Rock

The 25 Best Nine Inch Nails Songs: Staff Picks

Nine Inch Nails
Paul Natkin/WireImage

Nine Inch Nails on May 8th, 1994 in Chicago, Il.

Like The Cure before them, Nine Inch Nails both defined and almost immediately transcended their genre within the rock mainstream. Industrial rock had a decade-long history leading from Suicide and Cabaret Voltaire to Ministry and Skinny Puppy by the time of NIN's 1989 debut album Pretty Hate Machine, but that album quickly proved to be the culmination (and crossover breakthrough) of the genre's hybrid aesthetic and morbid lyrical fascinations. By the time of 1994's The Downward Spiral, NIN were simply one of the biggest and most vital bands in the world, with ingénieur (and lone consistent member) Trent Reznor serving as both the decade's Ozzy Osbourne and its Brian Wilson.

Today, it's obvious that Reznor and Nine Inch Nails were drawing a road map for how rock music could essentially survive to the digital age. With synths as loud as their guitars, thickly layered production that enhanced rather than detracted from their music's rawness, and clear influences from the pop, hip-hop and electronic worlds mixed into their singularly streamlined sonics -- not to mention darkly confessional lyrics that would make most emo bands and rappers squirm -- NIN have proven nearly age-proof, sounding more and more like the future the further we get into it.

It's a vitality borne out by Nine Inch Nails' enduring influence in the rock and pop spheres. In the short-term, they not only paved the way for the breakout success of fellow '90s industrial rockers like White Zombie and Reznor protégés Marilyn Manson, but also laid the groundwork for soundscape-based, bloody-throated hard rock bands like Linkin Park and Deftones to find major success in the 21st century. In the long-term, they made grinding production, unsettling lyrics and shocking visuals palatable for the pop world, a model mixture followed by future cult-to-mainstream heroes like Tyler, the Creator and Billie Eilish.

And obviously, the songs hold up: You could put the best of them into any week's Spotify New Music Friday playlist and they'd still snap you to attention and make you go, "Whoa, who is that?" without sounding the least bit like a throwback. They've also been covered by Johnny Cash, reinvented by Miley Cyrus, and of course, sampled by Lil Nas X, for a single that became the longest reigning hit in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, almost exactly three decades after the band's 1989 debut. (“It was all part of a 30-year plan!” Reznor joked to Billboard last year.)

In honor of the group's official induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this weekend, and of their enduring legacy as one of the greatest and most important bands of the post-punk era, we're counting down the 25 best Nine Inch Nails songs below, with a Spotify playlist of all 25 at the bottom. Rock may be something else from the time they started, but NIN are still right here.

25. "Happiness in Slavery" (Broken, 1992)

A sardonic submissive's call-and-response anthem, the rumbling and thrilling peak to NIN's impressively essential 1992 stopgap EP Broken. The barnstorming song was an unlikely Grammy winner in 1996, for the band's live rendition at the Woodstock '94 festival, which featured an extended breakdown of Reznor essentially beating up his synthesizer.

24. "Capital G" (Year Zero, 2007)

A shuffling excoriation of the political process sung from the perspective of an ignorant voter and likely George W. Bush supporter -- though Reznor claimed at the time that "Greed" was what the title was referring to -- the frustrations of "Capital G" certainly still resonate in 2020. "Don't give a s--t about the temperature in Guatemala/ Don't really see what all the fuss is about/ Ain't gonna worry about no future generations and I/ Am sure somebody's gonna figure it out." Yikes.

23. "Only" (Richard X Mix) ("Every Day Is Exactly the Same" single, 2006)

You get the sense that Reznor wanted to go full disco for the With Teeth single "Only" -- but rock radio wasn't quite ready for that yet, so he saddled the original with a stiffer, slower beat for alt-rock dominance. Good thing then that he got '00s British superproducer to crank up the BPMs on one of the song's official remixes, layering seething synths and pulsing cymbals underneath the song's buzzing guitars and Reznor's own "THERE IS NO F--KING YOU!/ THERE IS ONLY ME!" cries. If you're skeptical it can work as a club shout-along, better hit the floor to find out.

22. "Get Down, Make Love" ("Sin" single, 1990)

NIN could get a little porn-y early in their career, but it never felt all that cheap or exploitative because even their most graphic explorations of sex were always wrapped in deeper examinations of power dynamics and identity struggles. Their most viscerally carnal release might have been their searing cover of Queen's "Get Down, Make Love" -- Reznor was an avowed Freddie Mercury acolyte -- which even with its ecstatic moans and titular calls to action feels more less like a standard bedroom anthem in NIN's hands than a George Michael-type pushing at the boundaries of monogamy.

21. "The Cursed Clock" (Ghosts VI: Locusts, 2020)

At this point, Trent Reznor's 21st century output might be better defined by his and longtime collaborator Atticus Ross' score work for movies like The Social Network and TV shows like Watchmen than his work under the Nine Inch Nails name. But while his NIN releases have still been in more of a full-band rock mode, the Ghosts compilations get closer to the peerless ambient dread of his theme work -- none more evocatively than with this year's "The Cursed Clock," where a mostly one-note piano riff slowly but steadily hammers its way into your skull, an unspecific soundtrack to an entire world of terrifying possibilities.

20. "1,000,000" (The Slip, 2008)

The proper kickoff to 2008's The Slip basically asks what Nine Inch Nails could have sounded like if they didn't have musical ambitions beyond being the Gen X version of The Stooges. The answer: pretty godd--n righteous, as the song's stripped-down grungy malevolence is as tactile and electrifying as nearly any of their more elaborately produced rave-ups, and "I jump from every rooftop/ So high so far to fall/ I feel a million miles away/ I don't feel anything at all" is one of Reznor's greatest anti-anthem choruses of this century.

19. "The Great Destroyer" (Year Zero, 2007)

A tensely bubbling groove threatens to pop for two minutes, until the climax comes to both the song and the entire Year Zero album with an unexpectedly a cappella peak for Reznor's multi-track "I AM THE GREAT DESTROYER!" proclamation. And after that, two minutes of pummeling digital beat rampaging, just in case you doubted the veracity of his claims.

18. "Mr. Self Destruct"

The opener to The Downward Spiral sounds like every member of Nine Inch Nails -- possibly just Reznor many times over -- in a race with one another to get to the breakdown section, with chugging guitars, pounding drums, bleating synths and desperate vocals all huffing along until that mid-song cutout. Then after that minute-long break, the flag comes back down and they're off again, with the guitars seemingly reigning triumphant as they take their extended victory lap at song's close. But as the rest of the similarly exhausting but exhilarating Downward Spiral shortly proves, we're all winners here.

17. "The Day the World Went Away" (The Fragile, 1999)

Not many fans would likely be able to peg this Fragile single -- which wasn't a radio hit, and never even saw its music video officially released -- as Nine Inch Nails' highest-charting Billboard Hot 100 entry, but thanks to some impressive first-week sales, "The Day the World Went Away" debuted at a career-best No. 17 on the chart in 1999. It's a little free-form for a signature hit, with just one verse and no chorus, but the song's slow roll up to its instrumental climax and na-na singalong does make for one of The Fragile's most arresting moments, and a song that would probably sound great on a future version of classic rock radio.

16. "All Time Low" (Hesitation Marks, 2013)

Two and a half decades into their recording career, Hesitation Marks showed that Nine Inch Nails still had a number of impressive new looks to throw at fans. The twisting, cacophonous funk of "All Time Low" is captivating enough for its first four minutes, but the song really takes flight in its final two, as the groove declutters and mostly clears out for sparkling Kraftwerk-like synths to coruscate up and down the octave, while a hushed Reznor coos "stretch across the skyyy-yyyyy..." like Bobby Gillespie on an ecstatic Screamadelica banger. You wouldn't describe too many NIN moments as "blissful," but this comes pretty close.

15. "The Hand That Feeds" (With Teeth, 2005)

The single that ensured that NIN would have life well into the 21st century, "The Hand That Feeds" turned the corner on the underwhelming commercial performance of The Fragile's singles by topping Billboard's Alternative Airplay listing for five weeks and even crossing over to No. 31 on the Hot 100. It did so with one of the band's most irresistible death-disco thumps, a groove that was growling enough to make it clear that Reznor hadn't lost his edge in his personally tumultuous half-decade between albums, but also poppy enough that it made for a hell of a mashup with Ray Parker Jr.'s "Ghostbusters."

14. "God Break Down the Door" (Bad Witch, 2018)

Trent Reznor has done a number of memorable tributes to his late hero and collaborator David Bowie since Bowie's passing in 2016 -- including an absolutely stunning live version of Bowie's Blackstar closer "I Can't Give Everything Away." But none were truer or more exciting than 2018's "God Break Down the Door," which sounds like an homage to and revitalization of Bowie's underrated Earthling period with its frenetic drums and synths, roving sax and guitars and disembodied-sounding crooning. It's among Reznor's most inspired-sounding compositions this century, and makes you wish these two generation-separated geniuses could have had another couple decades of working together.

13. "Down In It" (Pretty Hate Machine, 1989)

Nine Inch Nails' debut single was a little silly in its lyrics and a little clumsy in its execution -- but the skyscraping potential was already more than evident. The slamming beat, the stadium-sized chorus, the hooks zooming in from all directions: "Down In It" was an entirely new beast, mixing hip-hop energy with dance production and rock muscle, even if Reznor admitted the song was kind of a Skinny Puppy rip. Plus its paranoid, lo-fi music video accidentally ended up triggering an FBI murder investigation -- what better myth-building origin story could you ask for from Halo 1?

12. "She's Gone Away" (Not the Actual Events, 2017)

Twenty years after their artistic partnership began in earnest, David Lynch again enlisted Trent Reznor for a song to soundtrack "Part 8" of his Twin Peaks: The Return series. The result was one of the finest moments of recent years for either artist. The creeping "She's Gone Away," written for (and played in full during) a concert sequence of the instantly legendary TV episode, is exactly what you would want from the center of a Lynch/Reznor Venn diagram: mysterious, frightening, alluring and unnervingly brain-sticking. Some pretty serious s--t goes down over that hour of television, but "She's Gone Away" is just as captivating as any of it.

11. "Everything" (Hesitation Marks, 2013)

Another Hesitation Marks curveball: "Everything" feels almost like a trick, starting with a peppy early Depeche Mode drum intro and quickly giving way to a surprisingly invigorating neo-garage riff that's totally unrecognizable as Reznor. Throw in some power-pop harmonies on the second verse, and it's only the lyrics that give it away as NIN: "Wave goodbye, wish me well/ I've become something else." Could Reznor indeed have become a bar band frontman, cranking out tunes about girls and drinking and working for the weekend? Not worth replaying his entire career to find out, but "Everything" gives us a fascinating glimpse into its bizarro potential.

Trent Reznor: The Billboard Shoot

10. "We're in This Together" (The Fragile, 1999)

At a brilliantly structured, thoughtfully composed seven-plus minutes, "We're in This Together" aims for career-defining masterwork, but lands just short. Instead, The Fragile's lead single ended up being a little too demanding for alt-rock listeners who'd already begun to pivot to nu-metal, shedding a good deal of the band's casual fans. Still, for those who consider The Fragile the group's underrated masterpiece -- there's a case to be made -- "Together" is the set's sturdy centerpiece, not as immediate as prior lead singles but just as reflective of Reznor's mastery as a songwriter and sonic craftsman.

9. "Copy of a" 

Simply put, NIN's best single of the past decade, equally inspired in its frantic synth boogie and its stuttering vocal hook. Few producers outside of Reznor could fit as many musical ideas into something that still is, at its essence, a successful pop song -- one that simmers violently for five minutes like a pot just begging for you to watch it boil.

8. "The Perfect Drug" (Lost Highway soundtrack, 1997)

Still coming off the career-defining success of 1994's The Downward Spiral, NIN's first single back (courtesy of David Lynch again, and the Lost Highway soundtrack) was basically just a long Trent Reznor flex. "Can't keep control, can't keep track of where it's traveling" he sings in the song's first verse, and that's basically the road map for the song itself, which meshes plucked-string instrumental sections with lightning-quick drum and bass breaks and metal choruses and a power ballad outro, with countless changes in tempo and meter and rhythm and tone in between. But the song (along with its Mark Romanek-directed video) was a hit, because nobody was doing any of this better than Reznor at the time -- no matter how wild "The Perfect Drug" got, you'd always rather be on his trip than anyone else's.

7. "Terrible Lie"

Hip-hop has always been an underrated element in Nine Inch Nails' sonic alchemy, but you can hear it most clearly on the best Pretty Hate Machine cuts -- particularly non-single highlight "Terrible Lie." Much of the song's synth work can be traced back to Depeche Mode and early Ministry, but the double-punch hook that punctuates every other measure (and the instrumental silence in between) feels like Reznor internalizing valuable lessons from "It's Like That" and "You're Gonna Get Yours" -- with maybe a little Freddie mixed in again as well. Add all that up, and it's certainly no surprise that NIN was a force that ended up taking the whole world by storm.

6. "March of the Pigs"

Not a lot of synth-metal songs written in 7/8 time (with an 8/8 measure every four bars) are considered fare for inclusion on major-label album releases, let alone as singles -- ones that end up making the Hot 100, at that. OK, so as a No. 59 hit, it wasn't like many pop stations were playing "March of the Pigs" in rotation alongside Ace of Base and All-4-One, but that the song succeeds on any level remains a marvel of modern science, and "March" is one of the most pulse-raising and enrapturing in Reznor's catalog right from the air-drum-confounding intro. It's not the best song on The Downward Spiral, but if you were to try to sum up the set's unlikely appeal in one song, this'd be it.

5. "Something I Can Never Have" (Pretty Hate Machine, 1989)

The first sign that Reznor didn't need beats or guitars to captivate, Pretty Hate Machine ballad "Something I Can Never Have" more than satisfied the first third of its parent album's title. That wafting piano riff, seeping through the speakers as if from an adjacent room, is unshakeable from the very first time you hear it, portending Reznor's bright future as co-composer of the eeriest film scores since Bernard Herrmann. Even Trent has to chuckle these days at the melodrama of some of the lyrics -- "Grey would be the color... IF I HAD A HEART" -- but the song's power, built with just his vocals, some interwoven piano and a hissing drum on the chorus, remains absolutely remarkable three decades later.

4. "Wish" (Broken, 1992)

"REZNOR: Died. Said 'fist f--k' and won a Grammy." That was Trent Reznor's self-described epitaph following NIN's win in best metal performance at the 1993 awards for the filthy-in-all-ways Broken rager "Wish." Fitting enough: Few would have predicted industry-rewarded respectability as the outcome for releasing a song as violent and grimy as "Wish," a perfect match for its muddy, claustrophobic, BO-stinking music video. But that was how undeniable Nine Inch Nails were at their peak, thwacking listeners of all stripes into submission with their punishing stop-start riffs, euphoric breaks and hair-raising hooks. Sometimes you gave them your blood and sweat, and sometimes you gave them a statue.

3. "Hurt" (The Downward Spiral, 1994)

When one of the most legendary figures in modern music covers your song for what amounts to his final musical testament, chances are pretty good it's not your song any longer. Nonetheless, despite Johnny Cash giving NIN's "Hurt" an almost biblical weight with his devastating 2003 rendition, the original maintains a power entirely its own, with its quivering sonics, whisper-cried vocals, and chest-caving denouement adding up to the closer to end all '90s alternative album closers. It's the "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" of its era, one of course where the thorn has the last laugh.

2. "Head Like a Hole" (Pretty Hate Machine, 1989)

Chances are pretty good "Head Like a Hole" was the first Nine Inch Nails song you heard, and you couldn't ask for a much better advertisement for their catalog to come: By the time the opening 30 seconds of twitchy drums, disembodied cries and scraping who-even-knows-what gives way to the lurching behemoth of a central synth riff, you'll certainly be signing up for whatever's next. And "Hole" justifies its intro with such a perfect fight-the-power-and-lose lyric (and committed delivery from Reznor) that it resonated well enough decades later for an entire Black Mirror episode to be keyed around its inherent subversiveness. It may have come out in 1989, but outside of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," you'd have a hard time naming a song that was more important in forming the shape of '90s rock.

1. "Closer" (The Downward Spiral, 1994)

As stacked as Nine Inch Nails' catalog is, they only have one "Closer." That's still one more than 99.99999% of other bands have, though: "Closer" is simply as good as pop or rock songs get. No other song of its era was this rich, this tense, this powerful, this visceral, and yes, this sexy. And that last one isn't even mostly the function of its famously foul-mouthed chorus: It's the blood that you can almost literally hear the beat pumping through every measure of the song, the sinewy slither of every verse lyric, the near-demonic horniness of the whispered bridge. Hell, no less an authority than Tommy Lee called it "the all-time f--k song," and that guy didn't go about his business lightly.

But even if you were uninterested in the more carnal aspects of "Closer," it was hardly the only level on which it could be appreciated. "Closer" made the case for Reznor not only as rock's best frontman of his era, but its best composer, weaving a near-orchestral level of production arrangements through the single: a feedback loop here, a sawing guitar riff there, a synth-bass burble to tie it all together. Every time the song seems to have shown its full hand, it pulls a new hook out of its bag to top the last one, continually mutating throughout its six-plus-minute runtime until it's a building-leveling monster. There's never been a song like it before or since; a musical genius piling different genre influences, production layers and songwriting tricks like a one-song Tower of Babel, until he indeed reaches nearer to the divine than nearly any other musician ever has.