Well, here we are. Forty songs have been ranked, over sixty have been ignored entirely, and we’ve narrowed down Metallica’s collective works to the best of the best. These are the ten that, if you had to leave a time capsule of Metallica’s ten best songs on one CD for future generations to digest (assuming they know what the hell a “compact disc” is), this would be the auditory all-star team.
After thirty years of criss-crossing the globe, selling hundreds of millions of albums, fighting amongst each other only to hug it out later, dealing with death and desertion, changing their style to fit evolving tastes, and succeeding far beyond any other thrash metal band that ever tuned a set of axes, Metallica has defied definitive labels. But right here, over the course of however many words I spill onto this Microsoft Word file, I will come as close as humanly possible to defining Metallica in a manner fit for Merriam-Webster.
Thank you James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, Cliff Burton, Jason Newsted, Robert Trujillo, Dave Mustaine, Ron McGovney, Bob Rock, Rick Rubin, Paul Curcio, Johny Zazula, Flemming Rasmussen, Lloyd Grant, and the immortal Torben Ulrich for what is, and will always be, the greatest thing that music ever bestowed upon this unworthy world.
And to think, if Lars Ulrich never placed that ad….
10. Seek and Destroy
“Searching / Seek and Destroy!”
From the album: Kill Em All (1983)
Single release: July 16, 1984
You’ve heard it: At WCW events as Sting’s entrance theme (a live version from Woodstock 1999, with Jason Newsted singing the second verse); at various baseball and hockey events in North America.
Synopsis: Metallica in their forties wouldn’t have written this song as is, but when James Hetfield was nineteen, it seemed about right that the lion-maned, leather-wearing broodster would write an anthem dedicated to starting a fight for the sheer thrill of it. Indeed, random acts of violence are a fairly normal subject for a quartet consisting of an angsty lyricist (Hetfield), an animalistic drummer (Ulrich), a menacing lad with a serial killer’s glare (Burton), and as for Kirk…..well…..Cyrus of the Gramercy Riffs he isn’t, thanks to the sweet-as-sugar voice. But hey, the song is a perfect fit for a band that looks like juvenile delinquents in search of manmade anarchy.
Why it’s #10: Seek and Destroy has withstood the test of time better than any other song from Kill Em All, and is a cornerstone of any Metallica concert. While the likes of Metal Militia and No Remorse collect dust, Seek has been the closer many times, especially in recent years. During the Newsted era, it wasn’t uncommon for Seek to take twenty minutes to play, with a bluesy interlude in the middle, while Hetfield would encourage fan participation with the all-too-familiar chorus. For its endurance and equally-enduring relevance, Seek and Destroy’s place in the pantheon is guaranteed.
From the album: Death Magnetic (2008)
“Luck. Runs. Out. / You crawl back in, but your luck runs out”
Single release: December 15, 2008
You’ve heard it: In commercials for Guitar Hero Metallica, including the one where James Hetfield tells Bobby Knight to, “Put on some pants, Pops!”
Video: A faux documentary that incorporates footage from “Experiments in the Revival of Organisms”, hosted by some Dabney Coleman lookalike. The footage is spliced with a disturbing cartoon that, together, forms a Russian propaganda film from over half a century ago. The film depicts a plot for the then-Soviets instigating a zombie apocalypse in the USA to win the Cold War.
Synopsis: A speedier, more aggressive update to “The Thing That Should Not Be”, James Hetfield draws upon author HP Lovecraft yet again for inspiration. This time around, the song is based on the Hounds of Tindalos, immortal predators that can travel through time and space to feast on the blood and bone of humankind. The line “hunt you down all nightmare long” is explained by Hetfield as an illusion to being unable to escape the Hounds even in sleep; they can invade your dreams, much like Freddy Krueger. The fast-paced tempo throughout the song evokes thoughts of a chase, one in which the prey has a slim chance of winning.
Why it’s #9: When Death Magnetic was on its way to store shelves, Metallica fans weren’t quite sure what to expect. It had been twenty years or so since Metallica had openly embraced “thrash” before settling into the contemporary side of the pool, so it seemed to be a pipe dream that the “old” Metallica would return. Once Magnetic was released, and the reaction expressed overwhelmingly positive surprise, All Nightmare Long became the golden boy of the album. The killer speed and remarkable energy on display was enough to satisfy the band’s most salivating fans. Lauded upon release, the song still holds up as incredible three years later, and is the band’s best work in nearly two decades.
8. The Call of Ktulu
From the album: Ride the Lightning (1984)
Single release: never released as a single
You’ve heard it: pretty much just on Metallica CDs and at their concerts. The instrumentals and non-singles aren’t as “mainstream” as other pieces of this top ten
Synopsis: This list may well be one big love-in for HP Lovecraft, who’s been as inspirational to Metallica as King Diamond or Motorhead has. Cliff Burton introduced the band to Lovecraft’s work, particularly The Shadows Over Innsmouth (see entry #48 from part one), and this overture takes its name from a 1928 Lovecraft story entitled ‘The Call of Cthulhu’. The tale is about an undersea demon with octopus and dragon characteristics that would one day rise from beneath the watery depths to presumably wreak havoc. A number of cults worship him, hoping to curry favor with his almighty powers. The instrumental piece by Metallica features rising tension and dramatic turns, mirroring the anxiety of the common folk over the possibility that Cthulhu will one day show. The spelling was changed to “Ktulu” by the band because, according to the story, saying “Cthulhu” brings the monster closer, and Metallica didn’t want Cthulhu’s return on their souls.
Why it’s #8: Ktulu and Orion battle it out for the title of Metallica’s best instrumental, and Ktulu wins hands down. Orion starts off phenomenal, and then has such a soft middle for no apparent reason, before kicking back up again. The Call of Ktulu is incredible throughout, with the slow, windy beginning, and the soft guitar strains that gradually become more intense and sharp. In concerts, Ktulu is the perfect “listening piece”, as there’s no need for the audience to scream the lyrics at Hetfield’s beckoning, but rather for the thousands to sit back and appreciate the musicianship on display. It’s as much a masterpiece as anything Metallica has put together.
7. Enter Sandman
From the album: Metallica (1991)
“Exit light / enter night / take my hand / we’re off to Never Never Land”
Single release: July 29, 1991
You’ve heard it: For Mariano Rivera at Yankees games, for Brock Lesnar in the UFC, for The Sandman in ECW, and at virtually any sports game in which the sound system isn’t run by utter tools.
Video: A sequence featuring a child having trouble sleeping, due to the usual gamut of night terrors (snakes, falling to death, etc), all while being watched over by a haggard-looking entity that is “The Sandman”. The band appears in different parts of the video with an almost strobe light-like feel, in which the images of them “stop”, creating a hypnotic effect.
Synopsis: Enter Sandman kicked off a new era for Metallica, as the ‘thrash’ made its exodus, paving way for a more classic metal style, which would then be excised for alternative hard rock several years after. The song is definitely heavy, both in sound and in content, as the nightmares that every child (and many adults) deal with are rattled off in near-list form. From Kirk Hammett’s familiar opening riff, Hetfield and Jason Newsted join in, creating a heavy unity that is as forceful as the images being bellowed from Hetfield’s mouth. For a song that has become Metallica’s calling card, it was one of the hardest to both conceive and mix. The labor of love that went into Sandman, however, has paid off in spades.
Why it’s #7: When you think of Metallica, isn’t Enter Sandman one of the first songs you think of? It’s been a part of just about every Metallica concert in the last twenty years, was played at the band’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, has become a staple of sporting events and watered-down hard rock radio (not to cast aspersions on the song….), and has some of the easiest lyrics to remember for a Metallica song, due to Hetfield singing almost crystal clearly. While I think some of their songs are better (hence the mere #7 ranking), the day Metallica dies, Enter Sandman will be their epitaph.
From the album: And Justice For All (1988)
“Hold my breath as I wish for death / Oh please God wake me”
Single release: January 10, 1989
You’ve heard it: on MTV in the late-1980s, as it was the first music video that Metallica ever put together. After MTV aired its last video in 1994 (give or take a year), you’d have to find the video elsewhere.
Video: Metallica acquired the rights to the 1971 anti-war film Johnny Got His Gun, in which a young soldier is blasted with a shrapnel shell in World War I. Limbless, sightless, voiceless, and unable to hear, the soldier is left to dream; a prisoner in his own body. Scenes from the film are dispersed in the video, while Metallica performs the song in an empty Los Angeles warehouse.
Synopsis: The song tells precisely the story of the movie, from the point of view (or lack thereof) of that soldier. One of the earliest Metallica songs to use identifiable sound effects, One begins with the sound of gunfire and explosions, a yelling soldier, and the sound of a helicopter hovering overhead. With the war theme set, the somber melody kicks up, and from there, Hetfield laments openly about his state of non-being, while praying for death. Hetfield used the movie as a metaphor for being a prisoner of some kind, without jail necessarily being involved.
Why it’s #6: It’s one thing to love a song because you agree with the message, but it’s another for a potentially divisive song to endure among a fanbase of varied ochre. You don’t have to be a pacifist or peacenik to sympathize with One. While the song uses the movie as a sample photo, anyone who listens to it can transfer the powerful message to an instance in their lives, be it a soul crushing job or a sour relationship. The inability to escape tormenting circumstances is universal. On top of that, One broke the barrier into the mainstream for Metallica, with promise of expansion to follow.
5. Fade to Black
From the album: Ride the Lightning (1984)
“Life it seems will fade away / drifting further every day”
Single release: September 30, 1984
You’ve heard it: mostly just on CDs and at concerts, unless you’ve seen the manga film Bleach 3. Show of hands? Weirdos.
Synopsis: Metallica’s first ballad, and a giant leap in diversifying the band’s horizons, the song is about suicidal thoughts and the loss of will to go on. The song was inspired by a series of events in which the band’s equipment was stolen in Boston (including a rare amplifier), and the band being thrown out of their manager’s home for insolent behavior. At time, according to Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield had an infatuation with death, and setbacks such as these set the tone for Fade to Black. The melancholy acoustic opening, the bitterly sung words, and the progressive heaviness were part of the first Metallica song to embrace a softer approach for some of their creations, allowing a song or two to have that unique feel on each album.
Why it’s #5: Much like how many can relate to “One” for restricted feeling, many can also relate to the extreme depression that is the onset of suicidal thinking. Of course, the majority doesn’t go through with it, but drastic thought is prone to occur. Metallica, for putting these heavy feelings out in the open, were reciprocated with hundreds of letters from fans who could relate to what James was singing. By having a wildly successful band admit to a flirtation with the macabre side of life, many others felt better in knowing “hey, I’m not the only one”. Fade is also a barrier breaker, as if Metallica gave permission to other heavy, thrashy acts to go acoustic and get in touch with their deepest feelings.
4. Master of Puppets
From the album: Master of Puppets (1986)
“Just call my name, ’cause I’ll hear you scream / Master! / Master!”
Single release: July 2, 1986
You’ve heard it: in the “pledge recruitment” scene of the 2003 comedy Old School, and on an episode of The Simpsons in 2006, in which the band guest starred, and ended up hitching a ride with Hans Moleman.
Synopsis: Easily one of the most recognizable entries on this list, Master of Puppets has such an uplifting, adrenaline-pumping, aggression-inducing rhythm, that its presence at sporting events is no surprise. Of course, we just won’t tell the children that song is about Earth’s most addictive drug, heroin. Among the magnanimity and grand presentation are references to chopping the drug on a mirror, and how the addictive nature kills one’s will power, forcing them into bondage with something that has no life or pulse. Among the nightmarish lyrics and thrash-as-thrash-can-be riffs, there is a very harmonious bridge that is just so wonderfully eighties-tastic.
Why it’s #4: Puppets is a masterpiece that simply does not age. It’s slick, well-produced, and features some of Hetfield’s most brilliant lyricism, as he tackled such a mature subject with pinpoint poetry in just his early twenties. In what’s becoming a trend for this final series of top Metallica songs, it has withstood the test of time, as Master of Puppets remains a necessity on concert setlists, even after twenty five years. In other words, the song is pretty much heroin’s greatest contribution to our world, and whatever is second place is distant.
3. The Unforgiven
From the album: Metallica (1991)
“Never free / never me / so I dub thee Unforgiven”
Single release: October 28, 1991
You’ve heard it: maybe, in various exotic cover forms, played on harps, cellos, in a bluegrass style, and with Gregorian chants. And if you’ve heard them, you have more eclectic taste than I.
Video: In black and white, a young boy is sealed off inside a stone room with no windows or doors. The boy ages into manhood, while progressively carving away at the stone in search of something undefined. Once in his twilight years, a window is finally created, into which the elder drops his lone possession, a locket, through the other side, before laying down to die.
Synopsis: After opening many a concert with Ennio Morricone’s “Ecstasy of Gold”, Morricone’s genius would rear its head into an official Metallica release. A reverse horn sound, believed to be from the Clint Eastwood epic “For a Few Dollars More”, intros the spaghetti western-sounding Unforgiven. Alternating between heavy Metallica and balladeer Metallica, the story is told of conformity forced upon the weak by the tyrannically-strong, particularly in outskirted religious cultures. Hetfield is at his best in this, growling in the heaviest parts, while softening his voice with drips of empathy during the chorus.
Why it’s #3: The “Black Album” was set to stand apart from previous Metallica offerings with shorter songs, less bridges, and a phase-out for thrash. However, like the previous three albums, the fourth track was lighter and deeper simultaneously. Yet, unlike Fade to Black, Welcome Home, and One, Unforgiven had the most ambitious intentions. Hetfield, vocally, leveled up in comparison to previous entries, and the subject matter features the most perceptive depth of any Metallica song to date. The older Metallica got, the more they matured, and the maturation of thought in The Unforgiven was just another hurdle conquered for a band that aimed high, and what a hurdle it was.
From the album: Master of Puppets (1986)
“Smashing through the boundaries / lunacy has found me / cannot stop the Battery”
Single release: August 1, 1986
You’ve heard it: In Some Kind of Monster, as the song Robert Trujillo used to audition for (and subsequently win) the open spot on bass guitar.
Synopsis: It’s the ultimate “I’m gonna kick your ass” song. Beginning with a serene, relaxing acoustic guitar, the first 35-40 seconds can be heard inside a day spa while you lounge in a mud bath. Then those supercharged riffs hit, and Battery slowly builds into a rowdy, possibly drunken, cesspool of mayhem, chaos, and anarchy. The song fits the mood, since “Battery” is derived from “assault and battery”, building on Metallica’s youthful energy, and singing about the wrong way to release pent up hostility. Once the closer for the majority of concerts, Battery’s slowly faded from the set lists, but when it does show up on the big stage, those mosh pits become death traps.
Why it’s #2: Do I even need to provide some kind of scientific explanation? Just listen to Battery on high volume, have a couple of Java monsters, and tell me you don’t feel like beating up that co-worker that annoys you to your very core. Listening to this song while driving means you’re going to end up flooring that gas pedal for an extra 15-20 MPH. Battery is a beautiful throwback to thrash’s glory days, when the music was about the lifestyle. Wanna know why those hardened Metallica fans were quick to dismiss Load, ReLoad, and St. Anger? Great as those albums were, listen to Battery, and tell me you’d want to leave that in the past.
From the album: Ride the Lightning (1984)
Bonus live version (S&M): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_7r6eALGyg
“For Whom the Bell Tolls / time marches on / For Whom the Bell Tolls”
Single release: August 31, 1985
You’ve heard it: in the opening of Zombieland, as well as Triple H’s entrance at WrestleMania XXVII
Synopsis: Taking its cue from the Ernest Hemingway novel of the same name, For Whom the Bell Tolls shares the story of five soldiers in the Spanish Civil War that, in the blink of an eye, were annihilated in an air strike. The opening tolling of the bell gives way to aggressive strains with a menacing, foreboding overtone. Clocking in at just over five minutes, the only words in the song are between the two and four minute marks, and Hetfield’s minimal word count doesn’t cloud the perfect score, instead it enhances it. The slow, deliberate telling of the mortality tale with the bass-heavy, dramatically-played symphony of destruction (sorry, Megadeth) is chill-inducing every time.
Why it’s #1: For Whom the Bell Tolls is as flawless a masterpiece as you’ll find not just in Metallica’s catalog, but for any band that has ever been known for epic overtures. On the Ride the Lightning album, it stands out amongst a pack of Metallica’s best songs ever. In concert, it’s a heart-stopping crowd pleaser with a dramatic flair. At the S&M concert, no Metallica song translated better to the symphony/metal infusion. It’s eerie and it’s powerful. It gives you goosebumps. It achieves all of this not with a complex structure, but with a simple set-up that tells a story, and tells it powerfully. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it, and over the course of thirty years, Metallica has told no story better than For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Justin Henry is a freelance writer whose work appears on many websites. He provides wrestling, NFL, and other sports/pop culture columns for CamelClutchBlog.com, as well as several wrestling columns a week for WrestlingNewsSource.com and WrestleCrap.com. Justin can be found here on Facebook – http://www.facebook.com/notoriousjrh and Twitter- http://www.twitter.com/cynicjrh.
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