20 Best Metallica Songs of All Time
Are you ready for the legendary heavy metal band's headlining performance at Lollapalooza 2015?
Never forget that January day in 1989. You were at your friend’s house, the one with cable television, watching MTV. That's when it happened: Metallica’s “One” video came on. Your mind was melting when the double bass drum and machine gun guitar build started, and when howler James Hetfield, shredder Kirk Hammett, basslord Jason Newsted and basher Lars Ulrich started head banging, your mind was completely blown forever.
In that moment, you probably thought to yourself, “The world will never be the same again.” You were right. But you probably did not think to yourself, “In 26 years, Metallica will headline Lollapalooza and the people who cannot make it to Chicago that night will be able to watch them perform on Red Bull TV's Lollapalooza livestream." You would've been right again.
It is the year 2015, and Metallica is headlining Lollapalooza, returning to the annual festival after playing it first in 1996. Along with the Weeknd, Paul McCartney, Alesso and Florence + the Machine, the band that helped bring thrash to the mainstream in the 1980s and will undoubtedly go down in the world history books as one of the greatest metal bands of all time will own the main stage at the biggest music fest of the year.
Metallica’s earliest albums are their best albums. “Kill 'Em All” (1983), “Ride the Lightning” (1984) and “Master of Puppets” (1986) make up one of the most stellar trilogy’s ever. Then when “… And Justice for All” dropped in 1988, they transitioned into the weird world of popular music in a major way, thanks completely to “One,” which earned the Los Angeles band their first Grammy Award. They have since won eight more.
After Metallica’s 1991 self-titled album, the so-called “Black Album,” some die-hard fans tuned out as the metal masters turned into an incredibly successful radio rock band. Their last four albums, beginning with “Load” (1996) and ending with “Death Magnetic” (2008), do not come close to the heaviness and innovation of their founding trilogy. And Metallica’s finest output since 1991 might even be the excellent “ Some Kind of Monster,” the revealing documentary film showing them going through the very un-metal process of group therapy.
But through both lineup and sonic changes, Metallica still sells out huge arenas and they are legends. When they take the Lollapalooza stage Saturday night, it will be one for the record books. To refresh your memory, and prepare for the onslaught, here are the 20 best Metallica songs of all time. And don't forget to watch them crush Lolla on the Red Bull TV livestream.
20. "Hero of the Day"
It would be wrong to not at least acknowledge that Metallica made music after the "Black Album"; it would be equally wrong to include more than one song from that period on a list of the band's best songs. So here it is, “Hero of the Day,” a single from "Load." It is the best pop song Metallica ever wrote, and that is all we will say about whatever happened after 1991.
19. "Eye of the Beholder"
It begins the way a battle fought for everything that matters should. And it captures the radical urge for justice and freedom Metallica expressed throughout "... And Justice for All." It is about perspective and power and the connection between the two and the need for alternatives. And it somehow shreds, too.
18. "Disposable Heroes"
So that "radical urge for justice and freedom" mentioned above was always there lingering on tunes like "Disposable Heroes," a sick gem from "Master of Puppets." It is about war and how there is no way out of it for some — think of it as the metal equivalent of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son." "You will die, when I say, you must die," growls Hetfield. The band's best song about the ravages of war, however, would come on the next album.
17. "Sad but True"
When it comes to metal bands that know how to groove, Metallica is up there at the top. Their grooviest song? "Sad but True." It is brutal and mean but you can easily sway to it. It really swings, man! And that riff and that rhythm are begging to be rapped on, right? Well, good thing Kid Rock did just that on "American Badass."
16. "Fight Fire With Fire"
This is one of the best metal songs ever made about lex talionis and that is a bold statement because there are a lot of metal songs about lex talionis. Fighting fire with fire is a tough notion, but also a really dumb, meathead way to fight fire, because fighting fire with water would be a better option. But remember that Metallica's objective here is not to save the world from the flames but to defeat their enemies and if that involves scorching the whole darn thing, well, so be it.
This is one of the best metal songs ever made about the metal lifestyle. It is about living life in the fast lane, but in a way more extreme way than the way the Eagles once sang about living life in the fast lane. Much faster. Breathless, even. With no regard for limits of any kind. Always pushing too far, too hard. And note that in the way Hetflied sings about this motorbreath lifestyle, it is not a choice, but a necessity. No way out. Never. "Motorbreath, it's how I live my life, I can't take it any other way."
Metallica had a lot to prove with "… And Justice for All." It was their first album following the death of Cliff Burton and with new bassist Jason Newsted. They had to come out of the gates strong, with a ferocious opener. Enter “Blackened,” with its gorgeous droning intro that quickly plunges into a scorching song about a totally scorched earth. Mission accomplished.
13. "Enter Sandman"
Has the threat of crippling, hellish nightmares ever sounded so desirable? Nope. "Metallica" marked the band’s final transition from the thrash metal fringe to the heights of the hard rock radio mainstream, and “Enter Sandman” is the brutal, pulchritudinous song that lifted them up. And we will forever sleep with one eye open, gripping our pillows tight.
12. "To Live Is to Die"
OK, so we had to include at least one instrumental. There are some great ones to choose from, like Burton’s "Kill 'Em All" bass solo, “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth” and “Orion” from "Master of Puppets." But “To Live Is to Die,” from "Justice," is just so freaking epic, from its classical acoustic guitar phrases to its punishing thunder riffs. Some might say this isn’t even an instrumental, because Hetfield briefly speaks about how “When a man lies, he murders some part of the world,” but we’re calling it an instrumental anyway.
It is important to remind young ones that, yes, there really were people in metal communities called head bangers and they were called this because they literally banged their heads. Sometimes these head bangers head banged so hard they gave themselves whiplash. This is Metallica's homage to those brave souls, to the foundation of their scene, the soldiers, the whiplashers.
10. "Nothing Else Matters"
Metallica always had a soft side — their slow jams are some of their finest. "Nothing Else Matters," the gorgeous third single and mighty power ballad from "Metallica," is one of the finest. It is a song about being an outcast and choosing the road less traveled and not letting anyone get in your way. There is sorrow but there is even more strength. Also, even if you have never played a guitar, you can probably pick one up right now and figure out the main guitar part, and that is a pretty cool thing to be able to say about one of the best songs by one of the best guitar bands ever.
9. "Creeping Death"
This penultimate tune from "Ride the Lightning" was written from the perspective of the angel of death. That is all.
8. "Jump in the Fire"
This song has a lot in common with the aforementioned "Fight Fire With Fire." Obviously, fire plays a big role in both, and a big role in Metallica's ontology. But here there is more of a falling into it rather than a using it as a weapon. Well, it's not falling at all, it's jumping. And there seems to be something quite joyful about the jumping, and so also the eternal burning, too. And, like "Sad but True," "Jump in the Fire" has a great groove. Go ahead, turn it on and swing to it. Better yet, jump right in there.
7. "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)"
A tear-jerker if there ever was one. This "Master of Puppets" slow jam, which begins with some lovely guitar exchanges, is why the word epic was invented. It is about going mad, but there is something romantic about it because it is about a person falsely labeled mad and constrained as a result and so the goal is freedom and the solution is mutiny. Hetflied must have read or watched Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" before he wrote this one.
The acoustic guitar intro is so cool but also so deceptive. The soothing beauty does not last for long — it suddenly slams into gross, screaming, electric filth. Five minutes of relentless rage, and note how it comes from something immutable somewhere within: "Cannot kill the battery ... battery is found in me." Harsh realm.
5. "For Whom the Bell Tolls"
It is always a good idea to name a song after a book by Ernest Hemingway; like its namesake, this "Ride the Lightning" classic is a great rumination on war. From the opening bells (take that, AC/DC!), to the battle on the hill, and then there is nothing left but the will to live and then not even that or anything at all. With lyrics like "Blackened roar, massive roar, fills the crumbling sky," Hetfield proved early on that he could tell a story like few others.
4. "Master of Puppets"
Nearly nine minutes of thrash excellence. The way the guitar dances around the chorus is genius. The word "epic" is rightfully thrown around a lot when it comes to Metallica — it has already happened too many times above — but the instrumental section in the middle of "Master of Puppets," and Hammett's delicate solo, is so epic it hurts.
3. "Fade to Black"
This is perhaps the most beautiful song ever made about loneliness and death. "Nothing Else Matters" and "Sanitarium" are superb Metallica slow jams, but this is the one you play your grandma to try to get her to understand what's eating you up inside. If you don't cry when Hetfield sings, "Death greets me warm, now I will just say goodbye," you're already gone.
2. "The Four Horsemen"
Like a few other tunes on "Kill 'Em All," Dave Mustaine (who was fired from Metallica early on, but went on to start a pretty good band of his own called Megadeth) helped write this song. It is blindingly fast and dangerously precise and happily hostile, and the lyrics are about all the best themes Metallica explored: the apocalypse, death, war, glory. Along with Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," it makes you want to drive.
Of course "One" is No. 1. This is the moment everything changed for Metallica, when they stood atop the mighty metal precipice and decided to jump into the pop fire: "I cannot live, I cannot die." But it was an amazing moment, a ballad about the horrors of war containing a life-changing instrumental interlude that will always be remembered as, not just a special Metallica moment, but one of the most important moments of heavy metal history.
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