Update: 15 March 2011. PHM remaster and awards.
Update: 11 October 2010.
Building a Nails collection on CD is as easy as breaking out your plastic. Vinyl and video tape is nearly as easy, though you have to hunt a bit harder, and pay more money per unit, and I'm focused on the optical media here.
Almost every worthwhile NIN album is in print right here on Amazon, and can be had for under 15 bucks. The remainder can be found on nin.com or any used record shop worth its storage bins.
Whether people want any of them is another matter. Nine Inch Nails came together in 1988, and has always revolved around Trent Reznor. Like any artist whose career has survived, he's gone through distinct phases that appeal to different palates, regardless of the core commonalities across his music.
Who Should Build a Nails Collection
Reznor is a cut above a lot of artists because he combines catchy electronic or rock beats and lyrics with rap vocals, story elements, personal revelations, and complex arrangements. His inspirations are legion, and he stands on the shoulders of artists ranging from Bowie to Zappa. He’s produced movie scores and worked with hip-hop artists and even sang a duet with Tori Amos. So while you can dance, drink, and mate to a lot of his stuff, you're missing out on easily half of what the guy has to say and play.
So if you're into repetitive house crap like "When I dip/ you dip/ we dip", or "Party like a rockstar/ Party like a rockstar”… well, NIN might not be for you.
To some old-school industrial or electronica folks, his first album Pretty Hate Machine: 2010 Remaster was pretty much his last. That didn't stop it from becoming a college hit as a date album, and I can testify that it's still good for foreplay--try "Something I Can Never Have" in particular. The album also goes well with leather restraints in a dark room.
Next came the Broken EP, which appealed more to the mosh pits (or clubs in the case of its remix Fixed)of the early to mid '90's. This album resulted in NIN's first Grammy for Best Metal Performance due to the song "Wish", and is still one of their angriest, most noise-laden records.
This period is also noticable for Reznor's music videos, featuring varying degrees of graphic violence and sexual bondage; only "Wish" was tame enough for mainstream airing, while "Happiness in Slavery" is probably the most notorious. These videos were further compliled into a short, bootleg horror movie about a serial killer, who tortures and eats his victims to *Broken*.
Then came the album which would haunt Reznor and his fans, long after NIN moved to greener pastures. For my high school and college peers in 1994, The Downward Spiral (TDS) was his Great Album. Along with Pantera and Smashing Pumpkins, '94-'95 was commercial peak time for Nails. TDS had its own satellite network of remixes and spin-offs, including Closer to God and Further Down The Spiral which function as whole albums in and of themselves.
NIN's first two studio albums and EP established themselves as mainstream "industrial", even though Reznor's music is really it's own thing. These records pioneered his technique of layers upon layers of music. Thematically, Reznor explores sex, anger, relationships, sex, alienation, suicide, sex, suicidal anger, and angrily suicidal sex in alienating relationships. His videos featured lots of Bondage and Discipline tropes.
Reznor was a busy man in the mid-Nineties. When he wasn't promoting TDS, he was promoting and producing new acts like Pop Will Eat Itself, Prick, and most famously, Marilyn Manson. He also produced scores for films like Natural Born Killers: A Soundtrack For An Oliver Stone Film and my favorite, Lost Highway (1997 Film)--both which contain new or remixed NIN material. His music also ended up in the soundtracks for movies like *Se7en* and *The Fan* (though the sndtrk CDs omit these cuts). Finally, he collected most of his videos into the Nine Inch Nails - Closure [VHS] tape set. This substitutes a different video for "Gave Up", probably because the original was part of the *Broken* movie climax and therefore unsuitable.
The man himself became unsuitable in the public eye, despite all this work. He failed to produce a new studio album, with the "Perfect Drug" being his first new song and video in three years, as heard on *Lost Highway* and The Perfect Drug single. By 1998, Britney Spears and Limp Bizkit had stepped into the limelight [Onimous orchestral stinger].
Thus so, the TDS era washed up on the shores of the new millennium, culminating in a pair of albums that failed to achieve the same executive expectations of commercial appeal. Not that these records didn't sell, or didn't play--just that the mainstream fans moved on to a bunch of bubblegum dance-pop crap like Poppa Roach, Blink-182, Britney, Bizkit... please, don't make me recite any more pop-crap bands! The blow torch and the pliers will hurt much less!
So if you've been hearing a lot of moaning and groaning about The Fragile or With Teeth, I trust you to understand that they are "da bomb" as opposed to just "a bomb".
The former album accompanied me on the first of many 1200-mile trips between Oregon and Southern California, and it kept my spirits up while communting to Naval Station San Diego every day. The latter album arrived in time for my high school reunion, and so it was a fitting bookend to my days of *PHM* and *Broken*.
This period shifted from emo-goth-industrial-metal to a more organic-sounding Nine Inch Nails. While the core synth and pop sensibility remains, his sound built off of the live guest appearances in TDS to feature some of his most musically complex and interesting pieces. Listen for Adrian Belew and Dave Grohl.
Listen too, to how muscial passages also make ironic references to his prior albums, especially on *With Teeth*. Reznor also spent much of *The Fragile* on fascinating ambiances, such as playing out-of-tune instruments in bathtubs.
The satellite releases began to taper off at this point, but include the friendly Things Falling Apart, the not-so-friendly but rockin' And All That Could Have Been, and the downright emo-to-slit-your-wrists-by Still.
Now we come to current era, one which hopefully has a few years of life and releases left. It arrived as Year Zero before moving on to Y34RZ3R0R3MIX3D / [CD/DVD Combo], and concentrates more socio-political content than the breadth and depth of NIN's entire existence. This too, appeals to particular tastes--especially in our partisan times--but kicks it out with some of the most aggressive electronic noise you could hope to hear kickin' in yo speakers.
But if you'd prefer more dreamy and ambiant, with just a few kicks, Ghosts I - IV can now haunt your house and stir your leaves, be they oak, tea, or pot. Since I was a skinny teen, subsiding off a tub of Coke and a Snickers bar a day, I've wanted to hear Reznor put out an entire album of piano pieces. This isn't that, but it's a close second as an all-instrumental soundscape record. Hell, I'm playing right now as I update this thing.
Next Nails busted out The Slip, a numbered limited edition on Amazon. But thats okay, 'cause it's also a free download in entirety for perpetuity on the official website nin.com. A good thing too, because it sounds cool and all--a lot like *With Teeth*--but it also sounds like The Generic Nine Inch Nails Album, like a summary of his overall style.
I'd rather have this though, than a steenking greatest hits package. That's one of the cool things about NIN--it just keeps trucking with new material. Sure, sometimes he goes five years between albums, and sure, most of his videos are tied up in legal broughha, and yeah, the quality and quantity of side releases has declined to some degree, but at least he doesn't recycle his own catalog like just about everybody else.
Well, sort of. Reznor collaborates once again with Atticus Ross to produce the soundtrack for The Social Network. It remixes and recycles several passages from *Ghosts*, and most of the album follows that ambient instrumental drift through your bedroom or office. My misgivings aside, the critics must disagree with me about soundtrack--it earned the artists both a Golden Globe and an Oscar.
Instrumentally incidentally, if you'd like even more *Ghosts*-like goodness, check out Ross's soundtrack for The The Book of Eli.
Ah, but what about those new to Nails? Those readers this guide is mostly written for, looking for a CD to test? Well, that brings me to the next part of our show...
On to the Collection.
All of the studio LPs are good or great to me. And most of the NIN discography is linked by a loose continuity of themes and motifs, and some albums are more dependent upon these links than others.
A single-album solution is their live disc *And All that Could Have Been*. I hesitate to recommend it as a starting point, actually, because NIN live does not sound like NIN in the studio, and because it is heavy on the crowd-pleasing tracks. On the otherhand, it represents the discography prior to *With Teeth*, and it represents their general live set. Also, the currently out-of-print deluxe edition contains the bonus remix album *Still* which is a whole other beast, but includes some good stuff.
Otherwise, an economical path to follow is:
*The Downward Spiral* (TDS) -- Please note that three different editions exist.
*With Teeth* (WT) -- exists in both a vanilla CD and a Dual Disc edition.
*Year Zero* (YZ) --just a plain ol' CD.
*The Slip* -- Sounds a lot like WT, but it's fuxxin' free on nin.com, dood.
Other than offering the most mileage for the least bucks, these albums are probably the most musically accessible, and also represent the range of NIN. Any one is a suitable place to start. Enjoy at least two out of the four, and you'll be on your way to handling the discography.
Aside from cost, it might matter which version of TDS you get. If you want to hear it like I did back in high school, get the standard release. Otherwise, there is a remastered anniversary edition with a bonus CD that will give you a flavor of some of Reznor's side projects at the time, included his cover of Joy Division's "Dead Souls" for The Crow: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. The third, Dual-Disc version is the least critical for the new collector, unless you are a fiend for surround sound (like me), in which case this should be your priority; it also includes a remastered stereo edition.
Driving Nails Home.
If you aren't afraid to dive in, or the economical path leaves you hungry for more, here's a serious route to take.
*Pretty Hate Machine* (PHM)-- The 2010 remaster is available here.
*Broken* EP -- Includes NIN's first Grammy Award winning performance, "Wish".
*Further Down the Spiral* -- Domestic and import available.
*Closer to God*(CtG) -- Full length remix album for the TDS #1 single "Closer".
*The Fragile* -- double album goodness, with lotsa instrumentals.
*Things Falling Apart* (TFA)
*And All That Could Have Been* (AATCHB) -- Regular Edition available.
In addition to covering most studio LPs to date, plus the better off-shoots, these are all just good NIN records.
PHM might seem like the least representative of the lot, because it sounds so gentle and haunting and dated, but its basic principles reoccur throughout the discography, and no NIN education is sufficient without it. The original CD editions are out of print in the United States, but the 2010 remaster does the record justice.
Likewise, *The Fragile* didn’t meet the studio executive expectations set by TDS, partly because the music matured so much that it left a lot of people in the dust; it’s my favorite Nails album next to YZ, and it is a direct sequel to TDS. Note that the vinyl and cassette tape editions contain different mixes, and in some cases, additional tracks.
As far as the offshoots are concerned, I actually prefer the UK import of *Further Down the Spiral* to the domestic, but each contains about four tracks not found on the other, so both are worth collecting. CtG is based on the biggest single from one of Reznor’s biggest albums and in the ears of my friends, it constitutes its own complete suite (Get the single-disc version posted on Amazon, instead of the European version which is pointlessly broken up into two seperate albums).
Technically speaking, the video album “Closure” is the first official release of NIN live material and video, but it is also unavailable on optical disc format, except in an unfinished bootleg that was supposedly released by Reznor himself for you to pirate. The same is true of the "Broken" movie and the Woodstock '94 performance, which don't even have official VHS releases. So AATCHB is pretty much your core bet as far as the live stuff goes.
Hammer ‘Em Down.
Now that covers the biggest boys in the collection—but you ain’t done… not by a long shot. There are 27 “Halos” and counting in the NIN catalog, with some halo numbers sharing as many as three or four different releases: in vinyl, CD, Dual Disc, VHS, DVD, HD-DVD and Blu-ray.
These include the concert films Nine Inch Nails Live - And All That Could Have Been and Nine Inch Nails - Live - Beside You in Time, while some videos can be found on the TDS and WT dual discs, and *The Slip* limited edition.
Other interesting halos include:
the Sin / Get Down Make Love single, which features a cover of Queen's "Get Down Make Love" (the cover is now available on the PHM remaster),
the Head Like a Hole maxi-single, which collects all of the official PHM remixes and alternate takes.
March of Pigs / Reptilian / All the Pigs Lined Up with more covers and remixes for TDS,
and The Day the World Went Away, which contains an alternate mix for two *Fragile* tracks.
None of which are essential, and most of which are out of print on Amazon, but good to have if you can spare the scratch.
Trent Reznor also scored the iD Software game Quake (1995), and at least older CD-ROM copies allow you to play the soundtrack in a CD player. I know because I'm such a nerd I still have my original copy of da disc, and I play it sometimes when I want that techno-horror iD vibe while cleaning my garage. Yeah, a push broom and a dimensional shambler all the way, baby. This makes for some early and interesting NIN instrumental soundscapes, though again I would not call this material essential. (P.S. I recently copied the *Quake* tracks to my *Fallout 3* music folders; they work well for "dungeon" and "explore" ambiance. Aren't we versatile?)
Then there are some prime imports and bootlegs. Look for--
"Purest Feeling", a live demo for PHM, with unreleased tracks and earlier, harder hitting versions of the album cuts--check out the samples of Mickey Rourke screaming "I know who I am!" from the movie *Angel Heart*, at the beginning of "Down in It"...
"Demos and Remixs," which covers the PHM-Broken years, includes some of the Purest Feeling cuts. It also features Reznor's cover of the Black Sabbath song "Supernaut". Recorded for the one-shot 1000 Homo DJs, it was rejected due to a contract conflict with TVT Records, but was finally and officially released on Black Box - Wax Trax! Records: The First 13 Years...
and "Nine Inch Nails Woodstock '94", of which Reznor has been quoted as saying "It sounds like butt." (But also contains a live performance of "Burn").
You can hear Reznor singing with Amos on Under the Pink in the song "Past the Mission", and the man's touch is apparent on select tracks in Manson's Antichrist Superstar--check out his backing vocals on "Deformagraphy". Reznor also produced Saul William's Inevitable Rise & Liberation of Niggy Tardust. His newest outing is with his new wife on How to Destroy Angels, the title lifted from one of NIN's predecessors and influences, Coil. The record itself sounds a lot like YZ or *Ghosts*. Finally, give a listen to Skinny Puppy's Mind: Perpetual Intercourse; the song "Dig It" in particular is an aurally obvious influence on PHM.
There’s also some poop, such as a lot of the singles and remixes around *The Fragile*, WT and YZ. All of the *With Teeth* singles are collected on Every Day Is Exactly The Same, so you only need to get that unless you are a halo completist. Same goes for *Year Zero* stuff like "Survivalism" Pt. 1, the *Fragile* promotional single Into the Void, and the Down In It single, whose contents can be found in more essential albums. I'm also not impressed with "Deep", the original song he recorded for a *Tomb Raider* soundtrack. I haven't heard "Theme for Tetsuo" yet, his most recent soundtrack contribution.
Now, I bought most of my Nails back in the 1990's and early early 00's, when the entire domestic catalog was in print.
Today, it will cost you a pretty penny to get good stuff like *Still* from used dealers, but the NIN official website still sells it for $9.99. Imports like PHM and *Further Down the Spiral* version 2 can be had for about 30 to 40 bones altogether. When you go to your favorite used record store, don't be afraid to look for a boot of David Bowie's live performance of "Hurt", and check out Johnny Cash's cover of the same in American IV: The Man Comes Around (Bonus DVD). And hunt down those videos! Forget the *Hostel* movies--the *Broken* videos shaved hairs off my chest, and they'll do the same for you!