2013 Top Ten List Spotlight: Iceland Bands

2013 Countdown, Iceland Airwaves
Jim Beckmann
Grísalappalísa // photo by Morgen Schuler

It's enough to make you curl up screaming in the fetal position – the number of amazing Icelandic releases in 2013, that is. As if 2012 wasn't already such a great year, but damn, 2013 proves there's no end to the wealth of talent on the arctic island. Since they're each so great in different ways, it was nearly impossible to pick just ten "top albums"... so I didn't. Here are twenty Icelandic albums that should be in your music library:

Mammút - Komdu til mín svarta systir (Record Records)

Probably the most dynamically compelling band in Iceland right now, Mammút waited four years to follow up their stunning 2009 LP, Karkari, which was one of my favorite albums of that year also. Most likely, since some of them were then still teenagers, they needed to finish school, but also based on their performance of several of Komdu til's songs during our 2011 broadcast during Iceland Airwaves, they took their time to hone the sound of their new LP. From the moodily melodic opener "Ströndin", through its punchy followup "Blóðberg", the hypnotic "Glæður", the metal-prog of "Tungan", and all range of emotions in-between, Komdu til is the "dark sister" you've been waiting for, the one who will show you the wonders of the night.

  • Grísalappalísa - ALI (12 Tónar)
  • They named themselves after a song by Megas, an Icelandic iconoclast often compared to Tom Waits. They sound more like dark late-70's post-punk groups like The Birthday Party and The Pop Group mixed with experimental kraut rock bands like Can. The band is led by two singers, former punk-pop wunderkind Gunnar Ragnarsson and the gravel-voiced poet Baldur Baldursson. They are obsessed with a woman named Lisa and sing about her all of the time. Their lyrics are apparently witty yet filled with debauchery. The rest of the band hail from other successful bands including Sudden Weather Change, Oyama, Swords of Chaos, The Heavy Experience, and Jakobínarína. Their high energy live shows were among the most buzzed about at Airwaves this year. They might actually be the best live band in Iceland. And their debut album is one of the best albums you'll year this year.
  • Sin Fang - Flowers (Morr Music)
  • Sin Fang's Sindri Már Sigfússon has a magic touch, but he might be too prolific for his own good. I nearly forgot to include in this list what is possibly the best album to come out of Iceland this year because even before it hit store shelves, he was already working on other things, including an electronic-leaning side project called Pojke. Flowers, though, is an album that you want to sit with and watch it grow more dazzling with each listen. It's the most lush and gorgeous Sin Fang album yet and makes you never regret Seabear's long possibly unending hiatus. Recently, Sindri has been performing these songs solo, with such intricately layered electronics that beg to be recorded and shared with the world. Maybe while he's waiting for his next album to come out, he can re-interpret all of his previous ones this way.
  • Sigur Rós - Kveikur (XL Recordings)
  • Their dark masterpiece. Of course it's terrific. It's Sigur Rós.
  • Snorri Helgason - Autumn Skies (Record Records)
  • When it comes to his voice, talent and songwriting skills, Snorri's on par with a lot of successful folky singer-songwriters like Alexi Murdoch, Ray LaMontagne, Gregory Alan Isakov, and Sam Beam to name a few, so there's no reason why his excellent new release shouldn't find the large audience it deserves. His penchant for dusty Americana is immediately appealing and, like the best of those other songwriters, he has a knack for finding the hook in every song. Autumn Skies is his first record recorded with a full band, which includes members of Múm, Hjaltalín, and Moses Hightower, yet some of the songs here are his most delicate and touching ever.
  • Samúel Jón Samúelsson Big Band - 4 Hliðar (SJS Music)
  • A funky, 15+ member, dashiki-wearing, afrobeat-loving band in Iceland – and they're no joke! When he's not working a large list of other bands around Reykjavik, trombonist, composer and all-around music enthusiast Samúel Jón Samúelsson gathers his friends for long Fela Kuti inspired jams. The SJS Big Band's latest release, 4 Hliðar, means "4 sides" because it's lovingly packaged with four different covers. The songs on it tend to be long, most between 7-12 minutes, and feature some of the best horn, keyboard, guitar, bass and drummers in Iceland. Samúel Jón Samúelsson, of course, takes center stage at some point on each, but the real star here is the music, lovingly celebrated for what it is, with few local flourishes to brand it as "Icelandic"... with the exception of "1st Man From Iceland", endcapped as it is by ambient sections of chilled arctic groove.
  • Oyama - I Wanna EP (self-released)
  • An Icelandic My Bloody Valentine? Pretty much. It'll be obvious to any listeners that Oyama draws heavy from Kevin Shields and crew, but really what shoegaze band can't be accused of the same? In fact, their I Wanna EP is refreshingly reverent. They avoid the trap of banality that a lot of sub-par shoegaze bands fall into through their ability to write catchy songs (something MBV can't always be accused of); added subtle tinges of indie rock, dreampop and psych rock; and their unabashed love for the shoegaze genre. And rather than mope, live on stage they really rock out!
  • Tilbury - Northern Comfort (Record Records)
  • This band was on my Top Ten list last year for their debut, Exorcise. I liked their British sound and hooky melodies then and still do now. Northern Comfort feels a bit chillier, thanks mostly to the icy synths that are more present on it and to lyrics and song titles like "Frozen", "Cool Confrontation" and of course the title track. Though he's joined again by his friends (including members of Hjaltalín, Moses Hightower, Mr. Silla, and Valdimar), songwriter and vocalist Þormóður Dagsson remains a singular voice, looking for love, serenity and even sublimity among the icecaps. If this is "Northern Comfort", I'm happy to catch cold.
  • Botnleðja - Þegar öllu er á botninn hvolft (Record Records)
  • Not a new band, this Icelandic trio was popular among the locals in the 90's. Their name means "silt" but there's nothing sedentary about them. Not only were they influenced by Brit Pop, but they even left their mark on it by directly influencing the iconic "woo-hoo" on Blur's "Song 2", which happened to be recorded in Iceland, with a hook their own song "Þið eruð Frábær". Though the Botnleðja "woo-hoo" feels a bit thin by comparison, some of their other, more muscular songs, like "Ég drukkna hér", show that the feeling was mutual. What I really like about Botnleðja is their tendency to explode from pop to punk and even hardcore. You'll be bopping along and then suddenly headbanging! Their last original album was released 10 years ago, and I can't imagine how fresh it would have sounded to the people who heard it then, but I'm very grateful that Records Records has released a 2-disc anthology for the rest of us to discover and that Botnleðja has been playing live shows around Iceland lately. Airwaves next year? I sure hope so! Listen to this and you'll be hooked:
  • Vök - Tension EP (Record Records)
  • If a band wins Músíktilraunir (Iceland's Battle of the Bands), it's a good idea to pay attention to them – that's the lesson Of Monsters and Men taught us. Other bands on this very list – Mammút and Botnleðja – were also past Músíktilraunir winners. New duo Vök took the title this year. Their debut EP combines guitar, electronics and heavily treated saxophone into a moody mix that would be familiar to fans of Phantogram, Lovers, and maybe The Knife, but Margrét Rán Magnusdóttir's voice – breathy and alluring, with real dynamic range – is the actual star. Funny enough: Vök is the second band in three years to win Músíktilraunir and feature woodwinds. Not surprisingly, they and Samaris get compared a lot. Both are worth checking out.
  • Cell7 - Cellf (self-released)
  • As her Facebook describes: "emcee artistry straight outta Iceland". You'd be thinking, "yeah, right", if you hadn't already heard amazing afrobeat, reggae and other non-Nordic sounds coming out of Iceland or if you'd hadn't heard us feature hip-hop trio Úlfur Úlfur on our Iceland Airwaves broadcast last year. Unlike Úlfur Úlfur, though, Cell7 raps purely in English. In fact, the Iceland native's accent, diction and street slang are all convincingly "North American", though like M.I.A., she draws musically from a broader cultural palette. And also like M.I.A., her songs are damn catchy and her lyrics are fresh and clever. But she's so much like M.I.A. sometimes that you wonder if she has much new to add. Thankfully, her songs are pretty dope.
  • Moses Hightower - Mixtúrur Úr Mósebók (Record Records)
  • A wide range of remix interpretations of songs from my favorite album of last year by some of my favorite artists? Sold!
  • Ólafur Arnalds - For Now I Am Winter (Mercury Classics)
  • Beautiful New Classical compositions by the young Icelandic composer rendered even more beautiful with the addition of Arnór Dan on vocals.
  • ADHD - 3 & 4 (self-released)
  • Their first two albums won lots of "jazz" awards in Iceland, but ADHD is no more a "jazz" band than The Friends of Dean Martinez is a country band. Brothers Ómar and Óskar Guðjónsson team up with multi-instrumentalist Davíð Þór Jónsson and drummer Magnús Trygvason Eliassen for two more stunning spacial explorations, released together but as separate discs... but I'll count them as one.
  • Drangar - Drangar (self-released)
  • The debut album by this supergroup is surprisingly moody, especially considering that Mugison, Jónas Sig and Ómar Guðjónsson can all rock the hell out. But it's full of solid songs and lets the veteran musicians stretch out a bit and try new things.
  • Lay Low - Talking About The Weather (Record Records)
  • Following her all-Icelandic album released domestically two years ago, Lovisa Elisabet Sigrunadottir returns with another accessible, all-English album with lots of songs about, well, talking and the weather. But, as usual, Lay Low makes it all charming indeed.
  • Emilíana Torrini - Tookah (Rough Trade)
  • Four years in the making, Emilíana Torrini's new album is inspired by her recent motherhood and her return to Iceland after spending 16 years in London.
  • Múm - Smilewound (Morr Music)
  • Another fine and eclectic set of experimental twee pop on the band's sixth album.
  • Ojba Rasta - Friður (Record Records)
  • New Icelandic reggae purveyors go cosmic on their second album.
  • Just Another Snake Cult - Cupid Makes A Fool Of Me (self-released)
  • Following a trail blazed by Elephant 6, Woodsist, Captured Tracks and other lo-fi psych pioneers, Þórir "Thor" Bogason weaves the latest Snake Cult album around into a nest of varied influences.

Last year, I anticipated new releases from Sin Fang, Mr. Silla and Mono Town, and of the three, only Sin Fang delivered. Mono Town did release a digital version of their album to listeners overseas, but hopefully in 2014, In The Eye Of The Storm will be widely available. (Mr. Silla, we're still waiting!) In 2014, I'm also eager for new Sóley, For a Minor Reflection, and the English version of Ásgeir Trausti's debut.

Related News & Reviews

Live Video Iceland Airwaves

Live Video: Sin Fang

"Sin Fang in a box", Cheryl Waters called it. It's how Sindri Már Sigfússon solved the problem of taking his Sin Fang project on the road, especially outside of his native Iceland, when he couldn't manage to bring a full band with him. But more importantly, it's also a creative interpretation of hi…

Read More
2013 Countdown

2013 Top Ten List Spotlight: Janice Headley

For the rest of the year, we'll be spotlighting our KEXP DJs Top Albums of 2013. View all our DJ's favorite albums here, and see what KEXP listeners voted for in our 2013 Top 90.3 Albums Countdown here.

Read More
2013 Countdown

2013 Top Ten List Spotlight: Abe Beeson

For the rest of the year, we'll be spotlighting our KEXP DJs Top Albums of 2013. View all our DJ's favorite albums here, and see what KEXP listeners voted for in our 2013 Top 90.3 Albums Countdown here.

Read More
Live Video Iceland Airwaves

Live Video: My bubba at Iceland Airwaves 2013

Steamier than a geothermal pool, My bubba write songs that will warm your heart (and other parts) on a cold winter's day. The Icelandic/Swedish folk duo, formerly known as My bubba & Mi, shared their sultry songs for the second year in a row at KEX Hostel in Reykjavik during Iceland Airwaves, t…

Read More