Nine Inch Nails’ first album Pretty Hate Machine was released just after a year after their formation in 1989 whilst Reznor was still working as a janitor in a Cleveland recording studio. The next album The Downward Spiral was not released until 1994 and was a massive critical and commercial success. To this day it is considered their finest work and a classic of the industrial genre.
Nine Inch Nails’ recording career has been a sporadic one. The next album The Fragile was not released until 1999 and was not followed up until 2005 with With Teeth. This tradition was broken somewhat when the next album was released only two years later in 2007 titled Year Zero. After then releasing another two albums independently in 2008 they went on hiatus until 2013 when they released Hesitation Marks. Their most recent full-length has been 2018’s Bad Witch.
Although Reznor is the sole member of the band to record and write the music, he has assembled many other musicians over the years to perform live. Their live shows are known for their use of dark imagery and they are often regarded as a very unique live band.
They have sold over 20 million records and have been nominated for thirteen Grammy Awards, although they have only won two of them. Reznor is a much-respected artist within the alternative music community, with many citing his forward-thinking approach to making music as an influence. Nine Inch Nails is easily the most commercially successful group n the industrial rock genre, being much more well-known than other bands such as Ministry and Killing Joke. This is likely due to the fact that they were also one of the key bands of the 90’s alternative movement alongside multi-platinum acts such as Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine.
10. The Perfect Drug
We open our Top 10 Nine Inch Nails songs list with a written for the 1997 film Lost Highway directed by David Lynch (who Nine Inch Nails could easily be considered the musical equivalent to); this track was recorded in only a week. Despite this short period of time, Reznor experimented a lot with how the song sounded. Much like the film the song is a drug-induced head trip. Despite being well received, the band have never performed it live which is likely because Reznor has often expressed that he is not a massive fan of the song.
Nine Inch Nails has always been a band that has used the latest technological advancements to develop their industrial sound. With 2007’s Year Zero they incorporated a lot of electronic elements which suited the record’s futuristic concept. This track was released as the album’s lead single. Its highest charting position was number 1 on the US Billboard Alternative Charts.
8. Mr. Self Destruct
The opening track of the band’s breakthrough album, 1994’s The Downward Spiral perfectly sets out the musical tone for the rest of the record. The track features much variation as it opens with a very heavy guitar riff before being followed by melodic-sounding keyboards with Reznor whispering his vocals over the top. The song received a positive critical reception and the band named their tour to support the album after it called the Self Destruct Tour. It has also been remixed several times.
7. Every Day Is Exactly The Same
This track from 2005’s With Teeth is one of the band’s mellower moments. With its catchy and melodic piano riff, its construction is perfect. It was released as a single and its accessible nature led to it being commercially successful. It charted at number 1 in several different lists including the Canadian singles chart. There was also a planned music video which was scrapped.
6. Terrible Lie
The Nine Inch Nails Song “Terrible Lie,” is from their 1989 debut Pretty Hate Machine and like much of the material on the album, it is not as heavy as most of their later material. It lacks the multi-layered aspect which defines much of its post-Downward Spiral sound and in that sense could be considered a minimalist version of NIN. However, that does not mean that the quality is any less. Even at this point, Reznor is quite clearly going places, taking the sound of his influences and making them more palatable for a bigger audience. Even though it is dated in some aspects, in a way the nostalgic vibes that it gives are what makes it a classic.
5. Zero Sum
The closing track from Year Zero perfectly sums up the apocalyptic and dystopian vibes of this very politically charged record. The lyrical concept of the album presents a scarily realistic nightmare where power-hungry politicians have taken over and everyone is hooked on mind-altering drugs, two concepts that unfortunately seem to be becoming a reality more than ever in 2019. However, towards the end, the lyrics offer a glimmer of hope when some kind of higher power warns humanity that it must learn from its mistakes or it will be doomed. However, with this song hope does not come to fruition, as humans fail to change and are destroyed by this higher power which turns out to be alien beings. All in all, it is one of the bleakest album closers ever recorded.
4. Right Where It Belongs
With Teeth was a comeback album for Nine Inch Nails. The reason why it was released six years after The Fragile was due to the heavy drink and drug abuse that Reznor had been indulging in during that time. This track’s lyrical content is very reflective of this and the sound of the song is very melancholy. It is also the album’s closing track and is very well suited to it.
Singles from Pretty Hate Machine such as “Head Like a Hole” proved to be popular in clubs. This Nine Inch Nails song “Sin,” was the final single from the album and was no different with its use of synths which makes it sound like a pumped-up version of Depeche Mode. The song peaked at number 35 on the UK singles chart. It has also remained a staple of the band’s live sets for many years. The B-side of the single was a cover of Queen’s “Get Down, Make Love.” It was produced by Ministry frontman Al Jourgensen under the alias of Hypo Luxa.
The dark Nine Inch Nails song “Echoplex,” deals with isolation is very dance-based and somehow manages to introduce an element of funk into the proceedings, something that is not often associated with NIN. Even though these elements are buried underneath the haunting guitar sound, it is nonetheless one of the most groove-based songs in the band’s catalog. It is taken from 2008’s The Slip which was a download-for-free album.
Coming in a number one on our top 10 Nine Inch Nails songs list is a song written for Oliver Stone’s controversial 1994 film Natural Born Killers. Given the film’s subject matter, it is very much a classic example of the band during their 90’s prime, when their fans were usually seen to be moody teenage goths. Reznor produced the soundtrack himself. It also included songs from a wide range of artists from Bob Dylan and Patti Smith through to bands such as L7 and Lard. It was a mix of previously recorded tracks and songs originally written for the film, of which this was one. There were also two other Nine Inch Nails songs included on the album.
Updated June 10, 2023
Top 10 Nine Inch Nails Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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