Nu-metal is a tough movement to pin down: Back in the late ’90s and early ’00s, it was an umbrella term for a strain of rock that grew parallel to the related genre post-grunge, as well as industrial metal and rap-rock. And while nu-metal has had certain prevailing characteristics—drop-D tuning, hip-hop-influenced vocals, numbers in band names, male-dominated culture and attitudes—there’s never been a firm definition for the genre. It’s with those somewhat squishy boundaries in mind that we present the 30 best nu-metal songs ever.
Rage predate the explosion of nu-metal, but there’s no denying that the L.A. band’s sound was co-opted by plenty of nu-metalheads, who mimicked RATM’s aggressive hip-hop/metal hybrids. The boiling funk of 1996’s “Bulls on Parade,” a strident critique of global war policies, is a particular touchstone.
The Florida-based Skrape—whose members have gone on to play with Evanescence, Black Label Society, and Dope—lives up to its moniker. Bruising riffs, festering bass lines, and hair-blowing vocals give “Waste” an abrasive edge.
In a sea of post-Korn bands, Mudvayne stood out from the pack. This was partly due to the group’s topiary-caliber facial hair and colorful body paint, but also because of a willingness to foment chaos. With its jackhammering drums, lurching-stomach bass line, and exorcism vocals, 2000’s “Dig” feels like a car falling apart while traveling at 60 mph.
Puddle of Mudd found crossover success with the nu-grunge power ballad “Blurry,” but established their nu-metal bona fides with 2001 debut single, “Control.” A hulking tempo and prowling guitar riffs—not to mention loud-soft-loud dynamics and Wes Scantlin’s clenched-teeth sneer—embody the power struggle (sexual and otherwise) described in the lyrics.
Staind took the Puddle of Mudd approach to its career and quickly realized that mellower songs would bring crossover success. (In fact, frontman Aaron Lewis is half of nu-metal’s “Islands In the Stream,” i.e. his live duet on “Outside” with Fred Durst.) Still, there’s no denying that 1999’s “Mudshovel,” with its aggro guitar windmills, half-spoken choruses, and simmering bass line, is straight-up nu-metal.
The L.A. band Spineshank splices nods to electro-metal and rap-rock (specifically, a 311-conjuring, harmonies-filled chorus) into its gruff 2001 contribution to the canon. It’s a wise move: Not only is “New Disease” the band’s lone charting song, but it has aged far better than many other nu-metal tunes.
This 2002 rock hit is a quintessential example of nu-metal’s seamless hybridization. Fleet-footed grooves and neck-wrenching riffs add an angst that’s magnified by vocalist Stephen Richards, who screams the word “break” in the line “In case of fire, break the glass” to make sure everybody is aware of his deep emotional anguish.
Upon the release of 2000’s Spit, KiTTiE was often considered a novelty, since the band was helmed by teenage sisters Morgan and Mercedes Lander and their schoolmate Fallon Bowman. There’s nothing kitschy about “Brackish,” however: The furious metallic maelstrom lights up like a pinball machine around Morgan Lander’s banshee wail and slam-poet murmurs, not to mention the band’s quicksilver riffs.
Prior to hitting nu-metal paydirt with Soulfly, Max Cavalera was in heavy metal legends Sepultura. “Bleed”—a 1998 tune graced by the party-moshing presence of Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst and DJ Lethal—is best categorized as a punishing thrash-metal song with a cathartic low end.
Sevendust was one of the early beneficiaries of nu-metal: Their ferocious 1997 self-titled debut went gold on the strength of politically aware songs such as “Black,” a chugging hard rock song that, according to drummer Morgan Rose in 1998, is “not strictly about racism, but it takes a little tap on it.” “[Vocalist LaJon Witherspoon] states it pretty clearly: if people would mind their own business, the world would be a better place.”
“Bartender,” by (Hed) Planet Earth, a.k.a. Hed PE, is dedicated to anyone looking for love in all the wrong places—namely, after spending way too much time drowning their sorrows at the bar. The sad-sack vibe is redeemed only by the sense of camaraderie fostered by slithery rap-rock grooves and the protagonist’s rather impressive self-awareness about his dirtbag nature.
The Union Underground was saved by obscurity (or being known only for the fame-thirsty “Turn Me On Mr. Deadman”) thanks to the laid-back boogie of “Across The Nation,” which was the theme to WWE Raw in the mid-’00s. Growling vocalist Bryan Scott resembles Rob Zombie, and the song’s calls to action (“Move to my music / Play that fucking music”) are appropriately aspirational and empowering.
If Adema sounds like Y2K-era Korn, there’s a good reason for that: Vocalist Mark Chavez is the half-brother of Jonathan Davis. Still, nu-metal nepotism wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially because “Giving In” is a distinctive tune employing the kind of gothic moodiness and towering choruses also popularized by Linkin Park.
Coal Chamber’s “Loco” is on the frenetic end of the nu-metal spectrum, what with its splattering drums and slobbering screams from vocalist Dez Fafara, who later found fame with DevilDriver. This makes for an unsettled song that would make an ideal soundtrack for, say, a National Geographic nature special involving graphic predator scenes.
Static-X’s late vocalist, Wayne Static, was a nu-metal Muppet with an impressive shock of hair and an even more imposing stage presence. On the synth-bisected “Push It,” which rumbles like a cement mixer, Static dredges up everything from banshee screams to doomy huffing. It’s a potent, feral combination that hasn’t aged a day.
It’s easy to confuse Saliva’s “Click Click Boom” with P.O.D.’s “Boom,” especially since the similarly titled songs are about underdogs finding their stride through music. Saliva may have an edge, however, because the band assures us they don’t have mommy and daddy issues, and are innovators: “I’m coming down with the new style and you know it’s buck wild.”
Every music movement has its prog aficionados. In nu-metal, that honor went to Deadsy, the Elijah Blue Allman-fronted project known for covering Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.” The band’s oft-delayed 2002 album Commencement features the superlative “The Key to Gramercy Park,” a ghostly synth-prog song cut through with buzzsawing guitars and Allman’s Marilyn Manson-esque vocals.
Not only does Crazy Town boast the band member with the best nu-metal name — that would be vocalist Shifty Shellshock—but the group also turned in the movement’s most prominent love song. The slinky “Butterfly” is built on a curled-smoke sample of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Pretty Little Ditty,” and features lyrics praising a dream woman with a nipple piercing and tongue ring. Shellshock has a smooth-but-not-leering voice, making him about the only singer who could successfully pull off the “Butterfly” seduction. Call this nu-metal’s power ballad.
Meet Drowning Pool in a dark alley at your peril. On the hard-charging “Bodies,” the band huffs and puffs about, well, bodies hitting the floor. Presumably, this floor isn’t cushy, although the song does seem to be about pushing back against bullying and isolation—”You’re all by yourself, but you’re not alone”—which makes it closer to a delicious revenge song than anything more sinister.
Despite the title, “Wait and Bleed” isn’t the heaviest song released by Iowa’s masked marauders. However, the 1999 single is a nu-metal rumble that careens around like a particularly violent bout of bumper cars, between rough vocal yelps, a furious tempo, and corrugated riffage.
Glammy industrial rockers Orgy were nu-metal’s Nine Inch Nails, a fact made crystal clear by “Stitches.” Vocalist Jay Gordon is an android mad scientist growling out both hateful invective and robotic come-ons, as short-circuiting keyboards spark and catch fire around him.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Powerman 5000 frontman Spider One’s brother is Rob Zombie. After all, PM5K’s music often exudes a cartoonish, sci-fi vibe—especially on “When Worlds Collide,” a gleeful stomp about overthrowing systematic oppression with gravelly vocals and Jetsons-worthy futuristic synthesizers.
Payable on Death (a.k.a. P.O.D.) is a Christian band, which means that, despite appearances and explosive references, its nu-metal Jock Jam “Boom” was thematically harmless. Sonically, however, is another story: The song’s choruses are powder keg blasts of aggression, defiance, and boasts such as “How you like me now?””
No musician captured nu-metal’s misplaced martyrdom and suburban-fomented frustration better than Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst, who makes his case for destruction via various degrees of rapping, whining, and imploring. The punishing “Break Stuff” consistently lands like a cannonball dive into a public pool, and boasts sentiments that might as well double as nu-metal’s manifesto: “Everybody sucks/ You don’t really know why/ But you want to justify/ Rippin’ someone’s head off.”
“Down With the Sickness” has the throat-clearing heard ’round the world: “Ooh-wah-ah-ah-ah!” The rest of the song basically plays second fiddle to this exhortation and the multiple times David Draiman sings the phrase in title. By the end of the tune, if you’re not down with the sickness, you’ll want to be—even if the reference is meant to represent white-hot, uncontrollable anger.
Nu-metal’s old souls were (and are) Linkin Park, who took a meticulous and measured approach to their angst, even on early hits such as “In The End.” Lonely piano introduces dueling vocal turns from Chester Bennington and Mike Shinoda, who trade off expressing desperate, downtrodden, and bittersweet sentiments above scratchy electronic effects and waterfalling guitars.
Plenty of nu-metal signifiers were patently ridiculous, but System of a Down took absurdity to new levels on the magnificent, karaoke-defying “Chop Suey!” Serj Tankian barks out surrealist lyrics (“Why’d you leave the keys upon the table?/ Here you go create another fable”) with the precision of a drill sergeant. The rest of the band keeps pace with slash-and-burn verses and a surprisingly melodic chorus, creating intoxicating sonic whiplash.
Deftones very quickly transcended nu-metal’s sonic signifiers, but left behind an indelible body of work. 1997’s “My Own Summer (Shove It)” especially is a slab of churning rock ‘n’ roll quicksand with cyclone-like riffs and cathartic screams.
Much of nu-metal’s drama was laughable, but the exit strategies threatened within “Last Resort” are sobering. Vocalist Jacoby Shaddix straight-up sings, “I’m contemplating suicide,” and makes overt references to self-harm throughout. Still, the even bigger takeaway from Paul Ryan’s favorite song—and the major reason why “Last Resort” endures—is that the members of Papa Roach perfectly capture what it’s like to be at a breaking point. They’re fed up with feeling miserable; tired of hating themselves; wrecked with grief over losing parents; and literally crying out for help.
Nu-metal patriarchs Korn led the stampede toward the end of the ’90s with the menacing “Freak on a Leash,” a song that (as its name implies) serves as an anthem for misfits trapped by forces beyond their control. “Life’s gotta always be messing with me / Can’t they chill and let me be free?” Jonathan Davis muses, although he’s anything but chill. In fact, his exasperation boils over on a marble-mouthed a cappella bridge, where he sings like a fed-after-midnight Mogwai from Gremlins speaking in tongues.