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  • Swans Albums From Worst To Best
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12. The Burning World (1989)

It's telling that the worst album Swans ever released is by far their most accessible. It says even more that it's nowhere close to bad. This was the lone major label album, and it left a bad taste with Michael Gira for the rest of his career. After Children Of God, Swans needed a sea change. Fully embracing the dark Americana they flirted with on Children and ditching the heaviness altogether, The Burning World made a certain kind of sense coming from a mainstream label. At no point will this hurt your ears. Songs occasionally sound like The National due to Gira's restrained baritone, despite predating that band by a full decade. But it was ultimately a poor match between newly light songwriting and too-thin, too-precious production from Bill Laswell that sealed the album's fate. In Gira's own words, years later: "I abhor that record." Which is a very Gira thing to say. He undersells it by a long way: Burning World merely misses the mark in comparison to the heights they'd achieve elsewhere. "God Damn the Sun" is still one of the best things they'd ever write.

It started in the sewer. Ugliness embodied. Noise like you’d never heard. The bellowing drawl of an unhinged slave driver, spitting abuse and mantras of degradation.

“Nobody beats you like a cop, with his club.”

“Someone weaker than you should rape you.”

Lyrics sailed past pitch-black into some deeper, darker void of nastiness. The music was supposed to hurt. This was NYC in the early ’80s. This was Swans.

In its earliest incarnation, Swans set out to inflict itself upon the listener –- violation and domination set to post-punk sludge, meant to break you down, bend you over, and tear right through. Mastermind and sole constant Michael Gira drew on the writings of Jean Genet and the Marquis de Sade to sculpt his repetitious tirades, while an ever-shifting live band channeled the urban blight of no-wave and industrial into something much worse. The early records remain some of the most unapologetic, uncompromising sounds ever recorded.

What set Swans apart from their peers — bands like Mars, DNA, even a nascent Sonic Youth (Thurston supposedly spent time in Swans before anything was recorded) — was a sense of larger purpose. When grueling noise exhausted itself as a means of making a point, they’d simply change approach –- even when it meant clawing toward the light. Looking back on the band’s origins in a 1995 interview, Gira reflected: “The whole idea of being a noise band at this point is the most conformist, conservative, consumerist, brain-dead route you could take. I think it would be more adventurous to sing at a Holiday Inn.” Confrontation is where you find it.

With the addition of Jarboe on vocals and keys –- she was the only other constant from ’84-’97 –- structures began to shift, songs coalesced into singable, hummable things, and Swans burst outward in a cruel bloom of contradictory sounds. The first transitional records saw the original stew of post-punk and sludge retrofitted to stuttering industrial beats while softer, piano tracks started to appear. Before long, each passing record took on a new persona, and each shift saw the band’s vision grow exponentially in texture and scope. Gira’s obsessions — power, religion, sex, death — remained constant, but his impressionistic, shouted rants found new strength when he adopted a baritone croon and learned to tell stories, softening his attack to serve a higher calling.

After the mild success of Children Of God in ’87, Swans leapt to a major label for The Burning World. That record sold so poorly they were dropped almost immediately, casting them back to the threadbare comfort of the underground that offered them artistic freedom if nothing else. Throughout it all, Gira’s force of will and Jarboe’s plaintive moan held the act together; a tenuous balance not unlike mellower compatriots Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerard of Dead Can Dance, just a lot less pretty. Swans’ path was not without potholes: an infamous cover of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” jumps out as one of the worst things they ever did, and Gira has more or less disowned an entire chunk of his back catalog. But even the missteps offer substance greater than most bands could imagine. Luckily the bulk of the catalog is a string of masterpieces, one after another.

Gira dissolved the band in 1997. His growing interest in folk and Americana gave birth to a gentler band, Angels Of Light, while Jarboe shifted focus to solo projects and collaborations with Swans-inspired acts like Neurosis and Justin Broadrick (Godflesh/Jesu). Swans was never much of a money-making venture in its day, but the cult of fans grew substantially over the years. In 2010, Gira shook out the dust and revived the name for a reunion album. Just two months ago, Swans released a massive, double-disc follow-up titled The Seer. Musically and artistically, they’re as strong as ever, with brimstone and ecstatic energy to spare. After struggling through the trenches of obscurity for decades, they’ve finally arrived to the public: For the first time they’re selling out shows and cracking the Billboard charts.

Swans’ catalog is daunting, with no obvious entry point. The early stuff is caustic. The middle stuff is largely out of print, existing instead inside excellent but incomplete compilations. Every incarnation of the band presents something brilliant, but something different: Each record is worthy of your time, even the worst of them. So let’s explore the Swans discography*, in ascending order, from worst to best. Start the Countdown here.

*Since these records have been reissued and restructured so heavily over the years, this list is based on the studio albums as they were originally released, not the reissues, which sometimes shifted sequences to combine multiple albums, or left off tracks altogether. Seen as a whole, the Swans catalog is a clusterfuck; for logistical purposes I’m not including any of the countless EPs, compilations, or live albums, though most are worth tracking down (especially Swans Are Dead).

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Comments (15)
  1. I need a Lil B albums/mixtapes from worst to best list.

  2. Spot on. I might put the Seer on top and move My Father up some, but pretty damn good nonetheless.

  3. Filth and Cop should be higher. Other than that, this is a pretty dope list.

  4. This is swell! The top 5 is perfect, at least. Filth and Cop should be higher though. And I miiiight switch White Light and The Great Annihilator. But maybe not.

  5. I don’t agree with the order but I have nothing bad to say about this list. My top three are Annihilator, White Light, and the Seer. I loved Soundtracks when it came out but it has not aged as well for me as some of the others. Still, the Swans are unfuckwithable.

  6. I’ve been mentioning that you guys should do this for months and now it’s here! I might put Filth a little higher, but I Agree on the Seer and Children of God being the top 2.

  7. Probably the best list you’ve done so far, and goes some way towards righting the Husker Du/Sugar/Bob Mould monstrosity of the previous week. Personally I would put My Father… quite a bit higher, and would swap the top four around (The Seer ahead of Annihilator, Soundtracks , then Children Of God), but that’s just my opinion.

    Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds next please.

  8. Hey Wash, great to see you bringing a little darkness from Invisible Oranges over here! Awesome list, for a long time now I’ve been intending to dig into the Swans catalog and “The Seer” is the perfect opportunity to do so.

  9. I think this is the best list Stereogum has done, and thank you for acknowledging the genius that is Swans! I like the album “My Father Will Guide Me…” a lot more than you did, but you nailed the top five.

  10. Solid list, but I think The Seer is still too recent to give it such high placement in one of musics most consistently quality careers.

    Just kidding, that shit is unparalleled.

  11. This list is a disappointment

  12. Pretty good list, but you should have included the self-titled EP and Young God EP. I can understand disregarding the other releases of their extended discography, but those two releases are unified works that represent distinct phases of their evolution. The s/t EP is their first studio release and is the most purely No Wave thing they did – nothing else in their discog sounds like it. Young God is the ultimate (studio) culmination of what they were driving at on Filth and Cop – it’s the apex of their noisey material (the live album Public Castration is probalby the only exception). “I Crawled” and “Young God” are also some of the first Swans songs that build to climactic codas, looking forward to songwriting styles they would explore on Greed, Holy Money, and Children of God.

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