1. Children Of God (1987)
Children Of God is not the boldest or strangest thing Swans would do. Rather, it's the one shining moment where every strength, ambition, and shade of Swans past and future would congeal into something sublime. Up till this point, earlier songs were content to lock into a groove and bash away until your ears bled or you simply stopped listening. COG saw Swans discover the power of progression: Even the most raucous bits develop into something else (often something worse), but they inevitably change for the better. And, for the first time, it's thematically huge: This is a record about, and for, God. The usual Swans themes are recast in service of religious fervor, and everything suddenly feels light-years deeper. "New Mind" comes stomping out of the gate, Gira's stentorian bark set against a chain gang call-and-response -- by song's end, noise washes in and everything swirls away, settling into the wounded restraint of Jarboe's "In My Garden." That balance -- loud and quiet, dark and light -- defines the entire album. The whole thing is a complex sequence of juxtaposed sounds and ideas -- its strength comes from the delicate balance, and the imagined in-between space where we continually find ourselves. The ugliest songs inevitably lead to the most beautiful, sex continually butts up against religion (most obviously in the riff-prayer of "Sex, God, Sex"), and songs bleed from wasted blues to art metal, sluggish folk to battering noise. It's everything all at once, in harmony and perfect conflict. When I reach for Swans, I inevitably go straight for Children Of God.