Written by Jenna DePasquale
Few bands are as synonymous with metal of the new millennium as System of a Down. While
certain stylistic trends of the time came and went, the Los Angeles quartet demonstrated staying
power by creating a sound that had yet to be heard. A blend of alternative metal, Armenian folk,
and a taste for the bizarre, SOAD was in a lane all of their own, decrying global injustice from
the backdrop of towering instrumentals. Indeed, demands for peace in the Middle East had
never been so moshable.
Creating an accessible medium for understanding all matters political, philosophical, and
existential fostered both critical and commercial success for SOAD. The efforts of frontman Serj
Tankian, guitarist Daron Malakian, bassist Shavo Odajian, and drummer John Dolmayan
spawned five studio albums before the band announced their hiatus in May of 2006. Despite
SOAD’s absence, their music lived on, with their work cited as a major influence for a new
generation of rockers and rappers alike. Their enduring legacy has sparked several reunion
shows over the past decade, and even two new tracks.
Today, we pay homage to SOAD’s legendary hits while also giving due credit to hidden gems.
While any journalistic attempt at ranking songs is a subjective exercise in music nerd futility, it
can be entertaining to see where your personal favorites measure up.
Read on to see if you made the cut.
20. “Sad Statue” - Mezmerize (2005)
A lesser-known track from SOAD’s Hypnotize-Mesmerize series, “Sad Statue” breaks down the
door with dire riffs and rhythm guitar to deliver a haunting visual: “you and me will all go down in
history with a sad statue of liberty and a generation that didn’t agree.” The build up of tremolo
picking on the bridge presents us with the rhetorical question, “what is in us that turns a deaf ear
to the cries of human suffering?” With a variety of tempos held down by expert instrumentation, “Sad Statue” is a compelling track on which the band’s lyricism shines.
19. “I-E-A-I-A-I-O - Steal This Album! (2002)
While it’s nearly impossible to pronounce this song without hearing it first, “I-E-A-I-A-I-O” from SOAD’s project Steal This Album! is a delightful display of their off-the-wall writing style. The lore behind the track’s wacky ad libs and cryptic lyrics remains contested. Some believe the name comes from the word “idealization” while others say it is an ode to occultist Aleister Crowley. Regardless, once it enters your rotation, you will catch yourself singing “ahhheeeeaaaaahhhaiiiiioooo.”
18. “Lost In Hollywood” - Mezmerize (2005)
While many hopeful musicians naively flock to L.A. armed with nothing but a dream, SOAD was already quite familiar with the underbelly of their hometown, and they haven’t been afraid to speak candidly about it. “Lost In Hollywood” is a ballad that grabs the music industry by its horns. Malakian calls out all the execs working on Santa Monica, Sunset, and, of course, Hollywood Boulevard while Tankian croons sentimentally in the background. The searing critique is contrasted with the cool alt-rock instrumentals of Odajian and Dolmayan, making for a relaxed, yet impactful album closer.
17. “Sugar” - System of a Down (1998)
Dynamic single “Sugar” from SOAD’s inaugural record is every bit iconic. From the five-beat opening drums to the dizzying bassline to the shrieking accents of “Shugggah!,” this track serves as a show stopping closer to the band’s live sets. The visual—a jab at truth devoid local news broadcasts—features a young SOAD experimenting with face paint and gas masks with relentless energy. While Serj’s chain wallet may tell a different tale, “Sugar” holds up in 2021 as a timeless rock classic.
16. “Deer Dance” - Toxicity (2001)
The third song into SOAD’s seminal sophomore album Toxicity, “Deer Dance” is not only a dream circle pit anthem, but another stunning example of Tankian’s lyricism. “Beyond the Staples Center you can see America with its tired poor, avenging disgrace / Peaceful, loving youth against the brutality of plastic existence,” he sings effortlessly as matters erupt into all out madness. “Pushing little children with their fully automatics, they like to push the weak around,” Tankian vocalizes at the top of his lungs while Malakian provides low backing growls. Walls of instrumentals move seamlessly into “Jet Pilot,” speaking to SOAD’s eye for cohesion.
15. “Protect The Land” (2020)
While SOAD came out of hiatus in 2010 to play reunion shows, few anticipated that they would ever release new material again. Last year, they took everyone by surprise when they dropped two singles, “Protect The Land” and “Genocidal Humanoidz.” True to form, the spark behind the material was a worthy cause. Over $600,000 in sales was donated to the Armenia Fund in the wake of the latest escalation of violence in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which lies within Azerbaijan’s borders but has a predominately Armenian ethnic makeup. Azerbaijan remains a close ally of Turkey, who continues to deny its perpetuation of the Armenian Genocide – an issue that SOAD has brought to the attention of millions.
14. “War?” - System of a Down (1998)
“Praise the lord. Pass the ammunition. God wants you to go to war,” Tankian declares with biting sarcasm in rare footage of one of SOAD’s ’90s era club shows. Arguably one of the heaviest SOAD tracks, “War?” and its accompanying visual is a no-frills burst of ardor and zeal. A funk inspired effort by Malakian gives way to an utterly crushing chronicle, one that calls the neocolonial principles of Western militaries onto the carpet. As one of their earliest singles, “War?” demonstrates that preaching anti-violence is just as provocative as metal’s fascination with brutality. SOAD would go on to become emblematic of this ethos.
13. “Soldier Side” - Hypnotize (2005)
When it comes to their anti-war activism, SOAD has never been shy about addressing the powers that be, but in their chilling epic “Soldier Side,” consideration is given to those who are left fighting on the ground. The band paints an apocalyptic sky occupied by a god “wearing black” as young men and women prepare to meet their fate. As ascending guitar and keys personify the journey to heaven, SOAD recognizes the disregard for human life bred by global power struggles. A stirring conclusion to SOAD’s final full-length album, “Soldier Side” captures what is truly at the heart of the band’s message.
12. “Suite-Pee” - System of a Down (1998)
When reflecting on his early songwriting style, Malakian says that his intent was to get the crowd moving in the intimate venues that SOAD were frequenting. Case in point: “Suite-Pee.”
The opener to their self-titled project is a no holds barred experience when it comes to both instrumentals and lyricism. Showcasing his eccentric vocal style, Tankian emotes “I want to fuck my way to the garden cause everyone needs a motherfucker.” An explosion of sound with a touch of Armenian flare on the bridge, “Suite-Pee” lures you into the band’s twisted chaos.
11. “Aerials” - Toxicity (2001)
Contemplative, gripping, transformative: there are countless words that can be used to describe the mid-tempo parable that is “Aerials.” The visual for the track features a young boy lured into the circus of Hollywood by hedonistic promises. Alongside beautiful harmonization by Tankian and Malakian, a foreboding bass line and carefully controlled drumming serve as the anchor to Toxicity’s finale track. On certain editions of the record, “Aerials” flows delicately into a bonus track by Serart – Tankian’s avant-garde side project with Turkish-Armenian artist Arto Tunçboyacıyan.
10. “B.Y.O.B”. - Mezmerize (2005)
As the 2000s raged on, criticism surrounding the Iraq war intensified. The Grammy award winning “B.Y.O.B.” channels all of this discontent into an explosive single that cemented SOAD’s place in rock and roll history. “B.Y.O.B.,” which is short for “bring your own bombs,” comes to life as SOAD performs at a nightclub in which young people mindlessly dance (that is, until the invasion of robots flashing the words “die,” “buy,” and “obey”).
9. “Streamline” - Steal This Album! (2002)
In a particularly punchy interview with Fuse in 2005, Malakian compares his duets with Tankian to the work of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. When listening to the compatibility of their voices on the verses of Steal This Album! climax “Streamline,” it becomes clear that there was some truth behind the nonsense. Jumping rhythm contributions and a traditional guitar solo elevate the track into a modern rock symphony. A final roar gives way to a short orchestral outro – an epic end to the staggering 16-track album.
8. “Prison Song” - Toxicity (2001)
While police and prison reform are currently major political topics, the prison boom of the ’80s and ‘90s was once considered a mere side effect of taken-for-granted get-tough crime policies. SOAD helped blow the lid off this culture with their cult favorite “Prison Song,” which could very well qualify for a Guinness World Record for most facts spit per second. “The percentage of Americans in the prison system has doubled since 1985,” asserts Tankian before advocating for the abolition of mandatory minimum sentences. The rack’s relentless spirit has earned it a top spot on SOAD’s post-hiatus set lists.
7. “P.L.U.C.K.” - System of a Down (1998)
“The plan was mastered and called genocide,” Tankian says of the 1915 systematic massacre of Armenians. Historically known as the first modern genocide and Hitler’s inspiration for The Holocaust, the tragedy in the Caucuses was a formative part of SOAD’s conscious from the beginning. In “P.L.U.C.K.” (“politically unholy cowardly killers”), the band experiments with mile-a-minute drumming and echoing bellows, serving as the culmination of crushing sounds on their debut record. The subject matter is, of course, personal for the four men, as they have stated in past interviews that their family trees only begin with their grandparents due to the erasure of entire Armenian generations. “The few that remained were never found,” sings Tankian in the track’s somber conclusion. “All in a system, down.”
6. “Chop Suey!” - Toxicity (2001)
As SOAD’s most well-known track, “Chop Suey!” holds a reputation that precedes itself. However, the infectious stop-start track’s rise to the top was not without adversary. With Toxicity dropping just a week before 9/11, “Chop Suey!” saw its airplay virtually disappear due to the line, “I don’t think you trust in my self-righteous suicide.” Nevertheless, SOAD watched the song rise to the top of the charts as Toxicity became an instant classic. Now, the video for “Chop Suey!,” which features SOAD performing for a couple hundred very lucky kids, sits at over one billion views on YouTube.
5. “Spiders” - System of a Down (1998)
SOAD has always been adamant about the fact that their work is open to interpretation, and there is perhaps no greater source of philosophical theorization than “Spiders.” A single from their self-titled release, the video for “Spiders” presents a fantastical vision of the band in what appears to be an underground universe. Sonically, the track masters the art of the gradual build, with an apex that is equal parts haunting and hypnotic. While practically any band can offer a wall of sound, tapping into the dynamics of a dramatic rise and fall takes true musicianship. An early installment in SOAD’s journey, “Spiders” proved that this was more than just your standard nu metal act.
4. “Ego Brain” - Steal This Album! (2003)
There are several moments on Steal This Album! where SOAD showcases their more delicate side, with “Ego Brain” serving as a definitive standout. Be that as it may, the record’s 13th track does not forgo heavy elements. While the more patient tempo remains consistent throughout, graceful verses featuring another suburb Tankian-Malakian duet give way to a towering chorus. By challenging the traditional boundaries of a rock ballad, “Ego Brain” demonstrates the wide range within SOAD’s songwriting, as does Steal This Album! more broadly.
3. “Toxicity” - Toxicity (2001)
“How do you own disorder?” asks Tankian with a harrowing tone. It is a pivotal question in a time where L.A., as well as countless other U.S. cities, have succumbed to the effects of late stage capitalism. In the video for Toxicity’s title track, footage of urban decay and desperation is projected onto the band members bodies as Malakian jams on his signature Ibanez Iceman hand painted by his father, visual artist Vartan Malakian. The palpable emotion behind the lyricism is only intensified by the instrumental feats at play. With Dolmayan contributing one of the best drum performances of the 21st century, “Toxicity” is nothing short of generation-defining.
2. “Holy Mountains” - Hypnotize (2005)
As mentioned, SOAD’s contributions towards raising awareness about the Armenian genocide have been invaluable. One soul-stirring example is SOAD’s most underrated track, “Holy Mountains.” Presenting another evocative rise and fall-style of songwriting, “Holy Mountains” is nothing short of goosebump-inducing. In a special 2015 performance below, Tankian, Malakian, Odajian, and Dolmayan stand as a united front for justice in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. A commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the genocide, SOAD’s first concert on their ancestral land honors the resilience of the Armenian people.
1. “Question!” - Mezmerize (2005)
From the acoustic touches, to the adventurous bassline, to a superhuman final scream, the individual contributions on the existential “Question!” are as great as the sum of its parts. An utter treat to listen to on headphones, the track only gets better with every listen. SOAD’s second single from Mezmerize may not have garnered the same attention as “B.Y.O.B.,” but the sheer artistry in the composition and cinematography in the visual elevates it to an unmatched level. Picking the best SOAD track may be as blasphemous as picking your favorite child, but sometimes you encounter a piece of art so special you cannot help but hold it dear.