Metallica’s self-titled fifth album (dubbed “The Black Album,” due to its artwork) is more than just a collection of songs; it was a cultural event. When it dropped 30 years ago, on Aug. 12, 1991, the mega-selling LP fueled a pop culture moment, vaulted metal to the top of the charts, and altered the genre for all time.
By the late 1980s, Metallica — singer-guitarist James Hetfield, guitar virtuoso Kirk Hammett, drummer Lars Ulrich, and bassist Jason Newsted, who replaced deceased low-ender Cliff Burton — were ready to shake up their sound. The band dropped four albums over the previous decade: 1983’s Kill ’Em All, 1984’s Ride the Lightning, 1986’s Master of Puppets, and 1988’s perennial fan-favorite …And Justice for All. The latter had started to break Metallica out of their niche, peaking at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 albums chart and being certified platinum by the RIAA, thanks in part to its music video for “One” landing in heavy MTV rotation.
Their pedal-to-the-metal thrash sound was finding an audience, and laying waste to the hair metal competition with its rough-and-tough riffage. But Hetfield and Co. wanted more — fame, fortune and all its trappings. But first, they needed to repackage their sound for the masses.
Enter producer Bob Rock. At first glance, he wasn’t a natural match: He was the studio whiz behind Bon Jovi’s decidedly not-metal Slippery When Wet, and albums from spandex-wearing clichés like Mötley Crüe and David Lee Roth. Not exactly Metallica’s brand of iron. But Hetfield wanted to go big, and that was Rock’s M.O.
Recorded at One on One Studios in Los Angeles over eight months, Metallica ushered in a new, cleaner, fuller sound, far more focused than the progressive thrash of their four previous releases. And fans were there for it. On Aug. 12, 1991, headbangers around the globe lined up at their local record stores to join in a true musical event. “Enter Sandman,” released as the lead single on July 29, fanned the flames. By the end of its debut week, Metallica reached No. 1 in 10 countries and spent four consecutive weeks at the top of the Billboard 200. It has since become one of the best-selling albums worldwide, ever, going 16 times platinum. The number of records it holds is long; it’s become the fourth release in American history to enter the 550-week milestone on the Billboard 200, and is now the second longest-charting title in history. It won for best metal performance at the 1992 Grammys — the band’s third consecutive win in that category.
MTV played a role in its ubiquity and success. The band’s creepy music video for “Enter Sandman,” then omnipresent on the channel, won best rock video at the ’92 VMAs. Beavis, of Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-Head, was certainly a fan. For that matter, so was Otto from The Simpsons.
It was the album that made “Metallica” a byword for “metal.”
Buckle up — let’s revisit the album’s 12 tracks, ranking ’em all from worst to best. Devil horns up.
12. “Don’t Tread on Me”
“Don’t Tread on Me” is a triumphant battle cry with marshal drumming and distorted guitar riffage, which certainly sounds like the war song for a band of Vikings preparing to invade and plunder a foreign land. Which makes the lyrics more fitting: “So be it/ Threaten no more/ To secure peace is to prepare for war.” If only CDs and stereos existed in the Middle Ages.
11. “The Struggle Within”
The album closer opens with marching drums and Zelda-style guitar heroics that turn into a thrash metal speed demon, with Ulrich’s drumming leading into twists and turns. “Struggle within, it suits you fine/ Struggle within, your ruin/ Struggle within, you seal your own coffin/ Struggle within, the struggling within!” Hammett then unleashes another out-of-this-world riff that sparks fire.
10. “Holier than Thou”
Attention headbangers: This one is for you. (Well, they all are, but especially this one.) This polished thrash metal bar-brawler has Hetfield pointing fingers at the haters: “Before you judge me, take a look at you/ Can’t you find something better to do?/ Point the finger, slow to understand/ Arrogance and ignorance go hand in hand.” Didn’t your mom tell you never point fingers?
9. “My Friend of Misery”
Now here’s an appropriate topic for the hard-core metalheads: misery. “Misery/ You insist that the weight of the world/ Should be on your shoulders.” It’s a mammoth chugger with a melodic bass line that carries the song from shout to shout: “Misery/ There’s much more to life than what you see/ My friend of misery.” Hammett closes out the track with a tender guitar lick that morphs into a laser-beam riff pointed to the sky.
8. “Of Wolf and Man”
Because of course Metallica features a track about morphing into a wolf. How could it not? “Shape shift/ Nose to the wind,” Hetfield howls over another chug-chug-a-chug-chug rhythmic lick. “(Shape shift) Hair stands on the back of my neck/ (Shape shift) Wildness is the preservation of the world/ So seek the wolf in thyself.” It’s a bit corny, but tell that to Hammett’s howling-at-the-moon solo.
7. “The God That Failed”
It’s Hetfield’s meditation on the god that failed his mother, a Christian Scientist who refused medical treatment for cancer, believing that god would come to her rescue, only to die from the disease. “I hear faith in your cries/ Broken is the promise, betrayal/ The healing hand held back by the deepened nail/ Follow the God that failed.” The track is heavy on Newsted’s grimy bass crunch. But Hetfield’s message is clear: “Broken is the promise/ Betrayal, betrayal.”
6. “Through the Never”
This thrash metal blitz keeps the hard-core Metallica fans lusting for more. Ulrich’s drumming drives this track hard and fast, as Hammett lays down some barbed lines. The pace bobs and weaves, clattering to a pause then driving ahead at full speed. “Twisting, turning/ Through the never!”
5. “Wherever I May Roam”
Is that a sitar? Whoa, and a gong? Yep, Metallica open this tribute to their wandering lives on the road with an absolutely sinister sitar line that explodes as guitars amp up the riff, like cracking open the gates of hell. “Anywhere I roam/ Where I lay my head is home, yeah,” Hetfield seethes. “Off the beaten path I reign/ Roamer, wanderer, nomad, vagabond/ Call me what you will.”
4. “Sad But True”
Monster riffage, at your service. This is the epitome of Metallica’s meat-and-potatoes approach, following the more progressive thrash of their previous releases. The chugging guitar and marshal drumming of this track intersperses Hetfield’s call-and-response shouting, like he’s a metal drill sergeant: “Hey (Hey), I’m your life/ I’m the one who takes you there/ Hey (Hey), I’m your life/ I’m the one who cares/ They (They), they betray/ I’m your only true friend now/ They (They), they’ll betray/ I’m forever there.” Enter Hammett’s molten guitar lines, as Hetfield moans, “I’m your dream/ I’m your eyes/ I’m your pain… sad but true!”
3. “The Unforgiven”
Like “Nothing Else Matters,” this ballad flaunts Metallica’s most nuanced approach to their fifth album with acoustic guitars and melodic verses, exploding in titanic choruses and memorable lyrics. “Never free/ Never me/ So I dub thee unforgiven,” Hetfield testifies. The song has become core to Metallica’s career, even driving the band to write and record a pair of sequels with “The Unforgiven II” (on Reload) and “The Unforgiven III” (on Death Magnetic). The more the better.
2. “Enter Sandman”
Is there a more recognizable riff in metal? No. No, there is not. Rock’s production is front and center on this nightmarish rocker, layering guitars and slowly building a riff into a colossal wrecking ball. Hetfield barks the lyrics, which have become a cultural touchstone: “Sleep with one eye open/ Gripping your pillow tight/ Exit light/ Enter night/ Take my hand/ We’re off to Never Neverland!” Enter Hammett’s seething, feverish guitar lines. Few moments define Metallica quite like this one. Because of this song, Metallica isn’t just a metal band; they are metal.
1. “Nothing Else Matters”
It’s power balladry, Metallica-style. As the album’s third single, this iconic track flaunted Metallica’s newer, poppier sound. With Hetfield playing lead — Hammett doesn’t even play on the studio version of the track — “Nothing Else Matters” is a slow-burner about… love? What!? Yes, even Hetfield has a soft side: “So close, no matter how far/ Couldn’t be much more from the heart/ Forever trusting who we are/ And nothing else matters.” It’s certainly connected with fans, including other musicians. For the album’s 30th-anniversary reissue, Miley Cyrus enlisted Elton John, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith and others for a cover of the searing hit. Because when it comes to metal, no other band matters.