Once, Metallica were innovators — the face of the burgeoning underground thrash metal movement. The songs were raw, bludgeoning, and ambitious. James Hetfield growled like he meant it; Kirk Hammett melted faces (despite living in the shadow of original guitarist Dave Mustaine); Lars Ulrich wreaked havoc on his drums; and Cliff Burton did things bass players weren’t supposed to do (and then came Jason Newsted). They simply drank alcohol and played heavy metal. Simpler times.
Metallica eventually changed as it grew older, cleaning up its image and sound. When interest in metal waned in the early ’90s, the group adapted to achieve commercial appeal. The move proved wise, as they survived when so many of their contemporaries perished into obscurity; however, the first wave of Metallica fans felt betrayed. Their favorite band had become some kind of SoundScan-driven monstrosity, no longer the scrappy L.A. upstarts of old.
That’s why you won’t find anything after 1991 on this countdown. If we’re to examine their 10 best songs, we must revisit the Metallica of old. Back when they still played thrash metal. Before Napster. Before Some Kind of Monster. Before they lost touch.
Senior Staff Writer
Album: Master of Puppets (1986)
“Battery” is arguably Metallica’s heaviest song. Placed at the beginning of the 1986 opus Master of Puppets, it opens with a melodic, flamenco guitar introduction before the band bursts into a galloping chord progression. This quickly turns from rigid brutality (verse) to triumph (chorus) in one of Metallica’s more tactful tempo changes. Such transitions are what set them apart from similar thrash metal acts. Hetfield and Ulrich — the group’s chief songwriters — seamlessly connect distinct song sections, which results in memorable tracks like this one.
9. “Seek & Destroy”
Album: Kill ‘Em All (1983)
A vicious riff preludes Hetfield’s equally volatile opening couplet: “Scanning the scene in the city tonight/ Looking for you, to start up a fight.” Metallica didn’t give a fuck back then; they were just four L.A. kids playing the music they liked to listen to. That attitude motivated their music, image, and ethos. It’s what made them cool, and their music even cooler. This would slowly dissipate as the band members aged. One of the group’s earliest recordings, “Seek & Destroy” was originally on the band’s No Life ‘Til Leather demo, which featured Dave Mustaine on lead guitar.
Album: Master of Puppets (1986)
Metallica included an instrumental on each of its first four records, “Orion” being the best of the bunch. Indulging a more progressive side of metal, these lengthy pieces relied on atmosphere and Kirk Hammett, who gets plenty of time to solo. But the music carries itself, lacking vocals for a reason. “Orion” is separated into multiple movements connected by Cliff Burton’s ever-inventive bass playing (he really shines on the fills). When the track reaches its midpoint — as those harmonious guitars glide into the solo — “thrash metal” has never sounded so beautiful, before or since. It’s still regularly included on Metallica’s setlist despite being an instrumental.