The band was influenced by acts like Black Sabbath, Queen, and Led Zeppelin, as well as the new wave of British heavy metal bands which included Motörhead and Iron Maiden. Along with Anthrax, Slayer, and Mustaine’s Megadeth, the band is credited with popularizing thrash metal, an aggressive sub-genre of heavy metal that is famous for its fast, intense drums, and shredded lead guitar, and low-register riffs. There are few bands who could fill a “Top 100” list on their own but Metallica’s impressive 35-year career has resulted in a varied and substantial back catalog, earning them a place in the upper echelons of rock and making them one of the most successful bands of all time.
The band’s debut album Kill ‘Em All was released in 1983. Although it was a commercial failure, the band began to develop a rabid fan base, with their subsequent albums Ride the Lightning (1984) and Master of Puppets (1986) each doing better than the last. Tragically, the band’s tour bus was involved in an incident in 1986, resulting in the death of Cliff Burton. With Burton’s family’s blessing, the band sought a new member, Jason Newsted, with whom they released …And Justice for All (1988) to commercial success, becoming the band’s first album to enter the top ten and earning the group their first Grammy nomination.
The release of their self-titled album – often called The Black Album (1991) – was a real turning point for the band, introducing a slightly more commercial sound that catapulted them to the attention of the mainstream, eventually becoming one of the US’s best-selling albums of all time. The Black Album’s follow-up, Load (1996), was very controversial amongst fans because of its hard-rock sound, which played down the band’s thrash-metal past and centered the lyrics more towards emotions and feelings, and – perhaps most shockingly of all – saw the band cut their hair.
Following a controversy involving the file-sharing website Napster, the band once again tweaked their sound for the release of St. Anger (2003), which removed the band’s famous guitar solos and featured an unusual snare-drum sound. Since then, the band has released two more studio albums, Death Magnetic (2008) and Hardwired… to Self-Destruct (2016).
Inevitably, the band has never quite managed to recreate the magic of its peak, but have no doubt, Metallica is one of the most important and influential bands in rock history, forging a lasting legacy and an influence that can be felt across the genre.
# 10 – Moth Into Flame
This second single from Hardwired… to Self-Destruct, is one of the most recent Metallica songs and yet its slick production and contemporary subject matter allow it to stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the band’s best. The track is believed to have been inspired by Amy the 2015 documentary film about British singer Amy Winehouse, who tragically died of alcohol poisoning following her monumental rise to fame and substance abuse.
The lyrics deal with fame and the media, using the song’s metaphorical title to discuss modern society’s obsession with being famous, and the negative realities of the situation. Though at first, it seems odd for the band to be discussing such a cutting-edge topic (even using the term “viral” at one point) the band’s trademark use of visceral imagery is particularly effective here, creating a powerfully convincing take on the downsides of celebrity.
The instrumental of the song is as brash and glorious as you would expect, beginning with some ominous screech-chords which soon give way to the incessant chug of the band’s iconic thrashing riffs. The heavily punctuated nature of the first half of the chorus is perfect for audiences to join in with, whilst the celebratory post-chorus which follows seems precision built for a heavy moshing session.
Don’t let the disastrous performance at the 2017 Grammys (which featured Lady Gaga, of all people) put you off this track, Moth Into Flame is undoubtedly a modern-day Metallica classic.
# 9 – St. Anger
The title track and lead single of the band’s eighth studio album, St. Anger is an oddity of a track and is one of the Metallica songs which is often maligned by hardcore fans. It doesn’t help that the song shares a title with the band’s least popular album, which is famous for removing the ever-popular guitar solo from the band’s oeuvre. Following the slightly softer Load/Reload albums St. Anger promised to be a return to the band’s roots, but fans were unhappy with the loss of the guitar solo and (as mentioned above) were particularly affronted by the album’s “clanging” snare drum.
Though it’s a controversial opinion, there are those who think that Ulrich’s unusual snare works extremely well on this track, providing the song with a type of rawness that suits the band’s efforts to return to their famous sound and fits rather well with the song’s themes. Although the odd almost Red Hot Chili Peppers-like soft rock sections are wildly misjudged, they do at least serve as the perfect foil for St. Anger’s otherwise completely brutal assault of metal. From the track’s bass-heavy intro this song goes off, with lyrics that perfectly capture the madness of anger and a prison-set video that features real inmates.
Upon release, this song was not particularly well received, but listening to it over a decade later allows you to appreciate it much more. Leave your preconceptions at the door because, despite the album’s reputation, this song is an absolute face-melter and thoroughly worthy of your attention.
# 8 – For Whom The Bell Tolls
Released as a promotional single during the band’s second album campaign, For Whom The Bell Tolls is one of Metallica’s better-known songs and also one of their most approachable. Perhaps the track is such a great introduction to the band because, as well as being one of their earlier tracks, it really showcases Hetfield’s impressive vocals – he sounds crisp and confident as if buoyed by the underground success of the first album.
The song contains a number of highly unusual and interesting instrumental choices. For instance, the chromatic introduction, despite what it sounds like, is actually played on a heavily distorted and wah-wah’d bass, rather than an electric guitar. Similarly, the ominous bell which prophetically tolls throughout the song is actually an anvil being pounded by Lars Ulrich. Is there a more metal sentence than that?
Named after, and inspired by, an Ernest Hemingway novel about the Spanish Civil War, the song features many veiled references to war, including the role of propaganda, patriotism and blindly following instruction. The chorus mentions the passing of time (and how death comes to us all) and this is nicely echoed by the incessant guitar, all crunchy and spiky, which plays throughout the track. War seems to be an inescapable part of the human condition and Metallica’s take on the subject is just as intelligent, riotous and rocking as you’d imagine.
# 7 – Fuel
Fuel was the third single to come from Metallica’s seventh album Reload and it is easily the best song on the record. The track discusses the adrenaline rush associated with driving fast cars, and features many allusions to automotive themes, mentioning nitro, gasoline and headlights. Appropriately, this is an extremely upbeat track, featuring a fast tempo and joyously glossy and complicated riffs which seem to somehow echo the dexterity and skill needed to complete hairpin turns and perform other high-speed car stunts. Similarly, the bridge’s audacious guitar solo, paired with Ulrich’s drum beat, manages to perfectly capture the wild freedom which can only otherwise be delivered by driving a convertible at high speed along rolling desert roads.
The vocal hook which kick-starts the song (and returns throughout) borders on Limp Bizkit-style nu-metal with its almost rap-like delivery. Since the track was released in 1998, just a year before nu-metal would reach its peak, this shows how the band never lost their ability to be at the cutting edge of rock. It’s not hard to see why the track has become such a favorite at the band’s live shows – its unrelenting lyrical hook and utterly undeniable guitar provide just the fuel needed to really rock out.
Reload was a comparatively soft Metallica album but thankfully Fuel managed to provide the LP with just the boost of energy it needed. Just like a supercar, this track is cool, exhilarating and takes you on the ride of your life.
# 6 – Wherever I May Roam
Similar to For Whom The Bell Tolls this is one of those Metallica songs to feature some untraditional instrumental choices. The track begins with the sound of a gong, which is quickly joined by a citar playing a unique version of the song’s primary hook, but it’s not long until the guitars take over the song completely. The contrast between the citar version of the hook – an instrument usually associated with zen and meditation – and the electric guitar version manages to really heighten the intensity and excitement of the latter.
The Asian instruments serve more than just this purpose, they also give the song the suggestion of the “exotic” and foreign. This ties into the track’s narrative about a drifter who wanders the world. The lyrics make it clear that it’s not just freedom of movement which the drifter enjoys, with the chorus suggesting that it also affords him the opportunity to ignore social niceties, free from the constraints of polite and “civilized” society. There are few things more rock and roll than not caring what other people think, and the drifter has taken this to the extreme.
The song’s final chorus seems to suggest that the drifter enjoys such freedom because he is, in fact, dead. This provides the song with a whole other layer of meaning which rewards repeated listens. Of course, the rowdy and rambunctious instrumental alone is enough to make you want to listen to the song over and over again – perhaps dreaming of enjoying the all too unobtainable freedom described in the song.
# 5 – Seek & Destroy
Taken from the band’s debut album, Seek & Destroy is thought to have been the first Metallica song to be recorded in a studio. Despite never being released as a single, the track has become a huge fan favorite and has allegedly been played at almost every one of the band’s concerts since the very beginning. The song is often played at the end of shows, with Hetfield transforming the chorus’ vocal hook into a call and response section with the crowd.
The song’s lyrics see its protagonist hunting for victims to kill, making use of a simple rhyming pattern to great effect. Lyrically, this is not one of the band’s more complicated songs, but this simplicity works in its favor – there can be absolutely no doubt what the protagonist’s intentions are.
Lars Ulrich has suggested that the song is heavily inspired by a Diamond Head track but its almost seven-minute-long length clearly has a number of different influences. The band’s trademark chops are in place as ever, along with some brash and catchy chords. The song technically follows the traditional three-verse structure, but, as with a lot of Metallica songs, it heavily subverts expectations at the three-minute mark when, just as you think the song is over, a drum solo kicks in. This signals the start of the song’s second half, which is full of some insanely competent guitar solos, as well as the third verse and final chorus. The song closes with a minute-long instrumental, which was famously lengthened during the Black Album Tour, often doubling the song’s already impressive length.
The fact that this track has become such a mainstay of the Metallica canon should give you some idea of just how epic it is. Truly an irreplaceable metal masterpiece.
# 4 – Nothing Else Matters
Given that they are credited with co-creating thrash metal, you can imagine it was quite a surprise when fans were first introduced to The Black Album’s Nothing Else Matters, a low-tempo ballad full of sweet lyrics and sensitive guitar. The album is famous for bringing the band into the mainstream, so the presence of a traditional rock ballad should really come as no surprise and, furthermore, it’s rather nice to see a tender and emotional side to the band for once.
Legend has it that the song was written by Hetfield whilst he was on the phone with his girlfriend and was intended only for his personal enjoyment until Ulrich heard it and insisted it be included on the album. As you would expect given these circumstances, the song is romantic and sentimental, with Hetfield expressing his undying love for his partner and asserting that nothing else is so important to him. The song’s instrumental is well suited to this, full of light, poignant and touching guitar, evocative of the frank compassion displayed in the lyrics.
Obviously, this kind of music was always going to alienate the band’s core metal fan base, so it was a rather ballsy move for Ulrich to push for the track. Whilst a guitar solo is present, it was never going to be enough to appease the song’s naysayers. Luckily, over time, the song has become increasingly accepted, becoming a key part of live shows, giving fans the chance to take a breather from the head banging and bask in the majesty of this brave, gentle and brilliant track.
# 3 – Master of Puppets
The only single to be released from the album of the same name, Master of Puppets was the last Metallica single to feature Cliff Burton before his untimely death. This song has the honor of being the band’s most played live song, so it’s no surprise that it’s a fan favorite. Much of the guitar work on the track is down-picked which explains the deeper and throatier guitar sound. The song opens with an impressive minute-long intro, full of bold and grandiose riffs which are destined to get lodged in your brain.
There’s something almost hypnotic about the instrumental of this track, which somehow seems to tighten around your throat as the song goes on, the multi-layered guitar and heavy drums pounding into your skull. This is rather appropriate given the song’s subject matter, which discusses addiction, with narcotics being the song’s titular master.
This theme even plays into the slower, softer section at 3 minutes 30 which surely represents the high-taking blissful effect before it soon comes crashing down, interrupted by the once-again chugging guitar and an insane guitar solo that seems to echo the panic of a comedown.
Ill-informed naysayers often label Metallica songs as being “mindless noise”, but the clever instrumental and insightful lyrics on tracks like this show that the haters are just being willfully ignorant. This is an intelligent and exciting song that will stay with you long after you’ve finished listening. It’s not hard to see why it’s so popular with fans.
# 2 – One
Ironically placing at number two on this list, One was the third and final single to be released from …And Justice For All. Despite being one of the slower and more low-key Metallica songs, it features one of the band’s most disturbing narratives, being written from the point of view of a soldier who has lost his limbs, sight and speech whilst at war. The soldier is still conscious but is unable to do anything other than pray for death.
The song begins with the sound of gunfire and explosions, before making way for a slow ballad-esque first verse in which the soldier seemingly wakes up for the first time and is unable to make sense of what has happened to him. The primary guitar in this section is high-pitched, tender, and effortlessly emotional, however, the crunch of the drums and rhythm guitar suggests something dark is bubbling under the surface. This payoff comes during the chorus, as the buzzy guitar drones angrily during the protagonist’s first wish for death. Hetfield sounds at his very best during the chorus on this track, being simultaneously scratchy and melodic, channeling the unimaginable stress of the situation.
The instrumental of the second verse is much the same as the first, as the soldier learns more about his new reality, however, the third verse takes things up a notch, as the guitar becomes even more extreme and the soldier explodes with anger, prompting one of the band’s most brilliant outros. The conclusion of the song is full of some extraordinary double-kick work by Ulrich and is led by a spine-chilling guitar solo from Hammet. This haunting track is truly one of the band’s best.
# 1 – Enter Sandman
Did you really think there could possibly be any other track at the top of this list? There aren’t many Metallica songs which you can be sure that anyone, regardless of their musical preferences, will instantly recognize but Enter Sandman is one of them. In fact, this is surely one of the best-known metal songs of all time. Ulrich has referred to the track as being a “one riff song”, but with a riff as genuinely stunning as the one here, there is little need for anything else.
This is one of those tracks which is instantly recognizable from its opening bars, featuring one of the most iconic rock intros of all time. The song begins with some sinister guitar, setting the scene for the track’s exploration of nightmares and childhood fears. Reading the lyrics on paper does not do justice to just how creepy this song is, with Hetfield’s delivery giving the vocals a downright threatening edge.
This is particularly evident during the spoken interlude, in which he and the young son of long-time producer Bob Rock subvert a traditional bedtime prayer, followed by a twisted and deeply ominous version of the Hush Little Baby lullaby. It is delightfully mischievous that Enter Sandman appropriates elements from childhood – traditionally designed to soothe distressed children – into malevolent and foreboding omens. You can imagine young children being quite disturbed upon hearing their older siblings blasting the track from their bedrooms.
With its growling guitars, stunningly delivered vocals and instantly memorable hooks, every element of Enter Sandman fuses magnificently together to create a timeless piece of rock history.
Along with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Nirvana, Metallica are one of those bands who are simply synonymous with rock music. The fact that they have sustained a 35-year career and are still going strong should give you some idea of their unbelievable talent. All of the Metallica songs on this list are utterly timeless but they’re just the peak of an enviable mountain of a discography.
Top 10 Metallica Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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