Metallica Albums From Worst To Best
“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!!
If you haven't listened to Lulu, you should give it a single spin. It's kind of mind-blowing to hear Metallica pound out aimless power chord trudges while a senile-sounding Lou Reed babbles about century-old German plays for even a single song. It's even more so to hear both parties keep at it for ninety fucking minutes. But after that first slack-jawed listen, Lulu does not merit revisits. Having slogged through it a full three times, I'd know.
As various others have pointed out, Lulu is both a charmingly earnest attempt at transgressive art and a gutsy move, coming as it does from a bunch of older musicians with a lot of money at stake. Both Metallica and Reed could easily have fallen back on more commercially viable sounds. They could've recorded conservative albums that would've pleased Rolling Stone, sold way more copies, and thrown exactly zero monkey wrenches into the machinery of their careers. Instead, they chose to take a risk, which is laudable. But as an album of music that has to compete with other music for your attention, Lulu flat-out sucks.
(Incidentally, Rolling Stone gave Lulu a 3/5 and favorably compared Reed's prattling to "the cookie monster vomit that passes for vocals on most metal albums"; Kirk Hammett recently called it "some of the best stuff we've done.")
When Metallica entered the studio in 1995 to record the follow-up to The Black Album, they originally planned to lay down a double album. The band ultimately decided to split their material into two albums: 1996's bloated letdown Load, and 1997's even more odious Reload.
By the time Reload came out, Metallica were six years deep into their commercial period. Their older fans had already digested their abandonment of thrash and moved on to greener pastures, so there weren't a lot of feelings for them to hurt. But though the release of Reload is merely a dim memory for me (I was 10 at the time), I can only imagine that even people who picked up on Metallica with The Black Album were peeved by Reload. Aside from its one unambiguous success — "Fuel", which became a NASCAR anthem for a few years in the early aughts — Reload is a string of failed experiments (the Marianne Faithful guest spot "The Memory Remains"; "Fixxxer") and abject self-reference ("The Unforgiven II," with its appalling pedal steel guitar). Then again, Reload is a quadruple-platinum album, so perhaps I'm wrong.
But people have been wrong in large numbers many times before, and I'm pretty positive that Reload honks. You know how people call Radiohead's Amnesiac a B-sides album? This one actually deserves the slur, which is saying something, given that the corresponding A-side is pretty crummy too. And it's 76 friggin' minutes long! The thought of enduring the planned Load/Reload double album is frightening. GIMME DABAJABAZA!
Historical perspective is a funny thing.
Load is the ultimate Metallica fan betrayal: it is the "haircut album", on which the band Samsoned themselves and appeared on the back cover in leisure suits and animal-pattern shirts. Load and Reload also mark the furthest point of Metallica's decade-long lean away from stern metal tropes and towards a friendlier rock 'n' roll sound — a lean that hasn't worked out well for them artistically, though they've obviously done fine commercially.
Still, compared to Reload, Load actually sounds all right. Its first half is mostly inoffensive, actually — "The House Jack Built," "King Nothing," "Until It Sleeps", and the unfortunately-named "Ain't My Bitch" are decent, mildly aggressive rockers, and "Bleeding Me" is handily their most successful epic-length tune of the '90s.
But ultimately, Load deserves most of the flak it has caught. Its experiments in bluesy down-homeyness translate as either Radio Disney Pantera ("2 X 4") or flaccid, insincere country rock ("Hero Of The Day"; "Mama Said"), and the band overdoses on both. Actually, they overdose on pretty much everything. At 78 minutes and 59 seconds, Load is literally as long as it's possible for a single-CD album to be. Every post-Black Album Metallica album is well over 70 minutes long, but outside of Lulu, this one takes the cake for turgid self-indulgence.
St. Anger (2003)
Metallica have a gift for overshadowing the content of their own albums with extra-curricular controversies, and St. Anger is the example par excellence. When most people think about St. Anger-era Metallica, they probably think of:
- Pushead's eye-melting cover art.
- Jason Newsted quitting the band because James wouldn't let him do a side project.
- the entire group acting like sullen teens in Some Kind Of Monster.
- Dave Mustaine fucking crying in that one interview from the film.
- Lars's insane trash-can snare sound.
- James's cowardly-lion 'do
- the band's PR-disaster crusade against filesharing. (Ironically, they were kinda right about that one.)
Aside from that legendary snare sound — an inventive failure if ever there was one — there's rarely much said about St. Anger itself. And strangely, it actually fulfills most of its publicly-stated goals. Metallica said at the time that they wanted to record a rawer, more aggressive record than the two that preceded it. And in that sense, St. Anger is a success; it's far grittier and angrier than Load, Reload, or even The Black Album.
But it's a Pyrrhic victory. St. Anger may have been Metallica's most energetic and passionate album in a decade, but it's also an ungainly mess. Lars's snare sounds just as horrendous as you remember, and the rest of the instrumental mix is mooshy and punchless. So are the performances themselves. It's crazy that three of the same guys played on the inhumanly crisp …And Justice For All. Hammett's failure to solo is inexcusable, and Hetfield turns in the goofiest and most awkward performance of his career. When he's not busting out groaner lyrics ("My lifestyle determines my deathstyle!"), he's fumbling through deplorable Jonathan Davis-inspired histrionics ("Invisible Kid").
Which is a shame, because St. Anger is ultimately a pretty sincere and heartfelt record. I hated this album as much as any thrash-era Metallica fan when it came out, and not without reason. The songs themselves are a hugely mixed bag, with the title track on top and quite a lot of tossed-off crap beneath. Load arguably hits its targets with more precision than this album does. The difference is that on St. Anger, Metallica sound like they're at least trying to be a metal band, albeit ineptly. That goes a long way.
Death Magnetic (2008)
Speaking of Metallica's ability to hide their music behind extraneous controversy: when music historians reflect on Death Magnetic, their analyses will focus mostly on the Loudness Wars. Yes, the album was compressed into a distorted, poop-sounding brick by either producer Rick Rubin or mastering engineer Ted Jensen. (Neither man accepts responsibility.) Yes, this hackjob did a major disservice to the music. Yes, people should stop doing that.
But the shitty master is not the most interesting part of Death Magnetic, at least to me. I enjoy this record because it's like a snapshot of an alternate-dimension version Metallica: a Metallica from a world in which The Black Album never came out, and in which they never stopped plugging away at the longform prog-thrash that brought them to fame. So, basically, a Metallica that opted to do what Slayer has done.
And this version of Metallica is a decent band, but not a wildly exciting one. When veteran groups consciously return to the sounds of their youth, the effect is often that of a knockoff passably imitating the real deal. Metallica suffers from that problem here, but it's not such a bad thing. Like all post-Black Album Metallica albums, Death Magnetic lasts way too long. The songs are as bloated and slapdash as St. Anger's or Reload's, and there are plenty of musically awkward moments scattered across the album's considerable bulk. But the many of the riffs recall the mechanical thunder of the band's golden years, and some of the songs — "That Was Just Your Life", "Cyanide," "All Nightmare Long," and "My Apocalypse" — kinda rip. I'd take four more albums like this one over Load, Reload, Lulu, and St. Anger, but those hypothetical discs lie fallow along a road not traveled.
The Black Album (1991)
Metallica have released a lot of divisive albums over the course of their career, but Metallica — better known as The Black Album, though not technically titled as such — marks the clearest partition in their catalog. This is the moment at which Metallica's decade-long rags-to-riches story reached its crescendo.
Though hindsight gives The Black Album the look of a brazen cash-in, it was a daring move for Metallica at the time. Indeed, fans of their first four albums abandoned them in droves when it came out, and producer Bob Rock gelled so poorly with the band that they swore at the time never to work with him again.
But work with Rock they did, and The Black Album's difficult nascence bore dividends. Though it is far less ambitious and consistent than the works that precede it, its five hit singles deliver a remarkable balance of heaviness and accessibility. The Black Album is impeccably calibrated to titillate mainstream listeners without scaring them off. It is the ultimate metal album for dads, kid cousins, and R.E.M. fans. There's a reason that "Enter Sandman" was such a knockout choice for Mariano Rivera's entrance music.
In fact, with some 30 million copies sold, The Black Album is one of the most commercially productive recordings of all time. Despite Metallica's vow, Rock would go on to produce their next three albums. The Black Album may have made Metallica genuine mainstream rock stars, but the success came with a price: No Metallica album since has been as commercially or artistically successful.
Kill 'Em All (1983)
At this juncture, we've reached the unimpeachable part of Metalllica's catalog. Their debut Kill 'Em All and the three albums that follow it are among the best metal recordings ever. From here on in, it's all personal preference.
Kill 'Em All is the odd album out among those first four. It is the only one which an uninitiated listener might confuse for an album by a different band. At 51 minutes, it's Metallica's second-shortest album, but it sounds far briefer than it really is — aside from Cliff Burton's "Pulling Teeth" bass solo, this album blasts by in a typhoon of cramp-inducing tempos and youthful hormones. Kill 'Em All doesn't even try to avoid feeling tossed off; Metallica had barely finished writing the songs when they recorded it. Kirk Hammett had just a month to rework the guitar solos demoed by the forcibly ejected Dave Mustaine, who wrote several of the songs that appear on the album. Even the lyrics are brash and juvenile. (Kill 'Em All was originally titled Metal Up Your Ass, but Megaforce convinced the band to change it.)
Kill 'Em All often feels like a punk record. The riffs are simple, the performances are loose (by Metallica's standards), the tones are wiry, and the pacing is breathless. Metallica's decision to fuse the dexterity of contemporary British metal (think Iron Maiden and Diamond Head) with the frenzied intensity of the hardcore punk that populated their home state played no small role in the birth of thrash metal as an independent genre. When I need to quicken my pulse, I still reach for Kill 'Em All.
…And Justice For All (1988)
It is hard to lose a friend. It's even harder when that friend is also your co-worker, your roommate, and the center of gravity for your immediate social circle. When Cliff Burton died in a fateful bus accident in 1986, the rest of Metallica was force to carry on without the man who had filled all of these roles in their lives. After a two-year gestation period, their anguish over Burton's loss took shape as …And Justice For All. Ironically, AJFA's lyrics have little bearing on Burton. In fact, the bass guitar barely exists on the album whatsoever; Metalllica mixed new bassist Jason Newsted (who would hang on with Metallica for three further albums) almost completely out of the picture. AJFA is a cold, dry-sounding album; it is the product of repression and self-denial.
AJFA is also Metallica's most ambitious album. Musically, the band took advantage of the desiccated production to push themselves to their technical limits. The maze of unpredictable pauses and rhythmic accent changes through which the band wrench themselves over the course of the album laid the groundwork for a whole generation of technically inclined metal bands. (Meshuggah, for instance, started their career as an AJFA-era Metallica knockoff.) "Blackened" is James Hetfield's most vicious rhythm-picking workout of a career built primarily on rhythm-picking workouts. Hammett's soloing reaches its spiraling pinnacle here. Even Ulrich — normally so stiff and klutzy — throws plenty of curveballs.
Perhaps in an effort to avoid the subject of his fallen bandmate, Hetfield uses AJFA to launch a bitter assault on the culture around him. Though most of its lyrics decry various forms of hypocrisy and social injustice, AJFA features a couple of notable exceptions. The first is "Dyers Eve," in which Hetfield addresses an acrid open letter to his parents. He would return to such highly personal themes on all of Metallica's future albums, but this song is the most successful example of its species. The second is "One." Based on the 1938 anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun, "One" details the suffering of a quadriplegic WWI veteran who is too horribly crippled to even ask for euthanasia. Its terrifying subject matter is scarcely the stuff of platinum sales, but Metallica's decision to break from years of recalcitrance and finally make a music video for the song helped it become their first Top 40 hit and launched the more commercial phase of their career.
Ride The Lightning (1984)
Kill 'Em All was a revelation, but it wasn't until Metallica's second album that the size of their ambitions became clear. Ride The Lightning, with its epic scope and progressive tendencies, leapt so far ahead of its predecessor that it might as well have fallen out of the sky. It has its own cadre of influences, of course, but it was still a singular and almost alien accomplishment in its era.
Which isn't to say that RTL is an off-putting album. There's a reason that so many 13-year-olds have embarked upon their personal metal journeys from this starting point. With its booming, reverb-y production and many hooks, RTL is rich and approachable from the first spin. There are so many earworm riffs on this album that it's not even worth namechecking them. But RTL's catchiness only draws you toward a core of cold steel. This album marks a massive harmonic and lyrical shift for Metallica. Gone are Kill 'Em All's blues notes and party-hard lyrics. In their place are darkness and horror. After a lovely classical-guitar prologue, opener "Fight Fire With Fire" plunges into a nightmare of chromatic speedpicking. Hetfield screams out nuclear-war anxieties: "We all shall die!" It's a far cry from "When we start to rock/ We never want to stop again."
Indeed, most of RTL's songs grapple with death, often from the perspective of the condemned. The title track details the rage and terror of a death row inmate; "Fade To Black" contemplates the benefits of suicide; "For Whom The Bell Tolls" reflects on the brutality of war (a theme Hetfield would return to several times on ensuing albums). Ironically, the most lyrically influential song on the album might be the instrumental "The Call Of Ktulu," which popularized the work of H.P. Lovecraft as a source of inspiration to metal bands. Live favorite "Creeping Death" flips the script by speaking for the Biblical Angel Of Death. And yet, somehow, these songs are all crowd-pleasing bangers. Rarely has metal been so terrifying and so anthemic at once.
Master Of Puppets (1986)
Want to start an argument? Publicly declare that you think an album is the best example of its genre. Favorites are highly personal affairs; like the proverbial asshole, everyone has one. But if you tell a room full of metalheads — or rock crits, for that matter — that Master Of Puppets is the best metal album of all time, you'll get as many backslaps as harsh rejoinders. Personally, I'm not 100% convinced that it is, but I have a hard time coming up with a superior alternative. Of course, many people don't think that Master Of Puppets is even the best Metallica album, much less the best metal album ever. But there are strong cases to be made in its favor for both honors.
Structurally Master of Puppets patterns itself closely on its immediate predecessor, Ride the Lightning. RTL goes like this:
Thrashy leadoff -> epic title track -> burly groove-based cut -> introspective ballad.
Thrashy leadoff -> shorter groover -> anthemic thrasher-> sweeping instrumental.
MOP is built almost the same way, but it switches the instrumental and the final thrasher. The big differences are in the details, though: MOP's songs are just a bit more complex, a bit more cerebral, and a bit more ambitious than their counterparts on RTL. Other metal bands — notably Iron Maiden — had experimented successfully with epic, suite-style songs before, but MOP's title track and the instrumental "Orion" are arguably the apexes of the form. MOP's production also balances grit and clarity just as well as RTL's, but its tones are more timeless; it strips away much of the '80s-giveaway reverb that characterizes RTL. Its themes are equally dark, but Hetfield gets even more philosophical here, delivering a string of meditations on manipulative social and cosmic forces that ensnare and crush helpless individuals. The vibe is astral, and the riffs are godlike from start to finish.
These features help Master Of Puppets edge out the next-best Metallica album. Is it the best metal album of all time? I could write a book on the subject, but this isn't the time or the place. Plus, this is heavy metal. One can only go so far by ruminating. So instead, you should listen to it; it speaks well enough for itself. Turn up the volume and feel the power.