Arriving on the scene in the late 90s, System Of A Down quickly established themselves one of the most idiosyncratic and unusual bands in metal. That they made such bizarre and uncharacterisable music is one thing, but the fact their albums went platinum in the US and they climbed the ladder to become festival headlining megastars in the process is an incredible achievement. While they still sporadically play live, for reasons best known only to themselves the band are stuck in a Mexican stand-off when it comes to releasing a new SOAD studio album. Still, the five albums they have released plus the four members’ individual solo projects amount to a body of work that has rarely been matched. Here we rank all those albums in order of greatness.
10. Serj Tankian – Imperfect Harmonies (2010)
Serj Tankian is one of the great vocalists in music, with a voice that is so instantly recognisable that it made perfect sense that he would go on to start a solo career after System went on their hiatus in 2006. No one really should or could have expected his exploits to be a carbon copy of his work with SOAD, but second album Imperfect Harmonies strayed a little too far for many longtime fans. Rather than the frantic heaviness we were used to, Imperfect Harmonies is a rather bloated and melodramatic set of orchestral led songs. Serj deserves credit for stepping outside of his comfort zone, but the results here are best left admired from afar.
9. Scars On Broadway – Dictator (2018)
Recorded in 2012 and left to gather dust for six years, System guitarist Daron Malakian’s Scars On Broadway project returned with their second album Dictator in 2018. It’s not a disaster, but you can see why its creators were so lax in its release, there really isn’t anything here that hasn’t been done by Daron to a far higher standard at various points in his career. It also lacks the drive of early SOAD, such as on Fuck And Kill, which is great compositionally but feels neutered by its production. Frustratingly, Angry Guru points at what could have been, but for the most part Dictator is a disappointment.
8. Serj Tankian – Harakiri - (2012)
In the buildup to the singer’s third solo record there was a lot of talk about it being a return to the punkier and heavier material purveyed by his old band. At the very least, are certainly more aesthetically rock based than what we had been used to from his solo material. Is it actually any good though? Some of it is. Figure It Out goes from 0 to 60 with the speed of his best work. But, in the main, what Harakiri is aiming for misses the ‘yang’ of Daron Malakian that made Serj’s ‘ying’ seem so perfect.
7. John Dolmayan – These Grey Men (2020)
A proper oddity of an album, SOAD drummer John Dolmayan roped in a star-studded cast, including Tom Morello, M Shadows, and Serj Tankian, to cover some of his favourite songs, mostly born from his frustration at not having an outlet to record new music. The result is, as most cover albums tend to be, pretty mixed, but occasionally it can be utterly brilliant; the cover of Madonna’s Hung Up melded with Neil Young’s Ohio and fronted by the Armenian singer Sirusho is worth the entrance money all on its own.
6. Serj Tankian – Elect The Dead (2007)
The first solo album from Serj remains the best. Elect The Dead, released in 2007, sat close enough to what the frontman was best known for whilst also introducing some orchestral elements, letting himself fully indulge in the traditional folk that SOAD had dipped their toe into and embracing hip-hop beats. When Serj really lets go, like on the tongue twisting mid-section of opening song Empty Walls, his vocal prowess is still something wonderful to behold.
6. System Of A Down – Steal This Album - (2002)
It’s a debate that has been going for well over a decade now; is Steal This Album a ‘proper’ System Of A Down album or not? The band claim that it is, and that, rather than the collection of outtakes and B-sides that many assume it to be, it’s of the same quality of the rest of their back catalogue. Sorry to disappoint you lads, but Steal This Album definitely feels way more like a collection of curios and unfinished ideas than it does a proper record. That’s not to say that there are many moments of greatness on here; opener Chic ‘N’ Stu is batshit brilliant, the groove on I-E-A-I-A-I-O is undeniable and Highway Song is a lost anthem. But the fact that the majority of songs don’t even tick over the three minute mark means Steal This Album isn’t really System at the top of their game.
5. Scars On Broadway – Scars On Broadway) (2008)
The debut Scars On Broadway album remains one of the great overlooked gems of 00’s metal. Daron claimed in the aftermath of the Mezmerize/Hypnotize albums that he could release “Ten solo albums tomorrow”. He didn’t, and we had to wait another three years to hear anything, but when Scars On Broadway arrived it shut a lot of the cynics up. It doesn't quite match up to the standards of System’s own albums, but Funny and Stoner Hate take all of the elements that made Daron such a beloved personality, the manic vocal tics and juddering, screeching guitar tones, and accentuated them. If you haven’t heard it for a while, go revisit.
4. System Of A Down – Hypnotize (2005)
The last album released under the System name to date is the weakest official studio album the band have put their name to. The fact that it is still an incredibly strong collection of songs goes to show just how consistently excellent SOAD have been throughout their career. The opening salvo of Attack is a wonderfully dizzying way to start the record and the ingenious dual vocal tradeoffs between Serj and Daron have arguably never been stronger than they are here on the epic likes of Holy Mountains, Lonely Day and Dreaming. A very good album in a run of exceptional ones.
3. System Of A Down – Mezmerize (2005)
The first half of the Mezmerize/Hypnotize set is certainly filled with the more well-known and iconic songs from that era, hence it just pipping the follow-up. B.Y.O.B. can stand shoulder to shoulder with Chop Suey! or Sugar when it comes to the very biggest moments in the bands back catalogue, Violent Pornography and Lost In Hollywood are massive fan favourites, and System have arguably not sounded as ‘wacky’ as they do on Cigaro and Radio/Video since their first album. Pretty much bulletproof.
2. System Of A Down – System Of A Down (1998)
In 1998 the nu-metal freight train was already running out of ideas, after the explosion of new sounds that Korn and Deftones brought in the middle of the decade, the bandwagon-hoppers were out in full force. It’s no wonder that System Of A Down’s self-titled debut album was so lauded in a scene that had come to rely on the likes of Coal Chamber and Spineshank, but that only really tells half the story.
System Of A Down is an absurdly brilliant record whoever you put up against it in competition. Spawning the anthemic likes of Sugar, Suite Pee and War, SOAD’s debut is one of metal’s finest opening statements, punkier and rawer than they would ever sound again (clearly owing a great debt to The Dead Kennedys) it still has moments of fragile beauty, likes Spiders, that pointed to where they could go next.
1. Toxicity (2001)
What else was it ever going to be? Toxicity remains one of the most essential releases made by any band in the history of metal. Debuting at number one on the US Billboard 200, it turned System from hot new cult band to one of the biggest names in the world of music, that it managed this feat without sacrificing one iota of the bands quirks and oddness is a stunning achievement. Now that songs like the title track, Prison Song, Ariels and the career dominating Chop Suey! are so deeply woven into the fabric of metal it would be easy to forget just how bizarre and challenging those compositions are, but the fact they turned them into genuine generational anthems is a trick that maybe no other band can claim to have done. Do yourself a favour and listen to this album with fresh ears in 2020, the evidence is staggering, Toxicity has refused to age, unlike so many of their nu-metal peers, and still sounds as weird, as wild and as inhumanly massive as it did 19 years ago. The work of pure genius.
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