Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Top Ten Things: Megadeth Albums, Ranked

Welcome to a special extended edition of Top Ten Things, here at Enuffa.com, where I rank stuff.

Today it's the 35-plus-year album catalog of speed metal titans Megadeth!  That's right, I'll be ranking all fifteen albums released by the former Metallica founding member and his revolving door of backing musicians - of the Big Four thrash bands, Megadeth has been the most prolific, despite their colleagues having a two-year head start.  Man, back in high school and college I lived for Megadeth, holding them higher even than Metallica for several years.  I got my first taste of the band in early 1990 with the purchase of Peace Sells...But Who's Buying? and from then I was hooked (in mouth).  Dave Mustaine was my guitar (and hair) hero, and I spent way too much time copying his playing style (my voice at the time was more suited to Hetfield's so I became a wannabe amalgam of the two).  The release of a new Megadeth album became a long-awaited event every couple years and it was a common occurrence for me to purchase the album and give it multiple listens on the first day.  Sadly as with all 80s metal bands the mid-to-late 90s were not kind, and Megadeth lost a lot of their cool factor around this time.  They experimented heavily with different sounds and styles with varying results, before returning to a traditional metal timbre in the early aughts.  But while most Megadeth fans fully welcomed the band's thrashy 21st century output, I found myself quite underwhelmed by most of it; to me it sounded like a copycat band trying to recreate Megadeth's signature sound rather than Megadeth returning to form.  So be warned, the bottom half of this list is heavily skewed toward Megadeth's recent work.  But enough blathering on, let's get after it....

15. Endgame

This album got a lot of praise on its release (and ever since) but I think it's probably the band's worst album.  Yes it's heavy and yes it's full of thrashy riff shredding, but Dave apparently had somehow lost the ability to write a vocal melody in the mid-2000s, as nearly all of his vocal parts on this album involve shoehorning lyrics obviously written without a clear melody in mind.  And rather than hone them it sounds like he just slapped on whatever meandering melodic idea would fit the number of syllables.  Aside from the choruses of "1320'," "Head Crusher," "How the Story Ends," and "The Right to Go Insane," there isn't a strong vocal idea on this album, and Dave's range here is nonexistent; when did he lose his upper register?  Couple that with technically impressive but joyless instrumentals (I feel like nearly every lead guitarist/drummer combination since Friedman and Menza has been largely devoid of personality in their playing), and Endgame is a chore to sit through, like a Megadeth tribute band trying to approximate a Megadeth album.  4.5/10

Key Tracks: "1320'," "Head Crusher," "How the Story Ends"

14. Dystopia

Megadeth's most recent album may be technically really impressive and convey a bit more enthusiasm than the handful of records before it, but aside from "The Emperor" and "Post-American World" there isn't a memorable song in earshot.  The songwriting is simply not there, nor is Dave's voice up to the task of matching the music's aggression and complexity.  I was into just about every song until his vocals came up.  Also at a certain point the whole "Everything's going to hell," conspiracy-minded right-wing subject matter feels disingenuous coming from a guy who's been rich and famous for the last thirty years - what exactly are you rebelling against at this point?  Lyrical gripes aside, if I want to hear a recent metal album that's both aggressive and bursting with technical wizardry I'll pop in Haken's Vector, not this.  5/10

Key Tracks: "The Emperor," "Dystopia," "Conquer or Die!"

13. United Abominations

The beginning of Dave's shrinking vocal range occurred on this 2007 comeback album of sorts.  Several of the songs on this one could've been pretty strong but are hampered by murky, uninteresting melodies due to Dave's newly misplaced ability to screech.  His low-register growl makes for really dull vocal parts and it robs the songs of their urgency.  There are a few standouts on this album though.  "Never Walk Alone" is an energetic tune where Dave actually approaches his old range, "United Abominations" is a pretty epic, well-written song with some innovative riffing and a memorable chorus (despite its frankly rancid messaging), and the remake of "A Tout le Monde," unnecessary though it may be, is a reminder of a better Megadeth era.  But I wouldn't consider any of the good songs here anywhere near the band's best work; it's telling that one of the album's standouts (its first single no less) is a remake.  5.5/10

Key Tracks: "Never Walk Alone," "United Abominations," "A Tout le Monde (Set Me Free)"

12. Th1rt3en

After two albums designed to prove Megadeth could still shred like a motherfucker, Dave took things down a notch on Th1rt3en, going for slightly more straightforward song structures and a bit more rock hookiness.  This album has plenty of thrash heaviness without trying to sound like Megadeth can still hang with the super-extreme bands of today.  Most of the songs have a memorable chorus and plenty of riffage to go around.  "Sudden Death" and "Public Enemy No. 1" are a good blend of explosively-produced metal with a hook-based songwriting approach, while "Fast Lane" and "Wrecker" bring to mind early 80s Judas Priest.  A teenage rebellion trope like "You hate the way I wear my clothes" from "Whose Life (Is It Anyways?)" sounds bloody silly coming from a 50-year-old though, the same way WWE's DeGeneration X revivals in 2006 and 2009 came off as phony and tired.  Neck-and-neck with The World Needs a Hero as the longest Megadeth album, this one overstays its welcome a little - by the time "Deadly Nightshade" rolls around Dave's stock riffing gets a bit tedious, as does his one-octave vocal range.  6.5/10

Key Tracks: "Sudden Death," "Public Enemy No. 1," "Black Swan" 

11. The World Needs a Hero

The beginning of Megadeth's return to a traditional metal sound, TWNAH is a very mixed bag.  At the time Dave described it as the first step in righting the ship - when you begin to turn the rudder it takes time for the ship to actually turn.  The album is crisply produced and has plenty of riffage harkening back to Megadeth's salad days, but some of the songs are awkwardly executed, such as the title track, the cringey "1000 Times Goodbye" (Holy jeez the little telephone exchanges are embarrassingly bad), and the overly long, rather whiny homage to Diamondhead's "Am I Evil?" entitled "When," which at 9:14 is by far the band's longest-ever song.  On top of his weakest vocal performances in several albums, Dave also relies a lot on dramatically-read spoken-word verses which hasn't really worked for him since "Sweating Bullets" and comes off as a tad on the lazy side.  However "Burning Bridges," "Moto Psycho" and "Return to Hangar" are strong metal offerings, while the quirky "Losing My Senses" and the Ozzy-esque ballad "Promises" show Dave still stretching his legs a bit, plus a few songs have some nice orchestral touches.  Drummer Jimmy DeGrasso and especially new lead guitarist Al Pitrelli offer very capable performances, but overall TWNAH serves as a faint echo of the band's more effective output.  I mostly like the LESS conventional songs on this one.  7/10

Key Tracks: "Moto Psycho," "Burning Bridges," "Return to Hangar"

10. Super Collider

Yes, Super Collider sounds like an aging metal dude putting out aging metal dude songs, but at least this simplified, hook-based songwriting works for Dave at this stage of his career.  His vocal limitations are hidden considerably more effectively on songs like "Burn!" and the title track than on the really extreme-sounding Dystopia material.  There's a bit of an early 80s Judas Priest/classic hard rock vibe about a few of the songs and this suits 50-plus Dave Mustaine much better than trying to get super aggressive; he sounds like an elder statesman here, and that's okay.  Of Megadeth's last five albums, this is the only one I'm moved to pop in once in a while; the songwriting has a self-assuredness that's missing from his other recent work.  "Dance in the Rain" is really bad though.  Like, cringeworthy.  7/10

Key Tracks: "Super Collider," "Forget to Remember," "Don't Turn Your Back"

9. Risk

Ya know what?  Risk got a metric fuckton of shit when it came out (I think every Megadeth ranking I've ever seen has this at the bottom), but this album has aged pretty darn well.  It's no metal record; hell, it can scarcely even be called a Megadeth record.  More like a Dave Mustaine solo project to get out some of the ideas that would never fit on a Megadeth album.  I know this wasn't the impetus for this approach so much as trying to lean further in the direction Dave and manager Bud Prager had taken on the successful Cryptic Writings, but the enthusiastic experimentation present on this album to me is ten times more appealing than Megadeth's recent spate of "going through the motions" albums.  The approach here is not unlike Anthrax's eighth album, where they just said "Fuck it, nothing we do in 1998 is gonna sell under this moniker, let's just have fun with it."  Outside the box songwriting, combined with strong vocals and lush production, make Risk a thoroughly intriguing detour in Megadeth's catalog.  I consider "The Doctor is Calling" and "Ecstasy" two of the band's unusual gems.  Yes there are some throwaway tunes on this one, and no, you're not gonna find any real thrash-style riffing, but put aside what you think a Megadeth album should sound like and just listen to the songs.  This is a perfectly solid rock n' roll record.  7.5/10

Key Tracks: "Prince of Darkness," "The Doctor is Calling," "Ecstasy"

8. So Far, So Good...So What!

Their third album's pure ferocity notwithstanding, I consider So Far So Good a step down from its predecessors and the weakest entry from Megadeth's glory days.  Still there's some strong speed metal material here and a nihilistic tone to everything - the pessimism of "Set the World Afire," the lawlessness of "502," the despair of "In My Darkest Hour" (written in tribute to fallen Metallica comrade Cliff Burton), and the anti-PMRC anthem "Hook in Mouth."  Production-wise the album's original mix is very murky, with too much late 80's reverb on the drums and not enough clarity on the guitar tracks (Dave's 2004 remix is one of the few I consider sonically superior to the original).  Drummer Chuck Behler and lead guitarist Jeff Young are probably the most generic of the band's revolving door lineups; there's just not much character to their playing, technically proficient though it is.  This album might be the most Mustaine-y, so to speak, where his dangerous metal persona creeps through the most, but for me the band's musicality was sacrificed a bit to that end.  Side note, I was never a big fan of the "Anarchy in the UK" cover.  So Far So Good is a solid record but not a great one.  7.5/10

Key Tracks: "In My Darkest Hour," "Liar," "Hook in Mouth"

7. Killing Is My Business...And Business Is Good

Megadeth's raw, furiously fast-paced debut may be a muddled mess sonically thanks to a minimal production budget, most of which the band squandered on drugs, but from the outset Dave was able to illustrate his unconventional songwriting acumen and ferocious sense of humor.  Multiple remixes over the years haven't been able to make Killing is My Business sound at all polished and some of Dave's rhythm playing here is shockingly sloppy, but this album does contain some true Megadeth gems, like the guitar boogie-infused title track, the Monty Python-influenced "Chosen Ones," and the epic Christ dirge "Looking Down the Cross," for my money the earliest example of Dave's gift for non-traditional song structures.  KIMB is uneven and sounds like it was recorded on a $12,000 budget (which it was, minus what they blew on drugs), but compositionally Mustaine showed prodigious skill that belied his band's inexperience.  Not bad at all for a debut.  7.5/10

Key Tracks: "Killing is My Business," "Chosen Ones," "Looking Down the Cross"


6. The System Has Failed

The last Megadeth album I consider anywhere near greatness, TSHF boasts fantastic, idiosyncratic drumming from veteran Vinnie Colaiuta and the studio-only return of Chris Poland, lending the instrumentals a uniqueness not heard since the Friedman-Menza glory years.  Two years after temporarily disbanding Megadeth, Dave returned mostly to form on this album, with songs he'd intended for a possible solo record.  Thus freed of the constraints of writing Megadeth songs, the tunes here have a more adventurous feel to them and the result was a very memorable, mature-sounding Megadeth record.  This album also features Dave's best vocal performances since Risk and he hasn't since delivered so well on that front.  Three pointless throwaway tracks aside ("I Know Jack," "Shadow of Deth," and "My Kingdom" - I'm not sure why these were included on the album as-is instead of being worked into proper full-length tracks), The System Has Failed felt like a proper, inspired righting of the ship.  I'd have had "Of Mice and Men" close the album, incidentally.  8/10

Key Track: "Die Dead Enough," "Kick the Chair," "The Scorpion"

5. Cryptic Writings

Megadeth's uber-polished half metal/half rock record from 1997 was a big hit with audiences and critics alike, boasting shiny production values, accomplished songwriting, some of Dave's best-ever vocals, and enough speed to please the diehard fans while still delivering those all-important radio singles.  The album is a bit uneven and some of the lyrics are cheesy - "Let me in/Get me out/Can't do more than twist and shout," "Like a nuclear reactor or TNT/I'm thinkin' 'bout the times when you lied to me," etc. - but Cryptic Writings is loaded with creative energy and includes a few of the band's greatest tracks.  At a time when most 80s metal bands were fully abandoning their roots it was nice to hear Megadeth acknowledge theirs on some of the songs, plus several of the more straightforward rock tunes are really well-crafted.  This was the final album with the Golden Age lineup of Mustaine-Ellefson-Friedman-Menza.  8/10

Key Tracks: "Trust," "Use the Man," "The Disintegrators"


4. Youthanasia

Countdown to Extinction is generally considered Megadeth's answer to Metallica's Black Album but Youthanasia is actually even more its speed.  Literally.  12 midtempo hard rock songs including a ballad, an overall album sound and style that is somewhat homogenized, and a focus on simpler, sparser, groovier songwriting are Youthanasia's hallmarks.  Where Rust in Peace and Countdown featured an incredible sense of precision, Youthanasia has a slightly looser, more live-oriented feel, as though the whole band is recording together.  The first three-quarters of Youthanasia is rock solid, with career highlights like "Train of Consequences" and "Addicted to Chaos," and while the album peters out a bit toward the end it's still one of the band's strongest efforts.  Less diverse than Cryptic Writings and less heavy than their thrashy earlier works, but there's still plenty of hard rock riffage and Mustaine snarl to please even the old school fans.  8.5/10

Key Tracks: "Train of Consequences," "Addicted to Chaos," "Youthanasia"

3. Peace Sells...But Who's Buying?

The first truly great album of Megadeth's career was their sophomore effort, a major improvement over Killing is My Business, both in songwriting and production quality (thanks to a proper major label budget).  Peace Sells showed Mustaine taking his sophisticated thrash compositions a step further, with a much tighter, more balanced sound, a greater emphasis on non-traditional song structures, and darker, more eclectic lyrical content.  From the blistering opener "Wake Up Dead," about Dave cheating on his then-girlfriend to "The Conjuring," about a satanic cult, to the title track, Dave's first attempt at political commentary, this record tackles a wide variety of subject matter, seasoned with Dave's signature sardonic wit.  Peace Sells really heralded the arrival of Megadeth as a band on par with their thrash contemporaries, for my money surpassing every Big Four album up to that point with the exception of Master of Puppets.  Succinct but thoroughly satisfying, Peace Sells still holds up as a classic Megadeth record.  9/10

Key Tracks: "The Conjuring," "Peace Sells," "Good Mourning/Black Friday" 

2. Countdown to Extinction

Megadeth's best-selling album was this 1992 near-masterpiece and their first foray into a more commercial metal sound.  Released roughly a year after Metallica's Black Album, Countdown continued the trend of 80s speed metal bands tempering their sonic assault to appeal to a wider audience.  But despite sacrificing some of the raw aggression and esoteric song structures they'd become known for, Megadeth managed to show more of the maturity and pure songwriting acumen already displayed on 1990's Rust in Peace.  Tunes like "Foreclosure of a Dream" and the title track fell on the more contemplative side of various sociopolitical issues, while "Sweating Bullets" and "High Speed Dirt" leaned into a bluesy groove.  Few Megadeth albums contain as many iconic riffs, and while the songs are simpler and more traditional, there's still plenty of stylistic variety on this record.  Countdown to Extinction is one of Megadeth's great works.  9.5/10

Key Tracks: "Foreclosure of a Dream," "This Was My Life," "High Speed Dirt"

1. Rust in Peace

I think most Megadeth fans would agree their absolute masterwork is the 1990 thrash clinic Rust in Peace, the first album featuring Nick Menza's jazz-influenced drumming and Marty Friedman's virtuosic lead guitars.  From the opening epic suite "Holy Wars" to the climactic dueling solos of "Hangar 18" to the playful "Lucretia" to the emotionally heavy "Tornado of Souls," Rust in Peace is teeming with all-time classic metal songs.  The instrumentals are unthinkably precise, the production crisp and clean, the song structures innovative and progressive, the lyrics lofty.  Rust in Peace was unlike any other metal album at the time, a true example of "thinking person's metal," sophisticated and cerebral in its aggression, fast and heavy enough to please the diehard fans but agile and light on its feet, and at a lean 40 minutes never overstaying its welcome.  For me 1990 was the year the speed metal genre achieved perfection; Anthrax released their magnum opus Persistence of Time, Slayer put out theirs, Seasons in the Abyss, and Megadeth dropped a molten 20-megaton ball of guitar boogie called Rust in Peace.  This is one of my favorite albums by anyone (Avoid the 2004 remix version though).  10/10

Key Tracks: "Holy Wars...The Punishment Due," "Lucretia," "Tornado of Souls"

And there's my Megadeth album ranking.  I think most fans would agree on some level with my top 3 but I have no doubt some will take issue with my lower-tier rankings.  I just find Megadeth's last handful of albums quite uninspired and I'm hoping Dave can recapture the magic the way Anthrax did with Worship Music, Metallica did with Death Magnetic, and Slayer did with World Painted Blood.  But only time will tell....

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