In a little more than a month, Metallica’s Hardwired… To Self Destruct will hit stores. It’s been a while since we heard from the legends — eight years, in fact, since they released Death Magnetic, marking the longest break between albums in their catalog.
As not only the biggest metal band, but one of the biggest rock bands in 30 years, Metallica has built an impressive catalog. When they played their fan club-only show in New York last month, the entire set (with the exception of two new songs) was taken from 1991’s Black Album and back. With apologies to the four albums that came after, if we were to come up with a list of the best Metallica songs, which we’re about to, it would consist of songs mostly culled from their first five albums. Our selections are:
10. Metallica – “Fuel,” Reload
We’ll get this out of the way quickly. Metallica found itself in a weird place over the one-two punch of Load and Reload. Coming off the massive success of The Black Album, the band became even more mainstream (“They cut their hair, man!”) than after their breakthrough album. Neither album was a fan favorite, but songs like “King Nothing,” “Until It Sleeps” and “The Memory Remains” were huge rock radio hits and songs worth mentioning if this were a best-of post-Black Album list. “Fuel,” which kicks off Reload, is a driving rock song about, well, driving. It’s a little cheesy, but all the more fun for it. It even made its way to a Dodge commercial recently.
9. Metallica – “Sad But True,” The Black Album
This is as close to Black Sabbath worship as Metallica got without actually covering the band — which it did on Garage Inc. The song’s got a stoner-rock swagger to it, and unlike most of their songs, was written in D, a key lower than normal for them. For better or for worse, Kid Rock used the main riff for his song “American Bad Ass” in 2000, and it’s a great example of the band slowing down a bit, but not selling out. It’s their seventh most-performed song ever, according to setlist.fm.
8. Metallica – “Orion,” Master of Puppets
This instrumental track from Master of Puppets perhaps sums up the best strengths of what Metallica is: chugging guitar lines, interplay between the two guitarists, several tempo changes, a bass interlude from Cliff Burton (on the album that came out six months before his death) and proof that a Metallica song could be heavy and beautiful at the same time. It’s a natural evolution of Ride the Lightning’s underrated instrumental: the equally mind-blowing “The Call of Ktulu.”
7. Metallica – “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” Ride the Lightning
Beginning with the literal tolling of bells and based on the Ernest Hemingway novel, this battle cry of a doomed soldier is another one of the band’s most-performed songs. With its instantly familiar chromatic descending riff that the band would revisit on “Master of Puppets,” and reminder that time marches on, it was Ride the Lightning’s first straight-ahead rock song after the opening one-two thrash combo of “Fight Fire with Fire” and “Ride the Lightning.”
6. Metallica – “Seek and Destroy,” Kill ’em All
If you’ve seen Metallica live recently, they probably ended their set with this, the first song they ever recorded. While 1983’s Kill ‘em All is regarded as one of the first thrash albums ever, this ninth track on the album draws more from the New Wave of British heavy metal bands that inspired them, and it proved the band could take their foot off the gas a bit and write a straight-ahead headbanger.
5. Metallica – “Creeping Death,” Ride the Lightning
A biblical lesson and a rager at the same time, “Creeping Death” was inspired by the book of Exodus. Written from the point of view of the Angel of Death, the song is about the plagues bestowed on the Egyptians. From the opening riff to the last note, it’s one of the band’s most driving songs, and a highlight of almost every show they play, as the whole audience chants “Die” repeatedly, following a blistering guitar solo from Kirk Hammett.
4. Metallica – “Battery,” Master of Puppets
Another great album opener, Master of Puppets opens with the almost flamenco-like acoustic guitar strums of “Battery.” At 30 seconds in, it becomes apparent that this isn’t going to be a solely acoustic song, and another 30 after that, it turns into one of the most intense songs that the band’s written.
3. Metallica – “One,” …And Justice For All
Taken from …And Justice For All, this was the Metallica song that catapulted the band into the mainstream. A big reason was its video, the first the band ever made. Interspersing footage from the 1971 film Johnny Got His Gun with shots of the band performing, the song (and video) is about a war veteran waking up in a hospital and realizing he’s a paraplegic. It was an instant hit on MTV upon its release in 1989. Then there’s the song, which starts as a ballad, building in intensity until about the 4:30 mark where Lars Ulrich’s double-bass kicks turn the rest of the song into a syncopated thrashfest. Despite performing the song on the 1989 Grammys, they lost the first metal Grammy to Jethro Tull, but won for this song the following year.
2. Metallica – “Master of Puppets,” Master of Puppets
The title track of Metallica’s third album is a great summation of why Master of Puppets is viewed by many as the band’s peak. Throughout the course of 8:36, the song touches on thrash and classical with several tempo changes, even towards prog. A breakneck rollercoaster of a song, the anti-cocaine song has an instrumental breakdown in the middle that swells into a dual guitar harmony that builds in intensity back to the last verse of the song. It’s an instant classic and the most-played live song of their career.
1. Metallica – “Enter Sandman,” The Black Album
As if there was any chance there would be another song at #1. The first single from The Black Album was a statement that the Metallica of the ’90s wasn’t going to be the same one that they’d been for their first four albums. Trading in …And Justice For All’s muddy mix for the crisp sound of engineer Bob Rock, the first song from their eponymous album was the first full-on mainstream rock anthem the band wrote, and for many old-school fans, the exact moment when they decided they didn’t like Metallica any more. Those diehards wanting another thrash record would have to wait until they returned to their roots with Death Magnetic, but they were supplanted by millions (16.4 and counting) that embraced the band and purchased Black. “Enter Sandman” is almost mandatory at sports arenas. It’s one of the most iconic rock songs ever.