2012 Top Ten List Spotlight: Iceland Bands

2012 Countdown, Iceland Airwaves
Jim Beckmann
photo by Beth Crook

For the rest of the year, we'll be spotlighting our KEXP DJs Top Albums of 2012, leading up to our 2012 Top Album Countdown, as voted on by our listeners! Voting ends today, Friday, December 21st, so let us know your favorites right now, and tune in on Friday, December 28th to hear if your picks made the list!

As you can see from KEXP DJs' Top 10 lists we've been posting over the last several weeks and the practically overwhelming voting list on our homepage, 2012 was a very good year for indie music in general -- but, damn, was it also a great year for Iceland music in particular! For the past four years, KEXP has been bringing listeners new music from the small Nordic island because, like nowhere else, it has a density of amazing bands and artists. There's also a definite kinship between Iceland and the Pacific Northwest: both places exist in relative isolation but have great internet connections and both have generally crummy weather that makes people want to do creative things indoors, like read books and play in bands. Iceland, though, at barely half the population of Seattle, cultivates artists that are fiercely original, at least among themselves. In Iceland, you'll hear all kinds genres and styles -- from electronica to reggae, from glacial pop to hyped up hip-hop -- but you'll never find two bands that sound alike.

Gathered here are some of my favorite albums released in Iceland in 2012. I always try to follow as many bands there as possible, but life in the Petri dish is as rapid as it is fruitful, and many new ones pop up each year as others quickly fade away. I'm not including here the two biggest albums to be released by Icelanders outside of Iceland this year -- Sigur Rós' Valtari and Of Monsters and Men's My Head Is An Animal -- mainly because everyone already knows the former is going to be great and the latter was actually released last year in Iceland and has already topped KEXP staff and DJs' Top Ten of 2011 lists. The bands listed below are less likely to be heard by those outside of the island but desperately deserve a wider audience. They could be listed in any order, as my preference always depends on my mood (except Moses Hightower's Önnur Mósebók -- that one kills it... I'm not budging on that!), and they are all typically unique and could each play as snippets to the soundtrack of your life.

Jim's Top Ten Iceland Albums

1. Önnur Mósebók by Moses Hightower (Records Records)

I couldn't believe what I was hearing the first time I played this. I'm not a fan of Steely Dan or "smooth music" in general, but damn, listening to this was like actually kicking back after hours in a seedy lounge, wondering if that last line of coke you did was really a good idea but not letting that stop you from talking up the girl in the powder blue zip top as you sip bar brand cocktails ('cause you can't really tell the difference anymore). Yeah, I'm sure that's not really what the music is about, but the mix of 70′s and 80′s lounge, funk, soul, rock and jazz, with occasional twists of bossa nova and psychedelia is as stimulating visually as it is sonically. And it sounds frickin' great. I sometimes think that Icelandic producers overwork their albums, but the depth and warmth of this recording is hard to beat. Önnur Mósebók is one of my top two albums of anywhere this entire year.

2. Born to be Free by Borko (Kimi Records)

This one was definitely a grower. I love Borko's melodies, but come on... the entire album and in particular the album's title track opens with this line: "Open your mouth, show me your teeth / it's all part of who you are". That's just weird. And a bit TMI, if you ask me. But that's Borko's, a.k.a. Björn Kristiansson's, MO. His lyrics are oddly personal and surreal, while his melodies are gorgeous and lush, often richly orchestrated or performed, so you get caught up in this inside/outside duality even while you're just trying to listen to a good fucking pop song. But the more you listen, the more you're hopelessly entangled.

3. God's Lonely Man by Pétur Ben (self-released)

One of the loveliest guys you'll ever know. But that shouldn't matter, right? Don't meet your heroes, and all that. But Pétur Ben puts himself out there in his music. He's open to all those who want to know him. While Borko in his music is strangely ironic (at least what passes for irony in Iceland), Pétur Ben writes about things you can really latch onto: love, mostly, as well as other existential and quasi-spiritual matters. And the guy knows how to extend a metaphor -- I'm thinking early John Donne when I'm listening to "Cold War Baby," for instance. I just love how he compares a loving relationship to war, which is hardly a new trope: "Stay clear of the living room frontier/Your enemy's under the chandelier/I'm sick of waiting for the first attack/having to constantly watch my back/this will never end and that's the curse/The red button would kill both of us" and later... "Place your war inside me/there's a place for us in the infinity". This is a really really great album.

4. Dýrð í dauðaþögn by Ásgeir Trausti (self-released)

Bon Iver and James Blake come up just as frequently in the press about Ásgeir Trausti as they will in your mind as you listen to Dýrð í dauðaþögn. But what makes all Icelandic music magical is that while the artists tend to openly embrace their influences, they're also twisting them to their own devices. The 20-year old Trausti owns a voice from the gods, and he surrounds himself with extremely talented people who help him realize his own potential. That Dýrð í dauðaþögn is his debut should make you weep, not just because the songs are so heavenly beautiful, but also because he's got a whole amazing career ahead of him.

5. Exorcise by Tilbury (Records Records)

These guys love British stuff. Their name and their sound prove it. But unfortunately right now, England isn't putting out much music that's this cool. Þormóður Dagsson, the band’s founder, is otherwise a drummer. Here, he sings and plays guitar and keys. All Icelanders need to have multiple bands in which they play different instruments. It's a rule, I think. For Tilbury, Dagsson has gathered some really talented friends, including guitarist Örn Eldjárn (Brother Grass), keyboardist Kristinn Evertsson (Valdimar), bassist Guðmundur Óskar Guðmundsson (Hjaltalín, Monotown, Mr. Silla) and drummer Magnús Tryggvason Eliassen (Sin Fang, Moses Hightower, ADHD, amiina, Borko, etc.)... see how the list of bands gets longer for each person? Tilbury is unlike many other Icelandic bands in its non-Icelandic approach -- English lyrics with War-era British officers as references -- but, as ever, they give it that indefinable Icelandic twist.

6. Half Dreams by Sin Fang (Morr Music)

Sindri Már Sigfússon wrote (writes) beautifully lush pop songs for Seabear. Sin Fang, formerly Sin Fang Bous, seemed more like an outlet for his prolific songwriting as well as for sonic experimentation. Sing Fang Bous songs were harder to love, but that didn't mean you didn't end up loving them just as much. As the years have gone by, Sin Fang seems to have gravitated toward the sweet spot that Seabear had occupied (Seabear is not defunct but on hiatus). Whereas Sindri had been at first performing as Sin Fang Bous alone (just as he did with Seabear), he's grown the Sin Fang project into a full group, including the lovely Sóley Stefánsdóttir, or as YouTube fans know her, just Sóley. Sin Fang's latest songs are still quirky but are in their various stages of germination pop masterpieces. Half Dreams isn't even a real album. The EP is a short gathering of songs to serve as a stop-gap until his incredible, forthcoming LP, Flowers, is released next year. But even Sindri's potentially disposable songs are brilliant compared to others' best material.

7. Ojba Rasta by Ojba Rasta (Records Records)

Yeah, Icelandic reggae. And no, they're not even the first. But while the firmly established Hjálmar compose spacey Jamaican dub jams, the younger lads of Ojba Rasta know how to party "Jolly Good." Their sound is a bit livelier and, as I've said before, "more like to inspire a rousing sing-a-long or some good old-fashioned skanking." And wouldn't you know: bassist, band founder and one of two lead vocalists, Arnljótur Sigurðsson, is also part of Sin Fang. This, though, is totally different.

8. Enter 4 by Hjaltalín (self-released)

I've loved Hjaltalín for several years, even if I thought their music seemed barely on the right side of musical theater. With her operatic voice, singer Sigríður Thorlacius frequently seemed "in character," while guitarist and singer Högni Egilsson always brought some earthiness and earnestness to the mix, and made the the group's chamber pop tendencies a bit ballsier. Plus, he looks like a viking! Even even more so, he's brilliant. I remember being nearly in tears of laughter several years ago as he verbally riffed on stage one night to distract the audience while a few band members worked through some technical difficulties. It was like listening to Robyn Hitchcock or Warren Ellis of the Dirty Three banter without their drug addled brains. Anyway, Hjaltalín has just released a new album and it's waaaaay different. It seems they've gone quite a bit electronic. In general, that's not really my genre, as definitely my attitude and possibly my genetic makeup make me predisposed to not dancing... but somehow the inorganic production of this new Hjaltalín album feels more real. The songs are moody and glitchy, clearly influenced by James Blake and others like him, and they don't always follow traditional structures. Thorlacius's voice is frequently more hushed, and the band hasn't totally disposed of their orchestral tendencies, as in the yearning "On the Penninsula." Enter 4 marks an interesting new adventure for Hjaltalín.

9. Retro Stefson by Retro Stefson (Records Records)

Brothers Stefánsson -- Unnsteinn and Logi -- have assembled a massive group of talented young musicians who've previously created two albums of multi-genre party jams. Their 2010 album, Kimbabwe, mixed afrobeat, jazz, funk, and rock with a distinctly Icelandic attitude. Just look at this video of "Kimba", which features the band hitting a groove while freezing their asses off in the picturesque Icelandic landscape. More likely, though, you'd find them in a club with a bunch of sweating fans dancing their asses off instead. On their new self-titled album, like Hjaltalín, Retro Stefson favors electronic instrumentation, but not surprisingly, their songs are more upbeat and uber dance-friendly. This is definitely the most focused I've heard the band sound, well, ever, and given that the songs are all in English, the album is a natural crossover for listeners outside of Iceland.

10. Stofnar falla EP by Samaris (self-released)

Okay, let's get this out of the way: Jófríður Ákadóttir sounds a lot like Björk. But that's only because she shares a similar breathy voice that drifts like mist over a thawing field. Ákadóttir is certianly doing her own thing... or several things... In addition to creating smart twee pop as one half of Pascal Pinion, she explores darker terrain with this downtempo electronic trio. In Samaris, producer Þórður Kári Steinþórsson builds atmospheric landscapes for Ákadóttir to traverse alongside clarinet player Áslaug Rún Magnúsdóttir. (Hopefully, listening to Samaris might make a few more people blow the dust of their own clarinet cases that have been laying under their beds since high school.) While the Stofnar falla EP follows the previous Hljóma Þú EP only by a year, it's leaps and bounds more adventurous and dreamy. The lyrics here are completely Icelandic, but fortunately you'll be so lost in a trance that you wouldn't attempt to sing along anyway. Here they are, by the way, previewing the title track during last year's KEXP broadcast from KEX Hostel during Iceland Airwaves:

There were too many other great Icelandic bands this year to include in the list. Given more time, I would have added Valdimar, Kiriyama Family, Ghostigital, and many others. I was psyched to see that all six winners of the Kraumur Awards this year were also on my top ten. The idea is that the fund will help promote these bands beyond their current distribution. And that's great news because unfortunately, most of these artists' albums are not available outside of Iceland. Fortunately, they now have the Kraumur Fund supporting them, plus there's the Icelandic organization Gogoyoko, where you can listen to and buy tons of music, Icelandic and otherwise. Gogoyoko is highly recommended and promotes Fair Play music, so check them out!

Next year also promises to be really great for Icelandic music. I'm looking forward to the debut of Monotown, a new LP from Sin Fang, and hopefully something from Mr. Silla (hurry it up already, would you?). Look for those bands on next year's top ten list!

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