“Vulnicura,” “I Want to Grow Up,” and the Albums of the Decade

This post was initially going to be about my albums of the decade (so far). I put an initial list of 20 albums together, agonized a lot over the order, and had started writing the blurbs when I decided to abandon the whole thing because part of me just felt like it was a waste of time. Most people just want to see the list anyways, so here is what I ended up with at the time I threw in the towel a couple weeks ago:

20. Allo Darlin’ – Europe
19. Wild Flag – Wild Flag
18. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
17. Lotus Plaza – Spooky Action at a Distance
16. A Sunny Day in Glasgow – Sea When Absent
15. SubRosa – More Constant Than the Gods
14. Nona – Through the Head
13. Janelle Monae – The Archandroid
12. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
11. No Joy – Wait to Pleasure
10. Colleen Green – I Want to Grow Up
9. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
8. Ex Hex – Rips
7. Kate Bush – 50 Words For Snow
6. Afrirampo – We Are Uchu No Ko
5. Throwing Muses – Purgatory/Paradise
4. Björk – Vulnicura
3. My Bloody Valentine – m b v
2. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
1. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

(I made a youtube playlist with a song from each album if you’re interested.)

The toughest part of the list was deciding what to do with my two 2015 favorites: Björk’s Vulnicura and Colleen Green’s I Want to Grow Up. With albums that have been around for a few years, my opinion on them is pretty set in stone, but these two were new enough that my feelings on them were constantly shifting throughout the process. And they both ended up illustrating my problem with making these sorts of lists, which is that my personal feelings get inevitably tangled up with ideas of objective Importance in music, and it becomes this unsatisfying struggle between brain and heart.

These sorts of lists and rankings were basically made for albums like Vulnicura. It’s original, complex, and beautiful, the work of a truly individual artist in peak form. Most of all, it’s very serious, and year-end lists are the natural habitat of “serious art.” The top of my list certainly reflects these biases, and I do have a soft-spot for a well-executed serious album that I feel accomplishes something beyond just being enjoyable to listen to. So I never really thought twice about putting Vulnicura very high on the list, since it just felt right.

Figuring out what to do with I Want to Grow Up was a lot tougher. Originally, it wasn’t on the list at all. As I grew more and more obsessed with it in the last few months, I eventually threw it on there, and then continued to move it up as I seemed unable to stop listening to it. It became kind of the Cinderella story of the list: mentally, I envisioned Colleen Green stunning Wild Flag in round one, scrapping past St. Vincent, beating EMA with a three-point buzzerbeater, etc.

This underdog image fits Green, who is about as far from Björk as an artist can be. While Vulnicura is made by an artist with seemingly no limitations, I Want to Grow Up is all about working within them. Green doesn’t have Björk’s ridiculous vocal range (it’s okay, no one does). Her songs are conventional, simple guitar-driven pop nuggets — far from the lengthy and complex sonic landscapes of Vulnicura. And while Björk always has fantastical imagery in her album covers and videos, the cover of Green’s album shows her just wearing a plain dress with a sad birthday hat on her head.

Those limitations are why I initially didn’t think I Want to Grow Up was as good as I think it is now: it’s an album that doesn’t really present itself as “important” in the way albums on these lists are supposed to be. On the surface, it sounds so much like it’s going to be another one of those 90s revival albums that is fun to listen to but quickly forgotten about. And the subject matter of the songs — Green’s slacker anxieties and difficulties with becoming an adult — can also easily be perceived as trifling or juvenile compared to something like Vulnicura that is so adult. I actually suspect Green wants be underestimated and not taken seriously, so the truths in her music hit that much harder.

Green’s current Twitter bio (@ColleenGreen420, by the way) is “I can only be me,” which sums up her appeal: she may not have the prodigious natural gifts Björk has, but she knows it, and I Want to Grow Up is (somewhat ironically) a very self-assured album made by someone who knows exactly how to use the skills they do have. Green establishes herself as a great pop songwriter on the album, which is stacked with addictive hooks. But I think what Green really has going for her is her personality, and I Want to Grow Up is really a masterpiece of character. Her lyrics are funny, sad, and moving in equal measure, and she writes with remarkable clarity. I get a really strong sense of who Green is through her music, which is difficult to accomplish and a trait I really value.

Most of all, I Want to Grow Up has meant more to me personally than any album in a long time. No album has ever felt like it was reading my mind this way, and I have huge respect for Green’s ability to capture the feeling of mundane slacker terror and self-destructiveness that has been so familiar for me. This is really cheesy, but it actually made me feel less weird and alone, knowing that someone else is out there who is having these similar thoughts. To the extent that music can really be “important,” I think it lies in that kind of connection with the artist, which is why I’ve come around on the innocuous I Want to Grow Up as one of my favorite albums of the last five years.

The comparison with Vulnicura isn’t meant to try to figure out if one album is better than the other — debates like that are why I kind of soured on making a big deal out of the list. I just find it interesting that two albums can succeed with such different angles of attack. It illustrates something I like about music, which is that each artist has their own tools to work with: Colleen Green can only be Colleen Green, and Björk can only be Björk. And each, in their own way, is capable of making an album that feels important and necessary to me, as they each have done in 2015.

Björk and the Cyborg Manifesto

I actually wrote this in college in January 2012 as part of a writing course on the subject of “body modification” (don’t ask). In the class, we read “A Cyborg Manifesto,” and, while it’s a very unwieldy, often difficult to understand essay, I noticed parts of it that reminded me a lot of Björk. One of my hobbies in college was writing really esoteric papers about subjects that only moderately related to the course’s subject matter, and this was probably my crowning achievement in that area. I didn’t post it at the time because I wasn’t confident that it even made sense, or that I interpreted “A Cyborg Manifesto” correctly, but the release of Vulnicura got me thinking about it again and I thought it might be of interest to one or two people in the world. If you are insane and want to read “A Cyborg Manifesto,” you can do so here.


In her 1985 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Donna Haraway put forth what she saw as an “ironic dream,” a vision of a metaphorical cyborg that “can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves.” At the center of Haraway’s essay was the image of the cyborg, a cybernetic being that would resist traditional ideas of gender and boundaries between humans, machines, and nature. The cyborg was her image of a being that was not bound by Western ideas, one that “would not recognize the Garden of Eden” because “it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust.” Haraway essentially saw the potential for the cyborg to be a utopian force, one that connects ideas that humans had previously seen as being incompatible with each other. As things like gender and the relationship between nature and technology continue to be questioned, Haraway’s theories become important to consider. Perhaps surprisingly, the person that might be the closest to her cyborg image comes from the world of music: Icelandic singer Björk Guðmundsdóttir. Through her music – particularly her albums Post, Homogenic, and Biophilia – and other forms of multi-media engagement, Björk has attempted to erase the dualities that exist between humans, technology, and nature much in the way that Haraway envisioned.

At the time of Haraway’s writing, Björk was in the short-lived post-punk band KUKL. She rose to fame as a member of the alternative pop band The Sugarcubes, but had her most success after the band broke up in 1992 and she embarked on a solo career. Björk is perhaps most recognizable for her signature singing voice, a robust soprano that is identifiably hers. Alex Ross, a music critic for “The New Yorker,” described it “instantly recognizable. You hear one or two notes from it and you know it’s Björk.” The individuality of her voice, along with her sense of eclectic experimentation, has allowed Björk to become a singer that transcends many genres and segments of listeners, much in the way Haraway’s vision of the cyborg would transcend limitations that humans had placed on themselves. In fact, according to NPR’s Guy Raz, Björk’s voice itself has utopian qualities: “There’s something celestial about that voice, as if it comes from a fantastic and colorful utopian world.” That sense of the utopian is significant in Björk’s work, and is part of how she shares similarities with Haraway’s cyborg image.

Haraway saw the cyborg as a being that could erase dualities, and much of Björk’s music is about that same idea. Peter Webb and John Lynch claim that “she sees herself as a generator of a type of energy that flows in circuits and which crosses time and space, whether pagan or electro, preindustrial or postindustrial.” It’s particularly present on her 1995 album Post, which was named by “Rolling Stone” as one of the 500 greatest albums ever, in part thanks to its ”utter lack of musical inhibition.” It’s perhaps the peak of Björk’s genre-hopping powers, as songs range from the grinding industrial opener “Army of Me” and the big band style “It’s Oh So Quiet” to the epic, jungle-beats driven “Isobel” and string-laden pop songs like “Hyperballad.” Post established Björk as an artist whose music was a unique distillation of genres. Haraway’s cyborg theory was based around shattering dualities, and Post can be seen as the musical equivalent of that: It blurs the line between experimental and pop, avant-garde music and dance music. And the natural emotion that comes from Björk’s voice, along with the sounds which are made by electronics and machines, makes it the closest thing musically to Haraway’s utopian vision of humanity and nature being intertwined.

Björk’s next album, 1997’s Homogenic, would further that relationship between humanity, nature, and technology that Haraway speculated about. After the eclectic sound of Post, Homogenic focused primarily on one style of sound, which was based around darker beats and strings. The album’s sound is cold and machine-like, at times sounding like an imagined soundtrack for cyborgs. She also sought to make an album that was an ode of sorts to her native country of Iceland. In the September 1997 issue of “Oor,” she talked about her thought process for the album:

Well, in Iceland, everything revolves around nature, 24 hours a day. Earthquakes, snowstorms, rain, ice, volcanic eruptions, geysers… Very elementary and uncontrollable. But at the other hand, Iceland is incredibly modern; everything is hi-tech. The number of people owning a computer is as high as nowhere else in the world. That contradiction is also on Homogenic. The electronic beats are the rhythm, the heartbeat. The violins create the old-fashioned atmosphere, the colouring. Homogenic is Iceland, my native country, my home.

Based on her own comments and the interpretations of others, Homogenic can be interpreted as a love letter to her homeland. It clearly represents one of the main dualisms that Haraway theorized about in “The Cyborg Manifesto,” which is the relationship between technology and nature. It’s best exemplified on one of the album’s standout tracks, “Jóga,” which Björk envisioned as being a national anthem type of song for her country. It uses violins and other strings to create a majestic, stately sound, while she sings lyrics like “emotional landscapes/they puzzle me.” The phrase “emotional landscapes” evokes feelings of both humanity and nature, but the song itself is futuristic, with an unprecedented mix of classical strings and modern electronic music. Along with the music video, which showcased the terrain of Iceland, “Jóga,” uses technology to create a musical landscape about nature and humanity, much in the way Haraway hoped her cyborg would.

Homogenic also included the most obvious example of Björk’s ideas of post-humanism in her music video for “All is Full of Love,” one of the singles off the album. The video shows two robots or cyborgs being built, with Björk’s face digitally shown on them. The cyborgs are completely androgynous, without hair or other traits associated with masculinity or femininity. The two begin singing at each other with Björk’s lyrics: “All is full of love/all around you.” Much like Haraway, Björk does not see human emotions and technology being independent of each other. In the video, she envisions a world where there are post-gender cyborgs, but they are still able to feel love and other human emotions, mirroring the utopian image that Haraway had dreamed of. More than any other song or video in Björk’s catalogue, it shows her breaking down the dichotomy between emerging technology and humanity that is also inherently present in her music.

Last year, Björk took possibly her biggest step yet in breaking down the nature/technology dichotomy with her Biophilia project. Designed as a series of interactive iPad apps to go with the album, it was an explicit attempt to connect science, nature, technology, and music into one package. In an audio message that appears on her website, bjork.com, she outlined her ambitious thought process behind the project:

With Biophilia comes a restless curiosity, an urge to investigate and discover the elusive places where we meet nature: Where she plays on our senses with colors and forms, perfumes and smells, the taste and touch of salty wind on the tongue. But much of nature is hidden from us, that we can neither see nor touch; such as the one phenomena that can be said to move us more than any other in our daily lives: sound. Sound harnessed by human beings, delivered with generosity and emotion, is what we call music. And just as we use music to express parts of us that would otherwise be hidden, so too can we use technology to make visible much of nature’s invisible world. In Biophilia, you will experience how the three come together: music, nature, technology… We are on the brink of a revolution that will reunite humans with nature through new technological innovations.

While Björk had always shown interest in the intermingling of technology and nature, Biophilia was an ambitious attempt to literally combine the two. For the album, she created instruments that made sounds based on gravity. Each song came with an iPad app that would feature some type of combination of nature and music in and interactive form, such as the app for “Virus” that allows you to watch the life cycle of a virus and then use it to create your own music. Each song tied human themes like love into ideas of nature (“Virus” compares being in love to the relationship between a virus and its host). Björk even took things one step further, setting up classroom workshops that sought to teach young people about music and science using her apps.

Biophilia can be seen as a culmination of Björk’s career-long efforts to destroy the perceived dichotomies that exist between humans, technology, and nature. When Haraway wrote “there is no fundamental, ontological separation in our formal knowledge of machine and organism, of technical and organic,” it’s not hard to imagine that she had a project like Biophilia in mind. In many ways, it’s a revolutionary album. The iPad app packaging was an unprecedented attempt to turn the old album format into something interactive, and it also attempted to be something more than just music as the project grew into a massive multimedia endeavor. For an artist whose trademark has been breaking down boundaries in music, Biophilia was perhaps her most ambitious attempt at it yet – and the closest that she’s come to approximating Haraway’s cyborg vision.

As Björk said, we really are on the brink of a technical revolution. As technology continues to increase and environmental concerns continue to be raised, at some point the two will need to be combined instead of being considered opposites. At its core, that’s the most important aspect of Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” and Björk’s music: The concept of erasing dualities and arbitrary lines. Each, in their own way, sees ways to unite these ideas in the modern world, to embrace technology without losing our humanity. On some level, Björk’s popularity despite being such an unorthodox artist is likely a credit to the ideals she portrays in her music. Haraway’s ideas of uniting people and concepts is something that seems to appeal to many as our society seemingly becomes increasingly fractured. Björk’s work shows the power of erasing these dualities, and the way music and art can be used to do it.

Björk – “Vulnicura”

There’s a simple question I like to ask myself when listening to an album for the first time: “Could someone else have made this?” About 99% of the time, the answer is “yes” — maybe someone else wouldn’t have made literally the same album with all the same choices, but they could have easily approximated it by finding the right influences and adopting a sound that’s been done before. That doesn’t mean it’s bad necessarily, just that it isn’t really breaking new ground (because that’s hard to do), and as a result it’s hard to be blown away by it. The albums that really make me love music are in the 1% “no” category, and have some level of personality or artistry that makes them completely unique.

The reason for my well-documented obsession/fascination with Björk is that she scores very highly on this test. Every Björk album sounds unlike anything else ever made, including artists who consciously tried to sound like her. I also enjoy statistical oddities, and I’ve started to think of Björk in these terms — as an artist, she is an outlier. Her combination of creativity and incredible natural vocal ability puts her on a musical island, where there are no real comparisons except to herself, as illustrated by this box-and-whisker plot. (I’m not entirely sure if I did this right because I haven’t taken a math class since high school.)

Bjork box and whisker

Björk’s latest album, Vulnicura, is what she calls a “complete heartbreak album,” and it details the dissolution of her long-time partnership with artist Matthew Barney in chronological order. The first six songs are labeled with a time period relative to the breakup (such as “9 months before”), with the first three taking place before and the next three taking place after. In this great Pitchfork interview, she expressed fear that this concept was too “boring and predictable,” but the simplicity of it ends up being a source of Vulnicura‘s power. In the last few years, Björk has made fascinating conceptual albums — Biophilia was a science-filled ode to the natural world, Medulla an audacious a capella album — that sometimes got a bit too brainy for their own good. Vulnicura‘s story helps it find that crucial heart/brain balance that Björk did better than anyone on her classic albums Post and Homogenic.

The honesty of Vulnicura is what really makes it a stunning listen. It’s not like other music is dishonest necessarily, but this album takes it to a near-uncomfortable level — Björk spares no details, and the subject matter inevitably gets brutally sad as her relationship evaporates. This peaks with “Black Lake,” the 10-minute post-breakup centerpiece of the album, in which she describes her “soul torn apart” and broken spirit. The chronological concept of Vulnicura really pays off, as it makes the album into a story, and the mood of the songs shifts as the relationship progresses. Opening song “Stonemilker” is a majestic, orchestral track that wouldn’t sound out of place on Homogenic, and portrays the first seeds of discontent as she demands “emotional respect.” Things get progressively darker from there, as she tells the story of their last night together, the aftermath of the breakup, and the effect it had on herself and the rest of her family.

All of this sadness, along with the lengthy songs and the fact that it’s Björk, has already led to Vulnicura being branded as one of those ordeal albums that is a chore to listen to. At least part of what makes it so affecting is that Björk has created such a connection with her fans over the years, and I’ve always thought of her music as this Utopian idea that crosses genre, language, and geographical barriers. That makes it difficult to listen to her reach what seems to be a rock-bottom emotionally. That said, I also found myself inspired by the openness of the album, especially given her celebrity stature — this was not an album that she needed to make to prove herself. Rather, it seems like something she just had to make for the sake of emotional catharsis, which Vulnicura certainly provides. On the closing track, “Quicksand,” she states a possible moral of the album: “when we’re broken, we are whole, and when we’re whole, we are broken.”

Vulnicura really reaffirmed what I am always looking for in music. The whole reason I listen to it, talk about it, and write stupid posts about it is for albums like this, that are able to express emotions and make you feel things in a way that other media simply couldn’t. It’s an album for people who still want music that has intellectual and emotional depth, that challenges you, demands your attention, and makes you think. And there is only one person who could have made it. Vulnicura may be bleak and difficult, but it is also a triumph.