Few acts in the history of heavy metal demand an opinion quite like Metallica. Over the course of four decades, the band have simultaneously experienced boundless success and life-altering tragedy. All the while, Metallica’s music has existed in a state of evolution and flux. They are a band who have pushed themselves past the point of perfection, often with mixed results.
Here is the ultimate, infallible ranking of Metallica’s studio albums:
Every decade or so, the generational tide changes the face of heavy music. Although Metallica’s eponymous 1991 record (aka The Black Album) softened the band by introducing pop structures to their songwriting, nobody could deny that it was still very much a metal album. In what seemed to be a desperate clamouring for relevance in the wake of the grunge explosion, Metallica cut their hair in 1996 and delivered the bloated alt-rock misstep, Load. People rightfully run their mouths about St. Anger, but those issues are m mostly sonic. Load doesn’t suck because of an absence of songwriting chops or questionable production choices. Load sucks because it is an outright betrayal to the genre that was literally built into the band’s name.
Having amassed a surplus of song ideas, Metallica initially intended to release Load as a double album but opted to take extra time in order to refine the material on the second batch. Marginally better than its predecessor, Reload nonetheless doubles down on the alt-rock bullshit. Here was a band in the throes of an identity crisis, dubling-down on their follies and napalming the bridge of goodwill they built with true believers during the first decade of their existence. Load might have felt like Metallica were dead; Reload felt like they were never coming back.
11. St. Anger
Let’s get one thing straight here: It is a mathematical fact that St. Anger is the worst Metallica album. Lars Ulrich’s emotional inflexibility when it came to his chosen drum sound renders these songs practically unlistenable. That fucking snare sound was so poisonous that Kirk Hammett could not feasibly make a guitar solo coexist alongside of it, further removing Metallica from their signature elements. No, St. Anger is not a good record, but there is something beautiful to be said for the biggest metal band in history creating something this antagonistic while trying to reclaim their former glory. A snapshot of unmitigated personal chaos. It ain’t pretty.
10. Garage Inc.
When Jason Newsted first joined Metallica, his first recording with the band was an ep of punk and metal covers called The $5.98 E.P. – Garage Days Re-Revisited. Little could anyone know that his last testament with them would be Garage Inc., an expanded covers collection that features The $5.98 E.P. as well as other homages to peers and heroes from throughout the band’s career, both old and newly recorded. Although it might not be their brightest moment, hearing a band of Metallica’s caliber pay their respects to their influences brings no shortage of joy, whether it be Bob Seger or Killing Joke.
9. Hardwired… To Self-Destruct
To those of us who have done time in 12-step programs, there is an acute awarenes that survival is often dependent on behaving contrary to our natures. The title Hardwired… To Self-Destruct harkens back to this idea that many of us are doomed when left to our own devices. Although the record features its fair share of balls-out thrash numbers, it nonetheless suffers a bit from the absence of Kirk Hammett’s writing input due in part to the guitarist losing a phone with upwards of 250 riffs that he’d forgotten to back up. Whoops…
8. Death Magnetic
Even though Metallica had their heart in the right place on St. Anger, the album’s questionable production choices left them further in the weeds than ever before. Perhaps learning from their mistakes, their follow-up takes a more studied approach to classic American thrash while staying within the pop-structured template of The Black Album. Working with producer Rick Rubin for the first and only time, in many regards Death Magnetic feels like the album that Metallica should have made at their mid-’90s crossroad instead of Load. It’s a powerful record and a fitting debut for the talents of new bass player Robert Trujillo.
7. 72 Seasons
With age and perspective, James Hetfield has become increasingly reflective with each new Metallica album. Operating under the concept that the bulk of our personalities are shaped by how our lives play out during our first 18 years, 72 Seasons is a portrait of a middle-aged man studying his scars. These songs are less about adolescent angst and fear than the title suggests. Instead, it is about the baggage that we carry indefinitely for the rest of our lives. Even if age is a theme, it’s clear that the years have done nothing to diminish Metallica’s chops as musicians. Each member is in peak form, playing their heart out for the sake of pure exorcism. Metallica finally seem like they are comfortable in the skin they currently inhabit, and it’s a beautiful thing.
There was a time where it seemed like the world was going to end for some headbangers because Metallica made a video during the …And Justice For All album cycle. If the existence of “One” on MTV appeared apocalyptic to these myopic minds, it was just a taste of what was to come on the heels of the breakthrough success of The Black Album. Eschewing blistering speed and lengthy songs for the sake of a mid-tempo “verse-chorus-repeat” formula, Metallica took producer Bob Rock’s advice and singlehandedly brought heavy metal to the forefront of the mainstream. Although a precursor to greater mistakes down the line, The Black Album is nonetheless littered with certifiable stomping anthems and earworms. A deeply satisfying album, even if its popularity inevitably made Metallica less cool in the eyes of the heavy metal elite.
5. LULU (collaboration with Lou Reed)
I hazard to even rank this record given its nature, but as it is a studio album that all of Metallica played on LULU certainly belongs here. There are dissertations and think pieces galore either defending the band’s notorious collaboration with art rock god Lou Reed or tearing it apart, and I’m happy to let the navel-gazers and the haters take the long-form lead on this one. What I can say with confidence is that if you go into LULU expecting a Metallica record, you are going to be disappointed. However, if you think of it less like a collaboration and more like a Lou Reed solo album in which Metallica just so happens to be his backing band, it becomes an antagonistic stroke of genius. Lou Reed’s whole career was as much about pushing buttons as it was about pushing boundaries, and LULU could be his crowning achievement when it comes to pissing off the masses. It is the ultimate swan song from the man who spit in the face of snobbery and success with Metal Machine Music, and Metallica’s role in the record is one of the most nobile and artistically successful achievements of their storied career.
4. Kill ‘Em All
To say that Metallica’s debut is not quite on par with their 1980s masterpieces is a disingenuous oversimplification. After spending two years of hard work that included relocating from Los Angeles to San Francisco in order to establish their classic lineup with Cliff Burton, the band set the early gold standard for American thrash with Kill ‘Em All. It’s an album of youthful exuberance that is as much a love letter to their NWOBHM influences as a defining moment for a new movement all their own. A record of primal rage and blistering speed that was almost called Metal Up Your Ass, all of the ingredients to Metallica’s future success are clear and present. With a little refinement, the band would come to change the world.
3. …And Justice For All
Following the death of Cliff Burton, Metallica were faced with the first real existential dilemma of their career. While outrightly replacing such a unique musical force would be impossible for any band, they did their best to soldier on with the assistance of new bassist Jason Newsted. Although an incredible player in his own right and a dedicated force to be reckoned with, there was never an illusion that Newsted would fully occupy the same space as Burton, and the rest of Metallica seemed all too willing to let him know that in no uncertain terms with the final mix of …And Justice For All. Absurd production territorial pissings aside, Newsted’s debut full-length nonetheless features some of the heaviest, most complex and musically satisfying work of the band’s entire career. Many fans consider …And Justice For All to be the last truly great Metallica record, and with good reason. Cliff Burton was Metallica’s spiritual guiding light, and his absence would alter the band’s principles and musical direction forever. Do yourself a favor and listen to the fan-generated “Justice For Jason” version of …And Justice For All and bask in the glory of what might have been in James and Lars stopped fucking around and gave the guy his proper place in the mix.
2. Ride The Lightning
With the inclusion of a dark power ballad and a single awkward stab at radio-friendly metal on their sophomore album, the seminal thrash band had alread begun to alienate a few elitist fans. Regardless of what the metal literati might have initially thought, Metallica were clearly in the process of evolving into a more perfect conceptual entity. Ride The Lightning features many of the band’s best and most beloved songs, including the devastating stomping chant of “Creeping Death”, the intrepidly melodic funeral march of “For Whom The Bell Tolls”, and the pensive, mournful epic “Fade To Black.” Hell, Metallica might notoriously hate the pop-friendly “Escape”, but it honestly isn’t that bad in comparison to a lot of the band’s later material.
1. Master Of Puppets
Incredible as Ride The Lightning is, Metallica wouldn’t realize their ultimate perfect form until their third album, Master Of Puppets. Hetfield walks a lyrical tightrope with ease, touching on socially conscious themes and Lovecraftian terror with the ease of a master. Under the watchful supervision of producer Flemming Rasmussen, Metallica were able to harness their individual musical strengths into a perfectly cohesive beast. Nobody could know at the time that tragedy would strike just six months after the release of Master Of Puppets and forever alter the trajectory of the band, but for one brief moment everything was quite literally perfect.