Last October, my girlfriend Kia and I spent four days in Iceland: mostly Reykjavik, with a few sojourns elsewhere around the southwestern part of the country. I had planned all along to use this trip as an excuse for the first-ever international edition of our sporadically-updated pop geography series, Dystopian Road Mix; but, as you are no doubt well aware by now, I am lazy as fuck, and I kept putting off writing the article until one day I woke up and realized it was already 2017. So here, four months late, is my rundown of the music of Iceland: a nation whose musical artists per capita just might be the most inflated in the world.
Even more so than usual, this is intended as a gloss over the big picture of recorded music in Iceland, not any kind of expert-level guide: it’s hard to pretend to know your shit about a country whose language you don’t speak. These are just the major trends my tiny American brain can comprehend, presented in typically subjective form based on what speaks to me the most. Think of it as a slideshow of the photos I took on vacation, but with a better soundtrack. As always, playlist is below–now on TIDAL, for the three of you who might potentially have TIDAL! And speaking of that slideshow of vacation photos, here’s the travel vlog Kia put together. Recommended for fans of me scowling and complaining about being on camera!
The history of Icelandic music naturally begins long before the invention of audio recording technology, with traditional folk songs and hymns dating back as far as the 13th century. The awesome-sounding genre of rímur–basically epic, a cappella rhyming ballads–can be traced to the medieval Eddic poetry of Viking skálds; as you might expect, though, none of that is exactly streaming on Spotify. What we can share with you, however, is “Lofsöngur“: the national anthem of Iceland, composed in the late 19th century by the delightfully-named composer Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson, and performed here by the Reykjavik-based Iceland Symphony Orchestra.
Also courtesy of the ISO is our next track: “Geysir,” a 1961 composition by the renowned 20th century composer and conductor Jón Leifs. As you might guess, it was inspired by the actual Great Geysir, a 10,000-year-old periodically spouting hot spring in the Haukadalur valley that is actually the source of the English word “geyser.” Geysir is inactive these days, but if you go to about 6:45 on the video above, you can see its little brother Strokkur pop off. Look, I warned you in advance this was going to be a “how I spent my vacation” report, and I’m leaning into it.
Because of its isolation from the rest of the world, Iceland was slow to develop a musical culture of its own. Choral music didn’t emerge in Iceland until the mid-19th century; it wasn’t until 1930 that the country had its own conservatory or national radio service. And popular music, in the contemporary sense of the word, didn’t arrive until the 1940s, imported by the British and American soldiers occupying neutral Iceland during World War II. The main difference between Icelandic and American pop in this era was that the former was sung in Icelandic–well, that and the distinct lack of Black people. 1952’s “Litla flugan” by Sigfús Halldorsson is possibly the whitest thing I’ve ever heard, and I grew up in the rural Midwest. Even when the rock and roll craze reached Iceland, circa 1955, the results were pretty damn white. “Óli Rokkari,” for example, recorded in 1957 by Ragnar Bjarnason with the KK Sextet, makes Bill Haley and the Comets sound like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
Things got at least a little more interesting in the mid-1960s, when bands like Keflavik’s Hljómar–literally “Chords,” but known in English-speaking countries by the much more badass name “Thor’s Hammer”–created their own homegrown take on British Invasion psychedelic pop. Members of Hljómar and another major Icelandic “beat” group, Flowers, went on to form Trúbrot: arguably Iceland’s first progressive rock band, and (to these ears, at least) basically an Icelandic version of Traffic.
You’ll notice me using the phrase “Icelandic version of…” a lot in this post, by the way; because, as late as the 1970s, the main difference between Icelandic and British/American groups was one of language, and even that wasn’t always much of a distinction. Icecross, for instance, were kind of like the Icelandic version of Grand Funk Railroad, and they sang primarily in English: a second language they handled with the same amateurish aplomb as their playing. I’m not really sure who prog-rockers Eik were the Icelandic version of–Zappa and the Mothers, maybe?–but I definitely dig their demented funk-rock on “Diskósnúðurinn,” from their 1977 album Hríslan Og Straumurinn.
One of the first truly original Icelandic artists was Reykjavik’s Magnús Þór Jónsson, better known by the mononym Megas. Megas’ early music was inspired by British and American folk-rock, particularly Bob Dylan and Ray Davies, but avoided sounding like a carbon copy; instead, he used those influences to craft his own take on Scandinavian folk music, characterized by a satirical, irreverent sensibility that led to his first album being banned by Icelandic national radio. Much less controversial–and, even to my untrained ears, a fair bit less cool–was Björgvin Halldórsson from nearby Hafnarfjörður. But, while I don’t particularly love it, I have to admit that I can’t readily think of an English-language song quite like Halldórsson’s bizarre 1977 choral chamber pop suite “Blessuð sólin elskar allt – Úr augum stírur strjúkið fljótt.”
Make no mistake, though: there never really is a point when Icelandic pop music becomes purely its own thing. For example, Magnús Eiríksson–not to be confused with the 19th century theologian, or the Swedish footballer, or the Swedish hockey player, or the 14th century Scandinavian king–sounds for all the world like the Icelandic Christopher Cross on his 1982 yacht rock track “Sigling.” But that also makes a pretty solid argument for why Icelandic punk had to happen: which it did, starting circa 1978 with a group of Kópavogur College kids known as Fræbbblarnir, who started booking their own gigs at Kópavogsbíó, Kópavogur’s cinema and community hall. Granted, Fræbbblarnir doesn’t sound all that different from early U.K. punk bands like the Sex Pistols or Sham 69; but as Iceland’s underground punk and new wave scene continued to take off, more distinctive sounds also began to emerge in groups like the Utangarðsmenn, whose frontman Ásbjörn “Bubbi” Morthens remains a staple in Icelandic music–at least, if all the CDs and live concert billboards I saw around Reykjavik last October are any indication.
The punk and new wave scene of the early 1980s is also ground zero for what most non-Icelanders think of when they think of Icelandic music: a.k.a., Björk. Born Björk Guðmundsdóttir in Reykjavik, she actually released her decidedly non-punk debut album at age 12 in 1977, a curio with Icelandic-language covers of songs by the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, and Edgar Winter (!). But her real musical legacy began with her participation in post-punk groups like Tappi Tíkarrass and KUKL, the latter of which eventually coalesced into the Sugarcubes: Iceland’s first real international breakout group.
The Sugarcubes were short-lived, releasing only three records before Björk moved to London and went solo. But their influence resonates in Icelandic alternative music to this day–not least in the form of their record label Smekkleysa (“Bad Taste”), which continues to operate and run a brick and mortar shop on Laugavegur in Reykjavik. One notable group associated with Smekkleysa in the early years was alt-metal act HAM, who got their start opening for the Sugarcubes in 1988.
While alternative music dominates perceptions of Iceland in the U.S. and U.K., however, it’s important to remember that they’re still technically Scandinavian, and as such, have a ton of wack Eurovision-style pop to their name. In fact, the first ever Icelandic entry in the Eurovision Song Contest–“Gleðibankinn” (“The Bank of Joy”) by vocal trio ICY–made its debut in 1986, the same year as the formation of the Sugarcubes; I assure you, it’s every bit as cheesy as you’re imagining. Slightly more credible, if still a little embarrassing, were Reykjavik’s Sálin hans Jóns míns, whose retro-flavored 1988 debut album doesn’t sound too far off from an Icelandic Katrina and the Waves.
One style of music from Iceland that’s surprisingly not embarrassing is hip-hop. The country’s first real homegrown crew was Quarashi: basically (here comes that phrase again) an Icelandic version of the Beastie Boys, right down to their origins in Reykjavik’s punk scene. Like the rest of Europe, Iceland also produced its fair share of electronic music in the late ’90s: represented here by another Reykjavik act, the eclectic house/trip-hop trio GusGus.
But the next big story in Icelandic music is Sigur Rós, another Smekkleysa act whose ethereal post-rock soundscapes, lyrics sung in an invented language, and prominent use of bowed guitar somehow managed to make them into Iceland’s biggest musical export since Björk. Indeed, more so even than Björk and the Sugarcubes, Sigur Rós have established a prevailing aesthetic for Icelandic popular music: their dreamy, glacial, classically-inflected textures have echoes in everything from minimalist electronic group múm to film composer Jóhann Jóhannsson to experimental cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir.
Of course, not all post-Sigur Rós Icelandic music is dreamy, glacial, classically-inflected post-rock; though, I will say, I heard more than enough music in Reykjavik bars and cafés that fit that particular bill. But there’s also Icelandic Britpop (Icepop?), with groups like Reykjavik’s Leaves and Garðabær’s Dikta putting in competing claims to be Iceland’s answer to Coldplay. Then there’s the twee pop of Seabear, whose 2007 song “I Sing I Swim” I’m pretty sure I heard in a commercial at some point. There’s even, on occasion, some music with actual balls: like fuzz-rockers Singapore Sling, whose shoegazy cover of the Standells’ garage rock nugget “Dirty Water” is a lot closer to my usual wheelhouse than most of the other bands we’ve been discussing here.
Another ballsier band from Reykjavik is Trabant, whose sleazy mix of cock-rock swagger and electro-funk would have been precisely my cup of tea circa 2005, when their album Emotional was released (and I still dig it quite a bit in 2017). There was also Jakobínarína, a youthful sextet from Hafnarfjörður who carried on Iceland’s punk tradition–and gained a bit of attention in the U.K.–before breaking up in 2008. And, while not exactly “ballsy,” “Qween” by the recently-disbanded Retro Stefson has a nice little alt-dance groove to it; I would definitely bob my head if I heard it in an H&M.
But I would be remiss to write a post about Iceland’s music without at least touching on Icelandic metal, which has the unbelievable advantage of coming from a country where vikings were an actual thing. It should thus come as no surprise that one of the tracks on Sólstafir‘s black metal-flavored debut album is titled “Í Víking”; or that Skálmöld‘s debut, Baldur, is a concept record inspired by the Icelandic sagas and Norse mythology. Incidentally, the version of Baldur track “Árás” (“Attack”) chosen for this post was recorded live with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra; this makes for the ISO’s third appearance on the playlist!
Today, Iceland’s music scene is as eclectic as, frankly, anywhere else’s (the Internet has a way of evening out regional distinctions). Reykjavik’s FM Belfast plays quirky electronic indie pop: my favorite song of theirs, “Lotus,” is a cheeky stealth-cover of Rage Against the Machine‘s “Killing in the Name.” Garður’s Of Monsters and Men–Iceland’s biggest international success since Sigur Rós–is stomp-and-yell indie-folk in the Mumford & Sons/Lumineers/Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros vein. And Fufanu, also from Reykjavik, play post-punk-influenced music with electronic overtones; their upcoming sophomore album is produced by Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Look, I’m gonna level with you guys: I loved Iceland, and if my life/financial situation gave me the slightest opportunity, I would move to Reykjavik in a hot minute. But most of the country’s indigenous music isn’t really for me (again, not enough Black people). That’s why I’m happy to end with an artist who I genuinely enjoy: 16-year-old Turkish-Icelandic rapper Aron Can. It should come as no surprise at this point that his sound isn’t exactly groundbreaking: he’s basically the (say it with me) Icelandic version of Future. But there’s something wondrously 21st century about hearing credible trap music from a 95% white island nation in the northern reaches of the Atlantic Ocean. We’ve come a long way from Sigfús Halldorsson; now let’s keep it going until we get the Icelandic version of Kodak Black!
And with that, this Dystopian Road Mix is finally over; but sit tight, because I haven’t finished my Iceland coverage quite yet. Look out in the next month or so for two new Wrecka Stow installments profiling the vinyl shops I patronized in Reykjavik. And if for some reason you can’t wait that long, here’s an actual timely article I wrote for Andresmusictalk, plus a slightly less timely video Kia posted last month:
Look, people, I don’t get to go on vacations much; I’m milking this one for all it’s worth.