System of a Down’s second album Toxicity is a bona fide classic. Released in 2001, it took the wild, manic energy of their self-titled 1998 debut and busted it wide open, making everything sound bigger, grander and more cinematic. This unique mix of groove metal, scattershot punk rock, Armenian folk and political polemic was a massive hit, selling over 12 million copies worldwide and reaching the top of the US album chart. It’s an absolute landmark metal album, but how do the individual tracks stand up? This is every song on Toxicity ranked from worst to best.
No shock here really. Toxicity ends with 134 seconds of bongo-banging, instrumental jamming. Arto is a nice enough way to end the album, though it’s barely really even a song – and it’s the only moment on the album you could describe as unnecessary. Clearly the weakest moment on the album. Let’s move on.
This is where things get tough. There’s not one song on Toxicity that doesn’t justify its inclusion on the album, so hairs are being split here. Shimmy is a quick, careering tune, with a typically maddening if catchy chorus. But SOAD do this type of thing quite a bit better elsewhere on the album, so by process of elimination, it has to sit this low.
The same. Science is a relatively short and punchy number and, although System are clearly very good at doing these types of songs, they are way more impactful when they really stretch and spread their wings. Plus, by their standards, the chorus isn’t quite up there with their best. On the other hand, Daron Malakian’s riff is outrageous and the little folksy mid-section rules too.
It might seem like we’ve got a problem with the shorter, punkier moments in SOAD’s back catalogue here given that X clocks in at under 2 minutes and is a great example of the band with their foot firmly to the floor. There’s no real criticism of the song here really, it’s just not the best example of this version of System of a Down on offer here.
A great example of System of a Down’s sublime grasp of dynamic push and pull; the melodic dual melodies and delicately plucked opening leading to the chunky riff and brilliantly barked chorus is fantastic. Is it the very best example of this on the album? No, it is not, so it sits beneath its more well-realised peers. Still great though.
10. Deer Dance
Most bands could only dream of writing a song as good as Deer Dance. The Helmet-esque groove riff, Serj Tankian’s whisper to croon to howl vocals, those propulsive rhythms... how can this be so low? The fact that it’s sandwiched between the superb Needles and Jet Pilot doesn’t help. Harsh but fair.
Utterly silly, delightfully playful, punky nonsense it may be, but you wouldn’t want to take Bounce away from Toxicity. It might seem a touch throwaway compared with the things that surround it, but that contrast in styles is one of the things that make this album so essential.
Although there are moments on the album where Toxicity takes the formula of Forest and betters it, this song ranks here due to the sublimely soaring chorus, one of the finest on the album, and the ascending Tankian vocal melody that gets us to that moment.
7. Jet Pilot
Not quite the very best example of System using rather bizarre imagery on the album, but still fantastically memorable all the same. As soon as that double time riff kicks in Jet Pilot is hair-raising stuff. Serj croaking in the verses about his shackled horse is as intriguing as it is confusing, but it’s all over before you have a chance to question anything. Quite the trip.
Yeah, really. The title track of this album has become one of the most anthemic songs in modern metal. Deservedly so as well, as it swoops, soars and waltzes around your ears in fine style. But there’s a couple of moments later in the album where SOAD do this brand of euphoria to a higher standard.
Arguably the most eccentric song on the record, and the one track that could have sat comfortably on their debut. Many of the great System songs connect their bug-eyed mania to their quieter, more delicate sides. Few do it as well as psycho.
How to write a hit song: take a thrash riff, add groovy, turn-on-a-dime rhythms and throw in some shamanic yelping about pulling a tapeworm out of your backside. There’s really no other band we can think of that could have made this song work, so Needles scores high for its uniqueness.
3. Prison Song
The opening song on Toxicity is a masterclass on how to kick off an album. One attention grabbing, smack-in-the-face riff, Daron and Serj tag-teaming vocals that veer between yelping, barking, spoken word and guttural growling, and a groove that cannot fail to make you move. An all-time track one, side one classic.
Let’s stop short of calling it a ballad, but System of a Down have never sounded as achingly beautiful as they do on Ariels. It proved beyond any doubt that this band could do more than just wacky nu metal, and remains a superb piece of euphoric songwriting.
1. Chop Suey!
Too obvious? You might think so, but that’s only because it’s become so familiar in the 20-plus years since it was released (one billion streams and counting). But cast your mind back to the first time you heard Toxicity, and the chances are that it’s Chop Suey! that stood out even in such elevated company.
There’s a good reason it’s become one of the most beloved songs of the 21st century: it takes everything great about System Of A Down and condenses it into three-and-a-half minutes of pure brilliance. From its careering riffing and unforgettable hooks to that rapturous closing chorus, it’s the perfect summation of both Toxicity and the band that made it.