Similar to Debut, but with more: harder beats, a greater sense of interiority, and further exploration of Björk's vocal range. The approach extends to the artwork: Jean Baptiste Mondino's black-and-white portrait of the singer -- clad in a sweater, hands clasped before her lips -- is succeeded by a garishly vibrant, Stéphane Sednaoui-shot image. Lead single "Army of Me" set the tone. It's an all-time great single, the kind of imperious, audacious modern rock that always eluded Trent Reznor. A menacing, bassy keyboard ostinato and live-sounding drum programming pin you to the ground; the refrain pairs Björk's famous couplet "and if you complain once more/you'll meet an army of me" with lowing divebombs. Some of these songs were written by Björk and 808 State's Graham Massey before Debut; Debut's producer Nellee Hooper returns, joined by trip-hop titans Howie B and Tricky, her romantic partner at the time. His contributions are "Enjoy" and "Headphones," written during a trip to Reykjavik. On the former, he converts his penchant for cool menace into nagging industrial, punctured by clipped brass stabs; the latter is a complete stylistic break, a delicate, textural lullabye topped by a bravura vocal performance, combining sotto voce and multi-Björk ecstasy and pure wordless vocalization.
Already a gifted singer, on Post Björk claims even more space for herself. She shifts between effortless clarity and her trademark abandon, letting her multi-tracked vocals drift from foreground to background. The trip-hop/Chill Out fusion "Possibly Maybe" seems to chart a relationship from uncertain outset to cessation; the singer backs herself with judicious use of a Hollywood Golden Age vocal mode. In a more explicit nod to her beloved post-war pop, she covers "It's Oh So Quiet," a German composition made famous by Betty Hutton. Björk tracks Hutton's arrangement meticulously, down to the music box and unhinged "WOW!" She has fun camping it up, but the track's a bit precious, best sampled as a palate-cleanser during the course of the record. As usual, "It's Oh So Quiet" became a hit on the back of a striking video, in this case a postmodern Busby Berkeley homage filmed by Spike Jonze.
Post marked Björk's commercial peak; her two UK Top Tens ("It's Oh So Quiet" and the winkingly-titled "Hyperballad") are to be found here, and the baggy ode to anticipation "I Miss You" was her final hit on the US Dance Club chart. Her critical and commercial capital at an all-time high, she staged a retreat of sorts. 1996 found her touring the world and issuing the remix LP Telegram. In August, she decamped for Spain, ending her creative partnership with Hooper. She had new powers to summon.
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.