The Best of Trent Reznor

Published: June 8, 2014

With the surprise release of Hesitation Marks, Trent Reznor achieved a sort of hallowed role in the music press. After spending the '90s as the tortured over-achiever and the last decade as everyone's fun tech-savvy uncle, in 2013 Reznor graduated to pop's elder statesman. At this point it doesn't really matter what he does; he's a rock star who has survived to middle age, and managed to retain his creative relevance. Now the same critics who once shredded his masterpieces will put his most offhand sketch on a pedestal. It's a weird political situation, and through all of that it can be hard to really identify his best work.

Here, then, is the top ten of Trent Reznor -- pulled his film work, his collaborations, and all of his assorted bands. It's going to be heavy on the Nine Inch Nails, but there other sides to the man.

  1. The Downward Spiral

    This is the obvious choice, but in the end it's also the correct one. If Trent Reznor had done nothing else The Downward Spiral would still be one of the most important achievements in pop music, right up there with Dark Side of the Moon, Pet Sounds, Tommy, and the White Album. In retrospect his two previous efforts were drafts leading up to this opus, and everything that he's done since has been an effort to top, to match, or to distance himself from The Downward Spiral. With this album Reznor not only set a high bar for music as a whole, he set an unreachable challenge for himself that would loom over the rest of his career. For a perfectionlist like Reznor, that shadow must have been a sort of a hell.

    The Downward Spiral came at the turning point in digital recording and compositoin, and Reznor the one-man band, the drop-out computer programmer, seized this jagged edge as his opportunity. With the right samplers and keyboards and sequencing software he didn't need a back-up band. He didn't need to explain his vision to anyone. He didn't even have to hew to what was physically possible.

    What Reznor turned out was a sort of a golem; all of his deepest, most vulnerable emotions, given form by a patchwork of real sounds twisted out of easy recognition, and animated with crunching, brittle digital noise. The songwriting scuttles along in mixmatched hunks of rock, swing, noise metal, a sort of decayed disco, and acoustic ballad.

    For all its darkness, there is also humor. Nearly every song is graced with one or more practical jokes, meant to unsettle the listener. Take the live favorite March of the Pigs, which starts with a wall of noise in a hard-to-process 7/8 meter, accompanied by the furious barking of orders: "Step right up! March! Push! Crawl right up on your knees!" After a verse or so the meter changes to a more comfortable 4/4 and the shouting calms to a poisonous sneer. Then, abruptly, all of the drive falls away in favor of a bright piano flourish. "Doesn't it make you feel better?" Reznor asks, his cheery tone a mask for roiling bitterness and sarcasm. Just as the listener cranes in close to hear the last ring of the piano chords, the A section returns from nowhere, as if to shout "BOO!" And so it goes.

    For its ten-year anniversary (itself now a decade in the past) Reznor remastered The Downward Spiral, adjusting a few mastering errors and adding a second disc full of related material -- B-sides, early versions of album tracks, assorted ephemera. If you've yet to hear The Downward Spiral, this is probably the version to grab -- if for nothing else than for the inclusion of "Burn", from the Natural Born Killers soundtrack.

  2. The Fragile

    Then after The Downward Spiral came the long wait. For half a decade Reznor was busy. He was just, as it seemed from the outside, procrastinating. He nurtured shock metal artist Marilyn Manson, then carried on a feud with him. He worked on film soundtracks. He puttered with his vanity record label, signing up all of his favorite artists and offering to do their studio engineering for them. In the late '90s, Reznor was everywhere but home.

    Finally, after several false starts Reznor forced himself to sit down and finish an album. It's easy to understand the pressure. After The Downward Spiral, this one had to be huge. It had to be special. It also had to be different, but not so different as to be unrecognizable. Reznor had new musical ideas to explore, but with Nine Inch Nails he had a role to play that he wasn't completely sold on anymore.

    His result, the two-disc semi-concept album The Fragile, is a flawed work of genius -- and in those flaws may well be his most deep and intriguing work. You can hear the reluctance and the pretense oozing through the album, as on tracks like "We're In This Together" -- Reznor doesn't want to be there, he's not sure that he's convinced by anything that he's saying. And yet he also wants to do the best work of his career.

    For another artist this would be a depressing death knell, but for Reznor it becomes a fascinating exploration of ennui. Whereas The Downward Spiral is a manic explosion of often frightening emotions, The Fragile (appropriately enough) is the fallout -- that long, gray, fuzzy depression that leads a person to a place like "The Great Below". Taken together, the two albums form a cycle of effort and failure and the emotional journey that goes alongside.

  3. Hesitation Marks

    Fast forward another fourteen years and we have Reznor's third great work, a second attempt at a sequel to The Downward Spiral and a new perspective on the body of Reznor's work to date. Here Reznor identifies the mysterious "you" in so many of his lyrics. Mostly when he says "you" he is speaking to himself, or rather another part of himself.

    In Hesitation Marks we meet Reznor's other half -- the dark side, the demon on his back. You can call it addiction. Or, perhaps, Mr. Self Destruct. This is the part of him that will always be there, however healthy and wise he may become. They say there is no such thing as a recovered alcoholic. The same goes for any obsessive weakness, be it sex or drugs or just negative thinking. You can live well and avoid temptation, but the temptation will never go away. Crumble for a moment, and everything that you have built will fall down all over.

    Years later, Reznor is in a good place. He's married. He has a couple of kids. He has respect and money and influence. He is creatively satisfied, able to work on pretty much anything that he wants. Yet that part of him will never go away. Hesitation Marks is a dramatization of that daily struggle, and where it can lead.

  4. Fixed

    Now we get into weird territory. Reznor's fourth-best work is a remix EP, to which he personally contributed little except the raw material for the remix, the guidelines, and his choice of personnel to do the mixing. The resulting album-length monstrosity is about as close to pure industrial music as Reznor ever got, and in that it is also one of his most progressive and successful creative experiments.

    There is very little in Fixed of a traditional song structure. What was there has been picked apart and rebuilt from its raw elements. Given the strength and power of the original material, Fixed has plenty of leeway to twist those sounds into knots and still retain a semblence of musical coherence.

    Where Pretty Hate Machine contributed the New Wave hooks and melodies that would anchor The Downward Spiral and Broken contributed its studio-scuplted hard edge and cynicism, Fixed gave Reznor's next album its progressive, challenging sense of structure.  Even in isolation, though, this oddness is one of the most fascinating things that's ever sat in a rack of CD singles.

  5. Broken

    For all intents and purposes Broken is Reznor's second album. It's classed as an EP, and indeed has only eight tracks on it (two of which are hidden, or in early releases actually on a separate disc), but the songs are long and the project is entirely self-contained. Broken has its own sound, its own themes, its own purpose apart from the full-length albums on either side.

    This is Reznor's first really angry music. And boy, is it ever angry. And boy, did he have reason to be angry. I'm not going to get into all of the politics here, but Broken sees Reznor's move to a new parent label and establishment of his own new vanity label. Influenced by Reznor's live band, the EP also sees Nine Inch Nails move away from straight New Wave synth work, as on Reznor's debut Pretty Hate Machine, toward guitar-based metal.

    The thing is, Reznor didn't actually play guitar at the time. What he did, then, is plug a guitar directly into a mixing board and digitally record all of his experiments. When he found something he liked, he would loop and repeat it, building a wall of sound unlike anything heard before. On Broken you get hundreds of guitars, all playing the same riff -- and then abruptly, digitally, cut off. The noise is off, or it's on. Same goes for the drum loops. And then there's the whole issue of phasing, which in technology like Q-Sound was becoming a trendy thing to play around with in the studio -- so if you should happen to sit in the sweet spot, these guitars will attack you in a carefully scuplted envelope of sound.

    Between the digital manipulation and the spitting anger of the lyrics we have the seed of the persona and the attack plan of the artist who Reznor would become -- but Broken is a finished package in its own right, and indeed by modern metal artists often considered a seminal album.

  6. With Teeth

    Then we come to the curious issue of With Teeth, one of Reznor's most commercial successful efforts and yet probably his album with the worst reputation. What do we make of this?

    Well, it's simple. After The Fragile, another five years passed. Reznor battled his demons, and at least provisionally he won -- so he decided to do something else. He dropped his negative persona (at least, as much as he could), formed a rock band, and released a fun rock-driven album. This album is Reznor stretching his creative range, and basically just having fun with his music for the first time in ages.

    The result is a fun, fresh album littered with slightly confused yet earnest introspection. It's not a brooding soundscape. It's not particularly angry or depressive. It's just where Trent Reznor was at this phase in his life -- which was a place of healing. And for all of that it's also a damned good rock album, which is why it sold so well. For all of the self-evident reasons it's also not putting on the act that people expect from Reznor, so people who go into it wanting another Downward Spiral are going to be sorely disappointed. That's not a failing on the part of the album; it's just a failing of perception.

    With Teeth is one of Reznor's most triumphant creative moments, and it really deserves a better reputation.

  7. The Social Network (soundtrack)

    Following with Teeth, Reznor was electric. He was clean, he was reasonably happy, he was having fun with his music. So suddenly, instead of five years between albums he went and released four albums over three years. None had the attention to detail of his earlier work, but each was completely different from the last. Reznor had learned to let go and to allow himself to just experiment, and the result is his most prolific period as an artist.

    As part of this period he released a fascinating double album, Ghosts I-IV, that consisted entirely of instrumental sound sketches. If it can be compared to anything, Ghosts is probably in the same class as Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2 or Brian Eno's Music for Airports. This music was all about suggesting atmosphere and a sense of place.

    Appropriately enough, David Fincher chose to turn to the album while editing his movie about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Later he contacted Reznor, asking if he could replace the temp tracks with original music in the same style. After some hesitation, Reznor agreed -- bringing his recent collaborator Atticus Ross along for the ride. The result is the Oscar-winning score to The Social Network, which also manages to out-Ghost Ghosts in every way.

    Out of Reznor's instrumental albums (which date way back to his score for the game Quake), The Social Network is by far the most evocative and coherent as a work.

  8. How To Destroy Angels: Welcome Oblivion

    With Reznor's mid-2000s comback period, he returned with an explosion of energy and creativity. Over four or five years he blasted the Web with progressive musical ventures, and generally tried to change the world all by himself. When nothing really changed all that quickly, he got frustrated and a little disillisioned, and before he stopped having fun he chose to retire Nine Inch Nails -- not necessarily forever, but until he felt he could do it justice again.

    In the meanwhile he kept busy with film scores and side projects. Probably dearest to his heart was new band How To Destroy Angels, which he formed with his new wife Mariqueen, collaborator Atticus Ross, and regular musician buddy Rob Sheridan. The project was a slow burner, and across several EPS they took several years to whittle out the band's tone. With their first full album, Reznor and company managed to hit on something distinctive.

    Welcome Oblivion is a slow, sultry hunk of music, built of long tracks, long on vamps. Like The Knife's Shaking The Habitual, Welcome Oblivion takes its time to set up its moods. In turn, it can take several listens before the music really begins to unwind and demonstrate what it's up to. A slow burner is a good thing, though -- as you know that every time you go back, you'll always find something new to reward your continued interest.

  9. Still

    Flat between The Fragile and With Teeth, we have this curious half-album. Still is actually the less widely available disc two to a live album, And All That Could Have Been -- yet it is very much its own entity.

    Here we have a mix of discarded film cues, quiet acoustic versions of classic Nine Inch Nails songs, and some somber new material. Still is the most gentle of Nine Inch Nails albums, and valuable for the different perspective that it lends to Reznor's body of work.

  10. The Slip

    The Slip is a curious case. This is the last album of Reznor's post-millenial revival, and although it was in fact written deliberately, it comes off as sort of a best-of compilation of forgotten odds and ends from his previous few albums.

    There are a couple of naked soundscapes, one of which is actually derived from an outtake off of Ghosts I-IV. Several songs are aggressive shouty things that might well have originated in the Year Zero sessions. The best tracks are melodic rock pieces laced with introspection, which would be right at home on With Teeth. There are only ten tracks, and most of the good ones are in the first half.

    Yet here's the interesting thing: Reznor released it for free, and with no real warning. Just, one day, there it was -- like a new blog post. In that context, where it seemed like possibly the first of a line of offhanded musical diary entries, its quickly recorded, scattershot contents sort of made sense. But making sense is different from the reception that it received.

    Somehow fans and the music press alike held The Slip aloft as the return of Nine Inch Nails, the best album since The Downward Spiral -- or at least certainly since The Fragile. The same publications that criticized his earlier, more ambitious or significant work used The Slip as an excuse to (as it would seem) jump on the bandwagon of praising Reznor's musical and technological genius, in recognition of all that he had done over the previous few years that the never really appreciated at the time.

    Reznor has weaker albums, but the reception to The Slip makes it a little difficult to approach fairly. It's clearly not the high point that it has been made out to be, but rather more of an interesting grab bag of stuff that Reznor had been doing over the previous few years, released in an interesting way. Yet it's not fair to dock the album credit because of the over-reaction of a fickle press.

    If nothing else, all of this noise makes it worth checking out.

This list is in qualitative order, from the best on down. So if you want the best of Trent Reznor, pick up The Downward Spiral. Or, really, the first three things on this list. Everything else is a bonus, that lends context and meaning to his greatest triumphs.