A Guide to Metallica’s 10 Studio Albums
Love them or hate them, Metallica hardly needs an introduction. Their story is that of four ambitious and wickedly talented musicians coming together to craft a musical brand that deftly walks the line between commercial success and artistic integrity. Critics and metal diehards couldn’t get enough of them when they made their debut in the early 80s, and were astonished to see the level of commercial and popular success they achieved by the end of that decade.
Even now, in 2023, Metallica is less than a month away from releasing their eleventh studio album, 72 Seasons. Fans are stoked for the band’s first release since 2016, leading many to look back at the band’s back catalog for something to hold them over until the new record drops in April.
As one of the “big four” of thrash metal, alongside outfits Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer, the band pioneered a truly unique blend of searing, shredding, and cutting guitar work, interlaced with soaring leads and intricate bass lines. However, as time went on, they evolved into a more restrained, yet heavy hard-rock inspired style, a move which, for the most part, saw them achieve ungodly levels of both critical and commercial success.
Metallica’s career hasn’t always been sunshine and roses, however. Between the tragic death of bassist Cliff Burton in 1986, intense rivalries with other metal bands, a noticeable slump in the late 90s and early 2000s, and a host of other problems, they’ve had to fight for their place at the top.
Regardless, how many bands can lay claim to accolades such as six number one records, eight Grammys, and a total sales count that places them as the third best selling artist of all time?
Here’s your guide to that impeccably impressive discography. These are all ten Metallica studio albums, ranked from worst to best.
10) St. Anger (2004)
Why It’s Metallica’s 10th Best Album
Most critics and fans have little positive to say about the band’s 2004 effort. Unfortunately, this prevailing opinion is accurate. St. Anger is a muddied mess that features the band trying way too many things at the same time and failing all the same.
The guitars sound like a cheap imitation of nu-metal bands that were, even at the time, past their fifteen minutes of fame, while Lars Ulrich’s snare drum makes you want to vomit.
“Frantic” blends aspects of their early-career thrash sound with a grungy sound more befitting of a band such as Alice in Chains. It’s not terrible, and it’s certainly aged better than tracks such as “The Unnamed Feeling.”
I understand that Metallica were in a rough spot when St. Anger was released, and I can appreciate it as a time capsule embodying terrible audio-mixing trends of its time. Beyond that, its value is limited.
9) Reload (1997)
Why It’s Metallica’s 9th Best Album
Originally intended to be the second half of a two-part release, Reload isn’t what I would call unlistenable. Like its companion album Load, it explores novel sonic territory beyond the band’s tried and true formula of thrash and hard rock.
Album opener “Fuel,” complete with a raucous opening and some brutal guitar work, is definitely a standout track. It’s a cleaner, more palatable version of what they tried to do on St. Anger.
Beyond this track, most of the other songs are similar to Load in that they combine personal, dark subject matter with eclectic influences such as Southern rock, post grunge, and alternative. Unlike that album, however, Reload comes off as a bridge too far, a collection of tracks better suited as B-sides to its predecessor.
8) Death Magnetic (2008)
Why It’s Metallica’s 8th Best Album
Death Magnetic is a solid record, and an admirable return to form for the band. It’s thrash metal, through and through, much in the spirit of 1988’s And Justice for All….
“The Day That Never Comes” follows the quintessential Metallica ballad formula of opening slowly, with arpeggio guitars and emotional lyrics, followed by a coup de grace of intense soloing and ear-splitting drums. Other notable tracks include “All Nightmare Long,” which sees the band rekindle their love for H.P. Lovecraft, and “Cyanide.”
Death Magnetic stands out in my memory as one of the first music releases I was actively looking forward to as a kid. My brother, then a senior in high school, was a die hard Metallica fan, and he was constantly talking about how excited he was for Metallica to release something that wasn’t St. Anger. In hindsight, it definitely crossed that admittedly-low bar, although its infamous audio compression issues certainly warrant criticism. All in all, it’s a respectable album.
7) Hardwired… to Self-Destruct (2016)
Why It’s Metallica’s 7th Best Album
Hardwired… to Self-Destruct offers listeners a distinctly modern yet familiar take on the classic Metallica sound. It’s a sonically and thematically tight record, with little in the way of experimentation going on.
Album opener “Hardwired” kicks the record off with a bang, fusing fiery guitar riffs, pounding drums, and Hetfield’s trademark vocal style. Lyrically, it’s a begrudging acknowledgment of the human tendency to self-sabotage and self-destruct, in spite of one’s best efforts. Other standout tracks from the album include “Moth Into Flame” and “Atlas Rise!”
Hardwired… to Self-Destruct is a quality effort that offers both fans and new listeners something to enjoy.
6) Load (1996)
Why It’s Metallica’s 6th Best Album
Load is the superior big brother to Reload, and a deeply unique, if polarizing Metallica album to boot. It’s a departure from form for the band, and sees them explore musical and lyrical territory more in line with what was popular in the mid to late 90s. Even so, unlike similar efforts by other peer bands, it doesn’t sound like the band “selling out” or trying to be something that they are not.
Genre wise, I’d describe Load as a blend of hard rock, post-grunge, and even some blues rock. There’s a “metal” element to it, but it’s more restrained than before. Thematically, it features less in the way of grandiose political messaging featured on records such as And Justice For All… and more personal subject matter, such as Hetfield’s complicated relationship with his mother.
“Until It Sleeps” opens slowly and builds into a heavy, morose exploration of how Hetfield was coping with his mother’s battle with cancer. “Mama Said,” while similar in theme, departs from that heavy, hard rock sound. It’s a bewitching, beautiful track that blends a Southern rock sensibility with a post-grunge sound. Other album standouts include “King Nothing” and “Bleeding Me.”
Load isn’t for everybody, and it’s certainly not a perfect record. But I personally appreciate the band’s attempts at differentiating themselves from their usual output, and hold it in higher regard than their more recent efforts that just rehash their standard formula.
Find out if any of Metallica’s tracks made our list of the top 50 songs of the 1980s.
5) Metallica (1991)
Why It’s Metallica’s 5th Best Album
Colloquially known as “The Black Album” Metallica is arguably the band’s most famous and commercially successful output.
How many bands, let alone metal bands, can claim to have a record that was a chart-topper in ten different countries? How about an album that spent over 550 weeks, or well over ten years, on the Billboard 200? Metallica did all of that, while achieving success both among critics and fans alike.
I feel as though the best songs from this album don’t even need an introduction, or any attempt on my part to describe them with words. “Enter Sandman” lures the listener in with its iconic, almost seductive opening riff, only to overwhelm them with a fierce blend of chugging guitars and drums. “Sad But True,” on the other hand, is a slower paced, yet equally ferocious track dominated by Hetfield’s imposing vocals.
“Nothing Else Matters” and “The Unforgiven” are two other standout tracks, but, in all honesty, I don’t think there’s a single “bad” song on Metallica. Perhaps some are better than others, of course, but each of the album’s twelve tracks caught my attention and were pleasant to listen to.
Metallica deserves the renown it has achieved in its thirty plus years of existence.
4) And Justice for All… (1988)
Why It’s Metallica’s 4th Best Album
Unlike 1991’s Metallica, which curbed the band’s thrash impulses, And Justice for All… is unapologetically a thrash metal album. It’s also a fantastic piece of music that, in any other band’s discography, would definitely be a magnum opus.
Metallica was in a peculiar place in 1988. They were still reeling from the tragic and untimely death of bassist Cliff Burton at the hands of a freak tour bus accident, and struggling to keep up with an intense touring schedule. In spite of all this, the band opted to keep going, a decision which music fans everywhere are certainly grateful for.
And Justice For All… doesn’t deviate from the band’s four earlier albums tried-and-true blend of thrashing, slicing rhythm guitar riffs, amped-up soloing, tenacious drums, and snarling vocals. “Harvester of Sorrow” tells the story of a father’s descent into madness, punctuated by a particularly intense guitar solo courtesy of Hammett. However, the album’s best track, by far, is “One.”
“One” is a groundbreaking track, not so much for its instrumentation, which, although impeccable in form, isn’t the main focus here. “One” is a truly haunting and nightmarish narrative, a masterpiece of storytelling that gives a voice to a paralyzed and dying soldier whose only wish is to be put out of his misery. While And Justice For All… is definitely worth your time, I recommend listening to “One” if you aren’t interested in the rest of the album.
3) Kill ‘Em All (1983)
Why It’s Metallica’s 3rd Greatest Album
Kill ‘Em All is where it all began, Metallica’s first foray into the music world beyond underground cassette tapes and local club performances. It’s juvenile, yet not underdeveloped, and ferocious, yet a pure joy to listen to. It’s the band at their “thrashiest,” something which I personally just love.
Songs like “Hit the Lights,” “The Four Horsemen,” and “Metal Militia” bludgeon the listener in the head with Hammett and Burton at their rawest and most unrestrained musical selves, while “(Anesthesia)-Pulling Teeth” twins Burton’s fuzzy, wah-wah fueled bass soloing with Ulrich’s relentless drumming. However, “Seek and Destroy” and “Whiplash” stand out as the record’s best tracks, offering listeners a more “put-together,” yet equally intense thrash sound that even the most metal-hesitant listeners have to just appreciate.
Kill ‘Em All is a superb record, but it’s haunted by the ghost of what could have been. Dave Mustaine, who would later achieve fame with his own band Megadeth, wrote much of the material for Kill ‘Em All, and was a driving influence in the band during those early years of 1981 to 1983. Unfortunately, his erratic behavior got him kicked from the band and replaced by one Kirk Hammett. Ultimately, I would argue that it was for the best, and that this move allowed Metallica and Megadeth to develop and mature separately as independent projects. All of that drama notwithstanding, you can certainly hear shades of Megadeth on Kill ‘Em All.
2) Ride the Lightning (1984)
Why It’s Metallica’s 2nd Best Album
Metallica had no time to waste after releasing Kill ‘Em All. Although they achieved a degree of success in the underground touring circuit, they were hard pressed for both cash and time. In fact, the band was so desperate for money that they resorted to sleeping at their own fans’ homes while on tour. Times were tough, but it was this hardship that made the band hungry for more critical and commercial success.
It was this hunger, this desire to make something great that gave birth to Ride the Lightning. In spite of serious time constraints for recording and issues with record labels and producers alike, they powered through and released a truly impressive album that showed how the band had evolved and matured in a relatively short amount of time.
Ride the Lightning combines a deeper, more fleshed out sound with more articulate and thought-provoking lyrical themes. “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” as the name suggests, alludes to Ernest Hemingway’s war novel of the same name. It’s a haunting exploration of the human toll of modern, mechanized warfare. “Creeping Death,” on the other hand, retells the Biblical story of Passover from the perspective of the Angel of Death. Even the album’s title and the corresponding title track, “Ride the Lightning,” refer to legendary author Stephen King’s 1978 novel The Stand.
Between songs such as these, as well as the stellar “Fade to Black,” Ride the Lightning earns its place as the second best album in Metallica’s extensive discography.
1) Master of Puppets (1986)
Why It’s Metallica’s Best Album
With two solid releases under their belt, Metallica traveled all the way to Copenhagen, Denmark to record what would be their third studio album. Gone were the days of scrappy desperation, of youthful, yet unfocused exuberance. They were a band with a clear vision: to go above and beyond both their peers and their own older output, releasing a record that would take the world by storm.
Master of Puppets did all of that and more. It defined thrash metal as a genre, and saw the band soar to new musical heights. It’s a mature, yet powerful album that showcases the band at their absolute peak, both in terms of individual talent as well as group cohesion. The guitar work is searing, yet complex and fascinating to listen to, while Burton’s bass lines reverberate through each and every track. The vocals are, as usual, confident, yet not overbearing, and the drums form a great foundation for everything as a whole.
“Battery” opens with sublime acoustic guitars, only to quickly give way to a face-melting battery of pure thrash metal. It’s a tight, searing track that is second only to the truly iconic “Master of Puppets.” “Master of Puppets” is, in my opinion, the band’s single best track. If I had to explain Metallica to someone without using any words, and only by showing them one of their songs, I would simply put “Master of Puppets” on and watch their faces melt.
Master of Puppets is Metallica’s greatest album, and I cannot recommend it enough.