Over the course of their four-decade long career, Metallica have established themselves as the world's biggest metal band. Indeed, their self-titled 1991 album – aka The Black Album – is the fourth longest charting album in the Billboard 200, following Pink Floyd's perennial prog masterpiece Dark Side of the Moon, Bob Marley & the Wailers' posthumous compilation Legend, and Journey's Greatest Hits for sheer staying power. It's currently nearing 700 weeks in the US chart.
We took a look at the sales figures of the band's other full-length albums – discounting live releases other than 1999's orchestral S&M and its 2020 follow-up, S&M2 – in the United States. They've sold over 125 million albums worldwide, and 67 million of those in their home country.
We've crunched numbers and boiled down the raw data to bring you a particularly heavy broth. Enjoy.
1. Kill 'Em All (1983)
Sales: 4.5 million
On the back cover of their legendary thrash debut, Metallica wisely used a quote by a fan named Ray Burch: "Bang that head that doesn't bang". This phrase – which one Reddit user pointed out has the same amount of syllables as "we're off to Never Neverland" – sums up the zeal and hunger poured into the 10 tracks. Although it was something of a slow-burner sales-wise, this genre-defining album eventually hit the Billboard 200 three years later as fans sought copies following the release of Master Of Puppets, and has since shifted 4.5 million copies in the US.
2. Ride The Lightning (1984)
Sales: 6.95 million
Released almost a year to the day after Kill 'Em All, months on the road had moulded Metallica into a leaner, more technically proficient act. The follow-up was streets ahead in terms of songwriting, thanks largely to bassist Cliff Burton's melodic contributions to the eight songs. Much of the album – notably For Whom The Bell Tolls, Fade to Black, Creeping Death and the title track – is still performed live today. By 1987, the album had sold half a million copies, rising to almost 7 million almost four decades on.
3. Master Of Puppets (1986)
Sales: 7.98 million
Where its predecessor Ride the Lightning showed a marked shift in their songwriting ability, the four-piece truly shone on Master Of Puppets. Even though the band were in their early 20s by the time they arrived at Denmark's Sweet Silence Studios, the musicianship and song structure is jaw-dropping. Consistency is the key here. Where as Trapped Under Ice and Escape held Ride The Lightning back somewhat, there's not one ounce of fat here: Battery, Master of Puppets, The Thing That Should Not Be, Welcome Home (Sanitarium), Disposable Heroes, Leper Messiah, Orion, Damage, Inc. A timeless classic which saw the band take a seat at the big table.
4. ...And Justice For All (1988)
Sales: 9.7 million
The band were hit by tragedy when Cliff Burton died in a bus accident while on tour in Sweden, and enlisted Flotsam & Jetsam bassist Jason Newsted. The following year, the band recorded The $5.98 E.P. – Garage Days Re-Revisited, a collection of covers by Killing Joke, Misfits, Holocaust, Budgie and Diamond Head. It still sounds fantastic and was a perfect way of introducing their new bassist to the fanbase. And here's the rub: the nine songs on Justice are immense and see the band lean into some truly prog-like arrangements. There's the furious opener Blackened – a Newsted co-write – and the epic anti-war single One, but the sound of their fourth full-length is still the cause of much debate between Metallica fans of a certain age.
Newsted's bass is inaudible and the blame can be laid squarely at the feet of Ulrich and Hetfield. Whether the problem was the bass and guitar's sonics not proving compatible, unresolved grief over Cliff or simply a poor ear when it came to signing off on the final mix, Justice – still phenomenal, mind – is indelibly tainted by this oversight. Nevertheless, the release was met with critical acclaim and their fans responded in their droves and became their biggest-selling album to that point.
5. Metallica (1991)
Sales: 17.1 million
For album five, Metallica drafted a plan to become the biggest metal band on the planet. With four albums under their belt, they were already on track, but the idea of playing more labyrinthine riffs like ...And Justice For All made their blood run cold. A simpler, more effective approach was required and the band brought in Mötley Crüe and Bon Jovi producer Bob Rock to help then achieve their aim. Rock's production is first-class and gives lead single Enter Sandman and Sad But True a satisfying crunch, but also coaxed a vulnerability from James Hetfield on Nothing Else Matters. That ballad might have made real-life Eddie Munsons crush their Bud cans in an impotent rage, but the sheer accessibility of The Black Album blasted Metallica's profile into the stratosphere. It remains the biggest-selling metal album of all time with over 30 million sales worldwide, and over half of those in the United States.
6. Load (1996)
Sales: 5.4 million
There's no chance that even a band like Metallica could match the sales of The Black Album. It was true lightning-in-a-bottle stuff and the five-year gap in between releases may have lost some of the more casual fans who liked the song about the sand-wielding sleep pest or that lovely ballad. Perhaps fatigued by touring the world several times over, there's a change of pace and, if you're called Lars, vibe. Recorded at The Plant in Sausalito, California, Load had its share of highlights, including Bleeding Me, Until It Sleeps and Hero Of The Day, but it was met with a mixed reception from fans, some of whom may have been knocked sideways at the band's bold new short-hair-and-eyeliner look or the album cover that was, literally, spunk.
7. Reload (1997)
Sales: 4.48 million
The follow-up to The Black Album was initially planned to be a double album, but Metallica opted to release the first batch as Load and complete the rest in 1997. Truth be told, Reload lacks the punch of its predecessor and a sense of fatigue plagues much of the track listing. It's a safe bet to say the 4.5 million sales are down to the band's reputation and completists dutifully adding the release to their collection. The Memory Remains was good, though.
8. Garage Inc. (1998)
Sales: 3.35 million
Released in late 1998, Garage Inc. was a fun, stop-gap double-album which saw the band pay tribute to their heroes, with classics by Diamond Head, Black Sabbath, Mercyful Fate, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Thin Lizzy all given the 'Tallica treatment. The second disc – online file sharing was looming on the distant horizon then – featured the previously released The $5.98 E.P. - Garage Days Re-Revisited, as well as b-sides from the Creeping Death 12-inch and odds and sods from the Justice and Black Album singles, plus the Motörheadache sessions. Their US fanbase responded by snapping up over three million copies.
9. S&M (1999)
Sales: 2.5 million
Metallica have always done things their own way, but when the quartet announced that they were to stage a concert with the San Francisco Symphony, it was met with slack-jawed incredulity from some parts of the music press as well as their fans. It was respected composer Michael Kamen's idea, who himself wanted to explore something new, and the band were only too happy to work with him. The results, captured here on this live recording, are nothing short of incredible. With a carefully chosen setlist, Kamen's reimagining perhaps gave life to the ideas hinted at by the late Cliff Burton, who studied the likes of Bach, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. While the sales were not in the same league as their previous studio releases – 2.5 million is still an impressive sale, no matter which way you slice it – S&M was a bold move which paid off creatively.
10. St. Anger (2003)
Sales: 2 million
St. Anger was borne from the most turbulent time in the band's history. Jason Newsted had quit the band at the turn of the millennium, while James Hetfield went into rehab during the early stages of the studio sessions, which were proving creatively stagnant. With Bob Rock filling in on bass duties, the band struggled with writer's block and making an album was like pulling teeth. The songs were overwrought and Lars' pinging snare was a bone of contention for many listeners. Despite the rancour, St. Anger still yielded some memorable 'Tallica moments: Frantic, Some Kind of Monster and the title track are highlights from an album they'd barely revisit on their subsequent tours. For all the media –and that documentary – detailing the near-collapse of the world's biggest metal band, this divisive released shifted two million copies in the United States alone.
11. Death Magnetic (2008)
Sales: 2.1 million
Death Magnetic marked an upswing in the band's fortunes and recaptured their mojo following the difficulties surrounding their previous studio outing. Equal parts fast and heavy, Death Magnetic debuted at number one in the States, selling almost half a million copies during its first week. 15 years on, it's still packing some damn fine latter career Metallica tracks - The Day That Never Comes, All Nightmare Long and The Unforgiven III chief amongst them.
12. Lulu (2011)
Sales: 280,000 (worldwide)
Nobody saw this collaboration with Lou Reed coming, but Metallica are never predictable. With the Velvet Underground man's lyrics inspired by German expressionist Frank Wedekind soundtracked by Metallica's meditative avant garde backdrop, it alienated much of the band's fanbase and was welcomed like a fart in a lift. Those, however, who took the time to delve deep into the 10-track double album, would discover some absolute gems, with The View and the sprawling, raw emotion of the 19-minute closer Junior Dad. The sales are the lowest in this round-up – in the United States, it sold 13,000 copies in its firs week – but this wasn't the point of Lulu. This was art for art's sake and David Bowie declared the album as a "masterpiece".
13. Hardwired... to Self-Destruct (2016)
Sales: 1.29 million
The band's 10th studio album proper was heralded as a return, of sorts, to their old school roots. The thrashing title track and single Moth Into The Flame were punchy as hell and yielded some of Hetfield's strongest riffs in recent memory. Sure, there are times where the album could benefit from Torben Ulrich's no-nonsense approach to self-editing – "delete that" – but in general, Hardwired... to Self-Destruct is generally thought of as their strongest release in years. The sales figures may not scale the heights of The Black Album or even Reload, but it's worth remembering that people consume music in many different ways in the digital age.
14. S&M2 (2020)
Sales: 53,000 in its first week
The ambitious 1999 recording featuring the Michael Kamen-led San Francisco Symphony proved to be such a landmark event in Metallica's career that they chose to mark the 20th anniversary with a follow-up performance. Sadly, Kamen passed away in 2003, so the band and orchestra were conducted by Edwin Outwater at the Chase Center in San Francisco. The show was released in cinemas around the world, and took over $5 million at the box office. The physical release debuted at number 4 in the Billboard 200, selling 53,000 physical copies in the US on the week of release.