Born in 1965 in Reykjavik, Iceland, Bjork was raised in a hippy commune by like-minded social activists and was enrolled aged six into a local music academy where she studied classical flute and piano before exhibiting a vocal talent – her mimicry of Tina Turner taken to a new level – and made her first recordings as a 12-year old. Punk rock and jazz-fusion efforts followed before she enjoyed a period of highly improvisational work in mostly male led ensembles. Her switch to a gothic vocal howl and shriek encouraged her mentors to build a sound that suited her idiosyncrasies and that gave her the springboard to join The Sugarcubes, a weird amalgam of arts collective and oddly commercial pop. Their album, Life’s Too Good (1988), went on to sell over a million copies and a Ritz in New York concert was attended by a properly gob smacked crowd that included David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Chances are that they’d most like come to see Björk. Her reputation preceded her and she span off into side projects including Icelandic best sellers where she fused jazz and avant-garde.
Nellee Hooper and the Massive Attack people encouraged a move to London. Hooper produced Debut and they had an instant hit on their hands thanks to the gorgeous songs “Venus as a Boy” and “Like Someone in Love”. Just as she could switch between Bollywood and Hollywood chestnuts so could she enter alternative worlds like the soundtrack gem “Play Dead” that latter track appearing as a highlight in the movie The Young Americans, and also teamed her with the soon to be legendary British composer David Arnold. She worked with Tricky, 808 State and Howie B, developing a penchant for electro and house and dance music in myriad forms. Her videos were stunning affairs.
Post (1995) builds on her influences and takes them forward with Hooper, Tricky, Graham Massey and Howie B providing mix-down production and Marcus de Vries adding to the musical promiscuity. Chill-out fusion and industrial noise infiltrate the sound and this remains one of the most challenging albums of the era. Any idea that this is ‘difficult’ music is debunked by the sales and the chart positions. “Army of Me’, “Hyperballad”, “It’s Oh So Quiet”, “Possibly Maybe” and “I Miss You” are amongst the stand out pieces that helped this disc go Platinum. Safe to say, this is an essential album; not just recommended, it’s mandatory listening.
Telegram (1996) is an overall remix of Post with the additional non-album cut “My Spine”. Björk herself views this as more of a deconstruction than a remix disc in the usual sense and the spine reference could well be addressed to the minimalist, skeletal versions on display.
Homegenic (1997) is the album where Björk appears on the cover as a geisha and marks a period working with long-term accomplice Mark Bell and a move into trip hop and electronica that had certain critics stating it was the best example of either genre in that decade. Certainly we’d point you towards “Alarm Call” and “All is Full of Love”. Recorded in Malaga with strings from the Icelandic String Octet dubbed on later the hybrid nature of this peculiar disc is best heard on “Hunter”. To appreciate her wild abandon also check out the video for “Alarm call” that was directed by Alexander McQueen, a close friend who also oversaw the infamous cover art. Other favourites of ours are “Bacholerette” (what a great title) and the Baroque flavoured Joga.
Selmasongs (200) is a fine way to enter the millennium. This soundtrack to von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark contains collaborations with Thom Yorke, Siobhan Fallon and fellow actress Catherine Deneuve. Eclectic to the max, as ever, this disc went Platinum in France and Japan.
Björk’s fifth album, Vespertine (a reference to phenomena witnessed the twilight hours – so very Björk) features almost whispered vocals that add to the spooky nature of the electronic sonic approach leading to a discreet listening experience quite unlike anything else on offer.
Lyrically ‘out there’ the themes are centred on sexuality and spirituality, dual concerns that are generally a given when Björk sets to write. With the artiste handling everything from choir and string arrangements to programming and field recordings this is a coming of age album that incorporates the St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir and Guy Sigsworth’s medieval range of instrumentation. Another extraordinary event, its experimental brilliance didn’t stop it hitting the Top Twenty on worldwide charts.
Those playing catch up can jump straight onto Greatest Hits (2002) whose selection was governed by fans voting on Björk’s website (the exception being “It’s in Our hands), specially composed to end the disc). There then follows two boxed sets. Family Tree traces her origins, branches into live recordings with The Brodsky Quartet and also includes hits chosen by Björk herself while Live Box is a lavish 4-CD, live DVD and booklet that corrals versions of her album pieces.
Medulla (2004) is one reason why Björk astonishes with each passing disc. Almost entirely a cappella the subject matter is political in that it contains reaction to the September 11 attacks but in many other ways is entirely approachable. Determined to entertain herself first and foremost but with a weather eye on a now committed fan base Björk enlisted guests Robert Wyatt, Rahzel and a new protégé, the Canadian throat singer Tagaq, as well as Faith No More’s lead singer Mike Patton. The arrangements are sparse but the mood is captivating.
Moving up to date the seven-disc box set Surrounded (2006) is a fine anthology her previous studio work with extra videos and clears the decks for the 2007 album Volta, part produced by Timberlake and initially released in Mexico. This was accompanied by a comeback tour that helped the project sell in territories from Russia to Taiwan, a mark of this singular woman’s appeal. The ensuing companion release Voltaic features live and remixed tracks from the parent disc.
Björk’s eighth studio album is Biophilia (partly recorded on an iPad, hence production credits including 16bit!) and contains true epics like “Crystalline” and some of her most playful and inspired writing to date, atmospheric and delicate. Despite a bamboozling array of choristers and sonic sculptures this is by no means inaccessible: quite the opposite since tracks like “Mutual Core” and “Cosmogony” entice the listener. The usual remix album, Bastards, is also recommended.
So from the beginning it’s now clear that Björk was destined to achieve as proper legacy, one where her peers fête her even as the artist herself seeks out new musical terrain with the burning desire of the iconoclast who won’t stay still. Nothing else like her.
Words: Max Bell
Freed from the Sugarcubes' confines, Björk takes her voice and creativity to new heights on Debut, her first work after the group's breakup. With producer Nellee Hooper's help, she moves in an elegantly playful, dance-inspired direction, crafting highly individual, emotional electronic pop songs like the shivery, idealistic "One Day" and the bittersweet "Violently Happy." Despite the album's swift stylistic shifts, each of Debut's tracks are distinctively Björk. "Human Behaviour"'s dramatic percussion provides a perfect showcase for her wide-ranging voice; "Aeroplane" casts her as a yearning lover against a lush, exotica-inspired backdrop; and the spare, poignant "Anchor Song" uses just her voice and a brass section to capture the loneliness of the sea. Though Debut is just as arty as anything she recorded with the Sugarcubes, the album's club-oriented tracks provide an exciting contrast to the rest of the album's delicate atmosphere. Björk's playful energy ignites the dance-pop-like "Big Time Sensuality" and turns the genre on its head with "There's More to Life Than This." Recorded live at the Milk Bar Toilets, it captures the dancefloor's sweaty, claustrophobic groove, but her impish voice gives it an almost alien feel. But the album's romantic moments may be its most striking; "Venus as a Boy" fairly swoons with twinkly vibes and lush strings, and Björk's vocals and lyrics -- "His wicked sense of humor/Suggests exciting sex" -- are sweet and just the slightest bit naughty. With harpist Corky Hale, she completely reinvents "Like Someone in Love," making it one of her own ballads. Possibly her prettiest work, Björk's horizons expanded on her other releases, but the album still sounds fresh, which is even more impressive considering electronic music's whiplash-speed innovations. Debut not only announced Björk's remarkable talent; it suggested she had even more to offer.
Words: Heather Phares
After Debut's success, the pressure was on Björk to surpass that album's creative, tantalizing electronic pop. She more than delivered with 1995's Post; from the menacing, industrial-tinged opener, "Army of Me," it's clear that this album is not simply Debut redux. The songs' production and arrangements -- especially those of the epic, modern fairy tale "Isobel" -- all aim for, and accomplish, more. Post also features Debut producer Nellee Hooper, 808 State's Graham Massey, Howie B, and Tricky, who help Björk incorporate a spectrum of electronic and orchestral styles into songs like "Hyperballad," which sounds like a love song penned by Aphex Twin. Meanwhile, the bristling beats on the volatile, sensual "Enjoy" and the fragile, weightless ballad "Possibly Maybe" nod to trip-hop without being overwhelmed by it. As on Debut, Björk finds new ways of expressing timeworn emotions like love, lust, and yearning in abstractly precise lyrics like "Since you went away/I'm wearing lipstick again/I suck my tongue in remembrance of you," from "Possibly Maybe." But Post's emotional peaks and valleys are more extreme than Debut's. "I Miss You"'s exuberance is so animated, it makes perfect sense that Ren & Stimpy's John Kricfalusi directed the song's video. Likewise, "It's Oh So Quiet" -- which eventually led to Björk's award-winning turn as Selma in Dancer in the Dark -- is so cartoonishly vibrant, it could have been arranged by Warner Bros. musical director Carl Stalling. Yet Björk sounds equally comfortable with an understated string section on "You've Been Flirting Again." "Headphones" ends the album on an experimental, hypnotic note, layering Björk's vocals over and over till they circle each other atop a bubbling, minimal beat. The work of a constantly changing artist, Post proves that as Björk moves toward more ambitious, complex music, she always surpasses herself.
Words: Heather Phares
By the late '90s, Björk's playful, unique world view and singular voice became as confining as they were defining. With its surprising starkness and darkness, 1997's Homogenic shatters her "Icelandic pixie" image. Possibly inspired by her failed relationship with drum'n'bass kingpin Goldie, Björk sheds her more precious aspects, displaying more emotional depth than even her best previous work indicated. Her collaborators -- LFO's Mark Bell, Mark "Spike" Stent, and Post contributor Howie B -- help make this album not only her emotionally bravest work, but her most sonically adventurous as well. A seamless fusion of chilly strings (courtesy of the Icelandic String Octet), stuttering, abstract beats, and unique touches like accordion and glass harmonica, Homogenic alternates between dark, uncompromising songs such as the icy opener, "Hunter," and more soothing fare like the gently percolating "All Neon Like." The noisy, four-on-the-floor catharsis of "Pluto" and the raw vocals and abstract beats of "5 Years" and "Immature" reveal surprising amounts of anger, pain, and strength in the face of heartache. "I dare you to take me on," Björk challenges her lover in "5 Years," and wonders on "Immature," "How could I be so immature/To think he would replace/The missing elements in me?" "Bachelorette," a sweeping, brooding cousin to Post's "Isobel," is possibly Homogenic's saddest, most beautiful moment, giving filmic grandeur to a stormy relationship. Björk lets a little hope shine through on "Jòga," a moving song dedicated to her homeland and her best friend, and the reassuring finale, "All Is Full of Love." "Alarm Call"'s uplifting dance-pop seems out of place with the rest of the album, but as its title implies, Homogenic is her most holistic work. While it might not represent every side of Björk's music, Homogenic displays some of her most impressive heights.
Words: Heather Phares
Selmasongs: Music from the Motion Picture Soundtrack Dancer in the Dark is, and is not, a Björk album. While it's filled with rampant creativity, startling emotional leaps, and breathtaking vocals and arrangements, it isn't as playful as her other albums, even 1997's relatively dark Homogenic. Instead, it presents Björk as Selma, her character from Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark: a Czech factory worker who is going blind but finds hope and refuge in the musicals she watches at the cinema. (Von Trier wanted to work with Björk after seeing Spike Jonze's musical-inspired video for "It's Oh So Quiet.") She acts through the music she composed, performed, and produced with conductor/arranger Vincent Mendoza and her longtime collaborators Mark "Spike" Stent and Mark Bell. Selma's unsinkable optimism and tragic end are telegraphed through songs like the irrepressible, cartoonish "Cvalda" to the sad, starry lullaby "Scatterheart." Selmasongs' best tracks are poignant, inventive expressions of Björk's talent and Selma's daydreams and suffering. "In the Musicals" shows how easy it is for Selma to slip into one of her Technicolor reveries: "There is always someone to catch me," Björk sighs as clouds of strings, harps, and xylophones rise up to meet her. "New World" reprises the simultaneously hopeful and ominous melody of "Overture," adding striking vocals and shuffling, industrial beats that reflect Selma's life in the factory as well as Björk's distinctive style. Selmasongs also succeeds as a soundtrack, sketching in details of Selma's story. "I've Seen It All," a duet with Thom Yorke, captures her stunted romance with a co-worker, while the tense "107 Steps" takes the listener to her journey's end. Intimate and theatrical, innovative and tied to tradition, Selmasongs paints a portrait of a woman losing her sight, but it maintains Björk's unique vision.
Words: Heather Phares
After cathartic statements like Homogenic, the role of Selma in Dancer in the Dark, and the film's somber companion piece, Selmasongs, it's not surprising that Björk's first album in four years is less emotionally wrenching. But Vespertine isn't so much a departure from her previous work as a culmination of the musical distance she's traveled; within songs like the subtly sensual "Hidden Place" and "Undo" are traces of Debut and Post's gentle loveliness, as well as Homogenic and Selmasongs' reflective, searching moments. Described by Björk as "about being on your own in your house with your laptop and whispering for a year and just writing a very peaceful song that tiptoes," Vespertine's vocals seldom rise above a whisper, the rhythms mimic heartbeats and breathing, and a pristine, music-box delicacy unites the album into a deceptively fragile, hypnotic whole. Even relatively immediate, accessible songs such as "It's Not Up to You," "Pagan Poetry," and "Unison" share a spacious serenity with the album's quietest moments. Indeed, the most intimate songs are among the most varied, from the seductively alien "Cocoon" to the dark, obsessive "An Echo, A Stain" to the fairy tale-like instrumental "Frosti." The beauty of Vespertine's subtlety may be lost on Björk fans demanding another leap like the one she made between Post and Homogenic, but like the rest of the album, its innovations are intimate and intricate. Collaborators like Matmos -- who, along with their own A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure, appear on two of 2001's best works -- contribute appropriately restrained beats crafted from shuffled cards, cracking ice, and the snap-crackle-pop of Rice Krispies; harpist Zeena Parkins' melodic and rhythmic playing adds to the postmodernly angelic air. An album singing the praises of peace and quiet, Vespertine isn't merely lovely; it proves that in Björk's hands, intimacy can be just as compelling as louder emotions.
Words: Heather Phares
It's hard to accuse Björk of making music influenced by commercial or critical expectations at any point in her career, but her post-Homogenic work is even more focused on following her bliss, whether that means acting and singing in Lars Von Trier's grim musical Dancer in the Dark; crafting tiptoeing laptop lullabies on Vespertine; or, in the case of Medúlla, sculpting an album out of almost nothing but singing and vocal samples. The album's title and concept refer to the purest essence of something, and Medúlla explores both the ritual power of the human voice and some of the most essential themes of Björk's music in a way that's both primal and elaborate. It took a large cast of characters to make the album's seemingly organic sound, including vocalists ranging from Icelandic and British choirs to Inuit singers to Mike Patton and Robert Wyatt; programmers like Matmos, Mark Bell, and Mark "Spike" Stent; and beatboxers such as Rahzel and the onomatopoeically named Japanese artist Dokaka. Several songs are sung in Icelandic, which works especially well, not only because it ties in with Medúlla's concept, but also because of the language's sonic qualities: the rolling Rs, guttural stops, and elongated vowels reflect the alternately chopped and soaring arrangements behind them. Neopaganism and unfettered sensuality also wind through the album, particularly on "Mouth's Cradle," along with meditative, Vespertine-like pieces such as "Desired Constellation." Medúlla is unusually intimate: Björk's voice is miked very closely, and with the dense layers of vocals surrounding her, it often sounds as if you're listening to the album from inside her larynx. Some of the heavy breathing, grunts, and ululating woven into the album come close to provoking physical reactions: the eerie sighs and throat singing on the feral "Ancestors" make the chest ache and suggest a particularly melodic pack of wolves. Meanwhile, there's something simian about Dokaka's gleeful babbling and beats on "Triumph of a Heart." Despite its gentler moments, Medúlla's raw rhythms and rarefied choral washes make it the most challenging work of Björk's career. "Where Is the Line" is one of her tough, no-nonsense songs, and Rahzel's hard-hitting beats make it starker than anything on Homogenic. Even relatively accessible songs, like the gone-native loveliness of "Who Is It (Carry My Joy on the Left, Carry My Pain on the Right)" and "Oceania," which Björk wrote for the 2004 Athens Olympics, have an alien quality that is all the stranger considering that nearly all of their source material is human (except for the odd keyboard or two). Actually, fans of world, contemporary classical, or avant-garde music might find more to appreciate in Medúlla than anyone looking for a "Human Behaviour" or "It's Oh So Quiet." It's not an immediate album, but it is a fascinating one, especially for anyone interested in the world's oldest instrument being used in unexpected ways. [Medúlla was also released in a limited-edition digipack with a bonus poster.]
Words: Heather Phares
Once again finding harmony and creating alchemy between seeming opposites, on Volta Björk is bold but thoughtful, delicate yet strong, accessible and avant. The intricacy and complexity of projects like Medúlla and Drawing Restraint 9 suggested that she might have left the more direct side of her work behind, but Volta's opening track and lead single, "Earth Intruders," puts that notion to rest: the song literally marches in, riding a bubbling, ritualistic beat courtesy of Timbaland and Konono No. 1's electric thumb-pianos. Björk howls "Turmoil! Carnage!" like incantations over the din, and after several albums' worth of beautiful whispers, it's a joy to hear her raise her voice and volume like this. "Wanderlust" follows and provides the yin to "Earth Intruders"' yang, its horns and brooding melody giving it the feel of a moodier, more contemplative version of "The Anchor Song." These two songs set the tone for the rest of Volta's pendulum-like swings between sounds and moods, all of which are tied together by found-sound and brass-driven interludes that give the impression that the album was recorded in a harbor -- an apt metaphor for how ideas and collaborators come and go on this album. Timbaland's beats resurface on "Innocence," another of Volta's most potent moments; a sample of what sounds like a man getting punched in the gut underscores Björk's viewpoint that purity is something powerful, not gentle. Antony and the Johnsons' Antony Hegarty lends his velvety voice to two outstanding but very different love songs: "The Dull Flame of Desire" captures swooning romance by pairing Björk and Hegarty's voices with a slowly building tattoo courtesy of Lightning Bolt drummer Brian Chippendale; "My Juvenile," which is dedicated to Björk's son Sindri, closes Volta with a much gentler duet. Considering how much sonic and emotional territory the album spans -- from the brash, anthemic "Declare Independence," which sounds a bit like Homogenic's "Pluto," to "Pneumonia" and "Vertebrae by Vertebrae," which are as elliptical and gentle as anything on Vespertine or Drawing Restraint 9 -- Volta could very easily sound scattered, but this isn't the case. Instead, it finds the perfect balance between the vibrancy of her poppier work in the '90s and her experiments in the 2000s.
Words: Heather Phares
Over the years, the packaging of Björk's albums grew famously, and increasingly, elaborate, but Biophilia is the first Björk project where the set of songs isn’t the complete package. Designed as a suite of interactive iPad and iPhone apps that explore humanity’s relationships with sound and the universe, the album’s concept was so grand that it began as a musical house and ended up including scientists, engineers, video game designers, and film directors among Björk's collaborators. Biophilia's boldest innovations are in its presentation rather than in the actual music, which is surprisingly subtle and intimate given the concept’s immense scope, but the perfect size to be cradled in a lap or palm. Björk recorded parts of the album on an iPad, and these songs retain that intimacy. They also recall Vespertine, which was made primarily on a laptop and also kept the closeness of its creation, as well as Homogenic's percussive onslaughts, particularly on the literally volcanic “Mutual Core.” Minus the project’s other layers, Biophilia sometimes feels like a soundtrack; songs such as the album-opening “Moon” are so soft and delicate that they take a while to reveal themselves without their corresponding visuals. But just because the music is only one part of the Biophilia experience doesn’t mean it’s unsatisfying. Björk embodies each song’s musical, scientific, and emotional concepts fully and cleverly: “Crystalline”’s insistent repetition captures mineral formations shooting out of the ground, especially when drum’n’bass beats explode halfway through the song. Biophilia's educational side is never boring, in part because Björk relates bigger phenomena to easily understood, and often tangible, occurrences; the earth is tilted on its axis like a human heart, and DNA is an “everlasting necklace.” The gorgeous “Virus” expresses its multiplying phrases in a love song with facts and emotions in perfect harmony: “Like a virus needs a body/As soft tissue feeds on blood/Someday I’ll find you/The urge is here.” However, the most exciting thing about Biophilia is how it expresses the cycle of discovery and wonder. Knowledge and mystery don’t have to be enemies: on “Cosmogony,” science and spirituality hold hands and creation myths sit next to facts. Björk holds the sheer magnitude of the album together with repeated motifs -- moons, stars, pearls, hearts, hands, and above all generosity -- that reflect Biophilia's layered meanings of love, life, and love of life. The album even completes an orbit with “Solstice" -- which features gravity harps built especially for this project (the CD version of the album also features three bonus tracks, including the hurtling, previously unreleased “Nattura”). Expectations run high whenever Björk announces a new album: how will she top herself? Biophilia is easily her most ambitious project as a whole, but its music is more about completion than competition, even against herself. Educational and emotional in a uniquely approachable way, these songs are a lovely part of a bigger picture.
Words: Heather Phares
Though Björk has written music for films before, her collaboration with Matthew Barney on Drawing Restraint 9 is a much deeper and more natural pairing, which makes sense, considering that they're partners in life (and now in art). Björk's pieces for the film reflect its fusions of the contemporary with the ancient, and the organic with the technological -- themes that she has dealt with in her own work, especially on later albums like Medúlla. The motif of West meeting East is also prominent in the visual and musical halves of Drawing Restraint 9: shot in Nagasaki Bay, the film depicts a pair of occidental guests (played by Barney and Björk) who visit a Japanese whaling ship and evolve into whales to escape drowning when a storm hits. Details such as costumes inspired by Shinto marriage robes, a tea ceremony, and whaling boat culture are echoed in Björk's music: Drawing Restraint 9 begins with "Gratitude," which uses Will Oldham's vulnerable vocals, a children's choir, and Zeena Parkins' harp to bring to life a 1946 letter written to General MacArthur by a Japanese citizen. Thanking the general for lifting the ban on whaling, the writer's gratitude comes from "my family and the ancient sea," underscoring the film's connections between life, death, sacrifice, and transformation. Meanwhile, the wistful "Shimenawa" and "Antarctic Return" incorporate the sho (played here by sho virtuoso Mayumi Miyata), a Japanese free-reed mouth organ that produces subtle and complex tone clusters that sound organic and ethereal at the same time. The album's climactic track, "Holographic Entrypoint," is inspired by the traditions of Noh theater; the alternately gruff and wailing vocals and wood block percussion are the essence of simplicity, and all the more powerful and eerie because they're so simple. Similarly, "Pearl" pairs the sho with heavy, primal, Medúlla-like rhythmic breathing and gasps that sometimes sound like scraping, once again showing Björk's willingness to integrate sounds that might not be conventionally beautiful into her work without diluting them. Perhaps the most striking thing about Drawing Restraint 9 is how seamlessly it blends and contrasts beauty and violence. "Ambergris March" is all sparkling, dreamy delight, while "Hunter Vessel" mixes tense, stabbing brass with reflective passages. The handful of tracks Björk sings on embody this duality as well: the layers of her vocals on "Bath" are appropriately soothing, but on "Storm," they add to the track's chaotic power. Though Drawing Restraint 9 is more expansive and abstract than Medúlla, it's in a similarly challenging and rewarding vein, and bodes well for future Björk/Barney collaborations.
Words: Heather Phares
Equal parts retrospective, autobiography, and objet d'art, Björk's Family Tree gives fans a very special glimpse at the creative processes behind her work, collecting two decades' worth of her music and words in a unique, lavishly packaged set. A white paper sleeve embossed with work by Icelandic artist Gabriela Fridriksdottir holds a translucent, petal-pink plastic case containing five 3" discs of "Roots," "Beats," and "Strings"; a collection of Björk's favorite songs from her albums; "Words," a booklet of selected lyrics; and an essay by Björk explaining the genesis of this set, which manages to use phrases like "taxonomic structure" and "a new Icelandic modern musical language" without sounding too ambitiously academic. Scattered throughout are Fridriksdottir's paintings, sculptures, and illustrations, which mix a playful, organic sensibility with clean lines that are both futuristic and childlike. They complement Björk's work, and especially this project, perfectly, since Family Tree emphasizes her beginnings as a classically trained but rebellious young musician and her current incarnation as an artist who unites the cerebral with the emotional and the avant-garde with the accessible. Family Tree's detailed packaging is notable not only for its beauty, but because its very intricacy forces the viewer/reader/listener to slow down, savor, and contemplate the set's contents instead of consuming them immediately. This sets the mood for a very personal experience, which begins with the first disc -- Björk's greatest hits as chosen by the artist herself. Technically, there aren't many of her "hits" on this compilation -- favorites such as "Human Behavior" are missing here, but appear on the fan-selected Björk's Greatest Hits (which was released on the same day as Family Tree). Instead, Björk opts for intimate album tracks like "Unravel" and "You've Been Flirting Again." Even the singles on the collection, such as "All Is Full of Love" and "Hyperballad," tend toward introspection despite their state-of-the-art productions. As with the rest of the set, the greatest-hits disc doesn't pretend to be a democratic representation of her work. Only one track from Debut, the enchanting "Venus As a Boy," is on the disc, while Selmasongs: Music From the Motion Picture Dancer in the Dark's "Scatterheart" and "I've Seen It All" both made the cut (and deservedly so -- the only problem with Björk's Greatest Hits is that it didn't include either of these songs). Instead, Family Tree is an unrepentantly subjective look at Björk's work from the past two decades, going back to some of her earliest recordings. Though "Roots" doesn't include anything from her 1977 self-titled album or her jazz effort Gling Glo, it does feature 1980's "Glora," a pretty, quirky flute melody that shows that even at 15, Björk was figuring out how to integrate her classical training into her own sensibilities. "Sidasta Eg," from 1984, is an eerie take on indie/dream pop that suggests her work with the Sugarcubes as well as her later solo efforts. Disc one of "Roots" also includes the 1983 Kükl track "Fulgar," which in its post-punk artiness also points to her Sugarcubes days. That era is well-represented by "Ammaeli," the Icelandic version of their hit "Birthday," and "Mama," both of which hold up well despite the somewhat glossy, dated-sounding production. As good as the Kükl and Sugarcubes tracks are, their inclusion only emphasizes that while Björk may work well as part of a group, her own music (even in its earliest stages) is more interesting. Disc two of "Roots" offers a look at some of her mature solo work in different forms and stages, such as the demos of "Immature" and "Joga" that are very much works in progress, but no less beautiful because of that. The disc also includes "Generous Palmstroke," a live collaboration between Björk and harpist Zeena Parkins, as well as "Mother Heroic," a track from the Vespertine sessions that, like that album's "Sun in My Mouth," combines a delicate celeste melody with lyrics borrowed from poet e.e. cummings. While the song isn't quite as striking as the work that did end up on that album, it's still lovely, and Björk is the sort of artist whose outtakes are as worth hearing as her finished work. The single-disc "Beats" emphasizes the electronic aspects of her work and delves further into her demos, offering a surprisingly smooth, blissed-out version of "The Modern Things" co-produced and programmed by Graham Massey, her Post collaborator. He also gives 1994's "Karvel" a surprisingly straightforward dance treatment, albeit with unconventional drums -- it sounds more like an 808 State track with Björk vocals than an actual Björk song. Her work with Mark Bell and Mark "Spike" Stent sounds more like finished album tracks; "I Go Humble" mixes a syncopated beat with fuzzy keyboards, and while it's a little less special than what ended up on Post, it's most definitely worth hearing, as is "Nature Is Ancient," which resembles what "Big Time Sensuality" would've sounded like with Homogenic's burbling, distorted production. The two discs of "Strings" go in the opposite direction, accenting the organic and academic side of her music by presenting highlights of her collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet. From the lush versions of "Possibly Maybe" and "Bachelorette" to the percussive take on "Cover Me" to "Hunter"'s driven arrangement, it's clear why Björk has worked with the quartet repeatedly -- their expressive, flexible approach to classical and classical-inspired music fits her aesthetic perfectly. And while "Words" -- the collection of lyrics from songs like "Pluto," "Cocoon," "Headphones," and "Pagan Poetry" -- may not be as immediately exciting to fans as the demos and unreleased tracks, the economy of Björk's lyrics deserves to be celebrated, as it's often overshadowed by the dense, dazzling beauty of her music. With a line like, "On the surface simplicity/But the darkest pit in me/Is pagan poetry" or a phrase like "emotional landscapes" she manages to communicate a wealth of feelings in an abstract, yet precise, manner. This seemingly contradictory approach extends to all of Björk's work -- though she's on the cutting edge of music and is resolutely individual, she's still popular enough to spawn parodies on Saturday Night Live and Spitting Image and cause a furor over wearing a swan dress to the Oscars. Fortunately, she's also popular enough to be able to make sets like Family Tree available on a relatively mainstream scale. A mini-museum of Björk's art with a depth that belies its size, Family Tree's exhaustive, scholarly approach works simply because her music is worth studying in the detail that the set provides so amply.
Words: Heather Phares