Nu-metal was always wanting of legitimacy, mired as it was in white-boy angst and rockstar bullshit. So much of the genre’s struggle was that of being taken seriously, with the answer usually coming as a shrug and a nod towards the scoreboard showing number of albums sold. But with 2001’s Toxicity, California’s System Of A Down managed to take both hills that nu-metal was determined to die on. Artistically, the record was a lush, bizarre reimagining of what metal could be; critically and financially, the album was a massive success, winning over even hardened nose-raisers. To this day, it remains one of the genre’s few perfect releases.
Since tomorrow marks the 20th anniversary of this mindblowing record, we decided to rank the songs on Toxicity from worst to best. Here’s how the suicide rolled…
It’s telling that the least-good song on Toxicity is still pretty badass. “X” is a solid nu-metal rager, and includes some of SOAD’s few blastbeats (as they were). The track is certainly gnarly and intense — but it lacks the awesome nuance that make the rest of the album so fantastic. In a list of total bangers, there’s no shame in being at the bottom.
On the one hand, there’s a real beauty to how “Psycho” sets up one’s expectations and then dashes them. The track’s opening suggests a dark, brooding track — and then it’s about groupies and coke. It’s a microcosm of SOAD’s backstage antics that is better than those of other bands. But on the other hand, on a record this deep, it’s pretty surface level, and as such ranks low on this list.
12. “Deer Dance”
The sheer slam of “Deer Dance” sets it apart from the other tracks on Toxicity. Sure, there’s the folkish breakdown in the middle, but this song is as straightforward a metal track as any of its neighbors. That’s perhaps why it’s so low on this list, too — there’s something a little too simple about “Deer Dance,” and it never quite yanks the heartstrings the way so many of the album’s other tracks do. So solid, one wonders if perhaps it could use more yield.
As David Alan Coe once said, if you’re going to be dumb, you gotta be tough. “Bounce” might be absolutely ridiculous with its pogo stick metaphors and madcap vocals, but it makes up for that with pure chug. Not only that, but Serj’s irreverence only takes the listener further into the band’s psyche; it’s one thing to have a funny voice, but another to use it for what most listeners assume it was made for. And then they used it in a kids’ movie, for some reason!
10. “Jet Pilot”
“Jet Pilot” is an excellent example of premium filler. This track is heavy, interesting, and shows off just how strong a handle on rhythm and songwriting System Of A Down had in 2001. That said, it would be wasted as a single, and instead works as connecting tissue — cool, exciting connecting tissue, to be sure, but connecting tissue none the less. Sometimes, you gotta love something for exactly what it is.
“Shimmy” is like “Bounce” or “Psycho” if those songs maybe grew up a little. The track is still a totally irreverent pit-starter with a central lyric about shimmying to the break of dawn (yeah). But there’s always a sense of depth here, suggesting that this need to dance comes from a childhood feeling that Serj Tankian holds dear. As such, it’s a beautiful little piece of madness that’s hard not to smile through. Don’t be late for school again.
Only SOAD could write a song with a chorus commanding fans to “pull the tapeworm out of [their] ass[es]” and get hundreds of thousands of people to sing along. “Needles” is certainly a weird one, but it’s also a shitload of fun. The track shows off all of the band’s various talents — Serj’s daffy vocals, Daron’s guitar swings, Shavo and John’s thousand-pound slams. This song is an instant mosh pit, even if it does encourage the listener, to…you know. Pull something out of their ass. A tapeworm, to be precise!
The explosiveness of “ATWA” is awesome — the sudden burst from creeping verse to furious chorus — but the more you listen to the song, the more those parts become a little distracting from the track’s more gripping moments. It’s System Of A Down’s tiptoe and vocal harmony that really make this one special. And when they combine the post-chorus wailing section with the verse for that final section? Pure magic. A song that’s absolutely excellent, but maybe not for the reasons one initially thinks.
What makes “Science” so incredible is its mixture of spiritual subject matters and metal momentum. The lyrics of this song make one think it should have Tool levels of drawn-out ponderousness. But the track’s riffs and rhythms are tireless, and keep fans in a state of total frenzy throughout. This shows off System Of A Down’s true superpower: being unorthodox and philosophical without ever losing their ample energy. The spirit who moves through all things is basically skipping.
5. “Prison Song”
BLUNH DUNH DUNH DUNH DUNH DUNH DUNH DUNH DUNH DUNH DUNH DUNH DUNH DUNH DUNDUNDUNDUN
They’re trying to build a prisoooon…
That is all.
The gallop-into-sweep will always be one of the deadliest weapons in System Of A Down’s arsenal, and on the title track of Toxicity they wield it flawlessly. The song moves from its soft-spoken verses into a chorus that’s equal part thrash speed and opera dramatics. The result is a track that musically supports its powerful lyrics, from both a frantic and an introspective place. A fascinating moment of weight between the sacred silence and sleep.
In many ways, the power of “Aerials” is its audacity. System Of A Down were, to many who knew them before Toxicity’s release, an incredibly engaging goof of a band, all bounce and chirp signifying nothing. But then, at the end of their breakthrough album, the band abandon that approach entirely, and instead offer listeners a soaring, thoughtful track whose anguish and humanity make them look inward. With this beautiful closer, the band justified everything they do, daring critics at the time to belittle them. You simply can’t argue with a song that makes you feel this much.
2. “Chop Suey!”
What is there to say about a song that everyone loves? “Chop Suey!” was ambitious as a first single for Toxicity, what with its folky guitars and lyrics about suicide and dying angels. And yet one can’t help but think that the band’s label and PR in 2001 heard the track and felt the same way we do every time we listen to it: like they were staring into themselves, understanding a part of their love for music that they had perhaps overlooked. Simply put: if you play this song on the stereo at a party, and people aren’t down, fuckin’ leave.
Buried right in the middle of Toxicity is arguably System Of A Down’s greatest track. “Forest” merges the elements that make SOAD so powerful — grinding riffs, heavy drops, moments of weird instrumentation, and Tankian’s funereal pained wailing. The dynamics of the track build gradually into the massive release that comes when Serj’s manic, “JUST LOOK AT US NOW!” gives way to the final chorus with its double-time second half. A beautiful piece of experimental metal that never lets up even as it goes far-out. The bezoar forming in the belly of this madcap masterpiece.
Words by Chris Krovatin