Since the late ’80s, Nine Inch Nails have proved to be one of rock’s most iconic and distinctive bands, speaking frankly about self-loathing and despair in songs that touch on metal, industrial and new wave. Songwriter and frontman Trent Reznor has had a lot of hits during the band’s long career, but what are the group’s greatest songs? Here’s a list of NIN’s top 10 tracks.
The opening track on Nine Inch Nails’ breakthrough album, “Mr. Self Destruct” lays out the musical and lyrical assault that awaits the listener on the rest of The Downward Spiral. Trent Reznor varies the attack, opening with blitzkrieg guitars before transitioning into a gentle keyboard bridge and whispered vocals. But the reprieve only lasts so long – before the song is over, he’s cranked the volume one more time, warning us all that “I am the bullet in the gun/I am the truth from which you run.”
Even if you couldn’t follow the album-length concept of NIN’s Year Zero, you couldn’t deny the future-dread power of “Survivalism,” where Reznor rants over some deeply paranoid keyboard riffs about a nation falling into chaos. Not quite a conventional hard rock song and not exactly a dance-floor burner, “Survivalism” largely glares at you from across the room, leaving you feeling very uncomfortable.
A dark dance track about isolation and irrelevance, “Echoplex” introduces a new wrinkle to the NIN formula: funk. Granted, that funk is filtered through tortured guitars and percolating beats, but nonetheless this might be the most groove-based song in the band’s catalogue. This song was a real highlight of The Slip, their 2008 album that turned out to be much better than a download-for-free record has any right to be.
Some knocked The Fragile for its elaborate sonic ambition – it was like the nastiest, loudest Pink Floyd album ever – but amidst the double-disc bloat, there were some terrific songs. Take “We’re in This Together,” a slowly building epic of romantic codependence – it may not be as immediately accessible as some other NIN singles, but Reznor amplifies the desperation and urgency to such a degree that most other love songs’ life-or-death melodrama seems cute by comparison.
An angry song about self-reliance, Trent Reznor’s “Only” is the song you want when you’re at the end of your rope and you’re trying to psych yourself up to face the jerks one more time. Deceptively pop in its structure, the With Teeth track boasts a bouncy drumbeat and ‘80s-style keyboards before the gathering storm clouds start to appear. Reznor sounds discouraged, but his disillusionment has left him with only one thing he knows for sure: “There is no you/There is only me.”
Most people were introduced to Nine Inch Nails thanks to this catchy mixture of new wave keyboards and industrial rock from the band’s first studio album. In “Head Like a Hole,” we hear all the themes that Reznor would continue to pursue throughout his career: religious hypocrisy, anti-authoritarian invective, pessimistic worldview, rabble-rousing spirit. Reznor has fine-tuned the approach in later years, but here’s where it first caught fire.
Nine Inch Nails moved from personal tales of misery to a more political bent on 2005’s With Teeth, most memorably on this single. As blisteringly insistent as its jackhammer riffs, Reznor’s lyrics were just as pointed and explicit, asking the listener to speak out against injustice, no matter how unpopular or difficult it might be.
Trent Reznor doesn’t write relationship songs in the conventional sense – in NIN’s world, the lovers are often damaged, needy and depraved individuals. A good example is this dance track from The Slip – the narrator adores his partner, even though he acknowledges that she’s left a scarring emotional and physical mark on him. “I don’t know where I end/And where you begin,” he confesses over a beat so engaging that it makes the dark-love sentiments all the more seductive.
Many notable artists have covered “Hurt” over the years – including Johnny Cash – but none have come close to matching the disturbing power of the original. Is it a song about someone taking his own life? Or is it a final plea from a self-mutilating junkie who’s reaching out to his soul mate? No matter how many times you hear “Hurt,” you can’t say for sure, making it a great song about that hazy line between hope and despair where no one wants to reside.
Massive radio airplay may have minimized this song’s extraordinary design, but “Closer” remains NIN’s crown jewel. A perfect synthesis of romantic need and debilitating self-hatred, the song’s push-pull lyrics are superbly complemented by the music, which is somehow simultaneously euphoric and bleak. If you’ve only heard the abbreviated single, you owe it to yourself to savor all six minutes of the album version – especially with headphones. Trent Reznor’s studio mastery never resulted in a stranger, more gripping tune.