“One” really needs no introduction; if you’re reading this list you likely know thissong. Still, it was the first commercially successful Metallica song and was helped along by the band’s first for the track. Another one of those Metallica songs that starts off nice, slow, and clean before moving into a frenzy of distortion and speed, “One” certainly introduced many listeners to how talented Metallica actually was. Thematically, “One” is based on the Dalton Trumbo novel Johnny Got His Gun, and the music video features scenes from the movie based on the book.
No.4 For Whom The Bell Tolls
Wait. Hold the presses. These guys actually read? It’s true; “For Whom the Bell Tolls” was inspired in part by the Ernest Hemingway novel of the same name. Also true, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is an unlikely sports anthem. As a work of pure metal genius, with an amazing bass intro (that’s right, it’s not a guitar), most readers are going to scream bloody murder for not seeing this in the Number One position. But it’s not, and that’s because of its too popular. Here’s where you say that that’s not a justifiable reason, but when AARP members know the song, it’s lost some of its value.
No.3 Creeping Death
Another concert anthem from Metallica, one of the few bands that can get 50,000 rabid fans to chant “Die, die, die” for five minutes, “Creeping Death,” as it discusses the Plague of the Firstborn, is probably one of the more cerebrally written songs in their catalog—at least lyrically. Vocally, the influence from The New Wave of British Heavy Metal is crystal clear and this is one of the rare Metallica tracks to feature a demonic backup vocal. Musically, phrasing doesn’t get much better and it almost seems like everyone else is there to back up Lars as he carries the melody of the song. Of course there are the standard guitar solos, but nothing that stands out more than the heavy riffing throughout.
No.2 Welcome Home (Sanitarium)
Off of Metallica’s third album, Master of Puppets, the last one to feature dearly departed Cliff Burton on bass guitar, “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” is a favorite of many. And as a slowly building, epic opus clocking in at 6:28 it should be. Starting out with some harmonics and a lullaby of a guitar intro, which also serves as the main riff, we’re introduced to drums and a guitar solo in less than a minute. James Hetfield’s vocals come in clean and melodic, setting a calm stage for making a parallelism to a heavily sedated sanitarium patient. Literally, the lyrics are about being trapped inside a sanitarium, but countless other interpretations could be made. At about 1:50 we get a brief taste of the intensity to come with Hetfield’s growl and a heavy guitar riff. The song meanders about for a while until we hit the halfway point, which is the point we all wait for, and even then it’s still a teasing riff. Our rocks don’t get off until about 4:17, when Hetfield chants, “Mirror stares back hard, kill, it’s such a friendly word/Seems the only way for reaching out again,” and Kirk comes in with a blistering guitar solo.
No.1 All Nightmare Long
What the fuck? A song from Death Magnetic in the Number One spot? Get over it. Although they once again followed Megadeth’s lead in changing musical direction, prior to the release of Death Magnetic there was talk that Metallica was returning to its thrash roots and no song on the album proves that truth more than “All Nightmare Long.” Plus, it proves that these old timers still have it. Opening with a nice bass sound from Trujillo and a steady roll from Lars, “All Nightmare Long” moves into some cymbal crashing and some stop-and-go power chords to build anticipation before coming to a complete stop. After the stop we’re treated to some muted tremolo picking and then some machine-gun riffing while Lars continues to build intensity with his skins. It takes until 1:20 before we’re introduced to the song’s actually melody and about 1:45 before we get any vocals from Hetfield, and it doesn’t disappoint. The vocal phrasing at 2:25 (the first chorus) is nothing but amazing to hear. We don’t even get a guitar solo until about 4:40, and though it starts off rather simple, by its end you get the sense that Kirk has been locked away in a closet for a decade with one thing on his mind—to attack the frets and record a blistering solo.
Honorable Mention Orion
OK, maybe we’re cheating here by including an honorable mention, but is a list of the best Metallica songs really complete without an instrumental? “Orion,” though heavy, has a progressive feel to it and the spacey interlude in the middle with the bass solo may remind listeners of Pink Floyd. Basically, the track is structured around four solos: the bass solo mentioned and three guitar solos. “Orion,” however, is one of those songs that should be used to shove in the faces of those upper-crust snobs who say that metal isn’t music because this song follows their precious classical ABA structure.