The first time I heard Nine Inch Nails, I was barely fourteen, hanging, unsupervised, with my friend at the time and his older brother — a “bad kid” judging by his pierced ear and Grateful Dead T-shirt. We sat on his dingy floor while he sparked a joint and asked us if we wanted to hear some quote-unquote real music, something to make us stop listening to The Eminem Show on repeat. He played what I later found out was the Broken EP. When I asked him what this music was he said, “What they play in the strip clubs in hell.” There began a lifelong interest in Trent Reznor, mastermind and sole core member of Nine Inch Nails.
Of course there is more to Reznor’s sound than sleaze, hard beats, and roaring guitar. The man has experimented with every genre of popular music from electronica to metal to jazz, but at his core, Reznor’s strengths have always been hooks and lush production, things he inherited from his favorite bands as a teenager: KISS and David Bowie.
Reznor’s also contracted some of those bands’ weaknesses. For an acclaimed singer-songwriter (which he is, underneath the electronics and black cutoffs), Reznor has never been the greatest lyricist or singer. He’s grown into the nasal croon that has defined his style, but it wouldn’t work in any other band. His most-celebrated topics — drugs, kinky sex, paranoia, depression, sticking it to the man — make him the perfect rock star for a 14-year-old boy in a strange, dirty room filling with funny-smelling smoke, but not exactly the sort of person one expects to make profound statements about life, politics, and the nature of human existence (even though he has done so when the stars align).
Regardless of his flaws, with Grammys and an Oscar under his belt, recent collaborations with Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac, and a discography of multi-platinum albums, Trent Reznor has graduated from reclusive addict-genius to the ranks of his childhood idols: bona fide pop music luminary. No other “extreme” musician besides Ozzy Osbourne has wormed his way so far into mainstream pop — but unlike Ozzy, Trent Reznor is nobody’s clown. He’s become one of the most forward-thinking musicians and producers when it comes to using technology. Rockist luddites say that modern production techniques sap the soul out of music and make it lifeless, but even they embrace Trent Reznor. The core of his technique, the thing he does most brilliantly, is coax organic sounds out of computers.
Since the release of his latest album, Hesitation Marks, the man who once gave the cold shoulder to a Rolling Stone reporter is giving 45-minute lectures on his process and offering insider looks at his always spectacular live shows. Before his 2009 hiatus, Reznor was posting live clip after live clip from his would-be farewell tour with reckless abandon. Reznor hasn’t just transformed from scrawny nobody into sex symbol, from junkie into clean liver, and from rocker into composer — he’s gone from being an introvert to an extrovert, inviting everyone interested to examine him and his work. It’s the perfect time to bring his entire discography, with all of its successes, failures, and inconsistencies, into context. These are Trent Reznor’s albums — released under his own name, or with longtime co-pilot, Atticus Ross, with recent project How To Destroy Angels, and of course with Nine Inch Nails — from worst to best. Reznor’s discography is actually a bit larger than the one presented here, but I chose to focus on work where he took the steering wheel himself — the Lost Highway and Natural Born Killers soundtracks were both mostly composition albums, and so were not included, even if each one boasts a worthy fan-favorite Nine Inch Nails song (“The Perfect Drug” and “Burn” respectively). Also Reznor’s soundtrack to the original Quake videogame was excluded, firstly because it is no longer commercially available, and secondly because, come on, it’s the soundtrack to Quake. All three would hover near the bottom of the list.
Without further ado … start the Countdown here.