Kill 'Em All (Elektra, 1983)
     Ride the Lightning (Elektra, 1984)
      Master of Puppets (Elektra, 1986)
      …And Justice for All (Elektra, 1988)
     Metallica (Elektra, 1991)
   Live Shit: Binge and Purge (Elektra, 1993; 2002)
     Load (Elektra, 1996)
   Reload (Elektra, 1997)
      Garage, Inc. (Elektra, 1998)
  S&M (Elektra, 1999)
    St. Anger (Elektra, 2003)
     Death Magnetic (Warner Bros., 2008)

Metallica redefined heavy metal in the Eighties and Nineties, and in doing so became one of the biggest bands in the world. Led by Californian riff machine/neo–carnival barker James Hetfield and Danish drummer Lars Ulrich, the band joined the bull rush of hardcore punk to the power and scope of heavy metal, following the lead of their idols, Motörhead. Just as crucially, Metallica imported the egalitarian ethic of the new wave of British heavy metal to the States, offering a thrash/speed-metal alternative to the Sunset Strip hair bands that ruled the Eighties scene.

Kill 'Em All (originally titled Metal Up Your Ass) brokers an alliance between deadly adversaries: punks and metalheads. It contains the first great Metallica standard, "Seek and Destroy," not to mention the instrumental "(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth," which features the late Cliff Burton delivering the greatest metal bass solo ever, for what it's worth. But the remainder of the album reflects the cover photo of four zitty teenagers trying to look tough. Throughout, Metallica declare their endearingly cute metal intentions (in "Whiplash," Hetfield screeches, "We will never quit cause we are Metallica!") over undercooked, if enthusiastic, riff bonanzas.

Ride the Lightning was a titanic step forward, codifying a format for the following two records: blitzkrieg opener, epic title track, spooky death march, slow-building ballad, three or four more thrashers, and an instrumental. Lightning took on capital punishment (the title track), mutually assured destruction ("Fight Fire With Fire"), suicide ("Fade to Black"), and, ahem, the book of Exodus ("Creeping Death"). Master of Puppets, however, is the apogee of thrash metal, and as thrilling an album as you'll ever hear on the subjects of cocaine addiction (the title cut), the glory of metal itself ("Battery"), and that crucial '80s-metal target televangelism ("Leper Messiah").

Burton died in a bus crash in 1986, and the band became more solemn. Justice for All took thrash to its logical conclusion: The tracks grew ever more labyrinthine, and the band became preoccupied with war, censorship, and other "important issues." The towering antiwar anthem "One" was the first Metallica song most nonmetal fans heard, and cemented the band's status as the hesher Public Enemy to Guns n' Roses' libertine N.W.A. (The album is mixed so that the parts by Jason Newsted, Burton's replacement, are almost inaudible—was the band hazing him?)

Then, after eight years of railing against the mainstream, the mainstream came to Metallica. Heralded by the nightmarish "Enter Sandman," second only to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as the most startling rock single of 1991, Metallica, a.k.a. the Black Album, features more lucid songwriting and better record-ing values than any of the band's prior albums: "Sad But True" crushes anything in its path. But the trouble here would plague the band for the rest of its career: Each record was filled with as much music as technology would allow. Consequently, only the most single-minded fan has any use for five of the 12 tracks—never has such a huge-selling album been larded with so much filler.

Five years later, Metallica reemerged with Load, which accentuated the band's latent Southern-rock tendencies and included, for the first time, songs written in a major key. "Hero of the Day" seems modeled on U2's game-changing Achtung Baby: "Until It Sleeps" is strangely elegant, while Merle Haggard could've written "Mama Said." The genre experiments and Hetfield's maturing singing may have distressed unreconstructed metalheads, but the filler quotient is low, and Load is their most underrated record. Reload consists of Load's leavings, and sounds like it. Only "The Unforgiven Two," an unbearably poignant rewrite of a far inferior Metallica hit, and the hurtling "Fuel" are keepers.

Throughout its career, Metallica released cover tunes on B-sides and EPs. Garage, Inc. pairs one disc consisting of every one of those, including 1987's rip-snorting Garage Days Re-Revisited, with another of newly recorded tributes (Nick Cave's "Loverman," Discharge's "Free Speech for the Dumb"). Since it allows them no overthinking and indulgence, Garage, Inc. is one of their very best discs—they blast through the songs that made them what they are and have a great time. Garage was followed by their very worst disc: S&M (Symphony and Metallica) is just as useless as every other album on which a rock band plays their hits with an orchestra.

A public relations disaster followed: Long known for their generosity toward fans, Metallica fired the first salvo against file-sharing by suing Napster, and were instantly derided as greedy rock stars. Echo-ing U2's back-to-basics All That You Can't Leave Behind, St. Anger was a mea culpa to longtime devotees as the now Newsted-less trio crafted a complex riff marathon once more, this time accompanied by cathartic lyrics from a newly sober, therapy-suffused Hetfield. But production oddities—Lars Ulrich sounds like a two-year-old banging pots and pans with a spoon—are jarring. And poor guitarist Kirk Hammett, the band's soloist and a man who has weathered the squabbles of the two figureheads for 20 years, is rewarded with no solos.

2008's Death Magnetic was the skull-rattling old-school album that St. Anger wasn't, an epic speed-metal romp that recalled Metallica's Eighties work. With Rick Rubin producing, everything sounded appropriately full-bodied, and the songs often pushed past the seven-minute mark, tossing in prog-y twists and turns and plenty of solos. With the band letting it rip instrumentally, James Hetfield did the same lyrically, coming up with some of his most over-the-top lines yet, like this bit from "My Apocalypse": "Mangle Flesh, snapping spine / Dripping bloody valentine / Shatter face, bleeding gas / Split apart!"

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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