Icelandic Bands to Watch Meta-List

The main reason people visit this site.

Asgeir: The main reason people visit this site.

Right now everyone is caught up in year-end listmania, but a while back, there was a spate of “Ten Icelandic Bands to Watch.” They caught my eye because of my fascination with Iceland, but they stayed on my mind because there was so little overlap between them. It all started with a Pigeons and Planes feature “Icelandic Bands That You Need to Hear.”

They recommended the following:

Tilbury blew me away.


  • Samaris
  • Tilbury
  • múm
  • Retro Stefson
  • Kiriyama Family
  • Sóley
  • Pascal Pinon
  • Amiina
  • Árstíðir
  • Bloodgroup
  • Emiliana Torrini
  • Borko
  • Ólafur Arnalds
  • Seabear
  • Sin Fang

    RetRoBot was an unexpected pleasure.

    RetRoBot was an unexpected pleasure.

  • Ojba Rasta
  • Mammut
  • Lay Low
  • Retrobot
  • Ásgeir Trausti

I’ve been singing the praises of Ásgeir Trausti since his web page was hosted by Facebook, and my feelings on Ólafur Arnalds are also well known. Amiina and múm hardly seem like “up and comers,” but anyone who doesn’t know about them yet should find out. I saw Lay Low open for Of Monsters and Men in Seattle in 2012, and saw Tilbury, Ojba Rasta, and Retrobot at Airwaves in 2012, too. I own albums from Tilbury and Bloodgroup. I had heard the music of every artist on the list, and on the whole could approve of their inclusion in a list called “Bands You Need to Hear.” (Although, to be brutally honest, Borko’s hit single kind of creeps me out.)

About three weeks later, Buzzfeed weighed in with “Ten Bands from Iceland That You Should Care About.” Their list included:

  1. F.M. Belfast
  2. Seabear
  3. For a Minor Reflection
  4. Ólafur Arnalds
  5. Sykur
  6. Hjaltalín
  7. Plastik Joy
  8. Skakkamanage
  9. Borko
  10. Retro Stefson

Less than half of the list overlaps with Pigeon’s and Plane’s list. I was thrilled to see For a Minor Reflection included, and intrigued that it includes two bands I’d never heard of before (Plastik Joy and Skakkamanage) and one I’d only heard about (Sykur).

Remember the entire population of Iceland is about the same as the population of Colorado Springs. It should be easy to track the music scene of such a small place, but two music sites with a knack for spotting the next big thing still came up with 26 unique recommendations out of 30 while excluding punk, metal, classical, and other niche genres. And even though I agreed with their recommendations, they weren’t the same ones I would make.

I tweeted as much, and was instantly challenged by Ed Hancox, another fan of all things Icelandic, which spawned the following conversation:

Reykjavík! put on one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen live, their Bowen Staines directed video for “Hellbound Heart” was promoted by KEXP, and their latest record plays like like Cloud Nothings, except more intelligent and more visceral. I have no idea why they aren’t hugely famous by now. I am also surprised that 1860, who put out my favorite folk pop albums of 2012 and 2013 haven’t gotten more attention abroad. Of course my list would include metal favorites like Sólstafir, Angist, and Kontinuum, who would all be overlooked by more pop-focused sites. I made up my list on the fly, tweeting on the bus ride to work. I immediately regretted excluding Agent Fresco.

Soon afterwards, Hancox’s own more carefully considered list, “The other 10 Icelandic bands you should care about,” appeared on his website.

  • Rökkurro
  • Pascal Pinon
  • Samaris
  • Sin Fang
  • Íris
  • Sóley
  • Amiina
  • Snorri Helgason
  • Mr. Silla
  • Asgeir

Although mostly limited to the mellower side of the indie/pop realm, he included a number of unique listings the rest of us missed. He later went on to make lists of Icelandic authors and a list of books for the  jólabókaflóð (literally, “Christmas book flood” – how can you help loving a country that has such a word?)  Several of these have ended up on my “To Be Read ASAP” list, right after Hancox’s own book, Iceland, Defrosted, which is waiting patiently on my Kindle.

So there you have it, four lists of Icelandic bands worth watching, with tangential book lists on the side. Although the creative minds behind the music overlap (Sóley and Sin Fang are also members of Seabear and so on) there is still an overwhelming amount of unusual and high quality art coming out of a very small place. Enough that the greatest similarity among the lists is the desire to include more artists. What would your list look like?


6 thoughts on “Icelandic Bands to Watch Meta-List

    • I only wish I had room for more. It’s one thing for a small population to have too many deserving pop/indie bands to fit on one list, but it’s kind of amazing that the same small population produces impressive music across so many genres.

  1. Wow, multiple top ten lists!

    Edward Hancox has several of my faves (I’ve actually seen seven on his list perform), and Pigeons and Planes and Buzzfeed each have a few more. I’m not much into metal, but Sólstafir (on your list) was most impressive in the 2012 webcast from Aldrei fór ég Suður . I’ve been nuts about Pascal Pinon since I saw them in 2009, they just keep getting better (they were recently given an endorsement by Nico Muhly in the New York Times!)
    I’d have to make two lists, one for recordings and the other for live performances, they don’t always correlate (I suffered through a dreadful múm/Sin Fang concert in Minneapolis in 2009) but all of the acts mentioned by you and the other sources are worth a listen. Johann Johannsson is doing great work in film scores although he might be a little outside the definition. Páll Oskar is really, Really, REALLY great live. Borko is sort of a musical godfather to many of the young bands, he deserves kudos for being someone who has really helped make the Icelandic musical scene what it is today.

    I’m always amazed at the depth of quality and variety of Icelandic musical acts.

    Great post!

    • Live vs recording is an interesting way to split it, although so far I’ve only seen good shows from Icelandic bands. Pascal Pinon seems to come up a lot, and I’ve never really explored their music. I’ll have to do that. I need to give Borko another listen too, because everyone agrees he is awesome. It’s just those lines everyone else calls “quirky” are unsettling to me. Why does he want to see my teeth? Why would I be hiding? Maybe I should hide. I don’t always get Icelandic humor.

      • Jófríður Ákadóttir, main composer of Pascal Pinon is also the singer in Samaris where she creates the melodies for 19th century Icelandic poetry set to an electronic background (how great is that!?). The music of Pascal Pinon may come across as a bit “twee” but there is a compelling coming-of-age narrative expressed in Jófríður’s lyrics. They are a group which definitely needs the proper venue and crowd for their live shows. I’ve written about them a lot:

        I saw Borko in 2006, “quirky” is the right adjective.

        Seeing Amiina live (in Minneapolis, 2007) was a religious experience:

      • I didn’t know about the connection between Pascal Pinon and Samaris, and I have been listening to Samaris without realizing the lyrics were traditional. Now I have to pay much closer attention to both bands.

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