Ah, nu metal. Who can forget it? That’s back when everyone shopped at Hot Topic and wore jeans that could easily hide the smaller members of your immediate family. I swear it’s true kids, just google “Jncos.” The nu metal heyday may have been before your time, late millennials, but it was truly one of those “you’d have to have been there to understand” moments. Those of us born in the mid to late eighties landed squarely in the hype during our most formative years before moving onto emo and metalcore as the 2000s progressed… but that’s another (and equally embarrassing) story. In the meantime, you’ll have to forgive us old folks our nostalgia, kids.
Seriously though, it’s not pure nostalgia. A few albums that dropped at the forefront of the nu metal scene, as well as a few that remained relatively peripheral affairs, were actually really good albums. Granted, not many of them were; it’s admittedly difficult to be original when your palette consists of basic bar chords in drop D tuning, or when your industry lyrical expectations end with curse words and anti-establishment cliches. Still, a few bands managed to push boundaries enough to release a product still as entertaining today as it was around the turn of the century. I’d argue that some of these albums have even improved with age.
It really is a shame that Limp Bizkit’s Chocolate Starfish somehow became the figurehead nu metal album for future generations. Hopefully, this list of the best albums of the nu metal age will help wash away some of that lingering bad taste and encourage you to dig out the old CD wallets covered with band stickers.
So RUN… right back to the year ‘00, when nu metal changed forever. Many people would give Around the Fur (1997) the distinction of “most important Deftones album,” but really, the album’s big single, “My Own Summer (Shove It),” wasn’t that far from the general run-of-the-mill fare for the time, with the obvious exception of Chino’s goddamned beautiful voice. I loved “Shove It,” as was required of any good nu metal fan. When “Change (In the House of Flies)” came along, however, I knew immediately that a watershed moment was at hand. Sure enough, nu metal would never be the same.
White Pony is a brilliant album all the way through. Here, Chino and crew fully realize the balance between heavy and brooding they had flirted with since 1995’s Adrenaline. White Pony is brutal, catchy, sexy, disturbing, and beautiful all at once. Just listen to “Passenger,” an unsettling track featuring a delightful contrast between Chino’s rough and moody vocals and James Maynard Keenan’s signature dark, syrupy approach. If it’s heaviness you want, switch to “Elite,” possibly the best pure headbanger to ever grace mainstream radio.
Everything works like a dream in the stunningly-produced and painstakingly-crafted landscape of White Pony. It sits comfortably among my favorite albums of all time, and was enough to make me a lifetime Deftones fan despite the series of lackluster albums following 2006’s excellent Saturday Night Wrist. It doesn’t happen often that I’m still regularly spinning an album I discovered almost two decades ago. If you haven’t heard this one, you’re missing some of the absolute best music the nu metal era can offer.
Speaking of albums I still can’t get my fill of…
Not many bands effortlessly combine such a distinctive voice with seemingly limitless energy. Toxicity was recently recognized as a classic by music critic Anthony Fantano, and this distinction is certainly deserved. This follow up to 1998’s brazen self-titled release grabbed nu metal fans by the throat with its eccentric blend of metal and Armenian influences.
Throughout Toxicity, and indeed over the course of their follow up albums, System of a Down challenged the two-chord-riff nu metal standard with wildly inventive musicianship that still feels fresh in 2019. Above all, listeners would be hard pressed to forget the melodramatic dynamism of Serj Tankian and Daron Malakian’s dual vocal performances.
Although System of a Down would follow up with another excellent offering, Steal This Album!, more than worthy of equal praise in 2002, Toxicity certainly sealed System of a Down’s place as one of the best cutting-edge acts of the nu metal age. It has never truly left my active rotation, and feels just as exciting nearly two decades after its release as it did fresh out of the jewel case, especially in the current shambles of the mainstream metal and alternative rock world. Although it’s doubtful we’ll see another System of a Down album, and despite the fact the side projects surrounding the band’s individual members continue to compare unfavorably to their work together, Toxicity still represents a moment in metal history that will always bear fond remembrance.
Listening to Onesidezero today, one might be hesitant to categorize them as nu metal. This is only because Onesidezero blended enough forward-thinking elements of alternative rock to transcend the genre. In the three years following the release Is This Room Getting Smaller, Onesidezero toured alongside acts like Sevendust, Static-X, Soulfly, and SOiL. Make no mistake, Onesidezero was thoroughly imbued in the nu metal hype during the early 2000’s, which may be part of the reason they never fully got the recognition they deserved.
“Onesidewho?” ask even the seasoned nu metal fans from back in the day. It’s true, Is This Room Getting Smaller tragically didn’t find its way into everyone’s collection. If I hadn’t have picked it up at random from a used CD bin shortly after its release, I would probably have never discovered this album. I’m glad I did. I suspect the attempt to market the album alongside brainless heavy hitters like Static-X was ultimately a disservice to Is This Room Getting Smaller, which features relatively few outright heavy moments. Instead, Onesidezero accomplishes a beautiful blend of the moody alt rock of the time–particularly reminiscent of Radiohead’s OK Computer and Cave In’s magnificent album, Jupiter (2000)–and a nu metal sensibility, all the while managing to remain stylistically unique.
Is This Room Getting Smaller is positively drenched in atmosphere and subtlety. I had forgotten this album, but returning to it now, I can positively attest that it has only improved with age. It’s a work that didn’t deserve its fate, and I urge you to give it a spin. I think you’ll be surprised.
This album represented an unusual phenomena in music: everyone seemed to have this album, but few truly realized how brilliant it was. True, Mudvayne would go on to inexplicably release shitty album after shitty album, securing their position as “just another nu metal band” as the hype began to fade. 2002’s The End of All Things to Come was truly marked the end of Mudvayne’s long-term relevance outside of the bland world of forgettable radio phenomena. L.D. 50, however, is clear proof they could’ve been something better.
Forget the gimmicky face paint and the straightforward mosh-friendly single “Dig” (which still isn’t bad, as far as nu metal singles go). L.D. 50 has been called “progressive metal,” and that’s not far from the case. Untraditional, meandering song structures fill the album, and Ryan Martinie’s bass performance is stunningly complex. Greg Tribbett’s guitar riffs reverse and shift, constantly seeking new, understated patterns, before vanishing into weird electronic sound textures. Each song is a beautifully-textured work of multiple dimensions. The truly brilliant aspect of L.D. 50, however, is how invisible all this technical wankery can be. Truly unique stuff is happening so seamlessly that you can listen to this thing front to back for sheer heaviness’ sake and never notice the subtleties. That’s probably part of the reason this album has been so readily dismissed as the standard nu metal affair.
L.D. 50 isn’t pretentious showboating. It’s a band, rather, putting everything they’ve got into their work, without concern for traditional commercial limitations. It’s a pity that their hard-earned success ultimately turned Mudvayne into garbage.
Incubus in 1997 certainly wasn’t the alternative pop rock group of 2017’s release, 8, nor was it truly comparable to the same band who reached international fame for the singles “Drive” and “Stellar” in 1999. By the time Make Yourself came around, Incubus had already left nu metal behind for an even more radio-friendly approach, but that doesn’t subtract from the fact that S.C.I.E.N.C.E. (Sailing Catamarans Is Every Nautical Captain’s Ecstasy) was, believe it or not, a full-blown nu metal album at heart.
Listeners are treated to the standard bar chord riffs and DJ scratches, but this time they back Brandon Boyd’s easily recognizable clean singing instead of the usual liberal use of screams. But that’s not all. What makes S.C.I.E.N.C.E. stand out today is its blend of elements of funk, jazz, hip hop, sampling, and even a little techno. Instrumentally, this album was far ahead of most nu metal acts in terms of both expertise and diversity. Combined with Boyd’s energetic and fluid vocal performance, the end result of this highly-entertaining production was something a bit closer to Mr. Bungle than Korn.
It’s a pity that more bands of the era didn’t dive into something this deliciously bold. S.C.I.E.N.C.E. was one of my favorite albums at the turn of the century, and remains the crowning achievement, next to 1999’s still interesting if far more tame Make Yourself, of Incubus’ three decades of existence. While elements of this release haven’t aged as nicely as I would’ve hoped, the album is still a fascinating example of forward-thinking musicians unafraid of limitations. S.C.I.E.N.C.E. is guaranteed to at least disabuse listeners of the assumption that all nu metal sounded similar.
Roots represented the culmination of a stylistically transformative moment for Brazilian thrash band Sepultura, who had been slowing things down to favor a more contemporary and heavy style since 1991’s Arise. More germane to this albums consistent attraction, however, is a corresponding return to Sepultura’s cultural “roots” musically. While some listeners in 2019 might find something gimmicky and a bit insensitive in the album’s theme, just listen to the didgeridoo in “Attitude” and I’m sure you’ll be convinced.
While Untouchables isn’t the most influential Korn album, it certainly represents the band at their creative peak. Even though, in my opinion, Korn has aged a bit over the years, Untouchables is still a very enjoyable listen. Their sound is more nuanced and dynamic here, making this the most captivating and varied album of their discography. And, of course, we have to point out that discussing nu metal without mentioning an album by Korn is simply unimaginable.
Yes, Finger Eleven, that crappy Canadian band that no one listens to, used to be nu metal. And not only were they nu metal, but they were really good. The Greyest of Blue Skies is a solid nu metal album with an unusually angsty, expressive side. Somehow, this album got lost in the shuffle and never reaped its deserved recognition. Still, Finger Eleven still managed to blow up, so good for them. Ironically, The Greyest of Blue Skies is the best thing they’ve produced to date.
I absolutely love this album, but I couldn’t rightfully include it in the top five, since Primus really isn’t a nu metal band. Primus is simply… well… Primus. It just so happened they capitalized on the nu metal hype with an album produced by none other than Fred Durst, and the result is absolutely amazing. Antipop is still one of my top three Primus albums, and Claypool & co definitely deserve a mention for producing one of the best things to come out of the nu metal era.
I, like everyone else, listened to Hybrid Theory until it made me sick. 20 years later, I’ve finally been able to return to it, and I have to admit, it’s still good. The dynamism between vocalist Chester Bennington (RIP) and Mike Shinoda really was better than anything else to arise from the swampy rap-rock branch of nu metal. Hybrid Theory ended up selling 32 million copies, making the album an unqualified success that I still feel is well-deserved.
-Justin A. Burnett