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Metallica’s 20 Best Songs

The top tracks from the world's most popular metal band

Metallica Best Songs
Metallica’s James Hetfield, photo by Raymond Ahner
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    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.


    20. “Blackened”

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    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!”

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    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


    18. “Fuel”

    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”

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    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”

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    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


    15. “Hit The Lights”

    Album: Kill ‘Em All (1983)

    Within Los Angeles’ blooming metal scene, Metallica built its reputation by playing louder and faster than anyone else — louder by choice, faster because the nervous drummer kept accidentally speeding up. From the very beginning, they understood the power of theater. “Hit the Lights” is the first song on the first Metallica album, and it begins with a low hiss that increases in volume like a storm bearing down on the eardrum. A pause and another sonic wave of roiling guitars and thundering drums builds in intensity before dying off with a flourish. Finally, Kirk Hammett’s furious riff announces the arrival of a powerful new force in metal music, as well as an instant thrash classic. Hetfield would develop into a powerful singer, but at the time his vocal repertoire wouldn’t have sounded out of place coming from a Tasmanian devil. “Hit the Lights” is brutal, wicked fun. –Wren Graves


    14. “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”

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    Album: Master of Puppets (1986)

    Master of Puppets is arguably Metallica’s masterpiece, and the most remarkable thing about that fact is that the album is more of a short story collection than an act of autobiography — if not impersonal, then at the very least largely removed from the realm of personal experience. “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” is the tale of the terrible living conditions experienced by the inmates of an asylum as well as the eventual uprising, possibly inspired by Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The intro feels influenced by Ennio Morricone, promising a showdown that happens offstage, as it were. After the last verse of “natives getting restless,” the bridge ratchets up the tension, and all of the actual violence is accomplished in the raging guitar instrumental that brings the song to a close. –Wren Graves


    13. “Nothing Else Matters”

    Album: Metallica (aka “The Black Album) (1991)

    This somber, touching ballad expanded on the acoustic approach of Ride the Lightning’s “Fade to Black” and proved that Hetfield could hold his own as a crooner. The cinematic production from Bob Rock elevates the track to majestic heights, while the smoldering guitar work cuts through the mix. The melody and overall mellowness might have been lost on hardcore thrash fans, but accessible tracks like “Nothing Else Matters” helped in greatly expanding Metallica’s listener base in the early 1990s. — Jon Hadusek


    12. “For Whom the Bell Tolls”

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    Album: Ride the Lightning (1984)

    For a band so concerned with seeking and destroying and leaving only scorched earth in their wake, Metallica sure found plenty of time to hunker down and read the classics. Ride the Lightning standout “For Whom the Bell Tolls” tips its hat to the Ernest Hemingway novel of the same name, rehashing the plot in a more poetic verse-chorus-verse format. From the very beginning, it’s apparent that this is a more sonically adventurous Metallica than the version that appeared on Kill ‘Em All. A deep and foreboding bell chime sets the scene, and bassist Cliff Burton takes it from there, laying down a remarkable chromatic riff that shouldn’t be possible on his instrument of choice. As is often the case on Metallica’s more ambitious songs, changes in tempo and intensity abound as the band strives to paint a more comprehensive narrative picture than the constraints of heavy metal typically allow. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else, they succeed brilliantly. –Collin Brennan


    11. “The Four Horsemen”

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    Album: Kill ‘Em All (1983)

    A song titled “The Four Horsemen” should absolutely open with a galloping guitar riff, and this one doesn’t disappoint. As the second song on Metallica’s debut album — following on the heels of the equally punishing “Hit the Lights” — it sets a tone of urgency befitting a young thrash metal band anxious to prove themselves. The song was, in fact, co-written by original Metallica lead guitarist Dave Mustaine, and echoes of the main riff can be heard unmistakably in Megadeth’s 1985 track “Mechanix”. This is the better version, though, thanks to the addition of a nifty bridge courtesy of Cliff Burton. Less brutal and more melodic than the rest of the song, it sounds almost Lynyrd Skynyrd-esque for a brief second before Hammett’s guitar solo takes over and steals the show. –Collin Brennan


    10. “Sad But True”

    Album: Metallica (aka “The Black Album) (1991)

    Put aside the fact that it was sampled on Kid Rock’s all-time classic “American Bad Ass,” and “Sad But True” still has a lot going for it. Hetfield’s lyrics convey a struggle between two sides of a split personality, with the darker tendencies rising to the surface and attempting to take control. It seems the perfect metaphor for Metallica’s self-titled fifth album, which finds the band inching away from heavy metal and embracing a sound that’s closer to straight-up hard rock, albeit with punishing riffs to spare. “Sad But True” remains a staple of the band’s live set to this day, probably because it so seamlessly combines the best of their early and latter days, wrapping up the whole package with an instantly recognizable hook. Though it was the fifth (!) single released off the self-titled album, “Sad But True” would end up having stronger legs than several of those preceding it. –Collin Brennan


    09. “Battery”

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    Album: Master of Puppets (1986)

    “Battery” is Metallica at their fastest and most furious. By their third album, the band understood that hares look speedier next to a tortoise, and nothing sounds as loud as a bump in the night. The slow, sweet intro isn’t just a chance for the listener to get up to speed; it’s a deliberate contrast to the wild fury of rest of the song. It’s another short story told in the first person, a character study of a psychotic break. “Smashing through the boundaries/ Lunacy has found me/ Cannot stop the battery!” The verses and chorus are so relentless that the band built in a bridge and guitar solo just to give the listener’s ear a chance to rest. –Wren Graves


    08. “Wherever I May Roam”

    Album: Metallica (aka “The Black Album) (1991)

    Exotic instrumentation introduces us to the idea of far-flung travels: a gong, a sitar-like guitar, and an overdubbed 12-string bass. It’s like waking up in strange place and taking a moment to remember where you are. And while it’s not as if the lyrics are entirely uninteresting — Hetfield manages to add a surprising amount of drama to a traditional tale of life on the road — the real star of the song is that iconic call-and-response guitar riff. Hammett teases out variations on the theme before launching into one of his finest solos. Like the journey itself, the song never actually ends, but rather fades away so that the listener may go to different places and partake in different adventures. –Wren Graves


    07. “Orion”

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    Album: Master of Puppets (1986)

    The second instrumental track to make our list. Is this a subliminal dig at James Hetfield? Not at all, and not least because he’s credited as co-lead guitar on “Orion”. Instead, this is probably an example of what is commonly called “survivor bias.” Good lyrics can save mediocre instrumentation, and since by definition instrumental tracks contain no lyrics, the instruments themselves must be unusually compelling. This makes them somewhat harder to write, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that several songs that had been intended to be instrumental had either been repurposed for the voice or left on the cutting room floor. Neither “Call of Ktulu” nor “Orion” were cut or needed to be saved by lyrics, and the mere fact that they made it out of the studio implies a quality that the tracks themselves deliver. “Orion” is made up of several distinct musical movements, each with its own melodies and rhythm. The highlights are the two bass solos performed by the inimitable Cliff Burton. Burton loved “Orion”; it was his favorite Metallica song, and the surviving bandmates associate it so closely with their friend that they played it at his funeral and have rarely played it since. –Wren Graves


    06. “Fade to Black”

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    Album: Ride the Lightning (1984)

    Ride the Lightning’s first single remains one of the most memorable entries in Metallica’s entire catalog, an epic ballad that’s really two songs in one — the first a steady, contemplative meditation on suicide and the second a sprint to the finish, powered by Hammett’s descending guitar riff and, eventually, a solo that spins wildly out of control. The song’s lyrics are said to have driven many a teenager over the edge, but they’re far more empathetic than the concerned parents of the 1980s gives them credit for. Hetfield is really trying to understand what drives a person over the edge, and the song’s structure follows suit, beginning in a place of quiet despair and ending with a violent thrashing. –Collin Brennan


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