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30 Best Nine Inch Nails Songs -- Nine Inch Nails at 30 Years

Posted by Eric Stensvaag on Jul 31, 2018 12:51:44 PM

In November 1988, Trent Reznor recorded a 9-track demo of songs that formed the basis of Nine Inch Nail’s first album Pretty Hate Machine. As fans of the band know–and this album bluntly states–“Nine Inch Nails is Trent Reznor.” During the 1990s, Reznor established himself as one of the most admired musicians of his generation, a reputation he’s upheld even while developing an impressive side-career as a film and television composer.

With the arrival of Nine Inch Nails’ acclaimed Bad Witch last month, it’s an ideal time to celebrate the band’s 30th anniversary. Below is my list of the 30 best Nine Inch Nails (NIN) songs. But first, a little background on Reznor and NIN…

The beginning of NIN is decidedly humble: Reznor recorded the band’s demo while working as a handyman and janitor at a Cleveland studio, using discounted, off-hours recording time. According to lore, Reznor’s decision to go solo sprang from necessity, as he was unable to find a band that could capture the right sound. Inspired by Prince—whose influence on certain NIN songs is unmistakable—he played almost all the instruments himself. While Reznor has collaborated with many musicians through the years, notably now-official NIN member Atticus Ross, solitary individuality has been central to the band’s lyrics and the genius reputation Reznor has earned.

Nine Inch Nails followed the outstanding, hit-making debut Pretty Hate Machine with two much more aggressive works: 1992’s Broken (an 8-song EP) and the massive commercial breakthrough The Downward Spiral (1994). These releases captured the subversive, edgy NIN aesthetic that continues to define the band, and The Downward Spiral is correctly cited as Reznor’s masterpiece. Credit his formidable pop songcraft with selling such a nihilistic, dissonant, often avant-garde album to a mainstream audience.

Having achieved a level of commercial and critical success many musicians work a lifetime to attain, Reznor took a little time off following his 2 ½ year (!) tour in support of The Downward Spiral. He fully resurfaced in 1999 with fan-favorite The Fragile, an ambitious, frequently thrilling, occasionally bloated double album. Act I of Nine Inch Nails now complete, the band’s iconic, minimalist logo was seared deeply into the fabric of pop culture.

With Teeth (2005) split the difference between keeping casual fans interested (see: “The Hand That Feeds”) and broadening NIN’s sonic and lyrical palette. Though uneven, With Teeth has exceptional peaks and is Reznor’s best album from the aughts, a period that saw three other albums released in quick succession.

The laptop-driven music of Year Zero (2007) was unfairly overshadowed by NIN’s innovative, elaborate promotional campaign. Ghosts I-IV followed in 2008, a double album that’s arguably more important in terms of Reznor’s musical development than as a stand-alone listen. Nine Inch Nails’ prolific, supercharged Act II concluded with The Slip (2008), a free download announced with the unexpectedly charming message “this one’s on me.”

At the outset of the band’s 2009 tour, Reznor posted online that "I've been thinking…it's time to make NIN disappear for a while." For the next four years, he channeled his musical energies into film scoring with future bandmate Atticus Ross—winning an Academy Award for The Social Network in 2011—and newly formed band How to Destroy Angels with his wife Mariqueen Maandig and Ross.

In 2013, a refreshed NIN roared out of hiatus with Hesitation Marks, a latter-day triumph of reinvention. As Act III of Nine Inch Nails continued into the Trump era, Reznor’s trademark existential rage acquired renewed relevance. Whether political commentary or canny coincidence, the first EP of the band’s “trilogy” was entitled Not the Actual Events and released just one month after the 2016 election. The provocatively titled Add Violence EP (2017) and Bad Witch (2018) complete this trilogy and mark the end of NIN’s first 30 years. Here are the 30 best NIN songs.

Listen to the full YouTube playlist here:

Youtube Playlist

30. “Something I Can Never Have,” Pretty Hate Machine
This stripped-down ballad at the heart of NIN’s debut showcases the emotion Reznor fused with industrial music to bring this abrasive style into the mainstream. Some of the lyrics have a juvenile, diary-entry quality (“grey would be the color if I had a heart”) that expose they were written by a 24 year-old. A highlight of his live show, the simple yet sturdy tune pairs with vulnerable vocals. Reznor was recently quoted as saying “…when I first started writing music…I wrote a few terrible songs because I was trying to be like somebody else…That next batch of songs, for Pretty Hate Machine, had an honesty to it because it came from a real place."

29. “Terrible Lie,” Pretty Hate Machine
God and religion are recurring themes for NIN, tracing a long arc that continues through recent single “God Break Down the Door.” Reznor’s conflicted relationship with his Lutheran upbringing gets laid out starkly in “Terrible Lie,” with sad, angry lyrics like “Hey God, why are you doing this to me?...I’m all alone in a world you must despise…” Cold, detached beats give way to an ominous, hymn-like chorus, with synths taking the place of church organ.

28. “Me, I’m Not,’ Year Zero
Year Zero’s woozy pinnacle finds a subdued Reznor wrapping himself in a psychedelic cloak of slippery electronica to retreat from the world. The lyrics are nothing new for NIN, but the musical arrangement is gorgeous. My vote for best NIN remix—from an impressively large pool of candidates—goes to Olof Dreijer (of The Knife) for his 14-minute, ultra-minimalist transformation of “Me, I’m Not.”

27. “The Day the World Went Away,” The Fragile
An unlikely first single from NIN’s sprawling double album, this song uses no percussion. It foreshadowed The Fragile’s return to the guitar-focused sound of Broken following synthesizer showcase The Downward Spiral. While its lyrics are typically downer, the song concludes with a repeated, wordless chorus of ‘na na nah’s that bears an obvious similarity to the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” Given that Reznor’s grandmother who raised him had recently died, “The Day the World Went Away” could be heard as his reimagining of this famous song…with Reznor singing himself a version of what Paul McCartney wrote to soothe John Lennon’s son in the aftermath of his parents’ divorce.

26. “Copy of a,” Hesitation Marks
“I am just a copy of a copy of a copy, everything I say has come before,” announces Reznor at the beginning of an album that re-launched NIN after its hiatus. The song’s lyrics prompt contradictory interpretations, at one moment daring us to conclude this is a cookie-cutter NIN single, and at another that he’s simply reflecting on the artistic process with wisdom and humility. Its propulsive, richly textured music serves as tiebreaker, signaling that NIN has successfully reinvented itself with a sleeker, cleaner sound.

25. “Ruiner,” The Downward Spiral
Reznor is a master of musical layers, an ability that’s most clearly on display within this album. “Ruiner” thrusts ambiguous, seething lyrics into a high-intensity, hip-hop groove full of unexpected twists and turns. He has said it was “the hardest song to write [for the record]…That was actually two different songs stuck together.” My favorite moment appears at the beginning of verse two, when NIN adds a fat synth countermelody over an already thick soundscape.

24. “Ahead of Ourselves,” Bad Witch
NIN’s recent trilogy delivered its payload on third installment, Bad Witch. Reznor’s best song in a decade, the frenzied “Ahead of Ourselves” leaps out of speakers powered by a galloping drumbeat. Various NIN hallmarks such as digitally altered vocals, crazed synths, power chords equalized so loudly the tones shatter, and unconventional meters (the chorus shifting between 4/4 and 6/4) are combined in fresh ways. The song’s bleak, nihilistic lyrics have the unfortunate ring of truth in our post-Trump world.

23. “La Mer,” The Fragile
Reznor composed “La Mer” while in a Big Sur rental house overlooking the ocean, where he’d gone to contemplate suicide. Inspired by French Impressionist composer Claude Debussy, whose influence is heard in the triple meter and open, pentatonic harmonies, this is the only piece he completed at that time. Beginning with a simple, translucent theme for piano and string bass, he superimposes a muscular rhythm counterpart at 1:22. These two musical components push-and-pull at one another as if tossed about in the sea of this instrumental’s title.

22. “Reptile,” The Downward Spiral
The most purely industrial song in NIN’s catalog, “Reptile” mixes whirring, crushing hydraulic sounds into its music to harrowing effect. Whether a monster’s lair or a sex dungeon, Reznor conjures a vivid backdrop for bleakly erotic lyrics like “seeds from a thousand others drip down from within.” And here’s where NIN makes industrial music its own: at the center of this horror show is a tuneful, memorable chorus. A highlight comes at 5:19, with a massively understated utterance of the word “oh.” This is followed by a guitar solo of exactly two notes, playing the famously dissonant tritone or “devil interval” that’s prominently used throughout The Downward Spiral.

21. “Demon Seed,” The Slip
Reznor is one hell of a closer: many of NIN’s greatest songs are the last tracks on their respective albums. This barnburner was salvaged from his Ghosts IV recording sessions and the rework is superb. From the Rosemary’s Baby-esque title to its relentless drive to defiant lyrics (the Queens of a Stone Age-influenced ‘yeah yeah’s are super fun) to a psychedelic coda that somehow, amazingly “goes to 11” before the tape is abruptly cut off…this song is a blast.

20. “Ringfinger,” Pretty Hate Machine
And another brilliant album closer. A gothic love song, Reznor goes several steps beyond the usual connotation of this title to sing “ringfinger, sever flesh and bone, and offer it to me.” These and other disturbing lyrics are paired with music that steadily builds from an almost generic techno beat to grandiose conclusion. The first verse blooms into a cold musical cathedral for its chorus. In a “killer app” NIN would return to through the years, the song’s second verse builds momentum by adding another percussion part to the mix. At 4:04, an insanely great Jane’s Addiction vocal sample launches into a musical epilogue that—circa 1989—would best be described as bananas. Eerie, pulsing synths, a killer drum track, squealing car tires, turntable scratches, and finally grossly distorted guitar…together stage an end-of-the-world dance-off.

19. “Gave Up,” Broken
A dispatch from Reznor’s heart of darkness, “Gave Up” explores themes of alienation and self-destruction he would refine in next release The Downward Spiral. Which isn’t to say this song is a rough draft. It is plenty rough, in all the right ways, and could easily have been NIN’s final say on suicidal tendencies. By adopting some of the hardest, heaviest elements of rock—turbocharged guitars, screamed vocals, breakneck drum work—and pairing these with Pretty Hate Machine’s synthesizers, Reznor arrived at a more visceral expression of the rage he was feeling. The repeated, climactic “gonna smash myself to pieces, I don’t know what else to do,” arrives with music that careens wildly out of control and finally crashes, driving home the song’s fatalism.

18. “Right Where It Belongs,” With Teeth
If NIN ever tires of closing live shows with “Hurt,” this song would be the ideal choice. With lyrics echoing Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass and, more recently, The Matrix, Reznor considers that “all the world you think you know, is an elaborate dream.” Gently loping piano and synthesizer provide reggae-influenced accompaniment for an unusually beautiful NIN vocal line. A clever production trick underscores the song’s lyrics: just before the final chorus its sound significantly expands, and we realize everything that preceded had an ashen quality lacking in real world vibrancy. The song’s ending is disarmingly optimistic, with Reznor humming in falsetto and major-key piano dissolving midair.

17. “A Warm Place,” The Downward Spiral
NIN’s greatest instrumental was spellbinding in 1994 and remains so to this day. The perfectly named track provided a necessary respite from the aural and lyrical assault of The Downward Spiral. The ascending synth melody is an inversion—played upside down—of the descending “downward spiral” theme that occurs in five of the album’s other songs. Equally powerful as a standalone piece, “A Warm Place” played a central role in the Reznor-curated soundtrack to Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.

16. “Only,” With Teeth
A sequel of sorts to “Down In It,” this poppy song revisits similar themes of identity and disillusionment, even quoting the former’s lyrics. Reznor’s tongue-in-cheek delivery on “Only” is a rare glimpse of the humor lurking within this usually serious artist, simultaneously acknowledging his old hit and placing some emotional distance between then and now. That isn’t to say the song is fully in jest: the lyrics are a barb thrown at the music industry for its singular focus on, in Reznor’s words, “selling more records and playing bigger venues.” You don’t need to know any of this backstory to enjoy the interplay of bouncy synths, open and closed hi-hats, and funky bass, or to join in singing choice lines like “there is no f***ing you, there is only me.” There’s plenty of auditory abrasion here too, but this is NIN at its most fun and playful.

15. “Happiness in Slavery,” Broken
This song paints a graphic picture of bondage, with Reznor screaming many of the lyrics over aggressive, distorted drums. Its chorus arrives with a nasty bass line and porny synths, and the bridge at 2:08 is a thrilling example of Reznor’s skill at deconstructing and reconstructing musical material. Like forthcoming tour mates The Jesus & Mary Chain, NIN has a rare ability to bury a core of sweet melody beneath layers of abrasive surfaces. “Happiness in Slavery” is no exception, and it’s a big part of the song’s lasting power.

14. “Heresy,” The Downward Spiral
No bait and switch here! “Heresy” delivers on the promise of its title. NIN’s most blistering indictment of Christianity, Reznor takes Nietzsche’s “god is dead” one step further with “if there is a hell, I’ll see you there.” The “downward spiral” theme that’s used prominently in this album—heard most clearly in the wavery synth line at the very end of “Closer”—is translated into raw power chords for this song’s chorus. While quieter, the bridge at 2:30 imagines the hell in question: all trudging footsteps, clanking chains, moaning, and the distant roar of an angry crowd, before erupting into a deranged guitar solo.

13. “We’re in This Together,” The Fragile
Discussing his process with NPR, Reznor shared: “I aspire to make a record that sounds better 10 listens in than it does after two—and still, at 50 listens, you’re picking out things that add a depth and a thoughtfulness.” His sterling production skills are evident in The Fragile’s high point “We’re in This Together.” The song offers tremendous dynamic range, with a slow, steadily building march, stacks of serrated-edge guitars, one of his most anthemic, impassioned choruses, and a 2-minute piano cooldown. Even during the loudest, densest statement of this chorus you can distinctly hear the drums beneath. This juxtaposition of auditory overload and crystalline clarity lies at the heart of his production genius.

12. “The Becoming,” The Downward Spiral
For sheer musical sophistication, NIN has rarely surpassed “The Becoming.” Reznor weaves a hypnotic vocal melody through one of his most intense, unforgettable musical landscapes. In alternating 6/4 and 7/4 meter, he constructs a dark groove from pounding synth bass, assaultive percussion, and screams and shrieks—simultaneously attracting and repelling us like a good horror movie. Of the many valid interpretations, the song’s aural insanity and abrupt contrasts—including the sweet, acoustic lullaby at 2:46 that a guitar solo blasts to smithereens—seem to indicate it’s about someone with a rapidly worsening mental health illness.

11. “Down In It,” Pretty Hate Machine
Pretty Hate Machine’s first single, this is the song that introduced NIN to the world. It highlights Reznor’s early skill at melding hip-hop, rock, and synth-pop influences, though uncharacteristically features rapped lyrics. “Down In It” combines catchy rhythms and melodies—even quoting childhood nursery rhymes such as “Rain, Rain, Go Away”--with ominous harmonies and sonics. In this way, the song masquerades as a pop tune before revealing itself to be a diary entry of someone struggling with mental health problems, drug addiction, or perhaps just the human condition.

10. “Eraser,” The Downward Spiral
The “eraser” sound that begins this song was actually created by blowing into a saxophone mouthpiece. It’s a fantastic example of text painting, a technique dating back to the 16th century in which music is composed to reflect the literal meaning of a song’s lyrics. Insectile humming, walloping drums, cold synths, and dissonant guitars conjure a hellscape before self-loathing vocals finally enter with a twisted lullaby. The rock bottom moment of this suicidal concept album, “Eraser” ends with Reznor repeatedly screaming “kill me!” Upsetting? Hell yes. Also unlike any other music you will ever hear.

9. “Beside You in Time,” With Teeth
From the sustained Eastern drone that anchors this song to its shimmering, pulsing synths, this is unexplored territory for NIN. While it’s clearly inspired by the modern composer Steve Reich, Reznor translates Reich’s mostly-acoustic minimalism into his own electronic style. The auditory effect is similar, with Reznor capturing the special hallucinatory qualities of minimalist music in this unexpectedly spiritual song. “Beside You in Time” is a profound musical statement from NIN…even before we arrive at the massively cathartic, thrillingly optimistic coda.

8. “The Perfect Drug,” Lost Highway (soundtrack)
Reznor has expressed some dissatisfaction with “The Perfect Drug,” noting the external influence of drum ‘n’ bass and jungle music, so this may be a case where he simply had genius to burn. Sure, the song doesn’t fit snugly in the stylistic pocket of what NIN usually records and yes, the chorus is so catchy it almost (not quite, but almost) sounds like a Coke commercial. But if this is Reznor taking a brief, touristy detour through electronica it is goddamn lucky for other electronica acts that he didn’t decide to stay here. There is too much musical brilliance to unpack, so let’s just focus on the extended percussion breakdown that begins at 2:26, seemingly exhausting every possible iteration of the song’s beat before then transitioning from electronic drums to a very live drum kit at 3:25 and finally concluding at 3:51. And we are left with the aural equivalent of a post-coital cigarette, in a cool outro fully furnished with its own musical material.

7. “Wish,” Broken
This antagonistic song follows a brief instrumental to kick off NIN’s second release, serving as immediate notice that this outing would be much rawer than the dark synthscapes of its debut. One of Reznor’s most straightforward rockers, its blistering music and lyrics intertwine to create a raging, self-destructive energy that feels just short of literally combusting. Even the usually dim-witted Recording Academy recognized this lightning captured in a bottle, awarding NIN the Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance in 1993. Referring to the song’s lyrics, Reznor later joked that his epitaph should read “Reznor: Died. Said ‘fist f***’ and won a Grammy.”

6. “Piggy,” The Downward Spiral
“Nothing can stop me now, ‘cause I don’t care anymore.” This fatalistic, strangely empowering lyric becomes a mantra repeated throughout “Piggy.” It’s the first appearance of a line that’s used either verbatim or in modified form within many of NIN’s later songs. An intoxicatingly slinky bass, drum, and eventually electric organ track is smeared with various hair-raising effects (ghostly breathing sounds, kids’ screaming or playing) to accompany one of Reznor’s most despondent and detached lyrical performances. A polyrhythmic drum solo—with beats wildly falling inside and outside the song’s meter—was played by Reznor himself, originally just as a placeholder. Immediately following this solo, we get our first appearance of the central “downward spiral” theme.

5. “Burn,” Natural Born Killers (soundtrack)
Shit-hot. That’s the best way to describe Reznor in 1994 when he oversaw the Natural Born Killers soundtrack and contributed this, the only original song for that project. With the drumbeat that launches “Burn,” Reznor leaned on hip-hop to concoct an iconic percussion riff that could stand alongside the best guitar riffs [(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, Smoke on the Water, etc.] of rock history. From there, he channeled his inner Mickey and Mallory to deliver one of NIN’s angriest screeds against society. The song is strongly of a piece with The Downward Spiral yet also manages to fully encapsulate in its 5-minute running time the essence of Natural Born Killers.

4. “Hurt,” The Downward Spiral
Johnny Cash’s late-in-life cover and video of this song brought Reznor to “the verge of tears.” It’s an incredible metamorphosis…but the original is plenty moving. Perhaps more than any of NIN’s songs, “Hurt” is indivisible from the album it concludes. A vessel for the most poignant lyrics Reznor has written, the spindly, washed-out masterpiece can be heard as coming from the other side of the grave. NIN constructs a beautiful melody using little more than five notes and detuned, broken-sounding guitars. The “downward spiral” theme joins at the chorus in its loveliest statement, just single-note acoustic piano. Using a limited range of musical materials, all precisely placed, the song builds to an appropriately jarring conclusion.

3. “March of the Pigs,” The Downward Spiral
NIN’s fastest-paced song rides a daredevil 7/4 meter, with vicious lyrics snarled over frenetic drums, scalding guitars, and a swollen synth bass line. The chorus shifts to standard 4/4 meter and a menacing electronic beat leads us to the killing floor. “Take the skin and peel it back” and then comes the black punch line: Reznor sings “now doesn’t it make you feel better?” to a jaunty, sweetly saccharine piano tune. Total silence. Then we barrel back into the 7/4 mayhem of verse two, which doubles-down by adding sampled pig squeals and crowd noises. The wild contrasts of “March of the Pigs,” all hairpin turns sharply executed, make the song a highlight of NIN’s recorded catalog and live shows.

2. “Head Like a Hole,” Pretty Hate Machine
Pretty Hate Machine kicks off with this dark, militaristic rock anthem. The song features not just one but two choruses (“head like a hole…” followed by “bow down before…”), the first of many times NIN will deviate from traditional song structures. Lyrically, “Head Like a Hole” contrasts people who worship god or money with those who’d rather “die than give up control” to these pillars of society. The song’s rebellious, antiauthoritarian attitude is textbook rock ‘n’ roll, but its focus on religion and materialism sets it apart from the garden-variety angst that often dominates modern rock. Its central theme, which appears again and again throughout Reznor’s music, is the struggle to define life’s meaning and order on one’s own terms. In a word, this is existentialism.

1. “Closer,” The Downward Spiral
It’s somewhat rare that a musician’s best song is also their biggest hit. But “Closer” is unquestionably NIN’s finest single achievement, a definitive summary of Reznor’s musical and lyrical aesthetic wrapped in a note-perfect recording that accrues power with each listen. From the first Iggy Pop-sampled drumbeat/heartbeat, the song oozes a filthy charm that its sexual, self-loathing lyrics only magnify. The funky groove and harmonies echo Prince, but the relentless, mechanized musical arrangement and eerie soundscape are purely NIN’s own. While the song is plenty sexy, the predatory lyrics and vibe reveal a sickness at its core. For the song’s climax, Reznor stacks layer after layer of punishing percussion tracks atop one another, then drives the whole thing home with an insistent synth statement of the “downward spiral” theme. Its last notes warble off into the distance as we sit stunned into submission.
Trent Reznor Image

Image Credits: Nine Inch Nails, Killian Young

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