The Björk Albums Ranked

My relationship with Björk’s music is complicated. When I embarked on the journey of listening to her discography in full for the first time a few months ago, I came to realize that maybe I didn’t fully get the genius that everyone claimed the Icelandic avant-garde pop artist had. Now, revisiting it in full again for this piece, I think I still don’t. But it is true that repeat listenings to Björk’s almost always experimental works yield greater appreciation, at least in my case. I don’t dislike Björk, and in fact, I respect and enjoy a decent chunk of her work. Just be forewarned: I am not a Björk superfan. Still, I’ll trace the career of an iconic (I don’t toss that word around, even for artists I do love) musician across the 14 albums she’s released in the 45 years since 1977. That’s right, I’m including a few records not traditionally counted for her current tally of ten “studio albums,” as I’ll explain short order. Omitted from this list, however, are the copious amount of live and remix albums and EPs. One of the latter, however, is great. Björk’s collaboration with the Dirty Projectors for MOUNT WITTENBERG ORCA (2010) is certainly worth listening to and contains some of my favorite songs the musician has worked on.

Favorite track: “Álfur Út Úr Hól (The Fool on the Hill)”

I knew Björk had come to prominence in the early-to-mid 1990s under her own name, but when I first traveled through her discography, I also came to learn she had started some of her fame with The Sugarcubes in the late 1980s. So imagine my further surprise when I found a self-titled record from 1977, released when Björk was just 12. Although BJÖRK bears her mononym, this work of “juvenilia” is credited with her full last name Guðmundsdóttir. And because of its status as an exhibition of a child’s talents, rather than a concerted work from a renowned musician that would emerge in the decades to come, some don’t count BJÖRK as a “full release.” But hey, it’s an album released under her name. Said album came together at the impetus of the singer’s stepfather, after an appearance on Icelandic radio. And while I do consider it the first record from a musician who would take very different artistic steps in short order, it is true that BJÖRK is worse than anything to come. It’s probably her most “conventional” record, if you want to call it that. It’s simply Björk singing a number of covers in Icelandic, including standout track (because of the beauty of its original composition) “Álfur Út Úr Hól,” from The Beatles’ “The Fool on the Hill.” There are some original compositions, but the whole thing definitely feels chintzy and sounds like grating pop. Björk, as a child vocalist, actually isn’t too bad, but the arrangements surrounding her on her self-titled debut are just too hokey to seriously enjoy.

Favorite track: “Gling-Gló”

GLING-GLÓ is another record that isn’t usually considered a “canonical” Björk album. This collaboration, credited to Björk Guðmundsdóttir & tríó Guðmundar Ingólfssonar, came 13 years after the self-titled debut, the biggest gap between releases, but again, this is kind of some fudging of what constitutes a “Björk” album. But it has her name on it! GLING-GLÓ came out in the middle of The Sugarcubes’ life of alt/punk rock, after the artist’s cheesy pop juvenilia, and just before she would reach superstar status under her own name. Like BJÖRK, however, this album does trade in cheese, a kind of sickly sweet, cliché jazz that often rankles much more than it relaxes or impresses. The title track is marginally interesting, and Björk of course sounds more like the way we know her, but the song is also just the opener before the approach of GLING-GLÓ wore me down.

Favorite track: “Gratitude”

I’ve included Björk’s two soundtrack albums on this list because they represent to me full-fledged entries into her full-length discography. The second of these, THE MUSIC FROM MATTHEW BARNEY’S DRAWING RESTRAINT 9, was of course put together for DRAWING RESTRAINT 9 (2005). The project, which combined videos and live art installations from Björk’s one-time long-time partner (they were together from 2002 to 2013), is apparently heady. Matthew Barney’s partner’s music is fittingly bizarre, even by Björk standards. Opener “Gratitude,” which features pleasant vocals from alt folk singer Will Oldham (AKA Bonnie “Prince” Billy), is the most conventional song on DRAWING RESTRAINT 9, although it too is ethereal and sort of formless. But the rest of the record trades way too much in repetitive, dissonant sounds and/or spacey ambient atmospheres, not necessarily in themselves terrible approaches. But they aren’t particularly successful in those ways, but admittedly there’s a higher barrier of entry to ambient and avant-garde for me. I must be fair and acknowledge the fact that DRAWING RESTRAINT 9 is probably more successful in context with the art project’s visual components, but as a standalone album, it’s one of Björk’s worst.

Favorite track: “Stonemilker”

We finally come to what is unfailingly considered a “canon” Björk album, and a fitting one to follow writing about DRAWING RESTRAINT 9. VULNICURA was informed by the musician’s breakup with Barney, and a decent amount of the album is certainly representative of the sadness and healing that can come from the end of a long-term relationship. In studying critical responses to Björk’s work, constant threads of, and I’m using paraphrases here, “this is Björk’s best work in a while” or “this is Björk’s most accessible work” or “this is Björk’s most honest work” arise. Obviously this could be true with each consecutive release, but these commendations are often contradictory or kind of overblown. In any event, I obviously don’t consider VULNICURA on any of these spectra I’ve described. That being said, its orchestral approach and arrangements are pleasing and the general vibe of the record effectively melancholy. This may be a good time to establish my viewpoint on Björk and the kind of avant-garde work she does. In my case, I think experimental music (or visual art or film or literature or whatever) can be immured from meaningful engagement due to its intentionally obscure or challenging forms. So a lot of Björk’s album work in that way for me; I can’t really say they’re bad because I simply feel I’m not able to grasp them in their entirety. Obviously I’m not alone, and at times I do think it’s unfair to dismiss something out of hand because it doesn’t immediately conform to formal expectations. Still, the heart wants (or does not want) what it wants (or does not want), and sometimes it’s simply not an enjoyable experience on any level for me to listen to experimental works, including a number of Björk’s songs. The aesthetic of the album-length experiences are at times more intriguing than fully entertaining or moving, and from here on in, that’s mostly the case. VULNICURA is kind of a strange entry on which to make these broad points, but as a later career release, it does bring to mind the arc of the artist’s career and how, in spite of intense variation, the commitment to experiments and the avant-garde can ironically grow stale.

Favorite track: “Crystalline”

Another context with which to understand Björk’s albums is how they are informed by visual or other multimedia elements and the musician’s own status as an alternative superstar. Since DEBUT, Björk has been known for her visually intense, even controversial, music videos. And from an early stage, she embraced digital distribution platforms and the composition of music considering those spaces. BIOPHILIA was accompanied by an app and educational workshops that also represent the album’s concept surrounding financial crises and technology’s impact on society. As I’ve explained, a lot of these kinds of ideas fall on my apparently deaf ears (man, I feel like a real philistine reading back some of these words, I swear I’m trying), at least insofar as the immediate emotional resonance in the music itself. For a concept album, BIOPHILIA doesn’t really communicate a central musical experience or cohesive work the way other, even more challenging Björk albums do. With standalone tracks that also don’t measure up to the artist’s best songs (although “Crystalline” is a clear favorite of mine), that makes BIOPHILIA a minor work in her discography.

Favorite track: “Scatterheart”

Björk made her highest-profile acting appearance as the lead in Lars von Trier’s DANCER IN THE DARK (2000), an experience she would later decry due to acting not really being a goal for her and von Trier’s personal behavior on set. But besides starring in the film as a Czech immigrant to the United States named Selma, Björk also composed its soundtrack. The resulting album, SELMASONGS: MUSIC FROM THE MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK ‘DANCER IN THE DARK,’ has a number of variations from the music that appears in its visual counterpart. But as a record in its own right, SELMASONGS isn’t without its successes. My favorite track, “Scatterheart,” is the kind of repetitive and droning song that I may have already denounced. But it’s hard to articulate what exactly separates Björk’s best and work in this mold besides particular sounds and beats that are able to rise above any potential dissonance. And that occurs across SELMASONGS, which is not an immediately rewarding listen (not much of its creator’s work is), but is an album that can have its own life away from its source film.

Favorite track: “Fungal City”

FOSSORA is Björk’s latest album at the time of this writing and the impetus for this piece. Rather than end up as a later career disappointment, it surprised me in the way its own form of experimentation resulted in vitality and fantastical soundscapes. This interpretation of mine, as is best informed by “Fungal City,” is perhaps incongruous with the record’s ostensible root in COVID woes and the death of Björk’s mother. But FOSSORA’s concept also lies in mushrooms and fungus. I mean, I’m serious, you can see it in my favorite track’s title. But the whole record, both musically and lyrically, kind of explores rebirth; of course Björk would go with decomposers rather than, say, the phoenix or something. However, this instinct, which is at first blush quite strange, comes out in the form of quirky, fantastical sounds, as if accompanying forested wanderings. FOSSORA is impressive in its ability to create these sensations, even if a number of the songs aren’t immediately engaging on their own.

Favorite track: “The Gate”

UTOPIA, FOSSORA’s predecessor, actually does something similar in its album-wide approach. There is a consistent integration of whistles and bird calls, something that was so central that a “UTOPIA Bird Call Boxset” was released with 14 wooden flutes that imitate different bird calls. Remember what I said about how Björk’s albums are defined in part by the ephemera, the multimedia, the live follow ups, the remixes that accompany them? In any event, that aspect of UTOPIA can be enjoyed without experiencing hand-carved instruments hands-on. These birdsongs contribute to the album’s success in lightening some of Björk’s more dissonant inclinations, although her voice does sound clearer and loftier than on many other releases. UTOPIA is fittingly in the middle of the pack on this list; it’s frequently beautiful, if also repetitive and a little too indulgent, but some richness shines through.

Favorite track: “Hidden Place”

I’ve come to recognize VESPERTINE as “the swan album” due to its album art and release after Björk wore her controversial swan dress to the Oscars. Once again, birds factor somewhat into the theme and imagery of a Björk album. But unlike UTOPIA, which I think attempted a more ethereal approach, VESPERTINE blends strings and loftier sounds with crunchy electronic beats and stronger pop hooks and choruses. “Hidden Place” is the best example of this, but “Cocoon” and “Pagan Poetry” also appeal to me on a broader level than much of what is on the albums that came earlier on this list. But I do think Björk entered the new millennium with, in addition to SELMASONGS, a more diffuse and experimental album in the form of VESPERTINE.

Favorite track: “Joga”

By HOMOGENIC, Björk had already released two huge commercial and critical successes. While it didn’t measure up to the pop appeal of those two albums, HOMOGENIC was respected in its time and its esteem has only grown since. I clearly don’t think it’s better than DEBUT or POST, but it’s true that there is a lot to dive into and more necessitates unpacking on their follow up. But I don’t mean to make it sound like listening to HOMOGENIC is some kind of chore. The record does have initial rewards in its synthy orchestras, pounding beats, and twinkling asides and Björk’s soaring vocals. There just isn’t the same kind of attention paid to the contemporary dance and pop scene, the same kind of intentional inversion yet paid tribute. HOMOGENIC was and is a marker of Björk’s artistic and ever more avant-garde evolution, and a good listen to boot.

Favorite track: Who Is It

MEDÚLLA is where the experiment itself blows me away. The album is constructed of multiple layers of a cappella from Björk and collaborators, including the incredible beatboxing talents of Rahzell, formerly of The Roots. Even if elements of the album were edited in post to make some of the vocals more “instrumental,” the voices never lose their human and soul-bearing quality. The a cappella approach is able to bring a richness to some catchy lines and refrains, as on “Who Is It,” belying the fact that such an avant-garde experiment has to be lacking in the listenability department. These achievements, in conjunction with the choruses’ ability to create intricate and moving sounds that aren’t always achieved using the instruments they are echoing, make MEDÚLLA one of Björk’s best albums.

Favorite track: “Innocence”

OK, I’ll bite: VOLTA is the most accessible (read: least wildly experimental) and poppy album Björk has released since POST. You’ll notice a trend in these top choices towards stuff that have a little bit more of a thread of “normalcy,” but only on the scale of Björk’s entire discography. In spite of working with Timbaland for VOLTA, it’s not like the record is some Top 40-seeking juggernaut. However, it is a joyous and driving bit of aggressive pop, stomping and soaring with squealing synths and Björk’s recognizable wail and rasp. “Innocence” is just so dance-y in the vein of the songs and albums that put her solo career on the map and representative of its source album’s ethos. VOLTA doesn’t match the heights of Björk’s original pop deconstructions, but it is of a kind with them and a great counter to the expectations set by the artist’s more melancholic or avant-garde work.

Favorite track: “Army of Me”

I led this whole piece with how I’m not a Björk superfan, so maybe this assertion is off. But I seem to find that POST is the go-to favorite for Björk’s albums. Obviously, I don’t fall in with that consensus, but it’s undeniable that the pop, electronic, and dance reimagination took off at a broader and more aggressive scale after the statement of DEBUT. “Army of Me” is probably Björk’s best-known song for a reason because it’s brilliant and brash and walks the line between conventional pop goodness and out-of-step experimentation. The same could be said for the whole of POST. The album is a clear example of the challenge any music writer has had in categorizing Björk’s music, as it messes with traditional pop, EDM, techno, house, jazz, ambient music, and more. This scale of fusion would tilt in different directions in the years following POST, but the eclectic mix of influences, instincts, and forward-thinking compositions ironically make for a cohesively mind-bending experience.

Favorite track: “Violently Happy”

Fittingly, DEBUT is considered Björk’s first solo album by the artist and others. But as I’ve explained, that wasn’t strictly true if you’re considering albums credited to the woman outside of bands like The Sugarcubes. But it is still true that DEBUT is the introduction of the Björk we would come to know. Her childhood music industry exposure and her time in bands and other collaborations yielded the experience to deconstruct the genres she had worked with and beyond. Björk is often credited as a destroyer of expectations, even by me in this very piece. But DEBUT also skillfully leverages conventions set by contemporary electronic music and melancholy alt pop even as it created new ones. Björk’s third/first album is less extreme than POST, but DEBUT’s relative restraint in hindsight (it’s pretty iconoclastic in the context of its time actually) serves it well. The album treads different ground while rooting itself in the repetition of dance music, but unlike later Björk albums when such repetitions deal with particularly dissonant sounds, the percussion and glossy production present off-beat pleasure. Björk has yet to top DEBUT’s appeal (for, as I fear I am, a philistine like me) because of its closer approximation to mainstream songwriting conventions, but its experimentation and those to follow do cement her as an inventive, outrageous, talented, and at times frustrating musician.

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