There have been scores of articles written about the subject of Iceland and music – several on Icelandic Music on Spotify, too – many of them beginning with a preface alluding to Iceland’s impressive output of music despite its relatively small population, followed by a brief enumeration of the island’s most acclaimed artists. Björk. Sigur Rós. Kaleo. The Sugar Cubes. Etc.
We have decided against penning such an article, however, preferring instead to do something a little bit different; below, we have selected a few of the island’s most beautiful songs (all of whom are to be found on Spotify) and then expanded upon the ideal location from where to listen to those songs. After all, one does not eat filet mignon on the train. Neither does one wolf down a hot dog at the Opera. Things have their time and their place.
Icelandic Music on Spotify
Sigur Rós – Hoppípolla
WHERE TO LISTEN: In an empty playground. In the city. In the pouring rain.
From Sigur Rós’ 2005 album Takk, Hoppípolla translates to “Jumpingintopuddles” (the lyrics are a fusion of Icelandic and the Sigur Rós’ nonsensical vonlenska, Hopelandish). It is no good, listening to Hoppípolla in the sunshine. It is a song that – in order to be fully appreciated – requires lots of rain, and, preferably, an empty playground, complete with a large puddle into which one may jump with wild abandon.
KK and Ellen Kristjánsdóttir – When I Think of Angels
WHERE TO LISTEN: In a church pew. Reminiscing over departed loved ones.
Kristján Kristjánsson and Ellen Kristjánsdóttir released the song When I Think of Angels in honour of their late sister Inger, who died in a car crash in 1992. Shortly after the song was released, Ellen received numerous requests to perform the song at funerals, especially those of children who had died in car crashes. “It was difficult at first, and I cried almost every time,” Ellen would later remark. Unsurprisingly, many Icelanders associate When I Think of Angels with funerals. And while we certainly hope that your visit to Iceland doesn’t coincide with any such solemn ceremonies, we do suggest finding a quiet church pew and letting your mind drift to loved one’s past, before cranking up the volume on When I Think of Angels on your headphones. Sometimes, it’s good to cry.
Emmsjé Gauti – Strákarnir
WHERE TO LISTEN: At Prikið. During the weekend. While inebriated.
Rap music experienced something of a revival in Iceland in 2015; Gísli Pálmi released an eponymous album that was on everyone’s lips, and longtime fixture of the rap scene Emmsjé Gauti released the song Strákarnir (The Boys), which would later be released officially on the album Vagg & Velta, a year later. A kind of boy’s-night-out anthem – produced by current darling of the Icelandic music scene Auður – Strákarnir must absolutely be listened to at Prikið (a club in downtown Reykjavík): the home of Hip Hop in Iceland. If your visit to Reykjavík happens to fall on a weekend, visit Prikið and request the song from the performing DJ. It’s best to be slightly tipsy or massively intoxicated.
Björk – Jóga
WHERE TO LISTEN: While zooming past a moss-covered lava field in the Icelandic countryside.
Jóga is the first single that Björk released from her 1997 album Homogenic (truly one of the most excellent examples of Icelandic music on Spotify). Fusing baroque and classical styles, the track is partially inspired by Icelandic nature, featuring what has been described as a “volcanic beat” (the title of the track is a reference to Björk’s best friend, Jóhanna “Jóga” Jóhannsdóttir, wife of the former mayor of Reykjavík Jón Gnarr). Given how evocative Jóga is of Icelandic nature, it is wise to pair the track’s soundscape with the island’s landscape (like complementing a full-bodied Bordeaux with a succulent steak). We recommend listening to it while sitting in your rental, zooming through a moss-covered lava field, musing upon your own insignificance.
Ásgeir – Leyndarmál
WHERE TO LISTEN: In the summer. While Camping. Wearing a lopapeysa. Underneath the midnight sun.
Ásgeir’s debut album Dýrð í dauðaþögn (In the Silence in English) is, to this day, the most commercially-successful debut album in the history of Icelandic music. The first single released off the album was Leyndarmál, and it was a certified hit during the summer of 2012. Ásgeir wrote the music. His father, poet Einar Georg Einarsson, wrote the lyrics (there’s also an English version of the song, although we prefer the Icelandic). Leyndarmál is a summer song, which is to be enjoyed underneath the midnight sun, while camping, sipping a lukewarm Bóndi beer, and wearing a lopapeysa.
Hjálmar – Leiðin okkar allra
WHERE TO LISTEN: In an aeroplane. While departing from the island. With a heavy heart. And saltwater on one’s cheeks.
One of the most poignant records in the history of Icelandic music, Hjálmar’s Leiðin okkar allra is a song that most Icelanders connect to on some level. Leiðin okkar allra is off the band’s third album, Ferðasót, which released in 2007 (Icelandic MMA fighter Gunnar Nelson was in the habit of entering the octagon to Leiðin okkar allra in his early days). The lyrics are mournful, concerned with the act of bidding goodbye. In light of this, it is a song that is well suited to aeroplanes or ships, when one is leaving the island of Iceland with a heavy heart.
(For more Icelandic music on Spotify check out this playlist).
Kaleo – All the Pretty Girls
WHERE TO LISTEN: In the Icelandic countryside. During summer. Hand-in-hand with one’s lover.
Kaleo is an Icelandic rock band that was formed in 2012 in Mosfellsbær. Four years later, the band released its sophomore album, A/B, via Elektra Records. The album features the song All the Pretty Girls, which is a lovely indie ballad that also boasts an excellent music video. Taking our cue from that video, All the Pretty Girls is best enjoyed during summer in the Icelandic countryside. If you can find a serene lake somewhere then we suggest you hurl yourself in, all the while revelling in forlorn beauty of JJ Julius Son’s falsetto.
GDRN – Af og til
WHERE TO LISTEN: At home (i.e. in one’s Airbnb or hotel room). With a towel wrapped around one’s waist. A glass of white wine balanced precariously on the bathroom sink. Preparing for a sensuous night out on the town.
Possibly the greatest Icelandic song ever written (recency bias notwithstanding), GDRN’s Af og til is a soulful, funky masterpiece, with a perfect build-up, and irresistible lyrics. Off GDRN’s eponymous 2020-album, Af og til is best enjoyed at home, with a glass of white wine balanced hazardously on the bathroom sink, while one is meticulously grooming oneself for a night on the town (it’s a great way to get the party started).
On a side note: If you’re looking for Icelandic Music on Spotify, GDRN’s new album is an excellent choice.
Mugison – Gúanóstelpan
WHERE TO LISTEN: On the harbour. In the early morning. Still drunk.
Mugison’s album Haglél was something of a sensation when it was released in 2011. Voted Album of the Year at the Icelandic Music Awards that same year, Haglél was also Mugison’s first Icelandic album. It contains a handful of songs that have since become classics: Kletturinn, Stingum Af, and Gúanóstelpan, the lattermost being a beautifully arranged love song centring around Mugison’s childhood home of Ísafjörður. If you’re not in a position to listen to the song on the Ísafjörður harbour, you can settle for any pier in the Greater Reykjavík Area. The song is best appreciated in the early morning, after a long night out on the town, while suffering the misery of a broken heart.
Emilíana Torrini – Sunny Road
WHERE TO LISTEN: By one’s self, with a view of the ocean.
From Torrini’s 2005 Fisherman’s Woman, Sunny Road was the album’s second single. It’s sad. It’s lonely. It’s beautiful. The song is best enjoyed by one’s lonesome, with a view of the ocean, while longing for times past. Life is sad. Sometimes, music makes it even sadder.But it’s good to cry (we apologise for all the melodrama).
(We hope you enjoy Icelandic music on Spotify.)