Ranking every Metallica album: From Worst to Best
Here we are: fourteen months, twelve album reviews and one movie review later, I’ve went through every major Metallica release. All that time, I hoped to gain a badass piece of insight and solve the greatest rock n’ roll mystery of my generation: why did Metallica suddenly started sucking ass after releasing 5 immortal albums? But I found out that mystery’s already been solved in the 2004 documentary Some Kind of Monster. Metallica simply got tired of being who they were, but were too financially shrewd to stop making music.
So instead, I’ve mapped out my personal pantheon of every full-length Metallica record from worst to best and tried to guide you through their weird freefall into musical irrelevance. What’s so weird about it is that Metallica’s as culturally relevant as ever, they’re just been releasing disappointing music for twenty years. With every record, fans just talk themselves into liking only to admit a couple years later that it was terrible. Except for LuLu. That one was hated by everyone right away, except critics who thought endorsing a Lou Reed project made them cool.
Anyway, here it is. I suspect it doesn’t really differ from yours.
This is basically James’ Rehab: The Album. St. Anger is the product of a tired, confused band that doesn’t know whether or not it should continue. On top of the abysmal snare drums and the muddled, downtuned guitars, James’ fall from being the greatest allegory writer in rock n’ roll to being another one of these assholes with I’m-going-through-some-shit lyrics is heartbreaking.
His preternatural ability for writing iconic riffs mysteriously disappeared too. The worst part about this bloated atrocity is that it took two years to write. TWO. FUCKING. YEARS. St. Anger is what happens when you’re at work when you should be on a sick leave. It doesn’t help anybody.
In every respect just as terrible as St. Anger, except for one important detail: it’s supposed to be terrible. LuLu is an elaborate fuck you from Metallica to their audience and a convoluted way to tell the world they still have a modicum of artistic integrity. Why would we think that? Fuck if I know. They’re basically playing house band for a Lou Reed project here.
Reed is fulfilling his part of the concept, writing fucked up lyrics that actually tie-in with Frank Wedekind’s work (which LuLu is based on). James sings the hook on certain songs, notoriously the “I am the table” on The View, but it would be otherwise impossible know it’s actually Metallica playing on the record otherwise. It’s another form of rock bottom, I guess.
I wanted to like this album way more than I actually did. In fact, I’ve defended it for many years, until I listened to it again and found out it’s not worth defending. There’s literally two good songs on it. The first two. Reload falls off a cliff afterwards and it fucking lasts forever. Once Fuel and The Memory Remains are done with, there’s over an hour left of sludgy, formless, uninspired alternative metal left for you to labor over.
If you could excuse Load for attempt something new, Reload is basically the same overproduced and underwritten monstrosity released one year later. I agree with Anthony Fantano that if you took Load and Reload and made only one album with them, it might end up a decent album, but the way it way originally done and conceptualize is way more painful that it should be.
I didn’t mind Metallica changing their sound. There are legit bangers on Load: Until it Sleep, The House Jack Built and King Nothing, which is perhaps one of my favorite Metallica songs ever. But these are the only song on Load that seem finished. The rest is droning, formless fiasco of riffs, hooks and unfinished lyrics put together like Frankenstein’s monster. Fans are not to blame for Metallica’s style shift. They are.
If Load was half listenable or half as long, Metallica’s story would’ve been completely different because they would’ve committed to their new sound. But they switched their approach to a singles-based strategy because with the advent of CD then, people had the choice to only listen to the singles. It’s what I did back then. And seemingly what most people did because Load is not nearly criticized enough.
This might get rocks thrown my way. Sure, Death Magnetic is like the old Metallica. Except that it isn’t. They play fast and change tempos. The songs are more complicated than anything they’ve written since …And Justice for All despite still being meandering. But is there one song here than can hold a candle to their old material? Six weeks after reviewing Death Magnetic, I can’t even name you a song on it.
Death Magnetic reflects Metallica’s fans relationship to the band: it’s trying to recapture something that’s forever gone. It has all the part of the puzzle, but no soul to call its own. This album is what would happen is a super talented Metallica cover band would be asked to write original Metallica songs. Death Magnetic definitely “gets” it, but it’s dead inside.
6th - Hardwired…. to Self-Destruct
Death Magnetic and Hardwired… to Self-Destruct were the two albums I hesitated the most before placing on this list. Both albums are more alike than different, but I put the latter up by a nose for being a more refined and diverse version of the former. Given that it took eight years to write, it’s understandable that they perfected the dead-inside Metallica formula.
There are thrash metal songs on this album, but alternative metal songs too. It’s a double album, it’s bloated as fuck like any other thing they’ve done past 1991 but it’s been 14 months since I reviewed it and I remember at least one song from it: Spit Out of the Bone. Hardwired… to Self-Destruct is bizarre, complacent at times, but it’s oddly catchy and pleasant to listen to.
Whatever your opinion is of the black album, there are two things you can’t deny: 1) it’s the last culturally relevant album they’ve ever recorded and 2) it’s the last time where riffmaster James was ever in fighting shape. No, it’s not as good as their original thrash metal run, but the riffs on this album are an absolute killer: Enter Sandman, Sad But True, Wherever I May Roam, these are guitar riffs that stay with you.
Often remembered as the album where Metallica went soft and sold out, the black album has aged tremendously well nonetheless. Part of that is due to its cooptation by sports culture and part is due to their horrible, horrible follow ups that showed their fanbase their could do a lot worse in terms of selling out. It was, in many regards, Metallica’s last stand.
This might get me some hatred, too. ….And Justice for All is a rock n’ roll classic. The four fist albums on this list are. But this one lacks something that the others have. Except for One (which is possibly the best metal songs of all-time?) and perhaps Blackened, ….And Justice for All doesn’t have the catchiness of the first three. It’s more complex, but it doesn’t have the liberating fury of its predecessors.
I don’t know who’s to blame for that. Perhaps it’s Cliff Burton’s passing. Perhaps it’s the recording session, which was notoriously troublesome. It’s great, but it lacks the structure and identity of the first three. ….And Justice for All is great in a way other metal classics are great. Except for One. That songs is an absolute fuckin’ kick in the ass and it could’ve come from no one else.
One of the most divisive records in Metallica’s discography. I saw it ranked as low as 6th on certain Worst-to-Bests. I love Kill ‘Em All. It was my favorite Metallica album for many years. It’s their most conventional and least sophisticated thrash metal album, but it’s some grab-you-by-the-throat shit. It’s so fucking raw, honest and in your face that it’s difficult not to love.
What makes it stand out from other thrash metal albums of the era is the songwriting quality. It was always James’ forte in his glory days to write with powerful originality. The lyrics echo their lust for destruction and chaos on Seek N’ Destroy, Jump in the Fire and The Four Hoursemen and those guitar riffs, man. They’re insanely catchy and unique. This might not be Metallica’s most technical record, but its soul burns bright.
A lot of people have Ride the Lightning #1 on their list and it’s easy to understand why. They were still playing unrelentingly fast then, but were starting to refine their songwriting a little. So, it’s fast, dark, aggressive and it goes to places other thrash metal records simply don’t go. It’s the perfect confluence of what Kill ‘Em All and Master of Puppets have to offer.
Ride the Lightning has the Metallica-est Metallica song on it. Creeping Death is the song I judge your Metallica fandom by. If you love it, you love the band for the right reasons. it is everything they originally stood for: aggression, technical and emotion complexity, empowering allegories and an unrelenting discharge of energy. I would’ve ranked Ride the Lightning 3rd if Creeping Death wasn’t on it.
What can I say? This is Metallica at their apex and everything I’m looking for in a rock n’ roll record: energy, catharsis, songwriting, a deep emotional connection to its lyrics, iconic riffs I can mumble under my breath, it has everything. It’s one of these records that make me feel more alive and it’s one of the rare Metallica albums that doesn’t overstay its welcome at a little under 55 minutes.
There’s an argument to be made that Master of Puppets is front loaded with Battery, Master of Puppets and Welcome Home (Sanitarium) being three of the first four songs, but I would argue that you need to listen to Orion and Disposable Heroes again, which carry the record’s energy to other places in the second half, giving it a deeper texture. Master of Puppets is perhaps one of my 5 favorite records of all-time, period.