Celebrating the best that the local music scene offered
And just like that, 2023 has come and gone. It was a productive year for Icelandic and Iceland-based musicians, with new artists taking their first tentative steps onto the stage, while a barrage of legacy bands — from Graveslime to Purrkur Pillnikk — made highly-buzzed triumphant returns.
Indeed the past year was marked by comebacks, a resurgence of the grassroots scene, spectacular female solo artists and a general air of things finally patching up post-pandemic — though themes of isolation continued to permeate the landscape.
EPs and albums were released, videos were made, gigs were attended (albeit in an ever-contracting volume of live venues) and memories were made. Because that’s what music — both listening to it on your own or going out to experience it in a throng of sweaty bodies — does. It creates memories and embeds them into your very soul.
In an effort to weigh and measure all the musical output and happenings of the past year, the Reykjavík Grapevine once again gathered a panel of some of the country’s finest musical experts to sift through the vast output, so that together we can celebrate those whose music reached us, stayed with us and guided us through the year.
Judging The Year In Music
Taking stock of a year — 12 months! 52 weeks! 365 days! — of musical output on this little island is no small feat. For a population of just 370,000 and change, there is a disproportionate amount of people moonlighting in songwriting or side hustling in a band. And many of them are producing creative, original and worthy compositions in their genre of choice.
Guided by music editor Jóhannes Bjarkason and his handy rubric, the panel this year deliberated on their potential nominations in each category before coming together to state their respective cases. There was a lot of heated discussion around the communal table at Grapevine HQ, as panellists Arnar Eggert Thoroddsen, Hrefna (Habbi) Helgadóttir, Rósa Birgitta Ísfeld and Snæbjörn Helgi Arnarsson Jack espoused the virtues of one artists after another, and thought back on the year that was in releases and live shows.
After a rigorous selection process, rivalled only by the Nobel Prize, a panel of highly knowledgeable music experts came together to draft a list of nominees and, most importantly, determined the winners in each category.
Artist Of The Year: Laufey
After rising through the ranks of internet fame over the course of the pandemic, Laufey’s global fan base now counts in the millions. With her album Bewitched (released September 8, 2023) Laufey broke Spotify’s all-time jazz streaming record, garnering 5.7 million streams in one day. There’s no denying that 2023 saw Laufey Lín Jónsdóttir propelled to international stardom. As one panellist noted: “Laufey has more monthly Spotify listens than Celine Dion!”
“Laufey completely conquered 2023,” the panel agreed. “She has had a tremendous year.”
It is the strides that Laufey took this year that the panel agreed were beyond compare. Her talent is undeniable, a lush mix of post-war era jazz, modest classical music and a dreamy sense of romantic pop.
Though she is based out of the U.S., her following in Iceland is massive, as evidenced by her upcoming back-to-back-to-back concerts at Harpa completely selling out the very instant tickets went on sale. “I feel like my initial reaction to Laufey was that ‘she’s big abroad,’” one panellist admitted. “But this year I saw again and again that I was absolutely wrong. She’s absolutely huge in Iceland.”
In deliberating, the panel agreed that it has been some time since an artist like Laufey has emerged — “a really big Icelandic artist” — and it’s something to be celebrated.
Album Of The Year: Elín Hall, Heyrist í mér
In a year that seems to have been dominated by output from female musicians, the panel agreed that Elín Hall’s Heyrist í mér (released November 3, 2023) stood out for its ability to bridge genres and cut through the noise.
“I love this album,” one panellist gushed. “I’m a really big fan.”
But even panellists who weren’t immediately smitten admit to being won over by Elín’s offering upon realising its depths. “At first listen you might think it’s another pop rock album,and she’s singing about heartbreak. But there are layers to it,” the panel said. “Her vulnerability comes through even if you don’t fully understand the icelandic lyrics. She’s very sincere.”
The panel also raved about the cover art of Heyrist í mér, which depicts the singer overlaid with blood red creeping veins running from her head and down her chest.
The ability to emote so tangibly on her album may stem from Elín’s background as an actor. She has been performing as Bubbi Morthens in the hit musical Níu Líf for the past year and is in rehearsals for the stage production of the musical Eitruð Lítil Pilla (Jagged Little Pill), by Alanis Morrisette and Glen Ballard, which is set to premiere at Borgarleikhúsið in February 2024.
“Then also looking at the fact that she has been acting in the biggest musical in Iceland in the recent decades,” the panel noted. “With that double whammy of her acting and music careers, she has presented herself as a very strong artist in general.
Her all-round strength as an artists hasn’t gone unnoticed by the international press, who held events with Elín and showered her with favourable reviews after this year’s Iceland Airwaves festival.
Song Of The Year: “Ástarbréf” by Lúpína
What makes a good song? What elevates a good song to a song of the year? Lúpína’s dreamy and silky smooth voice melds with electronic instrumentation on “Ástarbréf” to create a song that builds and layers and takes unexpected turns over the course of its three minute run, demanding repeat listens to better process what it was you just heard. And listen again we did.
It’s a dreamy little ditty that morphs into a pseudo banger before returning effortlessly to where it began. It’s wonderful.
“‘Ástarbréf’ really stands out as song of the year,” the panel said. “It is so impactful, I only have to hear the name and it’s immediately back in my head. Seeing Lúpína perform the song live this year was incredible — I was blown away.”
We’d recommend putting on some headphones, closing your eyes and just letting yourself go to this track. It’ll be a magical experience.
The catchiness of “Ástarbréf” cannot be understated. As one panellist admitted “I only have to say the word ‘ástarbréf’ and I can hear the song in my head.”
Video Of The Year: IceGuys, “Krumla”
Determining who would take home the Video Of The Year Award was the toughest task of the panel in this year’s deliberations. Across the board, the panel lamented that it seems that music videos have largely gone the way of the dinosaur, replaced with videos of lyrics projected over trippy graphics, or the like.
The panel also noted that production value comes down to who has the most money to spend on putting their video together — is it fair to peg a DIY music video from an up-and-coming singer songwriter against Björk’s latest visual feast?
Ultimately, the decision came down to impact. And IceGuys’ video for “Krumla” has that in spades.
“I think the IceGuys video really stood out because it engaged and impacted you,” one panellist said. “It became a cultural moment in Iceland.”
The video, sees the recently formed boy band/super group — which comprises Árni Páll Árnason (better known as Herra Hnetusmjör);,Aron Can, Friðrik Dór, Jón Jónsson and Rúrík Gíslason — chanel their inner Backstreet Boys, donning coordinating denim ensembles and executing nearly as coordinated choreography. They’re dancing in a warehouse! They’re dancing in front of a private jet! Woah! Now they’re dancing in the rain inside the original warehouse!
Beyond the entertainment of watching the video, it also set off a wave of every young person in the country learning the choreography so they could dance along while watching. When was the last time a local music video did that?
“On its own merits, it’s a very fun video,” the panel said. “It was an expensive leap of faith to try bringing the modern K-pop or boy band era back into the public eye and it paid off.”
“It’s just so fun!”
Best Live Act: Gugusar
We at the Grapevine should have known from the output of the photographers we dispatched to Iceland Airwaves this year that gugusar would be taking home our award for Best Live Act. Despite instructions to fan out and capture as many gigs as possible, it seemed that all our shutterbugs converged on gugusar’s set, sending in image after image of the 20-year-old singer frozen in the midst of one epic dance move or another, her neon wig swinging wildly.
“Gugusar is one of the most fantastic live performers we’ve had in a long time,” the panel said. “She is absolutely world class and she’s ready to just become an internationally touring artist.”
Two panellists recall seeing a teenage Guðlaug Sóley Höskuldsdóttir and being admittedly impressed, but being absolutely blown away by her live performances at this year’s Skrapt festival in Tórshavn and at Iceland Airwaves.
“She was next level,” they raved. “She’s doing her crazy dance moves, but the way the power of the electronic production that she’s doing blends so cleanly with her choreography feels like it’s super thought out. It’s amazing to watch.”
And beyond watching, seeing an artist on stage really getting into their own music and creating that lively atmosphere also makes the crowd dance along, upping the atmosphere of the entire show. We’ll be jumping at our next chance to see gugusar — who the panel declared has “Taylor Swift vibes” — at her next live gig.
You Should Have Heard This: MSEA
MSEA is one of those artists whose tracks you can listen to on Spotify and acknowledge that their vocals are dreamy and beautiful, but it’s when you see them live that you realise that’s 100% them — no auto-tune or tweaking necessary. She’s wildly talented.
Since moving from Toronto to Reykjavík in 2017, Maria-Carmela Raso has been a prominent figure in the city’s music scene. Under her artist moniker MSEA, she has lent her talents to chart-topping acts like Hatari and Kælan Mikla, while being active in the local grassroots community, both as a solo performer and a concert curator.
Did you give her album, Our Daily Apocalypse Walk (released September 15, 2023), a listen? If the answer is no, then we’re here to tell you that you really should have. The artist’s self-described “nightmare pop” will open your eyes to a genre that you may not as yet be familiar with.
“MSEA is incredible,” the panel said. “Her standard of creatively is amazing. It seems that everyone in the grassroots knows her, but if you would walk up to a ‘normal’ person, they may not have registered her — yet.”
Every panellist agreed MSEA is an artist who more people should make themselves aware of, both because of the amazing solo work she’s producing and for her impact on the local music scene. “She’s done the work and she’s really establishing herself in the local scene,” they said. “She’s established in the grassroots, so it’s just a matter of time until she takes that next step.”
The You Should Have Heard This award is intended to acknowledge that sometimes the media doesn’t always get it right, and an excellent artist slips under the radar. Do yourself a favour and make sure MSEA doesn’t pass you by.
One To Watch: Róshildur
You probably haven’t heard of Róshildur. That’s not some odd flex whereby we’re implying that we know so much more about music than you. It’s just a matter of fact — though the young musician released her four-track EP v2,2 in July 2023, hers is not yet a name on everybody’s lips. “Yet” being the key word here.
On the EP, Róshildur marries her sultry and sweet vocals with layers and loops and time shifts to weave a genuinely intriguing piece of music. She almost manages to capture together the twee vibes of early noughties Reykjavík and bring them effortlessly into relevance today. You can’t help but feel it’s something special.
“I think Róshildur is someone who is going to make big strides in the coming year or two, having released an EP this year,” the panel foresees. “Her live set also seems really interesting. We want to see more from her.”
We’re anticipating seeing much more from Róshildur in 2024.
Shout Out: Pan Thorarensen
A prolific driver of Iceland’s electronic music scene, Pan Thorarensen is the co-founder and artistic director of the experimental Extreme Chill music festival, founder of the Space Odyssey record shop/clothing consignment store/music label on Skólavörðustígur, and just a notable person about town.
But “notable person” doesn’t bank you a Shout Out at the Reykjavík Grapevine Music Awards.
“Pan is a tour de force both in musical output and event management,” the panel says. “In the culture environment as it is today, it’s such a struggle to keep an event like Extreme Chill going, but he’s been doing it and keeping it fresh for 15 years while being active in the electronic sphere for even longer. The scene he’s created and his tireless support for more niche artists is so great for the city.”
Meet the 2024 Panellists
Jóhannes Bjarkason is music editor at the Reykjavík Grapevine. Having been active as the frontman of the post-punk band Skoffín and within the post-dreifing art collective, Jóhannes is fascinated by the Icelandic music scene. Among his interests are politics, history and pop culture.
Arnar Eggert Thoroddsen holds a PhD from the University of Edinburgh, where he carried out research on the social dynamics of Icelandic musicians under the supervision of Professor Simon Frith. He is the director of the undergraduate media and communication studies program at The University of Iceland. He is the author of three books on Icelandic music, writes music criticism for various outlets and teaches about music subjects. He is a regular pundit on music in radio and TV, acts as a speaker at conferences and is a member of various music juries and committees.
Hrefna (Habbi) Helgadóttir is strategic entertainment executive with over 10 years experience across the U.K., U.S., and Iceland. She is the Head of Marketing and International PR at Iceland Music. At Iceland Music, Habbi builds out campaigns pairing a well-designed online presence with targeted press; having secured coverage in RollingStone, NME, TechCrunch, the Independent, IQ Live and all major publications in Iceland. She also co-hosts the MakeWorkWork a podcast about creating intentional workflows personally and for teams. It has reached #1 on the careers charts on Apple Podcast in Iceland and has listeners in over 60 countries.
Rósa Birgitta Ísfeld is a force to be reckoned with in the realm of music. As a radio host, she brings charisma to the airwaves creating an eclectic playlist that resonates with a diverse audience. A nightlife participant, Rósa as dj de la rosa commands the DJ booth infusing energy into dancefloors with a magnetic mix of beats. Rósa has also enchanted audiences with her performances as a singer with the bands Feldberg and Sometime.
Snæbjörn Helgi Arnarsson Jack is a co-host of Ólátagarður, a weekly radio show that covers Icelandic grassroots music and culture. His background is in event and festival organisation as well as many other things like amateur gallery curation, performance art and ecological research.
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