Sex, drugs and … God? Nine Inch Nails’ greatest songs – ranked!

<span>Horribly authentic self-loathing … Trent Reznor.</span><span>Photograph: Brian Rasic/Brian Rasic/Getty Images</span>
Horribly authentic self-loathing … Trent Reznor.Photograph: Brian Rasic/Brian Rasic/Getty Images

20. God Given (2007)

Year Zero isn’t Nine Inch Nails’ strongest album, veering towards the kind of overproduced studio product that Grammys voters like – although there is still a distinct imprimatur to this mainstream blues-rock, as if finished with a black NIN wax seal. God Given is its pop moment, with distorted noises building the type of groove that Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera or Kylie Minogue might have tried out at the time in a moment of label-troubling moodiness.

19. Hope We Can Again (2020)

The instrumentals on the six volumes of Ghosts often feel like soundtrack fodder for a Netflix true crime documentary about a murderous accountant, but there are a handful of keepers. Sounding like a haunted children’s music box has become a NIN cliche, yet Hope We Can Again does it so well. The piano line is pure and poignant and the ambient noise behind it is terrific, with a cortex-piercing sine wave that stops it feeling blandly lovely.

18. God Break Down the Door (2018)

Surely influenced by David Bowie’s Blackstar, NIN added a jazz sensibility to this pacy acid-breakbeat track with wailing saxophones and tuned percussion, while Trent Reznor’s ironic supper-club croon is pure latter-day Bowie. It enticingly staked out new ground for the group, but they haven’t yet ventured further; this is from their most recent set of songs, the Bad Witch mini-album from 2018.

17. Something I Can Never Have (1989)

Before there was Hurt, there was this: a stately ballad at the heart of their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, that showed the breadth of Reznor’s vision from the off. “You make this all go away” could be about the salvation of love, but also pre-empts the reliance on drugs and alcohol that would define his next decade.

16. Turn This Off Please (2020)

Away from the middling sketches, polite piano and boringly legible emotion across much of the Ghosts material is this gripping 13-minute composition, the intentions of which are much less clear. Machinery clunks in urgent rhythm and boots crunch in formation on gravel as sirens emanate across a ghostly valley. An arthouse thriller in industrial sound.

15. Various Methods of Escape (2013)

By 2013, Reznor had consolidated his creative partnership with his bandmate and production guru Atticus Ross – they won their first Oscar in 2010 for their score for The Social Network, brilliant in its humming, knee-jigging anxiety. It led to Hesitation Marks, the band’s fourth truly great album – and arguably most commercial – after Pretty Hate Machine, The Downward Spiral and The Fragile. It’s stacked full of superb melody writing from Reznor (Find My Way, All Time Low and Disappointed could easily have made this list), particularly on the R&B bump of Various Methods of Escape, as he drifts sexily into falsetto.

14. Into the Void (1999)

The Downward Spiral – 30 years old this month – did indeed lead downwards: while writing the follow-up, The Fragile, Reznor was mired in drug use and “trying to kill myself”, he later said. On Into the Void, he has “pictures in my head of the final destination”. Yet this is one of the slinkiest, funkiest songs in the band’s catalogue, Reznor seemingly moonwalking across black linoleum as he sings: “Tried to save myself, but myself keeps slipping away.”

13. The Day the World Went Away (1999)

Utterly resistant to playlisting culture and indeed to ranking exercises like this, The Fragile lacks immediate pop singles, but offers a magnificently sprawling whole-album experience. Reznor said he intended it to sound like “someone struggling to put the pieces together” and the sequencing is cleverly topsy-turvy: The Day the World Went Away is a valedictory proto-Arcade Fire epic singalong, baffling you at side one, track two.

12. The Wretched (1999)

In a killer one-two with We’re in This Together as side one of The Fragile finds its feet, The Wretched shows how good NIN are at going slow and sleazy – their cover of Adam and the Ants’ Physical (You’re So) being another great example. It splices trip-hop and heavy metal as God reaches down to keep Reznor under his thumb.

11. Less Than (2017)

Much better than the attempts on Year Zero, the lead track on the Add Violence EP goes totally mainstream pop-rock. Dave Grohl surely envies the chorus and there are the kind of backing vocals that could be sung soulfully with hand gestures. You could imagine it being performed live on Good Morning America, but the production has crushing heft and the lyrics are about violent, manipulative governance.

10. March of the Pigs (1994)

Powered by a drum beat that takes the cocaine bounce of Lust for Life and dusts it with methamphetamine until it jitters, this is rampant 270bpm punk given an anxious tic of an offbeat. Reznor lacerates himself for the suits of the music business: “All the pigs are all lined up / I give you all that you want / Take the skin and peel it back / Now doesn’t it make you feel better?” That final line is played for comedy, paired with a sarcastically flamboyant flourish of musical theatre piano.

9. The Background World (2017)

Closing out Add Violence, this 12-minute deep cut is right up there with NIN’s very best. That EP pondered whether we are living in a simulation and The Background World rips through the veil: “The world is bleeding out / It folds itself in two / Behind the background world / It’s always bleeding through.” Reznor’s rising chorus line is indelible and he and Ross lock into a three-bar groove that awkwardly resets itself each time, decaying a little more with every repetition, like a radio transmission from a dying planet picked up much too late.

8. Heresy (1994)

Reznor’s relationship with God is fascinating – he seems desperate for a faith to guide him and bring meaning, yet he is deeply distrustful of organised religion. The latter, Christianity specifically, gets eviscerated here in a howl of jaded contempt: “God is dead! And no one cares!” That phrase will have rung through many a slammed teenage bedroom door, but Reznor’s delivery makes it far from juvenile, helped by the raunchy riff – quite possibly a nod to that other classic of pop-industrial heresy, Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus.

7. Copy of a (2013)

Hesitation Marks surfaced the techno that had always roiled in Nine Inch Nails’ seabed; its second single, Copy of a, would sound great bouncing off the concrete walls of a post-industrial club space. It has a fiendish Detroit bassline, while Reznor, singing one of his most infectious melodies, has the sinister smoothness of a federal agent playing good cop – but the way he repeats phrases with inhuman accuracy gives him away as a replicant.

6. The Hand That Feeds (2005)

The thrilling sound of someone defibrillating themselves. Reznor was seemingly beyond hope, nearly dying from a heroin overdose in 2000, but he engaged with rehab and emerged five years later with this heroic return single. With the biggest and best riff in their catalogue, Reznor again lays into organised religion, but his words – “can you get up off your knees?” – could be a call to any kind of resistance, including against your worst impulses.

5. Came Back Haunted (2013)

The humanity in Reznor’s work lies in its tension and release. Clenched and seething, hateful with impotence, he also swaggers, lashes out and purges – performances that get to the heart of our fallibility and hard-wired brokenness. It’s all here in the sensational Came Back Haunted. Reznor stammers that title line in fear as he returns home, scarred from a war with himself. He is wound tight and frightened, as is the creepy beat – but then the guitars sally forth and he sings freely: “I couldn’t stop myself!” One of his greatest studies of purity, temptation and sin – and the wretched magnetism of all three.

4. Closer (1994)

Reznor tops, bottoms and presumably does everything in between on the horniest goth song ever (which is saying something). The line “I want to fuck you like an animal” delights each generation of teenager, but Reznor is actually receiving more than he is giving, using sex to distract him from self-loathing and achieve that longed-for divinity: “Help me become somebody else … you get me closer to God”. Sounds like nothing else in pop before or since.

3. Head Like a Hole (1989)

The opening track on Nine Inch Nails’ debut album showed the extent of their pop ambition: why have one catchy chorus when you can have three? The lyrics are about resisting soul-corrupting capitalism, but such confident songwriting makes the ironic authoritarianism of “bow down before the one you serve” seem like a straightforward command: here was a new band you could truly worship. They would go on to explore the master-servant dynamic of drugs, money and sex in ever more detail and flip-flopping contradiction. Dominatrices, meanwhile, had a new theme song.

2. Terrible Lie (1989)

Reznor cuts a Job-like figure, ranting at a God who has turned away from him and a world going asunder – although you could easily read the lyrics as castigating the betrayed promise of postwar peace, prosperity and cohesion. The spiritual-existential crisis builds from childish petulance (“I think you owe me a great big apology”) to absolute desperation (“I want so much to believe”) as the band spot-weld glam rock chords to malevolent techno. That title line is like a finger jabbed at the sky, angry and pathetically powerless.

1. Hurt (1994)

Johnny Cash’s devastating cover refashioned this as an anti-My Way: an end-of-life requiem for someone with too many regrets to mention. But the original is even better, a power(less) ballad sung by someone for whom drug use and self-harm have become one and the same. Reznor was an addict by this point and his voice trembles with horribly authentic self-loathing and bewilderment, then rages at the certainty of his degradation. There is a tiny squeak of wry humour in the pathos of “you could have it all / my empire of dirt” – gee, thanks Trent! – and “I wear this crown of shit”. But the eventual cataclysm of guitar chords, obscuring his final words, can mean only oblivion. One of the very best songs, and pieces of theatre, of the 1990s.