Year Zero is good on so many levels I barely know where to begin. As an album it is solid. When With-a Teeth-ah! came out, I complained that it was a decent album, but not really a progression of the NIN sound. Year Zero sounds like nothing you've heard before. In many ways it is the anti-Downward Spiral. Where that album was the very inward-looking story of someone falling apart personally, YZ is the story of the world around us falling apart, a sci-fi epic that's set in the near future which is really just an exaggeration of how things are now, taken to their logical conclusion. It's a tremendous evolution for an artist famed for his introspective (and, at times, self-pitying) lyrics, to actually take a look around at the world as it is, and write a really powerful protest album as a response. This even comes across sonically- TDS was a very organic album, lots of analog instruments and heartbeats and insect noises. The thesis behind YZ is that it is a warning signal, sent from the future to tell us how things will be- and consequently it is a very digital album, lots of pure tones and beeps, synthesized drums and harsh, staccato noises.
I won't write a track-by-track review of the songs (for that, please check out Jammer's awesome review, which echoes my thoughts very precisely), because I don't think it's really a track-by-track album. I've had friends listen to individual tracks of the album and say they don't find it appealing. That's the equivalent of reading a random chapter in a book and then complaining that it's confusing. It's meant to be listened to end-on-end. There's a very distinct forward progression- each song is the viewpoint of a character in this future-world: first the world is set up, then it is developed, then it is destroyed. It was not designed to be put on shuffle. The death of the album has been heralded by many, but this is definitely one of the last 'story' albums, and should be respected as such.
Beyond the album, you may have heard of the Year Zero ARG. There's been some debate about what this is, exactly- a game, a marketing campaign, a website. Trent says it should not be viewed as a game, just part of the album, and I tend to agree. I see it as one of the booklets that come with an album, except it spans across twenty web-pages and is at times interactive. Basically it just deepens the story laid forth in the album, giving context to certain songs and fleshing out different characters that the songs introduced. At first I was suspicious of the idea, but once you realize it's not a marketing campaign, it really falls into place as part of the story of the album. This is a really ground-breaking an inspiring idea, and I'm so pleased that one of my favourite bands has, again, exceeded my expectations. Navigating from page-to-page, filling in the story as you go, really is a great pleasure- like reading a good book or playing a good text-based adventure. If you enjoy the album, do spend a bit of time browsing through the associated sites, it really can be fun. Feels less like an album than the start of a movement.
Not satisfied with breaking ground on YZ, the remix album goes a step further- the album (which is really, really good- it's not just a remix album (and, truth be told, NIN remix albums are always a bit disappointing), it's actually an alternate version of the original album- that is, it tells the same story, but in a different way. It's hard to explain, but even if you don't like YZ, check out the remix album, it's really dancing and different and awesome) comes with a second disc, which contains all the individual source files that make up all the songs, so you can create your own remixes. They've also set up an awesome remix site where you can upload and share your own remixes. It's a really nicely designed site and you can literally spend all day browsing through mixes, making playlists- it's great fun (especially as every 'official' NIN remix from albums past is included [and downloadable!] on the site, including the very rare Perfect Drug remixes- way cool). All the source files can be downloaded from there, as well: go and have a play.
I should take a moment to mention The Limitless Potential, the fan-made remix album that was released for free shortly before the official remix album. I've given this a listen and, basically, it's too fucking long. 21 tracks? Songs that weren't even on YZ? Learn to edit. This could have been a really good, tight remix album. Instead it is bogged down by too many unessential mixes. If it had been kept to 16 tracks it could have been awesome.
So, put it altogether, and you've got two great albums, an infinite number of fan-made songs all free on the web, plus the cool, novelesque ARG. That's a lot of good shit from one concept. Go to!
[Oh, and by the way? When you put the disc for YZ in your CD player, it is black. When it comes out again...it's white. First time this happened, it seriously freaked me out.]