Ranked: Björk (Her Albums From Most to Least Accessible)
Apr 20, 2015
An Introductory Guide To Björk's Strange and Beautiful Career
Björk is Iceland's most celebrated musical export. She's been singing since childhood, and gained prominence in the '80s as frontwoman for The Sugarcubes. She left that band in the early '90s to pursue a solo career, driven mostly by her unparalleled creative output. Björk is known for pushing boundaries both sonically and visually, leaving a trail of strange and beautiful works throughout her long and impressive career.
Her latest album, Vulnicura, is but another milestone for Björk. As with anyone who's been around so long and made such an impact, diving headfirst into her back-catalog is a little daunting. Björk's work is ethereal, modern, abstract, and whimsical. In another word, intimidating.
Björk's work isn't all oblique and avant garde. At the very core of her discography is an inventive pop performer, and her music is always centered on the sheer power and versatility of her voice. It is impossible to rank her albums on quality alone, since they rarely deviate from a standard her fans expect. Instead, this list will serve as more of a guide for those who know they need to listen to Björk, but have put it off too long and don't know where to begin. I will attempt to set out a path that will ease the listener into Björk's world, starting with her most accessible record, leading into her more challenging work. I stuck to her adult studio albums (so no self-titled 1977 album recorded when she was 11) and didn't include her two soundtracks (2000's Selmasongs and 2005's Drawing Restraint 9). Here we go. By Cody Ray Shafer
Post is the easiest entry point into Björk’s discography. Carrying over the playfulness of her first solo LP, Debut, it expands into new territory as her persona begins to evolve into a more viscerally independent character. Björk’s albums tend to follow points of adult growth, and Post signifies her willingness to move out and explore the world freely. There’s a sense of nervousness about the world, but also a discovery of confidence as she becomes aware of her own uniqueness. It is also an incredibly versatile record, helped in part by her cover of “It’s Oh So Quiet,” a whimsical big-band piece that finds Björk at her most mainstream. But songs like “Hyperballad” and “Isobel” hint at the deeper direction Björk would later embark.
Debut isn’t nearly as concrete or lasting as Post, but is a heavily dance-influenced record that only hints at the singer’s potential for musicality. Out of any of the albums listed here, it is perhaps the most skippable. Nevertheless, album opener “Human Behavior” is a defining moment, introducing pounding tribal drums and a keen reliance on natural metaphors that would define Björk. The playful crush-song “Venus As a Boy” is a highlight as well, as is “Big Time Sensuality.”
Volta has the unfortunate distinction of being Björk’s least innovative album, and for that it sometimes gets sidelined as a lesser effort. This is a wholly unfair assessment, since Volta contains the subversive call to arms “Declare Independence,” as well as “Earth Intruders,” both laden with world music influences. But it hits its pure Björk-ness on the epic slowburn of “Wanderlust.” For Björk’s supposed mid-career slump, Volta is still feverishly eclectic.
Homogenic is a perhaps the best representation of Björk’s musicality as a whole. It is purely middle of the road, designed as the maturation of the maverick pop found on Post, but nowhere near the alien sensuality of Vespertine. Her hyper dance phase starts to peel away and reveal layers of contemplative depth. “Bachelorette” hits closest to the familiar structure heard on Post, but it’s songs like “Unravel” and “Joga” that reveal Björk’s true talent of crafting sublime music that defies convention, but also embraces tradition. Homogenic is the first indication that Björk is here to defy logic and conventionality.
Björk’s latest once again latches closely to the singer’s personal voyage, and the result is a heartbreakingly beautiful record. The album is remarkably lush and intimate, a surprising departure from the cosmic expanse of 2011’s Biophilia. It also captures Björk at her most vulnerable, resulting in perhaps the singer’s least eccentric work, but a bit too serious and dour to serve as a good initiation.
On Vespertine, Björk takes the journey she began as the childlike pixie on Debut to its logical conclusion. Vespertine is Björk’s most erotic album, exploring intimacy and sensitivity with exotically composed micro-beats that echo Iceland’s geology and climate. Vespertine is considered by some (this writer included) as Björk’s masterpiece, a challenging record at first, but sophisticated and rewarding once you grasp its many lovely moments. “Hidden Place” sets the tone with a hushed beauty that itches for longing and exploration, which hits a crescendo on “Pagan Poetry.” However, it is a record that is best represented as a whole, building an atmosphere of wonder that is elegant and serene.
This far down the list, and Björk’s experiments start to overshadow the music they produce. Medulla is mostly a cappella, as Björk declared in the early ’00s that instruments were so ’90s and the future of music will be built on vocal performance alone. The concept is flawlessly executed, though the album lacks some of the intimacy of her earlier work—something she would find again on Vulnicura—but is a wonderful experiment nonetheless.
Nothing about Biophilia is bad, and the only reason it falls to the bottom of the list is its complexity. Released initially as an iPad app, Björk meant for listeners to interact with Biophilia, which initially left the music superseded by the technology that accompanied it. In reality, Björk once again redefined music production by inventing new concepts for consumption. The music is, of course, beautiful, if at times hauntingly minimal. Like Medulla, it loses some of the personality that defined some of her other albums, but her dedication to nature and the cosmos is an embodiment of one of her oldest themes.