“This album and what we’re doing with it — that, to me, is what Metallica are all about: exploring different things. The minute you stop exploring, just sit down and fucking die.” — Lars Ulrich, Metallica drummer, 1996
Ulrich uttered those words during the press cycle for Load, Metallica’s sixth album. Though Load was a commercial hit and beloved by mainstream critics, its utilitarian hard rock was considered an utter betrayal by the fanbase that propelled Metallica to fame. It also marked the beginning of a tailspin. Over the next fifteen years, Metallica would produce a string of albums that ranged from bland to atrocious. Thanks to a bevy of public-image missteps, Metallica’s members — and Ulrich in particular — would become some of the most reviled figures in music. And today, almost twenty years later, they still haven’t artistically recovered.
Lots of once-mighty rock bands have slipped into obscurity. Metallica, by contrast, can still make headlines by sneezing. Why? What is it about this band that keeps the public interest engaged, even as they flail through a dubious later career?
One possible reason is that Metallica are one of the best-selling acts in music history. They claim some 110 million albums shipped over the course of their 32 years as a band. That’s a lot of commercial weight, and with ample mass comes ample gravity.
A more compelling reason is that people love stories, and Metallica are a great story. On paper, it almost sounds invented: A bunch of working-to-middle-class kids meet in LA in 1981 and form a metal band inspired by the work of Diamond Head, Iron Maiden, and Tygers Of Pan Tang. Being a bunch of cornball kids, they call it Metallica. Before they can record their first album, they kick out their troubled lead guitarist, Dave Mustaine, replacing him with the equally talented Kirk Hammett and sparking an epic rivalry that would last for decades. They proceed to release three flawless albums in a row and become rock stars, despite the fact that they’re playing a gnarled, challenging style of music with an imposing moniker: thrash metal. Then, at the peak of their powers, a tour bus accident kills Cliff Burton, their gifted bassist. Their fourth album takes their bitterness over Burton’s loss and funnels it into their hardest-charging material yet. They then take a sharp left turn and release a massively successful commercial crossover; they become gazillionaires, abandon their original fanbase, and reinvent themselves as a radio rock group. A period of creative and personal decadence follows, culminating in frontman James Hetfield’s public struggle with alcoholism and a humiliating tell-all movie about the band’s broken internal dynamics. The band eventually convalesces enough to stabilize their plummeting public stock and record a partially successful return to form. In the years following, Metallica become eccentric elder statesmen, mixing baffling creative decisions with fan-pleasing nostalgia efforts. Their narrative arc is fit for a novel or a five-season HBO drama.
And Metallica’s story is not yet over. Ulrich recently said in an interview with Kerrang! that Metallica do not feel obliged to churn out albums on a schedule. Still, they clearly feel obliged to work. They recently played an unbelievably cool-sounding one-off at Manhattan’s legendary Apollo theater, which I would’ve attended had I not been at my sister’s wedding. (I love you anyway, Karen.) They’ve got a weird, narrative-driven concert movie in theaters, which trustworthy sources tell me is actually pretty good. And they curate the annual Orion music festival. These are all strange activities for a band of their stature to engage in, but that’s part of why they’re so interesting. Metallica have remained true to Lars’s Load-era word: they constantly try new things. This explorative impulse has led them to make some truly horrid creative decisions (more on that later), but it also lends their ugliest failures a significant degree of respectability. Metallica have balls, even when their music doesn’t.
Ultimately, though, it’s my suspicion that people still care about what Metallica do because, for about half a decade in the ’80s, they were the best goddamn pure-blooded metal band the world has ever known. (The fact that they achieved this stature with a drummer as musically graceless as Ulrich is that much more impressive.) Metallica’s first four albums are all untouchable classics that I would put up against anything else from the rock canon. It matters not to me, nor to millions of other fans, that they have done many foolish and embarrassing things since then. Kill ‘Em All, Ride The Lightning, Master Of Puppets, and …And Justice For All will forever tower above virtually every metal recording before or since. If you don’t know why this is so, I’d encourage you to:
1) Play all of them. Loud.
2) Read Invisible Oranges founder Cosmo Lee’s incredible series of essays on these four albums. If you follow Stereogum’s metal coverage, you’ve heard of IO through the Black Market crew’s close affiliation with the site. I am lucky enough to hold the reins over at IO these days (as both SG editor Michael Nelson and fellow Black Marketer Aaron Lariviere have also done), but Cosmo’s series addressed this legendary material with a degree of insight that I can only envy. His work is worth your time, whether you’re new to Metallica or an old-salt metalhead.
Now, on to Metallica’s albums, from the (nauseating) worst to the (eye-poppingly great) best. Before we get started, two quick words of warning:
First, I included only studio full-lengths comprised of Metallica originals. That means no S&M or Garage Inc.. I have thoughts on these albums as well, but chose to exclude them in an effort to retain the frayed ends of my sanity.
Second, if you are a fan of Metallica’s ’90s-era work, you will not like my ranking or many of the things I have to say about Load, Reload, and The Black Album. I consider any order of preference among their first four albums valid, as long as they’re all at the top of the order, and if you asked me on a different day, I might’ve ranked them differently. It’s a good problem to have.
And with that, let’s get started. Hey-ey-yyyyyeahuh!!
Start the Countdown here.