Today is Icelandic Music Day and to celebrate it, we’ve chosen a stand-out artist to represent each decade since the end of World War II.
Like elsewhere in the world, the Icelandic music scene has evolved quite rapidly over the last 80 years with each new generation listening to something radically new and, quite often, rebellious.
Fögnum saman á Degi íslenskrar tónlistar, fimmtudaginn 6. desember! 🙏🏻ATH.Við mælum með að njóta myndbandsins með hljóðinu á!
Posted by Dagur íslenskrar tónlistar – Iceland Music Day on Sunday, December 2, 2018
The Icelandic music scene is vibrant and dynamic! For a nation of only 330,000 people, Iceland has produced an impressive number of talented musicians who have gone on to enjoy international success and recognition.
Join us as we explore the history of Icelandic music since the 1940s.
- See also Music in Iceland
1940’s – Jón Leifs
Baldr, Op. 34. Choreographic drama (ballet) in 2 acts. (1943-47)
It would be impossible to celebrate Icelandic music without mentioning Jón Leifs who is one of the best known Icelandic historical classical composers of all time. As well as being a creator of music, he was also a talented pianist and is to date the only Icelander to experience international success as a conductor.
His story, as well as his music, reflect the times he lived in Germany during the war. He was married to a Jewish pianist, Annie Riethof and together they had two daughters. The whole family lived in fear of Nazi persecution, later fleeing to Sweden for refuge. His fascinating tale of these tumultuous times was turned into a movie, Tár úr steini (Tears of Stone), in 1995.
Jón Leifs was also inspired by Icelandic landscape and sought to mimic the raw drama of the earth’s processes through music. He often used sudden flurries of sound to reflect the unpredictability so characteristic of the Icelandic nature and weather.
The featured piece is no exception; ‘Volcanic Eruption’ is a dynamic composition that encapsulates the spontaneity and violence of the earth exploding to the surface.
1950s – Soffía Karlsdóttir & the Aage Lorange Trio
Truly a song for the decade, ‘Það er draumur að vera með dáta’ translates to ‘It’s a dream to be with a soldier’ at a time when Reykjavík was full of British and American men in uniform.
Though the song presents a fun image of these times, the reality was far from it.
Many local ladies thought these soldiers were a bit more appealing than the Icelandic boys, causing an uproar with the more pearl-clutching natives.
Conservative criticisers of ‘intermingling’ would often try to keep girls away from the open dances hosted at Hotel Borg. ‘Unfortunate girls’ who partook in salacious activities with soldiers were ostracised and sent to special homes as a form of punishment.
Still, a catchy song.
The 1960s – Ellý Vilhjálms
Ellý Vilhjálms quickly rose to fame after replying to an ad stating “Singer Wanted”. She got the job and subsequentially became one of Iceland’s best and most loved singer,
The young beauty’s unique voice and gentle behaviour swiftly enchanted the entire nation, singing many of the country’s most cherished tunes.
Performing on over 20 records and CD’s, Ellý’s popularity was widespread, and listeners took extra delight when she collaborated with her brother Vilhjálmur, who was just as successful and also somewhat of a national treasure.
The selected song, ‘Sveitin milli sanda’, ‘the country between sands’ is as representative of the decade as Ellý’s beehive hairstyle.
The 1970s – Megas
Widely considered the father of Icelandic rock ‘n’ roll, resident weirdo, Megas, combined a Bob Dylan-esque gruffness with folk music to deliver diabolical and often politicised lyrics.
Throughout the 1970s, Megas’ music was banned from the radio and he was perceived by many in the alternative scene as somewhat of a cult icon.
After a heady decade of drugs and drink, Megas proclaimed he would quit producing and playing music with his 1979 release of ‘Drög að sjálfsmorði’ which translates to ‘Plans for Suicide’.
He would begin to make music again in the mid-80s but by the end of the 70s, he had already been an inspiration to many a budding new artist to come, a reference point for a ‘new sound’ worlds away from the balls of Hotel Borg.
The track we’ve chosen to feature showcases Megas’ distinctive ‘drunk man on the corner’ sound which belies the surprisingly poetic lyrics he delivers. You will have to take our word for it!
The 1980s – Bubbi & Egó
And then there was punk.
A difficult financial climate combined with the closing of fish factories and mass relocation to Reykjavík produced many disenfranchised and angry young individuals in the countryside, perhaps the angriest of all is national icon Bubbi Morthens (often referred to simply as Bubbi).
Starting his career first with the solo album Ísbjarnarblús, and then joining the punk band Utangarðsmenn, Bubbi was eventually rejected by his band for having too big an ego and sidelining the other members, not to mention finishing all the cocaine all the time.
High on whatever he could find and angrier than the Sex Pistols, Bubbi formed Egó as a direct message to his former bandmates and released this still-legendary rock song.
The 1990s – Björk
The 1990s marked a turning point in Icelandic music. For the first time, Icelandic artists would go on to enjoy enormous international success and recognition, the largest name, of course, would be Björk.
As the lead singer of the Sugarcubes, Björk had already snagged the attention of those in the music world with band’s 1987 hit ‘Birthday’ receiving critical acclaim and a spot in the British charts. However, the new heights of fame she was about to reach were, thus far, unparalleled in Icelandic music history.
Björk’s experimental style blended with her girl punk roots and influences gave way to a fresh and unique sound that, for many, still characterises Icelandic music. The sound would be called Krúttkynslóðin (cute-generation) within Iceland and has proven so poignant, its use has extended to define the generation from which it grew.
Björk was by no means alone on the global stage; bands such as GusGus and Sigur Rós were extending their listenership beyond Iceland’s black sand beaches while groups like Sálin hans Jóns míns and Jet Black Joe dominated the domestic scene.
The ‘90s were incredibly productive years for Björk and any number of international hits could feature here but ‘Human Behaviour’ from her first studio album, Debut (1993), will always be a favourite.
The 2000s – XXX Rottweilerhundar
The 2000s can be characterised by a certain eclecticism as many different sounds sprang forth from Reykjavík’s condensed and endlessly creative arts and music scene.
True to Iceland’s rich rock ‘n’ roll heritage, bands such as Mínus and Maus enjoyed tremendous success and well-known names such as Hjaltalín, Múm and Hjálmar began to find their footing.
In terms of a sound for the decade, it was the blossoming of Icelandic hip-hop which defines this time in the country’s musical history. XXX Rottweilerhundar (XXX Rottweiler Dogs) enjoyed incredible popularity in Iceland, with songs such as ‘Beygla’ and the featured song above, ‘Þér er ekki í boðið’ (You are not invited’) achieving anthem like status.
XXX Rottweilerhundar paved the way for many aspiring rappers and opened a bag of tricks still spilling new talent today with artists such as Emmsjé Gauti and Úlfur Úlfur being some of the highest paid in the industry.
The 2010s – Of Monsters and Men
Of Monsters and Men shot to international fame with the release of their catchy global overnight hit, ‘Little Talks’ redefining preconceptions of what Icelandic music sounds like.
The six-member band have released two studio albums and played guest spots on famous shows such as Saturday Night Live, The Graham Norton Show.
The bands indy-pop sound is truly infectious and a world away from international Icelandic predecessors Björk and Sigur Rós. Their sound could be branded far more ‘mainstream’ than previous exports from this little island and could set the tone for acts to come.
Are you looking for some Icelandic music to colour your trip around Iceland? Check out our Ultimate Icelandic Playlist!