Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension

In another life, I would find myself in various US cities all across the country for short intervals. One of the pleasures I took with that was picking out the music appropriate for the locale. And so, in the summer of 2005, I found myself driving around Chicago, IL blasting Come On Feel the Illinoise by Sufjan Stevens. For a geek like me, this was absolutely thrilling. The final album in his States albums, it spoke to me on a visceral level. In fact, I’ve long gravitated towards the acoustic based albums by Sufjan Stevens while admiring / not loving his more experimental albums. In fact, 2015’s Carrie and Lowell was easily my favorite release of his – acoustic, personal, masterful. How would he ever follow that album up?

Discounting his collaboration albums, 2020’s The Ascension is the 1st true full-length solo follow up. And it does a neat trick – it rewrites the rules a bit. It sounds NOTHING like his acoustic based albums. But it doesn’t really sound like his experimental albums either. We have an album that shares a remarkable amount of characteristics with Kanye West’s 808 & Heartbreak. Say what you will about Kanye, but that album is a masterpiece in my opinion. And here we have Sufjan Stevens employing his own electronic soundscapes, imbued with a sadness that is disarming. This is an album length anthem for 2020. I would dub it “downbeat anti-gospel music”. And it is (almost) perfection.

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Marilyn Manson – We Are Chaos

In the summer of 2019, I attended an in store performance at a famous record store in West Seattle. The artist was someone who had deep roots in the early 80’s Seattle punk scene but eventually made his name with a notorious hard rock band out of Los Angeles, CA. This artist once again was living in West Seattle and had become sort of a prodigal son when he wasn’t on the road reunited with the band who had made him famous. It was cool to meet Duff McKagan. The show had a country vibe with a few Guns N Roses classics in the setlist. But one of my takeaways from that evening was how cool his collaborator was. Shooter Jennings was like talking to an old friend. Personable, nice, and in pre-COVID days, willing to shake my hand. I also forgot to get a picture with Shooter – a big regret. Shooter Jennings – you may have heard – is a performer, co-writer, and producer on Marilyn Manson’s new album, We Are Chaos.

Straight up – I’m not a huge Marilyn Manson fan. The early albums felt like unfocused rage to me. A brief dalliance with a Bowie allegiance caught my ears – indeed, I still listen to 1998’s Mechanical Animals 22 years later. After that? It is very hit or miss for me. My interest was triggered in recent years by his cover of God’s Gonna Cut You Down – a posthumous song released by Johnny Cash. The new Marilyn Manson songs seemed seeped in country and blues, yet still had that old rage. When I heard Shooter Jennings was involved with the new album, I knew I had to have a copy. It doesn’t disappoint – this is easily my favorite Marilyn Manson album. Your mileage may vary, to be sure. But what I like about it is that it takes just about every sound he has explored over the last 25+ years and blends it into an intoxicating brew. Industrial, new wave, country, blues – there is even some crooning on this record.

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The Flaming Lips – American Head

I have a long history with The Flaming Lips dating back to the late 90’s shows in support of their 1st masterpiece, The Soft Bulletin. I’d previously written them off, firmly convinced they weren’t cool. What can I say, I was pretty damn snobby in my youth. I was wrong. Anyway – so began a 21-year (and counting) love affair with all things ‘Lips. The last time I saw the band live was a true spectacle in support of 2017’s Oczy Mlody.

The Paramount in Seattle is a larger venue, typically the largest arena a band will play if they aren’t playing a stadium show. The show was sold out and was a standing room only type deal. I found myself talking with a group of younger (than me) women who were there because of the Miley Cyrus overlap. An unusual scenario, to be sure, but I found myself explaining the history of the band, why I love them, and how their willingness to experiment resulted in their association with Miley Cyrus. A bodyguard came by, asked the group if I was with them – they said yes – and we were whisked down to the front of the stage, in the place typically inhabited by photographers. I got to watch the band entertain a sold-out crowd from a unique perspective. It was one of the stranger experiences of my Seattle concert going adventures, and one that I loved. But now it leads to that dreaded question – what comes next?

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Metallica – S&M2

It isn’t easy being a Metallica fan – ride or die. For every fan who loves the latest record, there are a loud contingent of fans who will scream “Only the 80’s albums!”. Or even more specific, “Only the Cliff Burton years!”. So, it goes, so it goes. As for me, I think there are things to appreciate in each Metallica album – even Lulu, their oft derided 2011 collaboration with the iconic Lou Reed. In fact, the 2017 show I saw in Seattle was one of the best stadium shows I’ve ever seen – family friendly even, if you can believe that. We aren’t in 1986 anymore, fellas. They are – to quote Grand Funk Railroad – an American band. And perhaps history will view them as one of the most successful bands in history. They’ve long since transcended the heavy metal tag.

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A.M. Mills – Angel Eyes

Moving from Washington State back to Pennsylvania after almost 2 decades was a transition that was jarring in many ways. Add in the stress of moving cross country during the worst pandemic in 100 years, you can imagine that I turned to music for solace. One of the finest records that has been on repeat has been Angel Eyes by A.M. Mills (disclosure: I played trombone with band founder Drew Mills throughout middle school). The album gave me a sense of nostalgia – sounds that wouldn’t sound out of place on a David Lynch soundtrack as filtered through a Philadelphia sensibility. Basically, where I was in life when this album came out. Uncanny.

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