Formed in 1981 in LA by James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, Metallica famously fired Dave Mustaine before hiring Kirk Hammett from Exodus and Cliff Burton from Trauma. What followed is one of the strongest three-album runs in Metal history, including the album that regularly gets voted top Metal album of all time, Master of Puppets. The tragic death of Burton in a tour bus accident saw the hiring of Jason Newsted, who stayed for a second purple patch that included the massive “black” album. From there, Newsted left as the band seemingly abandoned Metal, until recent times when they have tried to return to former glories. Whatever else has happened, Metallica are without a doubt the biggest Metal band on the planet, regularly touring and playing multiple shows in major cities, with varied setlists every night.
Ulrich famously travelled to the UK to meet Diamond Head and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal is the major influence on Metallica. The band often released covers as B-sides, as well as their $5.98 EP and a later album collecting those covers and offering some more. As such, they’ve always worn their influences on their sleeves. Hetfield was by far the most musically educated and diverse in style of the early band and he’s widely regarded as being the driving force between the musical evolution between the first two albums. Hetfield in particular is also a fan of country music.
Classics (the albums even a casual fan owns)
Master of Puppets (1986)
Multiple polls confirm that, for many Metal fans, this is the best Heavy Metal album of all time. While this album was realistically an incremental step up from the mammoth leap they’d taken with their second album, they reached their zenith in songs like ‘Master of Puppets,’ ‘Leper Messiah,’ ‘Disposable Heroes’ and ‘Damage, Inc.’ Written at a time when commercial success didn’t seem like something they could ever hope for, they instead produced a masterpiece that redefined the sort of music that could be commercially successful.
Ride the Lightning (1985)
Although most people prefer Master of Puppets, it was Ride the Lighting where Metallica really found their sound. Burton was a huge fan of bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and was the most musically trained member of the band. It was his influence that moved them beyond basic Thrash to songs like ‘Fade to Black.’ ‘Escape,’ the worst song on the album, was deliberately written to be more commercial, but it was tracks like ‘Creeping Death’ and ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ that became concert staples to this day. Elsewhere, ‘Fight Fire with Fire’ starts with a softer intro, before walking lines more compatible with the first album, although in fairness, it’s the title track that has a co-writing credit with Mustaine, despite his being long gone from the band.
Kill ’em All (1983)
From the legendary first working title (Metal Up Your Ass) to the caption on the back saying “Bang the head that does not bang,” this opening statement was straight up Thrash Metal, a step above their contemporaries but not as groundbreaking as anything that was to follow. However, it’s easy to write off this album and forget how good it is, with songs like ‘Seek and Destroy’ and ‘Whiplash’ rising above the pack and Burton’s incredible bass solo in particular marking these guys out as more creative than their peers.
Next Steps (One step below, but these albums still shine in the catalogue)
The success of the One single opened up new doors for Metallica, and after an album that arguably took their technical song writing approach to a logical limit, they changed direction, opting for more simple riffs, more basic key signatures and more straight ahead rock guitar solos. The result was a smash, with singles like ‘Enter Sandman’ and ballad ‘Nothing Else Matters’ having huge commercial success. Fans noticed that there were for the first time songs on a Metallica album that were flat out forgettable, and that the music had become more rock and less Metal, although in fairness this was the result of a converging between Metallica toning it down, and popular music becoming more heavy in their wake. The 21st best selling album of all time (16 million units), this album made Metallica a mainstream juggernaut and was the moment they ceased to be in any way an underground band. Frankly not close to being as good as the first three albums, it was still a solid effort and certainly their most successful. This album probably paid for Orion Fest and the Through the Never movie as well as most of Hammett’s horror toys.
… And Justice for All (1988)
Metallica was a band broken when they went in to the studio to record this album. Having lost their strongest writer in tragic circumstances, the band was taking it out on his replacement. This album is famous for sounding terrible because the bass was mixed so low that it can’t be heard. This was also the album where the band made their first video, for ‘One,’ which was a great success. The rest of the album was well received at the time but suffered from the poor mix and a general failure of their usual writing process, which involved having tapes full of riffs and making songs out of them. This time around, they seemed to reach a logical limit of trying to write complex songs. Still for traditional fans, this album was better than the one that followed and was their last true Metal album for many years. ‘Dyer’s Eve,’ written about James’ childhood, is probably their fastest track; Hammett has stated he struggles to play this live when it makes the setlist.
Garage Inc. (1998)
Metallica were always a hell of a cover band, from the Creeping Death single that had ‘Am I Evil?’ and ‘Blitzkrieg,’ the singles often had covers of obscure NWOBHM tracks. Of course, when Newsted joined, the $5.98 EP added songs like ‘Helpless’ to their list of covers, One had ‘Breadfan,’ there was the Motorheadache group of Motorhead covers and finally these songs were brought together with a disc of new covers, called Garage Inc. The first disc was a mixed bag, with Metallica going for diversity in songs like ‘Turn the Page’ and ‘Tuesday’s Gone,’ but songs like ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ and the Mercyful Fate medley certainly hit the spot. This album is almost certainly the best thing Metallica released post Master of Puppets. Sadly, since then, the band seems determined to give us live versions of 80s tracks on singles instead of doing fresh covers.
Controversial (The one fans disagree on)
By 1996, Metal was dead as a mainstream concern. The bands that Metallica had towered over were all but gone. Their response was to stop being a Metal band at all, and instead create an album of “alternative” rock. Enough songs were written for a double album with the rest released as Reload, and things like a duet with Marianne Faithful seemed to indicate Metallica moving into the world of mainstream rock. The reception was mixed because what seemed to matter was, if Metallica were not Metal any more, how much you liked the new album depended on if you liked what they had become. This album was well received by some fans and seen as the ultimate betrayal by others. Certainly it was the start of a long period of Metallica adrift and clearly divorced from their beginnings, although in recent years they have struggled to rediscover their earlier sound, with mixed success.
Buy this last (Not all bands have a ‘bad’ album, but this is the worst of them)
St. Anger (2003):
Although the Lulu album with Lou Reed deserves consideration, this is absolutely the lowest point for Metallica. An album made during a time when the band was in counselling and on the verge of blowing up, Metallica again followed trends by having no guitar solos, although no trend could explain the awful mix and the drum sound in particular. Some bands in this series have an album that’s ‘less good’ but in this case, the bottom of the Metallica barrel is truly dreadful.
Playlist (a killer playlist for your phone)
‘(Anaesthesia) – Pulling Teeth’ – Kill ’em All
‘Whiplash’ – Kill ’em All
‘Seek and Destroy’ – Kill ’em All
‘Four Horsemen’ – Kill ’em All
‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ – Ride the Lightning
‘Fade to Black’ – Ride the Lightning
‘Creeping Death’ – Ride the Lighting
‘Master of Puppets’ – Master of Puppets
‘Welcome Home (Sanitarium)’ – Master of Puppets
‘Disposable Heroes’ – Master of Puppets
‘Leper Messiah’ – Master of Puppets
‘Damage, Inc’ – Master of Puppets
‘Eye of the Beholder’ – … And Justice for All
‘One’ – … And Justice for All
‘Harvester of Sorrow’ – … And Justice for All
‘Dyer’s Eve’ – … And Justice for All
‘Enter Sandman’ – Metallica
‘Sad but True’ – Metallica
‘Holier than Thou’ – Metallica
‘Ain’t my Bitch’ – Load
‘King Nothing’ – Load
‘Fuel’ – Reload
‘The Memory Remains’ – Reload
‘Whiskey in the Jar’ – Garage, Inc
‘The Wait’ – Garage, Inc
‘Am I Evil?’ – Garage, Inc
‘Breadfan’ – Garage, Inc
‘Overkill’ – Garage, Inc
‘Cyanide’ – Death Magnetic
‘Moth into Flame’ – Hardwired… to Self-Destruct
‘Atlas, Rise’ – Hardwired… to Self-Destruct