SputStaff Top 10: Metallica songs

Published: May 23, 2023

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It is 2023, and SputStaff is back. The time is right now and the occasion is (checks notes) the release of the latest Metallica album-that-now-exists 72 Seasons! We did our best to get inspired from that record’s impetus and momentum and, uh, given that it’s now been out for over a month, we’ll leave it up to you to decide how easy a feat this was! In all sincerity, though, practically all of us jive with ‘tallica to some degree or another and in terms of ballots alone, this might have been the most full-handed collaboration of the lot. Please enjoy probably the least controversial selection of Metallica classics of all time (and righteously so!), freshly critiqued for your consumption.

Honorable Mentions:

15. Motorbreath

14. And Justice For All

13. Fight Fire With Fire

12. Orion

11. Ride the Lightning

Sputnik Staff Top 10 Metallica Songs:

(10) “Blackened”

from …And Justice For All (1988)

In an alternate universe, “Blackened” is the kickoff to an imperial second era of classic thrash; in ours, it’s the last time Metallica ever managed to out-Metallica themselves. …And Justice for All needed to instantly satiate the ravenous appetite of a metal world that had never been more united behind a single band and never would be again, rising to the technical challenge of death metal while proving they had the mass appeal to keep conquering the rock mainstream. That they actually kinda pulled it off for a hot minute is all the more impressive for how clearly they were bearing the burden. Check that verse- when the vocal line comes in, Hetfield is still in the pocket of the opening riff, singing against the heavier groove it switches into and threading the verse proper into the rest of the song. How friggin’ tricky must that have been to puzzle together and get down pat? And that solo bridging the breakdown with the closing 100-second blitz? No wonder they spent the whole next decade making basic easy hard rock- surely, they needed to kick back for a bit after pouring so much thought into every little change-up and bit of connective tissue here! Say what you will about the production (goodness knows I have), but infusing songwriting so concerted and meticulous with some true-blue m/ firepower and a barn-burner of a hook to boot is EXACTLY what made ‘Tallica the biggest, baddest metal band of the 80s. – Kompys2000

(9) “The Unforgiven”

from The Black Album (1991)

“The Unforgiven” is a Metallica ballad, but it also isn’t a typical Metallica ballad. While “Fade to Black”, “One”, or not-in-this-list “Nothing Else Matters” structure themselves around a melodic verse and a heavy chorus, “The Unforgiven” chooses to do the exact opposite. It thus gives the track a particular spot within Metallica’s discography – so special that the band decided to craft two unnecessary covers. But the unique character of “The Unforgiven” also lies in how vocal delivery and lyrical matter match the loud/soft approach.

The heavy verses are delivered in the typical Hetfield rasp and deal with the character’s constant battle with others makes him vulnerable. On the contrary, the chorus is sung in a despairing cry, showing how the character decides to make himself miserable by not forgiving himself. In the end, nobody is forgiven: neither his enemies who made his life painful nor himself for not letting anything pure show through his action. That’s why the pronouns are important here (and anywhere else really): the verse mention “he” and “them”, while the chorus is sung from the first-person perspective, showcasing who the narrator points his finger at.

The cherry on the cake is that this song apparently echoes Hetfield’s childhood. Using personal trauma, tight songwriting, an instantly iconic riff, and lyrics that could apply to literally anyone are critical elements of a recipe Metallica has mastered for decades and a good reason why we made this top in the first place. – dedex

(8) “Damage, Inc.”

from Master of Puppets (1986)

In April 2011, Sputnikmusic Staff reviewer Xenophones wrote that Sigur Ros broke down doors we didn’t even really know existed on their 1999 opus Ágætis byrjun. Silly chap. While Metallica at that time were just months away from becoming the table, Xeno’s summary belies the fact that they had been the door ever since the swoonworthy riff on Bach’s “Komm, süßer Tod, komm selge Ruh” with which the prodigious Cliff Burton opened “Damage, Inc.” way back in 1986. If you note the 12-13 year intervals between each of those dates, you’ll no doubt appreciate that it is no less than a contrivance of fate that we are here paying tribute to “Damage, Inc.” in 2023.

Quite right too – this shit’s a legendary slapper and it has taken me an embarrassing length of time to come up with anything more to say on it, but I think the key takeaway to that end goes as follows: I’ve realised that I enjoy “Damage, Inc.” far more at the end of a full spin through Master of Puppets than as a standalone listen; while that glorious intro is thrash metal’s version of a luxury sauna and the bridge riff will forever cripple horses come rain come snow, the Main Deal here is how raucously, how – maybe – gleefully Hetfield lets off steam as a lyricist after six songs so thoughtfully constructed around the mechanics of power/manipulation/adoration, harrowing first-person character portraits and putatively horrifying cosmic horror fanfiction. “Damage, Inc.” is not thoughtful, it is harrowing for its adrenaline rather than its subject matter and, at least in my book, it’s far too pulpish to be anything close to genuinely horrifying. If the album’s eponymous Master is an abstract yet authentic face of evil, the corporation in question on this track is an absurd caricature presented with as close as we get from heyday ‘tallica to outright tongue-in-cheek (slamming through / don’t fuck with razorback, huh).

This is less a problem than it is impetus for a fresh, arguably fiercer show of irreverence – “Damage, Inc.” throws caution to the wind and tears Metallica’s entire audience a new one, even today. It’s one of the metal songs not to play around a puritanical parent with a nose for hellfire (equal testament to the track’s levels of death-hell-destruction as to the clarity of its presentation) and a thoroughly perfect closer. Do these qualities need to carry the same weight on their own terms? It’s a classic end to a classic record – that’s more than most tracks can aspire to. – johnnyoftheWell

(7) “Battery”

from Master of Puppets (1986)

Pro tip: don’t ever sign up to write about a band that’s been influencing the world longer than you’ve been alive. It’s.. a task; you’ll feel silly and insignificant for even attempting so. That being said, “Battery”, aka the best opening act of Metallica’s career, essentially justifies itself. The opening strums are thoughtful and earthy: it’s as if they found an old, dust-caked acoustic guitar locked away in a basement and it just happened to still be in tune. We all know what happens next: “Battery” relentlessly hammers the listener with some of the most compact riffs and melodiez to be found on Master of Puppets – or any of their albums, really. While some of Metallica’s most cherished moments are found in their gloomy and emotive ballads – certainly deserved – nothing can match “Battery” when it comes to a raw and uncompromising thrash sound. The only thing that makes the anxious instrumental assault even better is Mr. Hetfield himself. Say what you must about the man, but his war cries throughout “Battery” thrive on a level of intimidation and pure rage that can only come from someone in their prime. What we have here is straight-up Metallica at their most sinister, and I’m not sure who in their right mind would want to get in the ring with this monster. – Atari

(6) “One”

from …And Justice For All (1988)

By the time Metallica released “One” as the third single of their four full length release, …And Justice For All, the band had already made a tradition including what could be roughly described as a “ballad”. Hetfield and co. had a pretty twisted way of writing these, as they usually involved long and elaborated progressions that became more and more violent as the song progressed, and they usually dealt with dark themes of either madness (Welcome Home (Sanitarium)) or suicide and death (Fade to Black). “One” took that even further. The song was built on a very unconventional drum pattern and the way James Hetfield weaved his vocals into the song was just as bleak and crude as the reality that it depicted. In terms of immediate impact on sales and shock value, which contributed greatly to their reputation as one of the greatest heavy metal bands alive, “One” was a here-and-after for Metallica.

First of all, it won them a Grammy, which at the time was something unconceivable for a metal band, and second, it was the first Metallica song to be accompanied by a music video. Needless to say, the World War I themed banger absolutely dominated the MTV after it was unleashed into the world and I have myself fresh memories of staring at the TV speechless while the gruesome scenes of a mutilated soldier begging for death, which were taken directly from the movie “Johnny Got His Gun”, were enhanced by the merciless song that the band was playing. The way the movie was juxtaposed with this song was something never seen until then, and for better or worse they might have been so unsure it would fly that the video ended up with three different versions, also a fair consequence of choosing a seven-minute song as a single. But what I clearly remember as a kid was being blown away by that middle section, you know the one. That machinegun riff shredding the strings with Lars Ulrich’s double bass in unison and Kirk Hammett’s unforgettable solo right after managed to create a sub-genre all by itself and being exposed to such an inspired burst of brutality have birthed many a metalhead. Hell, I bet it still does nowadays. – Dewinged

(5) “For Whom the Bell Tolls”

from Ride the Lightning (1984)

“For Whom The Bell Tolls” is a perfect song, and maybe my chief contender for the title of “greatest metal song ever”. I’m not sure what Hemingway would’ve thought of heavy metal, but “For Whom The Bell Tolls” does a solid job as a sonic incarnation of his novel exploring the Spanish Civil War – full of hypermasculine badassery, yes, but also contemplative and deadly-serious, with lyrics scratching at the surface of the surreality of preparing to meet a violent end. “For Whom The Bell Tolls” might not have the speed expected from a thrash classic, but every single note is purposeful and in its place, coming together as an implacable force of nature. Time marches on, yes, but nearly four decades after release, “For Whom The Bell Tolls” is still as vital as ever. – Sunnyvale

(4) “Creeping Death”

from Ride the Lightning (1984)

I needed to relisten to a fair bit of Metallica for this list. To me, they were cherished favorites at some point around age 16 and have mostly been occasional drinking music afterwards; it’s been a lot of fun revisiting back-in-the-day favorites (Trapped Under Ice!) and discovering new love for old songs (Blackened!). I did not, however, need to relisten to “Creeping Death” to know it was my favorite Metallica song, because I already listen to it about once or twice a week and I know every note. I relistened to it anyway, because even after nearly 40 years, “Creeping Death” is still THEE ULTIMATE face-melting blood-pumping can-crushing metal headbanger, period. It is their best riffs and it is their best chorus and it is Kirk Hammett’s best solo and it is every single teenager screaming their head off in a mosh pit for the first time. For six and a half minutes, it never puts a foot wrong. Forget having to say outright that “fuel is pumping engines”, this thing is fuel and engine alike. Yes, open with that fanfare, let the listener’s imagination run wild before the intro riff magnetizes their attention. Yes, shout the first word of each line in each verse, get the people amped! YES, break it down for just a moment, not too long now, let them chant, die! Die! Die! Die! Die!  – Kompys2000

(3) “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”

from Master of Puppets (1988)

I’m going to frame the entire context of this blurb around a true crime documentary, which may be a terrible or brilliant idea – I’m pushing through the witching hour here, gang – but for this listener, each ominous and melancholic note of the sprawling “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” reeks of death and anguish. Thanks to its chilling effect in Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hill, an already exceptional tune is made even more raw and powerful. The 1996 emmy-winning documentary was directed by Joe Berlinger: a Metallica fan at heart whose perfect lightbulb moment led to this flawless pairing. As if an eerie midtempo track partially inspired by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest wasn’t intriguing enough, “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” is made even more vivid and depressing on the heels of the film. It made the documentary better, and the documentary made the song better.

Now, I realize “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” doesn’t need improvement by any means. It’s unquestionably a classic on its own merit, with some of the most haunting guitar tones Metallica have ever constructed. I’m all about atmosphere, and there’s no way you can convince me this isn’t the band’s strongest moment in that regard. It’s brooding to the very core. Nevertheless, after years on the seemingly eternal quest of whether Ride the Lightning or Master of Puppets is king, I don’t even have to think twice anymore. It’s a bit wild how a documentary could give me so much more appreciation for Metallica’s vision here, but in the years since my first viewing, its potency in that aspect has only been solidified. When I listen to this song, I still can’t help but wonder about the families affected or the inhumane loss of life portrayed in Paradise Lost. I suppose this makes sense. After all, despite some deceptive dynamics throughout – a ripping guitar solo, a chorus of grooves ‘n grunts – the song paints an unflinching portrait into the darkest corners of the mind. Nothing like a glimpse or two of the unthinkable to keep you up at night. – Atari

(2) “Fade to Black”

from Ride the Lightning (1984)

Amongst Metallica fan favourites, “Fade To Black” deserves its spot. It is certainly a favourite. No doubt. But it’s weird though right? Covering a song written before you were born—its impact and its reach far beyond the scope of whatever personal choice this individual could put behind it. All well, here goes. It’s a ballad, it has a solo. In fact, it has one of the world’s best solos. It is iconic, featuring in almost every live set that Metallica has ever played and to that effect is a nostalgic bench holder for live fans everywhere (including me). Yet, “Fade To Black” is a sombre, dark reminder that not everything is rainbows, that not everything goes to plan. Maybe, just maybe you’ll have your stuff stolen, maybe just maybe you’ll drink a lot of alcohol that doesn’t belong to you. Or maybe just maybe, you’ll write one of the best metal ballads in existence and influence multiple generations and end up on a Sputnikmusic [dot] com list while you’re at it. – Gnocchi

(1) “Master of Puppets”

from Master of Puppets (1988)

On “Master of Puppets,” James Hetfield exposes the subconscious manipulation of the people from the perspective not of the people nor of some neutral observing third party but of the manipulator. Part of what makes the title track to Metallica’s absolutely titanic 1986 junior effort [i]Master of Puppets[/i] so appealing is Hetfield’s simultaneous thrill at the task of disclosing deep social-metaphysical injustices and at being the bad guy, threatening his audience directly if lyrics are to believed, and why shouldn’t they be when the musical backdrop is this convincing?

As per its status as the Best Metallica Song Ever, “Master of Puppets” kinda has everything: not only the lyrical conceit of a puppetmaster/villain/musician lovingly presiding over every single one of his rapt puppet/victim/listener’s moves, but also the crescendoes and detours and chugging riffs and wailing solos that render us puppetlike, victims of metaphysical battery. Those of us who know a song like “Master of Puppets” exists are truly content only when we know we’re within a ten-minute window of being able to go, “MASTER. MASTER.” (fists slamming in rhythm on the table of the bar) “MASTER OF PUPPETS I’M PULLING YOUR STRIIIIIINGS” (weirdly extending my arms to do the Usain Bolt point-at-the-sky pose while taking up two treadmills at the gym) “TWISTING YOUR MIND AND SMASHING YOUR DREEEEEAMS” (saying “WHAT. Hold on WHAT” to the McDonalds cashier with my BlueTooth earbuds in and playing “Master of Puppets” as she tries earnestly, hopelessly to take my order) “BLINDED BY ME YOU CAN’T SEE A THIIIIING” (sooooooooo drunk at karaoke gotta do master of puppets) “JUST CALL MY NAME CUZ I’LL HEAR YOU SCREEEEEAM” (walking the city streets like a light stealing under water so that its ripples and the reeds in it and the minnows balancing themselves, and the sudden silent trout are all lit up hanging, trembling) “MASTER. MASTER.” (fists slamming in rhythm on the table of the bar), and only then. So, yes, James, brag away: by what name do you call that elicitation of a primal response if not mastery? – robertsona

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