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(Credit: Florian Reischauer)

Music

Metallica’s James Hetfield picks the 20 greatest singers of all time

Metallica are more than just a band; they are a religion. For 40 years, James Hetfield has steered the ship as the band tighten its grip into the depraved part of the human psyche, one that aims to seek and destroy everything in its grasp.

For large swaths of people, Hetfield is everything that you’d ever dream of in a frontman. He parades around the stage with an air of dominance and leaves no question marks over who is in charge. Hetfield might lose points when it comes to technical vocal ability, but he more than makes up for his deficiencies in other areas.

Heavy metal is Hetfield’s everything. He’s lived and breathed it ever since Motorhead indoctrinated him as an angsty youngster. The Metallica frontman has guided the genre into uncharted territory and transfigured it into a cultural behemoth.

Back in 2008, Hetfield took part in a Rolling Stone survey which attempted to uncover the greatest singer of all time. His 20 selections paint a fortified figure of the kind of vocalist he admires, and for the most part, Hetfield doesn’t look too far away from home.

His list includes the occasional anomaly such as Johnny Cash, who Hetfield placed at 15. One crossover between the two seemingly disparate acts is that they’ve both worked with superstar producer Rick Rubin. True hardcore Hetfield fans will also remember his amped-up cover of ‘Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit Has Done Got Out of Hand’.

Predictably, there’s a warm seat in Hetfield’s handpicked club for undisputed rock royalty, Robert Plant, who has to settle for the tenth spot with Ozzy Osbourne narrowly pipping him one place above. These are artists that Hetfield was raised on, and the duo made it possible for Metallica to pick up from where they left off.

Another idol of Hetfield’s is Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister, who featured at number seven. Following the rock juggernaut’s death in 2017, he mournfully commented: “Lemmy in particular was an icon, sort of a godfather for people who love heavy metal. He was the captain of the ship.”

Adding: “We all felt he was immortal, doing the hard, hard, hard livin’ for such a long time on the road, and just really goin’ for it. We knew it would come to an end at some point. But we really didn’t expect it. There’s certainly no Metallica without a Motorhead.”

The top five features AC/DC’s frenetic former leader Bon Scott, who was followed by Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell at four. Judas Priest’s Rob Halford was placed by Hetfield at three, and Alice In Chains founder Layne Staley had to settle for a runner’s up medal.

When it comes to the topic of great singers, Hetfield’s opinion holds enormous weight, and in his view, there’s never been anybody superior to Ronnie James Dio. The ‘metal horns’ inventor first made waves with Rainbow before preventing Black Sabbath from sinking after replacing Ozzy Osbourne in 1979 and then triumphed with Dio. 

“[Dio’s] music is so much a part of what’s in Metallica’s DNA, the harder, edgier, blues-based hard rock from the Seventies,” Hetfield’s bandmate Lars Ulrich told Rolling Stone in 2014.

In homage to Dio, Metallica recorded the ‘Ronnie Rising Medley’ which appeared on the tribute album This Is Your Life. The stomping nine-minute effort cultivates four tracks from Rainbow and shows off their collective affection for Dio.

“We all have our mentors, and we need them, or at least I do. I need someone who I’m lookin’ up to, to either try and chase or learn from,” Hetfield said about the cover.

See the full list of Hetfield’s favourite 20 singers below.

James Hetfield’s favourite 20 singers of all time

  1. Ronnie James Dio
  2. Layne Staley
  3. Rob Halford
  4. Chris Cornell
  5. Bon Scott
  6. Paul Dianno
  7. Lemmy Kilmister
  8. Glen Danzig
  9. Ozzy Osbourne
  10. Robert Plant
  11. Steven Tyler
  12. Ronnie Van Zant
  13. Freddie Mercury
  14. Sean Harris
  15. Johnny Cash
  16. John Bush
  17. Cal (Discharge)
  18. Lee Ving
  19. Jaz Coleman
  20. Maynard James Keenan

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