The 20 Best Nine Inch Nails Songs

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.

15 – 11

 

15. “Ruiner”
(The Downward Spiral, 1994)

Nobody really talks about “Ruiner”, and I’m not really sure why. It’s epic, anxious and soulful without even trying too hard. Maybe people are quick to dismiss it, since it is yet another song on The Downward Spiral that seems to be written about Reznor’s dick , but the fact remains, it is one of the most fearless songs on the album, and also contains one of NIN’s best guitar solos. “Ruiner” never gives us time to breathe, and while this overt willingness to shift wildly from section to section may be alienating in nature, I’m still pretty certain it will go down as a prime example of Reznor at his creative peak.

 

14. “The Line Begins to Blur”
(With Teeth, 2005)

Now this is what I was hoping Reznor would give us when he promised us a “punch in the face” when it came to the sound/approach of With Teeth. We never really did get that, but “The Line Begins to Blur” is the closest thing on this album. It sort of comes out of nowhere, and before we know it, we are getting completely beat up by the distorted groove. There’s no reason “TLBTB” really should work, since it doesn’t really evolve into anything. But it bravely stays its brutal course, and somehow we all come out the wiser.

 

13. “Hurt”
(The Downward Spiral, 1994)

This is not Johnny Cash’s song, OK? He didn’t reclaim it, or any of that nonsense. A cover song by nature cannot better the original version, since it wouldn’t fucking exist without the original version. That’s just a fact. Cash did a good job, but it’s not his song, it’s not his words; it’s just a cover. Cash has no stake in “Hurt”; it is, and will forever be, Trent Reznor’s.

Now that I got that off my chest, “Hurt” is an amazing, haunting effort. Truthfully there isn’t a lot to be critical of when it comes to this track. No line is wasted; no note is unneeded. It doesn’t overstay its welcome, and the final notes will carve their way into your psyche without mercy.

 

12. “The Perfect Drug”
(Lost Highway soundtrack, 1997)

There’s a decent chance I’ll get drawn and quartered for including this, especially when you consider me ranking it ahead of NIN staples like “Head Like a Hole” and “Hurt”. Even Reznor hates the thing (to this day it has not been played live). But if you ignore the overly dramatic video, and Trent’s damning analysis, I still maintain it represents a totally mutant and adventurous track that doesn’t adhere to the unwritten “rules” of so many previous NIN efforts previous to this. The stop-start chorus sounds like nothing else in their catalogue, and the drum ‘n bass focus really works within the context of what he’s trying to do here.

“The Perfect Drug” is his bastard soundtrack son he wants to disown, and while he may despise it, I really believe it represents a very fleeting period in his life where he was OK with doing something drastically different with the NIN moniker. It doesn’t sound like NIN — and by extension, it doesn’t sound like Reznor — but to me that’s a good thing.

 

11. “My Violent Heart”
(Year Zero, 2007)

This will be the last inclusion off Year Zero. I don’t feel any of the tracks on that record could be justified being included in the top ten of NIN’s all-time best songs. Having said that, as a conceptual record it works really brilliantly, but the songs sort of depend on each other, like in any good concept album. As a result of this, I feel I’m being pretty generous putting “My Violent Heart” at number 11.

To me, there is a lot of good material on Year Zero, but “My Violent Heart” represents the first real moment since The Fragile where Reznor sounds supremely confident he can still fuck up a studio with the best of them. It’s impossible to hear the searing chorus and not be reminded why NIN was so quick to enter our hearts years ago: unrelenting aural pressure accompanied by “On hands and knees we crawl / You cannot stop us all / Our bones, our skin / We will not let you in!” Oh man. At that moment I was sold that he was still one of the best sonic architects working today, and not just some guy now content to spend his days writing songs on a laptop. That stern reminder made a real impression on me, and was probably the last NIN song released that was fueled purely by such effective vitriol.

10 – 6

 

10. “The Way Out Is Through”
(The Fragile, 1999)

Best opening NIN song by a country mile. It’s so good, I wish Reznor just axed “Somewhat Damaged” and allowed this to open both Fragile discs. As good as it is, I’m not sure it would have been nearly as powerful if it was placed anywhere but in the opening spot, so really that’s the only reason I couldn’t place it higher; it’s simply too contingent on placing. Thankfully Reznor put it in its correct position, and its sheer power is eclipsed by nothing in NIN’s catalogue.

 

9. “The Becoming”
(The Downward Spiral, 1994)

Much like “Ruiner”, for some reason this track really gets very little attention among NIN fans, and again, I’m confused as to why. If you take an objective look at “The Becoming” from a strictly musical stance, it is easily the strongest effort on The Downward Spiral. Reznor is on a whole different level when it comes to recording this song; it is as innovative as it is frightening. But perhaps more importantly, if you’re one of those types who is concerned with a concept album’s central focus, “The Becoming” represents the most crucial moment on the record. Everything here made everything else on the album make sense. Plus, it offers one of the best closing repetitive mantras on any NIN album (and God knows there is a ton of those): “Won’t give up / It wants me dead / Goddamn this noise inside my head.” I used to see those lines on t-shirts all the time in the ’90s, and I always assumed that person was cooler than shit. I was probably right in hindsight.

 

8. “Gave Up”
(Broken EP, 1992)

Ah, I bet you thought I was gonna gloss over Broken completely eh? Broken is great. Broken is the angriest, most immediate NIN record you`ll ever encounter, and that`s not likely to change. Having said that, Broken is short, and two of the songs are so-so instrumentals. It`s probably the best example of how audibly vicious NIN had the potential to be, but knowing what we know about Reznor now, which is he’s a studio god, I don`t think it can be ranked among his best offerings, since it was fuelled strictly by rage and none of the real creative impulses we know he is obviously capable of.

“Gave Up”, if nothing else, represents the most uncontaminated ethos of the entire ’90s Gen-X movement, or whatever the fuck you want to call a bunch of apathetic shitheads angry at something, but just not sure what. The anthemic chorus of “I tried / I gave up / I tried / And I gave up!” sums up the dull sound/fury of the ’90s youth more poetically than anything I’ve heard. Plus it rocks, hard. Just not as hard as “Wish”, but more on that later.

 

7. “Closer”
(The Downward Spiral, 1994)

From a purely single standpoint, “Closer” was the craziest a-side successfully released in its era. It’s got this simplistic, sort of dirty Prince-type groove, and the catchiness survives only on Reznor explaining basically how he wants to go balls-deep into all of us. There is no way that he could’ve possibly imagined Interscope would’ve allowed it on the album, much less have it become a hit. But somehow both were achieved, and for that Trent, I salute you. It still sounds fresh, and every time I hear “Closer”, I’m still convinced we’re all destined to have you feel us from the inside.

 

6. “Terrible Lie”
(Pretty Hate Machine, 1989)

As you can probably tell by my placing, I hold “Terrible Lie” in much higher regard than its album-mate “Head Like a Hole”. To me, it basically asks the same questions as the much more famous “Head Like a Hole”, but is set up in a much more sustainable musical infrastructure. Basically what I’m saying is ‘”Terrible Lie” still rocks, and “Head Like a Hole” is more useful for archive studies in regards to NIN’s debut effort. It’s also important to note the last two minutes of this song rank among the best moments out of any NIN track, so I have no problem putting it on the cusp of the top five.

5 – 1

 

5. “Leaving Hope”
(Still EP, 2002)

“Leaving Hope” is the best instrumental Trent Reznor has recorded. Not many have actually heard it, since it’s on the bonus Still disc that accompanies the And All That Could’ve Been live release, but I’ve listened to this hundreds of times, and it gets more beautiful with every listen. “A Warm Place” will also make everything slow down to a placid halt, but after hearing David Bowie’s “Crystal Japan” and realizing AWP is obviously a complete ripoff of that track, “Leaving Hope” stands alone as the most gorgeous, vocal-less offering NIN has ever released. Track it down, turn off the lights, put on your headphones, and let the world drift away.

 

4. “Something I Can Never Have”
(Pretty Hate Machine, 1989)

I’m not sure how anyone can make the argument there is a better ballad in NIN’s catalogue than this. “Something I Can Never Have” represents Reznor at his most vulnerable, raw and uncalculated, which is saying a lot for an artist so intrinsically connected to a marketable version of himself. To be honest I always found this song incredibly touching, but it wasn’t until I heard the Still version that I knew it ranked among the most stunning pieces of music I will ever be exposed to. Everything about “Something I Can Never Have” is hooked into something real and tangible we feel like we all can go out and grab, and as such, it represents the flawed best friend in all of us.

 

3. “The Day the World Went Away”
(The Fragile, 1999)

Simply put, it represents the highest creative point in Reznor’s musical career. Everything works here: the gentle power, the relentless push towards the unknown, the guitars that seem to emerge from a different dimension. Easily the strongest moment on The Fragile, and kills anything he released after TDS. For the record, this is my second favourite NIN song; it actually makes me sad that a solitary man wrote a song this giant and small at the same time.

 

2. “Wish”
(Broken EP, 1992)

I’d be a fool not to rank “Wish” this high; I mean it’s one of the best punk/industrial/metal songs in the last 20 years or so. Seriously, it could fit into any of those genres and thrash the best bands in all of em. I don’t care how tough or seasoned you are, if you listen to “Wish”, you belong to it. We start to see a pretty significant dose of Reznor’s studio craftsmanship, but it’s filtered through one of the most insanely raucous rock ‘n’ roll anthems our generation will ever witness. It’s easy to sing along to if you wish, but be aware of the words you’re chanting — as optimistic as they are, they’re cloaked in a torrent of confused despair and anarchic rage. The epicness of “Wish” almost makes Broken seem like a full album.

 

1. “March of the Pigs”
(The Downward Spiral, 1994)

I’ve listened to Nine Inch Nails for over 15 years now, and I never had any doubt this is their finest hour. In two-and-a-half short minutes, it encompasses everything we love about this band. Anything else I could say after this would just be needless hyperbole. If NIN was melted into a vat, and emerged as a singular audio representation, it would be “March of the Pigs”. I know it’s possible I’m wrong, but every time I hear this song, I know I’m right. That’s gotta mean something, right?

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