Wednesday, January 30, 2013


Sound Familiar?
“Human Behaviour,” “It’s Oh So Quiet,” “All Is Full of Love”

Who Is She?
An Icelandic pixie with a musical style as eclectic as her fashion choices.

Björk’s musical career began at the tender age of 11 in her hometown of Reykjavík, Iceland. One of her piano instructors sent a recording of Björk singing Tina Charles’ “I Love to Love” to the only radio station in Iceland. Once a label rep from Fálkinn Records heard it, he immediately offered our Icelandic darling a record contract and her first* album, Björk, dropped in 1977 (*this album is considered juvenilia, or musical work produced during the artist’s youth, which doesn’t usually see the light of day until after the artist has become well known for later works).

Instead of riding the child prodigy train all the way to the bank, Björk did what most teenagers tend to do: she got angsty and started a punk band. At 14, she formed the all-girl punk band Spit and Snot, then later formed the jazz fusion group Exodus (she was eclectic even as a youngster). Björk graduated music school in 1980 and formed yet another band the following year called Tappi Tíkarrass (which literally means “Cork the Bitch’s Ass” in Icelandic).

In 1986, Björk formed the Icelandic alternative band The Sugarcubes. The band received both critical and popular international acclaim until its disbandment in 1992.

Once The Sugarcubes broke up, Björk moved to London to start a solo career. Her first solo single, “Human Behaviour,” was an international dance hit. Debut, her first (aptly-titled) solo album, was released in 1993 to positive reviews.

Post, released two years later, built on Debut’s dance-pop aesthetic, adding big band and trip-hop sounds. Spin, Rolling Stone and Pitchfork regard the album as one of the best of the ‘90s (and so do I).

In 1997, Björk shifted her image from sweet pixie pop girl to icy abstract queen with Homogenic (this blogger’s favorite Björk album). The album has a conceptual focus on Iceland. Björk reportedly wanted it to sound like “rough volcanoes with soft moss growing all over it.” And you know what? That’s kind of what it sounds like.

(Fun fact: In an interview with Spin, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke professed his undying love for the song “Unravel” from Homogenic. He loved it so much that he made Radiohead do a cover of it.)

Homogenic is also famous for the single “All Is Full of Love” and its accompanying music video, which features two Björk robots getting intimate. This video really doesn’t strike me as odd since it was directed by Chris Cunningham (you know, that guy who directed one of the most frightening music videos of all time).

Where Is She Now?
Still making intriguing musical choices (including an iPad app album).

Björk briefly took a detour into acting in 2000, starring in Lars von Trier’s musical drama Dancer in the Dark. The song “I’ve Seen It All,” performed by Björk and Thom Yorke (or BjörkYorke, if you will), was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song.

Her fourth studio album, 2001’s Vespertine, dropped the big beats of its predecessors in favor of a more intimate sound. The lyrics were far more personal, and so were the videos.

The video for "Pagan Poetry" caused a bit of controversy. It featured images of graphic piercings, Björk’s exposed nipples and a simulated blowjob. Even though it was heavily edited by MTV, the video was rarely shown.

(Fun fact: The same year Vespertine was released, Björk showed up to the 73rd Annual Academy Awards in her now infamous swan dress. The garment also appears on the Vespertine album cover.)

In 2004, Björk released an almost entirely vocal-based album called Medúlla. It featured the vocal talents of throat singer Tagaq, beatboxers Rahzel and Dokaka, avant-rocker Mike Patton, Soft Machine drummer/singer Robert Wyatt and a few different choirs. The most radio friendly single, “Triumph of a Heart,” is probably one of best examples of a song entirely dedicated to beatboxing. Also, check out the crazy video.

(Fun fact: Björk performed the song "Oceania" at the Opening Ceremony of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece. During her performance, the dress she was wearing unfurled to reveal a 10,000 square foot map of the world.)

Björk didn’t tour to promote Medúlla. Instead, she went right back to the studio to record Volta, released in 2007. An 18-month tour followed, after which Björk took a few years off to work on the massive project that is Biophilia.

Biophilia, released in 2011, is an album that combines music with technological innovation, science, nature and an iPad. The entire album is a series of interactive iPad apps that represent the scientific and natural ideas behind each song (for example, the app for the song “Virus” is a game where the goal is to stop a destructive relationship between a virus and a cell). Honestly, this isn’t the weirdest thing Björk’s ever done.

(Fun fact: Biophilia was partly composed on an iPad, and features musical instruments specifically designed for the album.)

But Why Björk?
She recently started a Kickstarter campaign to convert the Biophilia iPad apps for use with Android and Windows 8. Why is this important? Well, this is part of an educational project that teaches children all over the world about music and science. Pretty neat, if you ask me.

What Does Sam Think?
I think Björk is a magical being from beyond this earthly realm. How else could she create all this music that sounds like it came from outer space?

But seriously, this woman is so incredibly talented. I do think a lot of her music is an acquired taste, but you have to respect her originality.

When discussing the prominent female figures in music (especially those who “push the envelope”), the conversation usually turns to the Madonna vs. Lady Gaga debate. You can argue about those two all you want. I’m just going to sit here in my comfortable corner and side with Björk. Why? I’ll tell you why.

She’s experimented with so many different genres over the years, yet she’s maintained a signature sound. Her live shows are incredible. She did the weird fashion statement thing prior to Gaga (and better). She doesn’t rely on “sexy girl stereotypes” in her videos or performances. And she’s more interested in creating art than becoming a celebrity caricature. You could probably pair her with PJ Harvey, Fiona Apple and Tori Amos in the category of “Women Who Don’t Give a Fuck.”

So what makes Björk’s music listenable (or unlistenable to some people)? Her first two albums are probably the most accessible since they’re considered dance pop. Homogenic is where she starts to lose some people (perhaps because of the “All Is Full of Love” video). By the time you get to Medúlla, you kind of feel like you’re listening to a weird experiment.

But if you just put aside your preferences for a second, you might find that you really dig all the crazy noises she makes.  

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


Sound Familiar?
“Rosa Parks,” “B.O.B.,” “Ms. Jackson”

Who Are They?
A tour de force hip-hop duo with a lot of funk and just enough soul.

Once upon a time in Atlanta, André “André 3000” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton met at a shopping mall. The two hit it off and started participating in rap battles in their school cafeteria. Eventually, André and Big Boi teamed up and attracted the attention of Organized Noize, a group of local producers. When faced with the dilemma of naming their project, André and Big Boi were torn between 2 Shades Deep and The Misfits. Unfortunately, both names were already taken, so they settled on OutKast.

OutKast, Organized Noize and Goodie Mob joined forces to form the Atlanta music collective Dungeon Family. Once André and Big Boi signed to LaFace records in 1992, they made their first appearance on a remix of TLC’s “What About Your Friends.” A year later, OutKast released its first official single, “Player’s Ball.” The song was a hit and climbed to number one on the Billboard Hot Rap Tracks chart.

The duo released its debut album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, in 1994 and ended up winning a Source Award for Best New Rap Group in 1995.

OutKast’s next two albums, 1996’s ATLiens and 1998’s Aquemini, earned André and Big Boi more recognition in both the East Coast and West Coast hip-hop scenes. Aquemini in particular was considered by The Source to be the duo’s best material to date. Through this record, OutKast was able to explore different sounds, including soul, trip-hop and electro music.

As OutKast’s sound evolved, so did the subject matter. André and Big Boi’s lyrics went from reflecting the lifestyles of pimps and gangsters to discussing the materialism and misogyny of the hip-hop scene. Don’t let those funky beats fool you; these guys rap about some serious shit.

Where Are They Now?
Unfortunately on an indefinite hiatus, but how long could that last?

Although André and Big Boi had released some groundbreaking and politically conscious material in the ‘90s, they had yet to achieve real commercial success. But that changed with the release of 2000’s Stankonia.

Originally titled Sandbox, Stankonia spawned three huge singles (“B.O.B.,” “Ms. Jackson” and “So Fresh, So Clean”) and earned OutKast two Grammys (Best Rap Performance for “Ms. Jackson” and Best Rap Album).

The mainstream appeal continued with 2003’s double album, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (they called it a double album, but it’s basically just two solo albums released in one neat package).

Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx was mostly a funk/Dirty South party record, while André’s The Love Below mixed hip-hop, funk, jazz, rock, electronic music and R&B. “Hey Ya!” from The Love Below became the most successful single from either album, with Speakerboxxx’s “The Way You Move” coming in a close second. (Fun fact: Both “Hey Ya!” and “The Way You Move” became the first hip-hop songs to be played on adult contemporary radio stations.)

Speakerboxxx/The Love Below has become OutKast’s most successful album to date, going 11 times platinum and earning the dynamic duo a Grammy for Album of the Year.

After that whirlwind of accomplishments, André and Big Boi began working on a joint film called Idlewild, along with an accompanying soundtrack (released in 2006). Though the soundtrack was meant to be a follow-up to Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, Idlewild didn’t nearly the same commercial success. The film, which tells the story of a juke joint in a Depression-era Georgia town, received mixed reviews. The album faired a little better.

In 2007, Big Boi announced plans to release a solo album (and not the kinda-sorta solo album that was Speakerboxxx). Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty was released in 2010 to mass critical acclaim.

André took a break from music for a while to do some acting and launch a clothing line called “Benjamin Bixby” (so damn classy). Eventually, he went back to music to do some guest vocals on various songs and remixes, including Frank Ocean’s “Pink Matter.”

But Why OutKast?
André and Big Boi still secretly work together (see Big Boi’s remix of Frank Ocean’s “Pink Matter”), so new material isn’t entirely out of the question. But we may not see a new OutKast album for a while.

What Does Sam Think?
I was kind of wary about making an OutKast entry because I’ve always associated these guys as an early 2000s group rather than a ‘90s group. But I think that perception of them has to do with commercial appeal. André and Big Boi made great music in the ‘90s, but it didn’t reach a wide enough audience.

So the question becomes, did OutKast sell out?

I’ve never explored the concept of “selling out” with a hip-hop act before simply because I don’t listen to enough hip-hop. I’ll admit that I got into OutKast after hearing “Hey Ya!” and discovering the one and only masterpiece “Ms. Jackson.” Those songs have mass appeal for two slightly different reasons.

“Hey Ya!” is pure pop magic. It’s catchy, it’s danceable and it has one of the most fantastic videos of the 2000s. It’s got to be the greatest song of the 2000s (VH1 got it wrong, but don’t even get me started on that awful list).

Now let’s look at “Ms. Jackson.” It’s still catchy, though not in that “get all the girls on the dance floor” way. It’s a fairly personal song since it deals with André’s relationship with former girlfriend Erykah Badu and her mother, who is the real life “Ms. Jackson.” The animosity between a woman’s mother and her daughter’s boyfriend or husband is relatable, which is one of reasons why this song became so popular.

I’m not saying OutKast songs lost substance after Stankonia. André and Big Boi like to experiment and that’s what makes OutKast such a great project.

So did OutKast sell out? Of course not. Yes, there’s a big difference between Aquemini and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, but it’s still the same group working with different styles and subject matter.

Bottom line: OutKast is an important part of hip-hop history, and André and Big Boi will no doubt continue to churn out great music, together or separately.

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.