It's fair to say Metallica albums have been more scrutinised more intensely than pretty much any other metal back catalogue on the planet – but then no other metal band in history has achieved so much. From the dingy garages of LA to the world’s biggest stadia, the band founded by James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich in 1981 have revolutionised metal, creating a body of work that stands alongside the very best of Sabbath, Maiden and Priest when it comes to defining the genre.
Within their back catalogue, their ability to adapt their sound and experiment with their place in rock'n'roll's landscape has always played a part in shaping their creative output – sometimes it's worked, sometimes it's produced a clanger of unconscionable proportions. But love it or hate it, you can't say that Lulu, for example, wasn't a bold moment of experimentation which briefly broke both Metallica and Lou Reed free of their musical pigeonholes.
Of course, with every diverse body of work comes division, disagreements and blazing pub rows about what its greatest moment is. So when it came to ranking each Metallica album in order of greatness, we and turned the weighty decision over to a public vote. From a list of their 10 studio albums, plus a live album, a covers compilation and that collaboration, almost 7,000 people joined us to nail down the definitive order of every Metallica album from worst to best. Here's what they decided...
13) Garage, Inc. (1998)
That there’s no real ‘point’ to Garage, Inc. is part of the appeal: this is the sound of four musicians kicking out the jams purely for fun, and as such, for all that it’s indulgent, it’s a hard album to dislike – though as its position here shows, it's also a record which failed to make much of a lasting impact on fans.
Heavily based on The $5.98 E.P. Garage Days Re-Revisited, which had taken just six days to make, from conception to final mix, it was, on paper, the simplest, easiest, most fun record Metallica ever made. Of the ‘new’ songs recorded in 1998, Skynyrd’s Tuesday’s Gone, Bob Seger’s Turn The Page and BOC’s Astronomy work best, while the lunk-headed yet inexplicably popular cover of Whiskey In The Jar verges on the embarrassing.
Still, this would be worth the price of admission even if only to have the (previously released) likes of Breadfan, Helpless, Stone Cold Crazy, Am I Evil? and the riotously filthy So What all in one place.
12) Reload (1997)
Perhaps if Bob Rock hadn’t become so friendly with Metallica in the aftermath of the phenomenal success of the ‘Black’ album, the producer might have had the balls to tell James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich that about half of the ideas they were offering up for its successor were utter shit. Even Hetfield himself has since conceded that he "wasn’t 100% on with it, but I would say that that was a compromise," effectively throwing his bandmates under the bus by adding: "I said, ‘I’m going with Lars’ and Kirk’s vision on this. You guys are extremely passionate about this, so I’ll jump on board, because if the four of us are into it, it’s going to be better.’ So I did my best with it, and it didn’t pan out as good as I was hoping, but, again, there’s no regrets, because at the time it felt like the right thing to do.”
Well, spoiler alert, it didn't work out. With Load front-loaded with the better songs, Reload picked up the slack from the writing sessions, and understandably suffers as a consequence. While James Hetfield’s lyrics hit new peaks of maturity, too many of his riffs here are – to employ a Lars Ulrich passive-aggressive criticism – ‘stock’, and should have ended up in the Pro-Tools recycle bin. That it placed worse than Lulu in our poll pretty much tells you all you need to know about the significance, influence and impact it had on Metallica fans. The Memory Remains is one hell of a tune though.
11) S&M (1999)
Okay, so chances are any live album – bar maybe Live At Leeds or No Sleep Til Hammersmith – will struggle to break the upper echelons in a list like this. Live albums as a concept are flawed: they're full of annoying people shouting, none of the songs sound quite as good as they should and the sound quality's often shite. They're the studio album's poor relation; uninspiring space fillers.
That is, until you stumble across S&M. An abbreviation of 'symphony and Metallica', by any measure, S&M is a huge triumph. Remember that thirst for boundary pushing we mentioned earlier? Well, here it culminates in an inspired collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony orchestra which leant even more ‘sturm und drang’ drama to their most epic and enthralling songs. The Outlaw Torn, Sad But True and Bleeding Me sound phenomenal here, and new song No Leaf Clover is an absolute beast. Those privileged to see this recorded, or to witness the subsequent performances in Berlin, New York or Las Vegas, will ever forget it.
It's also a great album to prove the point that anyone who claims that Metallica have nothing worth listening to post-'Black' album is a fucking idiot. In fact, the band’s fearless risk-taking and sense of adventure post-1991 arguably makes their ‘second act’ all the more more interesting – albeit their quality control nose-dived significantly.
10) Lulu (2011)
The arguments about this ferociously self-regarding project began the moment news of it escaped like bad gas from the manholes of New York City. Those arguments only grew more heated once everyone actually heard it.
Before his death in 2013, Lou Reed hailed Lulu as “The best thing I ever did.” His old pal David Bowie called this collaboration with Metallica a “masterpiece”. But Metallica fans were largely less complimentary, with one long-time supporter describing the album as “a catastrophic failure on almost every level.” In truth, an experimental, avant-garde album mixing one-take improvised riffing with abstract poetry about 19th century German bohemians was never going to be an easy sell, and traditionalist metal fans were inevitably disappointed.
It was clear from the moment opening track Brandenburg Gate wafted in like a fog – Lou cutting straight to the chase: ‘I would cut my legs and tits off/When I think of Boris Karloff and Kinski’ – that this is wasn't an album made for the ‘average’ rock fan – sometimes self-consciously so. It's not even really accurate to describe this album as 'divisive' – it alienated many more listeners than it impressed and was roundly trounced by music critics, while its supporters were few and far between.
But Lulu isn’t without merit, with the likes of Pumping Blood and Junior Dad boasting riffs that could crush mountains. Provocative and challenging, this is Metallica at their most bloody-minded, and what they brought to the collaboration was pure, blissfully un-ironic fire. No other metal band would have the courage to even attempt such a project.
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9) Death Magnetic (2008)
As stubborn, uncompromising and pig-headed as Metallica have always been – and those are compliments by the way – the brutal fan reaction to the unloved St. Anger album was difficult for Hetfield and Ulrich to ignore. And so when the quartet prepared to record its follow-up set, much was made of the fact that this was Metallica ‘returning to the roots’, with the band and producer Rick Rubin citing …And Justice For All and Master Of Puppets as inspirations for the record.
To everyone’s surprise and the total delight of the band’s vast fanbase, Death Magnetic was exactly what was required to bring them back from the brink. Fast, heavy and stuffed with fresh ideas, the record was widely lauded as their best since 1991’s planet-shafting ‘Black’ album, and came with massive production, courtesy of professional career-rejuvenator Rubin.
Gone was the lukewarm tone of St. Anger – where Hetfield had sounded messy and unfocused – replaced instead by impassioned, driven vocals. Kirk Hammett was allowed back out to solo again – and though he may not have quite won his detractors round, his wailing gave the album an intense, improvisational feel. The judicial bursts of harmony between Hetfield and Hammett were also a joy to behold.
While this back to basics approach yielded dividends – not least on the likes of All Nightmare Long, My Apocalypse and That Was Just Your Life – it also makes Death Magnetic arguably Metallica’s least honest, and inarguably their least instinctive, album. That ‘everything louder than everything else’ mastering didn’t help either.
8) Hardwired... To Self-Destruct (2016)
For many Metallica fans, the wait for the follow-up to 2008’s relatively well received Death Magnetic was a mixture of feverish anticipation and premonitory nervousness. By dragging out the album’s gestation for the best part of a decade, Metallica hinted at a reluctance to commit to any one musical path. The emergence of the turgid and overlong Lords Of Summer in 2014 didn’t do much to cultivate optimism, either.
Well, the people needn't have worried. Hardwired… turned out to be one of Metallica's strongest releases in decades. The standard was set by its biting title track – a vicious burst of prime thrash with an irresistible chorus and enough spirit and venom to silence anyone who thought Metallica were too old to nail this stuff anymore.
In contrast to much of Death Magnetic’s hideous production and distracting sloppiness, Hardwired… was precise and brutal. Maybe Lars had been practising more, or maybe some computer trickery was involved, but with Hardwired..., Metallica sound closer to the devastating machine of Master Of Puppets than they had in years. Single Moth Into Flame was another monstrous slab of authentic heavy metal that exhibited strong links to the band’s 80s triumphs but without sounding like a half-hearted attempt to go back to their roots.
The downside to Hardwired… came on its second disc, where furious closer Spit Out The Bone aside, the songs suffered from the same problem that has plagued every Metallica record since Load: the inability to self-edit. While a few superb riffs were scattered here and there, Here Comes Revenge was the best of a patchy bunch – the less said about plodding, forgettable Lemmy tribute Murder One the better. But the negatives on this album don't really matter, as Hardwired... confirmed what we'd all been waiting to hear: that classic Metallica were back.
7) St. Anger (2003)
It’s the album many Metallica fans still love to hate. More so than even than the infamous Lulu – because at least with that, the hardcore fans had a ready made hate-figure in collaborator Lou Reed to blame it on.
As the Some Kind Of Monster documentary starkly and deftly illustrates, Metallica were at their lowest ebb both in regards to their personal relationships and their art when it came time to make their eighth studio album. Jason Newsted had exited after delivering some harsh home truths, James Hetfield was forced to enter rehab, and for the longest time, no-one – least of all the bewildered Lars Ulrich and Kirk Hammett – was entirely sure that Metallica actually still existed. In many ways, St. Anger was the first album since Kill ’Em All that truly reflected who the people in Metallica were: conflicted, overstretched, insanely rich, and now, suddenly, immensely self-doubting.
Understood in this context, St. Anger can be viewed as the primal, instinctive roar of a wounded animal, but Christ, it’s hard work at times. Not only were there no guitar solos, but the drums sounded machinelike, like an anvil being pummelled. And there were no quieter moments, no ballads, no instrumentals, no place to escape the fearful maelstrom of crazed guitars, rubber-band bass and utterly pained vocals.
Taken piece by piece, tracks like Dirty Window, Invisible Kid and Shoot Me Again were some of the fiercest, most convincingly honest – if musically disjointed – moments the band had laid down since the sonically disfigured but brutally forthright …And Justice For All 15 years before. Taken as whole, however, which is clearly how St. Anger is meant to work, it was a bitter pill to swallow. “I’m madly in anger at you!” Hetfield wails on the title track; “My lifestyle determines my deathstyle,” he earnestly exhorts on Frantic. When the final track, All in My Hands ends with him repeatedly screaming, “Kill, kill, kill, kill!” the silence at the end leaves you staring into yourself, almost embarrassed. It's little wonder the album spawned thousands of derisory memes in its wake.
With sympathetic editing, a different drum sound and breathing space for Kirk Hammett solos St. Anger could have been polished up into something else entirely, but such hindsight is easy now: at the time, it was all about survival.
6) Load (1996)
Metallica’s most unfairly maligned album, Load suffers from the fact that its place in Metallica’s lineage comes immediately after release of the phenomenally successful 'Black' album: suddenly Metallica had ten million new fans worldwide, most of who were adamant that this wasn’t what Cliff Burton, a musician they didn’t know existed 12 months previously, would have wanted from the band.
The band began work on the follow-up to The 'Black' Album in the spring of 1994, less than one year after their Nowhere Else To Roam tour concluded at the Rock Werchter festival in Belgium. Much had changed in the music world since The 'Black' Album was released: Bruce Dickinson had walked out of Iron Maiden; Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, the latest media-anointed ‘saviour of rock’, had recently killed himself at home in Seattle; and in California, Green Day and The Offspring had just released Dookie and Smash, two albums that would finally ‘break’ punk rock in the US.
These shifting musical trends, teamed with influences from Corrosion Of Conformity and Alice In Chains, as well as long-time Burton favourites Lynyrd Skynyrd and Thin Lizzy, meant that Load was certainly a curve-ball for Metallica and their fans. Released in the UK on June 3, 1996, advance press on the record was overwhelmingly positive – Metal Hammer awarded the collection 4.5 out of 5 – but reaction from fans was decidedly mixed.
For some, the adoption of those 70s rock tropes (and indeed a pronounced country influence on the ballad Mama Said) was regarded as a betrayal of the band’s heavy metal roots: more alarming still was the imagery which accompanied the release. The fact that the band had altered their iconic logo served notice of a wholesale image overhaul. Each of the four musicians now sported short hair, and were photographed sporting eyeliner, tailored shirts and, in Lars’s case, a fur coat Elton John might have deemed ostentatious.
But had fans spent less time whining about the quartet’s haircuts and guyliner, they’d have realised that the likes of The Outlaw Torn, Bleeding Me, Until It Sleeps and Hero Of The Day were stone cold classics. 2 x 4 and Ronnie are still balls, though.
5) Kill ‘Em All (1983)
However you slice it, the inarguable fact is that Kill ’Em All changed everything. The youthful Metallica – Lars, James, bassist Cliff Burton and guitarist Kirk Hammett, who replaced original six-stringer and future Megadeth founder Dave Mustaine – took the drummer’s beloved New Wave Of British Heavy Metal and spliced it with the DNA of American punk. And while they can’t quite lay credit to inventing thrash metal – Kirk’s former band, Exodus, should be given due credit for that – Metallica can take credit for turning it into a worldwide phenomenon that’s still echoing down the years.
The recording of Kill ‘Em All may have been somewhat fraught – not least because the band kicked out Mustaine just weeks beforehand – but playing on crappy equipment with a producer who could barely comprehend what the Hell this noise was, Hetfield, Ulrich, Burton and Hammett delivered a set of performances that would help redefine metal. Hit The Lights starts off with a wall of noise that quickly erupts into a 100mph statement of intent, complete with one of the great opening lines in history: ‘No life ’til leather, we’re gonna kick some ass tonight’ – if one song represents the birth of Metallica, this is it.
Meanwhile, if there’s one Metallica song that deserves more credit than it gets, then it’s Motorbreath's ode to the rock’n’roll lifestyle, which kicks off with Lars pummelling seven shades of shit out of his drums before giving way to a precision-tooled James Hetfield riff. Lyrically and musically, it seems to be a shoutout to one of the band’s biggest influences: Motörhead.
There’s a good reason why the likes of The Four Horsemen, Seek & Destroy, Whiplash and Hit The Lights remain staples in Metallica’s concert setlists all these years later, and as raw and naïve as Metallica sound at times, this is the thrilling, explosive sound of a new dawn breaking.
4) Metallica (The 'Black' Album) (1991)
Two weeks before they started work on their world-conquering fifth album, Lars handed James a cassette they called The Riff Tape. The Riff Tape did exactly what it said on the tin – it was a collection of riffs that James, Kirk and Jason had made during the 240-odd nights of their recent …And Justice For All tour. Its contents would form the basis of Metallicaʼs next studio album.
That Metallica’s eponymous album is an absolute monster is undeniable. With management company Q Prime suggesting – AKA, ordering – the band that the follow up to ...Justice "simply had to go big", they recruited Bob Rock. Rock was a former, small time musician whoʼd since hit it big as a producer. His speciality was rambunctious pop-rock which sounded fantastic pumping from a car radio. Heʼd turned the trick for Bon Jovi and Aerosmith, and had made Mötley Crüe sound like the worldʼs greatest bar band. Rock was a fastidious perfectionist whose ear for music was a lot more finely tuned than some of his work suggested. “The word ʻBobʼ strikes fear into all Metalheads,” James joked at the time. “But a producer isnʼt meant to make you sound like him, heʼs meant to make you sound like the best version of yourself that you can possibly be.”
And, for the most part, that's exactly what happened. The 'Black' Album produced a slew of hits, won the band Grammy Awards and netted them millions of new fans in the process. And you can't argue with the songs, either: Enter Sandman, Sad But True and The Unforgiven are all still up there with some of the best Metallica have ever recorded.
But there’s a reason that the men in black played the album in reverse order when they toured it in Europe in 2012: that reason being the first half of the album far out-strips the second half. Still, it’s hard to argue with Bob Rock’s astute assessment that this muscular, streamlined album is where Metallica became the Led Zeppelin of their generation.
3) …And Justice For All (1988)
Sometimes a breakthrough album becomes such a landmark that it gives an artist the freedom to subsequently do whatever they want. And equally, sometimes the logical next step is to make the follow-up to that breakthrough as similar as possible – a sequel that repeats the winning formula and cements their growing status with their core constituency of fans.
This was the position Metallica found themselves in when planning their fourth album: not just the follow-up to their breakthrough hit, Master Of Puppets, but also their first without bassist and old-soul Cliff Burton. The safe option would have been to make, in effect, Master II – to both cash-in on their now established winning formula and prove that Burton’s replacement by Jason Newsted had been achieved seamlessly.
It's not what happened. Instead, Lars and James set about working from home alone on a four-track, Kirk Hammett was invited down at a later stage to consider his lead guitar parts, while Jason wasn't invited at all on the pretext that with only four tracks to work with there was no room for bass at that stage anyway. Inter-band relations were fractious, to say the least.
It's easy to see, then, how easily the wheels could have come off for the band in the period following Burton’s death. Bring into all this the fact that they found themselves wealthy beyond their teenage dreams, still traumatised from the loss of their friend, and now indulging in all the clichéd ‘rock star’ pursuits (Lars Ulrich once joked that …AJFA could have been called Wild Chicks, Fast Cars And Lots Of Drugs), it’s not hard to see how the San Francisco band could have lost their focus.
Actually, Hetfield and Ulrich arguably did so when mixing the album, hence Jason Newsted’s bass being almost inaudible on the finished record, but their preparation was immaculate. In the likes of Blackened, One, Harvester Of Sorrow and the raging Dyers Eve, Metallica crafted a new set of metal standards.
2) Ride The Lightning (1984)
Metallica’s second album is, indisputably, a masterpiece. Has any metal band ever undertaken such a huge leap forward as Metallica did in the nine months between the release of Kill ‘Em All and the recording of Ride The Lightning? In terms of songwriting, dynamics, musicianship and lyrical depth, Ride The Lightning is such a huge step on from the raw aggression of Kill ‘Em All, that it could be the work of a different band entirely. Which, in effect, it was: when Cliff Burton and Kirk Hammett joined the band on bass and lead guitar respectively, their debut album – save for Burton’s solo showcase Anaethesia (Pulling Teeth) – had already been written.
Massive credit is undeniably due to the classically-trained, musically-sophisticated Burton, who receives a co-writing credit on each of the six songs which mark Ride The Lightning out as a benchmark recording, and it’s no coincidence that the album’s two remaining tracks (Trapped Under Ice and Escape) are its weakest. Progressive, dynamic, ambitious and truly fearless, this is the sound of four young musicians realising that they can do anything.
The resulting uplift in quality is undeniable. From the delicately-picked acoustic guitar arpeggios which introduced the roaring Fight Fire With Fire to the symphonic riffs which closed the epic …Ktulu, Ride The Lightning is an album of rare sophistication, ambition and power, effortlessly transcending the boundaries of what they had achieved one year previously.
The serrated riffs underpinning Fight Fire With Fire and Ride The Lightning might have had their origins in Thrash metal, but here they were sharper, sleeker and more incisive than anything the band had previously recorded, while For Whom The Bell Tolls was a masterclass in control and dynamics, a tale of medieval conflict made all the more dramatic and affecting by its authors’ realisation that true ‘heaviness’ could be better attained by easing up on their traditional full-tilt tempos.
More than just the sound of a group of young musicians growing into their own skin, Ride The Lightning is a fearless declaration of independence from a band who were utterly determined to forge ahead on a path of entirely their own making. Three decades on, it stands as both a blueprint and a benchmark against which all forward-thinking metal bands shall inevitably be judged.
1) Master Of Puppets (1986)
Over 30 years on, it’s still hard to overestimate the impact Metallica’s Master Of Puppets had on the world. Their most profound and emphatic musical statement, it would come to define them, and with the death of bass player Cliff Burton on that album’s tour, it book-ended an era for the quartet, while their new-found status as one of the most important metal band on the planet to risked toppling to that of just another infamous rock act forever marred by a gruesome fatality.
For those of us still marvelling at their unparalleled and sophisticated leap from the Kill ’Em All debut to their Ride The Lightning album, Master was a whole other level of erudition. Strange to think now that there was outrage in some quarters when they introduced acoustic guitars to the audience at Hammersmith Odeon on the Lightning tour. Though if their audience and critics were still clinging to the past, Metallica were marching purposefully forward to the beat of their own drum (toms and double bass drums, mostly), setting the spark to the flame of a genuine musical revolution.
That James Hetfield was 22 when Master Of Puppets was recorded, and his buddy Lars just 21, is genuinely mind-blowing. What's even more astonishing is that one of the most revered, inspirational and influential metal albums of all time never even broke into the UK Top 40 in 1986, peaking at number 41 in the national album chart in a year when Iron Maiden and Bon Jovi scored Top 10 releases. But chart statistics alone cannot measure the significance of an album which set its creators up as the kings of a new age of metal and changed the face of the genre forever.
In terms of dynamics and pacing, Metallica’s third album may have aped the structure of its predecessor, but that’s the only note of caution on an eight track release which from the opening acoustic flurries of the electrifying Battery, through the beautiful harmonies of Orion, to the final breathless flailings of Damage, Inc never once drops the baton.
Though history will remember 1986 as the year thrash broke through into the mainstream metal consciousness – Master Of Puppets pushing a new breed of metal fans to seek out more extreme sounds, paving the way for the success of Slayer’s Reign In Blood and Megadeth’s Peace Sells… and bolstering interest in exhilarating albums from the likes of Kreator, Dark Angel and Destruction – Master Of Puppets was emphatic proof that Metallica had out-grown the scene and were now embarking on a journey with their own hand-drawn map. Having blown out the genre’s boundaries, the album challenged those following in Metallica’s wake to at least attempt to do the same.
Interviewed in 2006, Lars Ulrich told this writer that Master Of Puppets is a “motherfucker” of a record, and who could possibly argue with that? Metallica’s masterpiece, its power remains undiminished by the passing of time.