One of the most authoritative and forward-thinking metal bands of the ’80s, Metallica helped make thrash a worldwide phenomenon. By blending the fast tempos and socially attuned lyrics of punk, the textures and heavy riff craftsmanship of NWOBHM, and the darkly meditative, often existential themes of metal priest forefathers like Black Sabbath, Metallica developed a powerhouse hybrid style.
After forming in 1981 in L.A. before relocating to the Bay Area, the quartet used the rest of the decade as a lab in which to hone their sound, creating a musical narrative that in some ways can be read as “the story of thrash.” From their 1983 debut Kill ‘Em All, a record that showed a nascent collective trying to reckon with punk and NWOBHM, to 1988’s …And Justice for All, which comprised complex manifolds of sound produced by a fully mature band, the ground Metallica covered in such a short period is rivaled by only a handful of other groups. Within the four LPs (1983’s Kill ‘Em All, 1984’s Ride the Lightning, 1986’s Master of Puppets, and 1988’s …And Justice for All) and one EP (1987’s The $5.98 E.P.: Garage Days Re-Revisited) from this period lie a kaleidoscopic landscape of ideas.
To mark the mega-box set reissue of Master of Puppets on November 10, here’s our ranking of all 40 songs from those five records.
40. “Jump In the Fire” (Kill ‘Em All, 1983)
While this was one of the first songs Metallica composed as a group, it was actually based on a remnant from Dave Mustaine’s prior band, Panic. Once he left Metallica, Hetfield and co. rewrote the song to sound—as legend has it—more like Iron Maiden, and to have a decidedly more hellish theme. Seeing as Metallica formed out of a mutual love for NWOBHM, it’s not hard to believe.
39. “The Small Hours” (The $5.98 E.P., Garage Days Re-Revisited, 1987)
Metallica’s cover of Holocaust’s “The Small Hours” is a dark, gothic adventure that shows the band branching out with a unique, almost post-punk introduction that morphs into a series of sludgy riffs. Of course, they can only maintain slow heavy metal for so long; two-thirds of the way through, a classic riff breaks out and decimates all sense of caution.
38. “Leper Messiah” (Master of Puppets, 1986)
For “Leper Messiah,” Metallica had religion right in their crosshairs. With lyrics like “Marvel at his tricks, need your Sunday fix/Blind devotion came, rotting your brain,” the band really left nothing to the imagination. While not sporting the most compelling riffs on Master of Puppets, this is still a powerful example of the band’s willingness to potentially alienate fans in order to say what was on their minds. That attitude would be central to …And Justice for All two years later.
37. “Escape” (Ride the Lightning, 1984)
When they were in the studio for Ride the Lightning, Metallica needed one more song than they had prepared, so they wrote and recorded “Escape” on the spot. They may regret how that process turned out, but “Escape” still rips pretty hard—by any other measure, it’s quite a serious piece of music.
36. “Disposable Heroes” (Master of Puppets, 1986)
A riff roller coaster that perfectly syncs up nimble guitar with roaring bass and drums, this has one of Metallica’s tightest grooves of the decade. The song, with unsettling lyrics like “Back to the front/You will do what I say, when I say,” is about the conformism expected of people in the military. It’s an incredible example of how the band’s music reflects the themes in Hetfield’s lyrics.
35. “No Remorse” (Kill ‘Em All, 1983)
Opening with a truly demonic guitar solo that bears shades of psychedelia, “No Remorse” is a scorching track about the stoicism expected from soldiers at war. Getting into political, anti-war themes right off the bat on their first album, this song touches on ideas that would unfold in Metallica’s music throughout the rest of the decade.
34. “Crash Course in Brain Surgery” (The $5.98 E.P., Garage Days Re-Revisited, 1987)
An interesting artifact from their $5.98 E.P., this skates a little closer to hardcore than almost anything else Metallica did in the ’80s. It’s a cover of the Budgie track from ’74.
33. “Hit the Lights” (Kill ‘Em All, 1983)
“Hit the Lights” is a noise symphony, the opening moments bordering on the no wave trends of the New York scene. Originally penned for James Hetfield’s older band, Leather Charm, it would become the first Metallica song. When Hetfield revisited it with drummer Lars Ulrich, it became the spectacular ode to the metal lifestyle that we know today.
32. “The Thing That Should Not Be” (Master of Puppets, 1986)
Like its spiritual predecessor, “The Call of Ktulu” from Ride the Lightning, this contains references to H.P. Lovecraft. In fact, the influence of science fiction lurks throughout Metallica’s ’80s tracks, often in scenarios where man’s fate is decided by terrible, out-of-control circumstances, like in “Trapped Under Ice.”
31. “Fight Fire With Fire” (Ride the Lightning, 1984)
This could easily be higher on the list, but there’s just so much great music here. There’s an almost Beatles-esque vibe to its opening, but the song quickly shifts gears and becomes the typically aggressive monstrosity (in a good way) that we expect from Metallica. Hetfield’s vocals are positively unhinged here.
30. “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” (Master of Puppets, 1986)
“Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” indulges its psychedelic roots and Black Sabbath-oriented pacing in the best way possible. It feels like the thrashers are paying homage to their ancestors, and that’s a cool thing to see.
29. “Helpless” (The $5.98 E.P., Garage Days Re-Revisited, 1987)
A cover of Diamond Head’s 1980 track, “Helpless” features a refreshing mix of ’80s heavy metal gestures and breakneck thrash riffs. It’s about a man’s inability to avoid his destiny of becoming a rock icon—a decidedly positive and inspiring song compared to some of the more dour tracks of this period.
28. “Metal Militia” (Kill ‘Em All, 1983)
“Metal Militia” feels like a horse waiting just inside the gate, ready to burst free. Listening to it today, so much of this song points toward Metallica’s next few albums, where their sound would come into an incredible cohesion. It’s very good, just on the cusp of pure greatness.
27. “Dyers Eve” (…And Justice for All, 1988)
“Dear mother, dear father/You clipped my wings before I learned to fly,” begins “Dyers Eve,” which is essentially a letter from James Hetfield to his parents. (His father left when he was 13 and his mother died shortly after.) This song’s heavy dose of childhood trauma and relentless thrash makes for a harrowing composition that stands out as one of the band’s most direct, penetrating, and psychological.
26. “Ride the Lightning” (Ride the Lightning, 1984)
With Hetfield’s high-register vocals and the way they often reflect the guitar riffs, this has a certain NWOBHM feel. And that’s okay. With Kirk Hammett’s guitar solo, the song becomes fairly epic, earning its title.
25. “Motorbreath” (Kill ‘Em All, 1983)
Weirdly uplifting, “Motorbreath” is about living life to the max, taking chances, and not going down with regrets. All honorable aims. The title is most likely a reference to Motörhead.
24. “The Shortest Straw” (…And Justice for All, 1988)
One of Metallica’s most political songs, “The Shortest Straw” is about blacklisting and the “red scare” of the ’50s. Somehow Metallica always seem to find some kind of existential crisis through the politics (“Your being, ostracized/Your hell is multiplied/The fallout has begun/Oppressive damage done”).
23. “Last Caress / Green Hell” (The $5.98 E.P., Garage Days Re-Revisited, 1987)
It’s so great to hear this straightforward punk cover of the Misfits’ “Last Caress.” Wholly Metallica, but it still captures the essence of Danzig. What more could you ask for?
22. “Harvester of Sorrow” (…And Justice for All, 1988)
This has a dark opening that almost sounds like black metal—it’s definitely one of the band’s heaviest songs of the ‘80s. With lyrics like, “Pure black looking clear/My work is done soon here/Try getting back to me/Get back which used to be,” it could easily be from any number of Norwegian groups from the early ‘90s.
21. “Phantom Lord” (Kill ‘Em All, 1983)
“Phantom Lord” was one of Metallica’s earliest experiments with a schematic that would become a signature for them throughout the ‘80s: a song that slowly builds and threatens to lose all control, barely containing its frenzied solos and rumbling drums, but then unexpectedly slows down on a dime, becoming something completely different. “Phantom Lord” shows that their sense of pacing was great from the start.
20. “The Frayed Ends of Sanity” (…And Justice for All, 1988)
This fan favorite was never played live (in its entirety) until 2014, when it was premiered during a tour where Metallica played primarily fan requests. Oh, and it starts with a Wizard of Oz reference.
19. “Whiplash” (Kill ‘Em All, 1983)
Oh so meta, Metallica’s thrash song about thrashing is an ode to the pit. “Adrenaline starts to flow/You’re thrashing all around/Acting like a maniac/Whiplash.” After all these years, it still makes one feel the need to get to a concert ASAP.
18. “The Wait” (The $5.98 E.P., Garage Days Re-Revisited, 1987)
This Killing Joke cover was exactly what the EP’s title claimed: a track that proved that Metallica’s best and grungiest garage-band days were most certainly not behind them.
17. “Trapped Under Ice” (Ride the Lightning, 1984)
“Trapped Under Ice” is an unforgiving song about a guy who’s cryogenically frozen and wakes up, but can’t get out of the chamber. Terrifying stuff, and another pointedly sci-fi tableau. This one really reveals Metallica’s ability to induce anxiety with their music.
16. “(Anesthesia)—Pulling Teeth” (Kill ‘Em All, 1983)
“(Anesthesia)—Pulling Teeth” was Metallica’s first instrumental track, and it was an absolute banger. The first couple minutes are just Cliff Burton going insane on bass, issuing line after line of labyrinthine beauty. Virtuosic moments from a master.
15. “Blackened” (…And Justice for All, 1988)
The intro has an aura of total greatness, a whiff of the epicness to come with the rest of the album. As soon as the jolting opening riff starts, you’re locked in. No going back. Another spectacular opening track.
14. “Damage, Inc.” (Master of Puppets, 1986)
“Damage, Inc.” opens with a series of sick, almost liturgical-feeling guitar exhales that would feel equally at home on the original Blade Runner soundtrack. Metallica are heavy-handed when necessary, but they’re also total masters of dynamics. Sound craftsmen of the highest order.
13. “The Call of Ktulu” (Ride the Lightning, 1984)
This instrumental closed out Ride the Lightning with some serious sounds that held nothing back: screeching guitars in the background, swampy riffs in the fore, glitchy solos in between. One of Metallica’s most unabashed headbangers. “The Call of Ktulu” is a reference to H.P. Lovecraft’s story of the same name, which the band got into after bassist Cliff Burton became a big fan of the writer.
12. “Eye of the Beholder” (…And Justice for All, 1988)
Featuring great lyrics about freedom of speech and expression, “Eye of the Beholder” is a stirring, socially conscious track that remains relevant today. “Do you feel what I feel?/Bittering distress,” Hetfield sings. Yeah, we do.
11. “The Four Horsemen” (Kill ‘Em All, 1983)
Another brutally dope early track, lifting off in the vein of Judas Priest and Black Sabbath. But when those crunchy riffs enter, Metallica make it clear who you’re listening to. This was one of Dave Mustaine’s biggest songwriting contributions before he went on to form Megadeth.
10. “Battery” (Master of Puppets, 1986)
“Battery” is one of the most badass album openers of all time. Airy guitars multiply gracefully, tempestuous drums enter, an army of electric guitars soars above. Then, one of Metallica’s all-time thrashiest riffs launches with intoxicating precision. It’s pure magic.
9. “To Live Is to Die” (…And Justice for All, 1988)
“To Live Is to Die” is almost an instrumental, except for a few lines towards the end by poet Paul Gerhardt. The stormy transition from the intro into its opening riffs sounds like somebody pounding down the door to (or from?) hell. A tribute to bassist Cliff Burton, who died in 1986, this song thoroughly slays.
8. “…And Justice for All” (…And Justice for All, 1988)
Once you’re lured in by the pretty guitar melodies and the deceptively straightforward rock backbeat, this track unleashes hell. “Justice is lost/Justice is raped/Justice is gone/Pulling your strings/Justice is done/Seeking no truth/Winning is all/Find it so grim/So true, so real.”
7. “Seek & Destroy” (Kill ‘Em All, 1983)
“Seek & Destroy” almost sounds like a long-lost Stooges song … until Hetfield enters with his hard-as-nails yawp. This righteous selection is an early snapshot of Metallica as they started thrashing their way out of their predecessors’ shadows.
6. “Creeping Death” (Ride the Lightning, 1984)
“Creeping Death” tells the Biblical story of Passover, which is itself pretty metal. This awesome track sees guitarist Kirk Hammett at full octane, attuned to the song’s themes and channeling a deep sense of destruction.
5. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (Ride the Lightning, 1984)
The winding melodies and clever chromaticism of this unforgivingly hard track serve a higher purpose, one that threads through a lot of Metallica’s greatest work: lyrics that challenge the way things are. Based on Hemingway’s 1940 novel of the same name, it questions the absurdity of war in a real way.
4. “Orion” (Master of Puppets, 1986)
Throughout the ‘80s, Metallica offered a number of searing, ingeniously composed instrumentals, and “Orion” is the best of them. Featuring four solos (Hammett, Burton, Burton, Hammett), “Orion” is a paragon of synergy, the perfect balance of instrumental harmony and individual statements. Full disclosure: This was considered for the #1 spot, but since it doesn’t feature James Hetfield on vocals, we decided it couldn’t take the throne.
3. “One” (…And Justice for All, 1988)
From its beautiful guitar polyphony to its tremendously affecting lyrics about a soldier disfigured in World War I, “One” proves—especially in its second half—that many of Metallica’s toughest thrash moments veil tortured longing and candid emotion.
2. “Master of Puppets” (Master of Puppets, 1986)
“Master! Master!” Every second of this song is tremendous: the excellent opening riffs, the excess of electric energy, the impressive lyricism of the slow bridge halfway through. “Master of Puppets” embodies the perfectly constructed sense of dramatic pacing that underlies the band’s best songs. Oh, and those ascending/descending riffs in the bridge to the last verse and choruses are so unbelievably sweet.
1. “Fade to Black” (Ride the Lightning, 1984)
It’s not their fastest song from this period, but it might be their heaviest. “Fade to Black” contains everything great about Metallica in just seven minutes: billowy acoustic guitar melodies from James Hetfield that interlock magnificently with perfectly intoned electric guitar lines from Kirk Hammett, an existentialism-via-the-Great-American-West vibe, monumental riffs, thunderous drums, pointedly melancholic lyrics from Hetfield that deal with unbearable loss, and, finally, a sky-ripping guitar solo towards the end. It literally doesn’t get any better than this.