If you’re just joining us, check out the About This Project link for details. Basically, I make playlists of all the singles by certain musical artists and then try to order them using the guiding principle “do I like each song more than the last song.” I define “single” in a broad enough way to include any song that was released as a purchasable single in any format in any country; as a promotional single in any country; as a video; or generally any song that I know charted anywhere. My main sources are Wikipedia (mostly reliable) and Discogs (reasonably reliable). I welcome editing feedback since sometimes I favor speed over spelling.
This list has been a bear and a half. I originally planned on working on ranking Björk’s singles discography last September but was pleasantly surprised to learn that she was releasing a new single (with an album to follow) that very month so I put off working on this until I’d had some time to digest those singles. Then I dove into compiling a definitive list and realized I was in a little over my head because Björk has had a prolific career as a member of different groups, as a solo artist and as a featured collaborator. You can get a sense of the breadth of her career from her discography page at Wikipedia.
I’ve been a huge fan of Björk since The Sugarcubes broke onto the college radio charts back in 1986. A true artist, her work can be beautiful, fun, enigmatic, confounding and impenetrable – often all at the same time. Björk has been recording music since 1976 when, at age 11, she performed “I Love To Love” (a cover of a Tina Charles tune) on Icelandic radio which led to her releasing her first album – the self-titled Bjork – in 1977. Before the Sugarcubes, she was part of a couple of other bands that released music – Tappi Tíkarrass, a punk band that released an EP and an album but no singles, and K.U.K.L., a more goth band who did release a single and, thus, are on this list. Before her involvement with either of these bands, she was the drummer of an all-teenage girl punk rock group named Spit and Snot. They did not record music as near as I can tell. She then joined a jazz band named Exodus to indulge “her love of unconventional time signatures and experimentation.” She was also part of a short-lived group called Jam-80. The point is, Björk was already a seasoned, recognized musician before she and some other cool cats formed The Sugarcubes.
I’ve reduced this list to 68 singles, promotional videos or songs that were otherwise selected to represent their parent album in some way – mostly by either Björk solo or Björk with the Sugarcubes. I’ve also included singles with collaborators that placed Björk as a “marquee” collaborator (i.e. – her name is listed after the word “featuring” in the official title of the song). Björk is very wise regarding how we experience music and has at times foregone traditional singles altogether in favor of videos or interactive music experiences. Thus, what songs should or shouldn’t be included on this list is a subject that can be debated endlessly. In fact, I have debated it endlessly with myself.
I will go on record here as stating that everything by Björk is worth at least a few moments of your time if you like her work – the videos are all exceptional and are part of the experience (though I’m only ranking the music). Even the “singles” that I’ve ranked lower are worthwhile.
Shall we do this? I think we shall.
Music video from Biophilia (2011), video released in 2012
An absolutely gorgeous video that is apparently a DNA level trip through Björk’s body. The lyrics of the song are about how we’re all connected to our ancestors through our DNA – though there’s a hint in the end that Björk yearns to belong to that genetic line more than she feels she does. This topic is absolutely fascinating and even in this lowest-ranked-by-me of Björk’s songs there is some of the same sort of artistic genius that you’ll hear in most of her work. To my ear, the problem here is twofold. First, the song seems more like a soundscape than a fully developed tune. Second, there’s this keyboard (?) bit that is so annoying that “Hollow” is the only Björk-related tune that my wife makes me turn off when it comes on in the car. I love Björk and it grates on me. The Biolphilia album was a fascinating project that included an app that you can still buy. I’ve not played it but the images I’ve seen of it suggest it’s stunningly beautiful.
67. Utopia (featuring Arca)
Music video from Utopia (2017), video released in 2017
Björk’s most recent album, Utopia, inspired this less-than-stellar review at Jezebel. I rarely link specific reviews when writing about songs, but I think this one sums up something that I’ve experienced and witnessed myself – that feeling of what happens when a once-favorite artist is creating music that you’re not quite so into anymore. I went through that with both David Bowie and R.E.M. and it took a process of gradual reevaluation of their work to realize that my complain wasn’t that they weren’t making interesting music, but that they weren’t making music like they had been when I first fell in love with their work (with Bowie, there was a time in the 80’s when I liked his Let’s Dance era music and his early 70’s music a million times more than his Berlin period albums, which I now love). Anyhow, my point here is, I get that strange tension between wanting your favorite artist to create something great, believing they haven’t, but hoping that they’ll do it next time.
The title track from Utopia is another soundscape that eschews conventional hooks in favor of bird songs and flute trills. It has thematic importance in the context of the parent album and, as with “Hollow,” the video is beautiful. Since both of the last two songs are essential album tracks that inspired videos and not singles, per se, it is a little unfair to gauge them the same way I might a single, but I find both of them to be hard to listen to outside the context of their parent album – the previous song because of the aggravating keyboard work, this one because it’s pretty but a little dull.
There isn’t a “Björk Lyrics Analyzed” site that I could find, but the commentators at Genius have really done a decent job of tackling (and citing evidence) the meaning of her lyrics.
66. Vitamin (by The Sugarcubes)
Third single from Stick Around For Joy (1992), released as a single in 1992
The Sugarcubes (Sykurmolarnir in Icelandic) were the first major Icelandic music acts to break into the international pop music scene. Their first two albums received a ton of college radio airplay (an MTV airplay) in the 80’s but moving from the band being their hobby to the band being their career took its toll on them. By the time they recorded Stick Around For Joy, they were already moving towards an amicable split (and Björk towards her solo career). Now, The Sugarcubes are sort of the European B-52’s – much of what makes the group interesting is a balance between strong melodic female vocals (Björk) and sprechgesang male vocals (Einar Örn) over sometimes dancey, sometimes moody pop music. I know many of my classmates at Bates loved Björk but couldn’t stand Einar Örn. I think they were missing out – Einar Örn is generally fabulous and often hilarious. The rest of the band included some of Iceland’s best rock musicians and I’ll mention the rest of them along the way.
“Vitamin” is a hooked laden tune that annoys the heck out of me. The main thing that puts me off is the use of the famous 2-3-4-2 sports clap (made famous in music on “Centerfield” by John Fogerty but apparently created by The Routers). To my ear, it sounds like the band is saying “we are going to force you to connect with this song whether you want to or not.” It’s like when there’s an unjustified kick-line in a musical an everyone feels obligated to applaud. It comes across as pandering (though I’m certainly not saying that was the band’s intention) and makes me cringe when I hear it. The rest of the song? Pretty catchy.
65. The Comet Song
Charity single from the 2010 film Moomins and the Comet Chase
The Moomins was a European children’s TV show that was very popular in the late 70’s and early 80’s. It never quite crossed over here but continues to be a European phenomenon. In 2010, a stop motion animated film titled Moomins and the Comet Chase was released and Björk was invited to record this title song. While the lyrics are, as always, cryptic and a little challenging but the tune here is pleasant and enjoyable, I feel like it’s only half a song. Is that the point? Did the comet crash and interrupt the song? I get the concept of leaving your audience wanting more, but I want way, way more.
64. Mouth Mantra
Music video from Vulnicura (2015), video released in 2015
Björk released no singles from Vulnicura, but every single song was released in video form which means all nine songs are on my list. The cover features Björk’s chest split in half (this is even more clear on the Deluxe Edition’s cover) – a metaphor for the heartbreak she describes on the album. Famously (if you follow Björk’s career), this song cycle is about her break-up with her partner of 13 years. The album is heartrendingly personal and can be a harrowing listen. Not recommended if you’ve recently gone through a split yourself, unless hearing somebody else’s genuine misery makes you feel better (according to science, most people do feel better when they listen to sad songs).
“Mouth Mantra,” however, is the one song on the album that isn’t specifically about her break-up. Underscored by a great string line, Björk sings about her feelings related to being unable to make a sound for three weeks after vocal surgery. I had to go without talking for a week once due to a viral infection. Sadly, this was in the middle of a three-week run of performances of the Kabuki Sukeroku: The Flower of Edo. If you’re curious, here I am mouthing the words (I’m in light blue) while Professor James Brandon – dressed like a Koken – speaks them. He’s the one all in black right behind me. It was frustrating having to communicate exclusively through writing and gesture. Around this same time, one of my friends committed suicide and I became convinced that part of the reason was because the last time I saw her, instead of stopping to write a note to explain my predicament, I pointed at my throat and hurried to class. So anyhow, I think it makes perfect sense to create a song about the frustration and sorrow of losing your voice, particularly for a singer.
“Mouth Mantra” is a lovely song to listen to but one that does not stick in my head at all. I just listened to it now (for like the 20th time this week) and all that’s left in my mind is a vague recollection of the shape of some of the sounds.
63. Venus as a Boy
Second single from Debut (1993), released as a single in 1993
I know, I know, many people love this song and it was one of the most beloved ones from Debut. I’ve just never really been able to get into it. In a way, it is Björk’s most conventional love song (for some value of conventional Western pop song that includes Indian instrumentation). There’s just something about the “He believes in beauty” that occasionally feels like chewing on aluminum for me. It could be that this sensual song (with an even more sensual video) somehow upsets my New England upbringing. Now, not everyone in New England is uptight, but I was raised in Connecticut where all the world’s most boring pornography comes from. Safe for work sample:
Man: Francine, if you’re not doing anything in the next 5 to 7 minutes, would you mind helping me with something in the garage?
They go to the garage and clear off a shelf
Man: Thank you Francine.
She moves to kiss him
Man: Francine! What would the neighbors think
They return to the living room and read James Updike novels, occasionally blushing
So, yeah, maybe some of Björk’s more sensual music sets off my PDA defense systems. You can take the boy out of Connecticut…
62. Luftguitar (ICE only) (as Johnny Triumph & Sykurmolarnir)
Stand alone single released in 1987
I just… this is The Sugarcubes first single released under their Icelandic name and it’s… I mean… Go go! On the one hand, an incredibly fun piece of Iceland surf rock (and that’s a pretty cool idea). On the other hand, I just…
This is sort of The Sugarcubes’ big dumb song, and I love it for that.
I must mention that Johnny Triumph is Björk’s good friend and frequent writing partner, the poet Sjón.
Video from Vulnicura (2015), video released in 2016
The nine tracks from Vulnicura are all over this list. The lyrics of “Family” address the mourning one experiences after going through a traumatic break-up. Mourning is a strange thing. I went through about three months of crying every single day after my cat, Mordecai, passed away. I’d never experienced anything like that before. I went to a grief counselor who explained that people grieve over many things that meant a lot to them – pets, relationships, objects, what have you. The grieving process is unpredictable and is, perhaps, never completely over, but it’s necessary in order to move on and rebuild. The tragedy of this song is that Björk feels she’s unable to grieve because she doesn’t know where to do it – there’s no headstone for her relationship, no “clay paws” memorial for a broken home. Björk’s vocal delivery is perfect and painful. In context of the whole album (and you should listen to the whole album straight through someday), this is a powerful transition from the stinging “Black Lake” to the sad acceptance of “Notget.” Out of context of the album, this is another song that doesn’t quite stick with me after it’s over – just the emotional pain lingers.
Coming Soon: A couple more of “How could Doyle have ranked them so low” songs. Sorry.