When you /think of Icelandic bands and music, what comes to mind? Probably Björk, maybe Sigur Rós, and (if you’re not Icelandic) probably a bit of a blank. That’s okay, we’re here to help.
Iceland was isolated from outside musical influences until bands like the Sugarcubes (Björk’s first band!) hit the world stage. Iceland’s musical isolation left room for its style and traditions to remain untouched until the 18th century when outside musical instruments like the harmonica and the organ entered the country and influenced their sound.
The earliest form of the country’s music is called a “rímur,” or a rhyme and dates back as early as the 14th century. Set in the standard formatting of a rhyming poem, rímur are songs that use similar-sounding words in verses. They are stanzaic structured, meaning four lines established the style of the rímur.
For centuries, Icelandic folk music was the long-standing popular music of the country. Its unique rhythm, caused by putting stress on the last word of the phrase, is called Hákveða. Today, Iceland’s most popular music (and popularly exported music, too) is rock.
While folk and rock music are the most listened-to musical style among Icelanders, other genres are gaining steam. Icelandic musicians are creating great music across an array of categories including jazz, hip hop, and classical.
Here are the Icelandic bands and musicians you need to know:
Icelandic Folk Music
This folk pair sing Ylja debuted its self-titled album Ylja in 2012. They formed in 2008 after meeting in high school. The pair attribute their musical style to their Icelandic folk roots, which can be heard clearly on their 2018 album Dætur. Ylja also has a knack for experimental musical approaches, as seen in their 2014 album Commotion.
Of Monsters and Men
Of Monsters and Men’s music has had a global presence since they debuted in 2011 with My Head Is an Animal. After three studio albums, a live album, and having their music featured in such movies as The Hunger Games (2013), and television shows as The Walking Dead (2013), and Jessica Jones (2015), the indie rock band will hit the road in summer of 2021 for a European tour.
Ólöf Arnalds has been on the Icelandic folk scene since the early 2000s and has worked with none other than Björk. She is a multi-instrumentalist and has several albums that often are classified as neo-folk.
Raised on jazz and classical piano in a musical family, Sóley Stefánsdóttir eventually came to folk music as her outlet. Her most recent album, Harmóník I & II , is considere indie-pop, yet the album is framed through classical movements. It would be an entirely instrumental recording, if not for her stunning choral harmonies on some of the tracks.
Icelandic Contemporary Classical Music
While labeled as classical, Dymbrá’s sound has pop highlights that are bright and free. Eyrún and Nina debuted in 2020 as Dymbrá with its self-titled album. Both have a classical background and play just about every instrument.
María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir
María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir is a composer and violinist. She composed music for Icelandic films such as Tales from the Gimli Hospital: Reframed (2011), and for Joan Jonas’s 2017 film, Moving off Land. In addition to film scoring, María has directed choral, ensembles, and orchestras.
Hugar is known for its alternative classical approach which has been categorized as neo-classical. Hugar is duo Bergur Pórisson and Pétur Jónsson, childhood friends that decided to form Hugar in 2012.
When classical meets electronic, the musical journey becomes a reflective soundscape that gives space to every medley. Mikael Lind debuted in 2018 and has released an album every year since. His latest album is Current Creations (2021).
Icelandic Atmospheric Music
Though techno is Bjarki’s main genre, his ambient tracks provoke introspection. Bjarki’s last release, Chanting from a Tiny Book, is a four-track album with a moving bassline and drums to keep you moving in the clubs.
Go on a journey with Amiina’s ambient music. The transitions, the blending of organic instruments like the strings in “Crocodiles,” from her 2016 release, Fantômas, and the electronic sounds that appear toward the end of the song, will keep your ears alert.
Need dramatic and ambient soundtrack music that finds a calm place to let your mind focus? You’d do well to sart with Biggi Hilmars’s music. Check out the self-titled piece from the BBC’s The Last Igloo (2020).
Ben Frost keeps busy with his collaborations with Iceland’s great musicians, including Björk and Brian Eno. He wears many hats as a musician, producer, composer, and director. Frost plays with sound, from incomprehensible static to delays and loops.
Icelandic Electronic Music
If you’re into electronic music like trip-hop or house, then GusGus is definitely for you. The band has been around since 1995, first coming together to make film soundtrack music, but later creating albums of their own.
You could call Hermigervill a DJ or a keyboard player. Either way, his sound is blending with synths and samples from things you might not have ever heard before.
Bloodgroup is a four-person electro-pop band formed in 2006. Their music combines synth sounds with bass, drums, guitar, and vocals.
Just click the link to this song and let that house groove hit you. The fairy tale version of of Sísý Ey would be called “Three Sisters and a DJ” because that’s the line-up of this house music group. Now let’s get that name right: See-see.ay.
Icelandic Metal Music
Sólstafir is a post-metal band and is probably dubbed as such because of the ambient foundation in their music. The band’s musical journey began in 1995, playing black metal and Viking metal during the second wave of metal music.
The musical identity of Agent Fresco is an energetic mix of art, pop, metal, and alternative music. They’ve been around since 2010, so they had a chance to perfect their blended approach to music.
Skálmöld is a folk-Viking metal band, and if you watch this video below, you’ll be connected to Scandinanvian sentiments of days long-gone. Their historical connection to Iceland’s Civil War history is in the band’s name, translating approximately to “anarchy.”
Singer, songwriter, and violinist for the Iceland Symphony Orchestra; Greta Salóme can do it all. In 2012, Salóme represented Iceland in the Eurovision competition, and she’s been a popular musical fixture in the country ever since.
You can’t have a list about Icelandic music without devoting (a lot of) space to Björk. In fact, it’s likely that global interest in Icelandic music may not even exist in the way it does today if not for Björk.
It’s hard to categorise the music of the singer, songwriter, DJ, producer, and actress; it could fit in almost any category in this article, but her overall appeal rests on pop and rock sensibilities. Her work combines electronic, punk, trip hop, and even occasionally classical music.
Björk got her start with the Icelandic indie band Sugarcubes in the mid-1980s, scoring an international hit with “Birthday.” The band broke up and she began her solo career in 1992, a career which has spanned nine albums and has defined, then redefined, what it means to be an experimental musical artist. Björk continues to evolve, pushing herself into new musical categories, mediums, and forms of expression.
Iris Arins is Iris Arins, and Iris Thorarins. They play a mix of pop, alternative, and electronic and sometimes the occasional off-beat rhythm.
Hafdis Huld is a singer and actor, as well as a former member of GusGus. Her sound is symphonic and poppy; let it wash over you.
Ólafur Arnalds plays everything! His music is set for films and deep thought for its ambient and electronic approach.
Sigur Rós has been making records since the mid-1990s and is still at it. Their music is labeled “post-rock,” but its falsetto vocals and ambient electro accompaniment make Sigur Rós’s music unique.
Icelandic-Italian Emilíana Torrini is a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter who has sung with and written for Kylie Minogue and Thievery Corporation, to name a few. She was a member of the techno group GusGus. Her sound is a mix of pop, electronic, alternative music.
The electro-pop band FM Belfast has been together since 2005, dropping their self-produced debut album, How to Make Friends in 2008. Since their debut album, FM Belfast has produced two more albums, Don’t Want to Sleep (2011) and Island Broadcast (2017).
Unnsteinn and Logi Stefánsson formed the eight-member indie-pop band Retro Stefson in 2006. They released their debut album Kimbabwe in 2011 and their second album Retro Stefson in 2013. Since their sophomore album, Retro Stefson has also released a single, “Skin” (2016), and an EP, Scandinavian Pain.
Icelandic Pop Music
Katla Vigdís and Ásrós Helga formed Between Mountains in 2017. Their pop-folk songs are about life in Iceland and the mystic Nordic region where the landscape is beautiful and unforgiving.
Friðrik Dór is a pop and R&B singer-songwriter. He’s worked with Retro Stefson, playing both drums and keyboards.
Pop singer Jón Jónsson is the brother of R&B singer Friðrik Dór. Quite a talented family they have there! Jónsson writes his songs in Icelandic.
Bríet sings in both English and Icelandic. She has received numerous awards in Iceland for her music, such as the Icelandic Music Awards. Her music is reminiscent of early 2000s R&B and pop, with slow and catchy melodies.
Rokky’s music is electro-dance music, but she’s been known to show up on the scene bearing only her guitar and vocals for a set or two!
Icelandic Jazz Music
Icelandic-Chinese jazz singer and guitarist Laufey Lin released her debut album, Typical of Me, in 2021. Her sound captures the dreaminess and classy elements of vocal jazz. It’s a gorgeous blend of classical jazz vocals and modern sound.
Ingi Bjarni Trio
The thoughtful music of the Ingi Bjarni Trio is true to both its jazz and Icelandic roots; classic in every sense of the word.
Sunna Gunnlaugs & Maarten Ornstein
Icelandic jazz pianist Sunna Gunnlaug and Dutch saxophonist Maarten Ornstein paired up to bring you quirky and playful sounds.
Jazz bassist Leifur Gunnarsson’s trio debut Húsið Sefur (2020) is a quiet album with the occasional vocals in Icelandic. Jazz lovers will be interested to hear the layering of classic sound over Icelandic vocals.
Sigmar Matthiasson is a jazz bassist and composer who studied in NYC. He has recently returned to Iceland to join his contemporaries on the Icelandic jazz scene, and he’s already making a splash.
Baldvin Hlynsson Quintet
Baldvin Hlynsson Quintet is growing notoriety at home in Iceland and abroad.
Icelandic Hip-Hop & Rap Music
Emmsjé Gauti flows in Icelandic over thumping beats made for kicking back or cruising in your car.
Is there such a thing as contemplative hip-hop? There sure is; Birnir is Iceland’s proof of the fact. Both beats and lyrics will keep your mind and body moving.
Reykjavíkurdætur, translated in English as “the Daughters of Reykjavik,” have been making hip-hop music since 2013, and released their first album, Rvk Dtr, in 2016.
Skate brings the Icelandic club scene to your ears with their electro-pop sound. Get ready to dance!
Icelandic Reggae Music
Amabadama & Hjálmar
Icelandic reggae bands are not particularly easy to find, but Amabadama and Hjálmar stand out.
Amabadama’s music carries an uplifting reggae groove, while Hjálmar’s music goes more into the roots feeling of the soul-searching reggae vocalist.
Want more Scandinavian music? Listen to the best from ABBA and Robyn, then find out about Scandinavian metal music and dive deeper into Swedish metal bands.