Ah, to be a teenager (or early 20-something) and in constant angst again. There's no time in life that is simultaneously more enjoyable and more utterly miserable. With such sentimental emotions often comes darker, more intense and heavier music.
That's where, for many of a certain generation, nu-metal came in.
The term “nu-metal” began as an insult, but it's since become an umbrella term to describe the collective wave of late-’90s and early-2000s bands that created a sound blending the worlds of alternative rock, heavy metal and hip-hop. This music was usually bass-heavy and dark, with demonic or demented vocals and distorted, down-tuned riffs. But let’s not kid ourselves and pretend that “nu-metal” is any type of perfect classification system. Some bands had darker images; some relied more on a fusion of hip-hop and heavy rock, some on traditional thrash metal. But most created art that comes from a place of personal anguish and, ultimately, the search for some kind of redemption.
If you're a millennial, the following might have been the perfect soundtrack to your high school and community college years. These are our picks for the all-time best nu-metal albums.
10. Static-X, Machine (2001)
This was the second release from the industrial metal band, which was based in L.A. at the time. Frontman Wayne Static (R.I.P.) and the band, which for this album featured Static on guitars/vocals, Tony Campos on bass, drummer Ken Jay and keyboardist Koichi Fukuda, filled Machine with grinding guitars and robotic, almost mechanical riffs. There are clear allusions to bands like Fear Factory or Ministry, but on this record Static-X found their identity. With fierce tracks like “Permanence,””This is Not,” “Cold” and “In a Bag,” the band delivers 40 minutes full-on evil disco music.
9. Coal Chamber, Coal Chamber (1997)
Coal Chamber were an up-and-coming darker metal band (sometimes referred to as spookycore in the early days), discovered by Fear Factory guitarist Dino Cazares, who helped get the band signed to Roadrunner Records. Their self-titled debut record is a diligent, dark and heavy slab that focuses on inner pain, as can be felt in the tortured vocals of Dez Fafara, later of Devildriver, who goes back and forth from anguished moans and screams to death metal grunts. The album does flow from start to finish, but its strongest half is the first, with classic Coal Chamber songs like “Loco,” “Bradley,” “Unspoiled” and “Big Truck.”
8. Soulfly, Soulfly (1998)
Featuring Max Cavalera from Sepultura, who had just broken up, Soulfly took the roots of thrash and groove metal and gave them a tribal, spiritual twist with this album. It's harsh and full of rage, despair and grief; Cavalera was dealing with not only the breakup of his band but also the murder of his stepson. Produced by probably the producer when it came to nu-metal, Ross Robinson, the record featured many guest appearances, including DJ Lethal and Fred Durst from Limp Bizkit, Chino Moreno from Deftones and Dino Cazares and Burton C. Bell from Fear Factory. The first two tracks could have been Sepultura songs, but also be sure to check out “Bleed,” probably the heaviest track you will ever hear Fred Durst and DJ Lethal perform on.
7. Machine Head, The Burning Red (1999)
Machine Head, nu-metal? Well, yes and no. The band formed from the ashes of Bay Area thrash metal band Vio-lence, and debut album Burn My Eyeseither from 1994 is more aggressive groove metal than anything else. The reason they are on this list is because, although many fans might consider this album the band’s weakest work, for their lone foray into nu-metal, it's pretty great. The heavy, riff-driven songs still sound like Machine Head, but the band also pulled influences from other late-’90s acts such as Korn and Rob Zombie. Be sure to check out their rendition of the Police classic “Message in a Bottle.”
6. Limp Bizkit, Three Dollar Bill Y'all (1997)
This debut from the band many people love to hate came out and rocked the socks off of everyone — fans, critics and curious onlookers alike. It seemed like a gimmick at the time to have a metal band featuring a DJ and a singer/screamer/rapper, but Florida-based Limp Bizkit were among the first to pull it off, garnering heavy MTV rotation and constant airplay on rock radio nationwide. Because of their friendship with Korn, with whom they toured as an opening act, the band gained notoriety even before they were signed. This album gave the world a first impression of frontman Fred Durst and his bandmates: guitarist Wes Borland, drummer John Otto, bassist Sam Rivers and DJ Lethal. Fans were immediately blasted with rage, anger and music based in hurt. Imagine Metallica and Pantera mixed with Eminem and Lethal's former group, House of Pain. Standout tracks include “Counterfeit,” “Stuck” and “Sour,” but don’t overlook their heavy metal take on George Michael's “Faith.”
5. Linkin Park, Hybrid Theory (2000)
There is no textbook definition for nu-metal, but if you’re talking about the literal fusion of metal, rap and hip-hop beats, arguably the most commercially successful band is Linkin Park. This 2000 debut album is the highlight of the rap-rock movement and featured four singles (“One Step Closer,” “Paper Cut,” “Crawling” and “In the End”) that made the band no longer just some L.A.-based nu-metal group with a rapper (Mike Shinoda) and metal-style singer (Chester Bennington) but an internationally acclaimed, platinum-selling modern rock band.
4. Deftones, Around the Fur (1997)
Deftones had a previous album under their belts by this time (1995’s Adrenaline), but this album brought a little more to the table, as the band incorporated elements of old-school hardcore, metal, alternative rock and dreamy passages heavily influenced by new wave and vocalist Chino Moreno’s obsession with The Cure's Robert Smith. This is a heavy and very lush album to listen to, passionate, at times caustic, but also lovesick. The hit singles “My Own Summer (Shove It)” and “Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)” helped it go platinum. Although Deftones have grown and gone through much in the years since, including the death of bassist Chi Cheng, Around the Fur will always hold a special place in the heart of true fans.
3. System of a Down, System of a Down (1998)
Before they were superstars, Glendale-based Armenian-American metal band System of a Down released this monster of a debut album, a hunk of politically charged, anti-fascist thrash/punk/alternative/nu-metal laced with Middle Eastern–tinged experimental sounds. Vocalist Serj Tankian’s voice goes from falsetto to grindcore madness in a split second. The themes of many of the songs were based on the history of the Armenian people. System have been dedicated from day one to raising awareness of the 1919 Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turkish government, a subject tackled on rage-filled songs like “P.L.U.C.K. (Politically Lying, Unholy, Cowardly Killers).” This is also the album that features the hit single “Sugar” and the beautifully orchestrated song “Spiders.”
2. Slipknot, Slipknot (1999)
Perhaps one of the most insane, complex and chaotic of all albums on this list, the eponymous debut by the nine masked madmen from Des Moines, Iowa, is considered by many fans to this day to be the group's most important. Slipknot introduced the world to all the horrific imagery and sonic innovations that the band had to offer. Mixing and splicing everything from death metal and grindcore to techno and drum 'n' bass and even hip-hop, Slipknot was once described as what Slayer might sound like at a rave. The lyrics are dark, hurtful and seething with pain and blood, and the drums are mind-boggling, even with three percussionists. Slipknot showed the world what they're about with this initial album, and they have only expanded their musical vision since. The hit singles “Wait and Bleed” and “Spit It Out” are essential, but also check out “Eyeless,” “Surfacing,” “Liberate” and “No Life.”
1. Korn, Korn (1994)
The album that started it all. Korn's debut album was beyond dark — and not in a gory, horror-movie, death metal way. Lead singer Jonathan Davis clearly had some issues he was dealing with, and his lyrics delved into emotional trauma in a very real, compelling fashion. Looking back now, almost a quarter of a century later, Korn sound like a group of young men numbing and dulling their pain and anger through music. The distorted, chugging riffs and guitarwork of Munky and Head were an influence on everyone from Killswitch Engage and Suicide Silence to Slipknot and pretty much every other band on this list.
Korn fused sounds in a way that was strange and thrilling at the time, combining heavy alternative rock (some might say “grunge”) with tormented vocals, death metal, hip-hop, bagpipes (!) and some very funky bass playing, courtesy of Fieldy. Korn's image was highly influential, too, inspiring many nu-metal bands in their wake to adopt dreadlocks, baggy pants and Adidas.
This album set the tone for most bands to follow. With the stunning opening track “Blind,” listeners know they are in for something intense from the intro. (Korn still play “Blind” live, usually as an encore.) Korn also contains the classic songs “Shoots and Ladders,” “Clown,” “Divine,” “Helmet in the Bush,” “Ball Tongue” and the extremely traumatic “Faget.” This is definitely a heavy and emotionally intense album, both musically and lyrically, and as often as it's been imitated, it still holds up.
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