System of a Down are one of the most eclectic metal bands to achieve massive success. From 1998 through 2005, the Armenian-American group out of California put out a series of acclaimed albums, but then went silent as a recording act for 15 years. Despite the lack of new music (save for a couple of surprise new songs in 2020), System of a Down’s discography rivals that of any heavy group of the past quarter century.
Singer Serj Tankian’s unmistakeable voice ranges from frenetic to operatic, while guitarist-singer Daron Malakian’s riffs are catchy and chaotic at the same time. Meanwhile, the rhythm section of bassist Shavo Odadjian and drummer John Dolmayan is as mighty and technically skilled as just about any in heavy metal. Combine those musical sensibilities with lyrics that are both sociopolitical and downright quirky, and you have one of the most unique acts in hard-rock history.
Beginning with their 1998 self-titled debut, System of a Down set themselves apart from their musical peers with standout singles like “Spiders” and “Sugar.” Then, they entered a new stratosphere with 2001’s Toxicity, one of the finest albums of the 21st century in any genre. First single “Chop Suey!” led the way by becoming an unlikely radio hit despite lines like “Trust in my self-righteous suicide” landing it on radio giant Clear Channel’s “do not play” list in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Subsequent singles like “Toxicity” and “Aerials” would also rule the airwaves.
After releasing 2002’s Steal This Album, a collection of songs recorded at the same time as Toxicity, SOAD returned with a bang with “B.Y.O.B.,” the first single from 2005’s Mezmerize. That year also saw a companion album, Hypnotize, released on November 22nd, 2005, marking the last time System released a full-length studio effort. Both LPs would be spearheaded by Malakian, who contributed much of the songwriting and whose vocals were more prominently featured than on past albums.
The band went on hiatus in 2006, returning to play live shows again in 2011. While they’ve continued to perform as a touring band, creative differences — particularly between Malakian and Tankian — have prevented SOAD from recording another full-length album. However, they did set those differences aside to record the two new songs “Protect the Land” and “Genocidal Humanoidz” in 2020 in support of Armenia and its neighboring state Artsakh, which had come under attack by Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Choosing System of a Down’s 10 best songs is no easy task. Heck, it’s hard to leave anything from Toxicity off the list. Here, Heavy Consequence presents its picks for the band’s greatest tunes, ranging from the brutally heavy to the beautifully melodic. Dig into System of a Down’s brightest tracks in the list below.
10. “Prison Song”
Toxicity opener “Prison Song” sets up the LP’s proclivity for political analysis. How? By remarking on how the CIA helps “rig elections in other countries,” as well as how drug addicts are sentenced to jail time instead of rehabilitation. Its Metallica-esque brutality is ingeniously juxtaposed by Tankian’s in-your-face statistical narration, Malakian’s histrionic personifications, and a series of thoroughly quirky and dynamic instrumental amendments. Although later songs, such as “Cigaro,” would harken back to this structure, “Prison Song” is unquestionably the band’s best use of it. — Jordan Blum