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35 Best Metallica Songs, Ranked

Jul 25, 2023

by Erik Ritland May 31, 2023, 4:15 AM

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Last updated on June 4th, 2023 at 06:31 pm

When the average person thinks of metal music, Metallica is the first name that comes to mind. For over 40 years, Metallica has combined exceptional musicianship, penetrating lyrics, and good creative instincts to make some of the best hard rock music of our era.

Check out the 35 best Metallica songs below. A warning to hardcore Metallica fans: there will be more songs from Load and Reload than you are comfortable with. Bear with me, you might find yourself warming up to them. Or at least hating them a little less.

No songs from St. Anger, though. Even Metallica regrets that casualty of nu-metal.

I’m a bigger fan of their epic tracks, but "Lux Æterna" shows that some of the best Metallica songs are short time bombs of metal. "

"Lux Æterna" highlights what's great about Metallica's 2023 album 72 Seasons: it plays to the strengths of each member.

Metallica drummer Lars Urlich's prototypical double-kick-led style is front and center, the guitars thrash, and James Hetfield's lyrics are vintage.

"Full speed or nothing," indeed. I couldn't think of a better motto for Metallica, or metal in general.

Honestly, you can choose any track from Kill ’em All through Metallica (The Black Album) on a best Metallica songs list.

The earlier in their discography you are, the more this is the case, but even the more commercial/less innovative Black Album is filled with enduring metal.

"Through the Never" isn't as catchy as the biggest songs on Black, but it's better off for it. Its straightforward riffing lays a good foundation for its engrossing lyrics ("twisting/turning/through the never").

As he does basically through their entire career, Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett fills the track with flashy, impressive solos.

Metallica redeemed themselves after the St. Anger debacle with 2008's Death Magnetic.

"The Day That Never Comes" does a good job of threading the needle between Black Album and Load-era Metallica, beginning with a hypnotic riff and building into typical Metallica fury.

What is the least-known Metallica song? Well, if you told the average person that they basically have a country metal song, most people wouldn't know, so I’d say "Mama Says."

"Mama Says" is a polarizing track, and with good reason. Though the last portion gets heavy, there's nothing metal about it. It's a ballad.

More than that, it's more than country-tinged. Foreboding, minor-key acoustic guitars lead the track, and the electric guitars almost sound like pedal steel.

The lyrics are also an issue for some, especially hardcore Metallica fans. It's a tender, emotive song that laments both parental estrangement and possessiveness.

That's what makes it such a successful piece of work, though, and one of the best Metallica songs.

If you look at it in the context of all Metallica's work, especially their groundbreaking metal, it can come off as weak or saccharine.

But taken as a country rock song, it's better than most that came out in the 90s. It's possibly the only hard rock country song ever.

Listen to it with fresh ears, with that in mind, and you’ll see what I mean.

If this were strictly a personal list, I’d "Mama Said" at #1. Alas, I’m attempting to be objective.

Related: 10 Best Ozzy Osbourne Songs

Metallica's stone-cold classic 1984 album Ride the Lightning first appears on our list of best Metallica songs with "Trapped Under Ice."

I understand why hardcore Metallica fans prefer their earlier material – it thrashes. It's uncompromising. Guitarist Kirk Hammett is in his prime, and he doesn't even let any singing begin before he solos like it's his last.

What is Metallica's longest song? That’d be "Inamorata" from the 2023 album 72 Seasons, but before that it was the final track on Load.

Infamously, it was even longer, but it had to be shortened to fit on CD. Those were the days, my friend.

"The Outlaw Torn" is a good example of what made Load and Reload innovative. Instead of focusing on speed as on their earliest material, or being commercial as on Black Album, they focus on the song.

Many tracks on those two albums are mini-suites that alternate between soft and heavy, basic and intricate.

That's what "The Outlaw Torn" does. Former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted and Lars Ulcrich create a solo musical section over the first two verses that is sparse and even kind of funky in a way the band had never been.

From there, it twists and turns for another almost 10 minutes of classic hard rock.

Metallica's 1988 album …And Justice For All is possibly their pinnacle. It has the straight metal and hard rock of its predecessors, but isn't quite as commercial as what would come after.

"Harvester of Sorrow" illustrates this. James Hetfield's riff is simple, straightforward, and heavy, but it has more musicality than Metallica's first three releases.

The gentle fingerpicked acoustic guitar intro of "Fight Fire With Fire" is a tease, as it leads into one of the fastest, most spastic Metallica riffs and one of their thrashiest songs.

Interestingly, Metallica was respected by punk rockers, especially early in their career.

When you listen to "Fight Fire With Fire," you can understand why.

The melody-less, ejaculated verses are straight punk, and so are the lyrics: "Do unto others/as they’ve done to you/but what the hell is this world/coming to?"

Lars has one of his best drumming moments in the middle. He goes absolutely nuts.

Related: 18 Best Nirvana Songs: Soundtrack for a Generation

How many #1 hits does Metallica have? Although they have none on the Billboard Hot 100 – the closest they came was "Until It Sleeps" at #10 – they have over ten #1 songs on the Mainstream Rock Songs chart, including "Hero of the Day."

Hardcore Metallica fans tend to dismiss their mid-90s albums Load (which contains "Hero of the Day") and Reload, and I understand why.

If you’re used to Metallica as metal heroes, and that's your standard for them, albums that could almost be labeled alternative rock might seem hard to swallow. Their catalog up to that point solidified them as exactly this.

The problem is that what they were known for, and what their fans loved them for, colored what they did in the mid-90s.

But what exactly was Metallica doing in the 90s? They weren't innovating metal – they’d already done that.

Instead, they took their style into the 90s rock scene without compromising it, and made some of the best and most original rock music of that era.

Some might say that Metallica did indeed compromise their sound on Load and Reload. But the Metallica sound is still there, and it's still like nothing else.

For example, "Hero of the Day" is mostly a pretty standard rock hit. But what other 90s rock songs freak out like they do during the "but now the dreams and waking screams/that ever last the night" section?

Hetfield's low growl of "mama try and break me," which builds into a scream at the end of the song, is truly haunting.

We go back to …And Justice for All for "Blackened," another one of the best Metallica songs that just thrashes.

You can start hearing more commercial sensibilities creeping in, though, and in that it's something of a predecessor to all the huge hits on Black Album.

One aspect of Metallica's genius that often gets overlooked is their lyrics.

James Hetfield is the poet of metal in the same way that Chuck Berry is the poet of rock n’ roll. At his best, he captures the genre and its following.

"Eye of the Beholder," which is about limitations set on free speech and freedom in general.

…And Justice For All's second single, "Eye of the Beholder" is also one of Metallica's most complex songs rhythmically.

Even more than Death Magnetic, Metallica's 2016 release Hardwired to Self-Destruct found the band going back to their roots with great success.

"Moth into the Flame" is the closest they come to reliving their glory days on the album.

Metallica teaming up with a symphony sounded like a gimmick, but it worked surprisingly well, especially on mini-suites like "One" and "The Outlaw Torn."

"No Leaf Clover" is one of two new tracks featured on S&M, and it's one of Metallica's great creative achievements.

Who would have thought that a 90s Metallica song that sounds like it was meant to have an orchestra would work so well?

In the early ’80s, Metallica paid tribute to their influences on the Garage Days Re-Revisited EP. They resurrected the idea with more conventional covers on 1998's Garage, Inc., which also included the long out-of-print original EP.

While Garage Days focused on the new wave of British heavy metal that influenced the band, they branched out on Garage, Inc., covering Blue Oyster Cult, Black Sabbath, and even, yes, Bob Seger.

Metallica's cover of "Turn the Page" does what it's supposed to do: it takes the original, updates it, and filters it through their unique sound.

I was a passenger in my brother's car for hundreds of trips to Target when I was a kid, but I only remember one in exact detail.

We turned on the radio and this odd, intriguing riff came from the speakers. It sounded like nothing else from the time.

And then, suddenly – it sounds like Metallica? New Metallica? It didn't sound like them, but it did.

It's difficult to understand now just how innovative "Until It Sleeps" and most of Load and Re-Load are today. They are pure Metallica filtered through the 90s rock sound without losing their edge.

They’re like no other 90s rock. They’re like no other Metallica. They just…are. That's the foundation of uniqueness and creativity.

Metallica set the standard for metal with their first four albums, but on The Black Album they turned it into a cultural phenomenon.

Almost like Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced?, the track list practically reads like a greatest hits album.

"Sad But True" is one of its many tracks that set solidified metal in the mainstream in the 90s.

Related: 15 Best Jimi Hendrix Songs: Experience Hendrix

Another thrash masterpiece from Ride the Lightning, "Creeping Death" hearkens back to Metallica influences like Motorhead and Iron Maiden. Especially the latter with its biblically-tinged lyrics.

Considering that musicianship is one of Metallica's trademarks, it's kind of surprising that they didn't do more long-form instrumentals.

"Orion," from 1986's Master of Puppets, shows how they excel in that mode. It's heavy, it's spacey, and it just rocks.

The epic instrumental was led by original Metallica bassist Cliff Burton, who tragically died in a bus accident in 1986.

For some, Metallica never surpassed the heights of their debut album, metal masterpiece Kill ’em All (original title: Metal Up Your A**).

It's so damn good that I understand the sentiment. Furious "The Four Horsemen" proves why.

Dave Mustaine, who formed Megadeth after being unceremoniously canned from Metallica, has a co-writing credit on "The Four Horsemen" and a handful of other early tracks from the band.

"The Memory Remains" is another example of how creative and innovative the Metallica songs on Load and Reload are.

The tragic, evocative story of a washed-up superstar finds lyricist James Hetfield at his most poignant.

Marianne Faithful's vocals are pure pathos.

Like "Fight Fire With Fire," Kill ’em All highlight "Whiplash" is almost punk in its intensity and attitude.

A middle finger to critics of metal, "Whiplash" is an homage to Metallica's fans and the entire metal subculture.

Another well-chosen cover from Garage, Inc., "Whiskey in the Jar" takes on Thin Lizzy via an old Irish drinking ballad.

Like their take on "Turn the Page," their interpretation of "Whiskey" filters the original through their modern rock sound and puts it into a different stratosphere.

Related: The Best Rock Songs of All Time: The Ultimate Top 40

Only a handful of the best Metallica songs are ballads, but classic "Nothing Else Matters" is certainly one of them.

Another powerful track from The Black Album, nearly tender "Nothing Else Matters" rests on its lyrics, which lay bare feelings of isolation and the search for meaning.

"Bleeding Me" begins with a dark, beguiling riff that's accentuated by subtle organ chords.

It has almost a psychedelic feel before progressing into another vintage 90s hard rock track filtered through Metallica's singular sound.

The eight-minute mini-suite is another example of the innovation and genius of Load. Somehow, it was even a radio hit.

The hits from Black keep on coming with this rock radio staple. Speaking of psychedelic, the sitar is a nice touch.

Ostensibly a song about what it's like to be a touring musician, the defiance of "Wherever I May Roam" makes it applicable to anyone.

On Master of Puppets, Metallica perfected their combination of Maiden-esque grandeur and thrash, as on opening track "Battery."

An homage to the San Fransisco metal scene, Hetfield came up with the main riff while relaxing in London.

While Load and Reload are seen as Metallica's "sell-out" releases, nothing on them is as commercial as "The Unforgiven."

And the world is better off for it. All the great bands, from the Beatles to Zeppelin to Metallica, realize that they can do more than what they’re first known for.

"The Unforgiven" is not only one of the best Metallica songs, it's one of the great rock ballads of the 90s.

And if you don't like that they branched out, you can always go back to their absolutely killer early material.

"Seek and Destroy" features a riff that dreams are made of.

The lyrics again prove my theory that James Hetfield is the poet of metal. On this standout from Kill ’em All, he captures the rebelliousness and personality of the genre perfectly.

What is Metallica's first hit song? "Enter Sandman" is their second-highest charting song, reaching #16.

If you know one Metallica song, it's likely "Enter Sandman."

"Seek and Destroy" might have a riff that dreams are made of, but "Enter Sandman" is pure nightmare.

Which makes it all the more cool that it was a huge radio hit.

Related: The 30 Best 70s Songs: Classic Rock, Punk, Disco, and Some Serious Wild Cards

Some of the best Metallica songs are epic title tracks, and "…And Justice For All" is no different.

Like "Master of Puppets" (coming soon…), the metal suite goes in a dizzying amount of directions with an equally dizzying amount of riffs.

Another aspect of Metallica's music that is so innovative is how they balance dark and light, heavy and…less heavy. This is especially the case in "…And Justice For All."

Metallica's original ballad, "Fade to Black" addresses suicide with the gravity needed for the subject.

"Dark" is not a…well, dark enough word for "Fade to Black," which is what makes it perfect.

Madness is a go-to topic for Metallica, and they explored it best on gloriously murky "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)."

Not surprisingly, it was inspired by One Flew Over the Cucoos Nest, the famous book about a group of people trapped in a sanitarium.

The combo platter of evocative lyrics, tasteful solos from Hammett, and typical ferocity make it one of the best Metallica songs.

If a song is based on Ernest Hemingway, you better believe it's going to be towards the top of one of my lists.

"For Whom the Bell Tolls" is taken practically word-for-word from one of the most emotional scenes in Hemingway's novel of the same name.

It ranks up there with John Prine's "Sam Stone" as one of the best songs about the evils of war.

Oh, and there's a song that's still to come that is in that category, too.

What is Metallica's most performed song? That’d be "Master of Puppets" – they’ve played it over 1,700 times.

And it's no wonder. The multi-part epic about the horror of drug addiction is vintage Metallica.

I can't believe it took me researching this article to realize that a riff from David Bowie's obscure album track "Andy Warhol" appears at 6:19. It was the first song I learned on guitar.

To understand "One," you really have to watch the iconic video. The story of the senseless tragedy of World War I is brought to life so vividly that it's genuinely scary.

In addition to featuring one of Metallica's most celebrated riffs, "One" is another classic song from the band that features multiple parts, changing with ease from emotive slow sections to all-out thrash.

It's another classic song about the evil of warfare that's based on literature, this time Daniel Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun. Clips from the 1971 movie version are featured in the video.

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Erik Ritland is a songwriter, musician, journalist, and podcaster based in Nashville, Tennessee. He's released over a dozen albums since 2002, most recently Old Dog Almost Gone (2021), the first-ever multimedia album, and his latest collection of all original material, A Scientific Search (2020). During his 15+ years as a music journalist, Erik has written hundreds of articles for Music in Minnesota, Something Else Reviews, his own blog Rambling On, and more. In addition to continuing his music career, Erik currently runs The Cosmic American, a music journalism website, and is the editor of Music in Minnesota.

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