The title rather self-consciously marks this as the starting point, but the Sugarcubes had made Björk a known quantity. After casting about for collaborators -- she approached 808 State's Graham Massey, jazz multi-instrumentalist Corky Hale and the Art Ensemble of Chicago -- Björk settled on Nellee Hooper, best known for his association with Massive Attack. While many of the songs on Debut were composed years earlier, the difference between this and the rather stiff art-pop of the Sugarcubes is astounding. Though her electronic bent gets the most attention, it's her interest in jazz that courses through the set. Opener "Human Behaviour" (her first single and first UK hit) rolls along on irresistable loping bass and timpani, with Björk riding behind the beat. The chill portrait "Venus As a Boy" plays like a globe-trotting torch song, combining Talvin Singh's tabla and string arrangement (recorded in India) with plummy, laconic bass. Featuring a sort of call-and-response between singer and brass (and nothing more), "The Anchor Song" is a pure jazz tone poem, as if Rahsaan Roland Kirk wrote a tribute to the Icelandic shore. And, of course, there's "Like Someone in Love," the album's lone cover and a Jazz Age standard. She acquits herself well, working her way toward unruly passion over an arrangement of Hale's harp, synth and backgrounded street noise. It's a fine counterpoint to the previous track, "There's More to Life Than This," an anti-party song that features club ambience and perhaps the worst pronunciation of "ghettoblaster" ever.
Hooper's trip-hop and house contributions don't play quite as well, twenty years on; as usual for Björk, her best songs tend to achieve synthesis. (The ebullient "Big Time Sensuality," with its roller-rink organ and joyous high notes, is a major exception.) But even in the presence of four-on-the-floor beats and Chicago-style piano, she creates distinctive documents. Nautical imagery (boats, anchors, jumping into the sea) recurs frequently, as if, even at the outset of her ambitious course, Björk wanted nothing more than to escape. In a sense, she had: her arrangements on Debut showcase her impeccable vocal chops, too often shouted down in the past by reverb-heavy pop/rock production. She sounds utterly free. And the public responded, beyond her label's wildest expectations: all five singles were British hits, and one ("Big Time Sensuality") scraped into the US Hot 100 thanks to a video that received major play on MTV. She mapped her ambition well, and fortified her position on the follow-up.
We like to talk about artists’ contradictory impulses, but with Björk, it’s more apt to talk about unities. In a career that’s nearing its fourth decade, she’s coupled many of the major dualities: intellect and body, auditory and visual, nature and technology. A map of her stylistic forays reads like a condensation of Rip It Up And Start Again: a very early folk start, then stints in post- and anarcho-punk outfits, followed by a series of idiosyncratic dance broadsides pasted onto pop’s center pole. She could have made a career of issuing albums in the vein of her first two: textured, au courant electronic-pop. Instead, she invested her capital into a series of ambitious, sprawling sonic expeditions.
Björk is frequently described as a “pop star,” which makes sense as component concepts. She’s placed 20 singles in the top 40 of the enviably omnivorous UK charts. No one has used the medium of short-form music videos to display so much wonder; in doing so, she collaborated with a staggering number of film, design, and fashion heavies: Michel Gondry, Sophie Muller, Chris Cunningham, Alexander McQueen, Eiko Ishiokam, Spike Jonze — even Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi. She’s sold millions of records, has a legion of dedicated fans, and the financial freedom to attempt nearly every project she can imagine. And still, she is not quite a pop star, at least not Stateside. To most Americans, the mention of her name conjures visions of swans and assault charges. She can headline Bonnaroo — as she is doing this year, alongside Paul McCartney, Mumford & Sons, and Tom Petty — but she’s never placed a single higher than No. 84 on the Hot 100.
Still, Björk exists in that rarified air of commercial success, critical adoration, and creative freedom. She’s a saint in the indie-rock community — an amusing happenstance, considering the major-label resources that have been at her disposal since her Sugarcubes days, to say nothing of the genres (electronic, dance-pop, jazz) she investigated. But the reason she’s beloved are obvious: She has made a career out of succeeding on her own terms, ever since her Crass-associated days with KUKL. The stereotype of her as an aloof Icelandic sprite may persist, but Björk remains a restless, collaborative artist, capable of effortlessly expressing her humanity through whatever raw material interests her. Discussing Kate Winslet’s performance in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (directed by frequent collaborator Gondry), Björk noted to the Guardian’s Liz Hoggard that “[u]sually when you see females in movies, they feel like they have these metallic structures around them, they are caged in by male energy. But she could be at her full volume without restrictions.” And so it has been for Björk in a career that shows no sign of creative regression.
What follows is a ranking of Björk’s seven studio albums, with her soundtracks for Lars von Trier and Matthew Barney omitted. Let the music-video ranking debate commence in the comments. Start the Countdown here.