"Although she’s flirted with the world of more accessible instant-gratification alt-pop, Björk is essentially an Artist. With a capital A."
Tracing the musical journey of the mighty Björk takes plenty of twists and turns, yielding plenty of boundary-pushing, pivotal releases. As a new Björk era dawns with the release of the Icelandic polymath's tenth album Fossora, it is time to take the longstanding icon under our musical microscope, by looking back on some of our favourite records of her illustrious career. Enter Rough Trade Nottingham Björk uber-fan Jono Beard, who shares his personal tastes of Björk's far-reaching discography with some in-depth knowledge and some stellar anecdotes in a ranked list you'll find below...
Fossora is here and Björk fans around the world are excited...
With *5 Years* since Utopia, I believe it’s her longest gap between albums so far. At the time of writing, the first single Atopos has just been released and it’s exactly what she said it would be. Bass-heavy, earthy sounds, clarinets and a climax of gabber-esque tribal drumming. Not a million miles away from the Náttúra single from 2008, it’s loud, rough and unadorned-sounding in a way she maybe hasn’t explored since then. Each time I listen to it, I love it more. This mirrors my relationship with almost all of her work, especially her work from the last decade. She entreats me to put in the time as a listener and I’m happy to do so.
Although she’s flirted with the world of more accessible instant-gratification alt-pop, Björk is essentially an Artist. With a capital A. No one SINGS exactly like Björk, even though many have been influenced. Certainly, no one sang like her before she arrived. Beautiful, extravagantly belted swoops, animalistic growls and childlike whispers are often employed in the singing of just one line or even a single word. A fan will intrinsically learn to take for granted that in the heat of a musical moment, she might forsake actual words and intone in her own inimitable language of… Björkish? (a sort of musical glossolalia by way of Icelandic phonation). Thinking about it, she hasn’t actually used that much of it on the last few albums - but it has occurred to me that early exposure to Björkish was probably a useful primer in my openness to the verbal unintelligibility of singers like Elizabeth Fraser and Lisa Gerrard.
And so, I’m going to take you through the main 9. These are definitely, definitely, definitely just my opinions - it’s a personal list of thoughts and reflections about records I adore very much and would never normally think of pitting against one another. The positions for my top 8 in particular (sorry Volta) are close and subject to change in clusters at any given time.
The pre-release buildup and press given to Volta was my first contemporaneous experience of the excitement and anticipation for a yet-to-be-released Björk album. I remember a sense of cautious optimism in the fandom; for there already existed in early 2007 a perception that with Medúlla, she had ventured slightly too far into the realms of the experimental and avant-garde; forsaking any semblance of fun or pop-adjacent song craft along the way. However, I had loved the combination of breathy, beatboxed hip hop blended with ancient choral sounds of that album - and could recognise the path that had been charted to it from Debut. At the time, a lot was made of the fact that Timbaland was co-producing several songs, and I don’t think his status in 2007 was a million miles away from Nellee Hooper’s in 1993.
Like the Hooper-helmed tracks on Debut, the Timbaland tracks here feel much more like Björk songs than anyone else. I actually do enjoy a lot about this album but there are some things which hold it back for me - I guess it feels a little unfocused in places, with the uncharacteristically half-baked lyrics of Hope being a chief offender. I’ve been listening to her Sonic Symbolism podcast where she talks in depth about each of her albums, and she hasn’t gotten to Volta yet at the time of writing but it’s the one I’m most curious to hear her thoughts and motivations behind. I’ve read that she is still not welcome back in mainland China ever since she chanted “Tibet, Tibet” while performing Declare Independence during a Shanghai concert - and for that, she will always be That Bjïtch.
Favourite song: I See Who You Are
Featuring extremely raw heartbreak and the long pined-for return of string arrangements to a Björk album, this could almost could be considered as the big sister of Homogenic - a big sister who’s been through some shit. This may be a controversially low ranking, because I know a lot of fans adore this record, including Rough Trade, who named it their Album Of The Year in 2015. Björk and Arca did an in-person DJ set on Halloween of that year at Rough Trade East and I was fortunate enough to attend. She wore the spindly alien dandelion headpiece thing from the album cover and played a mixture of techno, R&B and what sounded like 20 minutes of an aeroplane taking off. It was amazing.
I do have a bit of difficulty with the mixing, especially in the second half of this LP, where some busy, discordant blending of textures in the production of songs ends up sounding a little muddy to me. Having said that, the first half of the album and the final song are all untouchable.
Favourite song: Stonemilker
If this was the only album she ever released, it would still be a legendary 10/10. Which makes it all the more impressive that it isn’t even her own best album. A lot of her most iconic songs and videos originate from this era - and the melding of brass quartets, house, trip-hop, jazz, Bollywood strings and electronica was revolutionary at the time because it sounded like nothing that had come before it. There’s not a bad track on here and most of the songs could easily have been singles (even if I prefer the Fluke Minimix of Big Time Sensuality used in the video, but which would have fit better on Post sonically speaking). In hindsight, one can hear the early 90s all over it, and that dates it a little (not a bad thing if you like the 90s, as most people do now - but it’s something you can’t usually say about a Björk album). I also think this might have been the last of her albums to feature any guitars whatsoever?
Favourite song: One Day
Intricate, otherworldly, wintry, delicate, intimate and expansive; dotted with moments of intense eroticism and breathtaking beauty. Music boxes, harps, strings and choirs come to life over painstakingly compiled musique concrète microbeats. A lot of people think that this is her best album and I get why. Conceived in the bliss of new love, the contentment and joy present on Vespertine is all the more surprising and impressive considering it came only a year after her difficult experience filming Dancer In The Dark with Lars Von Trier and the darkness of its accompanying soundtrack. I feel like the public perception of her sound and image were kind of codified in this period, and that most acts who were said to “sound like Björk” (I’m rightly or wrongly thinking of acts like Flunk, Emilie Simon and Nahoko Kakiage) after 2001 really just sounded like Björk specifically on Vespertine (which is not really the same as sounding like Björk on any other album).
Favourite song: Unison
This album was part of an expansive wider project - released in conjunction with a David Attenborough documentary and a great interactive app where each song had its own accompanying mini-game (my favourite was the one for Virus where you had to flick away parasitic bacteria from a cluster of cells, but the song would only play properly if you lost the fight and let the infection take hold). I had a recent epiphany that in terms of the wildly varying textures and styles between tracks, it’s not that dissimilar to Post. I feel that it’s not a coincidence that this and Post are her only two records thus far with their own even more sonically promiscuous dedicated remix albums. Biophilia snuck up on me in a big way. Although I immediately loved Virus, Crystalline and the celestial Cosmogony from my very first listen, the languidly conceptual experimentalism of the album in its entirety took longer to digest. But then, Thunderbolt and Mutual Core started to play inside my head increasingly often and this eventually became one of my most played and beloved albums.
Favourite song: Virus
This one took me a minute to fully appreciate. And by a minute I mean several years really. The deal with this album is that it’s rather long and has a very distinct sonic uniform. Perhaps more than any other Björk album, it’s so much a whole piece in and of itself that if you’re not fully engaged, the songs can blend into one another and you may be left with a pleasant but ineffectual 72 minutes in its wake (it’s her longest studio album - and the only one with a title track (until today!) By concept and design, Utopia contains no real bass instruments to speak of, so I think the wrong sound system can make or break your perception of it. But when it HITS you… you may very well discover one of the most singularly atmospheric and beautiful albums ever made by anyone. Like I say, for me, it took years. The key for me was accidentally playing it on shuffle once, and the serendipitous 2-punch of The Gate and Losss really woke me up to how great the songs on this album are when paid attention to with fully open ears. It’s the textbook definition of a grower, not a shower.
Favourite song: The Gate
Vibrant, fun, busy, beautiful and intentionally schizophrenic to the point that no song sounds like the ones preceding it. For me, it kind of set a blueprint for what I appreciated about a lot of the albums by other artists that I would come to consider my favourites in the future. I think of it as a jukebox album (although I’ve never even seen a jukebox in real life, let alone operated one) because if you look at the key genres explored on a track-by-track basis, this is a rough list of what you get underneath the encompassment of its pop umbrella: industrial, trance, electronica, big band, jungle, classical, lounge, country, Latin house, ambient, trip-hop and more in between. So the fact that it sounds extremely cohesive (and was a sizeable worldwide hit) is actually mental. And just one listen to Hyperballad will let you know that there’s as much substance here as there is style. But every song is amazing and if I wrote this list next week or 5 months ago, I might have named this my favourite album.
Favourite song: Hyperballad
It’s difficult to write objectively about these albums because I feel they were such a big part of my emotional and personal development. There’s just something about the way a lot of string arrangements were recorded and utilised in songs in the 90s and 00s (I’m thinking of particular tracks by Hooverphonic, Neneh Cherry, Madonna, Portishead, Spice Girls, Goldfrapp and others) that just hits me, you know? I can’t quite put my finger on it. There’s a magic, ephemeral nostalgia that speaks to my ears in the same way that I can’t resist the perfect simplicity of a 50s doo-wop chord progression. The stately, cinematic strings of Homogenic and all their drama and beauty are unique in that they’re most often paired here with rough, distorted, post-trip-hop beats created from samples of actual erupting Icelandic volcanoes. The lyrics and themes are similarly raw and grand; touching on many subjects like friendship, solitude, romantic frustration, wilful loss of control, emotional comfort and the occasional necessity for cold self-sufficiency. It is a true masterpiece.
Favourite song: Bachelorette
Check out Björk's Homogenic (33 1/3) for a pocket book-sized guide and full retrospective on the record!
In Year 9, a boy told me he was going to beat me up after school. I don’t remember why, but I do remember curling up into a foetal ball on the damp, muddy grass as he half-heartedly punched away on my upper arm and shoulder; seemingly discouraged by my lack of interest or fighting spirit. This caused me to miss the bus home, and my science teacher kindly offered me a lift. I remember looking at the CDs in the passenger door pocket of his car and I think they were The Very Best of Nina Simone, along with the then-latest albums by N*E*R*D and Björk. My music taste didn’t properly exist just yet - I had been tentatively exploring a few things, hoping to impress my grebby peers by attempting (and failing) to enjoy Cradle of Filth. But I recognised Björk’s name and face - she was unmistakably the same wacky lady who once whispered and screamed joyfully and scarily on a half-remembered Top Of The Pops episode from my younger childhood. But the person on the front cover of Medúlla was an altogether darker character. Enigmatic, with an uncompromising gaze of intimate intensity.
I remember hearing Pleasure Is All Mine in that car for the first time, and thinking that it sounded like TLC mixed with the climax of Feed The Birds from Mary Poppins (sans orchestra, but with all the sensuality and drama that those reference points imply). Not long after, I ended up buying a copy and devouring the entire album in my solitude, over and over again. Uniquely, about 99% of the sounds here were made with the human voice and although there are a few other great albums that utilise a similar base concept (Le fil by Camille, Voices by Claire Hamill), they are nowhere near as ambitious and experimental as Medúlla. This was a beautiful, weird album and I felt cool to own and love it. It’s not *not* pop exactly, yet it set me on a path of openness to experimentalism in music. If I hadn’t heard Medúlla at 14, would I have later been so unphased by and receptive to early Yoko Ono or Sainkho Namtchylak?
From the heavenly Desired Constellation, relentlessly atmospheric Submarine, to the hymnal Vökuró and the aggressive Where Is The Line, this album felt simultaneously primordial, current, and futuristic. Listening now at age 32, it still feels like that.
Favourite song: Who Is It (Carry My Joy on the Left, Carry My Pain on the Right)