Metallica vs Nirvana – Which Band is Better?

In this battle between Metallica vs Nirvana, find out which bands is the best!

In a battle between Metallica vs Nirvana, it’s hard to determine which band was better and why.  Those of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s often cite Metallica and Nirvana as two of the most influential rock groups of the time. Metallica has run the gamut from thrash metal to melodic tunes that showcase the beauty of James Hetfield’s voice, while Nirvana is considered one of the top bands of the grunge movement of the early 90s. 

So which band comes out on top?  Well, let’s take a look at how these rock powerhouses compare to determine which band emerges victorious.

Metallica vs Nirvana – Who Wins (TLDR)

Is Metallica better than Nirvana

In this battle, Metallica emerges as the better band over Nirvana.  Despite Nirvana’s longstanding success and impact on pop culture, Metallica has accomplished too much over the past few decades (including multiple number one singles) to lose out to Nirvana.

Lead Singers

James Hetfield steps on stage and simply commands the attention of the audience. His vocal range spans from a raging growl such as he uses on “Seek and Destroy” to a slow, melodic drawl on “The Unforgiven.” 

Unlike many male singers, Hetfield has managed to preserve his voice after nearly four decades of performing. He can adapt to a number of song types, whether it be a fast-paced thrash metal tune or a dirge such as “Low Man’s Lyric.” 

Early Metallica is best described as speed or thrash metal. Hetfield didn’t reveal until the “Black” (self-titled) album in the early 90s that he could actually carry a tune (as opposed to simply screaming).

This was revealed on “The Unforgiven” as well as “Nothing Else Matters.” On most Metallica tracks, however, James’ raspy voice is easily recognizable. It’s safe to say that Metallica wouldn’t quite be Metallica without the vocals of Hetfield. 

In addition to his vocal chops, James Hetfield is the rhythm guitarist for the group. He’s a showman in that he can sing and play and command the attention of the audience. However, he has never been one to look to tricks to keep the crowd entertained.

Hetfield was once burned by pyrotechnics when touring with Guns ‘n Roses in the early 90s. Hetfield had to be removed from the stage for medical care; he returned within days – while Axl Rose caused a riot the night of the accident. 

Kurt Cobain left the music world way too soon. Most believe that the musical success of Nirvana was just too much for the sensitive lead singer to cope with; even so, Cobain left his mark on the music world with the few albums Nirvana released.

Kurt was actually friends with Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett, but some fans tend to believe there was a rivalry between the two groups. In fact, Nirvana was asked to join the 1992 Metallica/G’n’R lineup, but this never came to fruition. 

Kurt could scream with the best of rock vocalists, but, like James Hetfield, he also had a lovely singing voice. He demonstrated his vocal range on the Nirvana “Unplugged” album, particularly the remake of “Where Did you Sleep Last Night?” 

Both Hetfield and Cobain play an accompanying guitarist role in their bands. Both singers are talented in this area as well. Both have amazing vocal ranges, and both singers have iconic voices that simply can’t be replicated. 

Winner – Tie 

Both Hetfield and Cobain are talented in their own rights. Many Gen Xers enjoyed both bands. Cobain once pointed out that Hetfield routinely wore a Misfits tshirt onstage; he elaborated by saying that Hetfield made it okay for those who enjoyed metal to listen to punk as well. 

While Metallica has been around so long that they have dabbled in other rock genres, Nirvana is considered strictly grunge. However, both are rock icons, regardless of the type of music they play. 

Comparing Album Sales

Making a comparison regarding the album sales of Metallica, whose career spans forty years, and Nirvana, who only produced three studio albums while Cobain was alive, seems a bit unfair. However, Cobain’s death did not squelch the band’s popularity. In addition to the three studio albums, Nirvana would produce five live albums, two Eps, and two box sets would be released after Cobain passed away. 

Metallica’s albums have gone platinum a whopping 63 times during their career. The group has released three albums that became number one records throughout the years. Overall, Metallica has sold 125 million albums across the globe. In the US alone, they have sold more than 67 million records. 

Metallica’s most popular album is titled Metallica, but most fans refer to it as the “Black” album. It contains “Enter Sandman,” “The Unforgiven,” and “Nothing Else Matters.” It achieved a great deal of commercial success due to these songs as well as the production chops of Bob Rock (famous for his work with Motley Crue and Bon Jovi). 

Nirvana’s Nevermind is arguably the band’s most recognizable and popular record, it’s actually not the group’s best-selling record. That honor would go to their Unplugged record, which was released after Cobain’s suicide. The record would go on to sell 7 million copies. Overall, Nirvana sold 27.6 million records – including those released after Cobain’s passing. 

Winner: Metallica

Metallica wins this round due to the band’s longevity. One Nirvana fan described Nevermind as “a manual for how to do grunge.” Likely the group would have enjoyed greater sales had Cobain lived, but Nirvana packed a great deal of awesome music into the three studio albums they released as well as the EPs and live albums. 

Comparing #1 Singles

In 2020, Metallica became the first band to score at least four different number 1 songs in four different decades, at least according to Billboard’s airplay chart. While Metallica had quite a cult following in the 1980s, the Black album really propelled the group to mainstream stardom. Ironically, none of those number one singles came from the self-titled album!

Metallica’s number one singles include “Until It Sleeps” in 1996, “Turn the Page” in 1998, “I Disappear” in 2000, and “The Day that Never Comes” in 2008. Metallica also scored a Billboard #1 in 2016 with the song “Hardwired.” 

While Metallica had enjoyed great commercial success with the self-titled black album, they didn’t receive the number one hit status until the release of “Until It Sleeps,” which appeared on the follow-up to the black album. Load was also produced by creative genius Bob Rock. “Until It Sleeps” would also win an MTV Music Video award for Best Hard Rock Video in 1996. 

Nirvana, along with a few other grunge heavyweights, were quite public about their wish to remain outside the celebrity limelight. However, as popular as Nirvana was with teens and young adults, the group never had a number one single.

The album Nevermind was a number one album, and the single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” cracked the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” peaked at Number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. 

Another Nirvana album, In Utero, reached number one on the sales charts as well. The wildly popular “Come As You Are” only reached number 32 on the Billboard charts. 

Ironically, Nirvana isn’t the only very popular artist to sell lots of records and garner lots of fan support. Bruce Springsteen never reached the coveted number one song spot, nor did The Backstreet Boys or Jimi Hendrix. 

Even so, Nirvana left an indelible mark on rock history. After Kurt Cobain’s tragic death at age 27, the band never attempted to reunite with another singer. Many argue that Kurt’s unique voice could never have been replaced, while others believe that the remaining members decided to dissolve the group out of respect for their former frontman.

There have been numerous documentaries made about the group, box sets released, and even today, young people still find some connection to the songs from three decades ago. 

Winner: Metallica

Metallica wins this category easily simply because they were able to obtain number #1 status multiple times. Plus, they have the unique distinction of being a band that was able to garner number 1 song status across multiple decades. 

Comparing Awards

Metallica has won numerous Grammy awards, MTV awards, and even awards from music publications such as Kerrang! Nirvana also won multiple Grammy awards, MTV awards, and a few international music awards. Let’s look at a breakdown of their accolades. 

Metallica has won multiple Grammy awards for Best Metal Performance in the years 1999, 2004, and 2009. Metallica was famously beat out for a similar Grammy award in the 1980s when Jethro Tull – a group that hadn’t had a new song in nearly four decades.

The loss of this award only served to fuel Metallica’s popularity, however. In 2000, Metallica would win a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance (for “Whiskey in the Jar”). Other awards Metallica has earned include a Kerrang! Best Album Award and a Hall of Fame award from the same publication. Metallica has won AMA awards, iHeartRadio awards, and Billboard awards as well. 

Nirvana won the MTV VMA for Best Alternative Album in 1992, 1993, and 1994. They won the Best New Artist award in 1994 for the album Heart-shaped Box. In 1996, Nirvana won the Porin Award for Best Foreign Video, and they also won a Danish music award in 1992.

In 2000, six years after Kurt Cobain’s death, Nirvana won the NME Award for Best Single Ever – “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” That’s a numerous amount of awards for a career that spanned less than a decade!

Winner: Metallica

When comparing Metallica vs Nirvana, one simply cannot ignore the shortened career of Nirvana and the lingering effects of that. Nirvana really can’t compete with Metallica in this category – the band simply hasn’t been around long enough to win anywhere near the same number of awards. 

Comparing Cultural Impact

Metallica is on its way to a career spanning five decades. They began their career in the mid-1980s. One of the original guitarists was Dave Mustaine, who would later go on to form another pivotal thrash metal band, Megadeth. Metallica is currently experiencing a newfound popularity with a younger audience due to its music being featured on Netflix’s Stranger Things. 

Metallica has outlasted multiple changes in rock music. Metallica began its career as a thrash metal band. At the time of their debut, Metallica competed with the likes of Van Halen, Billy Squire, and Motley Crue for popularity.

Soon, “hair metal” or glam metal would sweep the Sunset Strip; however, Metallica maintained a powerful and loyal fanbase. They’ve outlasted grunge, alternative rock, Nu-metal, and even Emo. 

While Nirvana never really had the chance to evolve musically, they still have an impact on rock music thirty years after the release of their last record. Teens and young adults still enjoy Nirvana’s music, and the name Nirvana is still recognizable among people of all ages. 

Winner: Metallica

Metallica vs Nirvana – Which Band is the Best?

No matter how much I personally like Nirvana, the overall winner of the battle between Metallica vs Nirvana would have to be Metallica. The legendary band has accomplished much over their forty-year career, and they have learned how to evolve as a group. 

Metallica has had multiple number one hit singles, while Nirvana barely cracked the Billboard Top Ten. However, Nirvana’s career as a group was cut short due to Cobain’s death, and the remaining members never regrouped out of respect for Kurt. Metallica, however, has seen some lineup changes over the years. 

Original bassist Cliff Burton was killed in a tour bus accident in Germany in the late 1980s. Jason Newstead replaced Burton, but would eventually leave the group after nearly twenty years. Today, Robert Trujillio pounds the bass for Metallica. 

Metallica’s sound has evolved as well. As previously noted, the band was originally considered thrash metal. By the early 1990s, Metallica had evolved to a more melodic yet still quite heavy sound. However, in the early 2000s, Metallica returned to its signature heavy sound. They’ve even received newfound popularity by being featured on Netflix’s Stranger Things. 

Nirvana is the poster child for teen angst, and they are grunge personified. Their music is still quite influential today, even though the group hasn’t released any new music since the mid-1990s. 

While both these bands are iconic in their own way, Nirvana’s career and music catalogue can’t compare to that of Metallica’s. Therefore, Metallica wins this contest hands down. 

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