There is no disputing Metallica’s distinction as one of the greatest metal bands of all time.
Formed in 1981 by James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, the band quickly gained notoriety in the Bay Area metal scene and were soon embraced by headbangers the world over. With the steady lineup of Hetfield, Ulrich, bassist Cliff Burton, and lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, the band released three legendary albums (Kill ‘Em All, Ride the Lightning, and Master of Puppets) before a tragic bus accident took Burton’s life in 1986.
Metallica trudged onward, enlisting Jason Newsted on bass with the blessing of Burton’s family. This lineup was also quite productive, crafting …And Justice for All and the mega-selling “Black Album,“ as well as the companion discs Load and Reload.
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Newsted would leave the band in 2001, and Metallica released the maligned St. Anger in 2003. With Robert Trujillo eventually replacing Newsted, Metallica churned onward, getting back to their thrash roots on 2008’s Death Magnetic and 2016’s Hardwired… to Self-Destruct. They have also kept a busy tour itinerary, becoming the only band to play all seven continents (even Antarctica).
On October 28th, 2021, it will have been 40 years since Hetfield answered Ulrich’s ad in Los Angeles’ Recycler magazine, leading to the formation of Metallica. To commemorate the anniversary, we revisited the band’s 20 best songs.
This article originally ran in 2016 and was updated in 2021.
Album: …And Justice for All (1988)
As the song that laid the groundwork for a post-Cliff Burton version of Metallica, “Blackened” carried the weight of a brave new world on its shoulders. But the opening track of 1988’s …And Justice for All is less concerned with the band’s own uncertain future than it is with the future of civilization itself. James Hetfield sings of the “death of Mother Earth” and warns against the possibility of a nuclear holocaust in which “millions of our years/ In minutes disappear.” It all adds up to one of the most politically cognizant songs in Metallica’s catalog — one that remains surprisingly relevant in today’s climate. But that’s not the only reason it rocks. Though newcomer Jason Newsted’s bass can barely be heard, Hetfield and fellow guitarist Kirk Hammett layer riffs with reckless abandon, turning in some of their thrashiest work since Kill ‘Em All. Hammett’s huge solo carries a nice whiff of the new wave of British heavy metal, and he’s rarely sounded so powerful and so precise. –Collin Brennan
19. “Atlas, Rise!”
Album: Hardwired… to Self-Destruct (2016)
Hardwired… to Self-Destruct single “Atlas, Rise!” immediately calls attention to itself as one of latter-day Metallica’s hardest-hitting songs, a throwback to the band’s thrashiest days that incorporates all of the knowledge and professionalism they’ve gained since. Like its Grecian title character, the song embodies the notion of persistence — of surviving and even thriving in spite of long odds. It’s a thrilling six minutes anchored by a riff that out-pummels anything on Death Magnetic, and it’s further bolstered by a strong performance from Hetfield, who sounds like he’s challenging the world with his gnashed-teeth call of “Atlas, Rise!” in the chorus. –Collin Brennan
Album: Reload (1997)
1997’s Reload was originally going to be part of a double album with 1996’s Load, but double albums are time consuming to write, and the band famously got bored in the studio. In a way, this little tidbit sums up Metallica’s middle period: after releasing five albums in eight years, the band had said everything they needed to say and was now making music for the fun of it (and not making music when it wasn’t fun). This isn’t a bad thing, and if the best songs from this period lack the violent urgency of the earlier work, they make up for it with mature craftsmanship and a kind of furious joy. So it is with the first song off Reload, “Fuel,” which is partially about driving too fast, but can more properly be thought of as a love letter to adrenaline itself. Hetfield sprinkles several “Oohs,” and “Yeahs!” throughout the song, satisfied grunts that make it as much fun to listen to as it was to record. –Wren Graves
17. “The Day That Never Comes”
Album: Death Magnetic (2008)
Metallica had regained their full power by the time they recorded their first full-length with bassist Robert Trujillo. 2008’s Death Magnetic is a cut above the band’s previous album, St. Anger, and “The Day That Never Comes” is perhaps the former LP’s finest moment. With its soaring, melancholic chorus, the track clearly evokes the band’s “Black Album” material while subduing the more modern rock overtones of their past three studio efforts. –Jon Hadusek
16. “The Call of Ktulu”
Album: Ride the Lightning (1984)
The epic instrumental closer to Ride the Lightning, “The Call of Ktulu” betrays Metallica’s deep understanding of dynamics at a stage in their career when they really had no business being that good. Based on H.P. Lovecraft’s classic supernatural short story “The Call of Cthulhu,” the song is among Metallica’s first attempts to compose a piece of music that stretches beyond the parameters of heavy metal, invoking an atmosphere and a literary narrative that unfolds across multiple chapters. The track begins with a sense of foreboding, building tension with a clean guitar line and a bass riff that would seem right at home in a horror movie. When the song finally surfaces — rises above the water, so to speak — it really does sound like a monster unleashing hell on the listener. Those who make it to the end will be in for a kind of reprieve, but it’s a long and intense journey to get there. –Collin Brennan