Nine Inch Nails’ sonic vitality is nearly unparalleled. Nearly three decades after Trent Reznor first hit the scene in the late 1980s, the band has remained one of the most urgent, angst-ridden and shockingly confrontational forces in popular music. Just this year they put out a new EP, Add Violence, that ranks as one of the finest, fiercest collections of songs they’ve ever produced. That work represents the second installment in a planned trilogy of abbreviated releases set to culminate with one final entry sometime in the winter months. I expect greatness there again.
Between the sparse industrial sounds of Pretty Hate Machine, the atomic bomb bombast of Broken, the gnashing, era-defining monster that was The Downward Spiral, the sprawling, open-hearted double-album The Fragile, and later works like With Teeth, Year Zero, The Slip, Hesitation Marks, and Not The Actual Events, there’s a vast array of Nine Inch Nails material for people to wade through. For those looking for the best entry point into this seminal band’s oeuvre, here are 15 of the best songs that Trent and his rotating collection of musical collaborators has ever produced.
15. “The Perfect Drug”
So, you know that entire list of albums that were just mentioned in the introduction? Yeah, well, you’re not going to find the first entry on this list in any of them. “The Perfect Drug” was a quick contribution that Trent hashed out for the soundtrack to David Lynch’s film The Lost Highway. Despite the song’s catchy chorus and jittery drum rhythms that made it a favorite amongst fans, Reznor himself doesn’t exactly hold it in the highest regard. “[If] somebody if they said play me, y’know, the top 100 songs you’ve written, that probably wouldn’t be in the top hundred,” he told the BBC in 2005. “I’m not cringing about it, but it’s not my favorite piece.” Good thing he’s not making this list then.
14. “Mr. Self Destruct”
Opening with an audio sample of a guard beating the holy hell out of a prisoner in George Lucas’ film THX 1138, “Mr. Self Destruct” sets the bar for raw aggression at an all-time high as the opening track on The Downward Spiral. The drums are a chaotic percussive tornado at the middle of which Trent stands, flatly intoning the opening lines, while introducing himself to the world as, “the voice inside your head.” And he controls you. He’s also the “Bullet in the gun,” and the “Truth from which you run.” He’s every bad instinct and self-loathing thought that’s ever entered your brain, manipulating you to do the things you’d rather not. When he screams during the chorus, “I drag you down, I use you up,” you know that it’s true.
13. “The Background World”
Call it recency bias whatever, the closing track from Add Violence, “The Background World,” is the most enthralling composition that Trent Reznor has created in a decade and more. The music itself is incredibly catchy, driven forward by this plodding, incessant drum beat. The melodies change multiple times throughout. In the opening it’s a nervy collection of electric clicks and zaps. By the middle a mournful cello grabs hold of the spotlight. The climax is marked with a boom-bap beat that somewhat resembles the song “Closer,” during which Trent asks over and over, “Are you sure? Is this what you want?” At the four minute mark, the entire thing goes over a cliff, falling, falling, falling down into a decaying piano riff that grows impossible to distinguish through a wall of increasing feedback that builds and build and builds over seven minutes and more. It’s totally thrilling in every sense of the word.
12. “The Hand That Feeds”
For a long time after The Fragile came out, it seemed like Nine Inch Nails was over. Reznor spent years battling back against a whole host of personal demons and addictions that nearly caused his demise. Fortunately, he clawed his way out of the darkness and in 2005 made his triumphant return — looking swole as hell — with a brand new album With Teeth. “The Hand That Feeds” was the lead single from that project and a hell of a way to re-introduce yourself to the world. In it, Trent shifts his gaze from his own struggles to more macro concepts like President George W. Bush’s foreign policies and those who blindly followed along with them in the wake of 9/11. “What if this whole crusade’s / A charade / And behind it all there’s a price to be paid / For the blood / Which we dine / Justified in the name of the holy and the divine?”
11. “Terrible Lie”
“Terrible Lie” on Pretty Hate Machine is a good song. It’s a seductive melange of industrial clinks and clanks. Totally solid. “Terrible Lie” on the 2002 live album And All That Could Have Been is a tidal wave of guitar-fueled hostility that comes screaming out of the speakers with a fury that’s frankly overwhelming. Sure, you lose some of the nuance from the official recorded version, but the raw, Stooges-esque power that the Fragility 2.0 live band bring to this track is absolutely mind-blowing. Together, they manage to totally unlock the song’s real potential that had been hovering just under the surface for years. The added oomph that the vocals receive on the chorus makes all the difference in the world.
Nine Inch Nails emerged in the late ’80s out of the industrial rock subgenre. Those sounds have always been the bedrock of their aesthetic, no matter how many times its morphed through the span of decades. That being said, there is hardly a more industrial sounding track in their catalog than “Reptile,” the third-to-last entry on The Downward Spiral. The best way to describe “Reptile” is that it sounds like someone pissed off a gigantic elephant then let it loose inside of the molten-lava refinery at the end of Terminator 2. It’s chaotic, discordant, and furious. What’s not to like?
Broken was an eight-song stop-gap EP released in between Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral in 1992. It marked a significant turn away from their sort of electronica and world music driven sound of old, into far grungier and more bombastic territory. The song that best exemplified that shift was the record’s second track “Wish.” It’s that song that would earn Nine Inch Nail’s their first ever Grammy for best metal performance. “Wish” is a frenetic cyclone of synths and guitar mashed together then lifted with a relatively simple, but powerfully uplifting chorus. “Wish there was something real, wish I were something true / Wish I were something real in this world full of you.”
8. “We’re In This Together”
Trent Reznor is one of the true acolytes of David Bowie. Putting aside their personal relationship, it’s very clear that the Nine Inch Nails frontman took a lot of cues — not especially musical ones — from the Thin White Duke. One of the most obvious occurs in this Fragile standout “We’re In This Together,” where he nearly quotes Bowie from his song “Heroes,” near the end of this number, singing, “You’re the queen and I’m the king / Nothing else means anything.” Even if it runs up against the eight-minute mark, it’s one of the most conventional rock songs in the Nine Inch Nails canon, but also one of the most affecting.
7. “The Great Below”
On a sonic level there isn’t that much to “The Great Below.” To a certain extent, it operates as the precursor to some of the sound-scape-y compositions that would become Trent’s bread and butter in the years to come. Where this song really packs its punch is in the vocal delivery. Reznor begins with a breathy, echo-enhanced whisper. Sounds and melodies whoosh past, but his voice remains the center, growing in volume and intensity with every passing second. At the 2:50 mark he’s literally screaming. “And I descend from grace / In arms of undertow / I will take my place / In the great below.” It’s the most exhilarating vocal performance he’s ever committed to tape.
6. “Down In It”
“Down In It” was the very first song that Trent Reznor ever released as Nine Inch Nails. Listening back to it all these years later, it’s crazy to hear just how different it sounds from basically everything else he’s ever created since. The verses are rapped out rather than sung. The electronic drums sound especially “stock” as Lars Ulrich might say. The synth accents are almost quant. Still, you can’t deny the energy or the melody of the track. The chorus is incredibly catchy, the groove is unceasingly tight, and the content of the words foreshadowed basically every self-flagellating song he’s written since. “Everything I never liked about you / Is kind of seeping into me / Try to laugh about it now / But isn’t it funny how everything works out / ‘I guess the joke’s on me,’ she said.”
When people think about Nine Inch Nails, chances are the first song that pops into mind is “Closer.” In the HBO documentary The Defiant Ones about Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, when Reznor finally makes his entrance around the third episode, the filmmakers of course use several shots from the iconic music video for this song. On his tombstone, there’s a very good chance it’ll read, “Here lies Trent Reznor: He wants to f*ck you like an animal.” This song is pure swank, propelled by a wah-wah guitar riff and hissing percussion noises the eventually devolve into a pit of screaming synth stabs. The content of the song remains open to a lot of interpretation, especially the line, “You get me closer to God,” which could either mean, someone is saving Trent or actively killing him, or making him want to die. While “Closer” is without a doubt the greatest Nine Inch Nails song, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best Nine Inch Nails song, thus its position here.
4. “Right Where It Belongs”
In this absolutely gorgeous composition, Trent has a lot of questions to ask the listener. Is the life you’re living really your own, or are you living through someone else’s construct? “What if all the world you think you know / Is an elaborate dream?” More importantly, “What if you could look right through the cracks / Would you find yourself / Find yourself afraid to see?” As far as Nine Inch Nails songs go, this is about as tender as it gets. A striking piano ballad, minimalist in construct, maximalist in emotion. The moment when the crowd noise pours in just before the final verse gives me chills every single time.
3. “Head Like A Hole”
Coming hot on the heels of “Down In It,” Nine Inch Nails’ third single is really where everything came together. “Head Like A Hole” is a song fueled by pure, distilled rage. A 24-year old Reznor has already honed a fierce, sarcastic edge, which he uses to great affect while railing against the “God [of] Money.” The opening spells it all out: “God money I’ll do anything for you / God money just tell me what you want me to / God money nail me up against the wall / God money don’t want everything he wants it all.” But of course, Reznor won’t do a damn thing for his corporate masters, and he’d “rather die, than give you control.” What disaffected youth can’t see some of themselves in that sentiment?
When most people think of “Hurt” they think of Johnny Cash. Totally fair. As the Man In Black’s melancholic farewell — I still can’t watch the video without tearing up — it packed an emotional wallop that’d be hard for anyone to top. Reznor, the song’s creator has acknowledged this dilemma and it didn’t make him feel great initially. “I’d known where I was when I wrote it,” he said in 2008. “I know what I was thinking about. I know how I felt. Hearing it was like someone kissing your girlfriend. It felt invasive”. Nevertheless, “Having Johnny Cash, one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time, want to cover your song, that’s something that matters to me,” Adding, “He said afterwards it was a song that sounds like one he would have written in the ’60s and that’s wonderful”. I couldn’t hope to put it any better myself. It also works as a perfect, soul-baring cap at the end of the furious hour-long assault that is The Downward Spiral.
1. “The Fragile”
If we’re talking about the most impactful or most recognized song that has ever been released under the Nine Inch Nails banner, the title track from the group’s 1999 album is not it. But that isn’t what this list is about. This list is about the best songs that Nine Inch Nails has ever released, and in terms of quality, the top prize has to be given to “The Fragile.” The sonic construction is incredible. It opens with the sound of clanking chains and a brush against a snare drum. Reznor is in full crooner mode: “She shiiiiiiines, in a world full of ugliness / She matteeeeeers, when everything is meaningless.” The chorus arrives, and he kicks into another level without going over the top: “I won’t let you fall apart,” that same phrase repeated over and over again. There’s a glimmer of hope in all the muck, the grime, and the darkness in the world, and Reznor isn’t willing to let go of this piece of light, even if “it’s too late for me.”
The next chorus is an atomic explosion of clanging drums, fuzzed out guitars, mechanical synths, and guttural screaming. “I won’t let you fall apart / I won’t let you fall apart / I won’t let you fall apart.” He’s promising himself just as much as he’s promising her. A piano comes through in the bridge, and Reznor is gutted. He feels the futility of it all. “I’ll build a wall and we can keep them on the other side… but they keep waiting… and picking… and picking…” A mournful guitar solo takes when he can speak no longer. Then one last defiant blast: “It’s something I have to do (I won’t let you fall apart) / I was there, too (I won’t let you fall apart) / Before everything else / (I won’t let you fall apart) / I was like you / (I won’t let you fall apart).” There isn’t another song by Nine Inch Nails as dramatic or packed with as much raw emotion — hope, defiance, futility, rage, and ultimately acceptance — as “The Fragile.”