With the exception of Eighties glam, no hard-rock subgenre has been more critically reviled — or found more chart success — than the nu-metal that dominated the airwaves during our most recent millennial shift. Fusing Nirvana's trademark dynamics with influences from rap and electronic rock, nu-metal was brash, funky and free of the hand-wringing guilt that kept flannel's most visible flag-flyers from embracing their stardom. Though it was eventually toppled by skinny jeans, screamo and a resurgence of more traditional-style metal, much of music that came out of the movement — and these 20 records, in particular — stands the test of time. It makes sense, then, that the sound is having something of a resurgence of its own today, at the hands of rising groups like Vein and Cane Hill for whom it served as the gateway to sonic excess.
"Are you ready?" Jonathan Davis roars at its open, and a generation of pissed and pained kids were. When it dropped the year Kurt Cobain killed himself, Korn's debut was so undeniably funky, emotionally raw and impossibly heavy that even thrash-meisters Sepultura wanted to follow these new metal leaders (see Roots, below). Many years later, ferocious yet dense and nuanced cuts like "Blind" and "Faget" still get the mosh pit going with virtually unmatched cathartic power.
A polarizing creative and commercial breakthrough akin to Metallica's "Black Album," Sepultura's Roots saw the Brazilian band draw on far-flung influences — from the aforementioned Korn, to their homeland's indigenous tribal culture — to make something altogether original, unexpected and endlessly influential, even to one Dave Grohl, who has admitted A-B'ing his records against it. Savage and punishing yet spiritual and uplifting, Roots also boasts the distinction of bringing together proto-nu-metal hero Mike Patton and his acolyte Jonathan Davis together on one track, the atmospheric "Lookaway."
Syncopated riffs, big pants and goofy band names are nu-metal trademarks, and Deftones initially fit the bill, but when singer Chino Moreno opened his mouth on this remarkable second album, he uncorked a haunting, sexually ambiguous edge that owes more to Eighties dream-pop groups like the Cure and Cocteau Twins — both of whom the Sacramento-bred band later covered. The result was the first true Deftones album, setting the stage for their future triumphs and never-ending evolution.
Before frontman Brandon Boyd gave up on shirts entirely and his Cali band found soft-rock chart success, Incubus were be-dreaded fun-in-the-sun spazzes, mashing together metal, funk, hip-hop, trip-hop, jazz and more on their sophomore album S.C.I.E.N.C.E. Cuts like "Vitamin," "Idiot Box" and "A Certain Shade of Green" have been live staples ever since, and for good reason: They might be heavier than the group's more recent fare, but they're no less hooky and full of refreshingly good vibes.
Most critics lazily compared Sevendust's debut to Living Colour, but truly crushing numbers like "Black" and "Bitch" showed that the Atlanta band had much more in common with Metallica and the group frequently cited as the forefathers of nu-metal, Faith No More.
When they first hit the scene — before Fred Durst became the universe's Frat Boy in Chief and metal's most hated man — Limp Bizkit were scrappy, off-kilter rap-rock weirdos, setting freak-and-geek guitar hero Wes Borland's squealing art-noise riffage against Durst's A.D.D. white-boy freakouts. Three Dollar Bill's punky George Michael cover was the band's first hit, but more abrasive cuts such as "Stuck" and "Pollution" are the real standouts — raw, shambolic and hyperactive with genuine vitriol.
Korn's Jonathan Davis was such a big fan of Orgy's swirling, gothy "death-pop," he signed them to his label Elementree, sang on their song "Revival" and took them out on the first-ever Family Values Tour. On the strength of such support and the band's crunchy cover of New Order's "Blue Monday," Candyass, their debut, went platinum, but it stands up on its own merits, as well — a dark monolith of lipstick-smeared Manson-esque glam and debauched Eyes Wide Shut insinuation.
Industrial-metal terminators Fear Factory wouldn't go fully nu until their next album Digimortal — which saw them rapping and rocking braids alongside Cypress Hill's B-Real — but there was already an undeniably strong strain of the sound on their dynamic third album Obsolete. It's there in Burton C. Bell's hip-hop-inflected delivery and the DJ scratching over the breakdown on "Edgecrusher," in the soulful crooning on pseudo-ballad "Descent," and definitely in the group's "bonus" radio-hit cover of Gary Numan's "Cars." As such, Obsolete stands as nu-metal's most ambitious man-vs.-machine concept album.
After the devastating splintering of Sepultura at the peak of their power and popularity, main man Max Cavalera went his own way, following the nu-metal left turn of Roots deeper into the wilderness with Soulfly — a band that found its name in "Headup," the singer/guitarist's 1997 collaborative track with the Deftones. The group's self-titled debut is a wide-ranging affair, featuring cameos by a late-Nineties alt-metal who's who — Chino Moreno, Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst and DJ Lethal, Fear Factory's Burton C. Bell and Dino Cazares and others — and spanning from the punky Hootie & the Blowfish tell-off "No," to the tribal instrumental title track, to the excoriating bounce of classic opener "Eye for an Eye."
On their largely overlooked debut album, Strictly Diesel, Spineshank found the sweet, strange spot between a less–death-metal Fear Factory and a more-aggro Orgy (fitting reference points since the former's Burton C. Bell and the latter's Amir Derakh both make cameos on Strictly Diesel). But the most accurate comparison might be to an industrialized Deftones, especially in frontman Jonny Santos' Chino Moreno-esque vocals, veering between excoriating shrieks and silky crooning. Come for slappers like "Intake" and "Shinebox," stay for the surprisingly effective cover of the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."
Death metal never got so close to the pop charts as through this band of masked Iowans, whose platinum debut, while catchy and groove-based, essentially used multi-percussionist blasts and grinding guitars to drive an adrenaline plunger through nu-metal's heart. Two years later, with Iowa, Slipknot would prove too extreme for that genre altogether.
(Warner Bros., 1999)
Though singer-guitarist Wayne Static's towering hairdo sometimes overshadowed his band's creative output, Static-X's irresistibly syncopated and beautifully streamlined debut album brought a fun industrial danceability to nu-metal's down-tuned sturm und drang. The band wouldn't match the minimalist sublimity of rafter-shaking bangers such as "Push it," "Bled for Days" and "Fix" over the course of its five following LPs, and with Static's death in 2014, all chance of that ever happening vanished.
Kittie's core sister duo of Morgan (vocals, guitar) and Mercedes Lander (drums) were just 17 and 15, respectively, when the band dropped its breakthrough debut album, Spit, which made brash, no-holds-barred songs like "Do You Think I'm a Whore" and "Get Off (You Can Eat a Dick)" all the more shocking and hard-hitting. Nearly 20 years later, the group's take-no-shit attitude, primal playing and mix of little-girl sing-song and I-am-woman roars aligns them as much with Nineties riot-grrrl firestarters like Babes in Toyland, L7 and Hole as it does nu-metal.
With L.D. 50, Mudvayne took critical flak for their gimmicky carnivalesque image, but the album's prog-rock experimentalism and virtuosic playing hold up amazingly well — even if the rapping on tracks like "Under My Skin" binds L.D. 50 more to nu-metal than to the math-metal tag that the band (soon to be free of face paint and pseudonyms) preferred.
Produced by nu-metal producer extraordinaire Ross Robinson, these proud New Yorkers' debut album became an instant classic the minute fans heard "Pretty Lush." But that was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg: Between frontman Daryl Palumbo schizophrenic vocals, veering from soulful crooning to excoriating screaming, and the sharp, no-punches-pulled lyrics (see "Lovebites and Razorlines," "Babe"), Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Silence is an edgy and bold listen to this day — and evidence that the recently reunited band was always more than just the "East Coast Deftones."
Technically spotless, wildly eclectic and outspokenly Armenian, System of a Down's 1998 self-titled debut turned nu-metal on its ear; and with this darker and more streamlined follow-up, the band proved that it was more than just a novelty. Spastic lead single "Chop Suey!" is still one of the most awesomely bizarre songs to ever get repeated play on the radio. Wake up, indeed.
Nu-metal's first outspokenly Christian act, P.O.D. exchanged the gnarlier hardcore of early albums like 1996's Brown for hook-heavy, raggae-infused rap-rock on this, their Bad Brains vocalist H.R.–assisted fourth studio album. The group was rewarded with multiplatinum success for their troubles, and the rousing singles "Alive" and "Youth of a Nation" became survivors' anthems for 9/11 and Columbine, respectively.
In their heyday, Cleveland, Ohio, bruisers Chimaira could slam like Sepultura, bring industrialized terror like Fear Factory, sneer and croon like Alice in Chains and even bring dark gothy vibes like the Cure (whose "Fascination Street" they covered). They did it all of the above on The Impossibility of Reason, with standout cuts like "Power Trip" and "Down Again" leading the way.
The masks make them hard enough to take seriously, but add in the success of longtime rivals Slipknot — which will forever relegate this Ohioan group to being metal's other masked maniacs — and Mushroomhead have serious disadvantages when it comes to winning critical respect. An underrated nu statement, XIII is textured, ambitious and hook-laden, with cuts such as "Nowhere to Go," "One More Day" and "Almost Gone" seething and swerving like vintage Faith No More, while "The War Inside" boasts the incomparable body-banging presence of Meshuggah singer Jens Kidman adding to its burly pummel.