The biggest rock band to emerge from Iceland, the Sugarcubes drew notice for their offbeat songs and singer Björk Gudmundsdóttir, an elfin womanchild with a powerful, keening voice.
Björk, whose stepfather had been in an Icelandic rock band, recorded her first album at age 11, and later joined Theyr, a legendary Icelandic hard-rock band whose drummer was Siggi Baldursson.
Einar Örn Benediktsson launched Gramm Records, and with Bragi Ólafsson formed punk band Purrkur Pillnikk, whose debut EP reached Iceland’s Top 20 in 1981. In 1982 Theyr recorded with Jaz Coleman and Youth of British punk band Killing Joke (who’d suddenly turned up in Iceland fearful of an impending apocalypse), while Purrkur Pillnikk toured with British punk band the Fall (which had done some recording in Iceland, where it had a strong cult following).
In 1984 Björk, Einar, Siggi, and keyboardist Einar Mellax formed KUKL (Icelandic for “witch”), an atonal, theatrical rock band that toured England and Europe and released some singles on a label run by the British anarchic-punk band Crass. KUKL became the Sugarcubes, who formed the company Bad Taste (encompassing record label, art gallery, bookstore, publishing house, and radio station). Life’s Too Good (#54, 1988) got rave reviews in England and the U.S., where MTV aired the video for the hypnotic, incantatory “Birthday.”
In 1989 Björk’s ex-husband Thór (with whom she had a son, Sindri) married new keyboardist Magga Ornolfsdottir, while Ólaffson and Örn also were wed (the first openly gay marriage in rock history). Here Today, Tomorrow, Next Week! (#70, 1989), with fussier arrangements featuring strings and horns, was panned by critics. Björk and Baldursson then worked on Gling Glo, a Bad Taste album of jazzed-up ’50s Icelandic pop songs. The Sugarcubes played for French President François Mitterrand during a 1991 summit meeting in Reykjavík, before recording Stick Around for Joy (#95, 1992). A year later Björk ventured outside the Sugarcubes to record her first U.S. solo album, Debut (#61, 1993), with producer/composer Nellee Hooper of British soul/jazz collective Soul II Soul. It yielded the single “Human Behavior,” which reached #2 on the Modern Rock chart.
Björk’s next solo album, Post (#32, 1995), featured a pair of tracks cowritten and produced by trip-hop artist Tricky, with whom she had a brief affair. She was later briefly engaged to drum-and-bass star Goldie. Björk made headlines in 1996 when she attacked a reporter in the Bangkok airport for trying to ambush her and her young son with a live TV interview. Later that year, an obsessed fan tried to send her a letter bomb (which was intercepted), as well as a videotape of his own suicide.
Fearing for her life as well as her son’s, Björk considered retiring from the public life after the incident. She bounded back within a year with two new releases, beginning with Telegram (#66, 1997), a remix album of songs from Post. Later that year Björk released Homogenic (#28, 1997), which marked her first turn as coproducer (with Mark Bell). Soon afterward, she returned to her hometown of Reykjavík after four years of living in London.
Björk (who had made her film debut in 1986’s The Juniper Tree) had a lead role in Danish director Lars von Trier’s musical Dancer in the Dark, which won the Palme d’Or award for Best Film at the Cannes Film Festival. Björk’s portrayal of a factory worker aspiring to a role in a local production of The Sound of Music while confronting impending blindness earned her an award for Best Actress at the festival, but she immediately vowed never to act again, choosing to focus entirely on music. Selmasongs, her soundtrack to the film, debuted at #41.
Vespertine (2001), demonstrated both Bjork’s sophisticated symphonic sense and her electronically avant-garde prowess, borrowing the talents of harpist Zeena Parkins and the duo Matmos. Several retrospectives followed, picked by both Bjork Family Tree and her fans via website, Greatest Hits. She then continued to push her musical ingenuity with Medulla(2004), an album created entirely out of the human voice and voice-samples. Contributors to the project included the American-born beatboxer Rahzel and Soft Machines singer/drummer Robert Wyatt, along with textual references taken from E.E. Cummings. Leaning on the deftly-consistent rhythm conscious of hip-hop producer Timbaland, Bjork released her next full-length package Volta in May 2007. It’s debut became her first Top Ten (#8) entrance into the U.S. charts.