The incomparable Björk Guðmundsdóttir released her first album as a precocious, flute-toting 12-year-old, and has barely stopped innovating since. We all know the big hits – but what are the lesser known tracks in her back catalogue that have been cruelly overlooked?
Björk’s official Debut came out in 1993, but in those intervening years Björk strayed into punk, jazz, goth, pop and house through dozens of projects and collaborations, soaking up the sundry ideas that would fuel her 20-year (and counting) career as a solo star. She’s lent her multi-octave voice to classical composers, dance producers, film directors and fine artists, and worked with everyone from David Attenborough to Dave Longstreth, from junglists and trip-hoppers to the anonymous scruffs of Sheffield’s electronic scene. In 2011, she wrapped up her gargantuan, multi-platform Biophilia album project, and now appears to be enjoying a bit of a breather after nearly four decades at the avant-pop coalface.
Not everything with Björk’s unique stamp on it has stood the test of time, mind – for every glittering ‘Unravel’ there’s a tired-sounding IDM remix or three, and with that in mind we’ve donned our waders and ventured into the depths of her sprawling back catalogue to pick out the 10 deep cuts and hidden gems that deserve to be put back in the spotlight. After you.
(from Björk, Fálkinn, 1977)
Despite its reputation as juvenilia, Björk’s very first album is a must-hear for anyone with a taste for oddball reissues of the Finders Keepers variety. A collection of folksy sing-along songs filtered through the synth-led Eurodisco of the day and a smattering of hippy-dippy orientalism, the record showcases Björk’s flute talents and already idiosyncratic vocal style, littered with exuberantly rolled Rs and bold excursions into her upper range.
Björk Guðmundsdóttir & Tríó Guðmundar Ingólfssonar
(from Gling-Gló, Smekkleysa, 1990)
Fans of her brash, brassy take on ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ should know that there’s an entire album of jazzy Björk in the archive, recorded in 1990 as a Sugarcubes side project. While the instrumentation of Gling-Gló is fairly pedestrian, the album’s selection of original songs and jazz standards (sung in Icelandic) is lifted into the stratosphere by Björk’s powerhouse voice. ‘Kata-Rokkar’ is up there with her strongest, most avant-garde vocal performances; check the middle section and trying singing that into your hairbrush.
‘Keep Your Mouth Shut’
(from Nearly God, Island Records, 1996)
For a time Tricky was a charged influence on both Björk’s musical direction and personal life. The pair were an item romantically (something which Tricky spoke about soberly in his 2013 interview with FACT’s Joseph Morpurgo), and also managed to rack up a healthy amount of musical collaborations, two of which made it to Tricky’s “collection of brilliant demos” released under the alias Nearly God. ‘Keep Your Mouth Shut’ splices lyrics from Björk’s ‘You’ve Been Flirting Again’ with discordant, industrial clanks pinched from Das EFX’s ‘Hold it Down’, and what should be an ugly collision emerges as a gorgeous, disarming meeting of minds and sounds.
Björk & Evelyn Glennie
(from Evelyn Glennie: Her Greatest Hits, RCA, 1997)
Björk’s dalliances with the classical world have been as unorthodox as you’d expect from someone who once laid an egg on the red carpet, choosing to work with unusual outliers like deaf Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie. ‘Oxygen’ was their first collaboration, recorded in 1995 just a few hours after their initial meeting. “This piece, with all the pops, rattles and other unrefined noises, shows that this was a totally spontaneous effort – without ‘make-up’ or doctoring of any kind,” Glennie explained. Though they later tried to recreate the practice take in the studio, they couldn’t recapture its spontaneous charm, and it’s that first attempt you’ll hear on Glennie’s album.
(from Not For Threes, Warp, 1997)
Björk’s flirtation with electronic music is well publicised, but it’s easy to forget that she buried herself so deeply in the Sheffield scene that she ended up popping up on Plaid’s excellent debut full-length Not For Threes in 1997. A few years earlier she’d hooked up a pair of remixes from The Black Dog (back when Plaid’s Andy Turner and Ed Handley were still members), and this was her way of saying thank you, with a set of breathy coos over Plaid’s unmistakable chipper electronica.
‘All Is Full Of Love (µ-ziq 7 Minute Mix)’
(One Little Indian, 1999)
Björk has managed to accumulate a breathtaking amount remixes over her lengthy career, and plenty of them are worthy of reappraisal, but few are quite as successful as Mike Paradinas’ uncharacteristically subtle rework of Homogenic closer ‘All Is Full Of Love’. Paradinas strips out the unnecessary (and now quite dated) beat, replacing it with bassy throbs and swirling strings. It’s simple, but crushingly effective, coming across like an unofficial sequel to Vangelis’ peerless Blade Runner soundtrack.
Björk & John Tavener
‘Prayer of the Heart’
(from A Portrait, Naxos, 2004)
‘Prayer of the Heart’ was written for Björk by the late British composer John Tavener, whose strong feeling for religious mysticism found a powerful vehicle in the singer’s elastic voice. Singing a prayer from the Eastern Orthodox church, Björk is stretched to her limit, singing in three languages – Greek, Coptic and English – and flitting from soaring soprano into half-spoken passages and guttural, almost primitive howls.
Bogdan Raczynski & Björk
‘Who Is It (Shooting Stars & Asteroids Mix)’
When Björk calmly dropped the demo of ‘Who Is It’ on her website prior to the release of 2004’s Medúlla, plenty of us assumed that Rephlex-signed breakcore weirdo Bogdan Raczynski would have a hand in the majority of the album’s production. Sadly that never actually happened, and that version of ‘Who Is It’ was alarmingly missing from the album’s final release. Raczynski’s demo version (retitled the ‘Shooting Stars & Asteroids Mix’) eventually made its way to vinyl in 2005, and now stands as a curious reminder of what could have been.
Antony and the Johnsons
(from Swanlights, Rough Trade 2010)
Here’s one we should have really seen coming, as the pairing of helium-voiced Antony Hegarty and Björk was surely inevitable. Also inevitable is its quality – Hegarty pulls himself back from the spotlight in Björk’s presence, and allows the Icelandic diva to take the lead, backing her up with sparse piano work and melancholy hums.
Dirty Projectors & Björk
‘On and Ever Onward’
(from Mount Wittenberg Orca, Domino, 2010)
It’s not often Björk’s voice is overshadowed by another pair of lungs, but on this collaboration with Dave Longstreth’s experimental pop ensemble Dirty Projectors, it’s Amber Coffman’s piercing upper register that provides a meaty backdrop for our Icelandic hero’s gentler, almost amorous croon. The Mount Wittenberg Orca EP was originally written for a benefit concert and only committed to tape a year later; its whale and marine life theme offers a neat adjunct to Björk’s Biophilia project, which arrived the following year.