Every Metallica album ranked from worst to best

From 1983 debut Kill ’Em All through to 2016’s Hardwired… To Self-Destruct, one Kerrang! writer ranks the metal titans’ inimitable discography.

Every Metallica album ranked from worst to best
Paul Brannigan

Only Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden have a catalogue to stand comparison with the body of work Metallica have created since 1983. Their importance and impact to the metal world is inarguable, and no band have a history more closely scrutinised and dissected. You’ll find metal fans without any deeply-held opinions on, say, Sabbath’s Dehumanizer album, or Maiden’s No Prayer For The Dying, but everyone who’s ever listened to rock music will be able to rant for hours, with utter conviction, about how they personally could have improved St. Anger or Load, or how Lulu would never, ever have happened on their watch. Metal fans care desperately about the work that James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich and co. author, so ranking their studio output – self-penned albums only – is a thankless task. And yet, here we are…

11Death Magnetic (2008)

On the face of it, Metallica’s ninth studio album is a curious choice for the worst album in their canon. After the misfire that was St. Anger – which we'll come to – the Rick Rubin-helmed Death Magnetic was hailed as a massive return to form for the Bay Area ’Bangers: a call-back to the old-school Metallica sound. But therein lies the problem. Death Magnetic is the sole occasion in their history when the band played safe and delivered a set of songs tailor-made for their audience. On a surface reading, the likes of The Day That Never Comes, My Apocalypse and That Was Just Your Life are excellent songs, but they’re also forged in the image of ‘classic’ Metallica, by men uncertain of their relevance or purpose in the contemporary metal world. It’s the sound of Metallica trying to be Metallica, and while it’s a collection that bears repeated listens, it’s also, like Rick’s work with AC/DC on Ballbreaker and Black Sabbath on 13, an album purposefully ‘on brand’, a facsimile of Metallica at their peak.

10St. Anger (2003)

God forbid anyone would accuse music journalists of being fickle, but if you’re ever looking for a cheap laugh, exhume the contemporaneous print reviews of St. Anger and then Google the same writer’s names alongside their self-righteously savage reappraisals of the album. Upon its release, St. Anger received rave notices; it was only later that cold critical analysis was applied and the band’s eighth album was met with frothing hatred. That noted, it is, let’s be honest, a dog of an album. Remember that scene in Some Kind Of Monster where Torben Ulrich tells his utterly crestfallen son, “I would say… delete that”? If only anyone else in Metallica’s forelock-tugging entourage had displayed the same balls and integrity. Everyone is familiar with the hugely difficult circumstances in which St. Anger was made, and while it’s hard not to sympathise with the band’s confusion and uncertainty at the time, it also beggars belief that the most astute and forward-thinking metal band in history considered this a collection worthy of their name. The best thing one can say about St. Anger – and it’s a point the band themselves make – is that, without it, Metallica would no longer exist.

9Reload (1997)

In conversation with this writer, Lars Ulrich – far and away Metallica’s biggest fan and most loyal champion – once admitted that even he couldn’t remember some of the songs on Reload. This is perhaps the most telling commentary on an album that divides opinion among Metallica fans. There are some wonderful moments on the band’s seventh full-length, the last studio release to feature contributions from Jason Newsted, with The Memory Remains, Bad Seed and the vastly under-rated Low Man’s Lyric shining. But there’s also far too much filler. Perhaps if producer Bob Rock hadn’t been so deeply embedded with the group at this point he would have exercised more judicious editing, to the album’s benefit. No-one’s favourite Metallica album, Reload isn’t the failure it’s often made out to be, but it’s undeniably a poor relation to its companion set.

8Lulu (2011)

Before analysing Lulu, it’s helpful to consider one simple question: would any other metal band have had the nerve to make such an album? By any measure, Metallica’s much-derided collaboration with Lou Reed is a challenging collection, but it’s also a throwback to an era when musicians were true artists, unafraid to push boundaries and confront preconceptions. The improvised, one-take nature of the recordings, rigidly enforced by the irascible Lou, means that Lulu is one of the most instinctive albums to which Metallica have put their name; and the fact that James Hetfield’s band had the cojones to release this most unfiltered and unrefined set is to their great credit. Metallica knew damn well that they’d be murdered by the critics – former Kerrang! writer and longtime band champion Don Kaye’s assessment that Lulu is “a catastrophic failure on almost every level, a project that could quite possibly do irreparable harm to Metallica's career” wasn’t even the harshest review it received – but stood boldly by it nonetheless. Honestly, there’s much to admire here, not least in some truly gargantuan riffs on Mistress Dread hammered incessantly in a manner that would make Steve Albini or Al Jourgensen proud. It’s not for everyone, assuredly, but this is the most unfairly maligned album in Metallica’s catalogue and one of the most fearless works in rock history.

7Hardwired… To Self-Destruct (2016)

Truthfully, precious few outside Metallica’s immediate circle could have imagined that the band would have such a powerful, relevant album within them this deep into their storied career. As with every other album they’ve released this century, Hardwired… would be more effective if the band had employed a producer with the courage to tell James and Lars that their songs could use an edit, but the source material here is strong. Crucially, it sounds like Metallica believe in these songs, and are invested in them, which can’t be said for everything on its predecessor. Hardwired… stands tall against the opening track on any Metallica album – no mean feat when one considers this places it alongside Battery, Enter Sandman, Blackened, etc. – and elsewhere the likes of Atlas, Rise! and Moth Into Flame are everything one would want from Metallica in their fourth decade. An emphatic return.

6Load (1996)

With the benefit of hindsight, the controversial Load and Reload – a twin-set to rival Guns N’ Roses epic and expansive Use Your Illusion albums – are much better works than they initially appeared upon release. Influenced by old favourites (ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Thin Lizzy) and more contemporary acts (Corrosion Of Conformity, Alice In Chains), Metallica opted for a looser, more bluesy sound – Lars Ulrich insisted upon the term ‘greasy’ – over their traditional disciplined snap-and-crunch with dramatic results. The often-repeated mantra that Cliff Burton wouldn’t have countenanced such a left turn is bollocks: if anything, Load in particular can be viewed as a homage to some of the influences he brought to bear upon Metallica, even if history enshrines him as the classically-trained Misfits fan. There are some misfires here, but much of Load is extraordinary, not least the magnificent The Outlaw Torn and the brooding Southern Gothic atmospherics of Until It Sleeps. That the album perplexed so many in the mid-’90s was almost certainly what Lars Ulrich intended, but history will remember Load warmly.

5Metallica (1991)

The phenomenon. Year zero for a new generation of Metallica fans, ‘The Black Album’ is the point at which Metallica purposefully and decisively moved into the big leagues. So familiar are at least half the songs on Metallica’s fifth album that it’s possible to take their majesty for granted, but by any measure the likes of Sad But True, The Unforgiven and Wherever I May Roam are remarkable heavy metal anthems, masterclasses in dynamics and structure. Metallica’s intention with the Black album, later put into words by co-manager Peter Mensch, was to make an album that could rank alongside “the first Led Zeppelin album or Back In Black”, and they did just that. “If I said we felt it was just another record I would be lying,” Lars Ulrich admitted. “We knew the Black Album was special.” Those familiar with the concept of ‘sides’ on an album will know that this set’s flip-side is less special than the powerhouse ‘A’ side, but still, what a beast of a record.

4Kill ’Em All (1983)

It would be seriously stretching the truth to say that, on their debut album, Metallica sounded like no-one else – Diamond Head and Motörhead in particular are owed a debut of thanks – but in early-’80s Los Angeles, the quartet’s filth, fury and ferocity marked them out as downright weird. Yes, the production is a bit ropey – famously, early in the session, producer Paul Curcio halted a James Hetfield guitar take, telling the band’s frontman that the sound being committed to tape didn’t sound normal, only to receive the reply, “It’s not meant to sound normal” – but the sheer force and speed of Metallica’s earliest songs is utterly compelling. There’s forever debate about who was the first ‘thrash’ band, but with the likes of Hit The Lights, Whiplash, The Four Horsemen and Seek & Destroy, Metallica were already leaving their peers in the dust.

3Ride The Lightning (1984)

Ride The Lightning is, inarguably, a masterpiece. In terms of songwriting, dynamics, musicianship and lyrical maturity, the band’s second album is such a massive progression from the feral aggression of Kill ’Em All that it could be the work of a different band entirely. Which, in effect, it was: by the time Cliff Burton and Kirk Hammett joined, Metallica’s debut – save for Cliff’s bass showcase Anaethesia (Pulling Teeth) – had already been written. Given that Cliff has no fewer than six co-writes on RTL, it’s tempting to lay the credit for Metallica’s forward momentum solely at the bassist’s door, but to do so would diminish the unit’s collective harmony and perfect cohesion. There are plenty of Metallica fans who’ll argue for Ride The Lightning as Metallica’s definitive work, and if it wasn’t for Escape – a slightly ham-fisted attempt at writing a radio single – it’d be hard to argue against it. Still, top three.

2…And Justice For All (1988)

AKA ‘The One That People Who Weren’t Old Enough To Buy Master Of Puppets When It Came Out Think Is The Best Metallica Album’. We’ve told the story of the making of …AJFA in depth on this site, and this, logically, was as far as the quartet could push their ‘classic’ sound. The lack of bass irritates more with each passing year, but this is Metallica harder, heavier, and frankly, showboating, fashioning James Hetfield’s riffs into increasingly labyrinthine forms, with his cocky little drummer mate giving a lifetime best performance. The unsung diamond? The fabulous Eye Of The Beholder. But, really, from those opening notes of Blackened through to the end of the savage Dyers Eve, there’s barely a weak point.

1Master Of Puppets (1986)

I’ll confess to a little bias here. The first issue of Kerrang! I ever picked up featured Mick Wall’s 5K review of Master Of Puppets. That review ensured I bought every issue of Kerrang! since, and then went on to edit the magazine (and later got eight bands to re-record Master Of Puppets exclusively for K!). So, cheers Metallica, and thank you Master Of Puppets. But even without this personal bias, it’s hard to look beyond MOP as not simply Metallica’s finest album, but quite possibly the single greatest heavy metal album of all time. Battery? Damage, Inc? Orion? The title-track? Flawless. Absolute perfection. The first Metallica album entirely written by the four musicians who would record it, it was hailed as “a landmark in the history of recorded music” when it released in March ’86, and its “hypnotizing power” has not diminished one iota. Uncompromising and uncompromised throughout, it’s the work of four young men utterly convinced of both their own destiny and their capability to change the face of metal. A peerless, majestic, deathless piece of art, Master Of Puppets will forever stand as Metallica’s masterpiece.

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