Greatest Hits: The 22 best Nine Inch Nails songs

Jeff Terich
best Nine Inch Nails songs greatest hits

After a year full of pain and misery, 2016 did deliver one much-needed salve on its way out: New music from Nine Inch Nails. The music of Trent Reznor, from “Head Like A Hole” on up through “Came Back Haunted” is catharsis turned melodic. It’s music that channels the deepest of angst and frustration and primes it for the dancefloor or the amphitheater stage. It’s loud, it’s intense, it’s complex and it’s dark. And in some cases, it’s actually quite beautiful.

For 28 years, Nine Inch Nails have been releasing continually evolving variations on an industrial rock sound, from the synth-goth sleekness of “Terrible Lie” to the noise anarchy of “March of the Pigs,” and from the electro-funk of “Into the Void” to the stadium rock hooks of “The Hand That Feeds.” There’s a Nine Inch Nails song for every occasion. And for that matter, there’s just a lot of Nine Inch Nails songs.

With a new album on the way from Trent Reznor and company, along with a series of long-awaited vinyl reissues coming soon, the time seemed appropriate to put together a definitive list of Nine Inch Nails’ best songs. We surveyed the entire catalog, from the late ’80s on up to the present day, with selections from every era (though certain periods definitely produced more knockouts). So as we anticipate the next move from Reznor, we present our official list of the best Nine Inch Nails songs, complete with a playlist spanning two discs worth of material.

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Disc One: Empire of Dirt

best Nine Inch Nails songs Broken“Wish” (3:47)
from Broken (1992; Nothing/Interscope)

It’s a pretty weird thing to learn that “Wish” wasn’t as big of an alt-rock chart success as “Happiness in Slavery,” which isn’t as catchy as “Wish,” nor did it have an MTV-friendly video. (In fact most of the Broken short film was too violent or disturbing to show.) Nonetheless, “Wish” holds up better over time, an industrialized version of classic glam rock—in fact it’s basically Trent Reznor’s take on “Ballroom Blitz” with some winking moments of self-loathing (“You know me–I HATE EVERYONE“). Reznor never really got enough credit for his sense of humor, but the thing that stands out most on “Wish” is just how much of a great rock song it is.


best Nine Inch Nails songs The Fragile“We’re In This Together” (7:16)
from The Fragile (1999; Nothing/Interscope)

I remember hearing “We’re In This Together” for the first time and having two immediate reactions. One, I couldn’t help but notice how energizing and powerful a rock anthem it was—more so than perhaps any other Nine Inch Nails song before it. And two, I was struck by how (gasp) optimistic it was? Maybe “optimistic” isn’t the right word, but there’s a defiant, us-against-the-world quality that previous Nine Inch Nails records mostly evaded in favor of a sort of lost, angry loner narrative (which Reznor’s very good at, for what it’s worth). Here, however, Reznor’s yells of “You and me/ We’re in this together now/ None of them can stop us now/ We will make it through somehow” are energizing and strangely comforting when paired with this forceful rock epic. It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, then, that it was inspired by David Bowie’s “Heroes.”


best Nine Inch Nails songs Pretty Hate Machine“Terrible Lie” (4:39)
from Pretty Hate Machine (1989; TVT)

“Head Like A Hole” is the biggest hit from Nine Inch Nails’ debut Pretty Hate Machine, and it’s been called their best song in some best-song polls of their work. And it’s up there, but see, the best song on the album is actually “Terrible Lie.” It’s the heaviest, for starters, and it’s most certainly the most goth. It’s all about the eerie chorus, in which a duet of synths casts a mood of darkness and tension rather than destruction or violence. It’s the suggestion rather than the blatant display that makes it something special. Ask me on the right day and I might tell you it’s the best song Reznor ever wrote, but I know in my heart of hearts that’s not true. Top three though, easily.


best nine inch nails songs Downward Spiral“March of the Pigs” (2:59)
from The Downward Spiral (1994; Nothing/Interscope)

The first single that Nine Inch Nails released from The Downward Spiral wasn’t its catchiest, but certainly its most direct. “March of the Pigs” is a masterpiece of drum-machine agitation and pure industrial-metal nihilism. It’s fairly brief at just under three minutes, but it combines a lot of elements in that brief span: Propulsive drum intro, hyper-distorted guitar riffs, dark synth pulses, dramatic silence and eventually Trent Reznor’s inquiry, “Now doesn’t it make you feel better?” against a major-key piano riff. It’s pure catharsis compressed into an abbreviated package. And yeah, now that you mention it, it does feel a lot better.


21st century political albums Year Zero“Survivalism” (4:24)
from Year Zero (2007; Nothing/Interscope)

Back when Year Zero landed, I remember “Capital G” being the single that earned the most airplay. And I suppose I get that—its hip-hop influence and midtempo strut had a certain popular appeal. But “Survivalism” was the single that seemed the most naturally Nine Inch Nails of the bunch. An anchoring single on an album full of dystopian social critique (this was written during the George W. Bush administration years, remember), “Survivalism” paints a pretty bleak portrait of how to survive a collapsed society: “I got my propaganda, I got revisionism/I got my violence in hi-def ultra realism.” It’s delivered in a furious industrial-glam strut that recalls “Wish,” as well as early synth-pop proto-industrial acts like The Normal or Suicide. It’s troubling how prescient it’s looking right now.


Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks“Came Back Haunted” (5:17)
from Hesitation Marks (2013; Columbia)

The most important thing to note about “Came Back Haunted” is the layers of synths that it comprises. They groove. They ooze. They shuffle and shake. They—yes—even haunt. Were it not for the noisy guitars that erupt in its back half, and Reznor’s own instantly recognizable voice, it might be mistaken for a Ladytron song. And that’s an impressive development, really, because Nine Inch Nails are always at their sexiest when the aggression is just on the fringes rather than at the forefront. (For the most part.) And that makes sense, really; now married and enjoying a successful film scoring career, Trent Reznor isn’t the same angry young man full of angst and loathing. But that doesn’t mean he can’t get weird and have some fun with it.


Nine Inch Nails Pretty Hate Machine“Sin” (4:06)
from Pretty Hate Machine (1989; TVT)

Nine Inch Nails made an incredible amount of progress between debut album Pretty Hate Machine and follow-up The Downward Spiral in just five years. That’s not a slight against the former, it’s simply not as intricate and elaborate as its colossal successor. But Pretty Hate Machine is loaded with standout synth-driven tracks like “Sin.” It’s essentially the darkness of what’s to come in its incubation phase, Reznor sneering “You give me the anger, you give me the nerve/ Carry out my sentence, while I get what I deserve” over something that sounds more like angry Depeche Mode than the symphonies of destruction he’d later compose.


best Nine Inch Nails songs The Fragile“The Big Come Down” (4:13)
from The Fragile (1999; Nothing/Interscope)

Time and hindsight has treated The Fragile well, revealing it to be an album that benefits from patience and repeat listens. It features the most instrumental tracks outside of Ghosts, however, and there’s a lot of material that comprises interconnected suites, which makes a lot of the tracks harder to break apart from the whole. That being said, a lot of it is simply fantastic, and “The Big Come Down” is one of its highest peaks. It’s a noisy, clanging thing, built from robot parts and toxic garbage, seemingly intent on destruction. Then the chorus arrives, and instead of the massively noisy rock mess it threatens to be, Reznor pulls a fast one and delivers a perfect pop hook.


best nine inch nails songs With Teeth“Only” (4:23)
from With Teeth (2005; Nothing/Interscope)

On paper, “Only” seems like it probably shouldn’t work; Reznor sing-speaking about picking at scabs before yelling about how “There’s no fucking you! There is only me!” over ominous post-punk synthesizers a la Gary Numan. Then again, that sounds like a Nine Inch Nails song, pretty much. And though Reznor hams it up a bit here, it all comes together nicely, an ultra-catchy goth-club dancefloor jam that pulls back some of Reznor’s past aggression in favor of a bit of funk abrasion. It grooves, it seethes, it’s classic Nine Inch Nails.


best nine inch nails songs The Slip“Demon Seed” (4:59)
from The Slip (2008; The Null Corporation)

It’s easy to lose The Slip in Nine Inch Nails’ discography as a kind of minor album; it was, after all, originally released online for free without advance promotion—think of it like Reznor’s In Rainbows, if you like. Though after the atmospheric experiments of Ghosts I-IV, it was a much welcome return to industrial rock form, and had a few gems, most notably closer “Demon Seed,” which paired Reznor’s massive industrial guitar assault with danceable beats and a slinky post-punk bassline. And while it doesn’t have the hooks of some of his biggest singles, it makes up for that with an interesting structure and sheer energy.


best nine inch nails songs Downward Spiral“Hurt” (6:16)
from The Downward Spiral (1994; Nothing/Interscope)

If Johnny Cash’s American Recordings series taught us anything, it’s that the man can make just about any song sound even better. That being said, the songs he chose to cover—Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, U2, Bonnie “Prince” Billy—were already pretty strong to begin with. “Hurt” was the standout track from American IV, thanks in part to a reinterpretation that gave Reznor’s album-closing ballad the weight of a man looking at the final years of his life. “Hurt,” on its own, is already a standout single, a tender and haunting track that blends Reznor’s production noise with one of his most sparse melodies and his most bare expression of emotional fragility.


Disc Two: Closer to God

best nine inch nails songs Downward Spiral“Mr. Self Destruct” (4:30)
from The Downward Spiral (1994; Nothing/Interscope)

The Downward Spiral opens with an irregular drum pulse that imitates the sound of someone being repeatedly punched. It’s physical, brutal stuff—a proper introduction to the nightmarish anthems to be found past its unforgiving threshold. “Mr. Self Destruct,” however, is one of the catchier tracks on the album, a clanging locomotive of noise and hate that ascends toward a badass chorus. It becomes oddly quiet in its bridge, then explodes back into a merciless din without warning. There’s no safety here.


best Nine Inch Nails songs The Fragile“The Way Out Is Through” (4:17)
from The Fragile (1999; Nothing/Interscope)

As I mentioned earlier, The Fragile is an interesting album for Nine Inch Nails in that about half of it feels like the film-score material that Reznor would later focus much of his attention toward. That actually gives it a unique character in the catalog. Though its standouts are some of the best in the band’s catalog, like this opener to its second disc, beginning with an atmospheric instrumental before erupting into a triumphant rock climax. An interesting diversion from pop songwriting styles, “The Way Out Is Through” nonetheless provides a thrilling exclamation point to kick off the album’s second half.


best Nine Inch Nails songs The Fragile“Into the Void” (4:49)
from The Fragile (1999; Nothing/Interscope)

Trent Reznor really knocks it out of the park with singles. The man can write a damn hit. He can make conceptual pieces bound by narratives built around humanity’s basest instincts, fears and depravity, but never let it be said that he can’t make them also very radio friendly. “Into the Void,” amid some of the more highbrow ideas on The Fragile, stands as its most commercial moment. It’s got the kind of funky strut that Reznor first showcased in “Closer,” but it’s not a sequel to that symphony of carnality. This one’s less tortured; sure, he repeats the lines “I tried to save myself, but myself keeps slipping away,” but he sounds like he’s having fun with it. And how couldn’t he? The buzzing bassline, intertwining layers of synth and guitar make this the sort of dancefloor filler that’s not only present on all of Nine Inch Nails’ albums, but absolutely necessary. Hard to believe this song is almost 20 years old; it feels remarkably vital today.


best nine inch nails songs With Teeth“The Hand That Feeds” (3:32)
from With Teeth (2005; Nothing/Interscope)

It seems somewhat fitting that Nine Inch Nails would follow up the complex, sprawling double-album exploration of The Fragile with the relatively direct rock songwriting of With Teeth. And it’s aged surprisingly well in the last 12 years. “The Hand That Feeds” was a relatively dramatic change of pace, however, turning away from more personal narratives in the past toward a radio-friendly protest against the George W. Bush administration, complete with ace drumming from Dave Grohl. When Reznor was scheduled to perform at the 2005 VMAs, MTV objected to the “controversial” performance, which was planned to be staged in front of a giant image of Bush’s face. Reznor joked that MTV must have found the image of the president as objectionable as he did, but instead of compromising, Reznor backed out (replaced, ironically, with Foo Fighters performing their own anti-Bush song, “The Best of You”). Missed opportunity on MTV’s part, but the song still kicks ass.


Nine Inch Nails Pretty Hate Machine“Down In It” (3:46)
from Pretty Hate Machine (1989; TVT)

Though it’s neither prevalent nor often publicized, hip-hop has long played a pretty major role in influencing Trent Reznor’s music. Dr. Dre contributed to The Fragile, for instance, and for better or worse Reznor’s even incorporated some rapping into his songs. One instance for better, “Down In It,” is almost more sing-speak than proper rap though the influence there is plain to hear. A late-’80s electro gem, it’s somewhat quaint by the more punishing standards of industrial music to come (much milder than Godflesh, for instance), but easily one of Nine Inch Nails’ most infectious singles, and for that matter one of the most lighthearted. For all the darkness Nine Inch Nails pursued in the ’90s, they still knew how to have a good time.


Nine Inch Nails Broken“Last” (4:45)
from Broken (1992; Nothing/Interscope)

Not that everything was so lighthearted, however. The Broken EP stands out as being Nine Inch Nails’ heaviest release, doing away mostly with EBM dance tropes in favor of the kind of guitar-driven machine-metal that Ministry had already come to embrace (and damn-near perfect for that matter). “Last” is Nine Inch Nails’ most metal moment, a crushing bulldozer of gigantic riffs and 4/4 stomp, carving a path of destruction as Reznor screams his face off. Also, “Dressed up this rotten carcass just to make it look alive!” is a pretty metal line. The moment of headbanging glory might have been fleeting, but it was great while it lasted.


best nine inch nails songs Downward Spiral“Ruiner” (4:59)
from The Downward Spiral (1994; Nothing/Interscope)

There are more songs on this list from The Downward Spiral than any other Nine Inch Nails album. That isn’t an accident, of course. It’s the band’s best album. It’s not Trent Reznor’s most ambitious project, if only because The Fragile had the most material, but it’s damn close. To hear every detail put into it, you come away with no other conclusion than that Trent Reznor is a perfectionist. He’d have to be to do something like “Ruiner,” right? It’s all upbeat EBM dance beats, then it’s chaotic noise, then it’s majestic nightmarish fanfare, and then, of all things, it turns into a Pink Floyd song with a noisy, emotional guitar solo. It’s a lot of ideas packed into five minutes, and they’re sewn together brilliantly. “Ruiner” has been cited as a particular favorite of Nine Inch Nails fans, and rightfully so.


Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks“In Two” (5:32)
from Hesitation Marks (2013; Columbia)

So much of Hesitation Marks was driven by dancefloor-friendly rhythms and synth-driven groove that it, in a way, brings Nine Inch Nails full circle to where they were in 1989—albeit with more modern technology. “In Two,” with its funked-up beats and use of vocoder, almost seems to suggest The Faint more than any of Nine Inch Nails’ former industrial contemporaries. As such, it’s an easy track to like, playful while holding onto the ominous tones that have always made Nine Inch Nails unique. The extended, shoegazing bridge makes it all the more interesting as well.


best nine inch nails songs Downward Spiral“Reptile” (6:52)
from The Downward Spiral (1994; Nothing/Interscope)

Nine Inch Nails’ second album The Downward Spiral is, in loose terms, a kind of concept album that features different characters. “Reptile” is one of those characters, though if I’m being honest I find the sonic creations in the song more compelling than the lyrical content. That doesn’t take anything away from the song; the lyrics are fine, the arrangement is outstanding. In contrast to the more accessible synth-driven sounds of Pretty Hate Machine, “Reptile” sounds like it was made by evil robots. It’s one of the most evil-sounding things Reznor’s ever released, and it’s stunning in its menace.


Nine Inch Nails Pretty Hate Machine“Head Like a Hole” (5:00)
from Pretty Hate Machine (1989; TVT)

The leadoff track from Nine Inch Nails’ debut album is the band’s first breakthrough single, and it still rocks pretty hard despite coming precariously close to its 30th birthday. At the time, Trent Reznor hadn’t quite mastered the detail-oriented electronic hellscapes that would come to be his signature, but the dude could write a hell of a hook. “Bow down before the one you serve/You’re going to get what you deserve” is that hook, and it’s perhaps a little on the nose as far as industrial sing-alongs go, but the anger, however generalized, is infectious. “Head Like A Hole” is still the perfect song for fucking shit up.


best nine inch nails songs Downward Spiral“Closer” (6:13)
from The Downward Spiral (1994; Nothing/Interscope)

This list—like all other Greatest Hits articles on Treble—isn’t in any order other than how well the songs flow together as a playlist. But “Closer” is, indeed, the best Nine Inch Nails song. Go ahead and disagree with me if you want, but it’s the best one. It’s also one of their biggest hits, and it’s always interesting when those two coincide. In the case of Nine Inch Nails, its commercial viability is what makes it transcendent. Much of the band’s music is dark, angry, confrontational—it exists on the fringes. But “Closer” is sexy. And quite directly so. Reznor famously declares, “I wanna fuck you like an animal,” and it’s as intense as anything he’s ever screamed. Only this time it trades in carnality rather than rage (though there’s plenty of that on the periphery), and it’s built for the dancefloor instead of the torture chamber. Or maybe a little of both? (The video is pretty kinky.) But even beyond how sexy it is, the song’s gradual six-minute ascent toward a majestic and dramatic finish—punctuated by a distorted loop of piano—is what makes it a masterpiece.

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