Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Top Ten Things: Metallica Songs (10-1)

Alright, here we go.  Metallica's Top 10 songs of all time.  The best of the best.  According to me anyway.....

10. Enter Sandman

Yeah I know, it's overplayed as shit.  It's everywhere.  You can't watch a single play in a football game without a snippet of this song blaring out afterwards.  It probably doesn't need to ever be on the radio again.  I don't care.  "Enter Sandman" is a fucking all-time great rock n' roll song.  From a simple tritone-based riff Kirk Hammett shat out at 3am one night, the band extrapolated an entire, world-changing song.  Think about it, "Sandman" is essentially the one riff, over and over, in various forms.  Yes there are little adornments and adjustments tacked on, but sweet Jesus did they get a lot of mileage out of very little content.  On top of its stunning economy of songwriting, this tune has one of the most instantly hooky choruses of the decade, some absolutely gorgeous vocal harmonies (that sadly didn't get pushed high enough in the mix), and just an infectiously heavy midtempo groove.  And holy shitballs that guitar tone....  "Enter Sandman" is the song that launched Metallica into metal godhood, and if not their best song it has to be considered their most culturally significant.

9. Frantic

The one true classic from what is universally considered Metallica's worst album, "Frantic" is an absolute monster of a song that set the tone for the visceral, ugly psychotherapy session put to music that was St. Anger.  The main riff is a devlishly clever single-string line that, like the "Sandman" riff, was ripe for variation.  Move that same riff up a couple strings and arpeggiate it, and you have the chorus.  James' vocals capture the nu-metal aesthetic better on this song than on any of the album's other tracks, and also include one of my favorite Metallica lyrics (also courtesy of Kirk), "My lifestyle determines my death style."  Time eventually makes victims of us all, the one predator we can't outrun.  If every St. Anger song had this kind of raw, brutal energy I think the album would've been much better received.  Alas, "Frantic" was a sort of lightning in a bottle, the one piece of this bizarre experiment that worked unequivocally. 

8. Bleeding Me

Top of the Load heap for me is the epic, bluesy pseudo-ballad "Bleeding Me," featuring a snaky, clean guitar riff over which James dumps his troubled heart out.  This vocal is one of Hetfield's most fearlessly vulnerable.  The song then builds to a massive, Jethro Tull-esque chorus - "Caught under wheel's roll/I take the leech I'm bleeding me" - but the compositional structure is unusual and takes welcome, unexpected turns.  "Bleeding Me" is for me the most successful experimental piece from the Load/Reload sessions, and a song that defies categorization; another spectacular rock n' roll tune.

7. Fuel

But probably the most successful song of that era overall is the barnburner that kicks off Reload, "Fuel," a straightforward gallop celebrating living at 100 mph.  It's a superb mix of Metallica's thrashy roots and their blues/grunge 90s direction, and fits right into their decades-long tradition of album-opening slam dunks.  I'm not an auto racing fan, but NASCAR should really make this their forever theme song.  "Gimme fuel, gimme fire, gimme that which I desire - OOOHH!!"

6. Battery

Morose, gorgeous Spanish-style guitars open the Master of Puppets album, much as delicate classical strains did for Ride the Lightning.  As with "Fight Fire With Fire" though, "Battery" gives the listener a head fake before exploding into a ballistic speed metal attack.  One of the fastest and purest thrashers in the band's entire catalog, this song is unbridled metal joy, with a lyrical theme to match - essentially "We're the fastest, heaviest band in the world and we're gonna kick your asses for the next two hours, get ready!"  Of all the heavy metal anthems in Metallica's playlist, "Battery" is the apex.

5. Nothing Else Matters

The placement of this song will undoubtedly be controversial for some.  And again, I don't care.  Metallica's purest ballad is also one of their most imaginative, envelope-pushing tracks, one that took full advantage of the available sonic palette (not to mention their virtuoso producer) to create something exquisite and beautiful.  What started accidentally as the result of a Hetfield guitar noodling session became Metallica's answer to The Beatles' "A Day in the Life."  Simple, glistening acoustic arpeggios, delicious vocal harmonies, and a Michael Kamen-conducted orchestral score make this song, in the words of Lars Ulrich, "The one song you couldn't put boundaries or parameters around."  This is the kind of magic that can be made when you don't let labels or expectations limit your imagination.

4. Creeping Death

The greatest track from Ride the Lightning is this Ten Commandments-inspired epic, centered around the Ten Plagues of Egypt.  Since its 1984 release I don't think Metallica has ever failed to play this one in concert; it's one of those tunes that just sounds inevitable, like it was always there.  The thunderous intro riff is instantly recognizable and the mammoth chorus (and probably even moreso the "Die by my hand" bridge section) was tailor-made for an arena of fans to scream along.  Incidentally the song's title originated as a throwaway Cliff Burton comment while watching the film: "Whoa - it's like creeping death!"

3. Blackened

Jason Newsted's first songwriting credit in Metallica was the main riff for ...And Justice for All's austere, punishing opener, about the irrevocable destruction of the environment.  Before that incredible riff even makes its first appearance though, we fade up on a menacing wall of rhythm and lead guitars that was actually recorded backwards.  Instead of a pretty, clean intro segment like on the previous two albums, AJFA jumps right into the gloom and doom, and when that offputting odd-time main riff shows up, it's pure bedlam.  Get ready for 65 minutes of some of the most hopeless-sounding music you'll ever hear.

2. One

Speaking of hopelessness, no song expresses that emotional state more immersively than the band's first-ever radio/video hit.  Largely inspired by the novel and film Johnny Got His Gun, about a World War I soldier who loses all his limbs and all his senses but somehow survives, "One" is unquestionably the darkest song Metallica has ever written.  It's also at times quite beautiful, lulling the listener into a false sense of comfort before exploding into a bombardment of angst-ridden riffs, solos and bone-dry drumming, echoing the sounds of war itself.  That a song so primally upsetting became such a huge MTV hit is nothing short of extraordinary.

1. Master of Puppets

But Metallica's undisputed masterpiece is their, well, "Master" piece.  Given new life in front of a whole new audience thanks to its appearance in Stranger Things, the title track off their most acclaimed album is eight-plus minutes of a band firing on every cylinder.  From its trip-hammer opening riffage to its harmonically complex, multi-part chorus to its stunning clean guitar/harmonized lead interlude, to its climactic wall of derisive laughter, this song about how drug addiction can literally become one's master is for my money the greatest song they've ever recorded, and one of the greatest metal songs of all time.  Larger than life, progressive, unforgettable, emblematic of a movement that saw Metallica grow from an underground sensation into an arena-rock juggernaut.  "Master of Puppets" is a tour de force. 

Here endeth the countdown!  Hope you enjoyed this five-part dissertation, even if you didn't necessarily agree with the song order.  Hey, like I said at the outset, it's all subjective and nebulous.  But whatever your favorites, Metallica has carved out a stadium-sized place for themselves in the annals of American music and amassed a stunning library of songs, influencing generations upon generations.  "Cannot stop the battery!"

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