The blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) phenomenon has profoundly revolutionized neuroscience, with applications ranging from normal brain development and aging, to brain disorders and diseases. While the BOLD effect represents an invaluable tool to map brain function, it does not measure neural activity directly; rather, it reflects changes in blood oxygenation resulting from the relative balance between cerebral oxygen metabolism (through neural activity) and oxygen supply (through cerebral blood flow and volume). As such, there are cases in which BOLD signals might be dissociated from neural activity, leading to misleading results. The emphasis of this review is to develop a critical perspective for interpreting BOLD results, through a comprehensive consideration of BOLD's metabolic and vascular underpinnings. We demonstrate that such an understanding is especially important under disease or resting conditions. We also describe state-of-the-art acquisition and analytical techniques to reveal physiological information on the mechanisms underlying measured BOLD signals. With these goals in mind, this review is structured to provide a fundamental understanding of: 1) the physiological and physical sources of the BOLD contrast; 2) the extraction of information regarding oxidative metabolism and cerebrovascular reactivity from the BOLD signal, critical to investigating neuropathology; and 3) the fundamental importance of metabolic and vascular mechanisms for interpreting resting-state BOLD measurements.