The Top 10 Essential Nu Metal Albums

Korn's Jonathan Davis singing
Korn's Jonathan Davis (Image credit: Getty)

Love it or hate it, without the revitalising effects of nu metal in the post-grunge late 90s, the metal would sound very different today. Splicing the musical approach of rap-metal superstars such as Faith No More and Rage Against The Machine, the self-laceration of grunge and the dark innovation of alt-rock heroes such as Tool, it was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale time.

Who sowed the seeds of nu metal will forever be debated, but Korn can stake a claim to ushering it into the mainstream metal scene with their self-titled debut album. Within two years, it had taken hold, and in Korn’s wake, bands such as Deftones and Coal Chamber rode the nu metal wave. Suddenly, grunge’s plaid shirts-and-distressed denim uniform had been replaced by oversized trousers and wallet chains. Tours such as Family Values and Ozzfest helped legitimise it for mainstream metal fans, while Florida upstarts Limp Bizkit helped make the scene omnipresent in the late 90s.

Nu metal’s success continued into the early 00s thanks to the likes of Linkin Park and Papa Roach, though its glory days were numbered. Within a few years, the masses had turned their attention to My Chemical Romance and their ilk and nu metal was yesterday’s scene. But no matter – its job had been done.

Korn – Korn (1994)

‘Are you ready?!’ roars Jonathan Davis on the awesome opener Blind. And millions of eager would-be nu metal fans gave their response by rapidly turning Korn into one of the world’s biggest bands. When this album appeared, no one had a name for the nascent genre that was about to re-animate the corpse of metal after the beating dished out by grunge. Their first and best, this is a stormer, featuring some of the heaviest, dirtiest riffs ever recorded, a bottom end so heavy it could anchor an aircraft carrier, and a frontman who would raise the articulation of adolescent angst into a bile-fuelled art form.

Deftones – Around The Fur (1997)

If there was one reason to check out this album, it must be the monumental opening track, My Own Summer (Shove It), which secured the band some all-important airplay. Chino Moreno’s whispered confessions are brilliantly creepy, while Stephen Carpenter proves himself to be a seriously underrated and imaginative guitarist. The real joy of Around The Fur is in experiencing a massively talented band in a very cool transitional phase as they grow in confidence and harness and hone the rawness of 1995’s Adrenaline to create the perfect stepping stone to the arty power of 2000’s White Pony.

Limp Bizkit – Three Dollar Bill, Y’all (1997)

The nu metal collision between rap, hip-hop and metal couldn’t have been clearer, or more essential, than on Limp Bizkit’s blistering debut; just one glance at the graffiti-style cover art speaks volumes. Wes Borland’s dynamic guitar pyrotechnics joust gamely with DJ Lethal’s samples and scratches, while drummer John Otto’s jazz-influenced rhythm stylings fuse seamlessly with his cousin Sam Rivers’ chewy, funky bass lines. But what brings it all together is the fiery presence of Fred Durst whose furious outpourings teeter almost on the edge of psychosis, as on the fantastic Leech and the pulverising Pollution.

Coal Chamber – Coal Chamber (1997)

Although Coal Chamber were unfairly dismissed as mere Korn clones, there was a time in the late 90s when it seemed that virtually every copy of Metal Hammer had Dez Fafara’s scrap-metal implanted face gurning at you from the cover. And that was for good reason. With their churning, primal debut album Coal Chamber captured the nu-metal zeitgeist almost perfectly. The thick, grinding riffage was an ideal foil to Fafara’s sometimes whispered, sometimes shrieked psycho-dramas, and ensured that with the likes of the hypnotic Sway and scorching trump card Loco they cornered the market in heavy music for spooky kids.

Incubus – S.C.I.E.N.C.E. (1997)

Surely one of the most diverse-sounding bands in nu metal, Incubus owe a great deal to the pioneering spirit of Faith No More, not least in the silky vocal stylings of Brandon Boyd and the left-field inventiveness with a high premium placed on strong melodies and instant hooks. S.C.I.E.N.C.E. was the sound of a band clearly developing into a world-class act, and includes a number of tunes that still pop up in Incubus’s live shows nearly two decades on: Vitamin, Idiot Box and A Certain Shade Of Green. For real feel-good innovation and a distinctly weird sense of humour, this record is pretty hard to beat.

(Hed) Pe – (Hed) Pe (1997)

To dub LA’s (Hed) Pe as merely nu metal really doesn’t do justice to the eruption of colourful noise that comes from their debut album. Far from concentrating on down-tuned riffs and guttural bellowing, these sonic marvels were far more musically adept than most of their contemporaries. For a start, creatively potty-mouthed Jahred can actually rap and sing, the hip-hop influences are far more convincingly street, and there are dashes of reggae and dub embellishing the wanton guitar thrashing. Just have a listen to closing track Bitches for a taste of the pigeonhole-defying diversity that they conjured up.

Spineshank – Strictly Diesel (1998)

Spineshank’s ace in the hole had to be Jonny Santos’s ability to deliver not just gut-busting roars from the pits of Hades, but also streamlined, melodic vocals as well, enabling this band to be a great deal more flexible than many of their peers when it came to songwriting. Chugging opener Intake finds Santos crooning smoothly then wigging out with supreme ease, and sets the tone for an album which combines catchy hooks with the occasional sprinkling of electronic jiggery pokery. Not a million miles from Fear Factory in feel – in fact Factory’s frontman Burton C Bell appears on album closer Stain (Start The Machine).

Soulfly – Soulfly (1998)

Forged in the wake of turmoil – Max Cavalera had not only left Sepultura, but had also recently lost his son – the emotional charge of this album is huge and overpowering in places. The Brazilian world music experiments of Sepultura’s Roots era are taken to their logical conclusion, and with the ubiquitous Ross Robinson producing, the speaker-trashing low-end rumble is so earth-shakingly heavy it feels like you’re listening to the metal equivalent of shifting plate tectonics. There are also guest appearances from the likes of Chino Moreno, Fred Durst, Dino Cazares and Burton C Bell.

System Of A Down – System Of A Down (1998)

If the self-absorbed angst and emotional introspection of most nu metal gets to be too much, then try this stunning, politically charged and critically lauded debut from a band so way out there it hurts. SOAD’s Armenian heritage is writ large throughout, from the spiky lyrics – P.L.U.C.K. is about the Armenian genocide – to the flashes of folky melodies decorating these 13 driving and twisted slabs of noise. But what really sells this is the sheer demented theatricality of it all. The groovy wackiness of each and every song puts System Of A Down completely in a league of their own.

Slipknot – Slipknot (1999)

This is it, folks: the start of a genuine phenomenon. The point where nu metal almost swallowed the world whole. And it all started off in Des Moines, Iowa, the arsehole of nowhere. The frustration and alienation captured by this disturbingly masked nine-piece, working with nu metal producer extraordinaire Ross Robinson, struck a resounding chord with metal fans hungry for the next extreme sonic outrage. And outrage was exactly what they got. Squealing, scratching volleys ricochet off grinding, bullet-proof thrash riffs while a rhythm section hammers away in titanic triplicate. Nasty, brutish, overwhelmingly nihilistic but utterly mesmerising.

Essi Berelian

Whether it’s magazines, books or online, Essi has been writing about rock ’n’ metal for around thirty years. He has been reviews editor for Classic Rock and Metal Hammer, rock reviews editor for lads mag Front and worked for Kerrang!. He has also written the Rough Guide to Heavy Metal and contributed to the Rough Guide to Rock and Rough Guide Book of Playlists, and the Guinness Book of British Hit Singles (13th edition). Most fun interview? Tenacious D – Jack Black and Kyle Gass – for The Pick of Destiny movie book. An avid record/CD/tape collector, he’s amassed more music than he could ever possibly listen to, which annoys his wife no end.