What are the most famous Icelandic bands? What are the best bands of different genres, such as Icelandic rock bands and Icelandic folk bands? Who are the most famous Icelandic pop stars, and how has Icelandic music influenced the world stage? Continue reading for the ultimate guide to Icelandic bands.
Iceland's poetry tradition goes back to its earliest days; the capital of Reykjavík is renowned for its thriving cultural scene, and the people have always had a knack for creative expression. It is little wonder, therefore, that this little island is becoming increasingly known as a melting pot for musical talent.
Starting with the meteoric rise of Björk, and escalated by the country’s ever-growing festival scene, Icelandic artists and bands have begun to take over the world. Today, groups such as FM Belfast, Of Monsters and Men, and Sigur Rós are regular features on international Billboard charts, and tens of thousands flock over to see them and many others live at events such as Airwaves and Secret Solstice.
Icelandic music is an increasingly important export, and, in spite of the country’s small and homogenous population, surprisingly diverse in its appeal. Whether you like rock, folk or pop songs, there is an Icelandic band acclaimed for their take on the genre. Even fans of genres such as reggae and hip-hop will be surprised to find a wealth of musicians catering to their tastes.
Rock is one of the most popular genres of music in Iceland; plenty of bars and pubs in Reykjavík, are renowned as havens for rock music, with regular live performances, most famously Dillon. The rock band scene thus has a rich history, inspiring new groups to emerge all the time.
Sigur Rós is probably the most famous rock band that Iceland has produced, and though their sound is entirely unique, is a good example of how rock is interpreted here.
Rather than relying on screeching electric guitar solos and thundering drums, Icelandic rock bands tend to be a lot more creative and nuanced, utilising unexpected instruments and influences from other genres.
Sigur Rós is particularly experimental, sometimes not even using real words in their songs; instead, they utilise sounds and emotion to convey meaning, in a language they call ‘Hopelandic’. This sound becomes ethereal when combined with the use of a bowed guitar, and the falsetto vocals of frontman Jónsi.
Due to the peaceful ambience created by many of their tracks, Sigur Rós is often classified as ‘post-rock’ and ‘art rock’. Even so, however, many of their songs - particularly on the album ‘Takk’ - make it clear why the band is an essential part of the rock genre.
While other Icelandic rock bands may be more traditional, few have come close to Sigur Rós’ international success, with their music featuring on the Simpsons and Black Mirror; the members of the band even appeared playing during the ‘Purple Wedding’ in Game of Thrones.
The only rock band which can compete with Sigur Rós in terms of breaking onto the world stage is Kaleo, which musically stands at the opposite end of the spectrum of what rock is. Their sound is much more classic to those familiar with the genre, although maintaining its uniqueness by using elements of garage punk, indie music, psychedelic rock and the blues.
The four-man group formed in a town just outside Reykjavík, Mosfellsbær, in 2012. By 2017, their single ‘Way Down We Go’ had topped the Billboard Alternative Songs Chart, become certified platinum in three countries, and triple platinum in Canada. In 2017, their single ‘No Good’ received a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Performance.
This success story was, in part, due to the Spotify success of the song ‘All the Pretty Girls’, which has been streamed over 80 million times. This led to them signing with US label Atlantic Records, which brought them to the States and promoted their music there throughout 2015.
Since then, they have made appearances on many major late-night shows such as Jimmy Kimmel Live! and Conan; their music has also been featured in films such as Logan and Collateral Beauty, as well as television shows such as Orange is the New Black, Grey’s Anatomy and Empire.
Though not all Icelandic rock bands have had success abroad like the two mentioned above, that is not necessarily a reflection on the incredible music they produce.
HAM, for example, is a beloved band, particularly amongst older generations, that was formed in the early 1980s; they are renowned for bringing elements of goth and metal into their songs, as well as their emotive vocals.
The Vintage Caravan, meanwhile, began when its members were only 12 years old, and makes music with a 70s, psychedelic vibe.
Sólstafir is considered by many to be Iceland’s most successful metal band, but their music straddles a number of genres and many tracks have a distinct rock tone.
Agent Fresco leans into pop and art music, although each song is clearly rooted in rock.
While bands dominate both the local and international rock scenes, Icelandic rock stars should not be forgotten. Mugison is one of the country’s leaders here.
Influenced by the Beat Poets, Nirvana, Björk, and a wide variety of other sources, he emerged in the early 2000s as a unique artist, who utilised electronic technology to provide a unique tone to his tracks. After an incredible performance at Iceland’s Sónar music festival in 2003, he became a player on the world music stage, touring Europe and North America.
Mugison’s stage presence is that of a classic rock star: shambolic, over-the-top and very entertaining. He also maintains a level of punk disregard for the music industry in several ways, such as producing his material albums by hand.
He created the annual Aldrei fór ég suður music festival with his father in 2004. Based in the capital of the Westfjords, Ísafjörður, it is renowned for its eclectic lineups, the enthusiasm of its crowds and always being free.
Magni Ásgeirsson has also emerged as a prominent rock artist, and not just in Iceland; he broke onto the international stage by competing in the CBS reality competition ‘Rock Star: Supernova’ and reaching the finale. The tone of his voice has leant him to lead a Queen tribute band, Killer Queen, and he’s even opened for Aerosmith.
Magni is also the frontman of the rock band Á Móti Sól, which has toured Europe extensively and continues to regularly perform across Iceland’s festival scene.
Another rock star who has fronted several bands is Bubbi Morthens, known to his fans as just Bubbi. Releasing albums since 1979, he has defined the Icelandic rock scene for the past four decades, experimenting with the sounds of the blues, pop and reggae. His most recent album was released in 2017. In 2020 a Jukebox musical titled Níu Líf, ‘Nine Lives’, using the musical catalogue of Bubbi premiered at Borgarleikhúsið, Reykjavík’s City Theatre.
With its history of rural living, beautiful nature and deep cultural ties to poetry, folk music and Iceland come hand in hand. Even local music of other genres tends to have a folksy tone or influence. Of the many Icelandic folk bands that have emerged from this symbiosis, Of Monsters and Men is by far the most famous.
After coming together to compete in Músíktilraunir, a local Battle of the Bands-type competition, in 2010, the band unexpectedly won and their success snowballed almost immediately.
Their 2011 debut album, ‘My Head is an Animal’, reached number one in the Irish and Australian charts, even reaching number six on the US Billboard 200 album charts. ‘Little Talks’, the album’s debut single, reached the top ten in charts across Europe and Canada.
Their second album, Beneath the Skin, peaked at number one in Canada and three in the US, proving that the band is anything but a one hit wonder.
Árstíðir is another Icelandic folk band that has reached an international audience, although in a more unique way than any other. All members of the band are outstanding singers and when they were on tour in Germany, recorded an impromptu Icelandic hymn a cappella in a train station. The video went viral online, elevating them to the world stage.
An independent group, they have released their records through their own company, and due to their grassroots support, were able to successfully crowdfund their most recent album.
A more classic indie folk band from Iceland whose tracks have been featured on Grey’s Anatomy and Gossip Girl is Seabear; active from 2000 to 2010, they have recently come back together to release new music.
The fascinating fusion of folk and electronica have made the band múm another to look out for. Formed in 1997, their unique sound attracted the attention of Björk, who mentored them for a while. One of the band’s members, Hildur Guðnadóttir, became the first Icelander to win an Oscar in 2020 when she got the golden statue for her original score for Joker (2019).
Icelandic folk is the natural genre of many local artists, particularly those who seek to pay tribute to Iceland’s rich literary history. One of the members of Seabear, Sóley, is one such folk star, who has had great success blending this influence with beautiful instrumentalism and joyful melodies.
Ásgeir Trausti is another; since his 2012 album ‘Dýrð í dauðaþögn’, he has been a trailblazer in electronic folk, praised for his atmospheric vibes and ethereal vocals.
He collaborated with US artist John Grant to translate the album into English, producing ‘Into the Silence’ which broke onto charts across Europe. His singles ‘King and Cross’ and ‘Going Home’ have reached particular success.
Snorri Helgason, meanwhile, has received increasing acclaim for his intimate folk songs both as a solo artist and with the band Sprengjuhöllin, which disbanded in 2009. While Sprengjuhöllin’s music was very indie, Snorri’s three critically acclaimed solo albums have much more of a pop vibe.
Lay Low is the stage name of Lovísa Elísabet Sigrúnardóttir, a folk artist who established herself as a staple of the local scene in the mid-2000s. The rock and pop elements she brought into her songs paved the way for artists such as Emilíana Torrini and groups such as Of Monsters and Men, both of whom she has toured with internationally.
Icelandic pop bands tend to deviate from what most normally associated with the genre; rather than relying on catchy tunes, repetitive lines and broad themes, most still aspire for experimental sounds, beautiful lyricism and a distinct voice.
The Sugarcubes were the first to reach mainstream success, and are a perfect example of this. Taking influence from punk rock, utilising instruments like the trumpet, and expressing themselves through unusual - often manic - vocals, the band did not fit into the general image of pop music. Even so, they found great success in it, and in many ways defined it.
The band released three studio albums between 1986 and 1992, after which Björk set out on her groundbreaking solo career. They reunited for a one-off show in 2006, and remain friends.
FM Belfast is a great current example of an original pop band in Iceland; their electronic songs have garnered great acclaim for their aspirational, joyful message and their nostalgic ambience. With three to seven members at a time, depending on their availability, they have released four English studio albums that have taken over Iceland and made waves across Europe and the US.
Valdimar takes on a more indie approach to its music; their four albums capture the beauty of the Icelandic language and spirit, without losing out on any modernity and catchiness. In spite of mainly singing in their mother tongue, the band has many fans across Europe, where they regularly tour.
Others include Vök and Retro Stefson. Vök takes an electronic vibe and turns it into dreampop, while using unexpected instruments for a unique sound; until 2019, the band even featured a saxophonist. Retro Stefson, which disbanded in 2016, are still beloved for their catchy, upbeat dance-pop hits.
Björk is, without any measure of competition, Iceland’s most famous person; she warrants an entire article to herself. She has forever changed the world’s perception of music, fashion and art, and has paved the way for all other Icelandic pop stars.
After the breakout single ‘Birthday’ with her band the Sugarcubes in 1987, she has released nine solo studio albums and won five BRIT Awards and four MTV Video Music Awards. She has been nominated for an Academy Award and fifteen Grammys (being the female artist with the most nominations and no wins).
Björk’s sound epitomises the experimental, using everything from electronic instruments to natural noises to create a one-of-a-kind brand of pop music. The artistry of her music videos, on-stage performances and public persona have influenced other performers and cultural trends almost as much as her tracks.
Though no other has gained the international fame of Björk, there are plenty of other Icelandic pop stars who have taken the nation by storm. Páll Óskar, for example, may be remembered by those across Europe for his raunchy 1997 performance during Eurovision, but in Iceland is known as being the country’s campest and most outrageous pop star.
Emilíana Torrini, a member of electronic band GusGus, had huge solo success as an independent pop artist with her 2009 hit ‘Jungle Drum’. Her 2002 track ‘Gollum’s Song’ featured in The Lord of the Rings.
Those interested in Iceland’s cultural history, meanwhile, should be sure to seek out the music of Elly Vilhjálms, a pop star who defined music throughout the 1960s.
The punk, political nature of rock; the poetic romanticism of folk; and the obvious popularity of pop make it no wonder that these genres have flourished in the forward-thinking, naturally beautiful Iceland. What is more surprising, however, is the diversity of bands from other genres.
Hjálmar, which formed in 2002, is a perfect example; they perform original reggae songs in their native tongue. In spite of what seems like a stark contrast between the styles, the rhythm of the Icelandic language and the Caribbean beats blend seamlessly, creating catchy and original tracks.
Their success is also rooted in this apparent contrast; the warm, upbeat ambience of Hjalmar’s music is a perfect cure to the cold of Iceland’s winters.
Qurashi has been showcasing Icelandic hip-hop since 1996, and is the most successful Icelandic rap group. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, they were signed with US record companies and had their tracks featured on a wealth of television shows and film trailers. In spite of breaking up in 2005, they promised fans a new album soon in 2016.
By blending hip hop with rock vibes, Qurashi led the way in introducing rap into the country’s mainstream culture. Now, there are many groups and artists finding success under the genre, such as all-female hip-hop band Reykjavíkurdætur and rap duo Úlfur Úlfur.
ADHD, meanwhile, is an instrumental jazz band with seven albums, all featuring beautiful saxophone solos, guitar riffs and melodies to unwind to. They follow the success of Mezzoforte, a jazz-funk fusion band that formed in 1977, reached number 17 the UK’s singles chart in 1983, and is still ongoing today.
Finally, there is one Icelandic band that has not lent it to any category above, but cannot be overlooked; GusGus. One of the country’s most successful groups both at home and abroad, GusGus is an electronica collaborative that often reaches into techno and house.
Having formed in 1995, they have enjoyed over two decades of success, and seen a wealth of talented artists join and leave the group. Currently, the band is composed of two of its founding members, Daniel Haraldsson and Birgir Þórarinsson.
Iceland's passion for culture and the arts has inspired musicians to experiment with a wide range of musical genres and styles, creating a thriving scene of Icelandic bands. Due to the creativity and popularity of many such groups, the world is fast turning its attention to the deep pool of talent here, and learning that when it comes great Icelandic music, Björk is just the tip of the iceberg.