The 100 greatest metal songs of the 21st century


(Image credit: Søren Beck)

20. Heilung – Krigsgaldr (2015)

Noble, warrior-call to arms, shamanic initiation rite, bottomless mental rabbit hole, phenomenon: Krigsgaldr was all this and more. Appropriately for a song that sounded like it was being roused from centuries of slumber, Heilung’s signature track was a sleeper hit, a slow fuse that exploded when it was debuted live at Castlefest in 2017. Steeped in drones that throbbed as if mediated through amniotic fluid, and imprinted with a rhythmic hammering of swords suggesting industrial music originated in the Iron Age, Krigsgaldr was nine minutes of landscape-altering wonder that birthed a worldwide cult.

19. Machine Head – Halo (2007)

A choice cut from the album that consolidated Machine Head as metal’s greatest contemporary band, it’s no surprise Hammer reader Nemeth Norbert picked it. Anthemic, emotional and toweringly heavy, it’s one of their greatest achievements. “The Blackening is one of the best metal records of the 21st century,” he rightly points out. “Halo is the pinnacle of that album. It has serious riffs and grooves, an extremely beautiful solo and a heavy and rage- filled ending. Robb’s sound is perfect on the whole record, and Halo reflects on sociopolitical and religious issues.” We couldn’t have put it better!

18. Papa Roach – Last Resort (2000)

It’s soundtracked hundreds of club nights and helped people in a difficult spot, yet Papa Roach were still honing their craft when they wrote Last Resort. While living in a house in Sacramento, California, with some other bands from the scene, bassist Tobin Esperance started playing the distinctive riff on piano, as if it was a classical composition. The band transferred it to a guitar, and added a beat. “I remember our manager heard it through the wall and he barged through, like, ‘Play that again, man! That was sick!’” remembers frontman Jacoby Shaddix. “I was like, ‘We need to put this on the record.’”

While the band wrote the follow-up to their self-released debut album, Old Friends From Young Years, Jacoby was working as a janitor at Travis Air Force Base Hospital. He was walking around with his headphones in when he started humming the melody to the song, and took it to practice. There, he decided he wanted to start the song with a vocal, and the iconic opening line was born: ‘Cut my life into pieces, this is my last resort.’ His bandmates were fully on board. “The band said, ‘Fuck it, man, let’s do it. Let’s get people’s attention.’ And as soon as we took that song and started playing it at shows, our fans at the time were just like, ‘Play that one again!’ We were playing it at small clubs, parties, coffee shops, shopping centres, skate parks…”

Due to his vocal desperation, many thought Jacoby – then going by the name Coby Dick – had penned the song about himself, but it was actually about a housemate who had attempted to take his own life while they lived together. Last Resort helped him to process his feelings. 

“That was really traumatic for me to be around, because I’m a 17-year-old kid, and one of my best buds tried to kill himself,” Jacoby says. “That was just fucking heavy. Heavy on me, and all of our friend circle. And so I just felt like at the time of writing, digging in and talking about my emotions, that was one of the things I needed to write about.”

When Papa Roach landed a record deal with DreamWorks, they recorded Infest and released Last Resort as a single. Thanks to heavy rotation on radio and TV, and its zeitgeist-capturing video featuring fans in their bedrooms, it blew up, becoming a Top 10 hit across Europe. Some elitists claimed it ripped off Iron Maiden’s Genghis Khan, and although Jacoby can see the connection now, he wasn’t familiar with them then (“I didn’t become a Maiden fan until 2004”).

Twenty years later, Last Resort is still going strong, not only packing an enduring emotional punch but inspiring a glut of affectionate memes involving everything from a plastic fork to a strawberry torte to Voldemort. Most recently, TikTok star Jeris Johnson remixed the song, leading to the Last Resort (Reloaded) collaboration with the band themselves. Jacoby’s blown away by the song’s staying power. “Kids are discovering our band through Last Resort,” he says. “Sixteen-year-old kids fucking going, ‘Cut my life into pieces’ shit, what? Wow! It trips me out.”

17. Power Trip – Executioner’s Tax (Swing Of The Axe) (2017)

Almost 40 years after it first reared its gnarled head, thrash remains metal’s most immovable subgenre. Whether it’s the full-throttle nature of its sound, its ability to be outrageously fantastical or cuttingly political, or its simple, un-fuck-withable template, there’s something timeless about the artform. Few bands, however, brought thrash metal truly steaming into the modern era like Power Trip.

In 2017, the Texans hit their stride with the magnificent Nightmare Logic: a crushing, guttural mix of buzzsaw thrash metal and brutalising hardcore. It marked the band out as one of the most exciting young names in metal, and reaffirmed frontman Riley Gale as one of the most important young voices in the whole genre. On stage, he was a dynamo: a ball of frantic energy and pent-up rage. Off it, he was something else entirely: a calm, considered, thoughtful young man whose creative, carefully crafted lyrics would delve into politics, philosophy and social issues.

“I had a professor that I would almost call a mentor,” he told Metal Hammer in 2017 when explaining his writing process. “His name was Kyle Jensen, and I would take every class he would lecture on. Even if I had an elected space, I took graduate level seminars, just because I wanted to learn under this guy. His big philosophy was that we never had to write big 10-, 20-page papers; his limit was two-page, single space. His point was: conciseness is key. Every word matters, every sentence relates to the word, every paragraph relates to the sentence, everything relates to the whole. And that taught me a lot about writing good lyrics, because every song I have has a deep meaning. Every word is calculated, every line has a deeper meaning, it’s never taken at face value.”

No song exemplified that better than Executioner’s Tax (Swing Of The Axe): the chugging, driving lead single from Nightmare Logic that went off like a heavy metal atomic bomb. It sounded at once both grimy and mountain-shakingly huge, and its lyrics were metal as fuck: ‘You prayed for so long and now you have your chance, the executioner’s here and he’s sharpening his axe!’ And yet, as always with Power Trip, there was more to its message than met the eye.

“It sounds like it’s just a catchy song about swinging an axe around, but really, in a lot of ways it’s about us finding comfort in death: the things that we do in order to be more comfortable in dealing with death,” Riley explained. “In a capitalist society, we gladly pay to numb that existential pain of death, whether it be drugs or food, television, videogames, booze, gambling, sex…whatever it is, we pay the executioner’s tax to feel better about the fact that all of this is for nothing. You can’t take any of this shit with you when you die!”

It all added extra depth to one of the great metal anthems of recent times. Riley tragically passed away last year, and while he is sorely missed, his art will remain for a long time to come. 

16. Killswitch Engage – My Last Serenade (2002)

“I first heard My Last Serenade when I was 15, roughly about the time Bleed From Within started out. It was pretty much the first time I’d heard extreme music with clean vocals in the chorus. At that point in my life I was looking for the heaviest music I could find and Killswitch Engage had it all: the headbanging riffs and those catchy choruses that I just could not stop singing along to. They wrote an album 19 years ago that completely changed the way I look at metal and I still love it to this day.” Scott Kennedy, Bleed From Within

15. Avenged Sevenfold – Nightmare (2010)

Opening with a spooky, twinkly intro before launching into dual guitars, crackling drums and a pained scream of ‘Nightmaaaaaaaare!’ from M. Shadows, Nightmare was an emotional rallying cry from a band recovering from the devastating loss of The Rev. “It’s pure energy,” remarked Shadows. “It felt like the opening of a record.” The song remains an all-time great Avenged Sevenfold track and a setlist essential. And as for that very first ‘Nightmaaaaaaaaaare!’? “Dude, I remember singing that stupid thing over and over,” Shadows would remark later with a laugh. It was certainly worth it. It set the tone for Avenged’s journey to continue with style. 

14. Linkin Park – Papercut (2000)

“Firstly, this band are responsible for so many bands in this scene and Hybrid Theory is one of the all-time great albums. I remember seeing the video for Papercut for the first time and being blown away by how wild it was, the band getting attacked and infected by all these weird things in the rooms next to them – iconic. My favourite part of this song is actually the middle eight bit, you know [sings] ‘the sun goes dowwwwwn!’ it’s such a massive hook and it’s been in my head since the first time I heard it.” Sam Carter, Architects

13. Lacuna Coil – Heaven’s A Lie (2002)

Lacuna Coil had released two creditable albums with Century Media (1999’s In A Reverie and 2001’s Unleashed Memories), but none of them held a candle to Comalies. Lead single Heaven’s A Lie was a heartfelt ballad that swooped and soared dramatically, Cristina Scabbia’s luscious vocals taking centre stage, ably supported by partner Andrea Ferro. It was drenched in gothic longing, and was released a year before the similarly gothic-minded Evanescence broke big in the mainstream. Becoming the benchmark by which every other Lacuna Coil song was judged, it remains a fan favourite and their most-played song live.

12. Iron Maiden - The Wicker Man (2000)

How’s this for a comeback song? While the Blaze Bayley era undoubtedly produced some major highlights, Iron Maiden’s stock was far from flying when they approached the end of the 90s. Cue the returns of much-loved frontman Bruce Dickinson and guitar maestro Adrian Smith (meaning the band now had three guitarists in their ranks). It resulted in an astonishing album in Brave New World, and the best opening song on any Maiden album since Aces High, courtesy of electric single, The Wicker Man. Maiden may have become more expansive in their songwriting since, but for pure heavy metal anthemia, it just really doesn’t get any better than this. 

11. Architects – Doomsday (2018)

The metal world was shocked by the tragic death of Architects guitarist/songwriter Tom Searle in August 2016, yet the band went on tour a month later, carrying on in his name and supported by the crowds. No one knew whether the band would want to make new music, though. Doomsday emerged unannounced, painting a picture of a band in the thick of grief, trying to make sense of it all. It was hard-hitting and vulnerable, but offered a way forward – ‘souls don’t break, they bend’. Connecting with Architects fans the world over, it was a triumphant but bittersweet return.

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