Metallica are undeniably the most influential rock band of the past 30-plus years. That fact can be perceived simply by looking at the numbers.
They are on the exclusive list of music artists who have sold more than 100 million records, and each of their albums has enjoyed multi-Platinum status, an achievement that even AC/DC, the Rolling Stones and U2 haven’t matched.
And while they’ve never really had a bona fide pop hit, dozens of Metallica songs—including “Seek and Destroy,” “Master of Puppets” and “Enter Sandman”—have become vital landmarks on the vast landscape of music history, inspiring new generations of music fans and aspiring guitarists much the same way “Johnny B. Goode,” “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Stairway to Heaven” inspired previous generations.
In that respect, Metallica’s influence can be observed simply by tuning into the very culture of modern music. To put it simply, Metallica redefined metal music. During the early Eighties, bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest were considered heavy metal. But after Metallica burst out of the underground and into mainstream awareness, the terms heavy and metal didn’t quite seem to fit those bands any more.
Metallica’s sonic signatures—extreme high-gain distortion, rapid-fire down-picked riffs and jackhammer double–bass drum rhythms—became the new vernacular for metal. Since Metallica’s arrival in 1983, thousands of bands—including industrial groups like Ministry, nu-metal newcomers like Korn and unabashed Metallica clones like Trivium—have adopted those characteristics as their own.
Having deep influences has certainly helped Metallica hone their craft. Drummer Lars Ulrich’s vast collection of Seventies Euro metal, punk rock and NWOBHM records provided a bottomless well of inspiration during Metallica’s early days, when the band consisted of Ulrich, guitarist/vocalist James Hetfield, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett (who replaced founding guitarist Dave Mustaine) and bassist Cliff Burton.
The band members never stopped searching for new inspirations, discovering unlikely muses like Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western scores, Tom Waits’ lowlife junkyard blues and Nick Cave’s gothic post-punk swamp rock. Along the way they lost members: Burton died in 1986 and was replaced by Jason Newsted, who left in 2001 and was later replaced by Robert Trujillo. But even as Metallica evolved from progressive thrash epics in the Eighties to shorter and more melodic songs in the Nineties, they never lost the essence of their personality—an indefinable intensity that makes Metallica songs as recognizable as any classic from the Beatles or Led Zeppelin catalogs.
Considering the band’s lasting and ever-growing influence, we felt an examination of its contributions was long overdue. The following 100 songs are significant mileposts that have shaped and defined much of the hard rock and metal music made today, and they’re also the source of some of the coolest riffs ever written for the guitar. No wonder Metallica remain a powerful force to be reckoned with.