The Christmas season is a time to look back. And a time to visit the suburbs. Nothing looks further back or visits more suburbs than the music of Nine Inch Nails.
25 years into a commercially and critically successful career, Trent Reznor’s musical project has run the gamut from solo project with a Roland 808 to a Pink Floyd-sized stadium act. Reznor has sang about going away, said the band has gone away, and scored Gone Girl, and yet Nine Inch Nails is the last band standing (at least in terms of not sucking) from the Lollapalooza era.
What follows is a ranking of every Nine Inch Nails song, sort of. Included are tracks from the “traditional” full-length LPs and a random smattering of important singles and soundtrack entries. We omitted most other remixes, demos, b-sides, live versions and soundtrack tracks. We also completely omitted the excellent Ghosts, the four-disc instrumental release. It omits most songs that are quiet, minimal lead ins to other songs (for example, we didn’t include the 44 second ‘song’ that is mostly just Reznor breathing, “Videodrones; Questions,” from the Lost Highway soundtrack that bleeds into “The Perfect Drug”).
This is not to say that those are not worthy installments in the NIN catalogue, but moreso that there is an outer limit to our propensity for neatly sorting things. Of course, we also cheat throughout the rankings and break the foresaid rubric in several places.
130. “999,999” from The Slip
If this was on a soundtrack, it would not make the list. It’s a perfectly fine, nearly one note instrumental that’s reminiscent of an Angelo Badalamenti score. Does it add to track 2, “1,000,000”? No. -B.W.
129. “The Downward Spiral” from The Downward Spiral
Is this an excuse to talk about The Downward Spiral right away? Maybe. Few relics of my adolescency are now more historically revered or important. It is one of a handful of albums from the 90’s that really shaped my taste in music (or scarred me, depending on how you view it) for the rest of my life. This track is the second-to-last, right before “Hurt,” and serves as a sort of recap, faintly repeating the melody first heard on “Closer.” Ultimately, this works better as background music than a standalone track, and Tony Scott (RIP) agreed: he used it in the score for Man on Fire. T.B.
128. “The Eater of Dreams” from Hesitation Marks
This is Nine Inch Nail’s version of feedback. A few quiet bloops and bleeps that exist as a warm up to a loud statement. -B.W.
127. “Lights In The Sky” from The Slip
It’s difficult to get through this song. It’s barely audible for the first 30 seconds. It never really connects. Our protagonist is watching someone drown and he’s following her down and didn’t we already cover this territory on The Fragile? -B.W.
126. “The Mark Has Been Made” from The Fragile
Upon release, this was one of the 10 best songs on the double-disc, The Wall-esque 1999 album. The slow, creepy, memorable instrumental just goes on a bit too long. The only thing that makes it sound dated is the dominant cello line around the 1:30 mark. It gets louder before a breather around minute 3 and before a final rise in volume. Then it fades away. The last minute of this song does not need to exist. With some basic editing, this could easily be in the top 50. -B.W.
125. “Corona Radiata” from The Slip
You will notice that tracks from The Slip make several appearances toward the bottom of these rankings. This is the second most bottomest of them. Sad face. -T.B.
124. “Even Deeper” from The Fragile
“Sometimes I have everything, but I wish I felt something,” sings the 30-something millionaire collecting massive checks from massive tours and really connecting with 13-year-boys everywhere. -B.W.
123. “Immigrant Song” from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Soundtrack
It never quite works. The intro sounds like a remix of “Dead Souls.” Karen O and Trent Reznor don’t really make sense as a pair. But its use in TGWTDT titles helps it stick in your head. -B.W.
122. “Disappointed” from Hesitation Marks
Could be a stronger song if it eschewed the bloops and beeps. I hope this is not a path upon which NIN continues to travel (the bleepity boop path, I mean). -T.B.
121. “Memorabilia” from The Downward Spiral
This track from disc 2 of the deluxe version sounds like a bad dance remix by an unknown DJ. Doesn’t need to exist, let alone be included on an important release. -B.W.
120. “La Mer” from The Fragile
“La Mer” means “the sea” in French. But I want to listen to NIN, not Air. -T.B.
119. “The Four Of Us Are Dying” from The Slip
If this were on a score and wed to a foreboding David Fincher visual it may rank higher. Instead, it’s a perfectly fine B-side that’s not a B-side. -B.W.
118. “In Two” from Hesitation Marks
117. “Another Version of the Truth” from Year Zero
An intriguing instrumental track up until 1:45, and then it becomes pretty, but also sad. -T.B.
116. “Black Noise” from Hesitation Marks
115. “The Way Out Is Through” from The Fragile
114. “Great Bird Of Prey” from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Soundtrack
113. “Various Methods of Escape” from Hesitation Marks
Rather elemental for a NIN song — we prefer complicated. -T.B.
112. “The Great Below” from The Fragile
111. “Oraculum” from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Soundtrack
110. “Running” from Hesitation Marks
Sounds like a Radiohead song. -T.B.
109. “The Greater Good” from Year Zero
108. “The Fragile” from The Fragile
The performance from the 1999 Video Music Awards was and remains incredibly awkward. Hi, Johnny Depp! -B.W.
107. “Something I Can Never Have” from Pretty Hate Machine
This track is a footnote to Pretty Hate Machine that says NIN isn’t all anger and death, but for the more sensitive among us, includes plenty of good-old-fashioned despondency as well! -T.B.
106. “Zero Sum” from Year Zero
105. “Secrets” from Gone Girl Soundtrack
This is almost like re-purposed work from The Fragile with updated, cool-sounding synths, and in the context of the film it works very well. -T.B.
104. “The Frail” from The Fragile
103. “Reptile” from The Downward Spiral
Solid, heavy, industrial, but ultimately a throwaway track on the otherwise nearly-perfect album. -T.B.
102. “In This Twilight” from Year Zero
101. “Find My Way” from Hesitation Marks
100. “Ripe (With Decay)” from The Fragile
99. “Kinda I Want To” from Pretty Hate Machine
98. “I Would For You” from Hesitation Marks
This is not a bad song but it’s not a great song. On the 2013 it was a highlight, but mostly because of the groundbreaking light show and usage of screen. -B.W.
97. “Help Me I Am In Hell” from Broken
One of many NIN instrumentals that give hope to kids that can’t really play guitar that they too can one day build simple sonic landscapes and give their works epically tragic titles. -B.W.
96. “Underneath It All” from The Fragile
95. “Head Down” from The Slip
This is one of the brighter spots on The Slip, even if somewhat marred by overuse of distorted effects. -T.B.
94. “While I’m Still Here” from Hesitation Marks
93. “Demon Seed” from The Slip
92. “Me, I’m Not” from Year Zero
91. “Sunspots” from With Teeth
Like much of this album, this track makes NIN sound like a more traditional rock band. It’s very solid on rhythms (thanks to certain outside contributions), but otherwise fails to instill the feelings of dread that we love so much. -T.B.
90. “The Day The Whole World Went Away” (Quiet) from The Day The World Went Away
One of many NIN songs about going away. Sort of a sequel to “Something I can Never Have,” which also includes lyrics about going away. Now the world is going away. -T.B.
89. “Echoplex” from Hesitation Marks
88. “Right Where It Belongs” from With Teeth
87. “Every Day Is Exactly The Same” from With Teeth
Works well in the opening sequence to Wanted, an otherwise mediocre movie. -T.B.
86. “My Violent Heart” from Year Zero
85. “The Only Time” from Pretty Hate Machine
84. “We’re In This Together” from The Fragile
Loved, loved, loved this song the first time I heard it. I was 16. People change. -B.W.
83. “God Given” from Year Zero
82. “Beside You In Time” from With Teeth
81. “Ringfinger” from Pretty Hate Machine
Want to go to that club in the first Matrix and wear pleather and rub up on people that don’t see the sun? -B.W.
80. “Satellite” from Hesitation Marks
Starts off funky and sounding like a 20-year-reunion version of “Sanctified,” but then right at around 3:00, runs home to Mama, rewarding us with layered, distorted guitars and synths — our favorite NIN elements. -T.B.
79. “Carbon Prevails” from The Social Network Soundtrack
78. “With Teeth” from With Teeth
The way he sings, “With the teeth-a” in the chorus is absolutely stunning. It’s a James Brown way of attacking lyrics. -B.W.
77. “Everything” from Hesitation Marks
We’ve been working on this piece for a few months. With each re-examination this song moves up and up in the rankings. It sounds like TV on the Radio in the best possible way without forsaking what this band is. It shows the most growth on the album while referencing the past (especially at the minute 2 mark). It also has positive lyrics that don’t sound cheesy, a feat for any band. -B.W.
76. “All The Love In The World” from With Teeth
I enjoy any and every artist that works outside their comfort space. Reznor sings the first verse in a fragile yet straightforward manner that doesn’t sound affected. This is the one and only NIN song I’d like to hear Billy Corgan cover. -B.W.
75. “Get Down, Make Love” from Pretty Hate Machine
If The Social Network was about Tinder instead of Facebook. -B.W.
74. “Heresy” from Broken
The most used song in sex dungeons for the last 20 years. Top 10 quoted song by angry 12-15-year-olds who really hate their parents making them go to church. -B.W.
73. “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from The Social Network Soundtrack
Edvard Grieg was to Ibsen in the 1800’s what Trent Reznor is to Fincher now; so it is appropriate that NIN has now covered this piece. -T.B.
72. “That’s What I Get” from Pretty Hate Machine
With more releases, the more fun PHM seems. There’s a jaunty intro before we get to a Livejournal worthy verse about lust lost. Never really noticed Reznor sings the word get like James Hetfield. -B.W.
71. “Eraser” from The Downward Spiral
Programmed parts sound like Pretty Hate Machine. The unidentifiable noise sounds like Broken. The guitars sound like The Fragile. And the lyrics sound like high school poetry. This one takes a few minutes before it becomes clear why it’s in the middle of the list. -B.W.
70. “Please” from The Fragile
If Reznor isn’t on heroin, the bloated lyrics get a trim and it breaks the top 50. Lots of unrealized potential in these 3 and a half minutes. -B.W.
69. “You’re Here” from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Soundtrack
68. “Starfuckers, Inc.” from The Fragile
If Reznor could take one track off any album, I have a feeling it’s this one.
A song that could only exist in the late 90s, “Starfuckers, Inc.” (or “Starsuckers, Inc. if you shop at Walmart) is a lyrically horrible screed against the music industry. But the verses are fun and the chorus isn’t horrible. It’s nearly unforgivable but it’s so over-the-top, it’s funny. A Carly Simon homage? Hilarious!
The video is extremely amusing. Remember when Marilyn Manson was influential? -B.W.
67. “Deep” from Lara Croft: Tomb Raider Soundtrack
The only non-Halo, non-Null track on the list was a song you most likely never heard. It does have a music video that has nothing to do with the movie. For fans of the louder, rock friendly tracks on The Fragile. -B.W.
66. “The Warning” from Year Zero
If the TV show of Year Zero ever gets made, this would make for a fine title sequence score. Hell, the images could just be the lyrics realized. Like “Everything,” this one is rated better and better with repeated listens. -B.W.
65. “Into The Void” from The Fragile
An outlier in the canon and an odd choice for a music video. -B.W.
64. “Vessel” from Year Zero
If this song didn’t have yet another oral sex illusion, it’d rank much higher. The programming on the song is extremely interesting, both on the album and the remix album, but the lyrics pull it down yet again. -B.W.
63. “Sanctified” from Pretty Hate Machine
One of the most oddly positive NIN songs in an era where the predominant message was “ARGH!!!!!” One of the funkiest bass riffs, too. -T.B.
62. “Painted Sun In Abstract” from The Social Network Soundtrack
61. “The Day The World Went Away” from The Fragile
Whoever thought this would be a good first single was completely detached from reality. We would probably get along. What a great, nontraditional first single! -B.W.
60. “A Warm Place” from The Downward Spiral
A beautiful, somber instrumental that would have been his “All Apologies” if he went the way of Cobain. -B.W.
59. “Just Like You” from Gone Girl Soundtrack
Did you really like “A Warm Place” but don’t want to get that depressed? -B.W.
58. “The Becoming” from The Downward Spiral
I think this song actually works better in its stripped-down, piano-based form on Still (the album that came packaged with the And All That Could Have Been live DVD). There, the lyrics and music create an interesting sense of desperation. By comparison, on The Downward Spiral, it sounds weirdly aggressive. -T.B.
57. “An Itch” from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Soundtrack
56. “The Line Begins To Blur” from With Teeth
As time passes, this album begins to rise in the ranks.
The first verse starts quite strong. The chorus isn’t horrible. The drums are perfect. The bass line is solid. But placed at track 11 of 13, it gets lost in the mix. -B.W.
55. “Happiness In Slavery” from Broken
The second most used song in sex dungeons for the last 20 years. -B.W.
54. “While I’m Still Here (Breyer P-Orridge ‘Howler’ Remix)” from Hesitation Marks
Another deviation from our “no remixes” rubric. Truly one of the most haunting NIN tracks I’ve ever heard. This song prompted me to do a lot of research and learn a lot of new things that I otherwise might never have learned. -T.B.
53. “The Good Soldier” from Year Zero
“And the bass goes bomb.” NIN experimenting with a heavy bass and a heavy political message. And it’s subtle. And it’s a great transition to the next track on the album, “Vessel.” On paper, this song makes no sense. In reality, it’s a quality sleeper on an ambitious and quite possibly career saving album. -B.W.
52. “Discipline” from The Slip
A straight forward rock and roll song with a pulsating drum line, distorted bass and a simple piano line that’s become a staple of the band. If this was written mid 90s rather than mid 00s it’d be about heroin rather than sex. Since it’s not about abusing yourself, it’s able to rein in every aspect and is a good mid-album track. -B.W.
51. “The Great Destroyer” from Year Zero
A very good song with an even better remix. If that TV show ever gets made, this will close a mid-season episode. Sadly, it’ll be during a montage. -B.W.
50. “Just Like You Imagined” from The Fragile
Welcome to the Top 50, heralded by one of several instrumental tracks from The Fragile, but the only one to be featured in the trailer for 300. T.B.
49. “Love Is Not Enough” from With Teeth
Far from a great track, the drumming is the saving grace for this otherwise throwaway. The chorus sort-of masks the not very good lyrics and the production value is high enough to make this one that doesn’t warrant skipping. -B.W.
48. “I Do Not Want This” from The Downward Spiral
For anyone listening to The Downward Spiral from start to finish, this is a rewarding signpost for the halfway mark. Confusingly vacillating between noisy and melodic, it ends up neatly encapsulating the theme of the album. -T.B.
47. “Physical (You’re So)” from Broken
So much distortion! So much feedback! So much fun! -B.W.
46. “The Collector” from With Teeth
The straight forward rocker from With Teeth. Dave Grohl’s simple drums help the track stand out (get ready for a lot of Grohl drumming love). If the lyrics were better, it might crack the top 10. Instead, we get another illusion to oral sex. Groundbreaking. -B.W.
45. “No, You Don’t” from The Fragile
The Fragile ping-pongs between, on one hand, showing off Reznor’s advancement as a composer and, on the other, reminding us that it’s still the 90’s. This is one of the latter. -T.B.
44. “Technically, Missing” from Gone Girl Soundtrack
The “newest” “NIN song” on this list (imagine a live human being standing in front of you using air quotes). The strongest track on the soundtrack to Gone Girl for perhaps, not coincidentally, the best part of that film. -T.B.
43. “The Hand That Feeds” from With Teeth
A catchy track and not a bad first single/reintroduction to the band. A straight forward rock song about nothing in particular, Reznor is perfectly comfortable screaming abstractly about what could be oral sex. As the song goes on it gets louder and louder and better and better. Then the bridge comes and it’s a whole lot of ugh. Thankfully, it gets loud again. -B.W.
42. “The Wretched” from The Fragile
No NIN song simply plods along as much as “The Wretched.” It’s never boring and it’s never uninteresting, but it shouldn’t feel so agonizing to get a mid-tempo chorus. Production values keep it this high on the list. -B.W.
41. “Meet Your Master” from Year Zero
As close as NIN comes to dub step? Lots of distorted sounds put together, save for the relatively straightforward, guitar-backed chorus. -T.B.
40. “Only” from With Teeth
Reznor is not a bad bassist. For this mid-00s track he goes with a thick, funky sound. It’s not thick and funky enough to mask the lyrics, but it’s strong enough to linger around after the song concludes. -B.W.
39. “A Violet Fluid” from The Downward Spiral
This is the song that still made the industrial kids continue their devotion to St. Reznor. A minute and four seconds of angry drums and creeping synth lines in an odd time signature. No one else can make angry kids care about instrumentals. -B.W.
38. “The Big Come Down” from The Fragile
The product of extensive studio time. I have no idea how most of these sounds were made and I don’t think the band does either. The guitars are easy to identify, but the drums and samples and programmed drums are a mystery. The Fragile was bloated with these songs. It was overwhelming on its 9/9/99 release and 15 years later it’s still hard to digest. -B.W.
37. “Big Man With A Gun” from The Downward Spiral
I’m convinced at least one professional athlete uses this as their pre-game anthem, most likely a defensive lineman in the NFL, most likely a Detroit Lion.
On bad days this song ranks much higher. On days with a national tragedy this song comes to mind. On sunny days with pleasant company this song seems like a juvenile rant from a 13-year-old. #Gamergate -B.W.
36. “I’m Looking Forward To Joining You, Finally” from The Fragile
One of the stronger songs on “The Fragile,” this is where Reznor shows off his elegant chops. It’s mostly vocals and various iterations of rhythm, with minimal synth intrusions. Cleverly layers whispering vocals on top of faint screaming. -T.B.
35. “Survivalism” from Year Zero
“Survivalism” doesn’t break any ground, but it does encompass the catalog. From funk to industrial, political couplets next to lines about fisting, sing/talk vocals followed by screams. NIN: 101. -B.W.
34. “In Motion” from The Social Network Soundtrack
Heard just minutes into The Social Network, the hard synth beats here are almost Reznor’s way of saying “This? This is easy for me,” and maybe that we have him to thank for the sound and popularity of MGMT, LCD Soundsystem, The Knife, etc. -T.B.
33. “Came Back Haunted” from Hesitation Marks
A rediscovery of the synth. The first single from Hesitation Marks sounds more like Pretty Hate Machine than any other Halo in the NIN catalog and it’s a welcome return. Since its release 18 months ago it’s aged remarkably well. It doesn’t sound dated or whiny or pointless. It’s somewhat funky, somewhat angry, somewhat complicated. The worst part about it is the lackluster video by David Lynch. -B.W.
32. “Closer (Precursor)” from The Downward Spiral / Se7en Soundtrack
Although the ranking rubric does not ordinarily include remix tracks, we included this one as a special nod to its use in the still-awesome opening credit sequence of Se7en. Fitting that about 15 years later, Reznor has now scored three David Fincher films. -T.B.
31. “Pilgrimage” from The Fragile
A video game designer used this. In my mind, a video game designer has based entire games around this three-and-a-half minute instrumental. It sounds like the score to a Nazi rally. -B.W.
30. “All Time Low” from Hesitation Marks
One of the highlights from NIN’s most recent album. This song shows me that Reznor hasn’t run out of creativity and still has the ability to try “new” sounds (that also do not suck). Also, the perfect excuse to use backup singers in the live set. -T.B.
29. “Complication” from The Fragile
One of The Fragile instrumentals that make it clear Trent Reznor loves David Bowie’s Low. A guitar put through a phaser and a whammy. A drummer working overtime. Background screams on par with Pink Floyd. Still impressive after all these years. -B.W.
28. “Sin” from Pretty Hate Machine
Along with “Terrible Lie,” I believe this song is the earliest exhibition of the signature NIN sound, despite some of the synths now sounding dated. T.B.
27. “Getting Smaller” from With Teeth
It sounds like a band warming up. NIN rarely sound like a band. Thanks to Grohl, the drumming makes this track. Reznor’s guitar playing is elevated thanks to an outside driving force. Lyrically, it’s not bad. Really. -B.W.
26. “Down In It” from Pretty Hate Machine
I hated, hated, hated this song between 1991 and 1999. JBTV seemed to play the music video every episode and I had had enough. With some time and distance, it’s become clear how magnificent this track is and was. Video too. The sound is dated, sure, but that’s OK. It’s the song that influenced a wave of imitators. It hinted at everything NIN could and would become. The lyrics are not bad, which is all you can ask for from NIN. And the video is perfect.
The first NIN video was filmed in an industrial part of Chicago. Reznor ‘dies’ in the end. To create the effect director’s Eric Zimmerman & Benjamin Stokes tied a camera to balloons to hover over the body. One got away and ended up in Michigan. A farmer found it and turned it over to authorities because he thought it was a snuff film. Amazing. -B.W.
25. “Somewhat Damaged” from The Fragile
Going into the Top 25, we have a pair of opening tracks. This is the first song from The Fragile. It’s unique. I am unaware of any other NIN song that opens with a naked acoustic guitar. By the time you hit the halfway point, it is really intense. Points for one of my favorite NIN lyrics: “flew too high and burnt the wing / lost my faith in everything.” -T.B.
24. “Mr. Self Destruct” from The Downward Spiral
Let it be known that I absolutely adore this song and compromised significantly on its ranking. As opening tracks go, I love that it’s so abrasive compared to the previous opening LP track (“Head Like a Hole”). I love that the opening sound bytes are sampled from THX 1138. I admit that it does weaken during the bridge, but it also appropriately kicks off the “descent” theme of the album. -T.B.
23. “Suck” from Broken
“Suck” begins with a funky, synthy, gothy vibe, like a leftover from Pretty Hate Machine, before hitting you with an angry, riffy, industrial series of power chords. It’s a meeting but not melding of genres. The lyrics aren’t good but there is a very good use of the lead singer yelling the word suck four times. -B.W.
22. “The Beginning of the End” from Year Zero
The “grown up” and paranoid version of NIN calmly warns us to “watch what you think / they can read your mind” in this short, digestible track two. It doesn’t really start to sound like a NIN song until the distorted guitar comes in at around the 1-minute mark. -T.B.
21. “Letting You” from The Slip
“Letting You” is a little bit KMFDM, a little Atari Teenage Riot and somewhat of a throwback. It could have been on “Broken.” -B.W.
Honorable Mention: Entire Score of Quake
We are taking a moment to completely annihilate the ranking rubric and discuss Trent Reznor’s work on the 1996 video game Quake. Before David Fincher and before Ghosts, this was probably the first all-instrumental NIN compendium. There were game developers (and players – me among them) who fell right in the crosshairs of the NIN target audience, and Quake was one of the first video games to create a truly competitive multiplayer atmosphere, i.e. a virtual environment where it was fun to virtually kill other people. Makes sense that NIN was seamlessly married to this concept. (Remember, this was before Halo, Call of Duty, Portal, etc. My friends and I installed Quake on the LAN in our high school computer lab and played while we were supposed to be doing class work. The architect of this plan went on to serve in a secret Army Ranger unit.) The score is excellent, and holds up remarkably well. It is dark, foreboding, and it does not try to overshadow the video game, yet at the same time stands alone alongside NIN’s best compositions. -T.B.
20. “Piggy” from The Downward Spiral
Next to “March of the Pigs,” “Piggy” has the best drums on TDS. The ambient noises are used perfectly, just slightly louder than the vocal and bass tracks. Quite possibly the best and most remixed song in the catalog.
The drums, beginning around minute 3, take on a free jazz vibe, something NIN hasn’t done since and seemed unimaginable on Pretty Hate Machine. -B.W.
19. “Last” from Broken
This is NIN being elemental, hard-rock, straightforward. The layering of vocals atop one another is especially cool. The song just works. Yet, it is only the first of four from the stellar Broken EP in our top 20. -T.B.
18. “Where Is Everybody” from The Fragile
I’m sad to report that this is the highest-ranked track from The Fragile on our list. That’s just how it turned out. In a way, this is emblematic of the album, which Reznor has described as “sound[ing] like there was something inherently flawed in the situation, like someone struggling to put the pieces together.” -T.B.
17. “Capital G” from Year Zero
NIN’s Bush era political material has ages surprisingly well. Keeping things vague in the lyrics, it’s not clear if he’s rocking against Bush. The lyric, “Don’t give a shit about the temperature in Guatemala,” makes the song an anthem against torture rather than a screed against the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. -B.W.
16. “1,000,000” from The Slip
Organic drums. “Real” drums. Whenever Reznor uses acoustic drums, he seems to have a better handle on what he’s trying to achieve. What’s he trying to achieve in “1,000,000?” Urgency. He achieves his goal. -B.W.
15. “Head Like a Hole” from Pretty Hate Machine
Ignoring the single for “Down In It,” this is NIN’s introductory salvo to the world (but not, in my mind, the first “real” NIN song — see later on). And despite the chorus lyrics that are now almost embarrassing, it is still a great song and remains one of the most important by NIN. T.B.
14. “Copy of A” from Hesitation Marks
The tour opener for the 2013 tour, “Copy of A” may be higher on this list in one year. Hell, it may top the list in 2024.
The song sneaks up on you. It sets the scene for the album Hesitation Marks, and was a brilliant opener for the tour of the same name. The first leg featured just Trent on a synth with more members on more synths coming on stage. The second leg featured the entire band with ‘regular’ instruments attacking the song. If there’s ever a NIN musical (Jesus, God, please let there never be a NIN musical), this will be in the first act. -B.W.
13. “Dead Souls” from The Crow Soundtrack / The Downward Spiral
Better than the original. I’m sorry, but it is. Reznor has never been buttoned up and he lets his sad, angry freak flag/suicide note fly in this Joy Division cover. -B.W.
12. “Terrible Lie” from Pretty Hate Machine
The first real NIN song from the first real NIN album. Unlike “Head Like a Hole” and “Down In It,” this song eschews its place in history with aggressive, gothic synths and drums. A guitar is added in live performances (e.g. its best rendition on the Halo 17 live DVD), and actually improves the song. If we were ranking NIN songs based on lyrics–and we would never do that– this might be my choice for No. 1. -T.B.
11. “Hurt” from The Downward Spiral
Now owned by Johnny Cash. -B.W.
10. “Gave Up” from Broken
Our top ten kicks off with the second best track from Broken. Like another song featured closer to the top, it was a staple of NIN setlists for a long time. As the setlist material piled up, it seems to have been permanently cut. Too bad, because it’s one of the best.
We should take this opportunity to acknowledge the existence of the Broken film, which was never given an official commercial release, and which I have never actually watched from start to finish. “Gave Up” is the penultimate song featured in the film. The sub-cum-mainstream culture that embraces NIN has always overlapped somewhat with “hacker” culture, and the Broken movie is probably one of the most famous relics of early P2P and file sharing communities. As recently as 2013, digital copies were reportedly available at The Pirate Bay. From what I’ve seen of the film, it is overly violent and grotesque, and frankly just not very good, and I am glad that it’s no longer inextricably intertwined with NIN mythology. Reznor has done much better collaborations with filmmakers. See below. -T.B.
9. “Intriguing Possibilities” from The Social Network Soundtrack
Trent Reznor recently said he does not feel good about winning Grammys for “stupid shit” such as “Best Metal Performance.” But his 2010 Oscar win for The Social Network, according to him, “felt nice.” This track feels nice, and it is the best part of the Oscar-winning score. I recommend not listening to it if you haven’t yet seen The Social Network. This track is placed seamlessly alongside key moments in David Fincher’s film, and it needs to be heard in that context first and foremost. T.B.
8. “Closer” from The Downward Spiral
Kids much too young to be fornicating fornicated with this as their soundtrack for many, many years. Nothing else in the catalog sounds like “Closer.” That may be why the band has been playing a slightly funkier version of it live for over a decade. -B.W.
7. “HYPERPOWER!” from Year Zero / “Gunshots by Computer” from Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D
NIN albums typically start strong, and this is one of the best Track 1’s. There are no vocals, just Reznor production that starts with a drum, adds a guitar, adds another guitar, and then gradually layers sound upon sound until it feels like the world is ending around you. This is what he is best at.
Though our scoring rubric dictated that remix albums be left out of the rankings, this is an opportunity to cheat and acknowledge one of the best NIN “remixes,” which is basically Saul Williams adding vocals to the already perfect backdrop via “Gunshots by Computer.” It unintentionally became the best Saul Williams song. -T.B.
6. “Burn” from Natural Born Killers soundtrack
A disturbing song with an even more disturbing video. The most brutal NIN has ever sounded. Another non-album track, “Burn” can be found on The Downward Spiral deluxe edition but belongs in the Broken era. Excellent programmed drums, nihilistic adolescent poetry screamed and so much distortion the tracks lives in the red. -B.W.
5. “Ruiner” from The Downward Spiral
More than anything on “The Downward Spiral,” this song has grown on me over the past two decades. It is neatly divided into several parts, and like many of the great songs on this album, it sequentially builds and then takes away several layers of interesting sounds. Yet, it’s also one of the only NIN songs that, at one point, strips everything else away in favor of a legitimate, ripping guitar solo. The solo is played by Trent Reznor, and he says in an interview that his goal, perhaps subconsciously, was to emulate David Gilmour on “Comfortably Numb.” The result is unapologetically gratuitous and awesome. Vocally, there are sections where the lyrics are indecipherable, but recall the era during which the CD was released, and recall that the CD came wrapped in cardboard and cellophane (instead of a jewel case) and included a lyric booklet. What better way for a brooding, barely-teen to spend his time other than listen and follow along with neatly printed lyrics? T.B.
4. “You Know What You Are?” from With Teeth
Mr. Dave Grohl makes this song. The most famous rock and roll drummer that isn’t a full-time drummer sat behind the kit for With Teeth and for the first time, NIN songs had double-bass drumming. It pays off instantly. The first 47 seconds are an intense master class on powerful drumming. The chorus offers some relief with a sweeping synth part but quickly fades. The drums once again take over. -B.W.
3. “March of the Pigs” from The Downward Spiral
The best part about this fast-paced diatribe against the cops? The time signature. Transitioning from ⅞ to 4/4 gives it a frantic feel. It also helps it stick in your head. This is the song to play air drums. -B.W.
2. “Pinion”/”Wish” from Broken
These tracks are grouped together because they’re both sequential on “Broken” and often packaged as a unit in NIN setlists (for example, all throughout the “Lights in the Sky” tour). Moreso than most bands, a large part of NIN’s identity is the stage show. Reznor’s fanatical precision and his use of lighting and other effects has, at all points in time, been several years ahead of everyone else. “Wish” has always been a staple of NIN setlists, and it’s always the apex of concert intensity. For example, watch the clip below. As for the song itself, it perfectly combines almost all of the best NIN elements: aggressive rhythm, desperate vocals, accusatory lyrics, a very interesting bridge, and even a great set of overlapping guitar riffs to end the song. “Wish” also includes perhaps the most memorable and “audience shouting”-worthy NIN lyric, which will not be repeated here. -T.B.
1. “The Perfect Drug” from Lost Highway Soundtrack
The song they’ll never perform live. The song that isn’t on an full length. The song with the best drum breakdown in the catalogue. Released between The Downward Spiral and The Fragile, “The Perfect Drug” finds Reznor in a wonderful transitional period. Not as depressing as TDS, not as beautiful as TF, this epic song embodies everything NIN was and still is. Simple guitar lines, epic drums, quiet vocals, loud vocals, dramatic breaks, a piano outro and oh-so-important lyrics about the end of everything. An amazing video doesn’t hurt either. -B.W.
tl:dr; With Teeth is better than first thought, The Fragile is worse than first thought, Dave Grohl should drum on everything, 25 years into a career Reznor is still trying.
By Tony Beasley and Brandon Wetherbee