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Metallica’s Top 20 Songs

on November 17, 2016, 12:00am
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Top Songs is a feature in which we definitively handpick the very best songs in an artist or band’s catalog. Sounds simple, right? Oh, if only.

When we say Metallica, what do we mean? Singer/guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich, for starters. At one time we might have also meant guitarist Dave Mustaine, but he was kicked out for being an alcoholic prior to recording Kill ‘Em All in 1983 (a bit rich, seeing as how the band would later be dubbed “Alcoholica” on account of their own excessive drinking). Mustaine was replaced by Kirk Hammett, whose name would also become synonymous with Metallica and whose subtle theatricality has always suited the band better than his predecessor’s flashy-finger worship.

(See: The Highs and Lows of Metallica)

Metallica also once meant Cliff Burton, the preternaturally talented bassist who died in a tragic tour bus crash in 1986 at the age of 24, having already performed on three of metal’s all-time classic albums. Burton was replaced by Jason Newsted, who was later replaced by Robert Trujillo, and the band soldiered on.

Metallica once meant thrash metal, but around the time of 1996’s Load, it also came to mean Southern-inflected hard rock. More troubling, Metallica once meant “sellout,” a designation the band earned when they became the face of the music industry’s quest to quash Napster and other peer-to-peer music services. This episode did nearly irreparable damage to the band’s brand, and for many years afterwards they were seen as little more than over-the-hill, money-grubbing assholes.

tumblr nm8wu8NEqL1rw7rajo1 500 Metallicas Top 20 Songs

Now we are entering a third phase of Metallica’s career. All four members are in their 50s, and together they have made more money than any reasonable person could possibly spend in one lifetime. Yet, here they are, on the verge of releasing their 10th studio album in their fourth decade of existence for no other reason, it would seem, than the joy of touring and the love of music. There’s a famous quote from Chinatown: “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” The worm has turned; the issue of how artists get paid in the internet age turned out to be more complicated than most fans would have guessed in 1999, and Metallica have become loveable — or something close to loveable — once again.

In honor of Hardwired… to Self-Destruct hitting shelves this week, we’ve come together to celebrate and pick apart this venerable old metal institution. Metallica may mean something different to all of their fans, but we’re confident that these 20 songs represent the very best of their legacy.

–Wren Graves
Staff Writer

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20. “Blackened”

…And Justice for All (1988)

As the song that laid the groundwork for a post-Cliff Burton version of Metallica, “Blackened” carried the weight of a brave new world on its shoulders. But the opening track of 1988’s …And Justice for All is less concerned with the band’s own uncertain future than it is with the future of civilization itself. James Hetfield sings of the “death of Mother Earth” and warns against the possibility of a nuclear holocaust in which “millions of our years/ In minutes disappear.” It all adds up to one of the most politically cognizant songs in Metallica’s catalog — one that remains surprisingly relevant in today’s climate. But that’s not the only reason it rocks. Though the production is limp and newcomer Jason Newsted’s bass can barely be heard, Hetfield and fellow guitarist Kirk Hammett layer riffs with reckless abandon, turning in some of their thrashiest work since Kill ‘Em All. Hammett’s huge solo carries a nice whiff of the new wave of British heavy metal, and he’s rarely sounded so powerful and so precise. –Collin Brennan
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19. “Atlas, Rise!”

Hardwired… to Self-Destruct (2016)

Given Metallica’s extensive catalog of tried-and-true bangers, there’s no pressing need to comb through the new stuff for gems. But Hardwired… to Self-Destruct single “Atlas, Rise!” immediately calls attention to itself as one of latter-day Metallica’s hardest-hitting songs, a throwback to the band’s thrashiest days that incorporates all of the knowledge and professionalism they’ve gained since. Like its Grecian title character, the song embodies the notion of persistence — of surviving and even thriving in spite of long odds. It’s a thrilling six minutes anchored by a riff that out-pummels anything on Death Magnetic, and it’s further bolstered by a strong performance from Hetfield, who sounds like he’s challenging the world with his gnashed-teeth call of “Atlas, Rise!” in the chorus. Hindsight be damned — this one is going to stand the test of time. –Collin Brennan
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18. “Fuel”

Reload (1997)

1997’s Reload was originally going to be part of a double album with 1996’s Load, but double albums are time consuming to write, and the band famously got bored in the studio. In a way, this little tidbit sums up Metallica’s middle period: after releasing five albums in eight years, the band had said everything they needed to say and was now making music for the fun of it (and not making music when it wasn’t fun). This isn’t a bad thing, and if the best songs from this period lack the violent urgency of the earlier work, they make up for it with mature craftsmanship and a kind of furious joy. So it is with the first song off Reload, “Fuel”, which is partially about driving too fast, but can more properly be thought of as a love letter to adrenaline itself. Hetfield sprinkles several “Oohs,” and “Yeahs!” throughout the song, satisfied grunts that make it as much fun to listen to as it was to record. –Wren Graves
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17. “Of Wolf and Man”

Metallica (1991)

The ninth track on Metallica’s self-titled fifth album kicks off with a guitar riff that’s so persistently repetitive it may trick you into thinking the record skipped for a second. Hammett and Hetfield do most of the heavy lifting here, turning in the album’s most headbang-friendly guitar work in the song’s first half, then having some fun with a goofy bridge in which Hetfield sing-speaks lines like “Seek the wolf in thyself.” Metallica may have already been an established mainstream metal band by 1991, but “Of Wolf and Man” feels a bit like a throwback in the sense that it’s heavily indebted to one of the band’s biggest early influences: horror punks the Misfits. They’d go on to cover “Last Caress” and “Die Die My Darling” on 1998’s Garage, Inc., but “Of Wolf and Man” remains the Metallica song that’s most spiritually in tune with the Misfits and their legacy. –Collin Brennan
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16. “Frantic”

St. Anger (2003)

St. Anger was Metallica’s first album written after its very public feud with Napster, and the high emotions from that period may help explain the wildly varying reviews. Rolling Stone gave it 4/5; Pitchfork, 0.8/10. Thirteen years later, St. Anger has settled somewhere in the middle: uneven to the point of being schizophrenic, but with highs to rival the band’s better output from the ‘90s. And the highest of the highs is undoubtedly “Frantic”, a philosophical thrasher that proves Buddhism is the most metal of religions. Lyrically, it’s built around the idea of dukkha, which translates as suffering or unsatisfactoriness. In the documentary Some Kind of Monster, we see Hammett bring it up: Birth is dukkha, life is dukkha, death is dukkha, and everything else is merely okay. Hetfield references “karma burning” and makes the idea explicit in the final chorus. This is how aging bands stay relevant: The pulsing guitars and furious drums are a throwback to Metallica’s earlier thrash records, but the inspiration and ideas are coming from a deeper place. –Wren Graves
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15. “Hit The Lights”

Kill ‘Em All (1983)

Within Los Angeles’ blooming metal scene, Metallica built its reputation by playing louder and faster than anyone else — louder by choice, faster because the nervous drummer kept accidentally speeding up. From the very beginning, they understood the power of theater. “Hit the Lights” is the first song on the first Metallica album, and it begins with a low hiss that increases in volume like a storm bearing down on the eardrum. A pause and another sonic wave of roiling guitars and thundering drums builds in intensity before dying off with a flourish. Finally, one of Dave Mustaine’s most furious riffs announces the arrival of a powerful new force in metal music, as well as an instant thrash classic. Hetfield would develop into a wonderful singer, but at the time his vocal repertoire wouldn’t have sounded out of place coming from a Tasmanian devil. “Hit the Lights” is brutal, wicked fun. –Wren Graves
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14. “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”

Master of Puppets (1986)

Master of Puppets is arguably Metallica’s masterpiece, and the most remarkable thing about that fact is that the album is more of a short story collection than an act of autobiography — if not impersonal, then at the very least largely removed from the realm of personal experience. “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” is the tale of the terrible living conditions experienced by the inmates of an asylum as well as the eventual uprising, possibly inspired by Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The intro feels influenced by Ennio Morricone, promising a showdown that happens offstage, as it were. After the last verse of “natives getting restless,” the bridge ratchets up the tension, and all of the actual violence is accomplished in the raging guitar instrumental that brings the song to a close. –Wren Graves
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13. “The Call of Ktulu”

Ride the Lightning (1984)

The epic instrumental closer to Ride the Lightning, “The Call of Ktulu” betrays Metallica’s deep understanding of dynamics at a stage in their career when they really had no business being that good. Based on H.P. Lovecraft’s classic supernatural short story “The Call of Cthulhu”, the song is among Metallica’s first attempts to compose a piece of music that stretches beyond the parameters of heavy metal, invoking an atmosphere and a literary narrative that unfolds across multiple chapters. The track begins with a sense of foreboding, building tension with a clean guitar line and a bass riff that would seem right at home in a horror movie. When the song finally surfaces — rises above the water, so to speak — it really does sound like a monster unleashing hell on the listener. Those who make it to the end will be in for a kind of reprieve, but it’s a long and intense journey to get there. –Collin Brennan
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12. “The Four Horsemen”

Kill ‘Em All (1983)

A song titled “The Four Horsemen” should absolutely open with a galloping guitar riff, and this one doesn’t disappoint. As the second song on Metallica’s debut album — following on the heels of the equally punishing “Hit the Lights” — it sets a tone of urgency befitting a young thrash metal band anxious to prove themselves. Much of the song was, in fact, written by original Metallica guitarist Dave Mustaine, and echoes of the main riff can be heard unmistakably in Megadeth’s 1985 track “Mechanix”. This is the better version, though, thanks to the addition of a nifty bridge courtesy of Cliff Burton. Less brutal and more melodic than the rest of the song, it sounds almost Lynyrd Skynyrd-esque for a brief second before Hammett’s guitar solo takes over and steals the show. –Collin Brennan
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11. “King Nothing”

Load (1996)

Load was the first Metallica album tuned entirely to E-flat. Not only does it allow Hammett to get closer to the sound of his idols, Hendrix and Vaughan, but the lower tuning also made things a little easier on Hetfield’s voice (especially valuable since he hadn’t gone to rehab yet). For a song that’s little more than an extended riff on the aphorism “Be careful what you wish for,” there’s a surprising amount of depth to “King Nothing”. It can be read as a middle finger to other artists trying to become as big as Metallica or as a bit of self-hatred from Hetfield, having gotten everything he wanted and still feeling empty. Either way, Load represents a departure for Metallica from pure metal to music more influenced by hard rock, Southern rock, and blues. Some fans criticized this at the time, but Metallica have never been afraid to evolve. –Wren Graves
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10. “Sad But True”

Metallica (1991)

Put aside the fact that it was sampled on Kid Rock’s all-time classic “American Bad Ass”, and “Sad but True” still has a lot going for it. Hetfield’s lyrics convey a struggle between two sides of a split personality, with the darker tendencies rising to the surface and attempting to take control. It seems the perfect metaphor for Metallica’s self-titled fifth album, which finds the band inching away from heavy metal and embracing a sound that’s closer to straight-up hard rock, albeit with punishing riffs to spare. “Sad but True” remains a staple of the band’s live set to this day, probably because it so seamlessly combines the best of their early and latter days, wrapping up the whole package with an instantly recognizable hook. Though it was the fifth(!) single released off the self-titled, “Sad but True” would end up having stronger legs than several of those preceding it. –Collin Brennan
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09. “Wherever I May Roam”

Metallica (1991)

Exotic instrumentation introduces us to the idea of far-flung travels: a gong, a sitar-like guitar, and an overdubbed 12-string bass. It’s like waking up in strange place and taking a moment to remember where you are. And while it’s not as if the lyrics are entirely uninteresting — Hetfield manages to add a surprising amount of drama to a traditional tale of life on the road — the real star of the song is that iconic call-and-response guitar riff. Hammett teases out variations on the theme before launching into one of his finest solos. Like the journey itself, the song never actually ends, but rather fades away so that the listener may go to different places and partake in different adventures. –Wren Graves
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08. “Orion”

Master of Puppets (1986)

The second instrumental track to make our list. Is this a subliminal dig at James Hetfield? Not at all, and not least because he’s credited as co-lead guitar on “Orion”. Instead, this is probably an example of what is commonly called “survivor bias.” Good lyrics can save mediocre instrumentation, and since by definition instrumental tracks contain no lyrics, the instruments themselves must be unusually compelling. This makes them somewhat harder to write, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that several songs that had been intended to be instrumental had either been repurposed for the voice or left on the cutting room floor. Neither “Call of Ktulu” nor “Orion” were cut or needed to be saved by lyrics, and the mere fact that they made it out of the studio implies a quality that the tracks themselves deliver. “Orion” is made up of several distinct musical movements, each with its own melodies and rhythm. The highlights are the two bass solos performed by the inimitable Cliff Burton. Burton loved “Orion”; it was his favorite Metallica song, and the surviving bandmates associate it so closely with their friend that they played it at his funeral and have rarely played it since. –Wren Graves
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07. “Fade to Black”

Ride the Lightning (1984)

Ride the Lightning’s first single remains one of the most memorable entries in Metallica’s entire catalog, an epic ballad that’s really two songs in one — the first a steady, contemplative meditation on suicide and the second a sprint to the finish, powered by Hammett’s descending guitar riff and, eventually, a solo that spins wildly out of control. The song’s lyrics are said to have driven many a teenager over the edge, but they’re far more empathetic than the concerned parents of the 1980s gives them credit for. Hetfield is really trying to understand what drives a person over the edge, and the song’s structure follows suit, beginning in a place of quiet despair and ending with a violent thrashing. –Collin Brennan
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06. “Seek and Destroy”

Kill ‘Em All (1983)

The ninth track on Kill ‘Em All makes good on the album’s title, with lyrics that portray the band as sociopathic murderers intent on brutalizing anyone and anything standing in their way. Clocking in at nearly seven minutes, the song plots a steady course of destruction that unfolds over several musical chapters, starting with an iconic guitar riff that bleeds into yet another guitar riff and a chugging verse that pumps pure adrenaline. But the real reason “Seek and Destroy” has become the most potent weapon in Metallica’s live set is that chorus, in which Hetfield prolongs the second syllable before pounding home the last four with unimpeachable venom. –Collin Brennan
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05. “Battery”

Master of Puppets (1986)

“Battery” is Metallica at their fastest and most furious. By their third album, the band understood that hares look speedier next to a tortoise, and nothing sounds as loud as a bump in the night. The slow, sweet intro isn’t just a chance for the listener to get up to speed; it’s a deliberate contrast to the wild fury of rest of the song. It’s another short story told in the first person, a character study of a psychotic break. “Smashing through the boundaries/ Lunacy has found me/ Cannot stop the battery!” The verses and chorus are so relentless that the band built in a bridge and guitar solo just to give the listener’s ear a chance to rest. Be warned: Listening to “Battery” at a Metallica concert is the leading cause of neck injuries worldwide. –Wren Graves
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04. “One”

…And Justice for All (1988)

“One” opens with the sounds of war. Machine guns fire in the distance, drowning out the thin voices of men shouting at each other across the battlefield. And then, silence. Or something like it. Metallica have rarely sounded so quiet — so delicate, really — as they do in the extended instrumental intro to “One”, in which Hetfield sings of a soldier who loses his limbs and his senses in war and begs to be put out of his misery (the song is based on Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun). As in several other Metallica songs that take on this form, the delicacy eventually gives way to violent thrashing, and it’s the especially stark contrast between the two that makes “One” so effective. By the time the double bass drum comes in and Hetfield starts screaming about “darkness imprisoning me,” the listener wants the pain to end as much as the subject. The best Metallica songs begin with a whimper and end with a bang — it’s rarely the other way around — and “One” represents the platonic ideal of this particularly effective trajectory. –Collin Brennan
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03. “Enter Sandman”

Metallica (1991)

This song is scary in the way that clowns are scary, scary in the way of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale, frightening in all of the ways that adults unintentionally frighten children. Parents aim to create a sense of delight and wonder, but the stories that achieve this effect contain gaps of logic that children are more than capable of recognizing and filling in with their own grotesque imaginations. The sandman and snow white, dragons with their fire, various beasts and formless terrors are all lurking in the darkness behind the eyelids — and are all contained in that heavy chord and those three descending notes. “Now I lay me down to sleep” is given an appropriately creepy treatment, such that even lifelong Christians may wonder who this “lord” is that’s coming to take their souls. Many artists are applauded for their childlike sense of wonder; Metallica is remarkable in a different way, for never having lost that childhood sense of dread. –Wren Graves
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02. “For Whom the Bell Tolls”

Ride the Lightning (1984)

For a band so concerned with seeking and destroying and leaving only scorched earth in their wake, Metallica sure found plenty of time to hunker down and read the classics. Ride the Lightning standout “For Whom the Bell Tolls” tips its hat to the Ernest Hemingway novel of the same name, rehashing the plot in a more poetic verse-chorus-verse format. From the very beginning, it’s apparent that this is a more sonically adventurous Metallica than the version that appeared on Kill ‘Em All. A deep and foreboding bell chime sets the scene, and bassist Cliff Burton takes it from there, laying down a remarkable chromatic riff that shouldn’t be possible on his instrument of choice. As is often the case on Metallica’s more ambitious songs, changes in tempo and intensity abound as the band strives to paint a more comprehensive narrative picture than the constraints of heavy metal typically allow. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else, they succeed brilliantly. –Collin Brennan
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01. “Master of Puppets”

Master of Puppets (1986)

The numbers alone prove that “Master of Puppets” is in a league of its own among Metallica songs: No other song has been performed more times in concert, with the current play count edging north of 1,500. And then there’s the song’s sheer length; clocking in at nearly nine minutes, it’s clearly the centerpiece of its eponymous album’s Side A, outshining such all-time metal classics as “Battery” and “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”.

But music isn’t simply a numbers game, and “Master of Puppets” deserves even more credit than those numbers indicate. Unlike other Metallica epics that start slow and ramp up toward a devastating finish, this one attacks the listener from both sides, opening with a searing riff that sets up the take-no-prisoners tone early. The sole moment of reprieve comes in the shape of an extended instrumental in the song’s midsection, but that merely paves the way for a pummeling bridge that brings the song home with a deranged chant of “Master! Master!” More potent than any other riff or lyric or drum fill in the band’s catalog, that repeated word lingers in the air after a Metallica show, replacing the maniacal laughter in the studio version. Some songs are more than songs, and this is certainly true of “Master of Puppets”, which inspired a generation of musicians to pick up their instruments and make as much noise as humanly possible. If there’s a more noble goal in all of music than that, we’d like to hear it. –Collin Brennan

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