Rolling Stone’s Essential Albums guides survey an iconic artist’s discography, breaking down their finest LPs into three tiers: Must-Haves, Further Listening, and Going Deeper. We also recommend key songs from other releases.
When James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich formed Metallica in 1981, they were a couple of pimply faced, adrenaline-starved teenage outcasts obsessed with the speed of Motörhead, weightiness of Black Sabbath, and intricate riffs of New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands like Iron Maiden and Diamond Head. They wanted their metal faster, tougher, and more intense than anything they had ever heard, so they had to invent it, introducing thrash metal to the world on their debut, Kill ‘Em All. Forty years after their first jam session, Metallica no longer worry about crushing speed limits; their music has become more melodic and heartfelt over the years without sacrificing any of the sonic heft that propelled them to become one of the planet’s biggest bands. They’ve influenced everyone from Slipknot to Yo-Yo Ma. Here is a guide to navigate the group’s extensive discography, from their years pounding out aggression in San Francisco’s Battery to ruling stadiums with “Enter Sandman” and everything in between.
Ride the Lightning (1984)
Kill ‘Em All made Metallica instant legends, but they sealed their legacy on their second LP, Ride the Lightning. Although heshers called them sellouts for playing below 220 bpm this time, the band proved its versatility with a tender song about suicide (“Fade to Black”), the devastating “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” which marched along steadily enough that you could actually hear its crunching riffs, and the biblically apocalyptic “Creeping Death” and its “Die! Die! Die!” singalong, perfect for campfires and war rallies. Metallica made room for melody, too, and lead guitarist Kirk Hammett’s solos became a beacon for the band, especially on the brilliant closing instrumental, “The Call of Ktulu.”
Master of Puppets (1986)
Metallica’s third album is thrash-metal perfection, from the galloping aggression of “Battery” to the pile-driving pummel of “Damage, Inc.” Hetfield rails against drug addiction (“Master of Puppets”), the inequity of war (“Disposable Heroes”), greedy televangelists (“Leper Messiah”), and Lovecraftian monsters (“The Thing That Should Not Be”). But what’s hugely impressive is how each tune is its own mini-symphony with spiraling, ornate riffs, and finger-breaking solos. There are also moments of true heart, such as Hetfield’s arresting descent into madness on “Welcome Home (Sanitarium),” and dearly departed bassist Cliff Burton’s intricate melodies on the instrumental “Orion.” “We were just kids,” Ulrich once said, looking back Metallica’s finest hour. “We were just playing music and drinking beers.”
…And Justice for All (1988)
Metallica’s commercial breakthrough is also their most uncompromising album — nine bleak, brutal progressive-thrash odysseys about political corruption (the title track), nuclear war (“Blackened”), state-sponsored censorship (“Eye of the Beholder”), and coldblooded parents (the album’s best song, “Dyers Eve”). Despite how inaccessible it seems (and, to boot, the album’s mix barely featured any bass), it was a masterwork. Its most harrowing track, “One” — a torturously slow depiction of a quadriplegic soldier praying for death — was an unlikely breakout hit, propelling the band into arenas. “We were firing on all cylinders,” bassist Jason Newsted said. “Once the ‘One’ video came out, we were ready for it, and the world was ready for Metallica.”
After seeing concertgoers zone out during the seventh or eighth minute of their Justice epics, Metallica tightened things up with Mötley Crüe producer Bob Rock and made one of the biggest-sounding records in rock history. The result was the so-called “Black Album,” the bestselling record released in the past three decades by any artist. “Enter Sandman” was a gutsy, stadium-size anthem that bands have been trying to copy ever since. “Sad but True” was like Justice’s “Harvester of Sorrow,” but simpler, more direct, and somehow heavier. Metallica channeled spaghetti-Western panache on “The Unforgiven,” Zeppelin-like mysticism on “Wherever I May Roam,” and West Side Story flair (literally) on “Don’t Tread on Me.” The album also contained the band’s first full-on ballad, “Nothing Else Matters,” later covered by artists ranging from Shakira to Miley Cyrus.
Kill ‘Em All (1983)
The band’s debut was the perfect fusion of punk animosity and metal precision. Its back cover showed four pimply, chill-looking dudes, but the album’s 10 songs (many co-written with Dave Mustaine, before he left to form Megadeth) are all pure visceral attack. Hetfield’s apocalyptic vision on “The Four Horsemen” ranks among metal’s scariest, while “Seek & Destroy” and “Metal Militia” paint tableaus of violence for the sake of violence, and Cliff Burton’s “Anesthesia” bass solo is simply jaw-dropping. But the song that best captures Metallica’s “young metal attack,” as they described themselves on their first T-shirt, is their headbanging manifesto, “Whiplash”: “Life out here is raw/But we’ll never stop, we’ll never quit/’Cause we’re Metallica.”
Live Shit: Binge & Purge (1993)
Eleven years before Metallica started releasing recordings of every concert, this hefty collection of CDs and VHS tapes (later DVDs) was the band’s go-to live document. While the two three-hour, Black Album–era gigs capture the sheer, steamrolling might of “Sad but True” and “Sandman” and some fun Hetfield attitude (Het: “Does it sound good out there?” Audience: “Yeah!” Het: “I know”), the real gem here is the video of a 1989 Seattle gig from the Justice tour. It’s the moment when the band’s early punkish attitude and the adrenaline rush of playing arenas crisscrossed for neck-snapping renditions of “Creeping Death,” “Whiplash,” and “Battery.” (And if you want to listen to the Seattle gig on the go, an audio recording of it is included in the deluxe …And Justice for All box set.)
A year after Metallica shocked their fans in the runup to 1996’s Load with a post-grunge sound and, weirder still, haircuts, they reloaded. They actually sound more comfortable playing this set of outtakes from the Load sessions than they did on the original. The speed-demon hard rocker “Fuel” remains a set-list staple, while “The Memory Remains” — a shadowy duet with the witch-voiced Marianne Faithfull — straddled the line between hard-rock menace and pop hooks. Deeper in the track list, the band settled into a steady, sure-footed groove on the underappreciated “Carpe Diem Baby.”
Garage Inc. (1998)
Metallica always had great taste. Over the years, they’ve covered tunes by New Wave of British Heavy Metal artists like Blitzkrieg and Sweet Savage, hardcore punks the Misfits and Anti-Nowhere League, and rock heroes like Queen and Motörhead. Garage Inc. collects most of these tributes, including sharp interpretations of left-of-center tunes by industro-punks Killing Joke (“The Wait”), goth crooner Nick Cave (“Loverman”), Danish metal vampires Mercyful Fate (a medley) and U.K. cult metal heroes Diamond Head, whose “Am I Evil?” is a frequent Metallica encore.
Hardwired … to Self-Destruct (2016)
On 2008’s Death Magnetic, producer Rick Rubin pushed Metallica to retrace the steps that led to writing Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets. That introspection bore even better fruit on Hardwired, which boasts a return to furious thrash (“Hardwired”), heavy-for-the-sake-of-heavy foot stompers (“Here Comes Revenge,” “Dream No More”), and their best speed-metal symphony since the Black Album, “Spit Out the Bone.”
The gargantuan success of the Black Album coupled with the destruction that grunge wrought on heavy metal sent Metallica spinning. They trimmed their manes, painted their fingernails, and even kissed each other in photos. But their confusion manifested itself most in the music. Gone was practically any element of thrash. In its place, Metallica attempted brooding alt-rock (“Until It Sleeps”), uplifting pop-rock (“Hero of the Day”), radio-rock invective (“King Nothing”), and slow-churning doom rock (“The Outlaw Torn”), all of which was fine but paled when compared with their past declarations of defiance. Despite the identity crisis and an album cover depicting “blood and semen” (literally) the album was a commercial success, and it even earned them a slot on Lollapalooza.
S&M (1999) and S&M2 (2020)
At the suggestion of composer Michael Kamen, who had orchestrated “Nothing Else Matters,” the band teamed with the San Francisco Symphony to add cinematic strings and elephantine horns to some of Metallica’s more symphonically inclined tracks (“The Call of Ktulu,” “One”) and more surprising rockers (“Fuel,” “Battery”). The best of these is “No Leaf Clover,” and its eerie “freight train coming your way” refrain specifically written for S&M. The sequel S&M2 is notable for a better audio mix and a stunning rendition of Cliff Burton’s “Anesthesia” solo performed by the Symphony’s principal bass player.
St. Anger (2003)
An attempt at minimalism with maximum force, St. Anger is Metallica’s rawest record — pure Hetfieldian ire, an absence of guitar solos, and Lars Ulrich cudgeling a hubcap like it owed him money. And while that cocktail could have made for Metallica’s metal redemption after the Load LPs, the fact that the band was disintegrating behind the scenes sent the musicians into disarray. The result is a lot of therapy-speak (“My lifestyle determines my deathstyle” on “Frantic,” “Can’t you help me be uncrazy” on “The Unnamed Feeling”) and a lot of noisy confusion. Still, songs like “St. Anger” and “All Within My Hands” sounded better onstage than on the record.
Death Magnetic (2008)
Spurred on by the “go back to your roots” mantra of producer/guru Rick Rubin, the band unloaded the pretenses and finally sounded like Metallica again on Death Magnetic. They brought back the stacked thrash riffs of Justice on “Broken, Beat & Scarred” and “My Apocalypse” and the swagger of the Black Album on “All Nightmare Long” and “The Judas Kiss.” Even “The Unforgiven III” felt like a worthy sequel. Plus, Hammett was playing solos again.
Metallica’s contributions to this collaboration with Lou Reed (who predicted heavy metal in the Velvet Underground) are chaotic, crushing, and, at many times, beautiful, as the headbangers add light and shadow to Reed’s interpretation of German playwright Frank Wedekind’s “Lulu plays.” It’s arty and experimental (and yes, Reed got Hetfield to growl “I am the table” on “The View”) but at its core, it was a Reed record and an experience in experimentalism for Metallica. “I did learn to be a little freer with the words and the lyrics,” Hetfield said years later. “[I learned to] say what you want to say.”
Some Kind of Monster (2004)
One of the all-time most revealing music docs, Some Kind of Monster captured Metallica on the brink of implosion, as James Hetfield went to rehab, bassist Jason Newsted quit, and the remaining members met with a therapist to parse their differences. There are plenty of cringy moments (a tense meeting between Lars Ulrich and Dave Mustaine, the drummer’s dad telling him to “delete that” riff, their therapist suggesting lyrics) but it’s also a document of how the band saved itself.
More Riffs: Forgotten gems, B sides, rarities
“Hit the Lights”
Metal Massacre (1982)
A messy homage to British heavy metal (credited to “Mettallica”) the band’s first-ever recording sports a jazzy, unwieldy solo by early guitarist Lloyd Grant.
No Life ‘Til Leather demo (1982)
Metallica later retrofitted this gritty Dave Mustaine song about a letchy gas jockey and rebranded it “The Four Horsemen.”
“Stone Cold Crazy”
Rubáiyát: Elektra’s 40th Anniversary, 1990 / Garage Inc., 1998
James Hetfield toughened up Queen’s Sheer Heart Attack rocker by growling words Freddie Mercury crooned and tossing a few F-bombs along the way. Truly crazy, the recording won Metallica a Grammy.
“Nothing Else Matters (Elevator Version)”
“Sad but True” single (1993)
The same recording as the Black Album hit but without electric guitar or drums, it relies instead on the intensity of Hetfield’s grit and the beauty of Michael Kamen’s orchestrations.
“Only Happy When It Rains”
Hetfield somehow squeezed even more pathos from Garbage’s synth-pop lament by turning it into a moody acoustic ballad for Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit Concert.
“White Light, White Heat”
Paired together for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s 25th anniversary concert, Metallica and Lou Reed found enough common ground in Velvet Underground’s proto-metal bruiser to inspire Lulu. (Note: The 2009 version from the Rock Hall concert is not online, so the recording below is from a 2011 performance.)
“Am I Evil?”
The Big Four: Live From Sofia, Bulgaria (2010)
Although the headline here was that Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax were jamming on a Diamond Head ditty, the real magic is seeing Mustaine bury the hatchet with his estranged bandmates.
“Hell and Back”
Beyond Magnetic, 2011
The best of four outtakes from the Death Magnetic sessions, “Hell and Back” straddles the aggression of Eighties Metallica with the swinging hard-rock grooves that defined the Black Album.
“Diary of a Madman”
With former Ozzy Osbourne bassist Rob Trujillo now in their ranks, Metallica performed a fiery acoustic rendition of one of Ozzy’s best songs.
“Lords of Summer”
Digital single, 2014 / Hardwired … to Self-Destruct Deluxe Edition, 2016
A preamble to the Hardwired LP, “Lords of Summer” recalls the labyrinthine thrashathons of Master of Puppets and …And Justice for All better than practically every other song they recorded up to that point.
Helping Hands … Live & Acoustic at the Masonic (2019)
Metallica recast one of Puppets’ hardest-hitting thrashers as a Zeppelinesque folk song complete with mandolin, steel guitar, and a drone — and the song lost none of its power in the process.
Helping Hands . . . Live & Acoustic at the Masonic (2019)
With eerie slide guitar and shadowy acoustic guitars, Metallica turn their signature hit into a perfect cowboy ghost song à la Johnny Cash.