Our in-depth examination of Metallica's album discography reveals a band that wasn't content with just radically changing the direction of an entire genre at least three times in its career.
Instead of locking into one easily identifiable style, the group has shown an admirable desire to continually expand and evolve its sound, even at the risk of alienating its fan base, being called sellouts and even occasionally falling flat on their faces.
We examine the 12 studio albums Metallica have released over their highly influential three decade-long career, as well as one of their most important live albums. You'll find brief descriptions of each below, as well as links to more in-depth features on each of these records.
Metallica's first album altered the future of the entire metal genre, as they combined punk energy with the technical precision of pioneering New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands such as Iron Maiden to create the perfect thrash metal template. To be clear, there were other bands exploring similar styles, but none that paired it with the songwriting craft displayed on tracks like "Hit the Lights" and "Seek and Destroy."
Working together as a songwriting team for the first time, Metallica radically upgraded and expanded their sound on their sophomore album. The dynamic power ballad "Fade to Black," which featured clean vocals and acoustic guitars, turned out to be just the first example of the group willfully defying expectations in order to conquer new territory over a long and successful career.
On their brilliant third album, Metallica pushed the growth demonstrated on Ride the Lightning to even more ridiculous heights. Structurally, the album follows the same basic sequence as its predecessor, from the opening acoustic segments to the instrumentals on each record's back end. But everything on Master of Puppets is faster, harder, more subtle, more complex, more accessible -- just .. better. The album deservedly made them metal superstars, and set the stage for even bigger things in the future.
Still reeling from the death of bassist Cliff Burton, Metallica didn't alter their winning methods much in terms of songwriting on their first album with new member Jason Newsted. Justice gave the band its own warped "Stairway to Heaven" with the anti-war epic "One," but has continually come under fire for its unusually dry and thin mix, which features Newsted's contributions dialed down to near-inaudible levels.
In hindsight, ... And Justice for All revealed Metallica straining at the limits of the songwriting and album sequencing templates they'd established for themselves. So the band reached for mainstream acceptance by dialing back the thrash, simplifying its songwriting and beefing up the sound with help from producer Bob Rock. Although some original fans cried "sellout," thanks to radio smashes such as "Enter Sandman" and the no-tricks ballad "Nothing Else Matters," Metallica became arguably the biggest band in the history of metal.
Metallica's shift from metal to hard rock was solidified on Load, which found them adding a whole lot of southern rock, as well as touches of country and blues, to their palette. In retrospect, it's probably the band's most successfully diverse album, with the swaggering "Ain't My Bitch" and the brooding "Bleeding Me" showing just how far they could push the genre's boundaries.
Load was originally intended as a double album, but Metallica decided to release and promote half of the new songs, then return to the studio to complete what became known as Reload. As you would expect, the two albums sound very much like brothers, with "Fuel" becoming one of the band's most undeniable arena anthems, and "The Memory Remains" once again showing impressive innovation. Not so surprisingly, a sense of repetition begins to creep in during Reload's second half.
Proving themselves once again to be the best heavy metal cover band in the world, Metallica put their distinct spin on classic songs by Bob Seger, Black Sabbath and their beloved Diamond Head on this full-length album. Then just to show how generous they were, the band filled an entire second disc with all the covers it had previously released.
Although predecessors such as Deep Purple had visited this territory before, Metallica deserve much of the credit, or blame, for reigniting the "rock band plus orchestra" trend of the past two decades. As you'd expect, their collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony works best on the band's older, more sophisticated material, like "Master of Puppets" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls."
Feeling that their sound had become too polished, Metallica swung the pendulum back in a major way on the divisive St. Anger, which featured aggressively raw production. The songwriting is less structured, more chaotic and highly personal, with singer James Hetfield sharing the internal struggles that sent him to rehab in the middle of the album's creation. For many listeners, these innovations are drowned out by two curious choices: Lars Ulrich's remarkably flat, tinny drum sound and the total absence of any Kirk Hammett guitar solos.
After years of intentionally wandering away from their original sound, Metallica returned to their thrash roots with the help of producer Rick Rubin. Perhaps most importantly, unlike on St. Anger, guitarist Kirk Hammett was allowed to dazzle with his solo skills again. He took full advantage on songs like “The End of the Line" and “Cyanide."
Eager to push themselves into new territory yet again, Metallica played backing band to Lou Reed for an album based on two works, from 1895 and 1904, by the German playwright Frank Wedekind. With few exceptions, the result sounds like Reed reciting poetry in an intentionally off-putting manner while Metallica run through some directionless demos in the background. The album was savaged by critics and most fans, and quickly dropped off the charts.
Metallica fans had to wait eight years for the band's 10th "proper" studio album. Happily, they were rewarded with a double-disc set that largely continues the back-to-basics revival of Death Magnetic, but trades that record's somewhat harsh sonics for a fuller, looser sound on songs like the title track and "Moth Into Flame."