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
09. “Lonely Day”
Chosen as the band’s final Hypnotize single, “Lonely Day” is a black sheep track in SOAD’s catalog for a couple reasons. Guitarist Daron Malakian wrote the track and handled lead vocals — unusual, at least with the band’s singles — with Serj Tankian providing backing vox and keys. That creates a palpably different vibe, and lyrically, there’s zero political subtext. Instead, Malakian left fans with something intensely personal and emotionally direct: “Such a lonely day / And it’s mine / The most loneliest day of my life.” — Jon Hadusek
Alongside “Chop Suey!” and “Aerials,” the title track from the quartet’s sophomore LP played a huge part in their early 2000s supremacy. Chiefly, Dolmayan’s syncopation remains incredibly dexterous and imaginative, instantly becoming the key component of the whole piece. That said, it wouldn’t be nearly as impactful if it didn’t perpetually offset the adjacently wistful verses and entrancing guitar-work. All in all, “Toxicity” is an expertly crafted experiment in contrasts that pushed SOAD further and challenged their genre brethren to keep up (or fall behind). — Jordan Blum
“Sugar” was the lead single from SOAD’s 1998 self-titled debut, and what a fine introduction it was. Paired with an absurdly dystopian music video, the song brought a healthy dose of what the band does best. The skronky rhythms are there, Tankian’s performance is unhinged, and the lyrics don’t mince words (“I play Russian roulette everyday, a man’s sport”). SOAD would round off some of sharper edges and up the production on future material, but “Sugar” is fine example of the crackling energy captured in their earliest works. — Jon Hadusek
“ATWA” was inspired by Charles Manson and environmentalism (hence its full title: “Air Trees Water Animals”). Curiously, its verses (among the band’s most beautiful musically and lyrically) evoke the simplicity and immediacy of Nirvana, as does its warm and measured guitar progression. Of course, that’s quickly interrupted by a characteristically harsh chorus that showcases Tankian’s trademark tongue trilling and soaring range. Along the way, patient percussion and crunchy riffs enhance the arrangement, cementing it as a superb example of SOAD’s ability to pack several idiosyncrasies into a relatively straightforward framework. — Jordan Blum
The second single from the debut LP and one of the definitive alternative metal power ballads, “Spiders” reaches an operatic grandiosity that few of SOAD’s contemporaries dared to attempt. Here, we get the full range of Serj Tankian’s vocals, delivered with genuine passion and backed by surging slabs of guitar. The musical elements are steeped in the nu-metal sound of the time, but it’s Tankian who lifts this onto another plane, as he often has. — Jon Hadusek
04. “Lost in Hollywood”
When it comes to exquisite songwriting, few SOAD tunes pack a bigger punch than Mezmerize‘s closing composition. Cleverly, it’s bookended by stiff six-string tension and apocalyptic humming; in-between, Malakian (on lead vocals) and Tankian channel the tragic serenity of “Aerials” via poignant harmonies and heartrendingly foreboding sentiments (“I’ll wait here / You’re crazy / Those vicious streets are filled with strays / You should’ve never gone to Hollywood”). Following more commanding detours, it ends with a stunning collage of vocals and timbres that linger long after they’re gone. — Jordan Blum
System of a Down achieved their first No. 1 hit with “Aerials,” which hit the top spot on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart in the summer of 2002. The band reined in some of their more extreme idiosyncrasies for a highly melodic piece that fit snugly against the post-grunge that dominated modern rock radio. It really does capture the sound of that time with the loud-soft arrangement and massive guitar production. However, Tankian never resorts to any forced gruff vocals, and the general machoism of early aughts alt-metal is nowhere to be found. A testament to their talent and vision, System of a Down — much like Deftones — were able to infiltrate the mainstream with more accessible heavy songs like “Aerials” without compromising their artistic integrity. — Jon Hadusek
The first single from 2005’s Mezmerize, “B.Y.O.B.” (“Bring Your Own Bombs”) took SOAD’s knack for social commentary and hyperactive stylistic shifts to a whole new level. It was written in protest of the Iraq War, and the dual singing of Tankian and Malakian fluctuate typically between soothingly melodic and abrasively irregular. Beyond that, its lyrics are full of clever allusions and alliteration regarding corrupt politicians, celebratory violence, and classist inequality. Those elements, plus its ceaselessly complex and imaginative instrumental changeups, make it a representative gem. — Jordan Blum
01. “Chop Suey!”
The imitable “Chop Suey!” is hands down SOAD’s most recognizable song. With the production might of Rick Rubin and an iconic video by director Marcos Siega, System of a Down planted themselves firmly in the cultural consciousness with the Toxicity anthem. It’s their definitive musical concoction: rhythmic blasts juxtaposed against melodic acoustic breathers — an infectious push and pull. Some trivia: The song was originally titled “Suicide” until Columbia Records forced the band to change it, resulting in the play-on-words (“Suey” is “suicide” chopped in half, get it?). Over 1 billion YouTube viewers can’t be wrong. “Chop Suey!” is System of a Down’s greatest song. — Jon Hadusek