It would be a blatant oversimplification to label Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor a musical genius. It’s tantamount to calling Kim Jong-un a “bad dude” or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson an “actor.” The fact is, there has never before been a musician quite like the industrial-rock nihilist.
Often imitated but never replicated, Nine Inch Nails seemingly came out of nowhere in the late 1980s and hit like an earthquake, right around the commencement of hair metal’s unceremonious funeral procession. Almost immediately, the Thomas Edison of industrial set himself apart from his contemporaries—including Ministry and Front 242—unleashing emotive, penetrating tunes that worked both in the clubs and in the pits.
Over the course of three productive decades, Reznor has delivered uncompromising and simultaneously poignant albums. Each song has conveyed his pain and torment, all intertwined with introspective lyrics—some so deeply personal, they almost feel invasive to listen to.
With two of Nine Inch Nails’ records reaching milestone anniversaries this year (The Fragile is 20, and Pretty Hate Machine 30), we figured what better time to take a look back at Reznor’s output of major releases? A nearly impossible task, yes—but someone had to do it.
Without further ado, here is our painstaking assessment of Reznor’s best—kicking off, of course, with the worst of the bunch.
14. Ghosts I-IV (2008)
Where to start? Well, the first nine songs were released for free for a reason, folks. In what was a rather prolific year for Reznor, Ghosts I-IV proved that not all experiments he undertakes work. The largely instrumental, atmospheric collection followed his bitter divorce from Interscope Records and was mostly improvised, reportedly over two-plus months in the studio. If nothing else, it was voluminous, with nearly 40 songs released under the Ghosts banner, and provided fans with a preview of what was to come from Reznor, who, at that time, revealed he was turning his focus to film scoring. Interestingly, the song “34 Ghosts IV” was recently sampled by Lil Nas X in his chart-topping hit, “Old Town Road.” The result? A CMA nomination for Reznor.
Album Highlight: “34”
13. Bad Witch (2018)
At first, this final EP in a trilogy shows signs of promise: “Shit Mirror” leaps right out of the gate, replete with thrashy guitars, bombastic rhythms, and Reznor’s signature angsty vocals, followed by “Ahead of Ourselves,” a track that harkens back to Nine Inch Nails of yore. But then, Bad Witch devolves into an almost Zorn-like, avant-jazzy journey into frenzied, dissonant noise that, at times, is almost too grating to the ear. The album even has the band’s founder crooning like a demented Dean Martin on the track “Over and Out.” An obvious listen for hardcore NIN fans, but a single spin should suffice for everyone else.
Album Highlight: “Ahead of Ourselves”
12. Ghosts VI: Locusts (2020)
If there is any silver lining to be found amid this whole COVID-19 crisis, it has to be the release of two free Nine Inch Nails records. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross finished the instrumental albums as the deadly pandemic spread across America, all to help fans stave off some of the ennui of self-isolation and social distancing. And boy, does Ghosts VI: Locusts sound like an LP almost tailor-made for these turbulent and uncertain times. Unlike its companion, Ghosts V: Together, there’s virtually no hope to be had here. Instead, there’s an overwhelming and apropos sense of foreboding to the album. The songs on here are also less memorable, but cuts like “Just Breathe,” “The Cursed Clock” and closer “Almost Dawn” still make it worth your time.
Album Highlight:” “The Cursed Clock”
11. Year Zero (2007)
On Year Zero, a concept album that nearly spawned an HBO miniseries, Reznor swaps out the overtly sexualized lyricism of his earlier work in favor of an elaborate narrative set in a dystopian future where Christianity is king and free will no longer exists. The album was a thinly veiled critique of President George W. Bush’s administration and policies, and at times, it almost feels like Reznor focused less on the music and more on the message (and the marketing, which included an online treasure hunt and heat-activated CD art). There are a few memorable tracks on this one, including the fast-paced single “Survivalism” and the velvety flow of “Capital G.”
Album Highlight: “Survivalism”
10. Not the Actual Events (2016)
The first EP in a three-part series, Not the Actual Events is an aggressive and ominous set that seems almost tailor-made for fans of the band’s more abrasive material. Raw, unpolished, and unpredictable, Reznor appropriately described the EP in a statement as “unfriendly.” And it is, boasting distorted bass, explosive drum blasts, and razor-sharp guitars, especially on the track “The Idea of You.” It is the first to feature longtime collaborator Atticus Ross as a full-fledged band member, and Mr. Reznor’s proficient pipes shine on the sludgy closing track, “Burning Bright (Field on Fire).”
Album Highlight: “The Idea of You”
9. Ghosts V: Together (2020)
Over his career, Trent Reznor’s collaborated with a whole host of diverse musicians for both his own projects and theirs. But it’s been his decade-long alliance with Atticus Ross that has resulted in some of Nine Inch Nails’ more atmospheric material. In March 2020 —at a time so desperate, toilet paper had become something of a commodity—Reznor and Ross released two instrumental LPs for free download. Ghosts V: Together is an ambient, almost airy collection of extended instrumental tunes that feels more complete than its voluminous predecessor while building upon what the duo’s been doing in recent years with their film scores. You can almost imagine what Reznor’s vocals might sound like on tracks like “Still Right Here” and “Your Touch”—songs that are sure to appease even the band’s most staunch fans.
Standout Track: “Letting Go While Holding On”
8. Add Violence (2017)
The second EP in the trilogy that ends with Bad Witch, Add Violence encompasses that classic Nine Inch Nails sound, with epic compositions rife with fuzzy guitars, layered synths, and complex electronic elements. An eclectic, groovy collection of tunes that displays a more mature Reznor, Add Violence closes with the hypnotic, 14-minute-long track “The Background World,” which eventually degrades into aural chaos. Then there’s “This Isn’t the Place,” the sort of song that’ll stick with you for days after you’ve last listened to it, haunting the recesses of your mind.
Album Highlight: “This Isn’t the Place”
7. The Slip (2008)
Some records require repeated listens before you can fully appreciate their brilliance, and The Slip is just such a record. Another effort Reznor decided to release gratis, The Slip is a gritty, synth-heavy album full of industrial pop numbers (like “1,000,000” and “Echoplex”) that are sure to get the blood coursing through the old veins. However, a large chunk of the record—nearly 13 minutes—is devoted to a pair of indulgent instrumental tracks (“Corona Radiata” and “The Four of Us Dying”) that really should have been pared down by half or better yet, cast to the cutting room floor. The mesmerizing “Demon Seed” caps the record.
Album Highlight: “Demon Seed”
6. Hesitation Marks (2013)
Nine Inch Nails has never released the same album twice, but on Hesitation Marks, there’s truly no sign of the dejected, wrathful Reznor of Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral. Instead, Hesitation Marks is a carefully crafted album bearing funky rhythms, overlapping vocals, and a heavy 1980s synth-pop influence on tracks such as “Copy of A.” The record also includes what may be Nine Inch Nails’ most accessible song, “Everything,” which sounds like it could have been commissioned to serve as the theme for an uplifting 1990s film about overcoming odds or some such thing.
Album Highlight: “Everything”
5. The Fragile (1999)
A cathartic double-album that exposed Reznor’s personal struggles with depression and drug abuse, The Fragile dropped five years after the quadruple-platinum The Downward Spiral. Expectations were high for the record, and it left some fair-weather fans disappointed. But The Fragile features some of NIN’s finest instrumental tracks, as well as tunes that present highly arresting textures and entrancing melodies (“The Day the World Went Away” and “Into the Void”). This is an album that all Nine Inch Nails fans should consider giving a second chance if they haven’t already.
Album Highlight: “We’re in This Together”
4. With Teeth (2005)
Six years after The Fragile, With Teeth arrived, opening up softly with “All the Love in the World” and then slowly building to a strong crescendo with the piano-driven “Right Where It Belongs.” Reznor employs progressive, melancholic arrangements to lull listeners into submission on “Every Day Is Exactly the Same” and “Beside You in Time,” while head-bopping beats drive both “Sunspots” and “Only,” one of the many radio singles from this record. Meanwhile, complex layers of distortion along with varied instrumentation amplify ferocious rockers including “You Know What You Are?” and “The Hand That Feeds.” The only real weak spot on the album is “The Collector,” which doesn’t even come close to getting good until the chorus comes in.
Album Highlight: “Beside You in Time”
3. Broken (1992)
If you grew up going to industrial clubs during the 1990s, then you’re already well-acquainted with this stunning EP. From note one, Broken picks up where Pretty Hate Machine left off: This is pissed off rock that grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go for a glorious 31 minutes. Reznor’s processed screams are surreal on rippers such as “Last,” “Gave Up,” and “Wish,” one of the most popular tracks in Nine Inch Nails’ entire catalogue. There’s even an Adam Ant cover (“Physical”), and the closer, “Suck,” is a quirky song Reznor originally wrote and recorded while still a member of industrial supergroup Pigface.
Album Highlight: “Gave Up”
2. The Downward Spiral (1994)
Even Johnny Cash owned a copy of this seminal record, which introduced the world to such classics as “Closer,” “Hurt,” and lead single “March of the Pigs.” This is the LP that really put Nine Inch Nails on the map, but most of The Downward Spiral sounds nothing like those three aforementioned songs. Take the title track, which overloads the senses with multiple melodies stratified over unique sound effects while the self-deprecating Reznor wails beneath barely audible spoken word. Perhaps the most influential of Nine Inch Nails’ releases, it’s certainly the best-selling, with nearly 4 million copies sold in the U.S. alone. Still, it isn’t a perfect record: “Big Man With a Gun” is totally skippable.
Album Highlight: “Heresy”
1. Pretty Hate Machine (1989)
This is the pièce de résistance: the genre-shaping album that started it all for Mr. Self-Destruct. There isn’t a single dull moment on Pretty Hate Machine, a brilliant debut on which Reznor exposes his shattered insides through brutally honest lyricism that resonates with the very soul. The record flows like crème from one track to the next, with unrivaled soundscapes that complement Reznor’s uncompromising and, at times, whispery vocals. Pick a track—any friggin’ track—and try to find fault with it. Whether it’s the hard-charging energy of “Head Like a Hole” and “Down In It,” the dank club vibes of “Sin” and “Kinda I Want To,” or the relatable longing beautifully expressed through “Sanctified” and “Something I Can Never Have,” this album is utter perfection. Pretty much mandatory listening for everyone.
Album Highlight: “Terrible Lie”