Phew ok, so this was a piece long in the making. Björk is one of those artists that I hold to such a high acclaim and am cognizant that many others feel the same, so it’s hard to really confidently crystallize what I’m feeling and not be totally patronizing or something. I need to do these masterpieces justice. Also, I don’t want to just say “omg I loooove this song because I love it and it’s good and it’s the best” – I want to try and articulate why each song is as incredible as it is without devolving into blind stan-dom. She is an artist that has made A LOT of music that has connected with me on a personal level and I would love to share that musical connection with other fans and other folks that have been teetering into listening to Björk more. She comes off as this ultra weirdo alien like creature, but she’s more than that.
Björk is a lyrical, instrumental, production, compositional and overall musical genius. She writes and executive produces all her own music and not only has one of the best voices in modern music, is also one of the most inventive melody writers, constantly bucking traditional chord changes and incorporating non-western and electronic musical elements in most of her works, bringing these sounds into the mainstream. What other artist has been this bold and iconic and adventurous while being this commercially successful? It’s pretty incredible if you ask me. My selection of favorites contains no surprises, just hits, and hopefully bring a smile to your face.
1. “Venus As A Boy” [Debut, 1993]
This song just makes me feel so much better about all aspects of life while I’m listening. Everything about it feels so feather-light, like skipping around on clouds within a dream. The lofty, Indian Classical Music strings, the minimal percussion, the otherworldly vibraphone, and of course the jubilant vocals by the queen herself, sashaying and floating across the mix with an infectious and playful melody. The swelling dynamics mimic the deep breaths of arousal and exasperation, further enhancing the romantic air of the track. Everything feels lush, new and exciting.
Lyrically it’s pretty simple and explicitly deals with the beauty and sexual relations between two people (or maybe multiple people, but specifically one male-identifying person). With mentions of fingers, touching, taste and arousal, it’s pretty clear on what’s going on here in the lyrics. I love that the lyrics and instrumental match their blithely romantic approach to all things – it’s a young love, excited by the mere touch, wantonly celebrating the fusing of the pleasure centers.
As for my personal connection to this song – starting in 2017, there have been stretches of time where no other song except this one sounds good to me. I will listen to this song over and over again and never tire of it. It’s so pure and so joyous, sometimes I think of it as a flame in a hot air balloon, keeping me aloft. I listen to this song during plane turbulence so I can be going out happy in case we go down. I’m that serious. It is a perfect song. However, if you had asked me what my favorite Björk song was pre-2017, I would have put my #2 choice, but because of the whole obsessive listening thing with this song and it being my only companion in those hard times, this has got to be my #1.
2. “Hyperballad” [Post, 1995]
This song has it all. Again we visit the devotional romance of “Venus As A Boy”, but according to Björk, this is a song that’s about a love that’s matured, one that you want to last your whole lifetime. It’s also about necessary solitude. To burn off any excess aggression or fuzzy edges that could potentially cloud the relationship’s dynamic, Björk sings of throwing cutlery and car parts off a cliff and listening to their clamor on the way down in the mornings, before her partner has awoken. Essentially, she’s burning off anything about herself that might make her partner like her less desirable and getting out any and all weirdness she may have found drained from her conventional interpersonal relationship. She also pictures throwing herself down the cliff, which makes her scared and makes her want to return to her partner’s arms and find fulfillment within them.
The song features one of Björk’s best vocal lines (hitting those high notes with gusto!) and choruses, as well as an instrumental that’s slightly house-inspired, ultra-90s take on electronica a la Everything But The Girl. The music video is iconic (one of Michel Gondry’s best) and I cannot think of a single bad thing about this song. It makes me feel alive and romantic and ready to be whisked away. It’s lovely. Also – the album version of this song is 5:21 and it feels SO much shorter. I replay this song constantly. How many other musicians can make a 5:00 song feel that short?? Engaging storytelling and masterful melody & chorus writing, y’all!
3. “Joga” [Homogenic, 1997]
This was the first Björk song I heard that made go “woah, ok – I need to hear more of her stuff now.” I’m pretty sure it was in high school and I listened to the 30-second iTunes preview while trolling around. I bought after hearing that one preview Homogenic using my parents’ credit card that was already plugged in (I apologize) and haven’t looked back. In college I played it for a friend that’d never heard it before and when I told him it was from 1997 he straight-faced did not believe me. It’s futuristic sounding enough it still feels groundbreaking over 20 years later. Its melodies and orchestral instrumentation still wrap me up like the first time I heard it. It’s a classic in her discography for a reason.
4. “Family” [Vulnicura, 2015]
I wrote about this song quite a bit in my Best Songs of the 2010s post, but I’ll CliffNotes it here. The first half is dark and sinister, incredibly unsettling and mournful. There’s a chilling transition with Björk’s voice and a stabbing cello solo. Then the second half breaks open, revealing one of the most beautiful instrumental pieces I’ve heard. Clouds of voice and strings undulate around the listener in a shining, ethereal expanse. There were multiple times when I would walk around while listening to this and pair this with snow whipping off the roofs of buildings, with steam rising from factories in the distance, and get overwhelmed with emotion. It’s not one of her singles, but it’s a terribly powerful, tremendously beautiful song.
5. “Pagan Poetry” [Vespertine, 2001]
You know someone’s discography is THIS GOOD when a song like this is only at #5. “Pagan Poetry” is the centerpiece of Vespertine, my current favorite album of hers. The album sees Björk dive deep into the relationship she’s in: the erotic pleasures, the emotional fulfillment, the blessed companionship. But it also puts equal amount of shine on the uncertainty she feels about herself, her partner and the relationship as a whole as they continue to spend time together.
In “Pagan Poetry” she equates her inner machinations to complicated, ancient forms of art, aka pagan poetry, difficult to comprehend. Populated with chiming glockenspiel, music box, vibraphone, harp and offset with imposing pillars of electronics and clicking microbeats (the album features additional production by Matmos), the instrumental highlights the duality of what she’s going through. The glossy, poetic pleasures that come with love and the monolith-like pressures of a committed relationship, the thought of sealing off your love and availability to be loved intimately from all others, trusting that your desires will be fulfilled by this partner no matter what. Pretty intense, eh? It’s all at once romantic, heartbreaking, painful and beautiful; the classic traits of all fantastic Björk songs.
These complicated feelings and desires are expressed by Björk in one of her finest vocal performances, hitting high and low notes with ease and vigor, her signature rasps and growls coming in at the perfect moments. It’s an immense tune, and absolutely wild to think that this was a pre-album single back in the day. Just can’t even imagine something like this being a huge radio hit or anything. Either way – magical tune. Everyone should listen to Vespertine sooner rather than later.
6. “The Modern Things” [Post, 1995]
I would hate to follow a song like “Hyperballad” on a record – that’s a lot of competition! Thankfully, “The Modern Things” is a wildly good song. For the longest time I didn’t realize she was singing in Icelandic for most of this song… I just accepted a kind of Cocteau Twins scenario and was like “alright Björk your vocal melodies and delivery on this thing is ridiculous so I’ll let you off without knowing the lyrics for most of this song”, but nah, they’re in Icelandic. I feel better about this now, also a sigh of relief that I never unwittingly chose this song at karaoke.
The English part of the lyrics remind me a lot of her video of her taking apart a TV and marveling at the technology inside it, musing about how “cars and such” have always existed and have been waiting to for the right moment to reveal themselves. Some quaint, lovely idea that no one would think of except Björk. I haven’t delved into what the Icelandic lyrics of the song means, but overall this is just a fantastic and addicting song, with brilliant vocal deliveries and a simple instrumental that does its best to accent Björk on all fronts but not get too much in her way in terms of flashiness. The Icelandic translation is up on Genius now but I can’t parse the two different stories together in terms of cohesiveness. It’s up to you!
7. “Unison” [Vespertine, 2001]
This is a sweet song that comes at the end of Vespertine, my current favorite Björk album. As you probably read in the section for “Pagan Poetry”, Vespertine is all about the wild love she feels for her partner, but also grappling with the challenges with her own autonomy and sustainability in a long-term relationship. “Unison” finds Björk relinquishing her desire for freedom and independence a bit, but also being appreciative that her partner not only allows her to have moments alone, but also brings her together to be with them.
Previously, she says she thrived best “hermit style”, but now she can’t go through life without her partner. She starts the song with the line “one hand loves the other”, a reference to two people being in unison, and also resolves a moment in “Pagan Poetry”: “he offers a handshake, crooked five fingers, they form a pattern, yet to be matched”, which saw Björk reckoning with herself and her partner, leaving them hanging as they reached out to her. It looks like the pattern has been matched now, and Björk feels better about accepting her life with this another person. It’s bright, triumphant, and confidently elated, featuring rising choirs and swelling strings; a perfect closing track for a highly emotional and personal album.
8. “All Neon Like” [Homogenic, 1997]
This song has mostly earned its place in my ultimate favor for its instrumental content. Lyrically, I’m trying to parse something together, but on a very basic level it focuses on a caretaker being consoling another with a very sci-fi slant with healing beams and glow in the dark threads. Reminds me of someone in cryogenic sleep being healed by an empathetic AI, floating in a chamber “fetus style”. Instrumentally though, it’s so next level. This is a song that I feel like Arca must have been greatly inspired by, as traces of the volleys of amorphous bass and dissonant synthetic strings slightly emulate that of her own alien sound. Coincidentally, when Arca was touring with Björk on her Vulnicura tour, they performed an updated version of this song and Arca’s blend of bruised, highly-futuristic electronics fit right in. Love full-circle moments like that. This is also a song that could ONLY be of Björk’s creation. Singing about healing beams with a freaky techno beat churning around above her wonderful voice? No one else would dare!
9. “I’ve Seen It All” [SelmaSongs, 2000]
The first time I saw Dancer In The Dark was in a college film class. Despite being a fan of Björk, I had never heard of the movie. If I had known it was full of new Björk compositions (and I guess Thom Yorke singing on this one is cool too) I would have sprung on it earlier. Now it’s one of my favorite movies (it is DEVASTATING, so tread with caution if you haven’t seen it) and this song is now one of my top favorite Björk songs. “I’ve Seen It All” was nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars in 2001, for good reason. It’s definitely more conceptual and specific on the lyrical front, but the melody and instrumentation could help it fit on either Homogenic or Vespertine. I love the murky thuds of bass interwoven between the train-track beat and lavish, musical-like strings. It’s marvelous. Go see Dancer In The Dark, if you dare. Prepare to cry.
10. “Arisen My Senses” [Utopia, 2017]
This song yielded a physical reaction from me on my first listen. I was walking to work on a brisk fall morning and let me tell you – this song is the aural equivalent to having the sun in your eyes on a beautiful day. It’s totally overwhelming and bright, constantly pounding you with stabs of harp and contracting electric snares. Björk’s voice acts more like another instrument, not stringing together a lead vocal melody, but rather popping in and out of audio channels repeating lines with different deliveries, breaking the illusion of human capability (like breath, emitting one voice at a time). She’s a superhuman on this track, carrying an omnipresence like no other. She’s totally engulfing, leaving you nowhere to run except right at her and the shining, harmonious clashes of energy happening in front of you. Talk about an intense album opener. An interdimensional goddess offers her hand to bring you to a floral, higher realm.
MORE ESSENTIAL BJÖRK TRACKS::
- “Alarm Call” [Homogenic]
- “All Is Full Of Love” [Homogenic]
- “An Echo, A Stain” [Vespertine]
- “Army Of Me” [Post]
- “Bachelorette” [Homogenic]
- “Big Time Sensuality” [Debut]
- “Blissing Me” [Utopia]
- “Cocoon” [Vespertine]
- “Come To Me” [Debut]
- “Courtship” [Utopia]
- “Crying” [Debut]
- “Crystalline” [Biophilia]
- “Cvalda” [SelmaSongs]
- “Enjoy” [Post]
- “Human Behaviour” [Debut]
- “Hunter” [Homogenic]
- “Isobel” [Post]
- “It’s Not Up To You” [Vespertine]
- “Lionsong” [Vulnicura]
- “Losss” [Utopia]
- “Mouth Mantra” [Vulnicura]
- “Oceania” [Medulla]
- “Possibly Maybe” [Post]
- “Stonemilker” [Vulnicura]
- “Sun In My Mouth” [Vespertine]
- “The Anchor Song” [Debut]
- “Undo” [Vespertine]
- “Vertebrae by Vertebrae” [Volta]
- “Virus” [Biophilia]
- “Wanderlust” [Volta]
- “Who Is It” [Medulla]