The 20 greatest Nine Inch Nails songs – ranked

From Pretty Hate Machine to Add Violence, we rank the deepest, darkest offerings from Nine Inch Nails…

The 20 greatest Nine Inch Nails songs – ranked
Sam Law

The moment Michael Trent Reznor decided to pack in playing keyboards for Ohioan synth-pop outfit Exotic Birds and strike out alone was the moment industrial rock changed forever. Working as assistant engineer (and janitor) in Cleveland’s Right Track studio, he learned his way around the record-making process, and that he was capable himself of assembling virtually all the parts of the dark, troubled, irresistible vision that was Nine Inch Nails. Debut LP Pretty Hate Machine became one of the landmark electro-rock releases of the 1980s, but it was the 1990s output – 1992’s Broken EP, 1994’s seminal The Downward Spiral and wildly ambitious 1999 double-album The Fragile – that made them the force we know today.

Post-millennium, output has come in fits and bursts, with seven albums and two EPs (perhaps more aptly identified using NIN’s unique Halo chronology) painting the picture of an artist outmuscling his inner demons to challenge the broader societal status quo and further confound expectation. Oscar-winning film composition alongside Atticus Ross (NIN’s second mate as of 2016) alongside a host of other crossovers and collaborations have broadened Trent’s repertoire, but Nine Inch Nails remains his (and fans’) main focus.

With such a massive catalogue, here are 20 tracks for newcomers to get started with – and for the old guard to get wound up arguing over…

20Mr Self Destruct (The Downward Spiral, 1994)

Tying back to the adrenalised violence of 1992’s Wish EP and readying us for the emotionally bruising 65 minutes to follow, The Downward Spiral’s unforgettable opener is a cold, chaotic masterclass. Opening with an audio sample of guards beating a prisoner in George Lucas’ directorial debut THX 1138 before Trent insidiously introduces himself as ‘The voice inside your head / The lover in your bed’, the out-of-control drum machines and shards of metallic synth perfectly evoke the helter-skelter hopelessness of manic depression. A passage of calm around the two-minute mark teases some relief, but as the volume ramps back up we realise this Downward Spiral is a one-way trip.

19Down In It (Pretty Hate Machine, 1989)

The very first song Trent Reznor released under the Nine Inch Nails banner feels strange and unfamiliar three decades down the line, with its off-the-shelf electronic drums, stock synthwork and simplistic rapped vocals offering little evidence of the darkness and complexity to unfold in the years that would follow. Its unique feel, however – both ass-shakingly funky and robotically dystopian – and the barbed earworm quality of that chorus (‘I was up above it / Now I’m down in it’) still feel thrillingly original today.

18The Becoming (The Downward Spiral, 1994)

The Downward Spiral’s pivotal mid-point emphasised what Nine Inch Nails were leaving behind, and what they were moving towards, as they rose to the very top of the industrial mountain. A strange, uncomfortable listen for the most part, its dissonant synthwork and Trent’s observation that ‘The me that you know / He doesn’t come around much / That part of me isn’t here anymore…’ drifts over a looped bed of moans and screams as if to evoke the sensation of hanging over the ninth circle of hell. The hauntingly soft-strummed interlude and outro suggest a poignant coming to terms with losing one’s self. ‘Even when I’m right with you, I’m so far away…’

17We’re In This Together (The Fragile, 1999)

Originally released as a three-disc single (the second from epic double-album The Fragile), We’re In This Together unfolds as a seven-minute-plus exploration of hooky pop-industrial songwriting, indomitable determination and hard-won catharsis. The ebb and flow of its scourging verses and explosive chorus comes layered in abrasive guitar and synth, with a hammering beat propelling us ever forward. Although Trent’s lyrics knowingly evoke David Bowie’s Heroes (‘You’re the queen and I’m the king / Nothing else means anything’), its apocalyptic tale of two spirits bonding in the face of insurmountable adversity feels otherwise wholly unfamiliar.

16The Perfect Drug (Lost Highway Soundtrack, 1997)

One of Trent’s earliest soundtrack-contributions, this jittery, unhinged cut written for David Lynch’s bizarro-classic The Lost Highway represented a prime meeting of weirdo minds. Trent himself isn’t the biggest fan (“[It] probably wouldn’t be in [my] top hundred,” he told the BBC in 2005) but the combination of frenetic pace, gigantic chorus and the singer’s never gothier, goatee-sporting aesthetic at the time saw it taken to fans’ hearts. As a snapshot from the time when Trent was processing his own very real addictions, it’s also a powerful depiction of the madness and ecstasy of narcotic infatuation.

15Lights In The Sky (The Slip, 2008)

Ending NIN’s most prolific era (four albums dropping in the space of three years), seventh LP The Slip was given away for free and – perhaps consequently – feels like an under-appreciated gem. With its loose-limbed, at times skeletal sound, the product of Trent’s experimentation with self-styled “garage electronica”, the likes of sole single Discipline (a dancefloor-ready banger) and barn-burning closer Demon Seed were the victims of their own lack of fanfare. Seventh track Lights In The Sky has endured, however, thanks to its mesmeric combination of murky keys and abstract, devotional lyrics: ‘Watching you drown / I’ll follow you down / I am here right beside you / The lights in the sky / Have finally arrived / I am staying right beside you.’

14Capital G (Year Zero, 2007)

After With Teeth’s relatively crowd-pleasing return to form, the bolder, more experimental material of 2007 follow-up Year Zero left many feeling perplexed. Although its broader concept album narrative holds up surprisingly well on revisitation, few individual tracks pop out. Capital G is the exception. Powered by a swaggering bassline and rubbery synth-riff, its observations on greed, corruption, complacency and misuse of power (the title is a barely veiled reference to then-president George W. Bush) feel even more relevant now than they did back then. Even if you’re not into its politics, it’s also one of the more straightforwardly catchy cuts in the NIN songbook.

13The Background World (Add Violence, 2017)

Influenced heavily by his increasingly renowned soundtrack work with Atticus Ross, Trent’s expansive, experimental latter-day NIN output has largely lacked the immediacy to connect on a song-by-song basis. Across almost 12 minutes, however, the closing track from 2017 EP Add Violence showcases why they’re still at the cutting edge of industrial metal. A shapeshifting nightmare that slowly deconstructs from the almost-poppy melodies and pressing beats of its beautiful opening third down into a suffocating well of feedback, this is proof that Trent still has the easy flair to catch your ear – and a willingness to overwrite it with something far more unsettling in service of his misrerabilist message.

12Just Like You Imagined (The Fragile, 1999)

Although their instrumental work has come to the fore over the last 12 years (2008’s Ghosts I-IV marking a watershed), little of it can get close to matching the sheer elemental majesty of Just Like You Imagined. Bringing in David Bowie/Smashing Pumpkins collaborator Mike Garson on piano as well as turning loose Danny Lohner and Adrian Belew on guitar, Trent layers up a soundscape full of towering synths, squalling six-strings and moments of jazzy fragility. The track was famously featured in trailers for the cinematic adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300, and it packs the same combination of primal muscle and hard-edged modernity. Monumental.

11Right Where It Belongs (With Teeth, 2005)

As a sort-of sequel to 1994’s seminal Hurt, this aching With Teeth piano ballad perfectly exemplifies the musical and philosophical evolution undergone in the years in between. Prettier, and more defiantly hopeful in its minimalist motifs, Right Where It Belongs finds Trent challenging the listener to face up to some major existential questions about our perception of reality and place in the world. ‘See the animal in his cage that you built / Are you sure what side you’re on?’ he teases at one point, before daring us to probe deeper: ‘What if all the world’s inside of your head / Just creations of your own? / Your devils and your gods / All the living and the dead?’ The shift into focus on the three-minute mark – distorted crowd noise bleeding into the background – is one of NIN’s most powerfully understated moments.

10The Hand That Feeds (With Teeth, 2005)

For a while, it was unclear whether Nine Inch Nails would make it in the new millennium. Having drawn for so long from an all-consuming internal darkness, it was unclear whether or not their music was even sustainable. With Teeth pointed a daring new way. If Right Where It Belongs is that album’s understated, introspective stand-out, lead single The Hand That Feeds was the band’s thumping reintroduction proper. As muscular and ruthlessly focused as the re-emergent Trent (a rejuvenated force, having defeated the personal demons that had plagued him for so long), its shift in focus from internal torment to broader international tumult ensured plenty of fuel for the fire. ‘What if this whole crusade’s / A charade’ it dares to ask, calling The War On Terror to account. Its politics were secondary, mind, to that irresistibly electrified composition.

9Reptile (The Downward Spiral, 1994)

The 12th and longest track on The Downward Spiral – clocking in at 6:52 – is also its most depthlessly hypnotic and thrillingly unsettling. Building on a sample from The Crew Of Shack scene in George P. Cosmatos’ 1989 sci-fi Leviathan into a pulsing, gasping three-part masterwork, it demonstrates Trent’s innate talent for riffing on the visual medium to create music that feels both narratively-driven and cinematically textured. ‘She spread herself wide open to let the insects in,’ it whispers, insidiously. ‘She leaves a trail of honey to show me where she’s been / She has the blood of reptile just underneath her skin / Seeds from a thousand others drip down from within.’ Performances of the song with David Bowie – when Nine Inch Nails supported on the 1995 United States Outside tour – were even more majestic.

8Head Like A Hole (Pretty Hate Machine, 1989)

Written 32 years ago, the opening track and second single on Pretty Hate Machine still feels exhilaratingly futuristic today. Although stalwarts like Skinny Puppy and Ministry had been pushing industrial music as a shadowy electronic alternative for the best part of the decade, none had married it to this level of earworm catchiness before. With repetitive vocal motifs mirroring the looped sounds – ‘No you can’t take it / No you can’t take it / No you can’t take that away from me’ – and a dancefloor-ready vibe that combined thumping depression and throbbing sensuality as well as anything from the gothic subscene, its tech-noir vision of a dark future rocket-boosted NIN’s starward trajectory.

7Something I Can Never Have (Pretty Hate Machine, 1989)

I still recall the taste of your tears / Echoing your voice just like the ringing in my ears / My favourite dreams of you still wash ashore / Scraping through my head till I don’t want to sleep anymore…’ The most spine-tinglingly personal cut on Nine Inch Nails’ debut record was a simple piano ballad that paved the way for future classics like Hurt and Right Where It Belongs, but its looping instrumentation and sparse deployment of wheezing synths/pulsating beats lends it an additional alien quality as attributable to Trent’s love of dark, challenging sci-fi as anything his contemporaries had tried before. ‘This thing is slowly take me apart,’ he sings. ‘Grey would be the colour if I had a heart.’ Quite.

6Terrible Lie (And All That Could Have Been, 2002)

With their various remixes and reinventions, Nine Inch Nails songs tend to feel less like a finished product than an ongoing artistic process. Terrible Lie is one of the greatest examples. A sparsely-constructed showcase of their machine-driven early sound, the Pretty Hate Machine version is a brilliantly robotic affair. It’s dwarfed by the subsequent live performances as captured on 2002’s All That Could Have Been, mind. Layering on the abrasive six-strings and overloading the vocals with another 13 years of hostility and desperation, when Trent pleads, ‘Don’t take it away from me, I need you to hold on to…’ you believe every word.

5Closer (The Downward Spiral, 1994)

I want to fuck you like an animal / I want to feel you from the inside… My whole existence is flawed / You get me closer to God…’ The Downward Spiral’s second single might just be NIN’s most recognisable song, but it’s also one of their most misunderstood. Breaking through to the mainstream – despite their resolutely un-mainstream material – Closer was the closest thing The Downward Spiral offered to a radio-ready single, with its thrusting electronic beat (a heavily modified bass drum sample from Iggy Pop’s Nightclubbing), funky bassline and provocative lyrics capturing the imaginations of fans who saw it as an anthem to lust. It is, in fact, a powerful examination of self-hatred and obsession, with its sexually-aggressive chorus not really intended as an endorsement. The nightmarish Mark Romanek-directed music video was a masterwork, too.

4The Fragile (The Fragile, 1999)

The title-track to 1999’s sprawling double-album The Fragile feels balanced on a knife-edge. Its sonic construction is a thing of beauty. With the sounds of rattling chains, steel-brushed snare drums and soft-pressed keys pushing up against treacly synths and mournfully fuzzed-up guitars, the mix that feels both impenetrably murky and stirringly crystalline. The lyrics match up, with the faint hope and fawning admiration of its opening verse (‘She shines / In a world full of ugliness / She matters when everything is meaningless / Fragile / She doesn’t see her beauty / She tries to get away’) giving way to a repeated promise that ‘I won’t let you fall apart’ and then a latter section that seems increasingly desperate in its search for self-salvation: ‘It’s something I have to do / I was there, too / Before everything else / I was like you…’ It’s NIN at their most emotionally complex.

3March Of The Pigs (The Downward Spiral, 1994)

The Downward Spiral’s lead single was a statement. Eschewing the (slightly) more commercially palatable likes of Closer, Ruiner and Reptile for a thrashing oddity largely worked around a strange 7/8 time signature (passages of 4/4 mean the track clocks-in at 269 BPM) and a weird, piano-powered chorus, this was the sound of one of the hottest bands in the world confirming their disinterest in any kind of mainstream pandering. Indeed, the abstract lyrics (evocative of, but apparently unrelated to the Manson Family murders) have been interpreted as a condemnation of those naysayers and hangers-on taking shots at the band now they’d found some serious success. The iconic Peter Christopherson-directed music video – featuring the touring band ripping it up live in front of a Spartan backdrop – adds another layer to the legend.

2Hurt (The Downward Spiral, 1994)

Although it has been covered by a slew of artists brilliant (Johnny Cash) and bizarre (Leona Lewis) in the quarter-century since its release, The Downward Spiral’s emotional centrepiece remains essential in its own right. A cathartic examination of struggles with addiction, depression and self-destructive tendencies, its minimalistic presentation and whispered vocals reportedly recorded in tears lend further poignancy and authenticity to an unforgettable lyrical treatment. ‘What have I become?’ Trent asks, heartbreakingly. ‘My sweetest friend / Everyone I know / Goes away in the end.’ Some (including the frontman himself) may contend that the captivating, end-of-career appropriation by country music’s Man In Black has since become the song’s definitive iteration. If anything, it was a confirmation of the versatile brilliance of some of the 20th century’s most underrated songwriting.

1Wish (Broken, 2002)

With Trent embroiled in a messy lawsuit with then-record label TVT, the five-year gap opening up between Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral threatened to stall their juggernaut momentum. Created – as per the liner notes – without the permission of the record label – and released through Interscope in 1992, eight-track EP Broken was less a stopgap than an opening of the floodgates: exposing the inner-demons about to come to the fore and signposting subsequent albums’ swerve into harder metallic territory. Wish is its centrepiece. Coming on like a cleaner-cut version of Ministry, its tornado swirl of synth and guitars precipitated a grungy, chaotic vibe perfectly matched by the unhinged lyrics. ‘No new tale to tell 26 years on my way to hell,’ Trent wails with equal parts hopelessness and glee. ‘Gotta listen to your big time hard line bad luck fist fuck…’ The 1993 GRAMMY for Best Metal Performance duly followed, but it’s the song’s thrilling endurance that makes it our number one pick. Hell, the glimmer of positivity in its chorus could’ve been a mantra for their outsider endurance across the years since: ‘Wish there was something real, wish I were something true / Wish I were something real in this world full of you!’

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