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Metallica’s Lars Ulrich: My 15 Favorite Metal and Hard Rock Albums

Drummer goes deep on classics ranging from AC/DC’s ‘Let There Be Rock’ to System of a Down’s ‘Toxicity’

Metallica Drummer Lars Ulrich's 15 Favorite Metal Albums

Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich picks his 15 favorite metal and hard-rock albums.

Gary Miller/Getty

When Rolling Stone began ranking the 100 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time, one of the first musicians we consulted was Metallica‘s Lars Ulrich. Not only did he co-write and drum on five of the LPs that made the list – including the Number Two pick, Master of Puppets – he’s been one of metal’s most prominent and outspoken mouthpieces for nearly four decades now. He’s demonstrated his impeccable taste in interviews and on Metallica’s numerous “garage days” releases, on which they’ve covered songs by Diamond Head, Black Sabbath, Motörhead, Mercyful Fate and many other artists who also ultimately made the cut on our list. In short, Ulrich and his bandmates’ taste defined the tastes of generations to come.

The list of metal records he prepared for Rolling Stone represent a wide array of heavy styles, from the intricate arrangements of Iron Maiden to the go-for-the-gut punk spirit of Guns N’ Roses. “For each artist that’s part of my ultimate metal or hard-rock albums, I went for what you would call the definitive moment in their catalogue,” he explains. “And for a lot of these bands, they went through a kind of evolution, a kind of a growth and a lot of them have a lot of great records. So what I picked is a combination of what that album represents from the artist and what impact it had on me.”

Ulrich had such a good time breaking down his favorite records, that he decided to dedicate an upcoming episode of his Apple Music Beats 1 radio show It’s Electric to his list. Tune in this Sunday at 6 p.m. EST to hear the drummer to discuss his picks and play cuts from them, and to hear him interview Rolling Stone’s Kory Grow about how the 100 Greatest Metal Albums list came together. Until then, here are Lars Ulrich’s Top 15 metal and hard rock albums – and his commentary on each – presented in alphabetical order at his request.

From Black Sabbath to Metallica, Rolling Stone picks the Greatest Metal Albums of All Time. Watch here.

AC/DC, 'Let There Be Rock' (1977)

AC/DC, ‘Let There Be Rock’ (1977)

This is AC/DC’s heaviest record, AC/DC’s densest record, AC/DC’s most energetic record. Four or five of the songs are just staple AC/DC live, between “Let There Be Rock,” “Bad Boy Boogie,” “Whole Lotta Rosie,” and “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be.” I don’t even want to try to comprehend how many times these songs have been played live. 

Obviously, this is before AC/DC hooked up with [producer] Mutt Lange on the Highway to Hell album and started crafting to perfection the idea of the three-to-four-minute rock song as a radio hit. Here, it was the perfect balance of two guitars: just endless guitar solos and the riffs and Angus and Malcolm playing. A lot of the songs would start with one guy playing a riff, the other guy playing open chords. Then, after 16 bars or 32 bars or whatever, both guitars would lock in on the same riff. Then Bon [Scott] would come in with these cheeky, great, almost cartoon-like lyrics about women and bad behavior and illicit experiences. It’s one of those albums where it sounds like you’re sitting in the studio with them. At the beginning of the songs, you can hear the amplifiers buzzing, and there’s, like, count-ins and you can hear the talking in the studio, and all that kind of stuff. This is raw, blues-based hard rock at its absolute peak.

And there’s one song on here which may potentially be my favorite AC/DC deep cut, which is “Overdose.” On that song, when the two guitars lock in, it’s just the fucking heaviest thing ever. To my knowledge, they have never performed it live. I think for a lot of AC/DC fanatics and purists like myself, it’s at the very top of the left-out songs. I’ve never gotten far enough to ask Angus why they haven’t played it [laughs], but now that Axl’s in there … he seems to get them to play stuff they haven’t done in a long time. Maybe instead of asking Angus, I’ll see if I can get Axl to throw it in there.

Alice in Chains, 'Dirt' (1992)

Alice in Chains, ‘Dirt’ (1992)

I was first introduced to Alice in Chains when the first one came out in the summer of ’90. We were in L.A., recording the Black Album, and we used to see them around town at all the bars and clubs. They were super cool guys – young, easy, fun, a little kooky. I couldn’t wrap my head around how they had long underwear on under their shirts. They had a whole different look we’d never seen before with flannel shirts and it was cool. And their music was just so fucking heavy and had so much attitude.

Then when Dirt came out, what, two years later, it was such a dark, deep record. At that time, we hadn’t been around a lot of drug abuse at that level; we’d just drink a lot and most of the stuff we did was in more of a social and party-like atmosphere. We were not super familiar with the whole drug culture, which was hidden in closets and hotel rooms. The guys who were really into the heavy drugs stuff weren’t very social, so I didn’t quite connect the dots in the beginning with this record. I didn’t understand all the drug references but as I started obviously getting to know the guys better and understand the records better, the lyrical heaviness of the record hit me.

It’s just an incredibly deep, dark record. Obviously, “Rooster” is this incredible, beautiful song. I didn’t know if it was about Jerry’s dad or what. But “Rain When I Die” and “Dam That River” and all that were super heavy, short songs that were great. It’s crazy. It was probably one of the one or two records from ’92 that I listened to the most.

Black Sabbath, 'Sabotage' (1975)

Black Sabbath, ‘Sabotage’ (1975)

I know for a lot of Black Sabbath people, it’s Paranoid or Master of Reality. To me, the fucking one-two punch of “Hole in the Sky” and then “Symptom of the Universe,” that’s where it peaked for me, and then the deeper tracks: “Megalomania” is, like, a journey of just fundamental heavy metal. Side A, if you look at vinyl, is probably the strongest 20 minutes of Black Sabbath. And then “Symptom of the Universe” – the simplicity in the riff, the down-picking, the chug – it’s obviously the blueprint for the core of what hard rock and metal ended up sounding like … up through the Eighties and Nineties.

The first Sabbath record I got was the one before this one, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. I got it for Christmas in ’73 when it came out. It was all scary. “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” the song, when it goes into that second part, “Where can you run to?/What more have we done?/ … Sabbath, bloody sabbath/Nothing more to do.” Fuck. Scary, crazy shit. This record had a little bit more of what I would call an uptempo energy than some of the other albums, so that’s probably also part of the reason that it’s my favorite.  Obviously their sound got a little more advanced as it went on. There’s a simplicity to some of the earlier records, that I’m appreciative of, but sonically, Sabotage is the best-sounding record.

Blue Oyster Cult, 'On Your Feet or On Your Knees' (1975)

Blue Öyster Cult, ‘On Your Feet or On Your Knees’ (1975)

This is one of the ultimate live albums. A significant amount of these songs are from Blue Öyster Cult’s album Secret Treaties. It has some of their earlier hits like “Cities on Flame” and some of the deeper cuts like “The Red and the Black” and a ballad that was part of the blueprint of great hard-rock ballads in the Seventies called “Last Days of May.” There’s a density to this record and a consistency. 

All the dudes in the band sang; I think the drummer sang “Cities on Flame.” And they had a song where all five members played guitars, “ME 262.” There’s a picture of all five of them playing guitar next to each other. It was like the ultimate guitar solo [laughs]. I guess there were two guitar players, then the drummer came out and played.

Blue Öyster Cult also had that New York connection: downtown intellectual, part of the New York, CBGBs scene. Patti Smith had a relationship with the keyboard played, Allen [Lanier]. They were sort of part of that New York intellectual scene that Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground came from. This is a little more thought out and little bit smarter compared to the sort of neanderthal approach that some other rock bands had at the time. It has a finesse to it.

Deep Purple, 'Made in Japan' (1972)

Deep Purple, ‘Made in Japan’ (1972)

Deep Purple obviously had a handful of insane songs, from “Highway Star” to “Smoke on the Water” to “Speed King” to all the rest of them. But there’s probably no other band in rock where the difference between the album versions and the live versions are more radical. Made in Japan is the first record from Deep Purple that I had my hands on, and I got to know all the songs. On vinyl, there were two songs per side on Sides One, Two and Three, and then on Side Four, it’s just one song: “Space Truckin'” – almost 20 minutes’ worth. And then when I subsequently got the albums over the next couple years, I got Machine Head and was like, “Wow. ‘Space Truckin’ on Machine Head is three minutes long. Where did the other 17 minutes come from?” It had a sense of exploration.

It all came together for Deep Purple with the five of them onstage. When you see the video footage, you can see they’re all playing off each other. You know when Blackmore’s done soloing, he raises his right hand, that’s the signal for the drummer, Ian Paice, to come into the next part. Everything’s completely free-from, but it’s not hippie-trippy, space-age, “Let’s take mushrooms for four hours,” or whatever. There’s a cohesiveness to it and it still connects, but every live version’s different. Every concert was different. You never knew how many bars the soloists were gonna take and run with and all that stuff.

There’s something in the air, those three shows – they played two shows in Osaka and one show in Tokyo, in August of 1972 – where they’re just at their most ferocious. The guitar solo in “Child in Time,” I’ve played it for jazz purists who get off on Ornette Coleman and crazy Miles Davis stuff, and the interplay between Ritchie Blackmore and Ian Paice is almost jazz-like. And at the same time, with songs like “Highway Star,” you’ve obviously got down-picking, riff-chugging at the very forefront of that, but it’s about the energy. This is a band that had a lot of internal friction. So when it came together onstage, and there was this push and pull, where they’re almost all trying to upstage each other, and they’re pushing each other, prodding each other and trying to out-do each other, it just makes for an incredible, ferocious listening pleasure.

There’s a live album that came out maybe 10, 15 years ago called Deep Purple Live in Japan that has all three of those gigs in their entirety. So if you hear three nights in a row of “Highway Star,” “Child in Time,” “Space Truckin’,” “Lazy” and “Strange Kind of Woman,” the difference in the guitar solos and the drumming and the vocals is unbelievable.

Diamond Head, 'Lightning to the Nations' (1980)

Diamond Head, ‘Lightning to the Nations’ (1980)

If you’re gonna say, “Name one record that’s the blueprint for Metallica’s sound,” this is it. I’ve said that a thousand times; I’ve said it 10,000 times.

I ended up spending the summer of 1981 with the singer and the guitar player, Sean [Harris] and Brian [Tatler], living in their living room, sleeping on the couch and hanging out with them. I went back to California and wanted to start a band. They were the ones that took the more traditional hard-rock approaches: They were huge fans of Led Zeppelin, and they took the songs as a journey, as an exploration, as an experience, then they fused it with pure guitar riff-based energy. It’s great songs that are groovy with simple drumming.

And at one point or another, Metallica have played all these songs. We obviously released “Am I Evil.” We released “It’s Electric,””Helpless,” “The Prince”; we used to play “Sucking My Love” back in the day. We’ve obviously jammed on “Sweet and Innocent.” We’ve jammed on “Lightning to the Nations.” We have a very, very close relationship with every one of these songs.

At our first concert, I think we played four Diamond Head songs. We started out as a cover band and we sort of were in that grey area. We just went up and played the songs. We didn’t tell anybody that they were cover songs – but we also didn’t tell anybody that they were our songs. We just played the songs. I think it was the second or third show we played where we got a gig opening for Saxon, and their sound guy, Paul, came up and asked if we’d ever heard of a band called Diamond Head. I went, “Of course, we cover four of their songs.” But yeah, we basically started out as a Diamond Head cover band.

Guns N' Roses, 'Appetite for Destruction' (1987)

Guns N’ Roses, ‘Appetite for Destruction’ (1987)

What can I say about Appetite that hasn’t already been said? It’s one of the handful of greatest rock records ever recorded. Appetite is genre-less in a way, in that not only is it one of the best hard-rock records and metal records of all time, but it’s also just one of the best records of all time, and it obviously shaped a generation and was the blueprint for literally thousands of bands. You can put [the Beatles’] Revolver and the best Rolling Stones record and the best Springsteen record and the best U2 record. It’s just one of those records that everybody has a relationship with; the record was a soundtrack to a specific part in most people’s lives. 

When I think of Appetite, I think of 1987. That record was in your face for like three years. When you go back and listen to it, I remember the first time I heard this. I was flying to New York; I had been in L.A. at the record company. My A&R guy gave me an advance cassette and said, “Check out this record from this band that’s coming out.” It was, like, two months before it came out. And “Welcome to the Jungle” – that was pretty cool. I liked it; it didn’t blow my head off or whatever. But “It’s So Easy”? I’d never heard anything like that. And then when he started, “It’s so easy, so fucking easy,” that whole attitude. I’d never heard anything like that. Then in “Nighttrain,” it had the whole swagger and attitude, and then into “Out Ta Get Me,” with the spite: “They won’t catch me.” The spite and this anger and this attitude and this fucking thing. Then there is “Mr. Brownstone” and “Paradise City.” It was like four or five of those songs – I was literally sitting on the airplane just mouth fucking open and eyes like, “What the fuck did I just hear?” That 20 minutes. Then when I got off the plane – it was a red-eye – I called my guy in L.A. and I was like, “What?! Who is this? Where did this come from?” And that was the beginning of something life-altering.

Iron Maiden, 'The Number of the Beast' (1982)

Iron Maiden, ‘The Number of the Beast’ (1982)

To me, that’s Iron Maiden just literally at their peak. It has the best songs, the best production. It was produced by Martin Birch, who did a lot of the old Deep Purple records and a lot of the Rainbow stuff. It’s just where it peaked. “The Number of the Beast” is probably the best single that they ever released. Obviously, there’s the more commercial single, “Run to the Hills,” which became a big hit. There’s the super deep track, “Hallowed Be Thy Name” – that’s one of those metal epics along with [Judas Priest’s] “Beyond the Realms of Death” and [Deep Purple’s] “Child in Time” that are almost a blueprint for songs like [Metallica’s] “Fade to Black,” “One” and “Welcome Home (Sanitarium).” 

And then there was always cool little stuff. “The Prisoner” has the intro from the TV series, “22 Acacia Avenue” was the continuation of the song “Charlotte the Harlot” from the first album. And this was the first record with Bruce Dickinson, the new singer who took over for Paul Di’Anno and this is where where it all came together: production, songwriting, attitude. It’s also the last album with original drummer Clive Burr, rest in peace. He was a big influence on me. He did a lot of these really, really tough-sounding snare rolls and stuff that was inspiring to me in terms of making the drums not a finesse instrument but more about weight and about, like, attitude – sort of like air-drumming moments. He was sort of on the simpler side, but every single thing he did was super effective.

I’ve always been very open about how Iron Maiden inspired Metallica. We always cite them as a main influence. They were just cooler than other bands. They had cooler record covers, cooler packaging, cooler tour books, cooler T-shirts, cooler stage production. They always seemed like they went above and beyond. They had cooler lighting rigs. They were the most fan-friendly band. I remember my friend got a Christmas card from Iron Maiden and, like, Eddie was on a Christmas card. They had this image thing that was just crazy and really cool and was much more sort of fan-friendly and thorough than any of the other bands.

Judas Priest, 'Unleashed in the East' (1979)

Judas Priest, ‘Unleashed in the East’ (1979)

This is Judas Priest at their early peak. With a lot of harder rock and European bands, there came a point where they wanted to crack the American market and started writing singles – shorter songs – and not necessarily in a bad way, but some started deviating from their point of origin. This is just Judas Priest at their absolute best in a live situation, before the hit singles. 

There’s a lot of deep cuts on it from Sad Wings of Destiny. Obviously, there’s the legendary “Victim of Changes.” It’s just the energy and the chugging riffs and down-picking, like with Deep Purple’s “Highway Star,” in it. They were probably the first band, along with AC/DC, that had two guitars that were playing the same thing. Other bands like Motörhead and Deep Purple had one guitar player and they were doing different things, more of a layering thing, but when it came to Judas Priest, they had the guitarists coming together and playing the same riff. It just doubled up and gave it a heavier, bigger sound and made it thicker and more immersive. And if you take “The Green Manalishi,” that has that heavy-metal, open-E down-picking – these guys were at the forefront. This record came out in 1979 but the whole sound started in ’76, ’77, ’78. These guys were way ahead of the game. This, to me, is still the best album of Judas Priest that you can find.

Mercyful Fate, 'Melissa' (1983)

Mercyful Fate, ‘Melissa’ (1983)

Mercyful Fate were obviously a significant, pivotal band on our radar. They were a big part of shaping Metallica’s sound, and for a lot of people in the hard rock underground, they were one of the bands that got their name around. This was their first proper album. It was a huge, huge, huge influence on a lot of the next generation of bands, like ourselves, and they were also great friends and became partners in crime. We rehearsed in their rehearsal studio, we did shows together, and we actually did a medley of all their songs for one of [Metallica’s] “garage” albums. They had two guitars, lots of harmonies and musical adventures – some of the songs are really long. There’s a song called “Satan’s Fall” that’s gotta be at least 10 minutes long, or something.

Their concerts were crazy. [Frontman] King Diamond would, like, recite the Lord’s Prayer backwards before a song, and for one of the songs, they would have some goose feathers and do all of this ritualistic stuff, which King Diamond was super passionate about it. He’s a super cool guy. You know, we were just really into the music. It was just so fresh and so original and we loved those guys. They were really, really like brothers-in-arms for many years.

Motorhead, 'Overkill' (1979)

Motörhead, ‘Overkill’ (1979)

I started hearing about Motörhead in the spring of 1979. I was in Copenhaagen, Denmark, and I went down through the local record store. And I asked if I could hear a couple songs from this Motörhead band, and then the double-bass drumming of Phil Taylor started the song “Overkill.” I had never heard anything that sounded like that. It blew my head off. And then that kind of energy continued – it was so raw. I’d never heard anybody sing like Lemmy, and it was this fusion of, like, punk and rock and metal, and it was crazy. It just added to an energy to it and was completely over the top with these almost exaggerated, cartoon-like lyrics. And the consistency from “Overkill” to “Stay Clean” – I mean “Stay Clean” was a live staple for years – “I Won’t Pay Your Price,” “No Class,” which was almost straight out of a ZZ Top playbook, “Damage Case” which [Metallica] covered, and longer, deeper tracks like “Metropolis” and “Limb From Limb.” It’s just insane. Motörhead was the one band, where no matter whether you were into rock, prog, pop, punk, fucking, I don’t know, ska … you could agree that Motörhead was just the coolest. And, to me, the definitive Motörhead album is Overkill.

Rage Against the Machine, 'The Battle of Los Angeles' (1999)

Rage Against the Machine, 'The Battle of Los Angeles' (1999)

Rage Against the Machine, ‘The Battle of Los Angeles’ (1999)

With Rage Against the Machine, every one of their records is, to me, just essential. On their two first
records, there’s a youthful and incredibly
antagonistic energy, but in terms of the craft of songs
and streamlining everything that this band stands for in my mind, this is where
it all maximized and this is where it came together at the most potent level. 

The Battle of Los Angeles just sounds so fucking authentic. There’s no filter. It feels so instinctive, impulsive and from the gut. Until that time, a lot of hard-rock records were very labored over, including our own. A lot of work was put into them, and this just sounds like four people, playing music in a room, ready to fucking take on the world. And the consistency is just amazing. There’s “Testify,” “Calm Like a Bomb,” one of the great deep tracks, “Sleep Now in the Fire” and some deeper, deeper cuts like “Voice of the Voiceless” – it’s just insane. And when Zack [de la Rocha] is yelling at you, it sounds like he’s like in your face, just talking to you. All great records have that thing where you feel like it’s for you, like it’s talking directly to you.

System of a Down, 'Toxicity' (2001)

System of a Down, ‘Toxicity’ (2001)

The first System record came out and it obviously had a lot of attitude. It was a new kind of sound, and Rick [Rubin, producer] was doing it. You could hear that the music came from different roots and different influences, and I didn’t know they were Armenian at that point; you could just hear different things. And then when Toxicity came out, which was obviously the second record, when you heard “Chop Suey!” that was just amazing.

When that hit the radio on MTV and then the title track, “Toxicity,” and “Aerials” and all the rest of them and I started getting into the record and heard “They’re trying to build a prison … for you and me to live in,” it was just… ah! It was political, it was crazy, it was kooky, it was energetic, it was incredibly, from a songwriting point of view, well-crafted. It was very inspirational on what we did, and I loved the whole thing about how the songs were so short and to the point and that was something we never had a lot of luck with, and it’s just one of the all-time great records.

UFO, 'Strangers in the Night' (1979)

UFO, ‘Strangers in the Night’ (1979)

This is almost the definitive hard-rock live album. With a lot of the bands in the Seventies, the introduction to them for me was through the live album. Then you would go back and seek out the studio records. Labels would encourage bands like Judas Priest, Blue Öyster Cult and UFO to release live albums very early on in their careers after four or five records and they became these definitive double albums from the mid-to-late Seventies. A lot of these bands were encouraged to release live albums very early on in their careers. It was a way to keep the momentum going. 

Strangers in the Night is that live album for UFO, and it opens with “Natural Thing,” and just goes through a few hits like “Only You Can Rock Me” and “Doctor Doctor.” “Love To Love” is also one of those songs that falls in under the hard-rock-ballad blueprint, and you’ve got “Rock Bottom,” which has, like, a seven-minute guitar solo from Michael Schenker. For a lot of the metal guitar players, Kirk Hammett included, Michael Schenker is one of those unsung heroes that never quite penetrated to the outside world the way that Randy Rhoads or Jimmy Page or whoever did. But for musicians and peers, Michael Schenker is one of the all-time favorites for a lot of people. And there’s just a vibe on this album, you feel like you’re at the gig. Obviously, that’s the best kind of live album.

Warrior Soul, 'The Space-Age Playboys' (1994)

Warrior Soul, ‘The Space Age Playboys’ (1994)

Warrior Soul started off on Geffen Records and had the same management as us. We played a bunch of shows with them. They were dropped by Geffen, and this record came out independently in ’94.

If you put on “Rocket Engines,” it fucking starts frenetic – it’s heavy, it’s punky, it’s energetic. Kory Clarke, the lead singer, spits out word after word, attitude after attitude, memorable lyric line after lyric line, and it never lets up for a fucking hour or however long the record is. It just does not stop.

On the early records, he got a little political. He’s talking about Native Americans, he’s talking about Charlie Manson, and he’s talking about the oppressed. But on this record, it almost got punky. It was this weird fusion between punky and a little early New York glam rock, almost like [New York] Dolls, Stooges type of thing. If you’ve not heard this record, I would encourage you to find this record and check it out as soon as possible.

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