The 8 Ball 11.24.12: The Top 8 Nine Inch Nails Songs
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Music Zone! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right in to it!
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Fans of industrial rock got good news earlier this month, as Trent Reznor said that new Nine Inch Nails music was on the way. Reznor, who over the past few years has been busy with his soundtrack scores and his side project How to Destroy Angels, promised that a new album would be on the way next year. For long-time fans of Nine Inch Nails (like yours truly is), this was great news. Reznor’s putting of the act on hiatus following his “final concerts” in 2009–the one time I’ve ever seen a major mainstream artist live in concert, as a side note–was never said to be a permanent thing and the return of his original act immediately makes for one of the most anticipated albums of 2013 for me. With that in mind, I thought that this week we could look at my personal favorite tracks from the band.
Caveat: As usual with these act-specific lists, I was looking for original songs performed by Nine Inch Nails and not covers; I chose to focus on the original mixes and not remixes as well. It must also be noted that I had a rough time putting this list together as it was heartbreaking to leave some songs off. Just keep in mind that just because I didn’t list the song, it’s not a good one. Finally, I was looking at Nine Inch Nails specifically; while the “group” is basically Reznor and whoever he has as a backing band, I decided to leave off any of his work under his own name or side projects. And spoiler alert: yes, I left “Closer” off. I think that while it is NIN’s signature song, it is also the most overrated from the band and thus it got left behind.
“Happiness in Slavery” (1992)
First on my list is one of Nine Inch Nails’ flat-out creepiest songs. The second track of the landmark 1994 LP The Downward Spiral, this song left an indelible mark on pop culture that surpasses the popularity the song itself achieved. While the song never received a music video nor its own halo number, as the Nine Inch Nails release chronology is called, the song title was inspired by the Manson family murders that occurred in the home in which Reznor recorded The Downward Spiral; Sharon Tate’s blood was used by Susan Atkins to write “PIG” on the front door in reference to the Beatles song “Piggie.” The slow, almost sullen beat during the verses adds to the creepy factor before Reznor goes into the chorus to sing “Nothing can stop me now ’cause I don’t care anymore,” the first part of which would become a running theme through NIN songs. The inclusion of a subtle aural effect that sounds like screaming makes it even more chilling, giving an immediate impact that sticks with you for a long time after you hear it.
There are those who believe that Nine Inch Nails has been on (forgive the pun) a downward spiral ever since the late 1990s and thereby discount much of the band’s work over the last decade and a half. I couldn’t disagree much more strongly than I do. While there have been some albums that do not quite hold up to the sheer impact of Pretty Hate Machine, Broken and The Downward Spiral, Reznor has been able to maintain a general high level of quality throughout the act’s duration. Case in point: NIN’s 2007 concept album Year Zero, which was one of my favorite discs of that year. Telling the story of a dystopian future in which a religion-dominated government controls everything, Reznor found a new creative high and my personal favorite track on the album is the tenth. The song puts forth a powerful message about hero worship and confusing faith in a higher power with faith in those claiming to represent such a higher power. It is a crime unlike any other when those who hold power over people’s faith decide that they should use it to their own means, and Reznor effectively shines a light on how terrifying such an idea is with lyrics like “And He gives us sight/and we see the light/and it burns so bright/now we know we’re right.” It’s not quite as obvious in its horror value as some of the group’s other songs, but that doesn’t make it any less effective at terrifying.
If I had to choose a “least favorite” Nine Inch Nails album, it would probably be The Fragile. That isn’t to say it is a bad album; far from it. I just feel that it would have worked better if it had been condensed into a single album and not a double-disc set; it would have allowed Reznor to cut a bit of the fat out and make for a better overall listening experience. That being said, while it isn’t my favorite NIN album it does have one of my favorite songs in “Into the Void.” The album has one of the most sonically interesting openings to a Nine Inch Nails song with a chimes-like sequence before it launches into what is perhaps my favorite beat that Reznor has ever come up with. There’s a hint of funk in that synth beat and it makes for something really interesting as Reznor repeats the line “Tried to save myself but my self keeps slipping away.” The repetition of that line is not unlike an obsessive-compulsive, and the subject of the song is certainly set adrift in a mental disease of some sort and even knows it. As the song progresses and other voices add into Reznor’s repetition of that line, it reaches a fevered pitch and then suddenly, jarringly drops down to one voice at the end, the perfect way to close out the song.
This song was on the soundtrack to David Lynch’s surreal Lost Highway and is the best non-album track in Nine Inch Nails history. The frenetic energy is impossible to ignore and Reznor’s lyrics about being as emotionally addicted to a person as one can be to heroin or any other pharmaceutical substance melds the metaphor together in a powerful fashion. The drumming is so furious and relentless that the song has never been performed live, since as Reznor once put it “the drum solo would make [then-NIN drummer] Jerome’s arms fall off.” Reznor said in 2005 that this was the one thing he’s done that he didn’t like all that much due to the short amount of time he had to put it together, noting, “I’m not cringing about it, but it’s not my favorite piece.” I have the feeling that this is an artist being overly hard on himself, as many can be because it is a very effective song even if the video is more than a little over the top.
“Sin” was released as the final single off of NIN’s debut album Pretty Hate Machine following the club success of “Down in It” and “Head Like a Hole.” You can absolutely see why that’s the case, as it is one of the act’s most effective synth-led tracks and the sexually-provocative themes made for exactly the kind of track that played well in the late ’80s/early ’90s club scene. Few NIN songs are so effectively meshed with a particular era; you can practically hear the very rise of industrial rock within the very structure of the song. Reznor through his aggression into lyrics like “Do you think I wouldn’t recognize/This compromise?/Am I just too stupid to realize?” before he launches into the chorus with the unforgettable sound. Reznor directly quotes Clive Barker with the line “Stale incense, old sweat and lies” which to me is rarely a bad thing. NIN has become known for its exceptional club-worthy remixes but this is one that honestly doesn’t need a remix to be one of my favorite club tracks of all time.
It may shock some people to know that “Hurt” didn’t crack my top two; I know many people who would put it at #1 and I can’t really argue with them. This is one of those songs that showed how Nine Inch Nails didn’t need all-out aural aggression in order to show intensity. In fact, this is perhaps one of the most intense tracks that Reznor has ever done despite its minimalist trappings because of the pure power of the lyrics. Reznor doesn’t shout the lyrics; at his loudest he more calls them out than anything else. But he carries such an intense emotion in his weary, near-whispered delivery that the listener is drawn inescapably in, captivated. Even when the beat kicks it up a notch and the distorted guitars come in, it never seems anything less than quietly yet powerfully resigned. If not for the fact that Johnny Cash actually accomplished the near-impossible and topped Reznor’s rendition of the song, this may be #2. However, on a list like this #3 is nothing to feel disappointed about.
It is pure personal preference that I place “Something I Can Never Have” ahead of “Hurt” on this list. I cannot think of a song by anyone that is more evocative of the depths of relationship despair for me than this one, in which Reznor sounds like he’s about five seconds away from taking a straight razor to his wrists. This was the first song I ever heard from Nine Inch Nails and I was instantly hooked. It’s such an incredibly powerful piece of music, written in a moment of what seems to be agonizing pain and it carries through the music. The track is the fifth off of Pretty Hate Machine and was never an official single, but for my money it is the best song on the album and I would say it does the song’s theme more effectively than even “Hurt” did. It is probably NIN’s slowest and moodiest song (with the possible exception of “A Warm Place”) and the soft, almost gentle touch it displays just makes it that much more depressing. I think what makes it more effective is that it is easily interpretable to any emotional mirage–a lover, fame, drugs, fortune or any other such thing that a person might need in order to stave off complete soul-crushing despair. It’s safe to say that the subject of the song has found it somewhat lacking in that capacity.
There is something truly brilliant in “Ruiner,” which was not ever designed to be a hit and yet probably should have been released as a single for its sheer power. Starting off with a pulse-racing beat and then Reznor’s famous synth skills before launching into what part of what makes Downward Spiral such an effective album–pure, unchecked aggression. But while the sound of the song is brilliant, it doesn’t even begin to match the evocative power of the lyrics. From the contemptuous, derisive way that Reznor sings the first stanza of each verse–“You had to covet what was mine/Didn’t you? Didn’t you?”–before going into his furious description of ‘The Ruiner,’ it is a little stunning the first time you listen to the song. And then, just when you think you have the song figured out it quiets things down to a bass line and an almost languorous guitar solo. And then, just like that it changes it up again into a pounding beat that puts you in another frame of mind. “Ruiner” is an exhausting but rewarding emotional journey that for my money is the pinnacle of Reznor’s work as Nine Inch Nails, capped off with that fantastic, angrily defiant “You didn’t hurt me, nothing can hurt me, you didn’t hurt me, nothing can stop me now.”
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
This song didn’t rank as highly as I initially thought it would when I was compiling the list for this week; it’s a good song, but it just isn’t quite where my memories placed it. That being said, I absolutely love the video and the visuals of Reznor’s image portrayed within the Pin Art of some nameless executive’s desk set. Check out “Only” below:
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.