Our favorite Bjork tunes — and yours?
She’s won top acting honors at Cannes, had a Sean Penn moment with a paparazzo — and then there’s that infamous swan dress. But really, with Björk it’s all about the voice, one of the most emotional instruments in pop music today. In anticipation of ”Medulla,” her new, almost totally a cappella album (due Aug. 31), here’s a look at 10 Björk songs that are required downloading. (Of course, that’s too short a list to include all her best — so add your own favorite tracks on our message board.)
”Birthday” (The Sugarcubes’ ”Life’s Too Good,” 1988) A little bit Cocteau Twins, a little bit post-punk silliness, ”Birthday” was the big debut for Sugarcubes frontwoman Björk, at least for audiences outside her native Iceland. Not surprisingly, the former child prodigy (she scored a hit record back home as an 11-year-old) steals the show with her distinctive, throaty wail. Listen to this, and it should be no surprise that Björk became a star after the band’s 1992 split, while the other Sugarcubes melted into obscurity.
”Human Behavior” (”Debut,” 1993) The opening track on Björk’s first post-Sugarcubes album, ”Human Behaviour” invites listeners into her own weird, wonderful world. Tribal rhythms pound while the singer ponders the nature of upright life forms with an anthropologist’s intellectual curiosity (”If you ever get close to a human/And human behavior/Be ready to get confused/There’s definitely no logic”). More than a decade old, it still sounds fresh and original.
”Big Time Sensuality” (”Debut,” 1993) This irresistibly upbeat number suggests that Björk isn’t just sitting on the sidelines observing human foibles — she’s looking to experience them directly on the dance floor. Growling and cooing that she doesn’t know her plans past the weekend (and doesn’t want to), she demonstrates the pleasure of living for the moment. And kicking up your heels all crazy-like while you’re at it.
”Hyperballad” (”Post,” 1995) So what if she’s singing about throwing car parts off a mountain and imagining her own body crashing against the cliffs? This song soars and swoops with a giddy glee that buoys its warped sense of humor, while a sci-fi synth hiccups an appropriately bouncy beat.
”It’s Oh So Quiet” (”Post,” 1995) On this cover of a ’40s Betty Hutton tune originally titled ”Blow a Fuse,” Björk takes a big-band arrangement reminiscent of a Technicolor musical and makes it sound entirely, strangely new. Even though the music and the lyrics are delightfully retro (”This guy is ‘gorge’ and I got hit”), it isn’t likely you’d ever hear her wild animal screech of ”Wow, BAM!” from anyone else.
”Joga” (”Homogenic,” 1997) Björk’s outsized, rough-hewn voice and quirky phrasings seem like an implausible match for string arrangements, but the combination is inspired on this track, which artfully blends classical music with her techno sound. It’s such a natural fit you may not even realize what a pop-music revolution it really is.
”Hunter” (”Homogenic,” 1997) With military drums and weeping violins that evoke the best of Kate Bush, Björk creates a driving sonic landscape that raises more questions than the lyrics answer (”I thought I could organize freedom!/ How Scandinavian of me”). The result is hypnotic, mysterious, and haunting. Bet you can’t resist the urge to hit replay in search of clues.
“I’ve Seen It All” (”Selmasongs,” 2000) This understated duet with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke will move you even if you haven’t seen the film that inspired it — 2000’s ”Dancer in the Dark,” in which Björk plays a nearly blind factory worker unjustly condemned to death. As a companion to the film, the song brilliantly captures her character’s worldweariness and determination in the face of unassailable tragedy. But even on its own, it has the power to quietly break your heart.
”Hidden Place” (”Vespertine,” 2001) On the surface, the song seems alienatingly chilly, with its robot-slick synth lines and whispery vocals. But after a few listens Björk’s surprisingly heartfelt lyrics dig in their icy fingers: It’s all about love, secrets, fear, and desire. Though ”Vespertine” is one of the singer’s least accessible albums, it seems our little Icelander isn’t as cold as she’d like us to think.
”Oceania” (”Medulla,” 2004) Björk sang this track from ”Medulla” at the opening ceremony of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens — an appropriate choice, considering its lyrical references to ”nimble feet” and salty sweat. More significantly, the sparse arrangement showcased her amazing voice at its most achingly vulnerable — still powerful enough to subdue a stadium into respectful silence.