Over the course of three decades, Nine Inch Nails (or perhaps more specifically, Trent Reznor, who until 2016 was the only official member of the group) have delivered some of the most poignant, deeply personal albums in modern rock history. The uncompromising nature of some of those albums isn’t for everyone, but even their harshest critics can’t deny their superb craftsmanship. Here’s how we rank all the Nine Inch Nail albums from worst to best.
9. Ghosts I-IV
As Louder Sound says, no Nine Inch Nail record is bad, but Ghosts I-IV’s uncompromising nature makes it the least essential of all their albums. Unless you’re in a very specific state of mind, you’re going to lose the will to listen long you reach the closing track. Consisting of two hours of improvisational, mostly instrumental tracks, it’s as far away from commercial as it’s possible to get. Surprisingly, it still managed to be a moderate hit, reaching No. 14 in the US in December 2007 and earning Grammy Award nominations for Best Rock Instrumental Performance and Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package.
8. Hesitation Marks
As audioxide.com points out, even now, Hesitation Marks is an album that continues to split opinion. Subdued to the points of passive, it lacks the explosive moments listeners expect from a Nail Inch Nails album. It’s by no means a bad album, however, and while the songs might be lacking punch, the craftsmanship is as exceptional as ever. Released on August 30, 2013, as the band’s first release in five years, it debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and No. 2 on the UK Albums Chart – their highest entry on the chart to date.
7. Bad Witch
He might be well into his 50s, but age has done little to dampen Trent Reznor’s taste for experimentation. On Nine Inch Nail’s most recent release, Bad Witch, he lets his creativity go wild on tracks like God Break Down the Door and Play the Goddamned Part. It’s a little raw and rough around the edges, but if anything, the unfinished nature of the album makes it feel more alive than it would otherwise. Released in June 2018, it hit No. 12 in both the US and UK.
6. The Slip
Just two months after releasing Ghosts I-IV, Nine Inch Nails were back with their second album of 2008, The Slip. It might not be in the same class as their early material, but its sinuous beats and jaw-dropping creativity still make it essential listening for both casual fans and die-hard NIN devotees alike. After a warm reception from critics, the album made it to No. 13 on the Billboard 200.
5. With Teeth
After the epic undertaking of 1999s The Fragile, it was another long turnaround before Nine Inch Nails finally got around to releasing its follow up, With Teeth. A sharper, rockier offering than usual, it’s one of their most cohesive, complete albums to date. Key standouts include The Hand That Feeds, Only Every Day Is Exactly the Same, and Beside You in Time. Released in May 3, 2005, its aggressive style was well-received by critics. It was equally successful commercially, becoming the band’s second album to reach No. 1 in the US where it was eventually certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). It also entered the Top 10 in numerous other countries.
4. Year Zero
After the relatively straightforward, song-orientated With Teeth, Nail Inch Nails did an artistic 180 with its follow-up. A concept album that takes aim at the US government by presenting a dystopian image of the year 2022, Year Zero is a broadly ambitious, incredibly creative album that’s a must-listen for anyone who appreciates a story as much as a song. A critical and commercial hit, it climbed to number two in the US, number six in the UK, and the top 10 in various other countries.
3. Pretty Hate Machine
Nine Inch Nails’ impressive 1989 debut gave us a band that were already light years ahead of the competition. A blend of blistering angst and danceable grooves, Pretty Hate Machine might have little in common with the band’s later projects, but it’s still a must-listen. The critics loved it and so did the public, who took it to No. 75 on the Billboard 200.
2. The Fragile
Nine Inch Nails took fives years after The Downward Spiral to release The Fragile, but it was more than worth the wait. An epic, two-disc concept album, it finds Reznor drawing from his own battles with depression and drug abuse to tell the story of a man in freefall. It didn’t receive the warmest reception on its release, but, twenty years later, it’s considered one of their most important works, with The Day the World Went Away, We’re In This Together, Into the Void, and Starf–kers, Inc. all standing out as particular highlights.
1. The Downward Spiral
An obvious choice for the top spot, maybe, but one few fans would disagree with. The Fragile might be Nine Inch Nail’s most ambitious project, but The Downward Spiral is unquestionably their greatest. From the funk of Closer to the heartbreak of Hurt, the tracklist reads like a greatest hits album. Their best-selling record by a clean mile, it took the band to No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and No. 9 on the UK Albums Chart. One of the most influential albums of the 1990s, and Reznor’s greatest masterpiece.