Metallica is a band that creatively peaked early but became global superstars later on. Still, I find most of their album to be, at the very least, interesting, even their later-era ones.
At their best, however, Hetfield, Ulrich & co. were musical innovators, daring gamblers, and a damn exciting live band. Looking band at their discography from this perspective has rekindled my appreciation for the band. I’ve even included their new album, the 2023 release “72 Seasons.”
Metallica is one the most successful and influential heavy metal bands ever, with a career that spans over 40 years and a discography full of iconic albums. Which ones are the greatest?
The ranking is based on my opinion and observations as a music reviewer. I think that it avoids some of the cliche answers to the question, “What is Metallica’s best album?” This is a list of all Metallica studio albums, ranked from worst to most.
Metallica Albums Ranked
12. “Lulu” (2011)
“Lulu” is an infamous collaboration album by Metallica and Lou Reed and something that exists almost as a never-ending internet meme. But is it as bad as you’ve heard?
Yes, and no.
First of all, it is certainly more of a Loud Reed project than a Metallica album. The concept record is a compilation of two plays by Frank Wedekind. This is not exactly thrash metal territory.
It features spoken word poetry, rock, and experimental music. Both Metallica fans and critics were critical of the album’s experimental nature. But is their displeasure just due to being asked to go outside their comfort zones?
No, for the most part, the songs stink. They shouldn’t. They have a world-class songwriter helming them and a world-class band providing backing. Still, it’s Metallica’s worst album. Not Lou Reed’s, though.
Some highlights could be considered “Cheat On Me”, and “The View”. However, it failed to ignite the passion of either rock n’ roll intellectuals or prog-metal enthusiasts. Except for David Bowie. Supposedly, he loved it.
11. “St. Anger” (2003)
Metallica’s eighth studio record is at the bottom of many people’s lists. Like “Lulu,” it caused a giant ruckus on the internet. Was it as bad as you remember? I reckon that it isn’t, but that its flaws immediately stand out.
The album received mixed reviews upon its release. Many critics and fans pointed out the absence of guitar solos and raw, unpolished production. “St. Anger” doesn’t rank highly on most Metallica albums tier list.
Was this an oversight? Unlikely. Metallica was desperate to remain relevant and even compete with the nu-metal bands dominating the charts at the time. Extended guitar solos, for one thing, were not something that Limp Bizkit or Korn did much of.
St. Anger has its moments, despite its faults. This is especially evident in the aggressive tracks “Frantic” and “Some Kind of Monster.” In fact, heard in a live context, these are fine ‘Tallica tunes.
Furthermore, there is a real sense of anguish captured in James Hetfield’s performance in particular. The “Some Kind of Monster” documentary further elaborated on this. But, much like the album, its honesty may have hurt the band more than it helped.
10. “Death Magnetic” (2008)
Death Magnetic marked a return back to the band’s metal roots. And, just in the nick of time. Metallica’s sizeable audience had grown weary of the experimental nature of recent releases.
It features a more polished sound than St. Anger and, yes, guitar solos.
Although it received positive reviews, critics were quick to point out that it lacked major new ideas.
This may have been intentional, however. The band had Rick Rubin produce the record instead of Bob Rock. By his own admission, Rubin focused his energy on getting Metallica to zero in on the elements that had made them popular in the first place. It’s a strategy that the producer also used with Black Sabbath with similarly mixed artistic results.
Highlights of the album include “The Day That Never Comes” (the title track) and “All Nightmare Long.”
9. “Hardwired…to Self-Destruct” (2016)
The band’s tenth studio record, Hardwired…to Self-Destruct, was released after a long hiatus.
And, in fairness, I, like many others, wasn’t gearing up to a new Metallica album and believed that the band was now satisfied with their status as a legacy act.
This proved myself and other naysayers wrong… for the most part.
It was well-received by critics and fans alike. Again, the band goes back to their earliest style and incorporates elements of early thrash metal, but makes sure to add a veneer of modern rock.
The album’s standout tracks are “Hardwired” & “Moth Into Flame.”
Hardwired…to Self-Destruct proved that Metallica was still eager to create new material. The success of it makes me and other fans excited for their 2023 release, 72 Seasons.
8. “72 Seasons” (2023)
“72 Seasons” is a pleasant surprise. It’s an arena metal album. The first two-thirds of it are filled with excellent, vigorous riffs and a dynamic rhythm section. The lyrics are a tad run-of-the-mill, and the songs eventually blend together. But to focus too much on this is to deny Metallica’s incredible ability as a heavy metal band.
“Do you come up with the lyrics or the music first?” That is a common question that the majority of high-profile songwriters get asked. In the case of Metallica, it is easy to assume that they always come up with guitar riffs before anything else.
While most hard-rock and metal bands take this approach, Metallica is better than most metal bands. “72 Seasons” is a reminder of this.
Take the title track and “Shadows Fall,” the first two songs on the album. Together they are nearly 14 minutes long. Never do the guitar riffs and manic drum playing get boring. It’s a rare case of exciting prog-metal.
These and any of the first eight tracks of the albums could slide seamlessly onto Metallica’s setlist played for stadium crowds.
When it comes to energy and power, Hetfield and Ulrich’s new songs can play alongside modern EDM or classic hardcore punk.
Good news comes from the other half of the band as well. Kirk Hammett’s fast-paced soloing adds to most songs to which they’re added. Meanwhile, Robert Trujillo is an important reason for songs sounding as vibrant as they do.
However, the album loses some of it toward its third chapter. “If Darkness Had a Son” sounds like the title of a parody song about 1980s goths, and the lyrics don’t help matters. In fact, throughout the record, the words add little overall value.
The vocal melodies have a similar effect. Unlike the riffs, these are dull and repetitive. However, James Hetfield reaps the rewards that, to begin with, he never had much of a vocal range.
Overall, it’s necessary to judge “72 Seasons” for what it is, not what it fails to become. This is the best modern-day Metallica record.
7. “Load” (1996)
The band’s sixth studio album Load was a stark departure from their earlier thrash-metal sound. Unlike other attempts at experimentation from Metallica, however, this largely has the songs to back the effort.
First of all, clearly, this is not intended as a metal record. The Black Album had shown that the band could function well as a more conservative rock proposition.
Load featured a more mainstream sound and even folk and blues influences. I am surprised by the fact that the quality of many of the songs here still is still hard to deny.
Yes, it received mixed reviews, with some critics and fans praising the band for their experimentation while others criticizing their selling out. Yes, the band members cut their hair, offering an opportunity for Alice In Chains to ridicule them on MTV.
The album’s most memorable tracks are the goth-tinged “Until It Sleeps” and the folk-influenced “Mama Said.” “Hero of the Day” and “King Nothing” were also hits but not quite among the band’s best, in my humble opinion.
6. “Reload” (1997)
Reload is the band’s seventh studio record and is a companion piece for Load. In fact, soundwise, it treads the same territory, and some might argue that it might as well have been packaged as a double album.
The band enjoyed more mainstream rock hits with “Fuel” and “The Memory Remains.”
“The Unforgiven II” begins an unexpected saga of songs that tread between sublime and overly melodramatic.
It’s the lesser of the two records, and by now, some of the novelty of Metallica as a mainstream rock band had worn off.
There’s an air of self-indulgence about the record. The abstract artwork, art created with blood and urine, might spell that out the best.
It’s understandable, though. Metallica was on a commercial roll, and, especially, Ulrich and Hetfield must have felt that little could threaten this.
5. “Kill ‘Em All” (1983)
Kill ‘Em All is Metallica’s debut album and, for many people, their introduction to thrash metal. Though for some, it’s become an all too familiar record, I personally can attest to the power that hearing it for the first time can have a music fan.
By the time of the debut’s release, Metallica had already acquired a reputation. They were one of the most dedicated out of a host of new U.S. heavy metal bands. Their demo, No Life ’til Leather, and presence on various compilations made them underground superstars.
Highlights of the album include “Hit the Lights” and “Whiplash.” The dynamics and longer running time of songs like “Seek & Destroy” and “The Four Horsemen” also reveal the band’s ambitions that stretched beyond metal cliches.
Props also have to be given to Dave Mustaine, the lead guitarist with whom most of the material here was developed.
Famously, Mustaine would be replaced by Kirk Hammett. He would soon form Megadeth, one of Metallica’s biggest rivals and a personal favorite group of mine.
As for the band, they would improve on the formula presented on this first Metallica album. Arguably, however, they’d never display as much enthusiasm on a record nor influence as many bands as they do with this effort.
4. “…And Justice for All” (1988)
By the time Metallica recorded their fourth studio album, they’d already achieved and lost a tremendous amount.
On the one hand, their underground superstar status had successfully translated to large touring. They were one of the few heavy metal bands to receive nearly unanimous praise for music critics.
However, they’d also tragically lost their bass player Cliff Burton, now replaced by former Flotsam and Jetsam bassist Jason Newsted.
However, any concern about Metallica becoming a wasted force artistically was immediately dismissed by …And Justice for All.
Named after a 1979 Al Pacino movie, in my opinion, this album finds Metallica with more good ideas and less time to use than ever before.
Consequently, the band’s already simmering prog-rock ambitions are brought to the forefront. The songs are usually long. They are both musically and lyrically complex. And they’re delivered with supreme confidence.
…And Justice for All is also famous for its production, which many fans have called subpar. While, yes, it’s true that I can hardly hear the bass guitar either, it’s also a mark of Metallica taking its cues from no other band and following its artistic vision.
In spite of all of this, not because of it, “…And Justice for All” is Metallica’s best album, in my opinion as an often cynical music reviewer.
Album and career highlights include “One,” “Harvester of Sorrow,” and “Blackened.”
The former, in particular, captures the essence of the band. It’s a lengthy, dynamic tune showcasing Hetfield’s creepy vocals, excellent rhythm guitar, Hammet’s dramatic guitar soloing, and the band’s anti-war stance.
This was also the first time that Metallica made any clear concession toward commercial acceptance. “One” would be accompanied by the band’s first music video.
While some long-time fans decried this as opportunism, it certainly pushed one of the most extremely innovative bands of the era into the musical mainstream. Not that Metallica didn’t face opposition. Famously, at the 1989 Grammy Awards, they lost the Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance to Jethro Tull, a decision that baffled both bands.
…And Justice for All was the last time, for a while, that Metallica embraced its thrash and prog-metal roots. Having achieved most of what they could with this format, they would switch their attention to a different rock format.
3. “Ride the Lightning” (1984)
Ride the Lightning is the second studio album by Metallica and, in many ways, the most accomplished effort from their thrash era.
It’s also an album that isn’t as heavily overplayed as some of the others from this period. As a result, I have an easier time listening to these tracks with a fresh perspective.
Songwriting-wise, the band had grown in leaps and bounds over the time of their debut. Yes, some of the material here originates from the band’s earliest demos, but they’d now learned a great deal about how to structure and use it effectively.
Ride the Lightning also shows that the band’s technical abilities had improved as well as their understanding of dynamics.
“Creeping Death” and “Fight Fire with Fire” do a good job of reestablishing Metallica as the premier trash band. However, “Fade to Black” reaches for great emotional depth and offers Hammett the chance to shine in the song’s outro.
Meanwhile, the 9-minute instrumental “The Call of Ktulu” reaffirms Metallica’s ambition to be taken seriously as composers and musicians. This is hardly the world of your typical heavy-metal band.
Finally, the use of Cliff Burton’s memorable, repetitive bass lines during “For Whom the Bell Tolls” shows that Metallica could create heavy, dynamic tunes that could be as memorable as any pop hit.
2. “Metallica, aka The Black Album” (1991)
The Black Album is the one that finally turned Metallica into global superstars. Few bands had worked harder for their success. Still, the great shift toward commercial acceptance included some changes to their style.
These alterations were not as dramatic as some longtime fans might have made themselves believe.
The thrash metal dynamics are still there, occasionally, but are streamlined in favor of a more conservative hard-rock style.
It often works in the band’s favor. Metallica had already shown themselves terrific at creating hard-hitting hooks. On songs like “Sad But True,” “Wherever I May Roam,” and “Enter Sandman,” they put their strengths in the service of radio singles. However, these songs are ranked as Metallica’s best by many fans.
The latter, especially with its repetitive guitar riff and James Hetfield’s barked vocals, became one of the band’s biggest hits.
Metallica’s Lars Ulrich and Hames Hetfield had also learned their lesson when it came to slower numbers. “Fade to Black” was partly responsible for allowing them to play to larger audiences.
On The Black Album, they took this format and gently shifted it toward the popular rock ballad medium on songs like “Nothing Else Matters” and “The Unforgiven.”
By the time it was all over, Metallica was one of the biggest bands in the world. They hadn’t exactly sold their souls but had made conscious choices, helped in no small part by Bob Rock’s production, that aided their success.
All of this aside, The Black Album is an excellently crafted creation. Few albums since have included as many memorable hard-rock songs. Its enduring popularity is certainly no accident.
1. “Master of Puppets” (1986)
Master of Puppets is the third Metallica album, and it’s widely praised as one of the best metal releases of all time. Its immediate success was received as a kind of vindication by the band’s fans who’d witnessed Metallica’s determined push toward the summit.
The album’s sound is as aggressive as its two predecessors, but it features more intricate songwriting. There’s also a notable improvement in terms of production.
And, while Metallica’s prog-metal tendencies come to the fore here, they are balanced by a great understanding of song dynamics. This knowledge could’ve only come after a colossal amount of live performances.
Bassist Cliff Burton’s sound is also pushed to the forefront often times and his instrumental composition, Orion, is one of the album’s highlights. This would sadly be the last album to which the talented bassist contributed. Burton passed away following a tragic touring accident.
The album’s most famous tracks are “Master of Puppets” and “Welcome Home (Sanitarium).” The former remains one of the popular heavy metal songs. Recently, it found an entirely new audience after being included in the television show Stranger Things.
“Battery” is, perhaps, one of the best album openers of all time.
I find it hard to speak of Master of Puppets without referring to the immense influence it’s had on a host of heavy metal bands. This album essentially established a pattern that many would follow.
Surprisingly, Metallica would not be one of the bands to do so. The band would work within this format only for a few years more before opting to change their sound and image.