A few years ago I shared my list of the top ten Nine Inch Nails songs. Well, as it is bound to happen from time to time, it’s time to revisit the list. Some songs are off the list, others are added, and new entries are worked and squeezed in alongside modern classics. This list is short on obvious hits, so if you’re expecting it to be a countdown of their biggest hits, you’ll end up mistaken. Either way these songs are all just as relevant to a nin fan as some of the other more obvious ones. Today to celebrate the upcoming three night Saenger stand by Reznor and the boys, I give to you the Ten best nin songs. Enjoy!
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5 PRETTY HATE MACHINE, 1989
At the time nothing like this had come out. It mixed cold electronic beats with a certain, catchy aesthetic. The first track on the album, and one of the band's most popular songs even today, “Head Like a Hole,” found an interesting and wanting crowd of underground music fans who were willing enough to give the band a chance.
Much of the album is subdued compared to what would be done later, but you can very much still hear the inspiration and how exacting Reznor was in creating this new sound. Songs like “Terrible Lie,” “Sin” and “Kinda I Want to” have beats unlike anything that were out at this time, and it's based on this foundation that the band would grow and become one of the most influential bands in rock music of the 90's.
The album also gives us a brief glimpse into how well rounded Reznor is as a instrumentalist. The best example of this is the hauntingly dark “Something I Can Never Have.” Having been a piano player from an early age, by this point Reznor was very proficient at the instrument. This is glaringly obvious here. He builds the tension quietly and deliberately at first with soft but ominous undertones, but the sound gradually progresses to a textural palette that is vibrant in ways that most dark music rarely reaches.
4 HESITATION MARKS, 2013
For me, this album is another in a stellar list of awesome albums. While not quite as good as the Fragile, Broken and Year Zero, it’s another big step for Reznor as the center of this influential band. Slow building tracks like “Copy of A,” “All Time Low” and the vastly underrated “Various Methods of Escape,” all showcase the diversity in subtle ways, while still building the ethos of what Nin as a music project can be.
The record is also interesting because while moments are indeed still intense, the album is much more of a slow build that the others on this list. Secondly, the album came out at a time that saw Nine Inch Nails still capable of filling large venues and headlining festivals, while also largely being forgetting or dismissed by the younger crowds. Still, the album is mature and just as relevant to Reznor career as the other projects created.
As I mentioned, when “Hesitation Marks” came out it wasn’t met with a ton of acclaim, but for hardcore fans like myself, it was an eye opening side of Reznor that hadn’t been studied before. The live show was also a different take on the band, which saw Reznor and the band, along with several female backup singers spice up the songs in a unique way.
In short, its an awesome album and I still haven’t found a hardcore NIN fan that thinks it’s a clunker. Lastly, how many times have you heard of members of King Crimson and Fleetwood Mac working on the same album?
3 YEAR ZERO, 2007
Many casual fans probably don’t think about this record too often, but when I heard it everything changed for me. I’d force my then-wife to exclusively listen to this album for months on end. There was something about the concept, the landscape of a world where things had gotten worse and worse, that reached out to my imagination and led me to fall in love with this complex and interesting idea. The quality of the songs aren’t anything to shudder at either. Listening to the record now, you can see how well thought out it all was. You picture yourself trying to figure out a way to get through the desolation while the cold, erratic beats and chants of “Survivalism” are echoing in your brain, and you feel like you’re a part of something bigger.
Nine Inch Nails is a band very well-known for experimentation, and “Year Zero” is no exception. “My Violent Heart,” “Another Version of the Truth,” and “The Great Destroyer” all showcase things not really used in earlier records. The album closes with Reznor screaming “shame on us” for the power we gave to these people. In closing, the album has had a great impact on me, and it’s an album that is full of warnings and breaches of trust among fellow humans, but also one that can serve to remind people that we are all capable of doing equally amazing and also horribly cruel things.
The issue with the album now is that as a world, we’re seeing the effects of what a real life YZ could be. Fear mongering is now in full effect in our country, with some siding with an authoritarian figure hellbent on killing progress and eliminating the common good in favor of absolute terror and subjugation and You have to decide which side you want to be on.
2 DOWNWARD SPIRAL, 1994
To put it mildly, this album was a severe game changer for the band, and for Reznor himself. In a matter of months, and on the back of a legendary performance at Woodstock 94, Nin found themselves filling arena's instead of halls and theaters, and were the ire of concerned parents everywhere. The album itself, which tells the story of a man slowly descending into utter madness, is full of amazingly intricate beats, soundscapes and sheer madness for the duration. Unorthodox beats perfectly build the tension during songs like “Piggy” and “Ruiner,” while also managing to make beautiful and eye opening creations in a track like “A Warm Place.” Technically speaking, there really isn't a bad song on the album. “March of the Pigs'' is still an brute force track, and one of the best to see in a live performance setting. When you hear Reznor scream “March!'' There's this undeniable urge to be a part of a frenzy, and it's one of the best experiences during a concert I can ever recall. Like I said, intense. Even then, with the intensity abundant, stand out songs like the sexual liberation of “Closer.”
The last five songs on the record though all deliver eye opening, yet very starly contrasting themes and arrangements. “A Warm Place,” remains beautiful in it’s presentation, but offers little reprieve in the grand scheme of things, while “Eraser” is a slow burn of evil and desperation that gradually pays off on it’s way to the huge musical bomb that’s set off at the song’s conclusion. It perfectly builds tension in the world of the album, and when the drums, guitars and screaming take full hold, there’s really no good that could come of it. There’s still one classic left though.
Probably the best known track off “TDS” also happens to be the track that concludes the record. To this day “Hurt” remains a poignantly tormented song, with Reznor singing more clearly and vulnerable than he has throughout the record. The chorus also happens to be infectious, and very easy to sing along to embrace the pain this man is feeling. It’s a cathartic song on the record, but it’s also cathartic to the listener who has been put through a myriad of personal torment on their journey through this very good, but very deeply troubled record.
1 THE FRAGILE, 1999
There are quite a few amazing things about “The Fragile,” to be more precise. For one, it's rare that a piece of music containing so much can at the same time be so effective and good, with little to no filler. Certain songs clearly aren't the strongest, but more or less the songs do an excellent job of showcasing various aspects of Reznor's unique sound. You have tracks like “The Wretched” or “Somewhat Damaged” that have the vibe from other records, filled with negativity, great beats, and some of the best usages of imagery on the entire album. As a composer, TR has always been able to make you feel part of the world, and on tracks like the two mentioned, you're instantly pulled into the world.
At over twenty songs, and two hours of music, song after song delivers in ways that the previous song didn't. “The Day the World Went Away” bellows with an ethereal chamber quality, while others like the catchy “Into the Void” make you wonder what's coming next. The album's diversity is pretty astounding, even today. During his career, Reznor had been known to toss in instrumental tracks on releases, and “The Fragile” is no exception. Some of these are among the best songs on the whole record. “Pilgrimage” hits you toward the end of the Left Disc, and the imagery painted makes you instantly think of a Nazi march. The best though, comes in the way of “Just Like You Imagined.” To put it bluntly, it's a killer intense song, and it's probably the best instrumental track ever made under the nin moniker.
However dark the album is, there is a glimmer of hope that still resonates with myself everytime I hear it. It also happened to be one of my favorite all time songs. That track, “We’re in This Together,” isn’t a mellow song, but it accomplishes its tasks. I’ve probably heard this song two thousand or so times, and it still makes me smile and giddy like a child. It overshadows all of the other songs on the album, yet still it’s one of the least played songs in the NIN live catalogue. Years ago I remember an interview where TR said it was the best song he ever wrote, and he knew he couldn’t do it justice in concert, so he let it be. Maybe one of these days I can stop spending endless amounts of money seeing them live. But first, I must have my WITT live. Thanks for reading.
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Landon Murray is a music connooisseur who craves sounds of all shapes and textures. He's seen over 2000 bands and looks forward to welcoming you into his world of sound,
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