Down in It

The 20 Best Nine Inch Nails Songs

by Jeffrey Thiessen

21 November 2012

Fans should reasonably expect very little, if any, new Nine Inch Nails output in the near or distant future. Which means now is as good a time as any to get a little retrospective when it comes to trying to figure out Trent Reznor's best work within the NIN framework.

No longer am I sure what the future holds for Nine Inch Nails. I still remember the day I snuck out of the house to buy The Downward Spiral like it was yesterday (I was 12 and forbidden to purchase that album). But the truth is, that breakout effort is almost 20 years old, and Nine Inch Nails aren’t really around these days. The last time I heard Trent Reznor mentioned on any consistent basis was last year when he accepted the Oscar for Best Score in regards to his work on The Social Network.

Us fans should reasonably expect very little, if any, NIN output in the near or distant future. Which means now is as good a time as any to get a little retrospective when it comes to trying to figure out Trent Reznor’s finest work within the NIN framework. I gave this list a lot of thought, and relistened to everything from Pretty Hate Machine to The Slip, as well as all the soundtrack tunes, remixes, and rarities in-between. These 20 track are the best Nine Inch Nails songs released, in my humble opinion. I hope we get more NIN in the future, but if not, then I suppose it’s OK to start looking backwards and not forwards. Until then, we have Tapeworm and Zach de la Rocha projects to look forward to, right?

20. “Survivalism”
(Year Zero, 2007)

Year Zero, for the most part, was an impressive slow-burn, with visions of a glitch-laden future layered over some of the most sinister-sounding music NIN ever committed to record. But nothing else on the album has the brutal immediacy of “Survivalism”, a truly muscular single that sounded absolutely incredible live. I’ve seen NIN play four times, and every time the band started up with this, the mosh pit swallowed up the whole stadium in fairly swift order. Actually this would’ve fit in better on The Fragile (1999) to be honest, but it still stands alone as an incredibly frenetic single that delivers that “punch in the face” Reznor described With Teeth as, but clearly didn’t achieve.

19. “Beside You in Time”
(With Teeth, 2005)

I’m pretty sure Reznor wanted “Right Where It Belongs” to be the definitive contemplative effort. He closed off With Teeth with the song, and even threw in a live crowd response halfway through the tune, but it was just too wishy-washy for me. The whole “What if everything…?” angle the lyrics take on doesn’t do much for me, and it shouldn’t do much for anybody who has heard any half-assed ballad that doesn’t really say anything, but is hoping a whole bunch of vague bullshit will ensure nobody notices.

“Beside You in Time”, on the other hand, is a much more heartfelt and introspective track. It’s one of Reznor’s most romantic offerings, and is built on a pretty frantic pace that climaxes with him pushing towards optimism while everything around him burns down, magnificently. A top-notch effort on NIN’s second-worst album (to me, The Slip is the obvious worst NIN record).

18. “La Mer”
(The Fragile, 1999)

“La Mer” is built on a really simple piano loop, and is the only NIN song to feature a vocalist other than Reznor. Its French vocals are sung by Denise Milfort, and even though it starts out with a placid nature, it ends up being chock-full of tension and paranoia. Think of Tricky’s best material, but instead of letting the walls close in on a whim, “La Mer” is allowed to organically crumple into itself. The overdubs are wedged into any possible nook and crevice, and by the time the track finishes, we’re left wondering how something so beautiful could be so driven to annihilate itself.

17. “Eraser”
(The Downward Spiral, 1994)

Simply put, “Eraser” doesn’t fuck around. It’s the most hardcore goddamn thing on The Downward Spiral. It’s basically divided into three parts; a thundering three-and-a-half drum intro, followed by a short Reznor vocal interlude, concluding with a minute of violent guitars accompanied by our favourite tortured ‘90s icon screaming “KILL ME!!!”. Now, I’m not saying I wholeheartedly buy into this suicidal deathwish, but within the hellish sonic context of “Eraser”, I’m willing to believe whatever the hell Reznor wants me to believe.

On a side note, I have proof just how vicious this tune is. One of my favourite pubs has The Downward Spiral in their jukebox, and whenever I’m feeling like a jerkoff (which is pretty much every time I’m there), I plug some cash in and select “Eraser” as one of my picks. An undercurrent of pure, uncut ire proceeds to spread throughout the room without hesitation…

16. “Head Like a Hole”
(Pretty Hate Machine, 1989)

A lot of NIN loyalists will cry foul this isn’t higher. If I’m being honest, I’ll concede I briefly considered not even including this in the top 20. I love Pretty Hate Machine, but parts of it haven’t aged particularly well, and I’ve always felt “Head Like a Hole” is one of those examples.

However, I did relent since as far as I’m concerned, the most consistent running theme throughout NIN’s discography from start to finish is Reznor’s inherent problem with any form of authority. “Head Like a Hole” serves as the earliest (and most streamlined) offering on the topic, and as such, it should stand among NIN’s most worthwhile efforts, even if it comes off as sorta behind its time when analyzed from a strictly musical level. New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies has many terrific songs pushing back against the powers that be, and they beat “Head Like a Hole” to the punch by having been released four years prior, so I’m hesitant to give this track too much credit.

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