It’s telling when an album is so successful and groundbreaking that you don’t even need to mention what band it’s by in the headline. But Metallica’s self-titled 1991 record, commonly known as the Black Album, is very much that–a collection of songs that fans both diehard and casual know down in their bones from the moment they’re referenced. And while metalheads will never automatically equate commercial success with talent, the fact that the Black Album has sold 16 million records in the United States alone and a mindblowing thirty-one million copies worldwide is an undeniable statement on its widespread appeal and gigantic staying power.
Since today marks the 30th anniversary of the Black Album’s release, we decided to rank the twelve songs thereon in order of greatness. Choosing any of these tracks over each other is a difficult task, but here’s what we came up with…
12. “The Struggle Within”
You gotta love the opening military drums and howling guitars of “The Struggle Within,” but the song itself is definitely a little more aimless than the others on the Black Album. It’s not entirely clear what the track is about, even if the solo in the middle is some real glorious high-quality wah worship. What’s interesting is that the rhythm of the verse when it kicks in is deeply reminiscent of those on St. Anger, showing that Metallica’s most daring (and controversial) departure from the norm was already in the works.
11. “Holier Than Thou”
Sure, “Holier Than Thou” is fast and chuggy, and it has a lot of attitude. It’s just a little on the nose with its attacks against the devout, and hearing Hetfield yell, “No more, the CRAP runs out your mouth again!” is, well, kind of ridiculous. That said, there’s soemthing to hearing Metallica tell off pious assholes, but there’s a better song on this album about that (keep reading). Still a rager, if one of the lesser ragers on an album of prime cuts.
10. “My Friend of Misery”
It feels weird putting “My Friend of Misery” this far down on this list, because it truly is a solid track. The issue, however, is its sheer bluesiness–basically, this is a Load/Reload track that made it onto this album. That said, the song is also proof as to why those albums are unfairly misjudged as terrible; the chorus of “My Friend of Misery” is heavy as shit, and Lars slams those drums with noteworthy umph. A herald of things to come, but also a cool, outstanding track on this classic record.
9. “Don’t Tread On Me”
What makes “Don’t Tread On Me” so rad is that the song is exactly what it says on the package–a big ol’ America flex. Of course, this is what some might see as its downfall, with lyrics, rhythm, and tone all lacking any nuance. But you can’t deny that both the electric quality of the chorus and the disgustingly tasty Kirk Hammett solo in the middle make it an undeniable banger. Also, it’s perhaps the only Metallica song with a Stephen Sondheim reference.
8. “The Unforgiven”
Is it about a Clint Eastwood movie, or James Hetfield coming to terms with his harsh upbringing? It’s both, baby! “The Unforgiven” does its namesake film justice with its harrowing western vibe, but it doesn’t get bogged down in the typical mire of just describing what happens onscreen. The song definitely feels like a testament to James’ own sorrow and struggle, and as such has remained a much-respected Metallica mainstay. A track so good, it spawned two sequels!
7. “Through The Never”
“Through The Never” is a strange track for Metallica, especially on an album where the band is so intent on shouldering their way to the top of the charts. The pace and lyrics give it an almost ethereal vibe, but it’s also perhaps the most thrashy song on the record. Still, as far a lofty, cosmic number, this is a solid one for one of the most earthbound bands ever. Too bad the movie named after it didn’t fare so well.
6. “Of Wolf and Man“
When in doubt, write about werewolves. Metallica’s tribute to lycanthropy is a slavering beast, opening with a feral pulse before bounding into a strange, elemental biker metal track. Featuring one of James Hetfield’s most underrated vocal performances, the song manages to confront a horror trope without going too spooky, and Papa Het’s cry of, “So seek the wolf in thyself!” brings the metaphor back to the band’s patented introspective approach. More people ought to stan this song.
5. “The God That Failed”
Fairweather fans may never have gotten deep enough into the Black Album to hear “The God That Failed,” but true metalheads know this one’s a monster. From its brolic mid-paced riff to its icy harmonized vocals, the track exudes a venom that the band only occasionally taps into. Meanwhile, lyrics like, “The healing hand held back by the deepened nail” take an emotional approach to anti-religious sentiments that more metal bands could learn from. The sweetest cuts are usually the deepest.
4. “Nothing Else Matters”
It’s not just the emotional ballad parts showcasing Metallica’s range that make “Nothing Else Matters” such a timeless classic. It’s the steely, serpentine break at the end, when the metal all comes lava-flowing back in. If “Nothing Else Matters” had no teeth, it would be so-so at best (which is why the Lissie cover of it featured in that video game commercial kind of fell flat). As it is, it’s an epic deluge, making it one of Metallica’s greatest slow songs of all time.
3. “Enter Sandman”
Well, of course. “Enter Sandman” only ranks at #3 because it’s the album’s big, singalong single, meaning that it’s for everyone and therefore ever so slightly lame. But that’s not to take away from the song’s gigantic riff, Neil Gaiman-on-steroids lyrics, and undeniable staying power. That it’s Track 1 on the album also makes it a bold declaration by the band, a full-throated announcement that they had a new sound in mind, and that they’d been working out. Sleep with one eye open.
2. “Wherever I May Roam”
“King of the Road” this ain’t. “Wherever I May Roam” is a strange, arcane view of the life of an American nomad, taking a philosophical approach to the hobo’s freedom that most would overlook. At the same time, it’s also a powerful tribute to tour, with Hetfield greeting the road as his only companion. Though unusual in style for the band, Metallica proved they could shake things up without sacrificing some especially delicious acid riffs.
1. “Sad But True”
If there’s any song that exquisitely merges Metallica’s old-school snarl and newfound yarl, it’s “Sad But True.” With a central riff that might eclipse Pantera’s “Walk” in terms of catchiness, the track feels made for spraining your neck, stomping forward with unstoppable momentum. Not only that, but the song’s lyrics are Metallica’s MO defined–why write about Satan in Hell when you can see the Devil in any mirror? While it’s perfectly stationed at the #2 spot on the album’s tracklisting–you need a little appetizer before getting into this slab of meat–the song is easily #1 here.
Words by Chris Krovatin