In a 2002 Pitchfork review of her Greatest Hits set, Chris Ott presciently noted that her voice had become "increasingly familiar, a recognizable product of her environment. The result: the rest of the world has been immunized to the Icelandic cadence, and Björk is no longer supernatural." Medúlla, then, is a corrective. Constructed almost completely a cappella, the album serves as a reintroduction to her marvelous instrument, a drastic experiment in exposure. (Having said that, Medúlla is careful not to overstay its welcome, clocking in as Björk's second-shortest studio album to date. The shortest, amazingly, is Homogenic.)
At the same time, this is also her most political album... in a sense. The track "Ancestors" -- a piano-backed, vocal showcase of nonsense phonemes, loudly drawn breaths and senseless dialogue -- is actually Medúlla's thematic centerpiece. In a 2004 interview with XFM, she described "Ancestors" as "going back to the roots -- before time, or civilization, or religion, or patriotism." Her sort of paleo politics is much more effective when it's approached from the edges, and her inclusion of classical choral work (including, finally, an all-male section) and beatboxing make this more than an exercise in imagined nostalgia (Plus, the beatboxing supplies a bit of the funk she'd been neglecting.)
Whether going creepy-crawly alongside Mike Patton on "Where Is the Line," riding Rahzel's beatboxing and Tagaq's throat singing on the alternate-universe Natasha Bedingfield single "Who Is It," or going medieval on the Icelandic-language "Vökuró," Björk's vocals evince the particular mix of intelligence and intuition that was credited to her productions in critical heaps. Admittedly, this is a record devoted largely to ideas, rather than songs; still, cuts like "Who Is It" and "Triumph of a Heart" (which features -- shit you not -- mewing) demonstrate that Björk had not forgotten how to structure a pop tune. The aforementioned two tracks, as well as the Robert Wyatt feature "Oceania," even charted in a handful of European nations. Her range was always impressive; Medúlla just quantifies it.
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.