In the late Eighties, Trent Reznor was just a young musician living in Cleveland, Ohio, with a demo of raw dance-influenced dark electro-industrial music equally inspired by new-wave synth acts like Depeche Mode and industrial pioneers like Coil and Skinny Puppy. Many of those original songs would eventually make their way onto Nine Inch Nails' 1989 debut album Pretty Hate Machine, and launch Reznor on a trailblazing creative path that would result in NIN becoming one of heavy music's most successful and artistically influential bands.
Reznor's opus, The Downward Spiral, turned 25 on March 8th, 2019, and featured some of NIN's most enduring songs, including "Hurt" and "Closer." Which got us thinking, considering all of Nine Inch Nails' extensive body of work, what would be their all-time best song? So we asked you, our readers, to weigh in with your picks. See what you chose in the ranked list below.
A quieter, more introspective moment on Pretty Hate Machine, "Something I Can Never Have" relies on melody and a truly haunting piano that glitches at multiple parts of the song. It shows off Reznor's formidable emotional range as a vocalist, and expertise with employing sonic textures. It's an excellent lead-in for his future material and presents one of his greatest skills: the ability to create music that is utterly scary and staggeringly beautiful at the same time.
Slow-building and breathlessly taboo, "Reptile" is one of the sexiest tracks Nine Inch Nails has ever created (which is saying a lot, as there's a lot of horny NIN music to compare it against). With its wheezing undertow and huge industrial backbone — supporting Reznor's angelically delivered, but macabre lyrics — the nearly seven-minute "Reptile" is a delightfully drawn-out and sticky experience. Rhythmic, sleazy and endlessly alluring, this one is a banger.
If there's anything Trent Reznor can write, it's a catchy goddamn song. And with its buzzsaw riffs and huge, anthemic chorus, "Wish" is about as infectious as it gets. The raw fury and unchecked passion that grows in intensity as the track builds is unstoppable — tortured but raging, dance-worthy but equally likely to start a mosh pit. But the real defining trait of the song's strength lies in its still-fresh sound: even thirty years and countless releases since, "Wish" stands tall against any of NIN's material.
Boasting a slithering sensual pace and blatantly sexual themes, NIN's "Closer" is an inescapable choice for both super fans and casual listeners. Whether it's being touted as the strip club anthem to end them all or covered in the style of a child's lullaby, everyone loves this damn song. And it's easy to understand why. A disco beat and Reznor's intensely memorable chorus make it perfect dance-floor and karaoke fodder alike, and the unsettling discordance of the tune's death-rattle notes is one of the most recognizable and nostalgia-inducing passages in all of Nineties alternative music.
Even before Johnny Cash broke everyone's hearts with his transformative cover, Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" was a tragic, beautiful wrecker of a song that perfectly bookended the epic, tortured journey of The Downward Spiral. Even the guitars sound withered, as Reznor delivers his intimate, exhausted reflections from under a thick cloud of distortion. On an album that's very loud and abrasive, his vocals are disarmingly quiet, punctuated only by bursts of emotion, as though he's about to break into tears. His voice, along with the organic sounds of the acoustic guitar and piano, battle against the industrial chug until all is lost in the storm of sublime noise that ends this masterpiece.