Metallica have cemented themselves as one of the greatest heavy metal bands of all time, despite their best efforts to undermine that standing with some questionable mid-career releases. The fact that a handful of lousy albums wasn’t enough to destroy their legacy speaks to the indelibility of their best work. Here is the Hard Times’ definitive ranking of all of Metallica’s studio albums.
10) St. Anger (2003)
Much of St. Anger was recorded on a Tiger Electronics Talkboy due to producer Bob Rock selling his recording gear to pay off his staggering gambling debt. The resulting cut-and-paste ProTools riff salad has rightfully been the subject of much derision. The star of the show is Lars Ulrich’s snare drum sound, which works best as a conceptual art piece that interrogates the idea of “What even is music, anyhow?”
Play It Again: “Frantic” I guess.
Skip It: “All Within My Hands”. They stuck this nearly nine minute stinker at the end for a reason.
9) Reload (1997)
You know your neighbor with the truck nuts and Punisher skull tat? This is his favorite Metallica album. Fans hoping for a return to Metallica’s classic thrash roots were turned off by the continued Godsmack-ification of the band. However, people who had waited six long years to hear the next chapter of the “Unforgiven” song cycle rejoiced.
Play It Again: The opening minute of “Devil’s Dance” might make you think you’re listening to 70s Judas Priest.
Skip It: The languid dirge “Carpe Diem Baby”—unless your Ambien prescription has run out.
8) Load (1996)
This is absolutely the best Metallica record to feature blood and cum on its cover. Load instigated a long-running debate among fans: Did the band start sucking because they cut their hair, or did they cut their hair because they started sucking? Compare this album’s average BPM of 118 to Ride the Lightning’s 166 to get a feel for the slog you’re in for.
Play It Again: “2 X 4” is a pretty enjoyable pass at Kyuss-style desert rock.
Skip It: “Mama Said”, unless you’re a sadist who just has to know what countrified butt-rock sounds like.
7) Death Magnetic (2008)
This course-correcting album was a refreshing return to real production quality after St. Anger’s dismal democore digression. It is, however, so over-compressed that its waveform looks like a stick of butter. Having shed the Wormtongue-like influence of producer Bob Rock, the band seems revitalized—they even let Kirk Hammett play solos again. Plus, Hetfield always sounds best when he’s properly pissed off.
Play It Again: “All Nightmare Long” features some of their best chugging in ages.
Skip It: “The End of the Line” for cribbing a riff from Pearl Jam’s “Animal”.
6) Metallica (1991)
The so-called Black Album is fucking sick when you’re 14, sneaking butts behind the Mobil station and have never heard any of Metallica’s earlier albums. The tepid hard rock sound that would characterize the next decade of their career shows up for the first time here, but there’s still just enough metal bleeding through to make it matter. The balls on these guys to release a black album cover just seven years after “This is Spinal Tap” is pretty impressive.
Play It Again: “Holier Than Thou”
Skip It: “Don’t Tread on Me” because now it just makes me think of those snake flags that have been appropriated by MAGA fascists.
5) Hardwired… to Self-Destruct (2016)
The band hasn’t sounded this vital and urgent in years, hearkening back to their early work, yet injecting enough innovative ideas to sound fresh. In order to channel the anger of their earlier work, producer Greg Fidelman told the band to think about how much they’d owe in capital gains taxes that year. Unfortunately, Kirk Hammett lost his phone containing hundreds of song ideas before the band convened to write the album, so who knows what riffs we missed out on. Maybe that dope should’ve shelled out a few bucks a month for iCloud.
Play It Again: “Atlas, Rise!” is a proper old-school thrash epic.
Skip It: “Am I Savage?” just makes me want to listen to the superior “Am I Evil?” instead.
4) Kill ‘Em All (1983)
With their debut album, Metallica managed to perfectly blend the evil riffs of NWOBHM with punk’s frenetic energy. If you’ve spent any time around a bassist, chances are you’ve suffered through them showing you they can play “(Anesthesia) – Pulling Teeth” when clearly they can’t. In the pursuit of authenticity, photographer Gary Heard allegedly had to bludgeon several unfortunate drifters to death with a mallet before getting that perfect cover shot.
Play It Again: “Jump in the Fire”
Skip It: “Hit the Lights”. The music rules, but songs about how much you rock don’t belong on debut albums.
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3) …And Justice for All (1988)
The last truly great Metallica album is also the last to feature contributions from late bassist Cliff Burton, but that’s probably just a coincidence, right? The band did new bassist Jason Newsted dirty not only by burying his musical contribution in the mix, but also by drawing dicks on his face when he’d fall asleep on the tour bus.
Play It Again: “Blackened”
Skip It: “To Live is to Die” is a nice tribute to Burton, but acts as a speed bump in the albums’ sequencing.
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2) Master of Puppets (1986)
Your zoomer niece loves the titular song due to Stranger Things, but couldn’t be bothered to listen to the rest of this masterpiece of an album. Come to think of it, why did Eddie Munson have to play guitar standing on the roof of the trailer, when he and Dustin could’ve just run cables up to the speakers and stayed safely inside? This amazing collection of metal bangers also features the band’s dopest instrumental, “Orion”.
Play It Again: “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”
Skip It: “The Thing That Should Not Be.” The band is more effective when dealing with themes of mental torment rather than cosmic horror.
1) Ride the Lightning (1984)
Coming in at number one is Metallica’s triumphant sophomore album, showcasing the band at their technical and creative peak. I’d hate to be accused of gatekeeping, but if you’ve never sped down a desolate highway in the middle of the night after “borrowing” your grandmother’s ‘87 Pontiac Grand Am, blasting “Trapped Under Ice” and burning your arm with a cigarette to stay awake, I’m not sure you can call yourself a Metallica fan.
Play It Again: Yes.
Skip It: How dare you?