Björk, Björk, Björk, Björk, Björk, Björk, Björk Björk, Sigur Rós, Sigur Rós. Or that was the impression the world got for a while anyway. And so what about that? They’re actually pretty great. It’s just that there’s so much more to Icelandic music than two acts!
This article is jam packed with YouTube links to the Icelandic music under discussion, so feel free to listen along as you read.
Let’s start at the beginning shall we? Iceland has a loooong tradition of verse and poetry, as you know; but it has a relatively shot history of using most recognisable musical instruments. This led to what is called rímur (no prizes for spotting the similarity with ‘rhyme’ in English). With its spontaneity and rhythmic strictness, rímur’s basically an ancient form of rapping. Ice-land got it goin’ on in da olden days, wha’?!
Iceland is home to one of the Nordic region’s best symphony orchestras, which can trace its roots all the way back to 1925 and was formally founded 25 years later. That a nation the size of Iceland has a genuine world-class orchestra is sometimes called remarkable (although the grandeur of the Harpa concert hall frankly demands nothing less), makes it all the more remarkable that rural North Iceland also has its very own symphony orchestra.And very good it is too. And then this here is just a bit of fun with the Dark Lord…
Then we move onto what the old people are calling ‘modern music’ and what the young people are calling ‘music’.
The modern age probably begins in 1965 with a band called Hljómar – Iceland’s answer to the Beatles. And from there, there was no turning back.
A healthy number of 70s and 80s acts are still popular today and literally everyone in Iceland knows and likes (at the very least pretends to like) songs by Bubbi Morthens, Megas, KK, Stuðmenn andVilhjálmur Vilhjálmsson (who died a few days before his 33rd birthday in 1978). Actually, there’s a weird, fun fact about Stuðmenn and that is that they were apparently only the second ever Western pop act to play in China. Their 12 concert tour of China in 1986, on the invite of the government, was only preceded by George Michael’s Wham!
Iceland embraced punk – and perhaps most notably punk’s message that everyone can be a musician if they want to, even if they’re not very good. This willingness to try is directly linked by many to Iceland’s current culture where it seems everyone is a musician. But pride and fear of embarrassment have taken over since the 80s, meaning that when they get round to recording and/or performing, Icelandic bands tend to be pretty darn good. Hence all the international attention.
Björk was the country’s first international superstar following the break-up of her punk band, the Sugarcubes. You already know what she sounds like; but we’re going to show you this song anyway, because it’s really good and the video is even better. The same may very well be true of Sigur Rós; but have you seen this enchanting rare live performance from 2002?
Now we come to the most recent decade and the scene has taken off like never before. Sales of Icelandic music at home and abroad have blossomed and it sometimes seems almost as though a couple of concerts in Reykjavík is enough to guarantee being whisked off by a record company on a European tour. Hence you’ll find no shortage of live music in the capital city’s bars at the weekend…and indeed in towns all over the country.
So, in conclusion to this whirlwind lesson, ‘Icelandic Music 101’, here is a tiny list of links to a wide variety of Icelandic songs from the last ten years. The only thing uniting them all is that we really like them. And as you know, WOW air is cool – so trust us!