The 20 greatest Metallica songs – ranked

From Kill ’Em All to Hardwired… To Self-Destruct, we chart the best of the best from Metallica...

The 20 greatest Metallica songs – ranked
Sam Law

Metallica are a band apart, in terms of importance, influence and the sheer quality scattered (lop-sidedly) through their catalogue. For most outfits, Top 20 lists like these largely pick themselves: a slew of hit singles rounded-out by deeper cuts and fan favourites that’ve shown their quality over time. Not so the Bay Area giants, who’ve easily produced double that number with the complexity, innovation and sheer power to be considered solid gold classics.

Between frontman James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, guitarist Kirk Hammett and their three bassists Rob Trujillo, Jason Newsted and the venerable Cliff Burton (not to forget past six-string contributor Dave Mustaine) they’ve produced 10 studio albums, numerous thrilling live albums, experimental releases that’ve varied from the wildly successful (1999’s orchestral masterpiece S&M) to the risible (2011’s admirable but ultimately misguided Lou Reed collaboration Lulu) and game-changing progressions that’ve shunted the whole scene forward.

With all that in mind, proceed in the knowledge that we’ve not forgotten those thumping crowd-pleasers (Fuel, Wherever I May Roam), experimental epics (The Call Of Ktulu, …And Justice For All) and straight-up bangers (Fight Fire With Fire, Disposable Heroes, Of Wolf And Man, All Nightmare Long) absent from our list, but that these best of the best are just that little bit better…

20Spit Out The Bone (Hardwired... To Self-Destruct, 2016)

As the above intro mentions, the scant representation by songs released after 1991 shouldn’t be taken as any particular condemnation of their quality, but rather a statement of the sheer strength of what came before. 2016’s 10th album Hardwired… To Self-Destruct does boast several contenders, though, with the swagger of Moth Into Flame and Atlas, Rise!’s throwback smash demanding we sit up and take notice. But for sheer commitment to vision, Spit Out The Bone is easily their best release of the last 24 years. Hitting the ground at 100mph and refusing to let up, it unfolds in a blitzkrieg of machine gun percussion and razorblade guitars as James laments/celebrates the beginning of a new mechanised hierarchy: ‘The flesh betrays the flesh; your man has had his time / We lay him down to rest; machine the new divine…’ Proof, ironically, that the old masters’ time hasn’t passed just yet…

19Sad But True (Metallica, 1991)

Do you want heavy? Metallica gives you heavy, bay-beh!’ The band’s sludgiest, most lurching cut since The Thing That Should Not Be, Black Album landmark Sad But True saw the lads tuning down to D and cranking up the production for what remains their biggest-sounding song. Infamously borrowed by Kid Rock on American Bad Ass and briefly sampled on Upon A Burning Body/Ice-T’s 2015 cover of Turn Down For What, this brand of hooky, high-sheen metal was as pivotal in Metallica's mainstream infiltration as any number of ballads. Strip away the slight sense of overexposure, though, and the base materials still intrigue: a metaphor – inspired by Anthony Hopkins’ 1978 ventriloquist horror Magic – on religion as a potentially corruptive force.

18Welcome Home (Sanitarium) (Master Of Puppets, 1986)

In many ways, 1986’s Master Of Puppets saw the band attempting to expand and improve on formulae established by 1984’s Ride The Lightning. Given that they’re both amongst the greatest records in metal history, that progression delivered some spectacular results. Welcome Home (Sanitarium) sees them attempting to (albeit, not quite succeeding in) topping the slower-paced atmospherics and doomy mood established on Fade To Black. Inspired by Ken Kesey’s institutionalised 1962 novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (and doubtless also Miloš Forman’s classic 1975 movie adaptation), its reckoning on the inhumane treatment of mental patients still feels relevant today, while the soft/heavy dynamics on show have never truly been bettered.

17The Four Horsemen (Kill ’Em All, 1983)

Influenced both directly – and through the inherited boisterousness of the NWOBHM – by gob-flecked British punk rock, there’s a looser, more chaotic sense of aggression to much of Metallica’s earliest work. Largely moulded by original guitarist Dave Mustaine and originally conceived as the more conventionally innuendo-laden knockabout Mechanix, The Four Horsemen bears many of those hallmarks. With Dave kicked out of the band a month before they recorded their debut, the song was reimagined as a foreboding End Of Days epic, with the imagery of the apocalypse riders fitting perfectly over that galloping riffage. Although the original vision – resurrected by Megadeth on 1985’s Killing Is My Business… And Business Is Good – is a classic in its own right, this beats it by a nose (or four).

16Enter Sandman (Metallica, 1991)

Undoubtedly Metallica’s biggest song, the Black Album’s airwaves-crashing lead single might lack the scope and complexity of much of the rest of their back-catalogue, but it also remains one of their best. Building a dark narrative about a child coming to terms with his own bad dreams around some of the catchiest riffage of their career, overloading the air-punching bombast and polishing it up with some of that million dollar production, Enter Sandman was machine-tooled to ram raid the mainstream and pulled off the task effortlessly. In the ‘Now I lay me down to sleep…’ recital – James’ lead echoed by producer Bob Rock’s son – they dragged up a murderous amount of insidious atmosphere along with them.

15Seek & Destroy (Kill ’Em All, 1983)

The sheer ubiquity of this live favourite – for so long Metallica’s bombastic, beach ball-laden curtain dropper – has robbed it somewhat, in hardcore fans' eyes, of its original edge and impact. It marries that early imagery of thrash's Four Horsemen roaming the American West Coast’s alleys and dive bars to take on all comers to the sort of viciously purposeful, military-inflected language which would become a career-long stock in trade. However, we shouldn’t forget the song’s original impact as a Kill ’Em All standout that suggested the attitude and complexity of musicians destined for much bigger things. On top of that, for all its wear, it is still one hell of a lights-up sing-along…

14Ride The Lightning (Ride The Lightning, 1984)

If Metallica’s 1984 sophomore release opened on furiously familiar terms with the awesome speed and violence of Fight Fire With Fire, its title-track suggested a more significant progression. Building on a killer phrase lifted by Kirk from Stephen King’s good vs. evil classic The Stand – with unforgettably electrified musical motifs stacked on rock-solid thrash foundations – Ride The Lightning was the first song with a sound big enough to match the ideas at play: justice, mortality and facing up to inescapable circumstances of one’s own making. Its gnarly imagery might’ve shifted a million T-shirts since, but it’s that impressive philosophical depth that still merits discussion today.

13Orion (Master Of Puppets, 1986)

Alongside the insidious creep of 1984’s Lovecraftian epic The Call Of Ktulu, the eight-and-a-half minutes of Master Of Puppets’ staggering, speechless counterpart Orion was proof that Metallica could deal in cosmic wonder (and dread) alongside the very best of ’80s prog. Heavily influenced by Cliff Burton’s love of classical, this wasn’t just a show of instrumental virtuosity, but rather an intricately woven exploration of texture and melody laced with aching emotion and sheer wonder. The sixth and seventh minutes of the song – culminating in Cliff’s astonishing bass solo – are the most beautiful of the band’s career, and an immortal legacy for the genius who would die on the road just six months after the record’s release. Tellingly, it would take 20 years for the band to perform the track live.

12Blackened (…And Justice For All, 1988)

While losing a talent the magnitude of Cliff would’ve at least temporarily derailed most outfits, by the late ’80s the Metallica machine had picked up a momentum that couldn't be stopped. Writing (and the notoriously bass-light recording) of fourth album …And Justice For All with new bassist Jason Newsted, however, proved an arduous process, with only one track from their initial sessions together deemed worthy of the record: up-tempo rallying-cry Blackened. Echoing Master Of Puppets’ opener Battery while expanding scope both in its more winding structure and globalist lament of impending environmental disaster, this became a guarantee to fans that not only could Metallica continue without Cliff, but they would step up to even grander stages. The recent, countrified quarantine cover of the song lays bare an ageless poignancy, too.

11The Outlaw Torn (Load, 1996)

Five years after they changed the face of metal forever with the Black Album, Metallica cut their hair, began experimenting with their sound and aesthetic and alienated a whole generation of fans. So deep was the betrayal felt by metal traditionalists that recently, some 24 years after the fact, All That Remains frontman Phil Labonte was still making headlines with his (good-natured) observation that “almost any of the tracks from Load and Reload could go on a Nickelback record”. Not to take anything more from the much-maligned Canadians, but such continued (mis)interpretations fail to grasp the rich Southern Gothic textures and far more emotionally reflexive songwriting of those records’ finest moments. Although the shapeshifting darkness of Until It Sleeps, the pained introspection of Bleeding Me, and the stadium-rattling heft of Fuel and The Memory Remains all deserve recognition, the colossal scale of The Outlaw Torn – stretching, like Monument Valley, towards the horizon – remains the era’s perennially-underrated highlight. Its breathtaking symphonic reimagining on S&M shunts it a few spots further up this list.

10Harvester Of Sorrow (…And Justice For All, 1988)

The lead single from …And Justice For All still feels like a potent summation of that record’s boldness and ambition. An absolutely gargantuan riff – bridging the serratedness of Master Of Puppets’ Leper Messiah and the Black Album’s Sad But True – provided the basis for the tale of a normal family man who one day cracks and spirals off on a bloodthirsty killing spree. ‘All have said their prayers,’ James relishes the insidiousness. ‘Invade their nightmares! To see into my eyes, you'll find where murder lies – infanticide!’ Although some critics have been hung up on the song’s relative straightforwardness following the complexity that’d come before, its gouging relentlessness makes for one of the band’s most enduringly uncomplicated goosebump moments.

9The Unforgiven (Metallica, 1991)

For years, Metallica had worn their wild western influence on their sleeves, with Ennio Morricone’s classic score The Ecstasy Of Gold from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly remaining their intro tape of choice. It wasn’t until the Black Album’s stylistic watershed, however, that those rich influences began to really bleed through on record. With the forlorn horn of its intro purposefully invoking Ennio and guitars over the softer chorus sections echoing sounds more commonly heard in country music, The Unforgiven proved their place in the Metallica songbook emphatically: its brooding reckoning on life and love, freedom and responsibility feeling like the natural progression for the grand ideas with which the band had dealt earlier on. Although two 'sequels' followed (on 1997’s Reload and 2008’s Death Magnetic), a more significant successor is perhaps 1996’s Mama Said which saw the band go fully country, and for which James was even invited to perform solo at 2004’s CMT Outlaw concert.

8Fade To Black (Ride The Lightning, 1984)

Where Kill ’Em All felt like a full-frontal attack from start to finish, by the fourth track of Ride The Lightning we had early proof of the dynamism that would see Metallica swiftly outstrip their peers. Derided by a bone-headed hardcore at the time as an unwelcome ‘ballad’, that oversimplification misses the point. This is Metallica’s first slow song – a steely acoustic guitar harking all the way back to legends like Led Zeppelin – but its exploration into the hopelessness of depression and oppressive suicidal tendencies was a world away from the throwaway sap being peddled by hair metallers of the era. Also, the shift in tone on the four-minute mark, into a more chaotic intensity, delivers a catharsis that only feeds the song’s untouchable poignancy.

7Whiplash (Kill ’Em All, 1983)

If Kill ’Em All was the pivotal release of the popularisation of thrash metal in the early-’80s, Whiplash was its purest iteration. Throwing down the gauntlet to fellow Bay Area bangers Exodus (who arguably pipped Metallica to the post in establishing the subgenre), this found them playing with pedal to the metal over four minutes of music that feels as if it’s about to career off the rails. Up until this point, whiplash the injury might’ve been the preserve of car crash victims, but this kind of music was set to make headbangers susceptible in their bedrooms, too. In an additional twist, the band’s heroes Motörhead (to whom tribute is paid on that other Kill ’Em All highlight Motorbreath) won the 2005 Best Metal Performance GRAMMY for their cover of this song.

6Nothing Else Matters (Metallica, 1991)

Understandably, on its unveiling, Nothing Else Matters was a track that left a large proportion of the Metallica fanbase feeling a little alienated. An open-hearted love song written by James to his girlfriend, the singer initially thought it might be a bridge too far for Metallica, but was talked around by Lars and Bob Rock for its inclusion as the commercial crown jewel on the Black Album. A perfectly formed, lighters-aloft ballad that builds towards a powerful guitar solo, it was an important milestone in the band’s evolution, and single-handedly ushered millions of fans into the Metallica Family. Even stripping that relevance away, it remains a low key emotional highlight, crucial to the stadium-swaying dynamic of their live sets today – with the gnarly hardcore and flighty casuals alike often seen wiping tears from their eyes.

5Battery (Master Of Puppets, 1986)

The greatest album-opener in Metallica’s career (and still one of the finest in all of metal) lays out the stall on Master Of Puppets with a fitting sense of drama, escalation, and – eventually – sheer runaway momentum. Echoing Ride The Lightning’s superb Fight Fire With Fire in its medieval-tinged acoustic opening before bombing headlong into a masterclass in lean, taut thrash metal, Battery was the fine-tuned statement of intent from a band ready to make their serrated sound a platinum success. Although many fans like to think of the song as an ode to the (assault and) battery of life in the pit, it’s actually a tribute to favourite stomping ground, the Old Waldorf, located at 444 Battery Street, San Francisco.

4For Whom The Bell Tolls (Ride The Lightning, 1984)

From AC/DC’s Hells Bells and Iron Maiden’s Hallowed Be Thy Name all the way to the self-titled Black Sabbath track that started it all, the tolling bell was an iconic motif in heavy music well before the Bay Area bunch delivered their definitive iteration with Ride The Lightning’s most immediately iconic track. An awesome interpretation of Ernest Hemingway’s 1940 Spanish Civil War epic built around the late Cliff Burton’s towering bass riff, For Whom The Bell Tolls manages to convey the epic scale of battle alongside the personal melancholy of more existential questions about the futility of violence and inevitability of death. Fittingly, it also features some of James’ greatest-ever lyrics. ‘Take a look to the sky just before you die / It’s the last time you will…’ Eternally spine-tingling stuff.

3One (…And Justice For All, 1988)

Metallica have wrought some unforgettable imagery over the decades, but none sticks in the mind quite as stubbornly as the haunting stand-out from …And Justice For All. Based on Dalton Trumbo’s nightmarish 1939 novel Johnny Got His Gun, One is written from the perspective of a wounded WWI soldier left a quadruple amputee and robbed of all sensation, reckoning on his plight while trapped inside his own slowly dying body. Coupled with a music video – Metallica’s first – that lifted from Dalton’s own 1971 cinematic adaptation, this was a powerful introduction for many new fans, escalating from melancholy to madness and dragging us along for an unflinching ride into the darkest recesses of our own inherently destructive psyches. "War is a part of man," James would explain during a 2013 appearance on The Howard Stern Show. "We're just writing about it. It's not good or bad, it's just a thing."

2Master Of Puppets (Master Of Puppets, 1986)

The standout track on what’s arguably the best heavy metal album ever written, the greatness of Master Of Puppets hardly needs re-explaining at this stage. Opening with a riff that drops like a slaughterhouse sledgehammer and barely letting up over the next eight-and-a-half minutes’ stunning four-movement structure, it’s a composition that would do many classicists proud, twisting and turning from moments of serrated savagery to others of sheer ecstasy. Seriously, how many other songs manage to get heads banging this hard before dropping a singalong guitar solo? Charting the seductive, controlling nature of addictive substances across some of the band’s most evocative lyrics (‘Pain monopoly, ritual misery – chop your breakfast on a mirror!’) it also foreshadowed real-life pitfalls in the band’s future. To top it off, this was reportedly Cliff’s favourite Metallica song – and there’s no higher praise than that.

1Creeping Death (Ride The Lightning, 1984)

A monolithic masterpiece that somehow feels as timeless as its subject matter, Creeping Death was perhaps the greatest showcase of Metallica’s early talent for inscribing great tales and parables from the cultural lexicon into the book of heavy metal. Influenced by a communal viewing of Charlton Heston’s biblical epic The Ten Commandments (promotional marble monuments from which notoriously recently raised the ire of The Church Of Satan), they were inspired by The Book Of Exodus’ vision of the Angel Of Death visiting the first-born Egyptian sons to write something similarly unstoppable. Taking the point of view of that avenging spirit, and laying down a fittingly almighty composition, it would become a timeless chapter in their own catalogue that still echoes with the same power 36 years on, showcasing everything that makes this band great. Later tracks might’ve expanded on this epic template, but none have surpassed its primal purity. All together now: ‘DIE! DIE! DIE!’

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