The Iceland that I discovered was Björk’s Iceland, filmed at Michel Gondry’s magical fingertips. In 1997 the French director flew over the island’s glacial expanses and lava fields, making tectonic plates move to the rhythm of the organic micro beats of “Jóga”. He showed us this fantastic island from a new angle – long before the world had Instagram. More fascinating than her contemporaries GusGus and Bang Gang – whom we do find on this playlist of course – the former singer of Sugarcubes was undoubtedly one of the first to attract international attention towards Reykjavík, twenty years before the modest national football team caused a sensation at the 2018 World Cup.
Others have come in the wake of Björk’s enormous success. In the lead are the incomparable Sigur Rós, who, beginning with their album Ágætis Byrjun (which means ‘A Good Start’) have become and will doubtless remain the ambassadors of airy and strangely timeless music. Implicitly, the angelic foetus on the album’s cover has become a mascot for a country where music is part of the scenery. Now, a veritable platoon of musicians have broken out and, like Jónsi and his band, are aspiring to shine further afield. Until recently the Icelandic music industry was a reflection of its geography: isolated and closed in on itself. Despite the inevitable radio exposure to English-language pop and dance hits, the Icelandic scene had no choice but to remain local, as it was not profitable enough for export – according to record companies. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why its music has remained so authentic and so unique. A song like Ásgeir’s “Stardust”, which plays with our emotions like a yo-yo, managing to find just the right compromise between accessibility and sincerity.
Some numbers: Iceland has 450,000 sheep for 360,000 inhabitants, and almost as many musicians. Forced to check an app to see if they are related to their potential new love interest, the inhabitants also use this closeness to good effect, setting up bands over a beer in order to occupy the long, hard winter nights. Subjected to temperatures as low as -30° and sometimes deprived of sunlight for 20 hours a day, Icelanders have found that taking refuge in chess, literature and music are among the most effective treatments for depression. In spite of this annual test of morale, artists paradoxically manage to inject a feel-good dimension into their songs, like Emiliana Torrini’s classic “Jungle Drum” or Feldberg’s delicious dream-pop. This playlist exudes melancholy, instead conveying a feeling of inner joy, always offering the prospect of happiness. This intrinsic emotional power at times transforms itself into fireworks, such as on the mischievous “Par Avion” by the crazy FM Belfast, the post-rock flights of For a Minor Reflection, or the helium-filled “Mountain Sound” by Of Monsters and Men.
Despite now being heard far away from the Arctic Circle, new generations of Icelandic musicians flourish and sing in their own language. This is the case on this playlist with Mugison and Valdimar, who do not hesitate to use an alphabet that only they have mastered, giving us non-native speakers an even more moon-struck musical experience. This is further proof of the unshakeable authenticity that gives credit to this music, whose provenance alone is enough to make it intriguing. Whether it is ethereal indie-pop (Axel Flóvent, Ourlives), vivacious folktronica (Múm, Einarindra), or instrumental flights of fancy (Ólafur Arnalds or his side-project Kiasmos), magic remains the common denominator of the sound of this land where elves and trolls still walk.
Volcanic eruptions aside, it isn’t hard to see a link between the country’s music and its exceptional natural landscapes. Listening to these thirty tracks, you will find it hard not to imagine (or remember) the massive textures of the Vatnajökull glacier, the orange shades of the Landmannalaugar mountains, the massive Skógafoss waterfalls, the tranquility of the long black sandy beaches, or the peaceful atmosphere created by icebergs floating on the Jökulsárlón...