The Top Ten Swans Albums
Swans (no “The”!) keep coming up in conversation. You know the band Swans, right? Michael Gira? New York “scene” in the 80s? One of the most punishing, brutal bands to ever exist? Yeah, those Swans. Apparently a lot of my friends are currently looking to expand their record collections, specifically their Swans’ discographies. So for the past week or so I’ve had to go through my records, look things up online, and generally tell people a) which albums are worth owning and b) whether or not I’m capable of obtaining copies of said albums for them.
Between 1983 and 2012 Swans released 12 studio albums, 8 live albums, a bunch of compilations and EPs. There’s a lot to sift through if you want to hear everything, and not all the releases are worthwhile. For example, the Young God EP (the one with “I Crawled” and “Raping A Slave” is actually on of their best releases PERIOD, but I’m not big on the cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” that came out a few years later. And while Public Castration Is A Good Idea is a solid early live album, Body To Body, Job To Job (which came out four years later I think?) is a live compilation that can arguably be called the highlight of the entire Swans oeuvre. It’s an incredible — but incredibly depressing — listen.
So how does one attack ranking Swans’ recorded output? Well, in the case of this list, I’m going to stick solely to studio albums. Assume then, that compared to all the studio albums, Body To Body, Job To Job is the best Swans album. It’s a live compilation, it’s not a studio album, so you won’t find it on this list. Also, I wouldn’t recommend listening to THAT before you listen to, say, Greed. It’s great for a fan who has enjoyed the studio albums and wants a taste of the pummeling, suicidal-thoughts-inducing live show. Ya dig? Good. Here we go!
The Top Ten Swans Albums
Honorable Mention (because they’re the two leftovers): Soundtracks For The Blind, Love Of Life
10. My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky (2010) – It was their first album since 1996 or 1997 I think, so I wasn’t expecting much when I heard it. And, you know, it still hasn’t wormed its way into my cold, dead apple of a heart, but I can’t say it’s a bad album. I like the non-drums percussive elements, like the ringing and clanging bells and chimes. The best song is probably “You Fucking People Make Me Sick,” and that’s really only because it kinda reminds me of “God Damn The Sun.”
09. White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity (1991) – Some people LOVE this record, but I am not one of them. I like it. When I “like” a Swans record it’s still better than 75 or 80% of all the other music I’ve ever heard, but compared to the rest of the band’s catalog I wind up passing over it a lot when searching for something to listen to. “Failure” is probably the highlight here, Gira’s voice completely drowning out the rest of the instruments, hovering over the mix like an omniscient god-figure. The last track, “The Most Unfortunate Lie” is another mandolin-heavy tune (just like the one on that other album! Or…all the albums?) that’s just sort of pretty and lilting and nice. [Listen To “Failure“]
08. The Great Annihilator (1995) – Someone played this at work last month and I hadn’t heard it in a while so I tried to listen closely. I thought maybe I was missing something. The tempos are way more upbeat here than on most of the other albums. Maybe Gira and Jarboe were experimenting with speed during the writing/recording process? Whatever it was, the result is really good. Just not as good as six or seven other Swans records, in my opinion. Jarboe’s backing vocals here are especially noteworthy. Check out “My Buried Child” if you haven’t heard it. Then check out any Sonic Youth song that Kim sings. Now maybe you’ll understand yet another why I dislike Sonic Youth. Whenever I listen to Sonic Youth I think, “If this was a Swans song it’d be so much better.”
07. The Seer (2012) – It’s really good, guys. But I can’t rank it any higher than this just because it doesn’t yet have that legacy that the best Swans records have. I think we all know exactly where we were when we heard the title track for the first time. It’s a magical 30+ minutes, and it’s clearly the best part of the album…but let’s give it some time to really sink in before we rank it any higher, okay?
06. Cop (1984) – Now’s the part of the list where shit just gets really good. Cop was the band’s second studio album, and it’s all kinds of DOWNER. What’s the bassist even doing, if not using his instrument as a second drum? It’s just distorted little explosions on “Why Hide,” which is completely awesome. Little bursts of white noise punctuating the noisy guitar squealing and propulsive drums. Remember when Michael Gira just used to summon the most evil fucking guttural voice you’ve ever heard? And it was capable of sending you into borderline depression that would weigh on you for, like, a week? And you never knew WHY you were feeling like shit all the time, until you realized you were listening to this and the other mid-80s Swans records on repeat alone in your dorm room without so much as opening the windows to the outside world for some sunlight or fresh air? Yeah, that. [Listen to “Why Hide“]
05. Children Of God (1987) – I find it odd that this is where I started my foray into Swans. I didn’t know much about the band back when I started collecting records, but I found this at Princeton Record Exchange for 10 o 15 bucks so I picked it up on a whim. This was back in the days when I was selling off my CD collection, so I’d walk in with 50 CDs and get $100 in credit and spend $150 on records. So I was just trying to amass as much as I could with little regard for condition or even artist. So…I don’t know if people like this album or not because it might be the album where the band’s sound kind of turned towards what it would eventually become. It’s super depressing but it’s not NOISY and there’s songs like “Our Love Lives” that could be on The Burning World or The Seer or even an Angels of Light record. The opening track sounds like an evil Nick Cave song. How else could I describe the music contained on these two discs that’s more effective than that single statement!?
04. Filth (1983) – Here’s where it all started. Gira. Jonathan Kane. Norman Westberg. If ever there was a power trio (sorry Jarboe!) this was it. Although maybe you could call it a power quartet because Roli Mosimann played second drummer, giving the band an impossibly drum-y sound that was sure to give parents across the nation splitting headaches whenever their rambunctious punk children would blast this shit while autocratically asphyxiating themselves in their bedrooms. Right? Isn’t that what EVERYONE does when they listen to the first few Swans records? Or…is that just me? [Listen to “Stay Here“]
03. Holy Money (1986) – This one (and Greed above it) are cool — and consequently better than Filth and Cop — because they started to show some growth in the songwriting department. The overall sound is still clearly definable as industrial, but… you know…Jarboe sings on one song and some other instruments that aren’t just wailing away trying to bore a hole in your skull creep into the mix as well.
02. Greed (1986) – Now that I’m sitting here listening to these records, I’m deciding that Children of God wasn’t the real turning point for Swans, it was Greed. There’s finally a piano and some non-gutteral/screaming vocalizations. I guess the kids call it singing, right? I think this was also the first appearance of Jarboe. Some people think she ruined everything. Others think she MADE everything. Me? I’m lucky if I can even remember how to think!
01. The Burning World (1989) – You’re probably thinking, “Really, Evan? What the fuck!?” but let me just say this: “God Damn The Sun” is one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs you’ll ever hear. Gira’s always been something of a wordsmith, but the simplicity, harshness and that sneering refrain…it’s probably the most perfect song he’s ever written. It doesn’t even phase me that Gira himself “abhors” this album (his word!). I think it’s phenomenal. It’s got the same pain/catharsis thing going on, but there are MELODIES and you can ENJOY them without feeling like maybe you should jump out that window over there or down that entire bottle of pills resting on the counter next to the bathroom sink. Trust me. If you’ve had problems getting into Swans before, start here and work back through this list. Then listen to Body To Body, Job To Job. At that point you might actually kill yourself, but at least you’ll have saved the best for last, amiright!?
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