One of the most common questions asked about Iceland—right up there alongside volcano stuff, the ‘incest app’ and the pissy shark—is “Why do so many great bands come from such a small, remote island?” It’s a tough question. Answers tend to include pure boredom; an outlet for “Scandinavian pain”; playing music as a way to get through the annual long night of the soul that is the Icelandic winter; relatively easy access to high quality musical education; and a longstanding, generations-deep tradition of family singalongs that mean most Icelanders are at some point encouraged to pick up an instrument and perform.
Any of these could be valid; more likely, the truth contains aspects of all of them. But no matter what the reality is, we’re extremely grateful for the endlessly engaging, surprising, enticing, multifarious output of the many glittering stars that make up the Icelandic musical constellation. Being a remote island nation, Iceland gets relatively few touring bands from abroad each year, so the rich, varied, ever-evolving homegrown music scene is an essential ingredient in keeping us all entertained—keeping us sane, even.
With this in mind, we at the Grapevine once again convened a panel of valued experts (see who they were at the foot of this article) late in 2018 to comb through the most notable albums, songs, breakthrough moments and live acts of the year; from punky upstarts and rising stars to new collaborations and established talents with fresh wind in their sails. It’s a pleasure to celebrate this scene and to give something back to the diligent, ambitious, hard-working creative souls who make all of our lives sound better. So without further ado, here they are: the brilliant, beautiful and richly deserving winners of the Grapevine Music Awards 2019!
Artist Of The Year: Ólafur Arnalds
A breakthrough Icelandic artist of recent years, composer and performer Ólafur Arnalds needs little introduction. From his BAFTA-winning soundtrack work to his prolific collaborative projects, lively social media presences, and a seemingly endless run of sold-out concerts all around the world, Ólafur has become synonymous with Icelandic music in a way that few ever manage. Already on a remarkable trajectory, 2018 felt like a big year for Ólafur. He released the confident, mesmerising, accomplished LP ‘re:member,’ which felt like a creative watershed and the culmination of a lot of graft and experimentation.
“He’s had a pretty long and successful career,” said the panel, “but he really came into his own this year with a great record and a slew of sold out shows in some of the world’s best concert houses. He continuously collaborates with other Icelandic artists, both in recording and live performance, and connects the local scene to the world through his connections abroad. ‘Re:member’ transports us to new worlds: not surprising for an artist who’s so creatively relentless, uncompromising and ambitious. He even sent a track to planet GJ273b in the hopes of promoting intergalactic peace and beauty—for the time being, we’re lucky to have him on Planet Earth.”
Honourable Mentions: Dream Wife, Bjarki
Album Of The Year: GDRN – Hvað Ef
As the tidal wave of Iceland rap peaked and broke in 2018, a new, more sensual R’n’B-pop sound started to emerge in its place. No-one captured the moment better that GDRN, whose soft-edged pop sound was crystallised on her excellent debut album ‘Hvað Ef’ (‘What If?’). With a subdued, intimate, late-night sound, it was an instant homeland hit, taking GDRN to the forefront of the local music scene. She performed on the big stage of the Reykjavík Art Museum at Airwaves, and was the name on everyone’s lips throughout the year.
“‘Hvað Ef’ is a collection of beautifully emotional songs whose lyrics are at once introspective, luscious, subdued and optimistic,” said the panel. “It has an effortless flow, and her voice is silky smooth, with a laid back yet confident openness and vulnerability. It’s a very cool take on pop music, made in collaboration with producer duo Ra:tio. The album successfully fuses together an electronic hip hop and R’n’B sound with elements of jazz, soul and disco resting comfortably behind GDRN’s firm and soulful voice. ‘Hvað Ef’ is a polished two-years-in-the-making debut album, and marks the arrival of a significant new artist on the Icelandic music scene.”
Honourable Mentions: GYÐA – Evolution, AUÐUR – Afsakanir
Track Of The Year: Prins Póló – Líf ertu að grínast
From Reykjavík to Vík to Berufjörður to Akureyri, there was one song that seemed to playing on the radio in shops, cars, homes and gas stations—and whistled on the lips of Icelanders—more than any other in 2018. With a trademark simple hook, a catchy chorus and an appealing, friendly, celebratory atmosphere, Prins Póló once again made the art of writing a perfect pop song look easy on ‘Líf ertu að grínast.’
“The title translates as ‘Life, are you kidding me?’—which seemed to be the theme of 2018,” said the panel. “Svavar’s song is jolly and downright tropical, which might sound strange coming from an Icelandic pop musician. But—as the joking-not-joking title and ostensibly whimsical lyrics suggest—it should not be taken lightly. That’s the beauty of this song… it’s an easy, radio-friendly listen with an underlying existential question about life—if you want it to be.”
Honourable Mentions: Junius Meyvant – High Alert, GYÐA – Moonchild
Music Video Of The Year: aYia – Slow
2018 was a big year for aYia, who have featured once before in the Grapevine Music Awards when they won the “One to Watch” award in 2016. And watch them we did, from their cryptic internet presence, to their moody and sublime live shows, to the release of their excellent self-titled debut LP. However, nothing triangulated the appeal of aYia’s aesthetic better than the video for ‘Slow,’ directed by Alexandre Souêtre. A cinematic production, it skips through various architectural tableaus, interior environments and nature scenes, with an air that alternates between alienation and intimacy.
“It’s borderline surreal with the rapid cuts between shots of the band members and other people in various locations,” said the panel. “There are desolate places in Iceland, mixed with urban scenarios and a sci-fi interior. The atypical shots in Iceland—with faded grass and bare concrete—are an unusual and welcome variation on how people depict the landscape. The video’s brilliance lies in leaving plenty of questions for the viewer to ponder—once you’ve seen it, it’s hard to think of the song without the striking visuals.”
Honourable Mentions: MAMMÚT – Kinder Version, GDRN – Lætur Mig
Live Act Of The Year: bagdad brothers
This charming indie-pop outfit arrived with an enthusiasm and gusto that made them impossible to ignore. Their songs alternate between jangly, nostalgic slow-dance numbers to indie singalongs, delivered with an inclusive feeling of infectious excitement that turned the front rows of every concert into a smiling, joyful dance party. They’re also a key component of ‘post-dreifing’—a new experimental arts collective with a vibrant, buzzing energy.
“The Bagdad Brothers live show and jangle punk is infectious and irresistible, whipping the crowd into a communal love fest,” said the panel. “They played an impressive amount of live shows this year, and pride themselves on delivering a helluva show for their loyal fanbase, and new listeners, who they welcome with open arms. If you’ve been to one of their shows you’ll know they like to make jokes and have fun; at the same time, they’re a key part part of a new wave of young creatives [the ‘post-drefing’ scene] whose chief concern is artistic integrity. These musicians attract people of all ages with their skill, dedication, commitment and inclusive, experimental nature—as well as their adorable positivity and ‘summer-all-year-round’ attitude.”
Honorable mentions: Mammút, Emmsjé Gauti
You Should Have Heard This: TSS – Moods
It’s easier than ever to get music online, so the chances of missing a self-released or indie label gem seems higher than ever. So it was with TSS, who sneaked out ‘Moods’ to a stony critical silence… not because it wasn’t a great album, but just because nobody really knew it had arrived. The solo moniker of Jón Gabríel Lorange—one half of now-inactive duo Nóló—he has released three albums and two EPs in just two years.
“Jón’s transition from the well-respected Nóló to the solo moniker TSS was smooth,” noted the panel. “So smooth that it perhaps went a tad bit unnoticed. Behind TSS lies almost a decade of practice with drum machines, synthesizer, organs, guitar and a mellow singing voice, reminiscent of the intensity of John Lennon and the crooning of Buddy Holly. ‘Moods’ is a delightful half-hour collection of dreamy pop songs with rock, funk and synth-pop elements, floating somewhere between psychedelic rock and minimal synth pop. It could be the a soundtrack for an existential bus ride or a relaxing Sunday brunch. It’s Jón’s most cunningly realised album yet, and a terrific entry-point to his extraordinary yet pleasant world.”
Honourable Mentions: Örvar Smárason – Light Is Liquid, Bjarki – Óli Gumm
One To Watch: GRÓA
GRÓA are a fresh young three-piece that first emerged after placing well in the Músíktilrunair contest in 2017. Since then, they’ve made waves as part of the post-dreifing scene, winning fans for their unpretentious approach.
“A trio still in high school, the members of GRÓA had apparently never really played instruments prior to forming the band,” said the panel. “You’d never be able to tell though, listening to their self-titled debut. Perhaps that’s part of what makes GRÓA so special—there’s a magic and spirit in the grooves that’s like hearing music for the first time. The vocalist has a bright and pleasantly comprehensible voice, and uses it to sing about life flashing by with a punky instrumental backing of drums, bass and guitar. Her voice treads experimental territory in the vein of Björk and Heiða from Unun. GRÓA are part of the same new wave of young creatives as the bagdad brothers, and they appear to possess an abundant energy and a potential to bring together the sounds of yesterday and today. Definitely a band to watch, we can’t wait to see and hear what they do next.”
Honourable Mentions: Kjartan Holm, Volruptus
Shout Out: Joint Winners — R6013 & HÁSKAR
The Shout Out award is for organisations that have made huge contributions to the musical life of Iceland without necessarily getting much of the credit they deserve. This year, we give shout outs to two such ventures: the R6013 basement venue, which runs an ambitious free programme of events, with free vegan food and entry on a contribution basis; and HÁSKAR, a one-day “end of the world festival” run by the shadowy organisation behind the band Hatari.
“R6013 and HÁSKAR were both platforms for emerging and young artists in 2018,” said the panel, “and a launchpad for many of them. R6013 performs the unselfish service as a non-profit concert space in the basement of the family home of Ægir Sindri, a well respected drummer in the local scene. Its presence is so very welcome in downtown Reykjavík—where rental prices have risen steadily, with the number of concert venues sinking accordingly.”
“HÁSKAR [‘páskar’ = easter and ‘háski’ = danger in Icelandic] was an unforgettable event in 2018,” continue the panel. “A mash-up of interesting and potential breakthrough musicians, DJs, VJs and visual artists collaborated on this large (for Reykjavík) event in IÐNÓ. The production values were high, and it was sparky and imaginative in all aspects, from the decor, to the in-crowd performance art, to the enticingly creative and weird programme. Turning IÐNÓ into a multi-stage club is also a brilliant idea that they should get credit for. Best of all? It will happen again in 2019.”
Honourable Mentions: FALK, IÐNÓ
Meet The Panel
John Rogers, The Reykjavík Grapevine
The advisory panel was chaired by John Rogers, Managing Editor of the Grapevine, and the person chiefly responsible for the magazine’s culture content. John has worked all over the music industry, with a focus on Icelandic music, before settling in journalism, including stints running a label, working as a manager and publicist, and organising concerts, including a stage at Iceland Airwaves. He’s also a resident DJ at Kaffibarinn.
Anna Ásthildur, Iceland Airwaves
Starting out in music at the Iceland Music export agency as the right-hand-woman of Sigtryggur Baldursson, Anna’s knowledge of Icelandic music is broad and balanced across the genres. However, as a Berlin resident, Anna has a particular personal interest and specialism in electronica. Currently a part of the Iceland Airwaves team, Anna works at the cutting edge of what’s new in Icelandic music.
Anna Gyða Sigurgísladóttir, RÚV+
A culture journalist at Rás 1 radio, Anna Gyða also programmes Lestin, the station’s daily cultural show at Rás 1, which focuses on the different waves and vibes that shape Iceland’s culture and people. With a keen eye on contemporary trends, new artists and emerging scenes, and an open-minded musical curiosity, we were happy to add Anna Gyða’s perspective to this year’s panel.
Kevin Cole, KEXP
A living radio legend, US DJ Kevin Cole is one of the voices (and faces) of Seattle alternative radio station KEXP. Kevin has cultivated a deep connection to the Icelandic music scene spanning a decade, and keeps completely up to date during the expansive listening process behind the curation of KEXP’s Iceland Airwaves off venue each year. Also a steadfast champion of Icelandic music in the US, we’re honoured to have him on the panel.
Alexander Jean De Fontenay, DJ, Journalist & More
A face-around-town and diligent culture enthusiast, Alexander is the music journalist behind Grapevine’s ‘Electric Dreams’ music column, and also plays a big part in curating and organising the Grapevine Grassroots concert series each year. He’s also a student of the arts, a DJ with several different guises, and a keen observer of new developments in Icelandic music, with his ear ever to the ground.
Steinar Fjeldsted, Editor, albumm.is
As the editor of the exhaustive—even completist—stream of news and release info that is the Icelandic-language albumm.is website, Steinar Fjeldsted listens to material from across the spectrum of Icelandic music. From big hits to hidden gems, Steinar’s knowledge of what’s up in Iceland’s music scene is second to none, and he gave some excellent tips for this year’s music awards.
Vote now for the final award, to be announced at the Grapevine Music Awards party on January 11th, and look out for interviews with the winners soon!