This week marks the release of Hesitation Marks, the first Nine Inch Nails record since 2008’s The Slip — which we all assumed was the last hurrah for Trent Reznor in his NIN incarnation. Thankfully, that isn’t the case, and here we are! I’ve been listening to the new record for the past week and it doesn’t disappoint. Production-wise, it calls back to The Downward Spiral while making a significant step forward for the evolving sound of Nine Inch Nails (just take a listen to “Everything,” a song that wears its Joy Division love on its sleeve).
To celebrate Hesitation Marks, I decided to do the impossible task of ranking my top 25 NIN songs. A couple of qualifications: no covers (so “Physical” and “Dead Souls” are absent, I’m afraid), no remixes, and nothing from Ghosts (simply because that record is basically a symphony and should be consumed as a whole).
Here we go!
“I’m just an echo of an echo of an echo”
This song’s got a classic NIN structure of starting deceptively simple with just a synth track and drum machine that slowly evolves into a multi-layered epic that mashes all of its parts together by the end. It’s also, in my opinion, the most melodic song on Hesitation Marks, save for the shamelessly poppy “Everything.”
“Maybe I’m all messed up/Maybe I’m all messed up in you”
Though the only remnant of this song that appears to remain in NIN’s live set is the synth line that’s become a part of “Closer,” this is one of the great underrated tracks from Pretty Hate Machine. “The Only Time” is the precursor to that psychosexy swagger that Reznor would later nail in songs like “Suck” and “Closer.” Plus, the drum fills in this track are phenomenal — particularly that one right before the second chorus. Awesome.
“And now I know why/Now I know why/Things aren’t as pretty/On the inside”
“Only” marks NIN’s first real foray into something danceable after a brief exploration of that territory in The Fragile’s “Into The Void.” The heavy bass groove and disco beat demands at least a head bop from even the most hardcore industrial metal fans. I credit “Only” with being the first inkling of what would come to definite Nine Inch Nails in a few years time, particularly on The Slip. Reznor also masters speak-singing on this track, keeping things just melodic enough in the verse until it all erupts into “There is no you/there is only me!” in the chorus.
“I hope they cannot see/I am the great destroyer”
Fittingly the most destructive track from the fatalistic Year Zero, it also doubles as one of the most melodic, a juxtaposition that pays off in an utter deconstruction in the latter half of the track. After the second chorus culminates in a beautiful harmonization of “I am the great destroyer,” we dissolve into a chaotic but patterned series of distorted drum samples and blips and bloops that comes just close enough to completely falling apart until the track fades away into the following instrumental track, “Another Version of the Truth.”
“Wave goodbye/Wish me well/I’ve become/Something else”
On first listen, “Everything” is nothing that you’d associate with Nine Inch Nails. Which is why I really love it more and more with every listen. “Everything” is an admission from Reznor that he’s not what he once was, and that that’s okay. While it’s certainly the black sheep that lands in the middle of Hesitation Marks, the track sounds like a final farewell to the Reznor/NIN of old (just check out those lyrics above). Like I mentioned earlier, it sounds like a love letter to Joy Division that celebrates a new era of NIN.
“You chip away the old version of you/You’d be surprised at what you can do”
Slightly less refined than The Slip’s big radio single “Discipline,” “Echoplex” has a thumping drum sample that acts as the root of everything else that fades in and out of the track. From the escalating guitar riffs to the harmonizing “la la las” in the second verse to impossibly catchy “My voice just echoes off these walls…” of the chorus, “Echoplex” is a stunningly simple song that’s built on the back of one repetitive drum beat until it finally ceases at the very close of the song.
“You can have my isolation/You can have the hate that it brings/You can have my absence of faith/You can have my everything”
“Closer” (along with “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) is a shining example of why I don’t subscribe to the notion of a song getting “played out.” I don’t care how many times you’ve heard this song since 1994, it’s great every single time. Probably the pinnacle of that psychosexiness I mentioned earlier, “Closer” is a musically diverse but melodically simple showing. It’s equal parts angry and sex-driven, perfectly capturing everything that was great about The Downward Spiral. The moment that this song really kicks into gear for me is the accented notes that accompany the second chorus. And, of course, the awesome, awesome breakdown and the understated appearance of “The Downward Spiral” melody that comes back later in the record.
“She leaves a trail of honey to show me where she’s been”
“Reptile” is the kind of track from NIN that I adore because it’s so textured that it takes listen after listen in various formats before you can fully appreciate everything it brings to the table. Reznor’s vocals act as the guiding light through this impossibly dark trip laced with heavy guitars and the unshakable feeling that there are thousands of bugs seeping their way under your skin. That feeling is later confirmed once Reznor’s muffled back-up vocals make their way into the mix.
“Try to get back to where I’m from/The closer I get the worse it becomes”
I like this track not only for its primary atypical riff, but also because it’s one of the first NIN tracks to reverse the usual rock-and-roll structure of a softer verse and a louder chorus (something NIN commits to heavily on Hesitation Marks). Here, Reznor screams the verse and layers in instrument after instrument, whereas the chorus is far more melodic and even hits some high notes.
“Nothing can stop me now/’Cause I don’t care anymore”
“Piggy” is worth including solely for its stellar bassline, which carries the entire song (not to mention the crazy drum fills at the conclusion). Reznor’s disposition on this track is the most remarkable element though, giving off a sense that he’s about to go off the rails at any given moment, but never actually delivers that moment — instead it leaves the listener begging for more. “Piggy” is the foreplay on an album that is playing the long game with its partner/listener.
“The me that you know/He doesn’t come around much/That part of me isn’t here anymore”
“The Becoming” is technically a track from The Downward Spiral, but I like the live “acoustic” version on Still a hundred times more. Sure, we lose those sweet, sweet double bass kicks during the big finish, but Reznor’s authenticity singing this track live is phenomenal. Plus, stripping the track down to live instruments and a strange, muted snare drum makes it far more atmospheric than the sample-heavy Downward Spiral version.
14. Suck (Broken)
“A thousand lips/A thousand tongues/A thousand throats/A thousand lungs/A thousand ways to make it true/I want to do terrible things to you”
This is that middle stepping stone between “The Only Time” and “Closer” (the Empire Strikes Back of NIN’s Trilogy of Psychosex, if you will), that delivers a sexy swagger (“I’m Jesus Christ on ecstasy”) mixed in a cocktail of brutal angst and scorn (Reznor screams in the chorus: “How does it feel?”). Like most of Broken, this track is heavy on both synth and metal guitars, offering up a great closing to track to that delicious EP.
“And the sea will come to kiss me”
This is the track I used in every student film I ever made (of course). A chilling respite in the midst of the intense double album epic The Fragile, “La Mer” is a drum-and-bass driven instrumental that sets up the themes to come on Part 2 of the record — most notably the throughline of “Into The Void.” It’s drifting and melodic until the layers slowly meld together only to quickly fade and drop the listener into the isolation of the Part 1 closer, “The Great Below.”
“We heard a cry/We’ve come to intervene/You will change your ways and you will make amends/Or we will wipe this place clean”
Year Zero is a significant achievement for Nine Inch Nails, the first record where Reznor seemingly removed himself from the equation to tackle a subject larger than himself. “The Warning” is the turning point of the record, with its first half focused on the human connection of the dystopian future; in this track, Reznor plants himself into the shoes of omniscient beings that come to give humanity an ultimatum. It’s an interesting dynamic, and the guitar/bass riffs trading off back and forth is insanely addictive.
“God money let’s go walking on the backs of the bruised/God money’s not one to choose”
“Head Like a Hole” perfectly summarizes the experience of Pretty Hate Machine from the opening kick drum to the first words that Reznor sings. Seemingly the template for this era of NIN, it’s got a thunderous chorus that’s equal parts melodic and metal until calming down into the sexier post-chorus (“Bow down before the one you serve…”). Before The Downward Spiral came along and redefined what Nine Inch Nails was, “Head Like a Hole” was the best song to point to for a shining example of what this band was all about. Sexy, heavy, dark, but still melodic.
“Beneath the stains of time/The feelings disappear/You are someone else/I am still right here”
The closing staple of Nine Inch Nails live to this very day, “Hurt” may very well be Reznor’s crowning achievement as a songwriter. It’s a window into his mind that is almost contradictory to the whole of The Downward Spiral. So much of that record is anger and scorn underlined by indifference (“Nothing can stop me now because I don’t care anymore,” sings Reznor in “Piggy”), but “Hurt” is actually quite sentimental, suggesting that everything else in the record might just be bold bravado. It’s a beautiful, self-reflective song that shows us the path Reznor would take to get to the brilliance of The Fragile.
“Without you everything just falls apart/It’s not as much fun to pick up the pieces”
Though the contribution to soundtracks by most bands are throw away leftover tracks, Nine Inch Nails is the opposite. There’s another soundtrack offering in the top 10, but “The Perfect Drug” is probably NIN’s most well-known track that doesn’t actually appear on an album. Though its ambiguous as to its meaning, “The Perfect Drug” came out at the height of Reznor’s substance abuse, so maybe it’s more literal than we think. The song’s structure is also noteworthy, kicking off with creeping synth that culminates with in-your-face drums in the breakdown before the song falls completely silent and apologetic. It’s a soaring high followed by a lowly whimper.
“Don’t think you’re having all the fun/You know me I hate everyone”
Kicking off Broken in grand fashion, “Wish” just might be the angriest Nine Inch Nails has ever been. It’s self-deprecating and hopeless, something any normal person that’s ever existed on the fringe of the popular crowd could surely identify with. As the opening track of Broken, it also lets us know how vastly different that record is going to be from Pretty Hate Machine. With the synths scaled back and heavy-ass guitars turned up to 11, “Wish” is the kick-off to the heaviest record NIN ever made.
7. Burn (Natural Born Killers Soundtrack)
“I’m gonna burn this whole world down”
Another soundtrack gem and another masterful show of Reznor speak-singing, “Burn” is a winning combination of the synth-heavy Pretty Hate Machine and the guitar-heavy Broken. At the same time, it’s got a heavy grooving bass and that signature NIN harmony in the pre-chorus. The song builds slowly until the layers drop for only a split second for Reznor to scream “I’m gonna burn this whole world down” and launch into one of the heaviest NIN riffs of all time. Makes me wanna fight stuff, every time.
“In my nothing/You meant everything to me”
A remarkable B-side found on the Still disc, “And All That Could Have Been” is the only NIN track that matches the revealing reflection of “Hurt,” but with a far catchier melody to its name (in my opinion, anyway, though that’s obviously subjective). Though Reznor often writes in the first person it’s not always clear that he’s talking directly about himself — and I could still be wrong — but it’s in this track and “Hurt” where that is abundantly clear. Plus, the interlude of the acoustic guitar underneath the heavy distorted riff before heading back into the synthesized drums and exploding back into another heart wrenching chorus complete with some lovely harmonies is splendid.
“Places parallel I know it’s you/Feel the little pieces bleeding through”
This song is thematic mastery. With the lyrics talking about being just out of sync, isolated by an invisible wall, out of touch with everything around you by only a margin, the delay effects in the guitars and synths and the slightly out of time drum machine that all manages to coalesce into beautiful symmetry by the song’s end is simply chill-inducing. Reznor’s vocals are understated and raw until the glass shatters for the song’s conclusion with the introduction of harmonies before fading slowly back to the mechanic beat of the drum machine.
“You and me/If the world should break in two/Until the very end of me/Until the very end of you”
The heaviest track from The Fragile, the loud guitars and hard hits of the chorus are juxtaposed with some of the most romantic lyrics that Reznor has ever written. It replaces the anger of similar heavy tracks from the Broken days with passion instead, resulting in a unique amalgam of NIN eras, itself becoming a new achievement all together.
Reznor has composed no shortage of stunning soundscapes throughout NIN’s existence and beyond, but “Just Like You Imagined” is the quintessential composition. Starting with simple piano, within the span of a minute it’s a landscape of fuzz guitar, grooving bass, thumping drums, and digital bits. The track is a focal point for all of Reznor’s talents, standing strong on its own without a set melody or even any vocal work aside from some understated harmonies.
“I won’t let you fall apart”
Just as the song’s title implies, this is NIN at their most delicate. While not as inwardly reflective as songs like “Hurt” or “And All That Could Have Been,” “The Fragile” is Reznor projecting sympathy outward in a time when we were used to seeing him project anger. It’s a truly beautiful song about futility and desire, with some of NIN’s catchiest guitars and melodies to boot.
“Covered in hope and vaseline/Still cannot fix this broken machine”
This track, to me, is the quintessential Nine Inch Nails song. It’s got every staple of NIN that you could ask for — heavy-as-hell guitar riffs, drum machines that explode into real drums, catchy synth lines, unique harmonies, and Reznor’s patented anger and self-defeat (“I tried/I gave up”). “Gave Up” is the song I think of when someone mentions the name Nine Inch Nails. It’s certainly not NIN’s most complex effort, but it is raw and loaded with honesty and passion.
And some honorable mentions:
“Sin,” “Something I Can Never Have” (Pretty Hate Machine), “March of the Pigs,” “Eraser” (The Downward Spiral), “The Mark Has Been Made,” “Somewhat Damaged” (The Fragile), “Every Day Is Exactly The Same,” “Right Where It Belongs” (With Teeth), “The Good Soldier,” “Vessel” (Year Zero), “The Four Of Us Are Dying” (The Slip), “While I’m Still Here,” “Came Back Haunted” (Hesitation Marks).
And if you’re curious, my favorite NIN records (not counting live/rarities), as it stands currently, are:
- The Fragile
- Year Zero
- The Downward Spiral
- With Teeth
- Hesitation Marks
- Pretty Hate Machine
- The Slip