Family Tree/Greatest Hits
One Little Indian

there is a big difference between a “greatest hits” collection and a “best of” compilation. The former is a collection of chart hits and memories designed to re-ignite interest in an artist or provide a shortcut to their most beloved recordings; the latter is ostensibly an artist’s best work, regardless of popularity. Fans often complain about the former not being for them—and they’re right, they aren’t. Björk attempted to split the difference by offering her fans a chance to select a “best of” in an Internet poll, and what happened? They created a “greatest hits.” Just as most polls and votes usually go, potentially interesting and bold choices were negated and a consensus formed around a soft middle. And in this case—although the songs are individually very strong—as a whole the set offers little for those who compiled it.

Björk’s Greatest Hits compiles a sizeable portion of the Icelandic chanteuse’s singles with the addition of the now requisite new one. The most glaring omission is the biggest worldwide hit of her career, “It’s Oh So Quiet,” but because it’s a cover, a red herring, and more slight than the songs that are featured, it’s not much of a loss. What is here is a neat cross-section of one the more fascinating artists of the past 10 years.

Björk has blurred the acceptable lines between indie-friendly pop and club culture by marrying traditional song structures to techno, hi-NRG, and glitch—with the help of electronic giants such as Nellee Hooper, Mark Bell, Tricky, Goldie, 808 State, and Matmos. Her fans often wave the flag for her supposedly avant-garde tendencies, but outside of her singular voice and unblinking acceptance of Middle Eastern and dance elements, there is little about her that doesn’t conform to pop-rock structures—not that there’s anything wrong with that. Among Björk’s strengths is her accessibility, which—in America—posited her as a key figure in the mainstream acceptance of electronic music.

Lyrically, she’s exploring very basic human emotions, as well, but with a wit and charm that belie her song’s minimal subjects. Explorations of boy-girl relationships dominate her most recent full-length records, Homogenic and Vespertine, on which she explored the depths and then the heights of love. Following the catharsis of the former—magnified by a series of harrowing experiences in her personal life and her emotionally draining star turn in Lars Von Trier’s Cannes-winning film, “Dancer in the Dark”—Björk’s most recent effort was characterized by some as shallow and cloy. Its bare-boned explorations of happiness and intimacy were assumed to be signs of artistic weakness. That’s a shame, as it was in many ways her bravest work.

On the hits collection, the crumbs for the completist include two singles mixes—the sublime “All Is Full of Love” and four-to-the-floor “Violently Happy”—a wide released for her John Barryesque David Arnold collaboration, “Play Dead,” and a new song, the gorgeous “It’s in Our Hands.” The well-chosen hits package is the best Björk primer and the place to go for casual fans. Whether it offers enough reason for her die-hard fans to purchase it is less certain.

Of greater interest for the fans is the long-awaited Björk box set, Family Tree. The set was endlessly delayed in order to get the packaging correct, and it shows—not only is it lovingly housed in a delicate case with a series of panels, but the musical content seems like an afterthought. Even for an artist who constantly challenged herself and her devoted fans, this is slightly disappointing. What is here is brilliant, undoubtedly, but it’s a missed opportunity traded in for another fetish object of Björkinalia.

The most frustrating thing about it—unfairly, in a way—is that One Little Indian had been promising a complete singles box, not unlike the one released to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Blur. Fortunately because this set offers no attempt to be comprehensive (unlike the truly disappointing New Order box that will be released this winter), there’s still room for a more music-centric companion that could include a wider selection of remixes and B-sides.

What we have is 35 tracks—including a 12-song sampling of Björk’s favorites from her solo records. Bjork’s own selections include a pair of tracks from Selmasongs and a trio of album cuts (“You’ve Been Flirting Again,” “Unravel,” “It’s Not Up to You”), but mostly stick to singles. It’s the only 5´´ disc in the set (the others are 3´´, which means they won’t play in your car or a carriage that doesn’t have a centerpiece on which to mount them) and offers nothing to attract fans to the record. It’s an affectation, and they’re well selected, but almost entirely pointless.

The other 23 tracks are divided into three sections—“Roots,” “Strings,” and “Beats”—and provide a fairly representative deconstruction of Björk’s sound. When 1997’s Homogenic was released, Björk described the record as a mixture of strings and beats. (Her subsequent releases, Selmasongs and Vespertine, also follow this blueprint—albeit with different sorts of strings and beats). The Strings works collected are the much-loved—and widely distributed—collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet. Glacial and elegant, they’re a showcase for that voice but the weakest of the three sections.

Disc one of the Roots section reflects Björk’s musical shifts prior to her former band, the Sugarcubes, crossing into the consciousness of music listeners in North America, the British Isles, and continental Europe. A flute instrumental recorded when Björk was 15 is a diverting curio, but more intriguing are “Sídasta Eg,” an early home recording, and a trio of Sugarcubes songs—including an Icelandic-languague version of their breakout hit, “Birthday.” Not included is any of the material from Björk’s self-titled childhood album or her work with Icelandic art-punks KUKL.

The second disc of the Roots section—sort of a glimpse of songs in progress—is more familiar yet more rewarding. A harpsichord-laden version of “Immature” cheekily time machines that Homogenic track about regret and shame back to Björk’s more “innocent” Debut days. An unreleased version of “Cover Me” and the string-and-vocal mix of “Joga” are also included, as are a live version of b-side “Generous Palmstroke” and 1999 b-side “Mother Heroic.”

Best of all is the too-brief Beats section, where much beloved b-sides “Karvel” and “I Go Humble”—and “Nature Is Ancient” (renamed in Kevin Rowland style), which was originally released as “My Snare” on one of the “Bacherolette” singles—is joined by an early recording of “The Modern Things.” Drawing a closer line to her club roots and early days in London, this disc is the side of Björk that many fans have missed in her new domestica days.

It’s a gorgeous affectation, a solid “road map” as Björk herself calls it, and a worthy purchase for the die-hards, but in a career as rich and with as much nuance as Björk’s, there is a lot of compilation ground to cover. Fortunately—as this playfully stubborn package testifies—there is still also a lot of creativity left in one of mainstream music’s most uncompromising artists.

Reviewed by: Scott Plagenhoef
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01
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