vulnicuraThis week delivered a wonderful surprise in the form of a brand new album by Björk. Despite not being scheduled for release until March, thanks to pesky internet hackers, it was unveiled online with little notice on Tuesday evening. The result is Vulnicura – a complex, challenging album that delves into the intricacies of the breakdown of Björk’s relationship with her partner of ten years. Compared to the distinctly non-personal, rational record that was 2011’s Biophilia, a concept album exploring the links between music, nature and technology, Vulnicura is striking by its uncensored intimacy. Sonically, it may be Björk’s richest album to date. Different sounds are layered over intricate beats, creating songs that are deep, multifaceted and often, difficult to digest. Initially, I wanted to write a review of the album, but I don’t think I could quite do it justice. It feels so big and so complex that I think it will take a while for me to really get to grips with it.

Instead, never missing a chance to recruit new people to the church of Björk, I decided to write a short guide for those unfortunate people who have not yet seen the light. One of the great things about Björk is that she is so experimental, constantly changing her image and her sound, that during her career, she has covered a vast amount of musical ground. This means that whether you’re a fan of strings or synths, guitars or the avant-garde, there is a Björk for you.

Björk does rock

Back in the late 80s, Björk fronted the alternative rock band The Sugarcubes, which was essentially, by her own admission, a group of mates taking the piss. Unexpectedly, the group gathered some international fame, and went on to become fairly successful. Though not as punky as Björk’s previous band, KUKL, The Sugarcubes had a unique sound, blending poppy tunes with guitars and bursts of spoken word poetry courtesy of Einar Örn. The aptly-named Hit became the group’s most successful single, but this track, Regina, is my favourite thanks to its wonderfully catchy chorus.

Björk does pop

Though she’s now best known for being experimental and subversive, back in the mid-nineties, Björk had a string of UK hit singles. Unlike her later output, they had a distinctly poppy, dancey feel and were played on the radio. But this was still pop on Björk’s own terms. I Miss You, a song about feeling a sort of reverse nostalgia for someone that one hasn’t even met, is a fun, danceable tune with the type of chorus that Björk abandoned in the early 2000s. If you like pop in its purest, most creative form, this is the Björk for you.

Björk does strings

On her third solo album after the demise of The Sugarcubes, Homogenic, Björk replaced the electronic feel of her previous efforts with a more organic sound. The intricate beats are still present, but now they’re accompanied by vast string arrangements, marrying the two styles in an unusual but ingenious matrimony. This is seen best on the magnificent Jóga, a spellbinding swirl of strings and what Björk has described as “volcanic beats” that echo the vast, rocky landscape of her homeland. Jóga is a love letter to Iceland, and there was no one better to write it.

Björk does heartbreak

There are only a handful of songs that have reduced me to tears, but this is one of them. ‘Raw’ doesn’t quite seem to do justice to the vocal performance Björk gives on So Broken, which she performed on Later… with Jools Holland. The song is about the end of a relationship, though it was actually born from even more tragic circumstances. While writing for the Homogenic album, an obsessed fan videotaped himself committing suicide while listening to her music, also sending her a letter bomb in an attempt to assassinate her. In the midst of the ensuing media furore, Björk found comfort writing what is perhaps her most melodramatic song, which was inspired by Spanish soap operas.

Björk does politics

Declare Independence is a loud, abrasive, unforgiving hurricane of a song, battering the listener with its increasingly frantic drone. The music was originally written by Mark Bell before Björk added the lyrics, giving the song a distinctly political slant. During live performances, the track has been dedicated to a number of places, including Greenland, the Faroe Islands, Kosovo and Tibet, much to the ire of the Chinese authorities. A relentless roar of defiance in the face of the colonists, Declare Independence sees Björk at her wild, passionate best.

gwynnyThough we are currently in the thick of winter, the long nights and damp weather tiring and joyless now that the festivities of Christmas and New Year are over, we need not despair. Through the haze of shattered New Year’s resolutions, unpaid bills and torrential rain, there is a shining light to keep all of our spirits high. That’s right – it’s awards season: that special time of year when we mere mortals can forget our troubles and watch gaggles of overpaid, sanctimonious, drop-dead-gorgeous human beings drown beneath the weight of their own smugness.

Today saw the announcements of the nominations for both the Oscars and the BRITs – two events which, for reasons unclear to me, fuelled much discussion online. Bloggers and journos were worked up into a frenzy, Tweeters foamed at the mouth and film and music buffs hashtagged until their fingers were reduced to bloodied stumps. How was the Lego movie not nominated? Why was Lily Allen picked over Jessie J? Just who the hell is Hozier? Such were the questions on everyone’s lips.

I will admit to being caught up in awards ceremony hype in the past. I am an avid follower of the BRITs, for reasons unknown even to myself, I follow the Mercury Prize, and I’m more than partial to reading all about the shameless, headline-grabbing antics of people richer and more famous than I can ever hope to be. But why? Why on earth does anyone care about these gratuitous, self-satisfied wankfests?

Like just about everything else in the capitalist world, award ceremonies are corporate affairs. They are built on the money of sponsors and big businesses, advertisers and media moguls. Millions of pounds are spent on securing the best advertising slots, getting the right celebrity endorsements and enhancing the reputations of megabucks brands. The awards themselves are little more than a formality – just an excuse for a celebrity orgy of glamour and aspiration.

When we look at who decides who takes home the awards, it becomes even more of a mystery why anyone would take them seriously. The Oscars are awarded by a panel that is 94% white, 77% male and with an average age of 62 – hardly a representative group – while the BRITs are given out on the basis of commercial success. With the Oscars, we are given the opinions of, essentially, a group of old white guys and told to accept them as fact. The winning actors will well up at the podium and thank God, when their fate was actually decided by a collection of society’s ultra-privileged elite. Why should their opinions count any more than those of the average film-goer? The BRITs are more unashamed with their doling out of statuettes, awarding them to the artists who have flogged the most during the year. They are predictable and they are dull – little more than an advert for music that is already hugely popular. Unlike the Mercury Prize, the BRITs are not concerned with innovation or creativity, just the artists with enough of a budget to have sold a butt-load of singles. When so many of the nominees come from the BRIT school, corporate rentboys Ant and Dec are hosting this year’s ceremony, and even Robbie Williams has complained the event it too corporate – you know something’s wrong.

Of course, none of this will stop the media commenting on the gowns, wheeling out the lists of “10 Most Shocking Award Ceremony Moments Ever” or stop critics coming to blows over who the winners and losers should be. Will Eddie Redmayne nab the prize for best actor? Will Meryl Streep add yet another statue to her already overflowing cabinet? Will Rita Ora get the gong for best song (yes, really)? At the end of the day, none of this really matters. While the actors and writers are busy having their egos caressed by swathes of adoring dullards, the real winners aren’t to be found on the red carpet. Because while Twitter and the media are distracted by who takes home the awards, the real winners of the night will be, and have always been, the corporations and sponsors making tons of money behind the scenes.