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There isn't a metal catalog in existence that's inspired more spirited debate than Metallica's. The Bay Area titans are the most recognizable metal band of all time, and whether your preferences lean extreme or radio-ready, you'll rightfully get your headbanging card revoked if you don't at least have a favorite Metallica song — let alone a favorite and least favorite of their 10 albums.
Despite their many controversial sonic pivots over the years, Metallica have been able to maintain their creative dignity, keep playing kickass live shows and continue to surprise fans every time they get around to releasing new music.
In honor of the band turning a whopping 40 years old, we wanted to take a critical look back on their many soaring highs and handful of contentious lows. From "Jump in the Fire" to "Halo on Fire," below are all of Metallica's studio albums ranked from worst to best.
Metallica wouldn't exist anymore if it weren't for St. Anger — but that's pretty much the best thing you can say about the album. Everyone knows the backstory, captured in cringey detail by filmmakers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger in the documentary Some Kind of Monster. Out of that turmoil, Metallica emerged with St. Anger, a shambolic effort that sounds all too much like a band still in the process of picking up the pieces and putting them back together. Nearly 20 years on, songs like "Frantic" have aged better than you'd have imagined at the time, but the bizarre lack of guitar solos and the infamously bad production — complete with that meme-ified trash-can-lid snare — is impossible to overcome.
The younger sibling to Metallica's 1996 LP, Load, saw the band double-down on everything that made its precursor so polarizing. Aside from its thrashy opener, "Fuel," Reload is a slogging hour-and-15-minutes of Metallica seemingly trying to play catch-up with the Nineties trends that supplanted their thrash empire. The moments where they're aping Alice in Chains ("Where the Wild Things Are"), howling through hokey Southern rock ("Bad Seed") or placating fans with nostalgia bait ("Unforgiven II") are serious low points. That said, the savory riffs on songs like "Devil's Dance" and "Better Than You" are undeniably gigantic, and Marianne Faithfull's eccentric folk singing on "The Memory Remains" is at least ambitious for an album that otherwise offers few creative risks.
Five years removed from St. Anger, Metallica returned with Death Magnetic and a new/old outlook. After working with producer Bob Rock for over a decade, they enlisted musical guru Rick Rubin and explicitly tried to reconnect with the hunger of their early days. Rubin's mantra: "Go back to what you were thinking at the time of Master of Puppets." The result was a clear step in the right direction ("All Nightmare Long" undeniably rips), but also too forced and formulaic. There's the acoustic ballad à la "Fade to Black" and "One," the instrumental à la "The Call of Ktulu," "Orion" and "To Live Is to Die," and the third "Unforgiven" entry that no one asked for. In all, it's the sound of Metallica trying to be Metallica again.
At the time of its release, Metallica's 1996 album was too much for many old-school fans to handle. The total forsaking of thrash. The gross and pretentious cover art. The band members' trendy "alternative" makeovers. With all that baggage washed away by a quarter of century, Load shines today as what it is: a badass, exploratory collection of bluesy hard-rock bangers that tangle with dark personal topics: depression, drug and alcohol abuse, the death of loved ones, and more. At 79 minutes, it's overlong, but it's hard to deny the grooving power of cuts like "Ain't My Bitch" and "King Nothing" or the brooding grandeur of closer "The Outlaw Torn," which speaks to Cliff Burton's death and its aftermath.
It's been long enough since Metallica released 2016's Hardwired...to Self Destruct to confidently say that it's their best record of the last 30 years. Whereas Death Magnetic felt like a transitional and still somewhat awkward reconnection with their thrash roots, Hardwired sounds like the band naturally picking up where they left off on ...And Justice for All — and actually having fun while doing it. Seemingly unencumbered by internal strife or external pressure, the band were able to breathe easy and write genuinely formidable thrash bangers like "Hardwired," "Atlas, Rise!" and the show-stopping "Spit out the Bone" that capture the energy, originality and ambition that made the band's initial run of albums so exciting.
Metallica were a big band before the bombastic …And Justice for All, but their first album since the death of bassist Cliff Burton and the enlistment of his replacement, Flotsam and Jetsam's Jason Newsted, transformed them into a true juggernaut. The band was bigger and so were the songs, which swelled to prog-metal proportions. From "Blackened" and "Eye of the Beholder" to "Harvester of Sorrow" and, of course, "One" — the album is packed with masterful, dense, politically charged epics. But even the band themselves found it all a bit overly indulgent (hence the stripped-down left turn of its follow-up, the Black Album), and from a production standpoint, the eternal question remains: Where the fuck is Newsted's bass?
The one that started it all. Kill 'Em All isn't Metallica's best or even heaviest album, and listening back to it today, it's clear that these four enterprising kids from the Bay were still figuring out their potential and clarifying their vision as they went along. That said, anthems like "Seek and Destroy," "Hit the Lights" and "The Four Horseman" are some of the greatest thrash songs ever written. Many fans would rank their hyper-technical 1988 LP above this, but Kill 'Em All is the only Metallica record that could be described as "scrappy," and its raw, unbridled intensity — however loose and unrefined compared to their later material — has a charm that's hard to top.
It's Metallica's most popular album by a long shot. For many people, it's the only metal album they know. It also represents the border between two separate eras of the band's career. Trading speed for groove, and technicality for tunefulness, the "Black Album" was an incredibly risky reinvention of their sound that's still controversial within their fan base today. But it's for good reason that the record is so massive: It's possibly the most perfect mix of catchy and crushing ever recorded. The Tyrannosaurus stomp of songs like "Sad but True" and "Wherever I May Roam" is unfuckwithable, and lighters-up ballads such as "Nothing Else Matters" are all-time earworms. Some people say it's Metallica's last truly great album while others consider it their first bad one. We prefer the former.
After creating a prototype of speed metal with their first album, Metallica rolled out thrash's bigger, better second version with its follow-up. On 1984's Ride the Lightning, the band reimagined a genre premised on sheer force and speed into a far more technical, expansive and widely appealing beast — making room for classical acoustic guitars, sophisticated instrumental passages and even a heart-rending power ballad. Heavy hitters such as "Creeping Death" and "Fight Fire With Fire" still bring the sense of bloody-hammer danger, while songs like the title track and "For Whom the Bell Tolls" introduced a whole new world of melodic possibilities. With Ride, Metallica truly became Metallica — and, in the process, inspired a whole generation of heshers to step up their game.
More than just Metallica's best album or even the most definitive thrash album, Master of Puppets is simply one of the greatest metal albums ever made. That claim has been levied for decades, and now, nearly 40 years since Metallica released their king-making third LP, any cries of "overrated" have simply become ridiculous. The symphonic solos, the timeless riffs, the evergreen political lyrics, the air-tight performances, the spectacular production, how every lick and vocal melody manages to be supremely catchy without ever sounding cheap or obvious — it's positively glorious. To call this Metallica's highest achievement isn't an insult to the rest of their catalog. Nothing can beat the unbeatable.