Today, Metallica will release their 11th album, 72 Seasons. Later this month, they will begin playing those songs in stadiums all over the world. In my town, a pair of local Metallica shows were announced in the fall of 2022. They will not take place until August … of 2024. This, in a nutshell, is the magnitude of this band. They do not perform regular rock concerts. Their concerts are more like Olympic ceremonies.
How did they get here? After all, we’re talking about a band that was so widely hated in the nascent metal scene of early 1980s Los Angeles — the feeling was mutual — that they felt compelled to move 400 miles north. At that point, it hardly seemed like they were destined to take over the world. One look at the band photo on the back cover of their 1983 debut LP Kill ‘Em All reveals, quite possibly, the ugliest metal group to ever emerge from the primordial ooze. They made Lemmy Kilmister look like Bradley Cooper.
And yet, less than a decade later, Metallica was already one of the biggest bands on the planet. So, again: How in the hell did this happen?
I have some thoughts on this. And I would like to share them via this list of my 40 favorite Metallica songs. Let’s ride the lightning. Take my hand. Exit light. Enter my list.
PRE-LIST INTRO MUSIC: “THE ECSTASY OF GOLD”
When you hear this music, you know one of two things are about to happen. The first is you are about to see the thrilling conclusion to one of the most thrilling films ever made, The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. The second is that you are about to see the most successful metal band who ever lived. Either way, an epic experience is on your immediate horizon. (I understand that a list of Metallica songs might not qualify as “epic.” But it is certainly epic in relation to other lists.)
In the annals of rock ‘n’ roll walk-on music, “The Ecstasy Of Gold” is the best. Nothing comes close. Metallica instituted it in their pre-Kill ‘Em All days at the suggestion of Jonny Zazula, the founder of their original label, Megaforce Records. And they’ve never stopped using it. That’s because “The Ecstasy Of Gold” is extremely Metallica. The music simply wouldn’t work for any other band. If you play Ennio Morricone before you walk on stage, you better back it up with a sound that is equally sweeping, powerful, bloody, and grandiose. You can’t put on “The Ecstasy Of Gold” and then bring out Plain White T’s or Peter Bjorn and John. You must produce a band that actually includes the good (Kirk), the bad (Lars), and the ugly (James). And that band, obviously, is the one and only Metallica.
(In this analogy, the headstone belonging to Arch Stanton signifies Metallica’s bass players, past and present as well as living and dead, and also Dave Mustaine.)
40. “Am I Evil?” (Live in Moscow ’91 version)
In 2016, James Hetfield appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast. The conversation begins as you would probably expect. When discussing his recent move from the Bay Area — where James and Lars Ulrich migrated in the early ’80s at the behest of their mad genius bass player, Cliff Burton — to a new compound in Colorado, Hetfield comes this close to saying that San Francisco is now too woke for his blood. None of this is a surprise. Given that this man was seen in the 2004 documentary Some Kind Of Monster hunting bears in Russia makes it all the more amazing that he lasted in one of America’s most liberal cities for as long as he did.
What happens next, however, is a surprise. Somehow, it comes up that James has a passion for beekeeping. And it turns out that Joe Rogan is very interested in this. Way more interested than anyone who is not a beekeeper has ever been in discussing bees. So they spend the next 30 minutes talking about bees. Which seems like a long time for James Hetfield and Joe Rogan to talk about bees. But at some point, the bee talk stops being about just bees and becomes a way for James to reveal an essential part of himself.
Before we continue, I should state something plainly: James Hetfield is the most interesting part of Metallica to me. He is unquestionably one of the greatest metal frontmen ever, even though he does none of the things that metal frontmen traditionally do. He is not a natural-born showman and outlandish character (like Ozzy Osbourne). He does not have an operatic vocal range (like Ronnie James Dio). He does not have an athletic stage presence or a license to pilot Boeing 747s (like Bruce Dickinson). He did not smuggle leather gear associated with gay subcultures of the 1980s into one of the most overtly macho genres of music ever (like Rob Halford). James Hetfield is surly. He is growly. But he is also vulnerable and fragile. He appears to be simultaneously indestructible and irreparably damaged. He is a sweet man who pretends to be scary. James Hetfield is his audience.
Back to the bees. In the interview, James talks about how the time spent at home in the immediate aftermath of a Metallica tour inevitably entails dealing with a form of PTSD. (Kirk Hammett has used similar language to describe his post-tour mental health.) And one of the things that helps him stay sane is looking at his bees. The bees are frantic. They are busy. They can’t stop. And that mayhem relaxes him. The mayhem is what puts him at peace.
A certain kind of person will read that and laugh. This same kind of person is also inclined to dismiss Some Kind Of Monster as the real-life This Is Spinal Tap. (As opposed to appreciating the film as the real-life This Is Spinal Tap.) He will laugh at the suggestion that being the focal point of Metallica is in any way like fighting in a war.
If you are this person, I recommend watching the video above of Metallica performing its iconic cover of a once-obscure Diamond Head song. (Metallica made Diamond Head famous.) It took place in front of an audience of … well, actually nobody knows exactly how many people. Some say 500,000 people. It could be one million. Suffice it to say, it’s way more people than you or I will ever perform for in a lifetime, much less during a single concert.
Now. imagine standing in front of that many people, and seeing the helicopters buzz the crowd and Soviet soldiers pacifying the moshers while on horseback, and asking that mass of humanity the following question:
Am I evil?
“I am, man,” you say. “I am evil.” And all of those people say it with you, affirming the validity of your response.
I’m just saying: You might also want to hang out with bees and only bees after that sort of head trip.
39. “The God That Failed” (1991)
I have a theory about superstar musical acts, and it goes like this: Everyone has what I call a “fulcrum album” in their catalog. This is a record that explains the particular act’s entire career, in the sense that 1) all of the albums that precede it feel like a journey to this culmination point and 2) all of the records after feel like a reaction to the fulcrum album’s commercial success and/or artistic breakthroughs. I once wrote a book suggesting that Kid A is that album for Radiohead. I am currently writing a book arguing that argues Born In The U.S.A. is that album for Bruce Springsteen. But you can do this for other superstars. For The Beatles, it was Sgt. Pepper. For Prince, it was Purple Rain. For U2, it’s The Joshua Tree. For Taylor Swift, it’s 1989. And for Metallica, it’s 1991’s Metallica, a.k.a. “The Black Album.”
Metallica has been so big for so long that people forget that for the first decade or so of their career, they were the world’s most popular underground band. I don’t mean “underground” to suggest they were merely edgy or countercultural. Their whole M.O. was to be the antithesis of what mainstream media and radio cared about. They were willfully repellent. That was the identity of Metallica, and it was the identity of people who liked Metallica.
That all changed with “The Black Album,” which was immediately apparent to anyone who was paying attention at the time except the members of Metallica. “This whole thing was done our way.” Ulrich insisted to Rolling Stone at the time. “There is an inner satisfaction about that, to give a major ‘fuck you’ to the business itself and the way you’re supposed to play the game and the way we dealt with all that shit up through the mid-’80s.”
Is creating the best-selling rock album of the Soundscan era really a “fuck you” to the music business? It’s kind of like arguing that Avatar was a “fuck you” to the CGI business. What “The Black Album” did was make it possible for people who did not know or care about Diamond Head to get into Metallica. A song like “The God That Failed” was accessible whether you liked Soundgarden, Motley Crue, or Color Me Badd. And that was obvious both from the album sales and the way Metallica was now talked about. “Sociologically, it’s the album that will make it safe to like Metallica,” Spin declared in a ’91 cover story, a statement that was both patronizing and true.
38. “The Day That Never Comes” (2008)
The success of “The Black Album” prompted two different reactions from Metallica that informed their subsequent career arc. Let’s discuss the second reaction first.
In the 21st century, Metallica albums have been self-consciously hard and decidedly un-pop. That was true of St. Anger, the first Metallica LP to explicitly reference the animating emotion of their music in the album title. It was also true of 2016’s Hardwired … To Self-Destruct, the only Metallica studio LP (aside from the new one, which I haven’t heard yet) to not have any songs on this list. (It’s a solid listen, but the album cover is so repulsive that it actively discourages me from reaching for it.)
The Metallica record between those albums, 2008’s Death Magnetic, also has a deliberate “metal” edge encouraged by producer Rick Rubin, who pushed the guys to emulate their Master Of Puppets prime. But the reason I’m including this song is because it’s the rarest of all tracks on a late-period Metallica record — a power ballad.
That’s right: I’m outing myself as a lover of Metallica balladry, as we will see as this list unfolds. “The Day That Never Comes” actually sounds like a compendium of all Metallica ballads — it has the slow creep of “Fade To Black” and “Welcome Home (Sanitarium),” a melodic guitar lick that recalls “Nothing Else Matters,” and the third act fireworks of “One.” It’s really good homage by Metallica in the aughts to Metallica in the ’80s.
37. “Junior Dad” (2011)
Metallica’s participation with Lou Reed in Lulu must be counted as their most extreme rebellion from the long shadow of “The Black Album.” And I’m not just saying that because I have a perverse love of this record and I was desperate for an excuse to shoehorn “Junior Dad” — a.k.a. the relatively coherent 19-minute “pop” song on Lulu — into this list. I truly believe you can’t understand Metallica without taking this album (or at least the idea of this album) into account. In commercial terms, it is the inverse of “The Black Album.” It’s possible that only a band who has sold over 100 million records worldwide could slip Lulu into Best Buy stores from coast to coast and come out of it relatively unscathed. Even if you hate it as music, as a concept “Junior Dad” is incredibly courageous.
36. “Whiskey In The Jar” (1998)
Metallica’s first reaction to “The Black Album” was to transform themselves in the late ’90s into the world’s most prominent post-grunge band.
Surveying 1996’s Load and 1997’s Reload, the highest compliment I can pay those records is that Metallica produced the best possible versions of a standard Creed or Days Of The New track. I realize this doesn’t sound like a compliment, and it sort of isn’t, considering how ridiculously padded and overproduced Load and Reload are. (More on those albums in a moment.) When it comes to late ’90s Metallica, I prefer Garage Inc., where they apply their soul-patched muscularity to material that was simply better and more appealing than most of the songs that Metallica themselves were coming up with at the time.
That is most true of their cover of this Irish standard popularized in the rock world by Thin Lizzy. I turned 21 the year this cover was released, and it was virtually impossible to walk into a dirtbag bar in the late ’90s and not hear Metallica’s “Whiskey In The Jar.” This song is also a good excuse to discuss the James Hetfield vocal delivery, in which it sounds like he’s sandwiching “yeeeeeeah!” inside of every other word, like “Molly’s chamb-yeeeeeeah–ers” or “stand and delive-yeeeeeeah–r!” That “yeeeeeeah!” is essential to any James Hetfield impression. I am doing that “yeeeeeeah!” right now.
(Honorary shoutout to the cover of Bob Seger’s “Turn The Page,” the bleakest Metallica video with the possible exception of “One.”)
35. “Hero Of The Day” (1996)
Load is Metallica’s good “bad” album, the one whose flaws provide an insightful contrast illuminating what Metallica does well. It’s a record I like to think about and dislike actually hearing. The philosophy behind the album is sound: “The Black Album” entered the world six weeks before Nevermind, and its massive success grandfathered Metallica into an era where practically every other ’80s metal band fell by the wayside, at least in the mainstream. So, why not rebrand?
They did this literally. The band logo changed. The lightning bolts affixed to the “M” and the “A” were gone. A new sans-lightning font was subbed in. The brand was effectively de-evil’ed.
Unfortunately, there were two problems. One, they waited so long to make a follow-up that grunge was also dead by the time Load came out. (Metallica faced a similar problem when they embraced the sonic characteristics of nü-metal on St. Anger right when the public had soured of nü-metal.) Two, Lars and Kirk took the creative reins from James, and the majority of their artistic decisions at the time were motivated by a toxic combination of drugs and an impulse to troll their singer. (Hence the publicity shots featuring prominent nipple rings and drummer-on-guitarist makeout action.)
Not all Het-trolling is bad, however. In a 1989 Rolling Stone interview, for instance, James claims to not like The Beatles. And then somebody plays “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” on the tour bus and James goes nuts. “That’s pretty fucking hot,” he says, unaware that he’s headbanging to Abbey Road. Flash forward seven years, and “Hero Of The Day” kind of recycles that same riff.
34. “Fuel” (1997)
The other notable thing about “Hero Of The Day” is that it was the first (and only?) funny (on purpose?) Metallica music video. Did the world need a comedic Metallica? Now, that is a different question.
Here’s an even less urgent inquiry: Which album is better, Load or Reload? Clearly, Reload was a sequel that few people wanted. (It’s the Paul Blart: Mall Cop Part 2 of ’90s rock albums.) But I would actually argue that the peaks of Reload exceed those of Load, which is otherwise more consistent overall (though only in a relative sense). In terms of writing the best possible version of a Creed banger, “Fuel” is hard to beat.
33. “The Memory Remains” (1997)
This song was a fixture on MTV at a time when post-mortem hits by Biggie Smalls and Tupac were dominating the airwaves. And yet nobody sounded more like an undead zombie than Marianne Faithfull in the outro to “The Memory Remains.”
32. “St. Anger” (2003)
Cards on the table time: I’m a St. Anger defender. I think it’s their best post-“Black Album” record. I don’t even mind Lars’ wretched snare sound at this point. Weird, I know. But I didn’t always feel that way. Until recently, I judged the record via the prism of Some Kind Of Monster. I suspect that’s how most people judge St. Anger. And that’s why most people consider it a “genuinely horrible” record. This is unfair. As a rock film, Some Kind Of Monster is one of the best (if not the best) of the 21st century. But as a commercial for St. Anger, it’s a sales pitch on par with Gimme Shelter promoting the Hell’s Angels.
The impression you get from the film is that the making of St. Anger was a largely joyless exercise and that the album’s carcass was dragged across the finish line by rock management ghouls obsessed with keeping this four-headed multi-national corporation afloat. But the actual record has a lot of the same qualities of the film, i.e. it’s a frank look at how men confront middle age by shedding the asshole armor they were conditioned to wear in their teens and 20s. And the rawness of a song like “St. Anger” chronicles that process in real time; it sounds ugly because it is ugly.
31. “Some Kind Of Monster” (2003)
Of course, the aforementioned people who are inclined to see Some Kind Of Monster as a joke will also guffaw when they hear James scream, “I want my anger to be healthy!” So be it. I understand where James is coming from. I want my anger to be healthy, too.
All great rock movies are about more than just rock musicians. In the case of Some Kind Of Monster, you can enjoy it as a depiction of a super-successful band imploding 20 years into their existence. Or you can examine it as a depiction of a common dynamic between adult males who grew up together, a la James and Lars, without achieving true intimacy. Here are guys who bonded over music and binge drinking and cutthroat competition, and that’s not unique only to rock stars. It is, in fact, the way of the world for countless men who will never scream at half a million people in Russia.
But there is hope. You can go to group therapy. You can say the F-word six inches from your friend’s face. You can hire Ozzy Osbourne’s good-natured bass player. And then, maybe, you will find that you can still produce a powerful groove-metal number like this one.
30. “Frantic” (2003)
Some Kind Of Monster is also an example of insightful music criticism. I refer to the scene in which the band is discussing the utility of guitar solos in the modern age. And Kirk Hammett, amiable peace-keeping lead guitarist, finally loses his temper. “Can I say something that I think is bullshit?” he rhetorically asks. Kirk then explains that deciding not to include guitar solos because they happen to not be fashionable at this particular moment in time will make the record sound dated to this particular moment in time.
This is a great point. And it also highlights the singularity of “Frantic” as the only album opener in Metallica history to not have a guitar solo. (And, yes, that makes it sound extremely 2003.)
29. “Hit The Lights” (1983)
This, on the other hand, is the epitome of six-string thrash-metal napalm being sprayed wildly like it’s the opening scene of Apocalypse Now. And it does not sound necessarily like 1983, It just sounds like Metallica.
Hammett had recently replaced former lead guitarist Dave Mustaine right before the making of Kill ‘Em All, and he proved a natural fit with the preexisting ego structure in the band. Anyone who is casually conversant with Metallica history knows that Mustaine was dismissed with an early morning wake-up call and bus ticket back to the West Coast because of his excessive drinking. And this has always seemed odd given the band’s “Alcoholica” rep at the time.
Ultimately, I think it fails to tell the entire story. Because Metallica is the only metal band ever where the lead guitarist is not the most famous (or at worst second most famous) person in the band. Along with the White Stripes and Black Keys, Metallica has the exceedingly rare molecular rock band structure where the rhythm guitarist and drummer represent the central power couple. (And, of course, it’s doubly unique considering Metallica is not a two-person blues-rock combo.)
That simply would not have worked with Mustaine in the band. He would not have provided the Derek Smalls’ “lukewarm water” steadiness that Hammett has supplied. He would have inserted himself between James and Lars in a way that would have likely imploded by the time of Ride The Lightning.
28. “Fight Fire With Fire” (1984)
Speaking of the second LP and album openers with guitar solos that hit your eardrums like a fleet of piranhas engaging with a submerged warthog: Ride The Lightning is my favorite Metallica album. I realize that Master Of Puppets is considered the thrash landmark and the height of the Cliff Burton era, and “The Black Album” is the popular favorite that includes their most famous songs. But I still ride with Ride. Particularly Side 1, the best LP side in the catalog, which is kicked off ably with this scorcher.
27. “The Thing That Should Not Be” (1986)
Let me stress that Master Of Puppets comes in very close second for me. I wonder how Master would have turned out if they had hired the producer they originally had in mind for the project: Geddy Lee. Apparently, Geddy was too busy at the time to commit — he had just finished recording my favorite Rush album of the ’80s, Power Windows, when work on Master commenced — but let’s imagine the “Geddy Lee produces Master Of Puppets” scenario had been allowed to unfold. It’s possible that Metallica’s third record would have been as convoluted and proggy as their fourth album, …And Justice For All. (Though, unlike that record, you would have been able to hear the bass.) Then again, this was in the middle of Rush’s “synthesizer” period, so perhaps “The Thing That Should Not Be” — one of the more straightforward tracks on Masters — would have sounded like Dio-era Sabbath.
26. “Blackened” (1988)
Here’s another Metallica hypothetical with far greater implications: What if Cliff Burton hadn’t died? Would they have made …And Justice For All to begin with? This question is predicated on the premise — which I happen to believe — that the members of Metallica created the angriest, most punishing and stupidly complicated music of their lives as a way of denying their grief. This process obviously involves their treatment of Jason Newsted, the former fanboy whose desire to penetrate the band’s inner circle exacerbated the impulses of the others to freeze him out. This happened socially, creatively and (in the case of this album) sonically. At least Jason was given a co-write on this song, the album’s opener.
During the writing and researching of this column I did an informal poll of drummers in which I posed the following question: Is Lars Ulrich any good?
Here is a sampling of the response:
Drummer No. 1: “Hard no. Also, egregious tone.”
Drummer No. 2: “He’s the worst drummer. Ever.”
Drummer No. 3: “Yep. …And Justice For All is a progressive metal masterpiece.”
25. “The Shortest Straw” (1988)
I also play drums, and I suck. My tone is beyond egregious. So take my opinion with a grain of salt: I agree with Drummer No. 3. Lars whips ass on Justice, as evidenced by the first track on Side 2.
24. “Eye Of The Beholder” (1988)
Then again, the problem with Justice is that it whips ass a little too much. At least that was the consensus among the brain trust in the album’s aftermath as they opted to change course and pursue concise rock songwriting on “The Black Album.” I happen to enjoy the excess of Justice, but in the case of this song it’s hard to deny that Metallica was actively sabotaging catchy riff machines with more time signature changes than Brain Salad Surgery.
23. “Whiplash” (1983)
According to Mick Wall’s 2012 book Enter Night: A Biography Of Metallica, Lars Ulrich is the one responsible for Metallica songs being so goddamn long. “In the past we’d do a rough version of a song and I’d go home and time it and go, ‘It’s only seven and a half minutes!'” he told Wall at the time of Master Of Puppets. “Fuck, we’ve got to put another couple of riffs in there.” The charm of Kill ‘Em All is that the tracks haven’t yet been subject to this policy of enforced elephantiasis. “Whiplash” enters the room, kills ’em all, and exits in a brutally efficient four minutes and nine seconds.
22. “…And Justice For All” (1988)
The quote above offers some insight into the songwriting process of Hetfield and Ulrich, which as I understand it works like this: James writes almost all of the riffs and lyrics, and Lars arranges them into songs. Hetfield seemed to confirm this in a 2022 New Yorker profile, in which he claimed, “He looks at music as a math equation, I look at it as a flowing river.” He could have also said, “I supply the lumber, and he turns it into a house.” It’s the kind of arrangement that makes each man dependent on the other, which makes their relationship invaluable and (I’m speculating) maddening.
A detail from a 2008 Rolling Stone article sticks with me: Early on during the making of Death Magnetic, Lars tried to institute a once-a-week movie night, as a way of inspiring James to write the sorts of storytelling lyrics he composed in the ’80s. Back then they did this often — the title song from Justice, for example, was inspired by the 1979 legal drama of the same name starring Al Pacino. (If you haven’t seen it, the film is nowhere near as grim as the album.) But James wasn’t into it. Eventually, he came up with ideas on his own, and Lars accepted that he had to let his partner “go off on this by himself.”
Part of me wonders if Lars just wanted to bro out like they used to over some flicks.
21. “Leper Messiah” (1986)
“I think the guy is a genius,” Ulrich says of Hetfield in that Rolling Stone profile. “I also have to deal with that genius.” Here is an example of James’ genius: In “Leper Messiah,” the climax comes when he starts chanting “lie,” which sounds like the part in “Creeping Death” where he starts chanting “die.” It’s the same but different, and works very well both times. It makes me think that Justice should have had a song where James screams “why” or “try” or “fly” or “Bill Nye The Science Guy.”
20. “Damage, Inc.” (1986)
As a lyricist, James Hetfield in the ’80s was rock’s angriest skeptic. Religion, the government, life itself — he was against it all. He also, naturally, hated glam metal. As the Master sessions commenced, Metallica played the Monsters Of Rock at Castle Donington, which was headlined by ZZ Top and also included paragons of poodle-haired rock like Bon Jovi and Ratt. This inspired one of James’ all-time on-stage rants: “If you came here to see spandex and fuckin’ eye makeup and all that shit, and the words ‘rock & roll, baby’ in every fuckin’ song, this ain’t the fuckin’ band. We came here to bash some fucking heads.”
More than any other track on Master Of Puppets, “Damage, Inc.” — in which he rails against corporate culture right as Metallica was entering the big-money major-label world — is the one where they bash some fucking heads.
19. “Harvester Of Sorrow” (1988)
James Hetfield came by his skepticism naturally. As a teenager, he was raised as a Christian Scientist, and his lack of faith alienated him from his family. Then his mother was diagnosed with cancer, and he watched as she refused medical treatment for the disease that gradually overtook her. Years later, his father — who abandoned the family before his mother passed — died in similar fashion.
In this song, the young protagonist responds to his dysfunctional family situation by killing off his kin. This is a very metal idea for a song, but it’s also … kind of grunge, too? From a lyrical perspective, “Harvester Of Sorrow” is similar to the perspective that Eddie Vedder supplied for Pearl Jam’s 1991 debut, Ten. Both Hetfield and Vedder became avatars for angry kids who felt abused or ignored by their parents. And this shared sensibility helps to explain why Metallica flourished in the ’90s as most of their peers on that Monsters Of Rock bill faded. The sentiments of a song like “Harvester Of Sorrow” went from seeming irredeemably dark in 1988 to weirdly commercial just a few years later.
18. “Disposable Heroes” (1986)
One area where Metallica have never gotten their due is as the most prominent purveyor of anti-war protest songs during the Reagan era. “One” is their most famous anthem in this mode, but “Disposable Heroes” is actually more brutal, with James spitting out venom over the senseless sacrifices of young men chewed up by the war machine. Along with Guns N’ Roses’ “Civil War,” this was the kind of song that spoke directly to the blue-collar guys who were most likely to be sent off to fight, which made it essential counter-programming during perhaps the most unrelentingly jingoistic decade in modern American history.
17. “The Four Horsemen” (1983)
Then again, I don’t want to make it sound like we’re talking about the leather-jacketed Noam Chomsky here. James Hetfield himself objected to Metallica being classified as an anti-war band in a 1993 Rolling Stone interview. “We got called a political band around … And Justice For All, and it really scared us,” he tells David Fricke, “because that’s not what we want to write about forever.” He then proceeded to defend the very dumb “Black Album” deep cut “Don’t Tread On Me,” in which James quotes the melody from West Side Story‘s “America” in the riff and snarls, “Love it or leave it, she with the deadly bite!”
Truth be told, there are just as many Metallica songs — if not more — about how murdering people is awesome. Take, for example, this galloping classic from Kill ‘Em All, a pro-apocalypse number to end all pro-apocalypse numbers.
16. “Ride The Lightning” (1984)
It’s time to settle an imaginary controversy: When exactly did Jeffrey Lebowski work as a Metallica roadie? As we all remember, Lebowski worked briefly in the music business as part of the band’s crew on the “Speed Of Sound” tour, and came away thinking that they were a “bunch of assholes.”
Now, this tour does not actually exist. But if it did exist, when would it have happened? The “bunch of assholes” comments suggests that it was during the Mustaine era. (Mustaine is the epitome of “being very un-Dude.”) However, I think it was the Ride The Lightning period. By that time, Metallica was getting popular enough to hire an extra roadie who was also quite possibly the laziest man in Los Angeles County. Also, when you get to about the 3:40 mark of this song, Metallica truly does match the speed of sound.
15. “Battery” (1986)
Let’s circle back to the Ride The Lightning vs. Master Of Puppets discussion. Like I said, I prefer the former. However, there is no denying that Master Of Puppets plays like a deliberate “improvement” on its predecessor, in terms of sounding better, bigger, and tighter. It’s just that, in most cases, I prefer the rough draft to the beefed-up redux. An exception to this rule is “Battery,” the Master Of Puppets opener that is an obvious rewrite of the side 1, track 1 from Ride The Lightning, “Fight Fire With Fire.” But this time, the ‘roided-out assault is too overwhelming to deny.
14. “Orion” (1986)
Cliff Burton’s acknowledged musical swan song, “Orion” exhibits his rare ability to fuse metal with the blues and Bach and have it not seem contrived. Again, the “What if Cliff hadn’t died?” hypothetical is the most consequential in the history of Metallica. (For one thing, it seems likely that they would have jammed with a symphony orchestra about a decade earlier than they did.)
The surviving members still haven’t gotten over the loss. A detail that sticks with me: In that 1993 Rolling Stone interview, James Hetfield marvels over the size of Cliff’s middle finger. “It was huge,” he says. And then he reminisces about Cliff’s pants. “We gave him shit about his bell-bottoms every day. He didn’t care. ‘This is what I wear. Fuck you.'” This is the kind of stuff you remember when your pal is tragically killed at age 24.
13. “Enter Sandman” (1991)
A classic case of something I often do with these lists, which is penalize a great song because I’ve heard it 12 million times. In the case of “Enter Sandman,” special recognition must be given to Lars, who 1) rearranged the original riff formulated by Kirk Hammett to make it extra hooky and 2) insisted that it be the lead single from “The Black Album.” Apparently, the rest of the band and producer Bob Rock wanted to go with “Holier Than Thou,” which is now known as the track that most people skip on the record to get from “Sad But True” to “The Unforgiven.”
12. “Sad But True” (1991)
The key to “The Black Album” sound is the third rhythm guitar track overlaid on each song that Hetfield dubbed “The Thickener.” This song is the ultimate example of The Thickener’s prowess, and an essential text for the groove-metal phenomenon that eventually begat nü-metal. I’m also overdue for a shoutout to Bob Rock, the comically monikered metal producer who sold himself to Metallica as the man who could finally convey their live power on record. Unfortunately, when the Metallica biopic is made they will have to change the name of Metallica’s most important producer, as film critics will find that a character named Bob Rock is too on-the-nose.
11. “The Unforgiven” (1991)
This song is like The Hangover — a big hit that spawned two unnecessary sequels. (Though the franchise did recover some of its luster with “The Unforgiven III,” from Death Magnetic.) This is also another example of Lars’ arrangement skills. It was his idea to make the verses loud and the chorus quiet, an inverse of the ballad structure from “Fade To Black” and “Welcome Home.” Though what really drives “The Unforgiven” home is Kirk’s solo, which — as shown in the A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica documentary — resulted from Bob Rock bullying the normally unflappable Hammett until he snapped and tore off the most pissed-off playing of his career.
10. “Wherever I May Roam” (1991)
The counter-argument to Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead Or Alive.” James Hetfield does not buy into Jon Bon Jovi’s concept of the road being his tormenter. In this song, the road … becomes his bride! He is making sweet, romantic love to the road in “Wherever I May Roam”! And that vibe is infectious. As one of the great “it’s cool as hell to be a rock star” songs, this qualifies as the rare Metallica track that is unapologetically fun. I aspire to one day achieve the power over space and time that James Hetfield exhibits here. The earth becomes his throne! Who wouldn’t want to regard the entire planet as their personal chair?
9. “Creeping Death” (1984)
Ride The Lightning came out the same year as The Replacements’ Let It Be, Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, and Minutemen’s Double Nickels On The Dime, though it’s never contextualized with those underground indie classics. But when I listen to this song, I feel like it should be.After all this time, can we finally smash the wall between punk and metal? This was underground rock, and it came out on an independent label, and it spoke to disaffected youth. If Hüsker Dü is allowed to hoard umlauts, Metallica should be afforded the same cool kid cred.
8. “Seek And Destroy” (1983)
The perfect thrash metal guitar riff. Subsequent anthems were more musically sophisticated, but “Seek And Destroy” still works because it sounds like a bunch of average-to-solid musicians who discover — through a combination of interpersonal chemistry and internal chemistry altered by Jack Daniels and Jagermeister — that they sound like brilliant world beaters when they come together.
7. “The Call Of Ktulu” (1984)
What’s been lost in the haze of Metallica’s decades-long era of dominance is that being a Metallica fan in the ’80s made you an outcast in most American communities. Which is why the three Paradise Lost films — which document the “West Memphis Three” accused teen killers as they’re convicted, jailed, and then released over the course of 18 years — are as essential to the Metallica story as Some Kind Of Monster, also directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. By 1996, as Lars later related in an interview with Mick Wall, “everything became so blurred. Nowadays, bands are just bands: some are harder, some are softer, but heavy metal and pop and this and that … it’s one big soup.” But Paradise Lost shows a bygone world where being a Metallica-loving teen in a small southern town provokes suspicion that you might be a child-murdering Satanist. This song — which plays throughout the film — also evokes that time for me.
6. “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” (1986)
Another Paradise Lost song. Also, the one that Rivers Cuomo later claimed that he was ripping off when he wrote “Undone (The Sweater Song).” If there’s a better metaphor for how Metallica was mainstreamed from the Reagan ’80s to the Clinton ’90s I have not yet heard it.
5. “For Whom The Bell Tolls” (1984)
Even when Metallica’s music was enjoyed strictly by outcasts, they still wrote songs like they were already playing stadiums. “Stadium rock performed by artists who not yet actually playing stadiums” is possibly my favorite kind of music, and this song personifies the form. The church bells, the bombastically drawn-out intro, the “time marches on!” chant that demands crowd participation — the level of rock-star manifesting going on here is truly inspirational.
4. “Fade To Black” (1984)
You know who else loved Ride The Lightning? Kurt Cobain. He told Kirk Hammett — who was an O.G. Nirvana fan going back to Bleach — that it was one of his favorite albums. Which will only seem strange if you are unaware that Ride The Lightning is an album with loud guitars and a deep preoccupation with death. I won’t speculate about whether this particular track was significant to him. (Apparently Kurt’s favorite Metallica song, according to Kirk, was “Whiplash.”)
3. “Nothing Else Matters” (1991)
Elton John called this one of the best songs ever written and likened the melody to “Greensleeves,” which moved James Hetfield to tears. Having just typed that sentence, it occurs to me that I have unwittingly made the “militant metalhead” case for disqualifying “Nothing Else Matters” from the list. Then again, does the kind of person who hates “Nothing Else Matters” still care about Metallica at this point? The metaphorical utility of resenting a Metallica power ballad as a personal stand against sentimental love songs has long since expired. As Metallica has aged, their earnestness feels purer and more endearing than ever.
(Quick story: I interviewed Kip Winger in 2014, and asked him about the part in the “Nothing Else Matters” video where Lars throws darts at a picture of his face. More than 20 years later, Kip was still not happy about this. “I don’t understand it. And it’s so ironic for a guy like Lars Ulrich to do that when I’ve got [drummer] Rod Morgenstein in my band. It’s a fucking joke.” Put Kip in the “egregious tone” camp.)
2. “Master Of Puppets” (1986)
The key lyric in “Nothing Else Matters” also explains Metallica’s enduring popularity: “I never opened myself this way / Life is ours, we live it our way.” For millions of people, their music articulates what they themselves can’t put into words. A fundamental fact of life is that everybody deep down feels like a misunderstood outsider who yearns for acceptance, while at the same seeking the confidence to be fully who they are. We all want to feel that we are strong, and to also have the strength to show our weaknesses honestly and without apology. And that’s the essence of this song — James Hetfield’s jackhammer downstroke makes you feel like Godzilla, and the long guitar solo in the middle is like seeing your grandfather break down for the first time.
1. “One” (1988)
“Master Of Puppets” is one of the hardest rocking Metallica songs, and also one of the most beautiful. But “One” is the most rocking and the most beautiful. James has said he was drawn to the Dalton Trumbo novel Johnny Got His Gun because he could relate to feeling paralyzed in your own body. What he understood — like all great chroniclers of teen angst — is that adolescence is war, and the PTSD lingers well into adulthood. In this life, you cannot live, you cannot die, you are trapped in yourself. But at least there are double bass drum fills and supersonic guitar solos and mustachioed mountain men who feel your pain. They are the baddest bees in the hive. Their mad activity after all these years is soothing. The mayhem keeps us sane.