Nine Inch Nails has been an influential part of my life since I could remember listening to music and watching MTV. In my college years I played in an industrial metal band. We all had our separate tastes, but one band was universally praised: Nine Inch Nails. As a drummer, there were a select few similar sounding bands in the Industrial genre that I jammed out to. I tried to convince my band to cover “March of the Pigs,” but they struggled with the odd time signature.
Below are my top 10 Nine Inch Nails songs. (“March of the Pigs” didn’t make the list unfortunately.) Selecting my first six came to mind immediately, but picking the last four could’ve been 10 other songs. Frontman Trent Reznor was the main constant of the band. Thankfully I’m omitting his film score career, which also has many gems. His biggest accomplishment, however (besides his Oscar), was carrying a niche genre on his back and bringing it to the mainstream.
Track 1: “The Perfect Drug” (1997)
In the spirit of 25 Years Later, this song has to be on here. It was written for David Lynch’s Lost Highway back when movie soundtracks featured original content from mainstream acts. This was peak Nine Inch Nails coming off The Downward Spiral and before The Fragile. The actual song still amazes me to this day. Crank this one up if you have a decent sub woofer. The pre-chorus has massive bass to shake your car or home. Excellent composition proceeds with a more treble-focused chorus to give listeners a break from the bass and also to let the vocal hook shine even more. Songs like this definitely benefited from the days of MTV, when musicians could release songs in between albums and get a legit long term hit.
“The Perfect Drug” hits all the best of parts of Nine Inch Nails: Industrial guitar riffs, angst vocals, mix of drum samples and acoustic drums, a myriad of sound design, orchestra elements, and a range of emotions. When I read/hear discussions about the work of Nine Inch Nails, this song is left out because of its soundtrack placement. This is a must-listen for new fans discovering this group for the first time.
Track 2: “Heresy” (1994)
Nine Inch Nails songs typically flirt closer to the alternative rock genre but “Heresy” proves Trent Reznor had some industrial roots. Industrial is a hard genre to describe at times. “Heresy” successfully encapsulates the sound of new and old industrial music: distorted vocals, edgy lyrics, pounding drum samples, distorted chugging guitars mixed with digital elements, and just an overall punk angst feel. “Heresy” was a song that grew on me as the years went on. It’s surrounded by some all-time great tracks. That’s the testament of how influential The Downward Spiral was to the music industry.
Track 3: “Closer” (1994)
Speaking of all-time great songs, “Closer” transcends music. I still can’t believe a song with a chorus of “I wanna f*ck you like an animal” would be played on the radio and MTV as much as it was. Both platforms made radio-friendly versions of course, but it’s obvious what the lyrics are. While “Heresy” is a good example of what modern industrial sounds like, “Closer” perfectly describes the Nine Inch Nails signature sound. Trent Reznor has always loved to combine digital and analog instruments. “Closer” is the perfect mix of the two.
Trent uses the isolated David Bowie kick sample to start the track. When the chorus hits, Trent sneaks in acoustic drums and analog bass. Somehow all these elements blend together so well you don’t even notice the changes. That’s also a testament of how well this song was mixed. There are about 10 different digital layers playing at the epic climax of “Closer.” Somehow you can hone in on each individual element. This is a song that I loved when it was overplayed on MTV. Keep in mind I was 8, which is wild. This song still rocks and I’ve even sang it at karaoke.
Track 4: “Dead Souls” (1994)
Remember when movies had awesome soundtracks with bands making exclusive songs? Oh yeah, Nine Inch Nails did another one that might be lesser known. “Dead Souls” is a Joy Division cover from The Crow soundtrack. Trent hasn’t covered many songs in his career, but this is probably his best. I would categorize this cover as an update to an outdated song. It’s hard to listen to the old version now, but Nine Inch Nails made it their own. My industrial/metal band covered this song, so it will always be in my Perfect 10.
Track 5: “Just Like You Imagined” (1999)
Trent not only gave you genre-defining hooks, he also took a break from vocals on several tracks. The majority of instrumental tracks from Nine Inch Nails are moody and unsettling. If you have heard his Oscar-winning score from the Social Network, you know what I’m talking about. “Just Like You Imagined,” however, simply just rocks. Classic bass riff jamming that low D. Song composition reminds me of “Closer.” Start off simple and slowly and add more layers. The whole song just revolves around the bass lick, which doesn’t change the entire song but the song still has clear sections.
The Fragile made a huge impression on me later on in my life. I didn’t listen to this album when it came out somehow. The music industry was changing and I was missing the glory of the ’90s. A friend bought this album for me on St. Patrick’s day 2006. I will never forget popping this album in my Discman (yes I was still rocking the portable CD player) on the subway. When I got to this track, I knew this album was special. I knew I had taken Trent’s work for granted. As a musician, I knew I needed to dig deeper and research the entire catalog.
Track 6: “Zero Sum” (2007)
Nine Inch Nails after the ’90s produced different-sounding albums. When I heard “The Hand that Feeds You” on the radio for the first time, I had a double take, “is this actually Nine Inch Nails?” Even Trent’s physical appearance was vastly different (due to improving his health). Thankfully tracks like “Zero Sum” are more similar to the classic Nine Inch Nails sound. This track has a unique combination of sound design and drum samples. Year Zero fell victim to the overuse of random glitch drum samples. This song is much more polished. The layers are dialed back and the percussion feels like one cohesive unit. Add a subtle piano lick with Trent vocals and you got an excellent Nine Inch Nails track. “Zero Sum” for me is the lone gem on Year Zero. Year Zero was the last NIN album I purchased besides Trent’s film soundtracks. I loved the concept but most of the tracks fell flat. “Zero Sum” feels like a b-side that was tacked on the end of the album.
Track 7: “La Mer” (1999)
Another instrumental from The Fragile easily made my list. I used “La Mer” for a film assignment in college. I was listening to The Fragile trying to think of ideas for the assignment. When “La Mer” came on, the idea clicked right away: Make a video about water…Look, I was in film school and had to make a pretentious film at some point. To my surprise, the video was accepted into the university film festival and one of my professors would use it as an example in his classes. My film career naturally didn’t take off but it showed me the power of this song. It’s simple and is one of the few truly beautiful Nine Inch Nails songs.
Track 8: “Hurt” (1994)
“Hurt” will always be a Nine Inch Nails track. The Johnny Cash cover brought back the spotlight on this track from The Downward Spiral. I wasn’t surprised how much the Cash cover resonated with the majority audience, but I am still surprised to hear takes that the Cash cover is objectively better. I think both are great in their own way but it’s hard to ignore the original. “Hurt” in context of the song order of The Downward Spiral is perfect. The album has a theme of being mentally unstable and the tone certainly changes from beginning to end. The aggression explodes off the bat with “Mr. Self Destruct.” The album concludes with the suicidal “The Downward Spiral,” and then “Hurt.” My favorite subtle difference between the original and the Cash cover is the one dissonant guitar note of the main riff. After all these years hearing that dissonant note land in my head, it jumps out more especially when Cash omitted it.
Track 9: “Terrible Lie” (1989)
It would be a crime to not include a song off the debut album Pretty Hate Machine. Unfortunately the production quality is the weakest so some songs, while awesome, sound dated. For a long time I would include “Head Like a Hole” on this list but I’ve grown to love “Terrible Lie” more. Nine Inch Nails is one of my favorite live acts. This style of music is hard to translate into an enjoyable live performance so I give even more credit to Trent and the staff that delivers every concert.
“Terrible Lie” blew me away live. This song deserves that modern BEEF guitar sound. It’s just two power chords but it makes the world of difference when comparing to the album version. They also added backup vocal flares to give the song that extra aggression. The studio version is still great but I highly recommend checking out a live version.
Track 10: “Wish” (1992)
Angry Trent is the best Trent. The Broken EP is a small step up from Pretty Hate Machine on the production side. The music video for “Wish” is your stereotypical strobe light performance video. How much darker could the music video be? The answer is none. This song was a toss-up with several others. Other days I’m in the mood for “Mr. Self Destruct.” “Wish” is another industrial fueled track with punk elements, another track with a great blend of electronic and analog instruments. The acoustic drums during the chorus is very traditional but still manages to rock. “Wish” was another song I missed early on. The entire Broken EP is worth checking out but “Wish” is the must-listen track.