Despite its low population, Iceland has a huge number of artists, musicians, actors, and writers. Some have risen to fame not only in the small island nation but around the world. There are probably paintings, songs, and movies you have seen or heard involving Icelanders that you weren’t aware are Icelandic. Of course, music in Icelandic can only be understood by those who speak it. But today, many Icelandic music artists write and sing in English. Let’s take a look at some of the best-known Icelandic bands and musicians.
Famous Icelandic Singers
Full name: Björk Guðmundsdóttir. Björk started her career as the lead singer of the Sugarcubes, an alternative rock band. After the band’s split, she embarked on a solo career and has achieved worldwide success ever since. She has released nine solo albums, with the latest release in 2017. Overall she has sold between 20 and 40 million records. In 2000 her song “I’ve Seen it All” was nominated for an Academy Award. The song was featured in the film Dancer in the Dark, which Björk herself starred in. She is planning a tour for summer 2021, titled Björk Orkestral. The tour was planned for the summer of 2020 but was postponed due to Covid-19 restrictions. Björk is almost certainly the most famous Icelandic female singer to date. She continues to be a big name in Iceland pop.
Full name: Jóhanna Guðrún Jónsdóttir. Yohanna began her music career as a child artist in Iceland. She released two albums which were mainly mainstream pop songs translated to Icelandic. Yohanna achieved wide recognition in 2009, when she represented Iceland in the Eurovision Song Contest with “Is it True?”. She came second, the best Iceland has ever received in the contest. Only one other Icelander has achieved second place at Eurovision: Selma in 1999. The same year Yohanna performed at Eurovision, she released an album: Butterflies and Elvis.
A current Icelandic pop singer, Glowie (real name: Sara Pétursdóttir) is only 23 years of age. In 2019 she released an eight-track EP, Where I Belong, under Columbia Records. In 2019 she also supported Ed Sheeran on the Icelandic leg of his Divide tour. Glowie is definitely an Icelandic singer to watch. Have a listen to her song “I’m Good”, a personal favorite of mine.
Icelandic Rock Bands
An Icelandic experimental rock band, Sigur Rós has been active since 1994. They have released seven albums and continue to perform both in Iceland and elsewhere. They have been met with worldwide acclaim, being nominated for a Grammy in 2004 for Best Alternative Music Album. They have since gone on to be nominated for and win numerous awards around the world. Their new album, Odin's Raven Magic, is set for release in December 2020. Although the band has had five members in total, only two are still in the band. Jón Þór "Jónsi" Birgisson and Georg "Goggi" Holm travel with other accompanying musicians whenever they perform live. They are unique in their ethereal sound, falsetto vocals, and use of a host of instruments, including a bow guitar.
Of Monsters and Men
You will likely have heard the music of this Icelandic band on the radio. Their most widely known song, “Little Talks” has almost 300 million views on YouTube. It’s taken from their debut album, My Head is an Animal, which was released in 2011. The album reached the top ten in several countries and hit number one in Australia, Ireland and Iceland. The band has five members: Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, Ragnar Þórhallsson, Brynjar Leifsson, Kristján Páll Kristjánsson, and Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson. Their following two albums, released in 2015 and 2019, were also very successful. In 2017 they reached one billion Spotify streams, becoming the first Icelandic band to achieve that milestone. Of Monsters and Men is one of the most famous Icelandic folk/rock bands at present.
Originally an Icelandic metal band, Sólstafir shifted to a post-rock style early in their music career. The band’s four members are Aðalbjörn "Addi" Tryggvason, Sæþór Maríus "Pjúddi" Sæþórsson, Svavar "Svabbi" Austmann and Hallgrímur Jón "Grimsi" Hallgrímsson. To date, the band has released seven albums, the latest arriving on November 6th 2020: Endless Twilight of Codependent Love. The majority of their songs are sung in Icelandic, with the rest sung in English. The band is renowned for its experimental style and claims that it is influenced by the Icelandic landscape.
This rock band has been making huge waves in the last few years. Their second album, A/B, released in 2016, sold over one million copies worldwide. One of the singles from the album, “Way Down We Go”, made it to the top 10 in multiple countries. The song also featured in the X-Men movie Logan, and has 321 million views on YouTube. The band created several music videos utilizing Iceland’s natural features, such as volcanos and glaciers. The band has five members: JJ Julius Son, David Antonsson, Daniel Kristjansson, Rubin Pollock, and Þorleifur Gaukur Davíðsson. Four singles from their third album, Surface Sounds (coming soon) were released throughout the first half of 2020. The band moved to Texas after signing to Atlantic Records in 2015. They are one of the most famous Icelandic bands in 2020.
Other Icelandic Musicians
Jóhannsson was a composer and wrote music for several blockbuster movies as well as releasing nine solo albums. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score twice, for The Theory of Everything and Sicario. His score for The Theory of Everything won a Golden Globe in 2015. He also composed the scores for the movies Prisoners and Arrival, and wrote for numerous Icelandic plays and TV series. He co-wrote the score for the Icelandic series Trapped, which is the most successful Icelandic series of all time. Jóhannsson died in 2018 after a long and extremely successful music career.
Arnalds is one of those artists I listened to for years before realizing he is Icelandic. I came to know him for his classical/ambient songs, such as Ljósið and Fyrsta. However, he incorporates electronic and pop elements into many of his songs, so it’s difficult to categorize him. In any case, his music is some of the most relaxing and soulful I have ever heard. He has released five albums over 13 years, with the latest having been released in the beginning of November 2020. He has collaborated with several other artists, including Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, one of the vocalists from Of Monsters and Men. His songs have been featured on TV shows in both the UK and the US.
The Iceland Symphony Orchestra
This world-renowned orchestra was founded in 1950 and is based out of Reykjavík’s Harpa Concert Hall. They give around 100 concerts per season, all of which are broadcast on one of Iceland’s national radio stations. Some concerts are also recorded and uploaded to the orchestra’s YouTube channel or streamed online. The orchestra was once nominated for a Grammy for Best Orchestral Performance. They also have a long history of collaborating with pop artists, performing with them at concerts. Why not check out one of their concerts the next time you’re in the city?
Now that you know Icelandic artists are spread throughout the music industry, keep an eye out for them. How do you spot them? Look for the patronymic names: the first name of their father with -son or -dóttir at the end. Most Icelanders don’t have a family name, only a patronymic name. For a country with less than half a million people, Iceland certainly has a lot of artistic talent. They certainly invest well in it; the Harpa Concert Hall is one of the biggest buildings in the city. Just look for the colored glass building by the coast; it’s lit up at night and resembles flashing fish scales.
Samuel Hogarth, Cars Iceland.