Greatest Hits

Debut (Elektra ‘93) Rating: A-
This first solo salvo from the former Sugarcubes siren is sometimes placed under the trip-hop umbrella, which isn’t really accurate. Her highly original music is pretty unclassifiable, actually. Sometimes it uses trip-hop’s beats and noir-ish effects, but Bjork also effectively delves into upbeat dance music and torch song balladry. Bjork’s otherworldly voice, which is high-pitched, occasionally high strung, and always highly emotive, is what links all of these songs together. She’s assisted by producer Nellee Hooper in creating a seductive sound world that revolves around her one-of-a-kind voice. The album peaks immediately with three of my all-time favorite Bjork songs: the catchy “Human Behavior” was a minor hit built around a throbbing bassline and whimsical lyrics about those pesky humans, “Crying” is another catchy and beautiful song with airy backing chants, and “Venus As A Boy” is a lushly beautiful (there’s that word again) ballad. Elsewhere, “There’s More To Life Than This” (which was famously partially recorded in a bathroom!) and “Big Time Sensuality” (which exudes just that) are fun dance songs that contain throbbing danceclub beats. Most of the other tracks are danceable, too, albeit in a much slower, mellower manner, such as the excellent “One Day.” “Come To Me” is another lovely highlight, while a harp and her voice are all that Bjork needs on “Like Someone In Love.” But Bjork’s amazing vocal stylings can make any odd musical match sound invigorating and new, as this dazzlingly diverse yet highly accessible Debut announced the emergence of a major new talent.

Post (Elektra ‘95) Rating: A-
Bjork’s second album was even weirder than and more wonderful than Debut, though both albums have a little too much less than essential stuff to obtain an A rating. On these eclectic songs Bjork again defies genre boundaries in broaching a wide variety of styles, and she immediately announces a tougher sound on the equally tough talking first single “Army Of Me.” “Enjoy” delivers another edgy dance excursion, but Bjork also delivers beautiful string-laden dance ballads (“Hyperballad,” “Isobel”) that are likewise far from straightforward, though both are among her best songs ever, and she even throws in an odd big band arrangement (“It’s Oh So Quiet”) that goes from pretty to pretty over the top pretty fast. A completely original singer whose voice exudes a child-like sense of wonder, Bjork’s unusual vocal phrasings (“as much as I definitely enjoy solitude, I wouldn’t mind perhaps spending a little time with you”) and lyrics (“all the modern things like cars and such have always existed, they’ve just been waiting in a mountain for the right moment”) will probably have you wondering if she’s from another planet. However, those above-quoted songs (“Possibly Maybe,” “The Modern Things”) are undeniably lovely, and such eccentricities are part of what makes her so unique and entertaining. Besides, she also has her more grounded moments, dispensing pragmatic advice on “You’ve Been Flirting Again” and showing a vulnerable personal side on “I Miss You” (the albums most wildly experimental track musically). The album features inventive production and programming, and along with Nellee Hooper other ace sidekicks such as Graham Massey and Tricky bring their distinctive touches to collaborations with Bjork (whose voice always remains the star attraction), making the album schizophrenic but in an extremely engrossing way.

Homogenic (Elektra ‘97) Rating: A
This album exposed the dark underside to Bjork’s cute elfin persona. Bjork had a troubled year, a fact that came to light after her very public attack on a photographer, and this album reflects that, offering a more personal and less flighty lyrical focus than past efforts. Musically, mysterious atmospherics are the norm, with her by now familiar array of edgy programming effects, hip-hop beats, strange synthesizers, and lush string arrangements. She also adds some electronically enhanced vocals to her vast assortment of bizarre vocal stylings, which can’t help but dominate the album (as always). There are some striking songs here, as “Hunter” provides noir-ish atmospherics worthy of Portishead, while the ultra-intense, darkly churning “Bachelorette” is also among her most memorable songs yet. However, despite other first-rate efforts like “Jóga” and “All Is Full Of Love,” individual songs aren’t what one remembers when one thinks of Homogenic, which is far more unified than past efforts, which tended to jump from style to style. Instead, this album is all about its haunting, darkly sensual soundscapes, which are both coldly beautiful and deeply unsettling. Several songs contain frank observations about her love life (example: “while you are away my heart becomes undone”), and she’s not above chastising lovers past and present (example: “you think you’re denying me of something, well I’ve got plenty”) in her zestful search for self-fulfillment. What saves these songs from sounding like the bitter diatribes of a scorned lover is that she also holds the mirror up to herself (“how could I be so immature…”) and seems confident that she’ll win out in the end (“you’ll be given love”). She certainly wins me over, as Homogenic was the most daringly experimental and intense effort yet from this consistently creative artist.

Vespertine (Elektra ’01) Rating: A-
Although she’s sometimes dismissed as an eccentric kook (who can forget the swan outfit at the Academy Awards?), Bjork is in fact one of the most impressive musical talents of the past decade. After three stellar solo albums and last year’s less impressive soundtrack album Selmasongs (which accompanied Dancer In The Dark, a film that she also starred in), Bjork has released Vespertine, an album whose cover is immediately notable for the reappearance of that same dreaded swan dress! Fortunately, Bjork’s taste in music is much better than her taste in clothes, and she’s still one of the most remarkably distinctive singers around. Sure, her strange intonations and lyrics (example: “who would have known that a boy like him, would have entered me lightly restoring my blisses”) may still take some getting used to, but Vespertine is an exquisite album that’s well worth getting to know. A far cry from her earlier dance oriented material, Vespertine is composed almost entirely of ballads. Granted, these hushed confessionals are sometimes slow moving to the point of being boring, but Bjork connects on an intimate level on songs such as “Cocoon,” on which she’s never sounded so child-like and fragile, while “Hidden Place,” “It’s Not Up To You,” “Pagan Poetry,” “Aurora,” and “Unison” are other gorgeous highlights. Throughout the album Bjork uses uncommon instrumentation such as a harp, music box, clavichord, and celeste, but Bjork’s songs are generally at their best when featuring lush string arrangements and the angelic voices of a backing choir. However, the programming of electronics remains her primary instrument, and though the constant electronic blips, clicks, and cracks occasionally only get in the way, I can forgive Bjork for her reach occasionally exceeding her grasp, and for her pretensions (for example, “Sun In My Mouth” sets music to lyrics by e.e. cummings). Fact is, the rewards of Vespertine far outstrip its minor flaws, as this ambitious album (which at times recalls Kate Bush) was a boldly beautiful departure from this always-fascinating artist.

Greatest Hits (Elektra ’02) Rating: A
I'm glad that this album exists, as for all her considerable talent Bjork hadn't quite produced the one undeniable masterpiece that she seems eminently capable of creating. Now she has, with the help of her record company and her fans, who selected the songs for this album. All four of her albums are represented, though no songs appear from Selmasongs, and "Violently Happy," "It's Oh So Quiet," and "I Miss You" are the only singles that weren't included here. Granted, Bjork is no mere singles specialist, but Debut and Post did seem more like collections of songs than cohesive albums. As such, this album's seemingly random sequencing works. In addition, a rarity ("Play Dead," which was previously only available on the Young Americans soundtrack and as an import single), a desirable new song ("It's In Our Hands"), the video version of “All Is Full Of Love,” and the “Fluke Minimix” of “Big Time Sensuality” add further enticements for fans who already own all of her original studio albums. For fans who don't, this Greatest Hits album serves as a perfect starting point. Granted, with an artist this consistent there are bound to be some fans who feel that some other songs should've been included, and the album certainly lacks the thematic unity that enriched Homogenic and Vespertine. However, neither of those albums (or Debut or Post) can match the song-for-song quality of the 15 songs presented here, as Bjork's fans look back at her first decade by delivering her best album yet.

Medulla (Elektra ’04) Rating: B-
I’m stumped on this one. Honestly, I’ve listened to this album at least 10 times and I’m just not quite sure what to make of it. Easily Bjork’s strangest and least accessible album to date (and that’s saying something), Medulla is a vocal showcase if ever there was one, as Bjork multi-tracks her own voice along with assorted guests (including other oddballs such as Mike Patton and Robert Wyatt), all while keeping the actual music to a minimum. She hasn’t written many “songs” proper, either, a point that’s reinforced by the tracks segueing into one another. There are a few standouts (“Where Is The Line?,” “Who Is It,” “Submarine,” and “Triumph Of A Heart”), usually when Bjork adds beats and other instrumentation while making minor concessions to accessibility, but most of the album is an (admittedly interesting) head scratcher. Bjork whispers, pants, strangely intones, adds shrill shrieks, and even soothes, though in many cases it's not obvious why Bjork chooses one vocal style over the other; in fact, at times it’s obvious she chose wrongly. Truth is, as Bjork retreats further and further into her own little world she becomes that much harder to love, though it is easy to admire her (she is a genre unto herself, after all), and Medulla certainly wins plenty of points for originality. Still, though the album is often appealingly atmospheric and quite fascinating (really, who besides Bjork could have attempted this and not had it turn into a total disaster?), I guess I prefer Bjork the eccentric pop star to Bjork the totally off the wall avant garde “artiste”. Then again, the ambient “Vokuro” and the Beach Boys-ish “Oceania” sure are lovely at times, and I’m holding out hope that I’ll eventually “get” this incomprehensible curiosity of an album. Until then, I’ll probably just admire Medulla from afar while listening to Debut, Post, Homogenic, or Vespertine instead. Like I said, it’s easy to admire this semi-successful experiment, but admiring something and enjoying it are two different things, and it's time for me to move onto something a little more earthy and fun.

Volta (Elektra ’07) Rating: B+
There's weird, and then there's too weird, and Bjork crossed that line with Medulla, making me hope for a return to accessibility this time out. And that's just what Volta delivers, though of course being accessible and normal aren't necessarily the same thing; anything Bjork does is going to be adventurous and quite a bit "out there." Still, this album harks back to the heady days of Debut and Post in that it's far more diverse and rhythm-based than recent works. This album definitely falls short of those two earlier works with regards to hummability, but even if Volta falls short of her lofty earlier standards, perhaps in part because there's a "been there, done that" sense of ennui at times, it's still a fine album overall. Much has been made of the fact that Bjork has collaborated with Timbaland (co-producer of "Earth Intruders," "Innocence," and "Hope") and Anthony Hagerty (of Antony and the Johnsons renown), with whom she duets on "The Dull Flame Of Desire" and "My Juvenile," but as always Bjork's voice remains the star attraction, though she has help elsewhere in the form of kora player Toumani Diabate, avant rock drummers Brian Chppendale and Chris Corsano, and a 10-piece all female Icelandic horn section, among others. The horns really play a prominent role in shaping this albums sound, which is consistently creative, though the actual songs are more hit-and-miss. The album begins strongly with "Earth Intruders," the album's strangely propulsive, beat driven first single, and then "Wanderlust," which is all skittering beats, fog horns, and Bjork's wonderfully emotional vocals. "The Dull Flame Of Desire," a dramatic duet with Antony on which she interprets an old Fyodor Tyutchev poem, is another artsy winner, and the harsh dance groove of "Innocence" is another grower. The middle of the album is less memorable, however, though "I See Who You Are" and "Pneumonia" are sparse and pretty, and "Vertebrae and Vertebrae" coasts pleasantly by on its sinewy atmospherics. Still, those tracks are enjoyable if minor entries; however, major problems come about on "Hope," as its lyrics about a suicide bomber are bound to be controversial and offend some, though as usual she's cryptic enough to make me unsure exactly what it is she's trying to say. Besides, at least the track is musically interesting, and Bjork's singing is as lovely as ever. However, the unsubtle "Declare Independence," which urges Greenland and the Faroe Islands to declare independence from Denmark, gratingly drones on long after Bjork has made her point. In the future Bjork would do well to shy away from politics, as she's much more successful on personal tracks such as "My Juvenile," which effectively closes the album with a tender duet with Antony about her oldest son Sindri. Anyway, I quite like most of this album, as it sees Bjork returning to the diverse (if sometimes disjointed) styles that first turned me on to her in the first place (having been unfamiliar with her work in her earlier band the Sugarcubes). It's not her best work, but the majority of Volta is still pretty damn good for the most part.

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