mama Said” (108), the empty bombast of “No Leaf Clover” (107), and the fun-but-corny “Enter Sandman” rewrite “King Nothing” (102). There’s also the one song on The Black Album that had no chance of becoming a hit, the unnecessary capper “The Struggle Within” (103). Don’t forget about “Lords of Summer” (104), though, a pretty solid demo released by the band to little fanfare last year.
100. “I Disappear” (Mission: Impossible 2, 2000)
99. “The End of the Line” (Death Magnetic, 2008)
98. “Stone Dead Forever” (“Hero of the Day” B-side, 1996)
97. “Suicide and Redemption” (Death Magnetic, 2008)
96. “Dirty Window” (St. Anger, 2003)
95. “My Friend of Misery” (Metallica (The Black Album), 1991)
94. “The Prince” (“Harvester of Sorrow” B-side, 1988)
93. “Crash Course in Brain Surgery” (The $5.98 EP: Garage Days Re-Revisited, 1987)
92. “Slither” (Reload, 1997)
91. “It’s Electric” (Garage Inc., 1998)
The hollow bluster of “I Disappear” (100) and its accompanying, Mission: Impossible 2-promoting video was an understandable breaking point for a lot of old-school fans with an increasingly unrecognizable Metallica — even if the single was significantly more fun than most of the two albums that preceded it. Death Magnetic’s heaviness runs the continuum from righteous to burdensome, with “The End of the Line” (99) and “Suicide and Redemption” (97) falling closer to the latter end. And no, “It’s Electric” (91) isn’t a cover of the Bar Mitzvah classic you’re thinking of, though how much fun would that slice of blasphemy have been?
90. “The More I See” (Garage Inc., 1998)
89. “Helpless” (The $5.98 EP: Garage Days Re-Revisited, 1987)
88. “The Unnamed Feeling” (St. Anger, 2003)
87. “The Memory Remains” (Reload, 1997)
86. “When a Blind Man Cries” (Re-Machined Tribute Album, 2012)
85. “Breadfan” (“Harvester of Sorrow” B-side, 1988)
84. “The Unforgiven III” (Death Magnetic, 2008)
83. “The Small Hours” (The $5.98 EP: Garage Days Re-Revisited, 1987)
82. “Better Than You” (Reload, 1997)
81. “Invisible Kid” (St. Anger, 2003)
“The Memory Remains” (87) is best-remembered for its spinning-room video, its inexplicable (if kinda cool) Marianne Faithful cameo, and how much fun it is to imitate frontman James Hetfield’s guttural delivery of the title phrase. Meanwhile, the band’s Deep Purple cover (“When a Blind Man Cries,” 86) is their only tribute-album contribution that’s worth investigating separately, and “The Unforgiven III” (84) is significantly more engaging than its predecessor. (The Die Hard: With a Vengeance of metal sequels? Nah, that’s a little too generous.)
80. “Mercyful Fate” (Garage Inc, 1998)
Even Metallica’s most progressive moments were never exactly theatrical, and while Hetfield knows he can’t ham it up like King Diamond, his delivery ain’t quite the fit for these songs. Serves little purpose other than to say, “Hey, we drank a ton of cheap beer as kids listening to this band. You should too,” but that’s a noble cause in and of itself. Don’t break the oath, yada yada. — ANDY O’CONNOR
79. “Overkill” (“Hero of the Day” B-side, 1996)
Likely Metallica’s best of its several Motörhead covers, never quite as unhinged as the Road Crew original, but adrenalizing in its ceaseless double-kick and charming in its general roughness — Hetfield even forgets the words in the second verse. Feels genuine. — A.U.
78. “Turn the Page” (Garage Inc., 1998)
One of several new covers recorded for the Garage Inc. compilation in 1998, this faithful interpretation of the Bob Seger classic seemed a strange choice at the time, but it falls right into Hetfield’s wheelhouse, its tale of life on the road a close relative of Metallica’s own classic “Wherever I May Roam.” — ADRIEN BEGRAND
77. “All Within My Hands” (St. Anger, 2003)
One of the more intriguingly atmospheric tracks on Metallica’s most arid LP in 15 years, Ulrich’s metallic thud and guitarist Kirk Hammett’s sandstorm guitar haze placing the track halfway between Sepultura and Disturbed. Messy as hell — especially once Hetfield starts shrieking “KILL KILL KILL KILL!!” on the outro — but it gets under your skin just the same. — A.U.
76. “Trapped Under Ice” (Ride the Lightning, 1984)
Simple enough; a song called “Trapped Under Ice” about being trapped under ice. Hetfield’s younger howl had some panic to it and the momentum has a palpable sense of fear, albeit in a B-movie fashion they never quite outgrew. And in their thrash years the pace was anything but, uh, glacial. — DAN WEISS
75. “The Judas Kiss” (Death Magnetic, 2009)
Not a ton to speak of in the verses or chorus, but the full-band breaks are prime Metallica: squalling, 100 proof, and thoroughly unpredictable. — A.U.
74. “Killing Time” (“The Unforgiven” B-side, 1991)
One of the group’s most no-frills covers — a rip-roaring take on NWOBH stalwarts Sweet Savage’s wartime anthem — released at the outset of their frilliest period of music-making. Wouldn’t have fit on the Black Album in the slightest, but a highly worthy outtake. — A.U.
73. “Phantom Lord” (Kill ‘Em All, 1983)
Written primarily by original guitarist (and eventual Megadeth frontman) Dave Mustaine – you can tell by its herky-jerky riffs and hooks — “Phantom Lord” is the requisite “Satan” song on the band’s debut, but the way it shifts into a metal section then builds spectacularly towards its speed-metal climax is a harbinger of even further innovation to come. — A.B.
72. “The Wait” (The $5.98 EP: Garage Days Re-Revisited, 1987)
Much like they did with the Misfits and Samhain, Metallica helped introduce Jaz Coleman’s apocalyptic raving to new listeners with this heavy yet faithful cover of a song on Killing Joke’s classic 1980 debut. — JUSTIN M. NORTON
71. “That Was Just Your Life” (Death Magnetic, 2008)
Metallica rarely f—ks around with their album-opening intros, and the slow build to “Your Life” is one of the band’s best: An unusually gauzy guitar figure gradually gaining steam over a pulsing heartbeat, before kicking in with full martial crunch and then righteously double-timing. Not a ton else to reveal in the song’s final five minutes, but the important job is done. — A.U.
70. “Through the Never” (Metallica (The Black Album), 1991)
James Hetfield promises here that all that “ever, ever was” is “twisting and turning” — that’s everything except his guitar work on the track in question, a streamlined assemblage that’d go on to inform a lot of late-period Metallica riffery. As ever though, bombed-out Hammett soloing goes a long way to break down those simple building blocks into brilliant rubble. — COLIN JOYCE
69. “No Remorse” (Kill ‘em All, 1983)
One of the best bread-and-butter metal songs on their debut, “Remorse” memorably equates taking lives with taking out the laundry (“Another day / Another breath / Another sorrow / Another death”). — J.M.N
68. “Escape” (Ride the Lightning, 1984)
Much has been made over the years about how Hetfield can’t stand this Ride the Lightning deep cut, but it’s actually a smart little track, in which the frontman continues to tinker with vocal melodies. While other young thrash acts in the early ‘80s opted for atonal vocals, Hetfield found an accessible middle ground, which would play a huge role in breaking the band that decade. — A.B.
67. “Free Speech for the Dumb” (Garage Inc, 1998)
Discharge had a knack for brute poetry, simple lines that spoke broadly about injustice and whose severity only increased when repeated. Metallica’s version doesn’t reflect that — it’s fun to hear Hetfield hurl “FREE SPEECH! FREE SPEECH! FOR THE DUMB!” over and over, atop jagged industrial guitars — but the original’s mantra-like quality gets a little lost in the silliness. — A.O.
66. “Shoot Me Again” (St. Anger, 2003)
Tom Morello’s guitar scrapes and Alice in Chains vocal harmonies help fortify one of Metallica’s harshest statements of resilience. “Shoot me again, I ain’t dead yet,” Hetfield challenges, more defiant for knowing full well that after the uncompromising St. Anger, plenty of fans would take him up on the offer. — A.U.
65. “Stone Cold Crazy” (Garage Inc., 1998)
Took a Metallica cover for us to realize the Queen original is a proto-thrash classic. Also, unlikely anyone actually used “proto-thrash” before this rendition. — A.O.
64. “Broken, Beat & Scarred” (Death Magnetic, 2008)
“SHOW! YOUR! SCARS!” A rare moment of Black Album-worthy fist-pumpingness from an album generally more focused on recapturing the band’s mid-’80s prime, one successful enough to make the forced phrasing of the “What don’t kill ya make ya more strong” refrain forgivable. —A.U.
63. “Iced Honey” (w/ Lou Reed) (Lulu, 2011)
Your boy LouLou does his best to make a case for the confounding collab, with the closest thing the record has to a “Sweet Jane” — though it’s not quite as smooth or refreshing as the title suggests. — C.J.
62. “Loverman” (Garage Inc., 1998)
Among the more interesting Garage Inc. cover choices, it’s to the credit of Metallica’s undersold versatility as re-interpreters that the slither of Nick Cave’s original doesn’t elude them here. James Hetfield declaring himself anyone’s “loverman” will always be a tad jarring, but his grasp of the “‘R’ is for ‘Rape me,’ ‘M’ is for ‘Murder me'” count-off section is predictably superior. — A.U.
61. “Motorbreath” (Kill ‘Em All, 1983)
Perhaps the purest race to the finish lane on the band’s first album, most memorable for the way Hetfield’s Maiden-like verse cadence, and the way he stretches “MO-TUH-BUR-RRRRRETH!!” to four syllables on the chorus. — A.U.
60. “Whiskey in the Jar” (Garage Inc., 1998)
Even at their most communal, Metallica made songs that were better for brawling than for drinking. So it makes sense that this rendition of a traditional Irish song — made famous by the legendarily boozy Thin Lizzy — resides firmly in their middle tier of covers. It does, however, raise the tantalizing possibility that they could, if they wanted to, be America’s heaviest pop band. —C.J.
59. “The God That Failed” (Metallica (The Black Album), 1991)
Not Hetfield’s most brutal take on his childhood — that’s coming later — but there’s plenty of bitter disappointment in his lyrics about his mother’s Christian Science beliefs aiding her cancer. A more personal, pained shout at God than your usual free-flowing blasphemy. Still, feels somewhat awkward now with Hetfield’s “Faith” in Ford script tattoo. — A.O.
58. “Die, Die My Darling” (Garage Inc., 1998)
Metallica were as great at covering the Misfits as they were atrocious with the Ramones. Maybe it was because Glenn Danzig had a rockabilly sneer to his cadence; Joey Ramone’s effete intonations were all innocence, even when he sniffed glue and beat up on brats. Hetfield’s up to the task of murdering Danzig’s darlings, and we will in fact be seeing him… in helllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll. — D.W.
57. “Ain’t My Bitch” (Load, 1996)
With bona fide slide guitar at the end and an excuse to say “bitch” as superfluous as Prodigy’s, it was clear from the five-years-in-waiting Load’s very start that Metallica was ready to embrace their mainstream success via spring-loaded blues-rock catapults like this one. If it was a little more tongue-in-cheek, we could call it Aerosmith. — D.W.
56. “Some Kind of Monster” (St. Anger, 2003)
Best known as the title of their therapy-heavy documentary, this song’s tin-can snare and general looseness is the perfect snapshot of a band on the verge of disintegration. But why is Hetfield crooning, “We the people?”— JMN
55. “My Apocalypse” (Death Magnetic, 2008)
Metallica’s best non-stop shredder of the 21st century, as close as they’ve come post-Master to another “Damage, Inc.” It’s a little too burdened with the weight of history to fly as free and loose as that classic track, but if you don’t get chills when Kirk’s solo audibly zooms in at the end of the second verse, you might be listening to the wrong band. — A.U.
54. “Of Wolf and Man” (Metallica (The Black Album), 1991)
Even in metal, it’s pretty impossible to write a totally straight-faced song about turning into a werewolf, so may as well just commit to it as the band does here — complete with howling chorus (“SHAPE-SHIIIIIIIFT!”), Vincent Price-like spoken-word breakdown, and a Beowulf-worthy full-band strut all throughout. A decade too late to soundtrack such transformations from either Griffin Dunne or Michael J. Fox, sadly. — A.U.
53. “Dyers Eve” (…And Justice for All, 1987)
…And Justice For All has Metallica’s highest vitriol-per-riff concentration, and the band never sounded so straight-up pissed as they did on its final track. Most of the anger spurned by Cliff Burton’s death manifested into political commentary, but Hetfield saves his nastiest salvo for his parents, complete with a rare double bass workout from Ulrich. You could make the case that this song paved the way for nu-metal’s focus on parental woes, but none of those bands quite understood how desperation for approval lingers like “Eve” did. — A.O.
52. “Blitzkrieg” (“Creeping Death” B-side, 1984)
The wallflower sister of the titanic “Am I Evil?” cover, this other Garage Days-style nugget on the “Creeping Death” single is a spirited run-through of the eponymous tune by the classic NWOBH group. Another astute selection by a band that was always devoted to paying tribute to obscure heroes. — A.B.
51. “Devil’s Dance” (Reload, 1997)
One of the few Metallica songs that could theoretically be played back-to-back with Mötley Crüe and Poison in L.A. strip clubs, “Dance” is allowed a low-and-lazy sashay that Metallica is generally too frenetic and punishing to make plausible. The riffs are massive enough and Hetfield’s demonic grin is big enough that it doesn’t feel like the band playing dress-up, rather just acknowledging that they need slow jams in hell, too. — A.U.
50. “Junior Dad” (Lulu, 2011)
As much a failed experiment as Lulu may have been, and even its detractors would have to acknowledge the album’s most redemptive moment: its 18-minute closing track. Here the partnership between Lou Reed and Metallica actually works, Reed’s composition — one of the last great songs he would write — gelling well with the band’s understated accompaniment. Dissolving into waves of drones, it displays a level of sweetness and soul that most fans aren’t willing to admit. — A.B.
49. “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth” (Kill ‘Em All, 1983)
The late bassist Cliff Burton finally got the spotlight and made a case for both bass solos and trapeze acts. His woozy work here lurches and leans with both the whimsy and peril of a unicycle on a highwire, and he does most of it without the benefit of a safety net. — C.J.
48. “The Frayed Ends of Sanity” (…And Justice for All, 1988)
…And Justice wasn’t necessarily an album with the biggest Metallica riffs, but they definitely got one for the canon here, a chugging monster that remains more unforgettable in its head-smacking obviousness than much of the album’s degree-of-difficulty pyrotechnics. What was with all the late-’80s songs that borrowed from “March of the Winkies,” though? — A.U.
47. “Leper Messiah” (Master of Puppets, 1986)
Master of Puppets is packed with references to forces pulling the strings and corrupt powers; this track — which equates evangelicalism with disease — is Metallica’s most forceful criticism ever of religion. — J.M.N.
46. “Frantic” (St. Anger, 2003)
Most of us secretly wish we came up with “My lifestyle determines my deathstyle” before the band did — a far cry from their ’80s work, but inarguably the last truly unforgettable Metallica lyric. Also, one of the few songs on St. Anger that doesn’t feel like it’s about a third too long. — A.O.
45. “Metal Militia” (Kill ‘Em All, 1983)
Well, here’s the one that inspired a bike gang. Despite what you might expect from the ragged guitar work, it’s not the violent kind, but a motocross team that cribbed and bastardized the title. It’s easy to see how the groggy head-spinning drive would’ve done so — its queasy riffs provide a brain-rattling experience that’s similar to doing a bunch of backflips and opening up the throttle afterward. — C.J.
44. “Harvester of Sorrow” (…And Justice for All, 1988)
On one hell of a dreary album, “Harvester of Sorrow” is by far its bleakest moment — hard to trump infanticide on those grounds. Featuring a wickedly heavy riff, so heavy that there’s enough of a low-end tone in the guitars to excuse Burton replacement Jason Newsted’s nonexistent bass sound, the song lumbers and lurches forebodingly, madness taking hold of Hetfield’s protagonist. — A.B.
43. “Tuesday’s Gone” (Garage Inc., 1998)
Perhaps one of the most unexpected entries on the Garage Inc. cover compilation, Metallica’s all-star rendition of “Tuesday’s Gone” is actually pretty faithful to the Lynyrd Skynyrd original, from Alice in Chains’ Jerry Cantrell and Faith No More’s Jim Martin’s muted acoustic picking to Hetfield’s earnest harmonizing with guest vocalist Pepper Keenan of Corrosion of Conformity. With Blues Traveler’s John Popper on harmonica, Primus’ Les Claypool on banjo, and original Skynyrd guitarist Gary Rossington chiming in, the end result is a surreal but endearing audio portrait of a group of peers tinkering around with a beloved old chestnut. It showed a softer side of Metallica, too — one we’d all become quite familiar with over the next few years. — KIM KELLY
42. “Holier Than Thou” (Metallica (The Black Album), 1991)
One of Metallica’s most righteous takedowns — against the self-righteous preaching of others, natch. Imagine that it’s being shouted at one of the other biggest pre-Nirvana rock bands of 1991, and it jumps about 20 spots higher on this list. — A.U.
41. “So What” (“Sad But True” B-side, 1991)
The B-side to the “Sad But True” single, this cover of Anti-Nowhere League’s 1981 punk classic is, in the tradition of the much-loved “Last Caress,” a fun, profane little blast of obnoxiousness, welcome levity from the Black Album’s meticulousness and self-importance. Sadly for many fans, as the story goes, Hetfield would blow out his voice recording the track, and he’d adopt a different, less strenuous singing style from then on. — A.B.
40. “Disposable Heroes” (Master of Puppets, 1986)
The most underrated track on Master of Puppets, “Disposable Heroes,” like “Damage, Inc.,” is all about that brick wall of a rhythm section playing at unrelenting speed, but its message is more cinematic. Anticipating the anti-war theme of “One,” it’s a first-person account of the ravages and trauma of trench warfare, bolstered by a devastating bridge. The cry of “I was born for dying” packs a massive punch. — A.B.
39. “Jump in the Fire” (Kill ‘Em All, 1983)
One of the earliest Metallica songs, “Jump in the Fire” is an oddity on the landmark Kill ‘Em All, a whimsical, circular riff backed by a disco-tinged hi-hat beat and a bass line that you could tell was not written by Burton because it sounds so beneath him. As simple and dumb as it seems today, it’s a great little treat on the album, a short respite between two speed classics. — A.B.
38. “To Live Is to Die” (…And Justice for All, 1988)
Burton casts a long shadow over Metallica to this day, not just with the surfeit of snarky “It Should Have been Lars” shirts, but mainly because the first three albums have lent to plenty of forgiving and more forgetting. “Live,” their instrumental tribute to him, begins as a funeral march, turns into a solemn remembrance with glimpses of Burton’s grandiosity, then everyone breaks down at the end. The entire funeral home is burnt to the ground. The weight they put into that ending stomp has bested their down-tuned followers for almost three decades; it is the wordless cry of grief. — A.O.
37. “All Nightmare Long” (Death Magnetic, 2008)
Only the cheesy title hamstrings this excellent Death Magnetic single, where the band sounds so locked in following the song’s roller-coaster riffing that you can practically see them watching each other for the changes. Plus, the “luck runs out-tuh” of the chorus is Hetfield’s finest over-enunciation of a closing consonant in nearly two decades — no small claim, that. — A.U.
36. “The Shortest Straw” (…And Justice for All, 1988)
One of the least knotty Justice jams, a relatively straightforward excoriation of McCarthyism and the blacklisting scare of the ’50s, with one of the band’s all-time great chorus cappers (“The shortest straw has been pulled for you!”) and a chugging juggernaut riff that’d point the way to the Black Album’s largesse a few years later. — A.U.
35. “Don’t Tread on Me” (Metallica (The Black Album), 1991)
Tied for Pantera’s “Walk” as the chunkiest, clunkiest slow-motion stomp to succeed wildly in metal. Both have to do with watching your step, and yet they strut with the grace of a brontosaurus. — D.W.
34. “Fight Fire With Fire” (Ride the Lightning, 1984)
‘Tallica’s nuclear rhapsody kicks off Ride The Lightning with a hithero unheard-of bout of melodic picking that signaled a new point in the band’s evolution. “Fire” is a heavy example of how far Cold War paranoia seeped into every aspect of daily life in the ’80s — even a ragtag bunch of scruffy Bay Area teenagers could tell that the end was as good as nigh. Heavy metal’s apocalyptic obsession was still finding its sea legs at that point, and “Fight Fire With Fire” remains a classic inspiration for the lyrical horrors that would follow. — K.K.
33. “Fuel” (Reload, 1997)
As mid-’90s Metallica became more radio fixture and less metal icon, “Fuel” was another ultra-accessible burner aired on classic-rock and mainstream radio that took their popularity even past levels reached with their 1991 breakthrough. An anthem for a reason, even if fans laughed as they sang “give me that which I desire!” — J.M.N.
32. “The View” (w/ Lou Reed) (Lulu, 2011)
The flashpoint track for all Lulu love and criticism (much moreso the latter) and the advance cut that had fans checking YouTube comments to make sure they weren’t actually watching a really, really on-point parody video. Yes, “The View” leans with both shoulders into Lou Reed’s rambling, monotone irascibility and Metallica’s thudding humorlessness, for a song that should be totally unlistenable — and sort of is — but one that also emerges as compulsively re-listenable, a transfixing death crawl composed by two great rock institutions thoroughly unable to play to one another’s strengths, but linking arms and soldiering on full-force just the same. Few songs by anyone this century have been this fascinating, and while you may not be shouting for it as an encore anytime soon, it continues to astound with its tonal and structural singularity. It is the table. — A.U.
31. “Cyanide” (Death Magnetic, 2008)
On an album full of prime-era callback moments, “Cyanide” is the Death Magnetic jam that most seems like it should have existed before, a full-band wallop with a particularly Hetfield-ian refrain (“You’re just the funeral I’ve been waiting for!”). Would’ve been a perfect fit on …And Justice for All, if not for the bass breakdown where you can actually, y’know, hear the bass. — A.U.
30. “The Call of Ktulu” (Ride the Lightning, 1984)
The level of musical growth on Ride the Lightning was shocking, and while bands like Slayer, Exodus, and Anthrax struggled to keep pace, Metallica recorded an incredibly nuanced instrumental that raised the bar even higher. Featuring prominent work from Burton and Mustaine’s final contributions to the band’s songwriting (you can hear his influence in its eerie melody), this song had teenagers scrambling to read Lovecraft in the mid-‘80s. — A.B.
29. “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” (Master of Puppets, 1986)
A bridge between two classic “track fours” — “Fade to Black” and “One” — “Sanitarium” is often the most ignored of the three, but is every bit as powerful, Hetfield’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-inspired character sketch slowly graduating from complacency, to ambition, and finally, to revolt. All the while the song builds and builds the tension, until it explodes in a cry of defiance: “Just leave me alone!” — A.B.
28. “Eye of the Beholder” (…And Justice for All, 1988)
Hidden between the Justice title track and the mainstream breakthrough “One,” it’s easy to overlook “Beholder,” despite it being released as a single. But the deliberate gallop and stoic — almost sterile — riffing is the perfect counterbalance to emotional extremes. — J.M.N.
27. “St. Anger” (St. Anger, 2003)
A James Hetfield huh huh hah HAH at anyone who ever thought this was Metallica’s attempt to fit in with the nu-metal era. Yes, some of the free-floating guitar noodling on the verses could be seen as vaguely Trapt-esque and certainly the “You flush it out! You flush it out!” shouting on the pre-chorus is the most anyone in Metallica has ever sounded like Mike Shinoda. But this thing is one of the most brutal, uncompromising lead singles ever released by a major rock band, punishing with its steely, rapid-fire drumming, its growling riffage, its double- and triple-timing rhythms. Then there’s Hetfield’s palpably cathartic lyrics, which make callbacks back to earlier favorites like “Damage, Inc.” and “Hit the Lights” hit heavy with the weight of the band’s tumultuous history. Even the self-indulgence of the “madly in anger with you” hook feels painfully earned. — A.U.
26. “The Thing That Should Not Be” (Master of Puppets, 1986)
Here’s what happens when Metallica slows down. Low-pressure riffs open the clouds up, Ulrich’s otherwise limited drum repertoire turns to violent thunderclaps, and Hammett’s free to unleash a torrential downpour of lead lines. This is the mode of operation here, maybe the slowest-building thunderstorm of their career, and when the rain comes it’s in gobs of pure black tar. — C.J.
25. “Until It Sleeps” (Load, 1996)
Old-school fans wouldn’t agree that Load’s first single is one of Hetfield’s best vocal performances, but those verses let him flex some of his subtler throat muscles, and the chorus reveals a hidden talent for harmonies. Then there’s those smart chord changes, brushed in surfy Ennio Morricone guitar tones the band would later reveal as a direct influence on their cover of “The Ecstasy of Gold.” Are these things people want in Metallica? Not necessarily. Do they buoy great singles from otherwise disappointing comeback albums? You bet. — D.W.
24. “Nothing Else Matters” (Metallica (The Black Album), 1991)
Not only was this the moment Metallica went mainstream, but a song with a positive message, to boot, with an authoritative display of dynamics that would explode into a shockingly expressive solo by Hetfield. While “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would help signal a sea change in mainstream rock’s mindset, the impact of “Nothing Else Matters” cannot be ignored. It’s Metallica’s final innovation in a decade of incalculable influence that no metal band would ever equal: popularizing singing about one’s “feelings” in heavy metal, which would pave the way for an increased level of introspection in a notoriously posturing, masculine genre. — A.B.
23. “Last Caress” / “Green Hell” (Garage Inc., 1999)
Glenn Danzig can thank Metallica for much of his latter-day popularity; the band conspicuously worse Samhain shirts and covered the Misfits whenever appropriate. This medley of two of Glenn’s early best retains the speed and attitude of the punk originals — with an added Iron Maiden outro to boot, for extra ingratiating geekery. — J.M.N.
22. “Damage, Inc.” (Master of Puppets, 1986)
One of two thrash classics that bookend Master of Puppets, “Damage, Inc.” brings things to a colossal conclusion. Meaner and heavier than the celebratory “Battery,” the song is built around an astonishing display of staccato speed and power in the rhythm riffs: just listen to Hetfield hold down the sucker as Hammett lets loose like a metal Paganini. “F—k it all and f—king no regrets,” Hetfield snarls, leaving listeners in his wake, scrambling to pick up the pieces, trying to figure out just what in the hell happened. — A.B.
21. “Hit the Lights” (Kill Em All, 1983)
While Metallica technically debuted with their demo No Life ‘til Leather, “Hit The Lights” was their introduction to a vast majority of listeners. When this song burst out to you for the first time from a tape deck or LP, you knew you were on the brink of something special, a musical revolution that would change things as much as punk did a half-decade earlier. — J.M.N.
20. “Blackened” (…And Justice for All, 1988)
Over seven album-opening minutes, Metallica manage to capably modulate their thunderous pace from gallop to menacing lope and back again, stopping on a dime at will and still managing to not run out of breath. So much of their catalog is anaerobic in its intensity, but those drum hits in the chorus, weighty synchronized footfalls, more than justify the marathon length. — C.J.
19. “Creeping Death” (Ride the Lightning, 1984)
“Creeping Death” famously narrowly escaped its fate of becoming an Exodus song, but thankfully, Kirk Hammett brought its now-iconic “Die by my hand!” bridge along with him when he jumped ship; coupled with Hetfield’s brutal lyrics based on the Biblical plagues of Egypt and some particularly sick guitar work from Hammett, an anthem was born. It’s no wonder that “Creeping Death” is regularly noted as one of the band’s all-time best songs, and that it’s survived as a firm fan favorite for so many years. — K.K.
18. “Whiplash” (Kill ‘Em All, 1983)
On the album that is the Rosetta Stone of thrash metal, “Whiplash” sets a template that would be repeated by countless bands to this very day. Following the lead of such speed-metal innovations as “Fireball,” “Overkill,” and “Fast as a Shark,” it’s all about double-time ferocity, but the big difference is the band’s reliance on crunch, that palm-muted guitar sound that was quickly becoming de rigueur. Coupled with some wonderfully self-referential lyrics — one of heavy metal’s most time-honored topics is singing about how awesome it is to play heavy metal — “Whiplash” is as much about fun as intensity. — A.B.
17. “The Unforgiven” (Metallica (The Black Album), 1991)
How’s marching snare, castanets and the solemn horn warning from Clint Eastwood’s For a Few Dollars More for epic? Metallica’s most inventive ballad inverted every rule, with thunderous verses that give way to a gentle chorus like it’s opposite day. That’s why its unceremonious sequel sucked so much; it was almost as if the band decided to do everything wrong and see if it could still make bank on Clear Channel. To their credit, Death Magnetic’s “The Unforgiven III” was virtually a different song, and somewhat interesting in its own right. But we don’t forgive them for fixing what ain’t broken. — D.W.
16. “The Day That Never Comes” (Death Magnetic, 2008)
“The Day That Never Comes” would’ve been just fine standing as Metallica’s best power ballad of the 21st century, with its disquetingly twinkling intro, “Simple Man” via Dirt-era Alice in Chains verses, and anthemically fatalistic chorus (“The sunshine never comes!“). But rather than contenting themselves with that accomplishment, Metallica up the ante twice over the song’s eight minutes: First, with a take-the-power-back attitude reversal, on the suddenly momentum-gathering third verse. Then, there’s the outright quadruple-time eruption (triggered by Hetfield’s maniacal “THIS I SWEAR! THIS I SWEAR!” yelping), closing with some of the best fret-racing of the band’s whole career. The final result: Metallica’s best song of the 2000s, period. — A.U.
15. “Orion” (Master of Puppets, 1986)
“Orion” is simply a beautiful piece of art, turning Metallica’s progressive influences into a monument of metal’s potential. Hetfield and Hammett twist their rhythms with grace and power more suited for the Joffrey than the Rainbow, elevating thrash conventions. Burton’s presence, in his spacey intro and “Orion”’s softer moments, are a testament to life’s wonder, even if it’s to be ripped apart during “Damage, Inc.” right after. He allows Hetfield and Hammett to tune into each other’s melodic ears and bring forth rich harmonies. Metal’s explored more complex structures, deeper textures, and greater extremes since, but rarely do they coalesce like they do on “Orion.” — A.O.
14. “Sad But True” (Metallica (The Black Album), 1991)
With a riff so mean and forthright that Run-DMC could’ve slammed down a tag-team rhyme to it, this dense, yet spacious Black Album standout is one of Metallica’s most recognizable, even if it sounds like Pearl Jam’s “Even Flow” screwed-and-chopped, down to its false-started guitar solo. “I’m your hate when you want love,” growls the increasingly impatient Hetfield by the final verse, where he declares he no longer cares. A true American badass. — D.W.
13. “Hero of the Day” (Load, 1996)
Metallica’s loveliest riff, and their most tuneful original song, the highlight of Load shouldn’t get thrown out with the bathwater — even by fans who think the band’s vitality should be measured in inches of hair. The pummeling middle eight and grand finale wash away the singular delicacy of those arpeggios, but nothing erases Hetfield’s surprisingly open-hearted melody, which keeps rising, to that climactic “Do you hear your baby’s crying?” To the crying babies, Lars Ulrich said, “The minute you stop exploring, then just sit down and f–king die.” And “Hero of the Day” almost single-handedly sponsored their renewed existence — until St. Anger, at least. — D.W.
12. “The Four Horsemen” (Kill ‘Em All, 1983)
This song has been a point of contention between Metallica and Mustaine since they booted him from the band, attached some dire lyrics about pestilence and plague to Mustaine’s gas-station boner jam “Mechanix,” added a new bridge (and clean-picked solo), and went on to become the biggest metal band in the world. There’s no denying that Metallica’s beefed up version is an improvement on the original (especially thanks to the band’s now-trademark apocalyptic streak), and it fits in well with their history of reinterpreting older influences — keep an ear out for the “Sweet Home Alabama”-inspired lick. — K.K.
11. “…And Justice For All” (…And Justice for All, 1988)
Like Rush’s “Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres,” the title track from Metallica’s fourth album was both an apex and a breaking point. The years leading up to 1988 proved to be the most crucial period of development in heavy-metal history, and everyone, mainstream and underground, knew Metallica were the clear leaders (including Metallica), putting enormous pressure on the band to produce an epic that was every bit as great as past classics. The end result is by far the most multifaceted, progressive song in the Metallica discography, with Ulrich laying down arguably his tightest drumming performance, guiding his mates – including an inaudible Jason Newsted – through nearly ten wildly complex yet thrilling minutes. However, with a song so difficult to perform live night after night, it’s no wonder the band decided to simplify on their next record. — A.B.
10. “Fade to Black” (Ride the Lightning, 1984)
During my senior year, a classmate played this song for a communications class meant to teach you how to read and analyze songs and lyrics. Friends and teacher immediately wondered if the student was crying out for help (nope — he’s very much alive). That false alarm speaks to why the visceral “Fade To Black” is a jewel in the Metallica canon: the ballad (!), a poignant tale of depression and regret, was the first hint that Metallica was just as effective with a lighter touch. The band, then fixated on death, wrote the song after their gear was stolen. Years later, it’s impossible to think of this widely covered classic without thinking of bassist Cliff Burton’s untimely passing in a bus accident as Metallica was poised for global superstardom. — J.M.N.
9. “Am I Evil?” (The $5.98 EP: Garage Days Re-Revisited, 1987)
Metallica picked its cover songs wisely, and this tribute to NWOBHM heroes Diamond Head is one of their finest hours. Originally released as a B-side to the “Creeping Death” single in 1984, it survived as a cult hit and popped up on several reissues before getting its due on Garage Inc. in 1998. It was also a bit of accidental philanthropy on their part, as the continuing success of “Am I Evil?” netted Diamond Head a metric s–t-ton of international attention. Plus, just listen to that riff — it doesn’t get much better. — K.K.
8. “Enter Sandman” (Metallica (The Black Album), 1991)
Metallica was a metal fixture by the time of their fifth album in 1991. “Enter Sandman,” the crown of their often-criticized partnership with mega-producer Bob Rock, was their introduction to a global listenership. The single was certified platinum and a big reason the album has sold more than 30 million copies and continues to sell more. Held together by Kirk Hammett’s career-defining riff, “Sandman” is the best of both worlds: early Metallica grit combined with pop veneer and sugary production. It’s a snapshot of when the band’s evolution from garage to arena worked; it’s catchy, yet still recognizably Metallica. For a generation of metalheads who exchanged tapes in the 1980s, “Enter Sandman” was a strange experience: the first time you could hear a band that united neighborhood metalheads played and celebrated in bars, weight rooms, and on the radio. After “Enter Sandman” things were never quite the same for Metallica — or their fans. — J.M.N.
7. “Battery” (Master of Puppets, 1986)
Most metal bands would be content with a song a tenth as good as “Fight Fire With Fire.” Metallica, being the most ambitious metal band of the ’80s, saw it as something to improve upon, and thus came “Battery.” The flamenco guitar is one such touch, but they’ve moved from warning of nuclear destruction to being the destructors themselves. The aggression is broad; it is the empowerment metal boasts but rarely delivers like this. If you are not stirred into battle, however mundane or serious your foe is, from that intro lead, you are dead — Hammett’s never busted out a more triumphant lead since. The bridge lead is equally as beautiful, and it’s too bad they’ve cut it out of live performances as of late. But much has been said about when they lost their fire. What once was is now crystallized and can be enjoyed forever, however long “forever” really is. — A.O.
6. “Ride the Lightning” (Ride the Lightning, 1984)
The title track of their second album is a young Metallica at their angriest and most feral. It’s a metal version of Ambrose Bierce’s short story An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge, the story of a man en route to face his death via electric chair. Unlike what some listeners think, it’s not a criticism of the death penalty (Hetfield mutters “guilty as charged” at the outset) as much as a matter-of-fact story like Slayer’s “Angel Of Death.” Written with an assist from Mustaine, “Lightning” contains a peerlessly glorious opening riff, inspired soling, and one of Metallica’s most memorable choruses (“Flash before my eyes / Now it’s time to die”). — J.M.N.
5. “Wherever I May Roam” (Metallica (The Black Album), 1991)
While “Enter Sandman” was the Black Album’s monster single, its smartest song comes four tracks later. Boasting a clever, exotic lead riff that pays sly homage to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns, this is the “life on the road” song these well-travelled road dogs were born to play. Hetfield’s self-mythologizing is not unlike Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” but unlike that band’s gaudy cowboy shtick, Hetfield takes on the persona of an old blues lifer, a ragged, weathered troubadour wandering from town to town. Atop an absolutely ferocious groove on an album that’s all about groove, Hetfield echoes Robert Johnson with his finest lyric, exuding not arrogance but iconic gravity: “Carved upon my stone / My body lie, but still I roam.” — A.B.
4. “Seek & Destroy” (Kill ‘em All, 1983)
Metal riffs mixed with punk aggression — that is what’s best in life. Metallica had yet to perfect the balance of sophistication and unbridled power on their debut, but they were still way ahead of the pack, and “Seek” best encapsulates the album’s “punch first, talk later” attitude. Who knows if they intended to play off of “Search and Destroy,” but it’s as much of a ripper. Hetfield’s voice hadn’t matured yet, and he, like the rest of the band, are still calling upon Angel Witch and Diamond Head to guide them. It’s all for the better — they took Motörhead’s motto of “Born to Lose, Live to Win” to heart in those riffs. If you played bass in high school and scoured eBay for Morley Power Wahs, Burton’s chorus rhythms — which sound more like the Bat Out of Hell cover than Bat Of Out Hell itself does — are why. Metallica is as much defined by obsession — in their rabid fans, their equally determined detractors, the quality of their early works, their personal descents into madness and addiction — and “Seek” showed that early on. There is no escape, that’s for sure. — A.O.
3. “One” (…And Justice for All, 1988)
The clip for “One” elevated the band to an entirely new plane of darkness: It was bleak, it was unrelenting, it was utterly soul-destroying, and that’s exactly what Metallica wanted for its first video. Blue-tinted band members howled amidst spliced-in footage from the chilling anti-war film Johnny Got His Gun, landing them on MTV, winning them a Grammy, and establishing the band as a household name — albeit a grim specter of one. The song’s cleanly melodic but utterly chilling opening notes ushered in a tale of abject horror, and the Venom-inspired machine-gun riffs that sputter to life afterwards are jarring, adding another level of intensity to what remains one of the band’s most demanding compositions. — K.K.
2. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (Ride the Lightning, 1984)
Kill ‘Em All established Metallica as the standard-bearers for speed, but it took the rolling thunder of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” to prove the band was just as powerful taking their f—king time with it. Audaciously opening with the title-referencing ring — just four years after an even more famous hard-rock band had done the same, on the opening track to one of the best-selling albums ever — the band forever established their authority with just five notes of head-banging, chest-caving fury. The most electric moments in “For Whom” aren’t the frenzied guitar triplets or the fist-hurling chorus exhortations (though, goddamn, are those good too), but the times when the whole band pauses, mid-lurch, as if to take a moment to properly marvel at their own majesty. “Take a look to the sky just before you die / IT’S THE LAST TIME YOU WILL!” Hell of a way to go. — A.U.
1. “Master of Puppets” (Master of Puppets, 1986)
Go to any Metallica concert and every single time, the biggest audience reaction will be to the opening bars of “Master of Puppets,” and for good reason. When it first came out in early 1986, heavy metal had never heard anything like it. Sure, structurally it was similar to “Ride the Lightning” from two years earlier, but this was so much more commanding. It remains the perfect crystallization of what Metallica was all about in the ’80’s, in which intricacy, intensity, power, and melody coalesced in astonishing, unprecedented fashion. Ulrich and Burton form a rhythm section that finds that sweet spot between control and chaos: that former attacking the skins in primal fashion, the latter delivering a bass line of cool fluidity. Hammett adds valuable texture along with swift-fingered solos. And Hetfield, the greatest rhythm guitarist heavy metal would ever produce, anchors the song with playing that is pure muscle. The energy and proficiency of this song would shake the genre to its core, and like “Black Sabbath” 16 years prior, metal would never be the same afterward. — A.B.