09. The Golden Age of Grotesque (2003)
This Is the New Take: The previous three albums of Manson’s career (Antichrist Superstar, Mechanical Animals, and Holy Wood, all of which you will find higher on this list) comprised a three-album concept by the group. It seems as though, in the wake of that major work in rock music, Manson’s creativity was exhausted, producing The Golden Age of Grotesque, an album that sounds less an inspired new direction and more like Manson parodying himself. The music is near uniformly flat, with a few exceptions to be fair, focusing on the trendy combination of metallic hard rock and electronic beats that made up your Fast and the Furious soundtracks at the time.
Overall, we get a mess of a record that can’t decide between Weimar or Nazi symbolism, neither of which are particularly appetizing. Still, at the time the group boasted guitarist John 5 and keyboardist Madonna Wayne Gacy, a duo who were well-skilled at producing high caliber art-house rock music under the Manson banner, and as such there are still songs which are resonant and rich. Further, this was not the lowest the nadir years of Manson, before his immaculate re-conception on The Pale Emperor, would descend; as mentioned already, there would come albums that made fans long for this period, something that feels strange taking this record on its lonesome.
The Beautiful Pinnacle: “The Golden Age of Grotesque” is not only the best song on the album, it’s also the best song exploring the sonic textures unique to this album. The swung feel and sultry burlesque piano feel additive here rather than purely a gimmick, borrowing jazz-age obscenity to paint his critical picture of the landscape circa 2003. The lyrics suffer at the squint test, but as a slice of cheeky musical fun, it’s charming.
Disposable Track: Which to choose? “Doll-Dagga Buzz-Buzz Ziggety-Zag” might be the dumbest song the man’s ever written, but musically it surpasses “mOBSCENE”, a song as sonically annoying as it is lyrically vapid. But ultimately it’s the inexplicably bad “This Is The New Sh*t” that manages to hit the bottom of the well, being lyrically asinine on top of musically insufferable. Quite possibly the worst song he’s ever written, too. — Langdon Hickman
08. Born Villain (2012)
This Is the New Take: Marilyn Manson has a distinct style, clearly influenced by great artists like Bowie and Bauhaus, but still uniquely something of its own. This style is gothic, bluesy, metallic, raucous, industrial rock n’ roll. When a Marilyn Manson song comes on, the listener immediately recognizes the artist. However, because this style is so distinct, it can also be recycled.
Born Villain felt like it was resting on past glories without really trying something new. This might partly be because of some serious lineup changes that were happening in the band around this time, including the departure of drummer Ginger Fish, who had been with the band since 1995. Former Nine Inch Nails member Chris Vrenna took over composition and drumming duties on Born Villain but also left shortly thereafter.
The most memorable song on Born Villain is the single “No Reflection”, with its quick catchy industrial beat, and anthemic, if self-indulgent, chorus (“I don’t know which me that I love”). Another standout track is the gritty and industrial “Overneath the Path of Misery”. While this album was a welcome departure from the depression soaked High End of Low because it is faster and more cohesive. It also ends with a cover of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”, which is well done but seems a little random. It could be a nod to Trent Reznor’s use of some of the lyrics in “You’re So Vain” in the Nine Inch Nails’ song “Starf**kers Inc.” There was a bit of press war going on between Reznor and Manson around this time, with Reznor referring to Manson as a clown.
The Beautiful Pinnacle: “Breaking the Same Old Ground” might be an odd choice for best song, as this album focuses more on heavy industrial for the most part, but this ballad is simple, real and meaningful. The melody played on the synthesizer is hauntingly beautiful and reminds one of “Cryptorchid” from Antichrist Superstar. The production of the song mixes obviously synthesized drum machine beats with Manson’s raw world-weary voice, a combination that works better on this song than some of the others on the album.
Disposable Track: The questionable lyrics of “Pistol Whipped” make this already mediocre track even more difficult to absorb. The song begins with the lines: “You look so pretty when you cry/ Don’t wanna hit you but the only thing/ Between our love is a bloody nose/ Busted lip and a blackened eye.” Manson is known for his cleaver metaphors and wordplay, and it just feels like he was not even trying on this one. He just wanted to be controversial for the sake of it with no real passion in it. — Colette Claire
07. Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death) (2000)
This Is the New Take: A recurrent theme of critically evaluating Marilyn Manson’s discography is that so little of it actually sounds like the mental image we all carry of the man’s work. Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death) is a keen example of this, featuring a much more direct, polished and art rock-indebted take on his hard rock sound rather than the gothy industrial metal we typically associate with Manson, even despite the dark psychedelia of the cover.
At the time of its release, Holy Wood was considered by many to be a great work, and in many ways it does represent the apex of the sonic and critical ideas he had built his career on up to that point. It’s faults are less internal as much as, in the wake of its release and the surprisingly eloquent and insightful comments Manson made regarding his career-as-project, it shed new light on previous work, effectively elevating it over this one in terms of potency.
Still, the album that featured the debut of guitarist John 5 is no slouch, producing some all-time great songs across its in turns cerebral, psychedelic, occult, and sleazy runtime. The creative tax this record (and, in fairness, its predecessors) had on the group is palpable; this is an expunging, a slurry of doom metal and art pop and glam rock and industrial and hard rock and more blended into a surprisingly heady dose of hard rock intellectualism that never once loses grip on the sleaze and sex that is the pulse of rock ‘n’ roll.
The Beautiful Pinnacle: “Coma Black” has stiff competition from songs like “Target Audience (Narcissus Narcosis)” and “Cruci-fiction In Space” but inevitably wins out as melodic doom metal-flecked ballad, a tune as lush, heavy and slow to blossom as music by Type O-Negative or My Dying Bride at their peak. The Pink Floyd flanged organ married to the emotive lyric, “I killed myself to make everybody pay,” is Manson at his sickest, darkest, truest. Quintessential Manson.
Disposable Track: “King Kill 33rd Degree” is a lazy song on an album that otherwise doesn’t have much fat. The music isn’t bad, but turning in a Nine Inch Nails pastiche with a cheap title at the tail end of an otherwise immaculately conceived record feels derailing, disrupting the tremendous momentum the album up till that point had accrued for itself. Coming off the heels of the gorgeous “The Fall of Adam” only makes it more frustrating. A solid B-side, but a bad album cut. — Langdon Hickman
06. The Pale Emperor (2015)
This Is the New Take: After a bit of a mid-career slump, Marilyn Manson and company stepped up their game with The Pale Emperor (the title being an obvious nod to David Bowie’s 1970’s persona “The Thin White Duke”) and proved that they still had more to say and were not just a rehash of their past. By this point in the band’s career, it also became clear that Marilyn Manson himself would be the only consistent member of the band.
This is also Manson’s first collaboration with film composer Tyler Bates, whose influence on the song writing is clear — as this album is actually less Bowie and more Johnny Cash. It does deviate from the typical industrial rock on some songs and has even been called “alternative country” by some critics.
While there are bluesy, foot stomping elements influenced by Manson’s time on the show Sons of Anarchy on songs like “Third Day of a Seven Day Binge” and “The Devil Beneath My Feet,” other track like “Killing Strangers” and “Deep Six” are not such a wild departure and still maintain the crunchy industrial quality people had come to expect from Marilyn Manson. If anything, this album could be compared to the slower more introspective work on Holy Wood a little more than it can be compared to a country album. In retrospect, this album almost feels like a precursor or warm up to Heaven Upside Down, but it is certainly more cohesive and powerful than previous albums like High End of Low.
Much like on Heaven Upside Down, this album has cut the fat with only ten tight and memorable songs. Marilyn Manson’s main goal has always been to be an amalgamation of popular culture spit back at us with an ugly mirror and on this record, he certainly succeeded.
The Beautiful Pinnacle: “The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles” is an amazing mix for sh*t-kicking old school country and straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll. It is almost like an entire song comprised of memorable choruses and no verses. The layers of meaning in the lyrics also help sell it as the stand out on this album with the profound rhetorical question: “Are we fated, faithful, or fatal?” Is this referring to the human race as a whole or just one doomed romantic relationship? Most likely, the answer is both.
Disposable Track: “Slave Only Dreams To Be King” isn’t a bad song, but it sounds like an amalgamation of several other Marilyn Manson songs found on previous albums. It is the least memorable song on The Pale Emperor, as it veers into a clunky beat eerily similar to Portrait of an American Family’s “Dope Hat”. — Colette Claire
05. WE ARE CHAOS (2020)
This Is the New Take: Marilyn Manson’s 11th album, WE ARE CHAOS, offers yet another change in the ranks as far as collaborators, with Shooter Jennings — son of legendary country artist Waylon Jennings — taking over production duties from Tyler Bates, who worked on The Pale Emperor and Heaven Upside Down. This change may have cause some fans to have reservations about WE ARE CHAOS, but the resulting collaboration feels like a natural progression from Manson’s two previous albums.
The pair’s mutual love for David Bowie, T. Rex, Alice Cooper, and ’80s new wave are at the forefront of WE ARE CHAOS, which definitely has “a romance” to it as Manson himself put it. This is evidenced through tracks like the acoustic-driven first single “WE ARE CHAOS,” which has an accessible, almost Beatles-like quality to it, but still maintains Manson’s signature industrial undertones and melancholy croon. Second single “DON’T CHASE THE DEAD” could best be described as glam death rock. The ’80s inspired, and keyboard driven chorus will inevitably get stuck in your head and force you to listen to it repeatedly. “HALF-WAY & ONE STEP FORWARD” is also keyboard driven, while being simultaneously eerie and melodically memorable.
The opening track “RED BLACK AND BLUE”, is one of the less “romantic” songs and lets the listener know that this is unmistakably a rock album as only Manson can deliver. It is arguably the heaviest and most industrial track on the LP, although one could make a case for “INFINITE DARKNESS” taking this title. These two tracks can’t help but conjure vibes of Antichrist Superstar, especially in the eerie production style provided by Jennings.
The Beautiful Pinnacle: If one is forced to pick a favorite song on this album, it would be “SOLVE COAGULA.” The groovy bass line and Pink Floyd-ish guitars beautifully compliment the keyboard of the chorus and Manson’s always gravely melodies. This creates an emotional riptide that pulls the listener along with it.
Disposable Track: “PERFUME” is perhaps the most typically “Manson” song on the album with its upbeat drums and heavy distorted rhythm guitars. This does not distract from the overall journey that WE ARE CHAOS takes you on, though, and it’s still a solid track, but is probably not the track you want to listen to on repeat. — Colette Claire