Nine Inch Nails have quite an extensive catalog of songs, especially when you include all the singles, EPs, remixes and covers that have surfaced on domestic and import releases, and obscure movie soundtracks. While only a select few of Nine Inch
Nails’ songs received extensive airplay on mainstream radio stations, much of their music is well known by the huge fan base, with more being exposed to the talented, brooding genius of Trent Reznor everyday.
Combining electronic musical wizardry with gut-wrenching, often painful lyrics about loss and anger, Nine Inch Nails have been the definitive band to turn to if you were an angsty misunderstood teenager, and much of the Nine Inch Nails catalog has circulated through DJ booths in alternative, industrial, and gothic rock clubs since 1989. That was the year Nine Inch Nails released their first full-length album, Pretty Hate Machine, which contains what is arguably the number one song ever released by Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails. Choosing the top ten Nine Inch Nails songs is not an easy task, and you’d likely find that everyone has a different list of favorites. But I think most would agree that Head Like a Hole deserves the number one spot on the list.
While Head Like a Hole and the rest of Nine Inch Nails’ music has been continually classified as industrial rock, Head LIke A Hole and the Pretty Hate Machine was actually a fusion of pop, rock, and light electronic and synth elements, not laying claim to any specific genre. Head LIke A Hole has remained a steadfast anthem much in the same way Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit has, complete with a catchy chorus you can shout along to with wild abandon. Of course, at its initial release, it was not as widely known as Nirvana came to be.
Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor gained a sudden surge in recognition with the release of their EP Broken, and the popularity of the angry song Wish, number two on the list of top ten songs by NIN. Wish and the remainder of the Broken EP marked a change of pace and structure for Nine Inch Nails. Angered and frustrated by record labels and other life problems, the Broken EP and Wish was full of intense anger and loud lyrics. The raw emotion inherent in Wish was not unnoticed, and the increased airplay of the song and its video on MTV was a catalyst for Nine Inch Nails. Increased use of heavy guitars, utilizing harsh noise as music, epileptic keyboards and pulsating drums had become tools many bands would soon try to replicate.
If Wish was an anthem of hate, then the song Something I Can Never Have is an anthem representative of complete despair. From the album Pretty Hate Machine, Something I Can Never Have delves into loss and heartache with honest lyrical poetry and mournful musical tones. The notes of the piano playing softly serve as a lonely backdrop to the song.
The Downward Spiral album brought Nine Inch Nails into the mainstream limelight. Fusing his traditional angry rock with soulful, quiet tracks, The Downward Spiral starts high and traverses an expanse of anger, pain, misery, and ultimately defeat, ending with the song Hurt. Hurt was also recently covered by Johnny Cash, whose rendition further adds credence to the song writing talent of Trent Reznor. Hurt is not a happy song. It is the brutally honest look into a soul that has withered away and is prepared to die.
The number five spot goes to perhaps the most overplayed Nine Inch Nails song, Closer. While Trent Reznor probably did not set out purposely to make this song an MTV superstar whose ‘taboo’ chorus would be sung by much of society, the use of a popular vulgarity smacked right into the central chorus beckoned at society’s rebellious cord, enabling even the most uptight and moralistic individuals to feel just a little release of self-proclaimed rebellion as they sang along. Closer certainly isn’t the most masterful track Reznor has ever produced, but its popularity cannot be denied. In fact, much of Nine Inch Nails’ fanbase was garnered from the introduction of this song. Lighter than much of his other fare, with easy lyrics and a moody yet playful chorus, Closer is marketing genius, if nothing else.
Bursting with fuzzy distorted guitars and beats, synth chaos, and disgruntled vocals evolving into screams of madness, Happiness in Slavery is a raw, exposed nerve of a song. Touching on BDSM as only Reznor can, Happiness in Slavery subtly shifts between amazing composition and pure disharmony without ever throwing the listener.
Its increasingly harder to narrow down the remainder of the list of top ten songs by Nine Inch Nails to just four more tracks, when so many of Nine Inch Nails’ songs deserve recognition. There are the techno-rock tracks of Pretty Hate Machine, the atmospheric ambient and noise tracks of the remix EPs like Further Down the Spiral, and the songs that teeter between extremely pissed off and overwhelming sadness make up most of Nine Inch Nails’ albums.
Certainly the song Down In It, off Pretty Hate Machine, deserves recognition at number seven for its lyrics alone, which tell the tale of someone who has completely lost track of himself and who he was.
The eighth song could easily be And All That Could Have Been, another woeful tune about loss and tragedy with no hope for redemption. Songs that describe a lack of faith in oneself are key songs for Reznor, whose no-holds-barred emotional lyrics are what have helped propel Nine Inch Nails higher than most bands who tend to write music purely for money rather than as a cleansing and rehabilitative process.
For the ninth song, I would choose have to choose Mr. Self Destruct, if only for the way it attacks you without warning with angry, frantic beats and lyrics, then shifts into a beautiful musical refrain while the vocals rise from a subtle whisper in the back of your mind to abject and outright feelings of intensity, culminating in a frenzy of explosive elements.
As Reznor tends to end his albums on a low note, I too will end this list with a quiet, peaceful song, a rarity on The Downward Spiral. Placed neatly between two barrages of gunshot songs, A Warm Place is the music of the womb, a lullaby to lull you to sleep, where perhaps your dreams might hold more hope than much of Nine Inch Nails’ songs do.