Attempting to quantify the worth of Metallica’s impressive collection of songs into a ranking is a task that will most certainly put its author on the hot seat. Metallica fans are among music’s most passionate and knowledgeable, and disagreements are as expected as Battery’s place on any given set list. That said, it is my honor to attempt to do just that because 1) what better way to celebrate thirty years of Metallica with some perspective and 2) it’s an excuse to listen to the songs.
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.
50. Frantic (St. Anger, 2003)
“My lifestyle determines my death style”
St. Anger’s 2003 release met the discriminating Metallica fan not like a rejuvenating slap across the face, but rather a hearty kick to the gonads, as listeners tried in vain to reconcile the clanging drums, unusually noticeable bass, and James’ throatier voice with the Metallica they fondly grew up with. From that kick, the point of the toe came in the form of Frantic, the leadoff track, and second single, from St. Anger. The song represents a fascination with death, and an attempt to control the events surrounding one’s own demise. Within the band, the song also presented polar images of James (drinking his way to oblivion before a 2001 rehab stay) and Lars (needlessly compulsive about the tenets of keeping straight), and how death is different for all. For being the first batter to the plate from such an eccentric, oft-misunderstood album, Frantic deserves a spot on this list. Besides, its message is equally matched by its intense riffs.
49. Escape (Ride the Lightning, 1984)
“See them try to bring the hammer down / No damn chains can hold me to the ground”
An appropriate year for Escape to have been released, as 1984 isn’t just a harrowing novel about our world succumbing to oppression, but it was also the year that Apple Computers released their now-legendary Super Bowl commercial, where the hammer-throwing blonde obliterated the Big Brother figure. The not-so-hidden message of the ad (besides “buy our computers so Steve Jobs can afford lots of black sweaters”) was “flee from convention”, which is something Metallica would do for the remainder of their tenure, through today, despite mixed critical results. It’s said that James hates playing this song in concert, and so Escape largely remains off the playlist and in a box in Metallica’s closet, along with 77% of And Justice For All.
48. The End of the Line (Death Magnetic, 2008)
“The slave becomes the master”
In 2006, Metallica fans that were left wanting by St. Anger received a morsel of promise in the form of a recent concert video. James introduced a “new song”, a not-so complete composition with a menacing bass line from Robert Trujillo, and James and Kirk reprising their old twenty-something thrash identities. To many followers, this was a sign that the new album, slated for a late 2007/early 2008 release at the time, was going to silence the mockery from fans that declared Metallica had gone soft. When Magnetic was released, the second track featured that same opening riff from the circulated video, with the remainder of the song going a different direction. In many ways, Line is the anti-Master of Puppets; while Master took the voice of an influence-in-vice, Line seems to tell of a man conquering addiction once and for all.
47. The Shortest Straw (And Justice For All, 1988)
“Witchhunt riding through / Shortest Straw / this Shortest Straw has been pulled for you”
The bleak aggression that permeated through Justice was especially felt in Shortest Straw, a song that conjures up images of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, while also demonstrating the extending horrors of a discriminatory eye, even in the modern world. Several of Justice’s tracks had a “fight the power” message, challenging the legal system and our government, but The Shortest Straw, with its manic, speedy bursts of assailing strains, also rings true on a local, familiar level.
46. The Thing That Should Not Be (Master of Puppets, 1986)
“Drain you of your sanity / face The Thing That Should Not Be”
There are those who feel that this song was the weakest track on Puppets (which is like being the dumbest pupil at Harvard Law School), but what’s on display is unique to the album, and a very welcome part of it. Based on a fifty year old novella by HP Lovecraft, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, The Thing That Should Not Be is a haunting, foreboding piece, where James’ sometimes-warbling vocals, punctuated by choppy guitar licks and angry percussions, regales to us the story of hybrid creatures, with human, fish, and frog qualities, living in the sea beside a decaying community. While not as adrenaline-pumping as Battery or Master of Puppets, “The Thing” deserves its place in Metallica history as a memorable progressive effort.
45. Of Wolf and Man (Metallica, 1991)
“I hunt / Therefore I am / Harvest the land / Taking of the fallen lamb”
Jacob Black lovers, rejoice! The sharp chords and thumping drums that lead off “Wolf” are about just that, a werewolf. However, the inspiration was the 1978 novel “Wolfen” by Whitley Strieber, later turned into a movie starring Albert Finney. The song has since become a concert staple, even though it was buried on the back end of the “Black Album”, and used to feature howls from Jason Newsted as accompaniment.
44. Trapped Under Ice (Ride the Lightning, 1984)
“Scream from my soul / Fate, mystified / Hell, forever more”
A song where the subject matter and story that its designed to tell don’t exactly jive, Trapped is about, well, being “trapped under ice”, to freeze and drown in unison, so you’d think the restricted feeling wouldn’t make for such a lively song, but there’s Trapped, with a frenetic harmony. Then again, with the sense of urgency that Trapped displays, with some of my favorite drumming from Lars in the first build, maybe the panic setting in is the story, not the slow death. The song has only been played three times live, last in 2000 when some guy merely asked James to play it, and James apologized to the audience in advance for any screw-ups. Wish they’d play it more.
43. To Live is To Die (And Justice For All, 1988)
“When a man lies he murders some part of the world”
It’s hard to top Metallica’s previous two instrumental Picassos, but “To Live” will forever remain a tribute to Cliff Burton, the bass virtuoso who helped launch Metallica to near-unattainable heights on his Aria Black n Gold. The above quote comes from near the song’s end, as James provides a spoken word of some of Burton’s favorite lines from German hymn-writer Paul Gerhardt. Parts of the song are taken from riffs written by Burton before his 1986 death, making Justice the only Metallica album to credit two different bass players with song writing.
42. The House Jack Built (Load, 1996)
“Open doors so I walk inside / Close my eyes find my place to hide”
There’s a sense that some diehard Metallica fan from the 1980s is wanting to eviscerate me for placing a song from the “Sellout-ica” era ahead of the Burton tribute, but please, hold your bread knives at bay. There are several interpretations for this oft-forgotten part of the receptively-mixed Load, the most common theory surrounds Hetfield’s bondage to alcohol, and how he feels safest in the confines of a cloudier state of unreality. The “Jack” in the title would then likely refer to Jack Daniels, America’s foremost toe-stubbing distiller.
“To begin whipping dance of the dead / color our world Blackened”
From a reverse-play dual guitar harmony, to an abrupt staccato assault, Blackened kicked off the Justice album with a distinct change in tone from the decidedly-thrashier Puppets, and signified a descent into stripped-down wallow. The song, about the effects of a nuclear holocaust or environmental catastrophe that brings an end to the world as we know it, was the first to feature a writing credit for Jason Newsted, even if his bass is virtually nonexistent to the naked eardrum throughout Justice.
40. Whiplash (Kill ‘em All, 1983)
“Adrenaline starts to flow / you’re thrashing all around / acting like a maniac / Whiplash!”
Before Metallica grew into grouchy old men with children, minivans, and an ache in a different body part every day, James and the gang were metal maniacs, speeding note after note at screaming decibels to cheers and praise from a devoted, alcoholically-engineered fan base. The lyrics to “Whiplash” are elementary, no real thought behind them (of course, James Hetfield was only nineteen), merely a tribute to the state of being for headbangers one and all when the music puts a body in motion. One of the early Metallica singles, Motorhead later won a Grammy for their cover of it. Which reminds me: who wins a fight, Lemmy or God? Hint: it’s a trick question.
39. Where the Wild Things Are (ReLoad, 1997)
“Will this earth be good to you? / Keep you clean or stain through?”
After songs about heroin, nuclear war, cancer and mythical creatures that can consume an entire city in three gulps, it’s nice of Metallica to do something for the kids. The lyrical content has a disturbing sting, as Hetfield alternately growls and serenades about “toy soldiers off to war”, listing off many common toys of our youth (bears, rattles, puppets) in a stark juxtaposition with the idea of combat. With the dreamy opening there gives way to a harsh percussion awakening from Lars. One can surmise from that, in addition to the content, that children surrounded by the comforting amenities of their cribs and toyboxes are in for a shock of shocks when they see how messed up the world actually is. And really, isn’t honesty the best way to go with tomorrow’s adults?
38. St. Anger (St. Anger, 2003)
“St. Anger round my neck / he never gets respect”
Metallica’s resurrection from the dregs of near self-immolation, having lost Newsted in the fallout, found an unlikely breeding ground at San Quentin Prison. In the spring of 2003, Metallica’s first video in three years was filmed at the home of five hundred plus death row inmates, some of the most despicable burdens to terrorize the Golden State. The video’s location was a snap-on fit for the song’s gaunt harmony, mixing equal parts philosophical wax on the release of hostility with the dark side of holding on too long to it.
37. Cyanide (Death Magnetic, 2008)
“Cyanide / living dead inside / break this empty shell forevermore”
Visitors to Metallica’s website in the summer of 2008 eagerly watched the “Mission Metallica” snippets to get bite-sized updates on Death Magnetic’s progress. The threatening legato that opened the videos, mixed with the sound of a buzzing fly, would eventually come to be known as “Cyanide”, a hazily-shaded, coarsely-heavy enigma that tells a story of demise, although some fans have interpreted the lyrics as the story of abortion through the eyes of the voiceless one in utero. One thing’s for certain: while fans can debate the quality of sound Metallica puts on file, no one can question James Hetfield’s snaggletooth-sharp gift for the written and spoken word.
36. Hero of the Day (Load, 1996)
“They’re off to find the Hero of the Day”
Trying to link together the imagery of James Hetfield, he of the shaggy hair and Cowardly Lion-beard that once strained his vocal chords bloody as a price of fame, with this folksy ditty about misplaced hero worship, is less daunting in 2011 after seeing the variety that he and the band have put on display. But in 1996, when Metallica went vogue to broaden their career, and creative, horizons, to hear Metallica take on a much more alternative, exploring tone had the same effect as when Ozzy Osbourne’s minions heard “Mama, I’m Coming Home” for the first time. And if you’ve never seen the music video, the sight of Lars Ulrich with a ‘dirty Sanchez’ mustache, playing an antiquated gringo loco in something owed to Bonanza, gets about 3% funnier every time you see it.
35. Dirty Window (St. Anger, 2003)
“I drink from the cup of denial / I’m judging the world from my throne”
Part of me thinks Jason Newsted was nodding knowingly when he first heard ‘Window’. The writing process for the entire St. Anger album was a collaborative effort, a rarity in Metallica’s world, and was a vital part of the group’s fence-mending. In the “Some Kind of Monster” documentary, James Hetfield testified loosely about how he inadvertently forced Newsted out of the band, a reality that didn’t really hit him until he’d confronted his demons a decade ago. Hetfield’s alpha male self-centering, his “my way or the highway” approach to leadership, along with his booze-fueled years-long hazing of Newsted, are elements that get an introspective cavity search in ‘Window’. It’s Hetfield’s voice that declares he projects judgment, that finds his home fittingly clean in contrast to the world around him. Dirty Window, played with some of Lars Ulrich’s most thundering drumming, is a sobering confession to an expressionist beat.
34. The Memory Remains (ReLoad, 1997)
“Fortune, fame / mirror vain / gone insane / but The Memory Remains”
Answering the age-old question, “What if Metallica attempted to create their own version of The Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Tonight, Tonight’,” the band recruited ageless and timeless British songstress Marianne Faithfull (a beautiful nomenclature that’s shockingly her given birth name) to add harmonic backing vocals to what is a very ambitious piece. Sung about a fading starlet with but a tenuous grip on reality, the music video is among Metallica’s best. Gone are the rocker mullets and sleeveless black tees, and in their place are four conservatively-groomed musicians that still know how to jam. In the video, the band strums and drums away on a fulcrum swing, with James and Lars adorned in black sunglasses (which some claim was to prevent motion sickness), while hobnobbing with Marianne, dressed as a 19th century organ grinder.
33. The Judas Kiss (Death Magnetic, 2008)
“Into abyss / you don’t exist / cannot resist / The Judas Kiss”
If not for the giveaway of Death Magnetic’s compressed loudness, The Judas Kiss sounds like something left on the cutting room floor of the Kill Em All/Metal Up Your Ass sessions. Metallica of the early 1980’s was highly referential to mythology and medieval history, and a song based on the turncoat to Jesus Christ, and is about the all too familiar temptation of the easy road to happiness through unsavory behavior and sin. Metallica’s sang about religious hypocrisy and dysfunction before, but never through the eyes of The Devil, urging you to join his team.
32. Phantom Lord (Kill Em All, 1983)
“Hear the cry of war / louder than before / with his sword in hand / to control the land”
No one’s ever going to call Rob Halford a thief, but it is interesting how Judas Priest’s 1990 smash hit “Pain Killer” seems to tell the same story as Phantom Lord, a metal juggernaut fueled by the energy of its fans, crushing everything in its path with reckless abandon. Lord’s aged far better than much of the Kill Em All album, and a rather nifty cover by Anthrax exists on a compilation album from defunct wrestling promotion ECW.
31. Orion (Master of Puppets, 1986)
Named for the constellation, Orion has an airy, spacey feel that is as progressive as anything Metallica had embarked in by 1985. This instrumental is often synonymous with Cliff Burton, has his dramatic thirty second solo, in the first quarter of the song, stands out in a song full of air-tight solo work. The song was also played at Cliff’s memorial service twenty-five years ago, giving it special significance. For a song that has no real ‘meaning’ (other than to challenge Metallica to make the most of some of their unexplored abilities), fans of all ages have defined the song their own ways (war-like, space-like, based in mythology, etc), depending on what images form in their head when they hear the melodic strains.
30. The Unforgiven II (ReLoad, 1997)
“Could you be there, ’cause I’m the one who waits for you / Or are you Unforgiven too?”
I was once surprised to hear this one in a low-rent gentlemen’s club while the anorexic, disproportionately-tattooed blond on stage mashed into the pole like it was giving away free blow. Actually, perhaps it’s appropriate, since the second carnation of the Unforgiven series seems to be about lost souls understanding one another, and reconciling their place in the world, and follows the original Unforgiven (a child sucked dry by the conformity around him), implying that the child’s place is now among others like him, providing a loose sense of comfort. At the strip club, the lonely patron and the humbled dancer, two souls lost on the path to inner peace, cross each other in search of satisfaction and monetary gain, respectively.
29. Leper Messiah (Master of Puppets, 1986)
“Send me money, send me green / Heaven you will meet / make your contribution / and you’ll get a better seat”
This is such an “eighties” song due to the subject matter, and goes a long way in explaining why my generation backs away from religion as if it were radioactive. Once upon a time, there was a rather unscrupulous couple named Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Christian evangelists that once hosted a wildly popular (as in, yes, ‘lots of people watched’) Christian talk show called “The PTL Club”. Jim was later brought to light as a swindler (misappropriating financial donations from viewers for his own use) and an alleged rapist (who else remembers Jessica Hahn?) and irreparable damage was done to TV evangelism. James Hetfield, already at odds with religion, grilled these shameful shams, among many others from the era, in this one.
28. The God That Failed (Metallica, 1991)
“The healing hand held back by the deepened nail / follow The God That Failed”
Jason Newsted finally gets to shine on bass, and it’s with some of the murkiest, angriest, most brooding licks he’s thrown down under Metallica’s banner. In fact, the entire song is a perfect complement to a pissy mood, with the tuned down harmony consistent throughout. The God That Failed isn’t so much an atheist anthem, but rather James Hetfield barking out his anger over his mother’s death. Cynthia Hetfield believed in Christian Science, which facilitated her refusal of help once she was diagnosed with cancer, resulting in her untimely demise when no surgerical action was taken. With her life ended in direct relation to her faith, Hetfield laments the loss toward that God, the one that “failed”.
27. The Day That Never Comes (Death Magnetic, 2008)
“Waiting for the one / The Day That Never Comes”
Twenty years after “One”, Metallica’s fourth track is the first single from its album, and the video accompanying it has a war backdrop. This time, instead of using an anti-war film and writing the song about its protagonist, “The Day” has a more complex storyline to it. Lyrically, it can be interpreted many different ways, and, on the surface, it sounds like an abusive relationship, with the victim as the central figure. Of course, explanations from the band tell a different story, as Lars Ulrich says it was inspired by a father-son relationship, which I hope doesn’t mean that Torben Ulrich is violent (he’s just too awesome to be!). James has stated the song was intentionally vague, so hey, why not enjoy it for what it is?
26. Wherever I May Roam (Metallica, 1991)
“Anywhere I roam / where I lay my head is home”
The mysterious Middle Eastern sitar-like opening is among one of Metallica’s most dramatic intros, fitting of being the entrance theme for whomever Vince McMahon’s villain with curly-toed boots-du jour is this week. The song is a wonderful parallel, drawing allusions to nomadic warriors who travelled for necessity, while the band performing the song is very much nomadic themselves, globetrotting in search of legend, experience, and, at the end of the day, prosperity. Is it any wonder that Metallica took time off to rest after supporting this album on tour?
25. Nothing Else Matters (Metallica, 1991)
“Never cared for what they do / never cared for what they know / but I know”
For every guy that loves Metallica and kinks their neck headbanging to Battery, he has a girlfriend that’s touched by “Nothing Else Matters”. Written while on the phone with his distant girlfriend, Hetfield plucked his guitar strings with one hand, holding the receiver with the other, as the worlds of longing for love and songwriting interlocked with ease. More than three dozen bands and artists, from Staind to Shakira, are known to have covered Metallica’s first true “love song”, and remains one of a handful of Metallica songs that does not feature Kirk Hammett on the recording.
24. King Nothing (Load, 1996)
“Where’s your crown, King Nothing?”
One of Metallica’s most popular songs, which comes from the band’s full thrust into music’s veritable Madison Avenue. The fourth single from Load (following Until it Sleeps, Hero of the Day, and Mama Said), heavy airplay and melodic hooks have made King Nothing a likely Family Feud answer for “Name a Metallica song”. LeBron James haters were quick to match up the message of the song (a wannabe King with nothing to offer) with James’ meteoric fall in the 2011 NBA Finals, as he failed yet again to receive “his crown”. The music video is especially memorable for Metallica performing during a minor snowstorm, with Jason Newsted looking rather unmanly in his oversized hoodie. Was ever proven that the faux king in the video WASN’T F. Murray Abraham?
23. The Unnamed Feeling (St. Anger, 2003)
“Cross my heart, hope not to die / swallow evil, ride the sky”
One of the more somber, ethereal pieces from Metallica’s most introspective album, The Unnamed Feeling deals with the uneasy inclination before a breaking point is reached, definable with a different sense per person. Heavy on bass from the part of Bob Rock, filling in as the band’s fourth wheel (‘Where was that much love for bass when I was there?’ is something Jason Newsted may wonder), the song is as moody as it is airy, with an equally enigmatic video to boot. The video’s metaphor of the walls slowly closing in on the foursome encapsulates the message of the song perfectly, as the road to a psychotic break is gradual, yet with a helpless sense of self-torment.
22. Devil’s Dance (ReLoad, 1997)
“Yeah c’mon, c’mon now take the chance / that’s right / let’s dance”
If you had one hour to seduce a girl into having relations with you, and you could only pick one song in which to help your cause, and it had to be a Metallica song, then, well, this likely has a better shot than Motorbreath. The sleek, slithery feel of the first seventy five seconds is enough to set the mood, bringing to mind a seedy nightlife with neon signs illuminating the temptations in arms-reach. Metallica’s had a number of songs that deal with sin and its many forms, but none of them are as mood-inducing as Devil’s Dance, likely the sexiest song they’ve ever recorded. All that’s missing is a saxophone solo, but hey: this isn’t S&M.
21. Sad But True (Metallica, 1991)
“I’m your truth, telling lies / I’m your reasoned alibis / I’m inside open your eyes / I’m you”
Another one of Metallica’s more famous compositions, and that’s partially thanks to Kid Rock sampling it like he was a Caucasian male member of the Black Eyed Peas. Nine years before Me, Myself, and Irene hit theaters, the template for the plot was set with this study of a seemingly normal person overwhelmed by his dark side, who holds up the exterior for blame and punishment. All the while, the theft, deception, and outright lies spill out of the mouth and body, while the unsympathetic hostage taker within gets away with it all. This is one Metallica song that is truly more appreciated for its familiar beat than for the meaning of the lyrics.
20. And Justice For All (And Justice For All, 1988)
“Justice is lost / Justice is raped / Justice is gone”
Metallica’s ambitious writing for the Justice album netted us this, a song that is a joy to listen to for ten minutes on your car stereo or MP3 player. As part of a concert set list, however, don’t count on it being the set-up for Battery on any given night. The tribute to justice and the legal system going to Hell is not a favorite of Metallica’s to perform on stage, as the song tends to drag in the later minutes. That’s not to say it’s a bad song (I wouldn’t put it #20 if it was), because it works in its recorded medium. The mellow intro with occasional thrashing bursts disrupting the serenity is an artful way of demonstrating how the corruption and decay is kept hidden under blissful ignorance from the constituents.
19. No Leaf Clover (S&M, 1999)
“Then it comes to be that the soothing light at the end of your tunnel / was just a freight train coming your way”
S&M was a hit-or-miss album, because while some of Metallica’s classics translated well to the infusion of the San Francisco Symphony (For Whom the Bell Tolls, Nothing Else Matters), others didn’t quite pack the same oomph (Of Wolf and Man, Sad But True). Coming out of the live album, were two new tracks: the decent, if unspectacular, Minus Human, and the “eargasmic” No Leaf Clover, a bittersweet descent from good grace into the rivers of misfortune. While I’m on the subject, is anybody aching for a sequel to S&M? I think I’m just curious as to how Robert Trujillo would look in dress attire. Would he shave? So many gripping questions.
18. Ride the Lightning (Ride the Lightning, 1984)
“Wait for the sign / to flick the switch of death / it’s the beginning of the end”
Movies about the falsely accused (i.e. The Fugitive) give this one substantial power; a lamenting cry from a condemned prisoner who takes his place in the electric chair. While the man in the song admits his guilt, he does offer, “damn it, it ain’t right”. The sense of urgency in the song, provoking thoughts of a horrible end to a horrible life, is among Metallica’s greatest story-telling from strictly an instrumental perspective. While the chair is largely being done away with in the United States, capital punishment is still prevalent in a number of places. The recent execution of Troy Davis in Georgia, via lethal injection, continues the debate to this day. On the other hand, I wonder how many metal maniacs blared this one on their stereos in 1989, in anticipation of Ted Bundy “riding the lightning”.
17. Eye of the Beholder (And Justice For All, 1988)
“You can do it your own way / if it’s done just how I say”
Maybe I’m putting it a little high, but I’ll admit that in this race, Beholder is one of my horses. As a latent libertarian, the song’s message of the restrictions and limitations upon free speech and free expression speak to an issue I’m very interested in. The particular message of one’s viewpoint (‘eye of the beholder’) taking precedent over that an equal’s is what allows hypocrisy to reign in many instances. On the musical side of things, the consistency of the wailing guitars that punctuate the accusations of double standards make this a lost treasure in Metallica’s shuffled deck. The best part is the jam that bridges the song’s halves, about four minutes in.
16. Creeping Death (Ride the Lightning, 1984)
“So let it be written / so let it be done / to kill the first born pharaoh son / I’m Creeping Death”
You know that movie that’s on TV every Easter weekend in which Charlton Heston has that awesome beard? It inspired one of Metallica’s most energetic concert songs! Cliff Burton inadvertently named this one during a viewing of The Ten Commandments, when the Jewish-borne plague (the Angel of Death) wreaked havoc on the Egyptians, killing every first-born male, while sparing the Jews entirely. The “DIE, DIE, DIE” portion of the chorus is a hallmark of virtually every Metallica concert. So the next time you’re hiding the eggs and sucking down your cabbage soup (assuming you do that type of thing), and Charlton Heston shows up on your TV with the slabs of stone, think of Metallica, won’t ya?
15. Until it Sleeps (Load, 1996)
“And the pain still hates me / so hold me Until it Sleeps”
Another song about a cancer-related loss, this time of James’ father, Virgil. Similar to his mother’s cancer death, James sings about his father refusing treatment due to his Christian Science beliefs. However, unlike “The God That Failed”, Until it Sleeps is more about the coping aspects of dealing with the loss, and less about his anger toward what he feels is a flawed system of faith. The video was Metallica’s boldest to date, depicting the members of the band in a surreal landscape inspired by the works of Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch. Among the disturbing images set to the somber melody are Kirk Hammett being crucified, and Jason Newsted around mud. I still think the band should have had a dedication card at the end of the video that stated, “In loving memory of our mullets.”
14. Welcome Home (Sanitarium) (Master of Puppets, 1986)
“Sanitarium, leave me be / Sanitarium, just leave me alone”
If sanity is subjective, nobody would be locked away. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was the inspiration for Metallica’s ode to the asylum, and the futility of the man in the rubber room. Mentioned in particular from the classic novel/film is the struggle between the patient and the administrator (Randall P. McMurphy and Nurse Ratched) to each have their own way. This was the final single to feature Cliff Burton on bass, with the single being released four weeks after the bus accident. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Metallica doing justice with Sanitarium, and its peaceful intro that leads to the heavy breakdown in the middle. However, in 2003, during an MTV tribute to Metallica, Fred Durst and Limp Bizkit earned begrudging respect from metal mavens for nailing a cover of the song, outperforming the likes of Korn (One) and Sum 41 (Master of Puppets) that night.
13. Harvester of Sorrow (And Justice For All, 1988)
“Anger / misery / you’ll suffer unto me”
As a wrestling fan, the parallel of this song with the demise of “The Canadian Crippler” Chris Benoit is frightening. Benoit, in 2007, murdered his wife and seven year old son before hanging himself, likely due to diminished brain capacity, thanks to years of sickening blows to the head, as well as a falling out within the marriage as a fuse. The song, with its uneasy and wicked beginning, tells of a troubled, mentally-descending man who abuses his loved ones before ultimately killing them. In my eyes, out of every “heavy” Metallica song, Harvester has the creepiest overtones and feel, with the slow-plucked tempo adding shades of foreboding to an already disturbing plot. Paul Konerko, power-hitting first baseman for the Chicago White Sox, uses Harvester as his “at bat” music. Uhhh, should his family be worried?
12. Disposable Heroes (Master of Puppets, 1986)
“Back to the front / you will do what I say, when I say / back to the front”
Harmonically, this is one of best slices of music ever cut from Metallica’s cloth. I feel that, given the divisiveness over the idea of war in America, this song never gets its due, thanks to the subject matter. The premise is unabashedly anti-war, drawing up the dichotomy of the glory men seek in fighting for God and country in foreign lands, while the harsh reality is that many of them are merely pawns in a bloody chess match, and may never make it home to reap heroic rewards. Touchy subject matter aside, the music side of Heroes I would put on par with anything else from its album (yes, that includes the two legendary opening tracks), and it’s a shame that the anti-war sentiment is really what keeps this from being counted among Metallica’s pantheon of classics.
11. The Four Horsemen (Kill Em All, 1983)
“The Horsemen are drawing nearer / on leather steeds they ride”
Ahh, the Four Horsemen. Ric Flair, Arn Anders—woops, wrong Horsemen. In this case, Time, Pestilence, Famine, and Death from The New Testament inspired one of Metallica’s early opuses, one that endures to this day as a concert standard. Controversy surrounds the song, as former band member Dave Mustaine wrote it during his days with Metallica and, once ejected due to his personal issues, Metallica modified aspects of Horsemen, added a new middle section with the help of Kirk Hammett, and released it without departed Dave. Mustaine, however, released the song as is with his new band, Megadeth, in 1985 (under its original title, The Mechanix). In several Megadeth concerts, Mustaine can’t help but take a dig at his former bandmates, introducing Mechanix by stating, “This song is NOT The Four Horsemen”. Sometimes it’s hard to let go of the past.
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.
9. All Nightmare Long
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.
1. For Whom the Bell Tolls
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.
Check out the iTunes Store Music for all of these and other great metal tunes.