Metallica is synonymous with heavy metal, and not just because of its name. In the ‘80s, bassist Cliff Burton, guitarist Kirk Hammett, singer/guitarist James Hetfield, and drummer Lars Ulrich helped spearhead the trash sub-genre by blending British metal influences with punk aggression, and by the end of the decade, the San Francisco-based quartet was the biggest of thrash’s “big four” alongside Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth.
Burton was tragically killed in a tour bus crash in 1986, but the surviving members of Metallica drafted new bassist Jason Newsted and ramped up their commercial ambitions. Metallica’s self-titled 1991 release, popularly known as The Black Album, streamlined its sound and sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. Since then, Metallica has reigned as the uncontested most popular metal band in the world for three decades, even after Robert Trujillo replaced Newsted in 2003.
This week, Metallica released the ambitious, conceptual 72 Seasons, its first studio album since 2016. Where does it rank in the group’s discography?
13. Load (1996)
While Metallica took metal mainstream in the early ‘90s, it remained a separate tribe from the grunge bands popularizing alternative rock at the same time – different kinds of loud riffs for different crowds, if you will. For the follow-up to The Black Album, though, Metallica made a play for wider appeal. The soft/loud mid-tempo single “Until It Sleeps” was promoted to alt-rock radio, and a newly short-haired Metallica headlined the Lollapalooza festival. Load topped the Billboard 200 for a month and cemented the band’s household name status, but the album itself is an overstuffed collection of some of its most sluggish music. Hammett’s talkbox solo on “The House Jack Built” and the strut of “Ronnie” hint at new directions, but Load is long on uninspired moments like the transparent “Enter Sandman” knockoff “King Nothing.” “Attempts at greasy-spoon boogie don’t swing like they should, and ‘The Outlaw Torn,’ the nearly 10-minute-long closer, proves that improvisational noodling is better left to today’s nuevo-hippie jam bands,” wrote David Browne in the Entertainment Weekly review.
12. St. Anger (2003)
The early 2000s were a rough patch for Metallica, to put it mildly. Its lawsuit against Napster caused a massive backlash, and Newsted left the band out of frustration with Metallica’s intolerance for side projects. Longtime producer Bob Rock sat in on bass for the St. Anger sessions, which were paused for months while Hetfield went to rehab. When the smoke cleared, the band was left with its most divisive album and a documentary, 2004’s Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, which portrayed band members as dysfunctional, out-of-touch millionaires. The obnoxious ring of Ulrich’s snare drum on St. Anger drew the sharpest criticism, but there’s a certain charm in hearing the band make such fast, ugly music after its polished ‘90s albums. The real problem with the album is the complete lack of Hammett solos, which often translates to grueling seven-minute songs with no respite from some of the dopiest lyrics Hetfield has ever sung.
11. Garage Inc. (1998)
In 1987, Metallica’s first recording with Newsted on bass was The $5.98 E.P. – Garage Days Re-Revisited, which featured the band covering formative punk and metal influences like Diamond Head and the Misfits. A decade later, Metallica’s final album with Newsted collected that EP and other covers from the band’s catalog alongside a newly recorded disc. Metallica leans into its classic rock side on Bob Seger and Skynyrd covers and throws in curveballs like Nick Cave’s “Loverman,” but Garage Inc. is mostly a fun if not quite revelatory celebration of all the heavy music that shaped the band, from Black Sabbath to Mercyful Fate.
10. Reload (1997)
When a band with a surplus of new material decides to divide the songs into two back-to-back albums, the first one out of the gate is usually the stronger of the two. But Reload, which hit stores 17 months after Load, is livelier and more listenable than its predecessor thanks to propulsive songs like “Prince Charming” and “Fuel,” perhaps Metallica’s best post-Black Album track. The guest vocals by Marianne Faithfull on lead single “The Memory Remains” were a curveball that foreshadowed the band’s emerging habit for collaborations outside the metal realm, but “The Unforgiven II” is the only serious misstep, a deeply unnecessary sequel to an earlier hit.
9. Hardwired… To Self-Destruct (2016)
30 years after Dave Mustaine was kicked out of the band, Metallica named an album with the kind of dramatic ellipses that Mustaine made a signature of Megadeth albums like Killing Is My Business… and Business Is Good! Kirk Hammett lost a phone containing hundreds of riff ideas in 2014, which led to Hardwired becoming the first Metallica album since Kill ‘Em All without any Hammett writing credits. The highlight of the album is “Moth Into Flame,” which Metallica performed with Lady Gaga at the 2017 Grammys in one of the band’s more surreal moments of showbiz synergy.
8. Death Magnetic (2008)
After Metallica’s poorly received back-to-basics move on St. Anger, the band’s first studio effort with Trujillo was a careful recalibration, capturing its ‘80s thrash roots with more nods to its commercial ‘90s sound (including, unfortunately, “The Unforgiven III”). “Broken, Beat & Scarred” is one of the most pummeling tracks Metallica has ever made, and Hammett’s guitar solos return with a vengeance, particularly on “All Nightmare Long.” Death Magnetic was the band’s only album produced by Rick Rubin, although one of Rubin’s frequent collaborators, engineer/mixer Greg Fidelman, has produced every subsequent project. “Hetfield has mostly dropped his bluesy yowl in favor of singing in tune. Trujillo adds solid, supportive low end. Drummer Lars Ulrich is the one weak link,” wrote Cosmo Lee in the Pitchfork review.
7. 72 Seasons (2023)
72 Seasons is a heady concept album about, in Hetfield’s words, “The first 18 years of our lives that form our true or false selves.” Listening to it, however, one gets little sense that there’s any narrative or theme beyond Metallica’s usual stew of brooding anguish and rage. Fortunately, every member is in excellent musical form. “Shadows Follow” features rat-a-tat snare fills by Ulrich and one of Hetfield’s most expressive vocal performances in recent decades. Hammett’s solo on “Chasing Light” is scorching, and his leads on “Too Far Gone?” have a bit of Ride the Lightning majesty to them. Trujillo’s syncopated intro on “Sleepwalk My Life Away” almost recalls his funk metal roots with Infectious Grooves and allows a rare moment when he can distinguish himself from Metallica’s previous bassists. “You Must Burn!” even stomps and thumps like a Black Album track, a welcome return of a side of the band that’s been largely avoided on the last few albums.
6. LULU with Lou Reed (2011)
The first time Metallica teamed with Lou Reed for a clumsily heavy rendition of the Velvet Underground chestnut “Sweet Jane” at a 25th anniversary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert in 2009, it was the kind of mismatched all-star jam that often happens at A-list events and is quickly forgotten. Reed and Metallica hit it off, however, and decided to record an entire album together, with the band providing a suitably bombastic backdrop to Reed’s grisly song cycle inspired by German playwright Frank Wedekind. Metallica fans were baffled, and Reed fans were tickled that the man who made Metal Machine Music could still find ways to piss the world off. For the few that live in the Venn diagram sweet spot and love both artists, though, LULU is a brilliant and profound album, one that pushes Metallica’s brute force into strange new shapes the band never would have conjured on its own.
5. Kill ‘Em All (1983)
Hetfield and Ulrich met in Los Angeles in 1981 and spent the next two years putting together Metallica’s classic lineup before relocating to San Francisco. Prior to Kill ‘Em All, it recorded three widely circulated demos and an early version of “Hit the Lights” for the Metal Massacre I compilation. The debut nearly named Metal Up Your Ass may not sound as enormous as the albums that would follow, but the ingredients for the band’s world-conquering success were already there. Hammett’s solo on “Motorbreath,” recorded just a month after he joined the band, is incandescent and a perfect counterpoint to Hetfield’s commanding bark. Burton’s showcase “(Anesthesia)—Pulling Teeth” is an otherworldly instrumental that stands as a remarkable display of one-of-a-kind bassist who died far too young.
4. …And Justice for All (1988)
Before the St. Anger snare drum, the most controversial production choice in the Metallica catalog was turning Newsted’s bass so far down in the mix that it’s practically inaudible on his first album with the group. Hetfield and Ulrich insist that it was simply what sounded right to them when mixing the album, while others wonder if it was some kind of perverse side effect of the band’s “hazing the new guy” rituals. Despite the trebly mix, the album continued the band’s steady commercial ascent with the dark masterpiece “One,” and featured some of the most complex songwriting of Metallica’s career, rich with twists, turns, and unusual time signatures. …And Justice for All was nominated for the first metal Grammy (Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance), but Metallica lost to Jethro Tull in one of the Recording Academy’s most widely mocked decisions of all time.
3. Metallica (1991)
After spending a decade as the serious metal fan’s favorite band while glammier Sunset Strip acts got all the mainstream glory, Metallica co-headlined a tour with Guns N’ Roses and started outselling all of the latter’s contemporaries. The Black Album, however, exceeded any sane expectations, becoming the highest selling album of the SoundScan era – if you were born after Thriller, it might be the biggest album of your lifetime. Metallica’s midtempo monsters built on the sound of the band’s catchiest ‘80s songs like “Seek & Destroy” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” while “The Unforgiven” and “Nothing Else Matters” revealed the band’s capacity for beautiful melodies and delicate dynamics. A certain strain of metal purist will always despise the album and everything it represents, but for the rest of us, it’s a rock radio staple that never wears out its welcome. “Metallica is no longer the cutting edge of metal, as it was in the beginning, but the band is expanding its musical and expressive range on its own terms,” wrote Rolling Stone critic Robert Palmer.
2. Ride the Lightning (1984)
Metallica is embarrassed by “Escape,” a song written under label pressure to make something radio-friendly, and has only ever played it live at a 2012 full-album airing of Ride the Lightning. There’s nothing particularly wrong with “Escape” – it wouldn’t get within shouting distance of Metallica’s 10 worst songs today – but the band was on a quest for metal perfection in 1984, and it does pale in comparison to beasts like “Creeping Death” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
1. Master of Puppets (1986)
Tragedy was just around the corner, as Burton died exactly six months after the album’s release, but Master of Puppets was the apex of the classic lineup’s evolution, and the first Metallica album to reach gold and platinum sales. Lovecraft, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and politically conscious ruminations on war and televangelism shaped Hetfield’s biggest leap forward as a lyricist and singer, while Danish producer Flemming Rasmussen helped Metallica capture its soaring twin guitar leads and the insistent knock of Ulrich’s double bass drum pedal. In 2022, the title track broke into the Hot 100 for the first time, reaching No. 35 after appearing in season 4 of Netflix’s Stranger Things. The sync, which introduced Metallica to a generation of new listeners, enshrined “Master of Puppets” as the crowning achievement of the band’s first decade.