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September 2nd, 2021
Music loves a genius. Ray Charles, Prince, Kurt Cobain, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Thom Yorke, David Bowie, Kanye West. All of these artists certainly worked very hard at their craft, but they also seemed to simply shed brilliant, culture-shifting works of art like it was accidental. Nu-metal has no geniuses. The genre-- created when Bakersfield, California 5-piece Korn began drawing passerby into their garage by alchemizing Faith No More and Cypress Hill-- is one of axe-to-the-grindstone effort. Nu-metal is the genre of the uninspired and ungifted. For every Incubus who seemed to come about their music with a jammy effortlessness, there’s a Mudvayne or a Disturbed or a System of a Down, whose frontmen left serious adult careers in their late twenties and early thirties to make a go at rock stardom. There's a Slipknot investing five figures into their own debut album, making their art inextricable from their financial investment. There’s a Linkin Park obsessively workshopping their songs into pop dominance. There’s a Fred Durst being appointed Senior Vice President of A&R at Interscope, securing a lucrative fallback plan in case his band’s sophomore album bombs. There’s a Ross Robinson drawing blood from a stone, hurling objects at his artists to bring out their best. There’s an American Head Charge naming their 2001 magnum opus The War of Art, which, in four words, communicates the nu-metal ethos better than this entire paragraph.
All of these bands are packed with talent, but no geniuses. It’s these hard-fought victories that make nu-metal so inspiring. Nu-metal's masterpieces are open books ripe for study, their triumphs mechanical tattoos on stained notebook paper in plain English. The kids connected to nu-metal’s naked emotional outreach, deploying it as shelter from cruel parents or schoolyard bullies, but as an adult revisiting that music, it’s fascinating how much of its angst is derived from familiar adult stresses. Late nights in the studio trying to recoup your record label’s investment, under the thumb of pushy execs that think they know how to write your music.
This professional frustration was delivered sincerely and marketed as angst. Rapid artistic progression gave way to major labels signing anyone that could convincingly rhyme "pain" with "brain". The nu-metal wave crashed around 2004, when Linkin Park’s Meteora and Evanescence's Fallen both put up massive multi-platinum numbers. With their slick, expensive music videos, A&R’d singles, and all-hands-on-deck ad campaigns, the two albums were victories of marketing as much as they were art. Nu-metal had gone pop, and it was time for the wave to crash. A 2003 MTV article titled “Nu-Metal Meltdown” analyzed the state of the scene, and things were grim: A-listers Korn and Papa Roach under-performing; B-listers Orgy and Hed(pe) tanking; the likes of Nickelback and 3 Doors Down were on the ascent. Nu-metal, and to a lesser extent the mid-00’s emo revival, would be the last time artistic passions and financial avarice would congregate around new guitar music.
Reflecting on nu-metal now, in 2021, the mind reels at how much of it is uncharted territory. There are no Nuggets or Left of the Dial-esque box sets of underground nu-metal gems, no fawning documentaries narrated by Adam Driver, no Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies, no hyper corprotized #NuMetalNites hawking nostalgia for a $24 door fee, no nothing. If anything, the nostalgia machine hopped right over us and resurrected emo music instead. As a result, nu-metal continues to feel vibrant and undiscovered, an amazing feat for a genre that once utterly dominated TRL and Soundscan. Hipster offices that wouldn’t blink if you put “Sugar We’re Going Down” on the stereo will still revolt if “Nookie” or “Freak on a Leash” crosses their Sonos speakers.
Which is what brings us here: The 100 Greatest Nu-Metal Songs of All Time. A list written by me, Holiday Kirk, and edited by the incredible Ellie Kovach. I compiled and weighed each song using a mental acuity honed by thousands of hours studying lists in the backs of classrooms and the corners of bars. There’s no formal ranking or voting system here-- just me trying to fulfill my life’s work, which is to show other people music they haven’t heard yet. So tune your guitars down to drop-A, let your pants bag up against your shoes, and enjoy the 100 Greatest Nu-Metal Songs of All Time.
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#'s 100 - 41
#'s 40 - 21
#'s 20 - 1
The 100 Greatest Nu Metal Songs of All Time
100. Primer 55
"The Big F*** You"
in the backyard. Take Primer 55's "The Big F**k You," for instance. Amid whalloping guitars and drums, the late J-Sin declares "Pull the hammer back as I put the fucking clip in/Just like 007 on a mission," sounding for all the world less like a man with a gun than a kid with a Nintendo 64 controller getting wrecked in Goldeneye. "I feel hate, I still gotta destroy, every last one of those motherfucking bitch boys." Sure you do, kid. Pizza's here, go wash your hands.
Nu-metal's rampant fetish for violence can be exhausting at times, but sometimes it's goofy fantasy fun, akin to kids playing guns with their friends
"Piece by Piece"
Nashville's Shun appeared and disappeared without the slightest blip on the national radar. Yet for the faithful, their sound is like an old
security blanket: rough and coarse with age, yet reassuring in a way that can't be replaced. "Piece by Piece" has the weight of slowcore, but the volume and venom of nu-metal. And when Billy White's voice builds to a chilling roar in the song's final moments, you're helpless to do anything but wrap yourself even tighter in its fabric.
"Science of it All"
In 2003, Staind released 14 Shades of Gray, a turgid effort full of bitter jabs at old friends and cliched, misguided moralizing. The very next year,
Edgewater released South of Sideways, an album that not only did almost everything 14 Shades of Gray attempted, but did it better. And if that wasn't enough, late vocalist Matt Moseman did it while sounding almost exactly like Aaron Lewis. Full of open-hearted optimism and accessible melodies, South of Sideways peaks on "Science of it All," which alternates between a pummeling bounce riff and absurdly catchy melodies which leap right through the speaker to hook you in.
"Back to School (Mini Maggit)"
The first of many productive examples of label intervention we'll see on this list, Maverick Records wasn't hearing a single on Deftones' 2000
masterwork White Pony, so they were directed back to the studio to lay down something that could compete with the Bizkits of the world. They failed as the competitor they produced, "Back to School (Mini Maggit)" would stiff hard at radio, but they succeeded at crafting one of their most unique songs. Chino Moreno isn't a rapper, at all, but hearing him step out of his comfort zone to attempt some hot fyre is a delight made all the more satisfying when it crashes back into that comfort zone with a transplanted chorus courtesy of album finale "Pink Maggit".
96. Darwin's Waiting Room
"Feel So Stupid (Table 9)"
[Geffen Records; 2001]
In the post-Linkin Park search for the next rapper/singer breakthrough act, some weird bands got signed. Case in point: Darwin's Waiting Room, which
united the aspirationally-shirtless singer Jabe and wild-eyed rapper Michael "Grimm" Falk for a fire-and-water mix. "Feel So Stupid" lets the two slug it out over a similarly evocative and intense 7-string guitar assault, courtesy of the late Eddie Rendini. The result spits and sputters, with a barely-contained electric arc coursing through this three way duel.
singing for Bad Brains and you're getting there. "Serpent Boy" is arguably (hed) p.e.'s finest moment, opening with evocative waves of atmosphere before launching into a groove that explodes like so much rusty metal and car parts. "TAKE A LOOK AROU-U-U-U-U-U-ND" screams Jahred at the song's climax, his voice cracking and shattering like a dehydrated street preacher showing you Skid Row. Meanwhile, the band convincingly lives up to their self proclaimed "g-punk" musical style with a dense instrumental thicket, sounding like a Dr. Dre production deconstructed by the Beastie Boys.
[Jive Records; 1997]
With their 1997 debut, (hed) p.e. strove to marry hardcore hip-hop with hardcore punk and actually got pretty close. Imagine Ol' Dirty Bastard
have a sleepover on Friday. Their debut album, 2001's ANThology, is light summery fare, more Warped Tour than Ozzfest, and opener "Courage" is the Farm at their best. Dryden Mitchell's singing is loose and sly (note the little bite in "Come with me/I'll show you Saturn", and the by-turns breathy and pleading voices during the bridge), while bassist Tye Zamora and drummer Mike Cosgrove, quietly one of the tightest rhythm sections in all of nu-metal, lock straight into the song's twisting riffs effortlessly.
94. Alien Ant Farm
[DreamWorks SKG; 2001]
Alien Ant Farm weren't tough guys, nor were they particularly angsty; they didn't scream at their stepdad, and instead politely asked permission to
bounce: thousands of people at festivals and stadiums across the world, coming together for perfectly-synced up-and-down jumping. Soulfly's performance of "No Hope = No Fear" at Austrialia's Big Day Out 1999 is prime bounce. "Sidney!" roars Max Cavalera as the mighty bounce riff gets revved up, "Everybody jumping and down let's go!" The crowd obliges, forming a perfect earthquaking sea of bodies all leaping into the air as one. It looks like total blissful absolution, hundreds of people unburdening themselves for brief moments of communal flight.
"No Hope = No Fear"
On record, nu-metal can be angry, isolated and misanthropic, but live, it's a joyful cathartic release, and the best nu-metal inspires the almighty
bags With a band that charges forward with a NASCAR pit crew's tightness and the late Matt Holt quick-shifting between a clenched-throat bellow and a menacingly calm croon, "Bleeder" might be its sharpest moment A fine blade slicing through three minutes of terror, "Bleeder" is all solid blacks and clean whites. Nu-metal as nu-noir, confident and collected even as it builds to a climactic scream: "You've got it all!" Be afraid.
[TVT Records; 2000]
Washington D.C.'s Nothingface crafted one of nu-metal's finest thriller novels with 2000's Violence. 12 tracks filled with black hearses and body
fantasy "Kill You" to Limp Bizkit's disgusting you're-too-beautiful-to-live screed "Eat You Alive," there are far too many examples of nu-metal bands violently taking their angst out on women to ignore. New Zealand's Blindspott, hometown heroes but total unknowns elsewhere, fall into this cliche with the sleek and tense "Nil By Mouth". "Each time I feel myself up in her," whispers singer Damian Alexander, "one side of me says kill her." It's gross, a real cinderblock of a lyric dropped right onto your toes. Yet the song gets over and above with its "Be Quiet and Drive" guitars and sharp melodic hooks. It's a great song that does derive a lot of its power from that creepy murder fantasy theme. Easy enough to dismiss the lyrics as the corny fuming of the scorned ("Will we be up top kissing all night?" huffs Alexander, in his toughest rapper voice), but the threats are too real, and too often acted upon, to simply ignore.
"Nil by Mouth"
Nu-metal's fetish for violence against women was real, and worth examining without being dismissive of the genre at large. From Korn's matricide
the fuck on the other side of that spectrum. With it's impossibly poppy sheen and choir-boy falsettos, "Je cours" is far more Savage Garden than Spineshank. But listen close to those expensive-sounding, chopped-and-filtered-to-infinity guitars as they approximate power chords. How about Benoît Poher's rap-inflected, pitter-patter cadences? Or how about the bridge which roughly translates to "I can no longer breathe in this world among you"? Or the music video with Kyo rocking out to a barely there instrumental like they're headlining Ozzfest? When looked at through a nu-metal lens, "Je cours" becomes something truly fascinating: a glimpse into a world where nu-metal remained relevant and appreciated, and thus subsumed into the broader pop market. We didn't get that, but we'll always have the stuck-between-stations blast of "Je cours".
If the number one song on this list is as grimy-down-tuned-7-string-quintessentially-nu-metal as nu metal can be, then Kyo's "Je cours" is way
an indifferent record label, says "fuck it" and writes what should be their breakthrough single anyway. Consider Apartment 26. Initially signed to Hollywood Records, Apartment 26's underrated nu-industrial debut Hallucinating went belly-up, which caused them to leave the label and re-sign with Atlantic Records. They then wrote the snappy, explosive "Give Me More". A jaunty piano and showtune bounce give way to a massive chorus that leaps straight out of the speakers and deep into your brain. The effect is so immediately hooky you can't help but feel "Give Me More" is just a hunk of glowing musical uranium, one that could still irradiate the airwaves at any time.
89. Apartment 26
"Give Me More"
It's so inspiring when a band, hot off a flop debut, probably beyond hope of an 11th-inning commerical breakthrough, and under the thumb of
disappeared. Unless you were in a very specific area at a very specific time, you have no idea who they are. Their music is barely on YouTube, let alone Spotify, but if you're willing to search it out you'll find one of the funnest, funniest bands that ever twirled around this scene. Almost everything they recorded is great, but their prime cut might be "Finish the Worry Days" from their 2001 opus Wanderland. It puffs along like a candy airship through the sky. The chords are huge and heavy but the mood is light. U-Rie sings like a nimble glider while Junn raps like the confident and cool pilot at the controls, skipping along from one Miyazaki cloud to the next.
88. Missile Girl Scoot
"Finish the Worry Days"
Missile Girl Scoot was a gloriously perfect shooting star of a band that traveled across Japan's night sky for an instant in the early 00s and
wonderful genre, there'd be no need to defend it because its cultural credibility would have survived all the chocolate starfishes it drowned in. Even their nu-metal song "Lapdance" isn't always a nu-metal song! The "electronic"/music video mix strips the guitars and live drums, emptying the song of build or payoff as it wears down its sparse arrangement before the second verse even begins. But the album version punches the song up considerably, with chunky chords and tight, popping drums that sharpen the song's threats to brandish something chrome ("and it ain't a microphone") into tangible threats. When that chorus does hit, now buttressed by heavy guitars, you're ready to strip, or headbang, or both. It doesn't sound like anything else in the genre, a blend special enough that you'll want to find Pharrell's immaculately exfoliated face and beg him to give nu-metal another shot.
In 2001, Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo could have saved nu-metal. If The Neptunes, at the peak of their powers, had gone all-in on this
often seemed to be above the fray - observing it with impish amusement or mournful remove - One Minute Silence were reporting from within the waterfall; struggling against the torrent to be heard. This manifests itself in the ordinary everyday phrases singer Brian Barry repurposes into existential panic on “Rise and Shine.” “My god it’s good to see ya, another day another dollar,” he repeats, initially with the enthusiasm of an Email auto-reply before applying different emphasis and volume until it becomes a twitchy cry for help. Like everything on One Minute Silence’s sophomore album Buy Now… Saved Later “Rise and Shine” is an audiophile’s feast, produced to utter perfection by Colin Richardson. Clean guitars hold court amongst the fray with such clarity you can hear the pick hitting the strings. During the song’s middle-8 the “My god!” becomes a stuttered “Money god” as Barry hits a final realization; "I can't be what the world can't be to me/I wake up and the world just steps on me.” On “Rise and Shine,” One Minute Silence is a spun top looking for a way to stop without falling down.
86. One Minute Silence
"Rise and Shine"
Irish four-piece One Minute Silence trafficked in the same social-political commentary as nu-metal brethren System of a Down but where System
applications, or a friend's Google Drive. Bands like Shun, Silent, Velcra, and 20 Dead Flower Children are nowhere (or nearly nowhere) to be found on streaming, rendering them all but non-existent. One of those bands, 16Stitch, released an accessible and melodic nu-metal album, Beautiful Angelic Parasite, on a small label in their native South Africa in 2004, issued a post-hardcore flecked follow up, then promptly disappeared. A true shame, as Parasite pulls liberally from bands like Deftones and Taproot, but with rich guitar tones and drum sounds that hardly exist elsewhere in the genre. The best of them is "Suffer," which climaxes with a groovy, almost fretless bass solo that feels true to its Johannesburg origins.
[Authentic Ideas; 2004]
An astounding amount of top-shelf nu-metal has to be tracked down on decade-old Russian mp3 blogs, suspicious peer-to-peer file sharing
listeners and was "more suited to the soundtrack of an aggressive video game". He was right, but not in the negative way he intended. Indeed every song on Subject to Change sounds like the kind of song you put on when the Mountain Dew is down to the last drop, your cousin has been talking shit all day about his Tony Hawk skills, and losing simply isn't an option. A collection of bounce riffs and builds to the bounce riffs, Subject to Change does go unreasonably hard, fronted by a singer who sounds like he edited all the non-screaming parts out of Linkin Park songs for practice. The hardest hitter of the bunch is "Anymore," which plunges from double-time thrash into a pummeling bounce riff, inspiring sprained necks and 1,000,000 point combos in equal measure.
In a dismissive contemporary review, Allmusic's Joe Silva found that Sw1tched's 2002 debut Subject to Change wasn't for serious metal
breakthrough records-- you were now expected to go big right away. This is how we wound up with songs like Skrape's "What You Say", aspirational stadium-levelers, the kind the band enters the stage to as the crowd loses their shit. This may not have leveled any stadiums, but still provides ample adrenaline action.
"What You Say"
By 2000, the developmental era of nu-metal was over. No more were bands going to be shepherded from modestly-selling debuts to
being stoned to death, but SOiL's lead grunter Ryan McCombs intervenes and stones her to death anyway because he is "'pure inside', meaning he is without sin and he will stone you!" While the effort is certainly appreciated, "Halo" is so big, brutish, and dumb that any attempt to interpret it at all feels disrespectful. Personally, this writer chooses to believe lyrics like "I will stone you/Wrap my goddamn arms around you" are about nothing, because anything would sound fine over instrumentation this shiny and ProTooled. It's music to sell pickup trucks to, and that's meant in the nicest way possible.
After "hearing this song for over a decade," Songmeanings.com user Sprizzle concludes that SOiL's "Halo" is about Jesus saving a woman from
Another Victim,” from the critical Judgment Night soundtrack, is a peak into the future, blending alternative metal and hardcore hip-hop to create something startlingly cohesive and wildly predictive. When Page Hamilton throws down those houndstooth-and-sandpaper chords Stephen Carpenter must have been listening. When John Stainer lays into that military tight snare David Silvera must have been listening. When Everlast drops in for a straight hip-hop breakdown Jacoby Shaddix must have been listening. And when a certain DJ Lethal shows up on the turntables at the end you know Fred Durst must have been listening.
81. Helmet & House of Pain
"Just Another Victim"
[Immortal/Epic Soundtrax; 1993]
If, after reviewing the finished product, Helmet and House of Pain had decided to join forces this genre could have begun here. Instead “Just
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