When Metallica reached a major career milestone in 2021, one social-media user celebrated with a savagely funny post that went viral: “Wow Metallica is fuckin’ turning 40! Thank you for 7 years of great metal music!”
It was a masterclass in giving a backhanded compliment, but this was more than just a clever joke for a certain faction of Metallica fans. In their first decade together, Metallica invented — and reinvented — thrash metal with a series of albums that continually upped the ante in terms of songwriting and brutality, all becoming cornerstones of the genre. Kill ‘Em All and Ride the Lightning exploded with youthful aggression, while … And Justice for All and Master of Puppets pushed the envelope for technical thrash and featured some of the decade’s most sophisticated and memorable compositions.
But Metallica was never content to rest on their laurels. In 1991, they made a quantum leap with their self-titled album (colloquially known as the Black Album), which traded whiplash-inducing thrash anthems for stadium-rock stompers (“Enter Sandman, “Sad But True”) and heartfelt mega-ballads (“The Unforgiven,” “Nothing Else Matters”). The Black Album was a smashing success, selling more than 16 million copies in the United States. But Metallica had drawn a line in the sand, and some fans would never forgive them for abandoning their thrash roots.
The next two decades proved wildly experimental for Metallica, as they dabbled in Southern rock (Load and Reload), nu-metal (St. Anger) and even an avant-garde Lou Reed collaboration (Lulu). Late-career triumphs like Death Magnetic, Hardwired … to Self-Destruct and 72 Seasons found the group getting back in touch with their thrash origins, but through a modern lens.
All of these different ventures proved one thing: Metallica has never been afraid to take risks. Even if some phases of their career were less successful than others, they still yielded great songs. Revisit their triumphs with our list of the best Metallica song (and the top runners-up) from every decade.
’80s: “Master of Puppets,” Master of Puppets (1986)
The classic Metallica lineup — James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett and Cliff Burton — reached the pinnacle of their powers on this third album, particularly with its multi-part, devastatingly beautiful title track. Everything that makes Metallica great is on display here: Hetfield’s inimitable downpicking, unintentionally baffling time signatures, arena-ready call-and-response chants, Ulrich’s off-the-rails drum fills and one of Hammett’s most blistering solos. Hetfield reaches a new lyrical peak, painting a harrowing portrait of all-consuming drug addiction with wordplay that would make aspiring MFA students’ jaws drop. When “Master of Puppets” enjoyed a reported 650% streaming bump from the Stranger Things season 4 finale in 2022, it only further emphasized the song’s universal appeal. Half a decade before the Black Album catapulted Metallica to the top of the world, “Master of Puppets” made the leap seem inevitable.
2. “Seek and Destroy,” Kill ‘Em All (1983)
3. “One,” … And Justice for All (1988)
’90s: “Enter Sandman,” Metallica (1991)
From a longevity standpoint, “Enter Sandman” is arguably the most important song of Metallica’s career — and for good reason. Its sinister riffs, red-hot solos, earth-shaking rhythms and supersized vocal hooks — all polished to a blinding sheen by producer Bob Rock — coalesce into a five-and-a-half-minute stadium-metal masterpiece that was destined to blast from festival stages and football games in perpetuity. “Enter Sandman” ushered Metallica into their chart-topping, arena-filling imperial phase. This era would include plenty of baffling artistic decisions and PR snafus, but there’s no denying the primal, hard-rock perfection of the Black Album’s lead single. Metallica, and metal, would never be the same.
2. “Sad but True,” Metallica
3. “Nothing Else Matters,” Metallica
’00s: “Cyanide,” Death Magnetic (2008)
Following the stylistic misfire of St. Anger, many fans and critics heralded Death Magnetic as Metallica’s return to gnarled, shapeshifting thrash. That’s certainly true of tracks like “That Was Just Your Life” and “All Nightmare Long,” but the album-highlight “Cyanide” is a mid-tempo bruiser whose swaggering lead riff owes as much to Stone Temple Pilots‘ “Sex Type Thing” as it does to “Seek & Destroy.” Kirk Hammett’s omnipresent wah pedal gets time to shine, and his slinky chorus riffs deftly match James Hetfield’s vocal melodies, all propelled by Lars Ulrich’s galloping grooves and double-bass blasts. Factor in the grungy, ominous bridge and towering solo break, and “Cyanide” is a textbook example of writing a hook-filled anthem without sacrificing sophistication.
2. “All Nightmare Long,” Death Magnetic
3. “That Was Just Your Life,” Death Magnetic
’10s: “Moth Into Flame,” Hardwired … to Self-Destruct (2016)
“Hardwired,” the lead single off Hardwired … to Self-Destruct, proved that Metallica could still deliver a white-knuckle thrashing after eight years away. On the other hand, “Moth Into Flame” showed they still knew how to write an epic. James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett flex their tasteful dual-guitar interplay, while the former delivers a seductively catchy cautionary tale about the perils of stardom. Hetfield was inspired to write the song after watching the 2015 documentary Amy and seeing how the late Amy Winehouse “went from such a lively joyous person to someone who was just trying to escape the reality of where she was.” The result is a mature triumph that balances Metallica’s signature thrashing, melodic sensibility and hard-earned wisdom.
2. “Hardwired,” Hardwired … to Self Destruct
3. “Atlas, Rise!”, Hardwired … to Self-Destruct
’20s: “Screaming Suicide,” 72 Seasons (2023)
The second single off Metallica’s long-awaited 72 Seasons harks back to Reload classic “Fuel,” fusing stadium-rock hooks with borderline-thrash aggression. Kirk Hammett is in classic form on the track’s central wah-drenched walk down, and he and James Hetfield tear into their chugging riffs with gusto atop Lars Ulrich’s simple but effectively pulverizing beats. The frontman is in full demon-exorcism mode, confronting his inner darkness to smash the taboo of suicidal ideation. Forty years into their career, Metallica has nothing to prove and everything to lose, but “Screaming Suicide” shows they’re still willing to put it all on the line.
2. “72 Seasons,” 72 Seasons
3. “Shadows Follow,” 72 Seasons
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