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Top 10 Metallica Songs of the '80s


Despite releasing only four full-length studio albums during the band's most relevant decade, 2009 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Metallica delivered a strikingly high percentage of quality tunes during the '80s. And although the group's 1983 debut, Kill 'Em All, stands out as one of rock's strongest first albums of all-time, the vintage, unmistakable Metallica sound did not fully emerge until the band's 1984 sophomore effort, the stunning Ride the Lightning. For that reason, I've focused for this chronological best-of list exclusively on the crunching yet intricate thrash of Metallica's latter '80s work.

1. "Ride the Lightning"

Metallica - Ride The Lightning
robad0b/Flickr/CC BY 2.0
This impressive title track stands as Metallica's first of many thunderous epics, storming in on a twin guitar attack and then introducing in earnest frontman James Hetfield's groundbreaking rhythm guitar style. The music world would never be the same in large part because of the brooding, sinister tone of these aggressive power chords, and Hetfield deftly adds to the mix first-person lyrics from the perspective of a doomed man awaiting electric chair execution. This is unbelievably heavy stuff both musically and thematically, and Kirk Hammett's speedy lead guitar precision completes a total package that is nothing short of jaw-dropping. On top of its consistent strain of creeping dread, this track is the sound of pure musical genius.

2. "For Whom the Bell Tolls"

Fueled by yet another unforgettably dense guitar opening, this well-regarded tune certainly doesn't reduce the intensity of the band's assault. The introductory chiming bells retain an effectively dark, gothic feel even before Hetfield steps in with his anguished howl. After that, the listener is in for an anti-war blitzkrieg of panzer guitars that still has the capacity to startle as well as enlighten. Metallica has always retained plenty of credibility among the party-happy hard rock community, but Hetfield's lyrics throw a consistent curveball in terms of expectations, filled as they are with self-righteous, cerebral musings of significance. At this point the band had reached a zenith that would scarcely waver for the next five years.

3. "Fade to Black"

This legendary track unflinchingly tackles the topic of suicide and represents Metallica's first foray into using acoustic guitars for expansive effect. As mood-setting goes, that delicate sonic touch is eclipsed only by the twin guitar breaks, power chord onslaughts and Hammett's haunting leads that dominate the remainder of the song. Rock guitar epics don't get more layered, disturbing or mesmerizing than this one, and that's the greatest gift of this tune to the music landscape. Before I grasped the facts of this band's tragic history, I thought this composition was about the loss of bassist Cliff Burton. Of course, Burton's death in a bus accident was yet to come, but Metallica had already captured an uncanny feel for darkness.

4. "Escape"

This underrated, anthemic fist-pumper offers an early view into Hetfield's mastery of melody that would wait to reveal itself fully until 1991's breakthrough "Black Album." And yet the track remains as heavy as ever in terms of guitar urgency and, at several stages, Hetfield's impassioned vocals. Thematically, the defiant lyrics of "Escape" come as close as possible for this particular band to uplifting and inspiring, at least in the traditional sense. Lines like "Life's for my own to live my own way" and "See them try to bring the hammer down, No damn chains can hold me to the ground" stay staunchly true to the Metallica aesthetic even as the group's understanding of its own sonic palette continues to grow more sophisticated and complex.

5. "Master of Puppets"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Elektra/WEA

As perhaps Metallica's signature track, this bruising, metaphorical take on the power of drug abuse holds up well in every possible way. Hetfield's lyrics and vocal delivery remain powerful without resorting to platitudes or soapbox poses, and the band's furious attack essentially had no peer in 1986. Even though I was into classic rock, hard rock and an array of heavy metal at the time, it actually took me some time to feel comfortable listening to Metallica simply because the evil - or at least extreme foreboding of the music - retains a highly tangible feel. If that makes me sound like a wuss, so be it, but I think it's merely testament to the precision and originality of what Metallica was able to establish in its classic sound.

6. "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)"

So let's recap this list so far. Already we've treated the cheery, relaxed and idyllic topics of capital punishment, the needless brutality of war, suicide, oppression of spirit, and the slavery of drug abuse. So where to go from here makes more sense than society's imprisonment of the so-called insane? Nowhere, I say. Aside from Metallica's brash treatment of dark subjects that most people don't wish to consider (and absolutely do not want their children to think about - gasp!), the group's blend of intricate arpeggios, precise twin guitars and a thumping rhythm section holds its own unshakable power. This isn't just music with which to annoy your parents (though that was a welcome side effect for many); it's thoughtful, permanent rock.

7. "Leper Messiah"

I can't help wondering what percentage of Metallica fans generally agrees with the often liberal, at least strikingly humane views espoused in the group's music. Maybe some fans merely relished the opportunity for headbanging and didn't give a thought to Hetfield's lyrics, but it's probably selling everyone short to make that assumption. The band's scathing attack here on the predatory focus of a certain strain of religious fundamentalists really packs a mighty punch from start to finish. "Infection is the game, stinking drunk with power" probably stands as one of the more charitable lines in this lyric, and Hetfield's furiously repeated shouts of "Lie!" provide a fittingly direct conclusion to this fiercely defiant track.

8. "Blackened"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Elektra/WEA

Following the tragic death of Cliff Burton in a bus crash while the band was on tour in Sweden in 1986, surviving members Hetfield, Hammett and drummer Lars Ulrich most certainly experienced dark personal moments that could have derailed their musical momentum. But the addition of Jason Newsted on bass and the release of 1988's ...And Justice for All revealed little if any disruption to the onslaught of Metallica's core sound. And although the blackest of black outlook of this punishing track could be interpreted as evidence of the band's recent suffering, it also could simply be a smooth continuation of Metallica's two previous album masterpieces. Either way, the band here maintained the power of its ever-lengthening peak period.

9. "...And Justice for All"

Rebellious teens looking to challenge the establishment would have been hard pressed to find a better mouthpiece for protest in the hard rock community than Metallica. In this way, the group always maintained its link to punk rock and hardcore so vital to its origins, even if musically Hetfield & Co. had long ago taken up far more advanced challenges. That combination helps fuel the merciless drive of this tune, which minces few words in its declaration that the latter Reagan era represented "a brutal rape of justice." Of course, such a viewpoint applies just as well to the greed-based mess we're currently slogging through post-Bush, but no matter your political leanings, this track bludgeons its point home quite economically.

10. "One"

If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say many teenagers experienced a Metallica-bolstered literary inspiration in 1989 to seek out Dalton Trumbo's anti-war classic Johnny Got His Gun. And people still believe that hard rock and heavy metal categorically threaten the academic futures of teens. This epic track undoubtedly rivals anything the band had produced previously, and that kind of consistent success is nothing if not a rarity in the turbulent business of rock music. The group's endless fascination with hell-on-earth situations and subject matter will probably always distinguish Metallica to some extent, but the band's compositional precision and efficiency are what ultimately earn a solid niche as consummate Rock and Roll Hall of Famers.
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