From Iceland — Our Culture Editor's Top Three Albums Of 2020: An Exhaustive Write-Up

Our Culture Editor’s Top Three Albums Of 2020: An Exhaustive Write-Up

Published December 29, 2020

Our Culture Editor’s Top Three Albums Of 2020: An Exhaustive Write-Up
Hannah Jane Cohen
Photo by
0 - Entity

This was supposed to be a top five list but after writing 2,000 words about three albums, I decided to make it the top three albums of 2020 as determined by me, the Culture Editor of the Reykjavík Grapevine.

So here’s the award list that no one asked for. Just kidding—our editor-in-chief made me do this! So take my opinions or leave them. I’m just a girl in the world. No one said I had good taste. 


Technically an EP, yes, but it’s so fantastic that I’m including it. In fact, were it an album I could safely say it’d probably be number one.

k.óla came out strong last year with her debut album ‘Allt Verður Alltílæ,’ which netted her the ‘You Should Have Heard This Award’ prize at the last Grapevine Music Awards. The electronic effort was a whimsical ride that you could perhaps solidly describe as 2010s-krútt were you so inclined. It certainly felt optimistic and fanciful—a perfect soundtrack for those sunny 2019 summer months where everyone was so excited about the future and its possibilities. Sigh.

“It’s an album that recognises the desire to be escapist while still being escapist.”

Obviously things didn’t necessarily go as planned. But before the chaos really hit, in February, k.óla dropped ‘PLASTPRINSESSAN’. It was, upon first listen, a total lightbulb moment for me. I remember thinking, “Wait, this is k.óla?” and re-checking my Spotify because it was so far beyond what I had expected from her after ‘Allt Verður Alltílæ’. At first I thought it was a massive musical departure, but, in truth, I was wrong. It was a natural progression.

See, ’Allt Verður Alltílæ’ was fantastical in that out-of-touch daydreamy way which is really only relatable in those moments of pure childlike happiness. It’s a manic pixie dream girl kind of happiness—one that feels aspirational rather than understanding. I love entering the mind of k.óla here but I don’t inhabit it. I’m but a temporary visitor to her fanciful world.

‘PLASTPRINSESSAN’, meanwhile, manages to touch that deepest part of you which desperately craves said childlike happiness but also acknowledges the full breadth of human experience and emotion. It doesn’t allow for unadulterated fun without the acknowledgement of the past, of pain and of despair. In that way, it’s a heavy piece of art. It’s an album that recognises the desire to be escapist while still being escapist. Does that make sense? I don’t think many artists can walk that line as seamlessly as k.óla, especially without venturing into cheesy territory. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We all love some cheese.

In terms of composition… wow. Girl can compose. For me though, ‘Kafari’ is the standout. It’s the perfect mix of apotheotic meditative piano peppered with moments of trilling chaos. k.óla went cinematic for this one and man, I can’t wait to see what she does next.

To sum it up, I couldn’t get this quote from ‘The Hours’ (movie not book) out of my head when I listened to ‘PLASTPRINSESSAN’, so I’ll end on it here.

“I remember one morning getting up at dawn, there was such a sense of possibility. You know, that feeling? And I remember thinking to myself: So, this is the beginning of happiness. This is where it starts. And of course there will always be more. It never occurred to me it wasn’t the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment. Right then.”

2. 0 – Entity

In years prior, I used to always describe 0 with silly epitaphs like ‘The Most Ungoogleable Band In Iceland’ or other such nonsense. I’m going to stop that now. There’s nothing funny about this group and to even approach their music with humour now feels totally disrespectful and idiotic. Not that I’m saying their music is too serious to write about, no, it’s just that ‘Entity’ is so naked and bare and soul-scraping that you need to respect it. It’s an authentic and painful release that, to be frank, you should feel privileged to even hear. I certainly do.

“If the prominent values of society go against you long enough, then black metal is likely to appeal to you somewhere along the way.”

Let’s journey back: Upon first listen of ‘Entity’, I immediately felt like I was eavesdropping on a conversation I wasn’t meant to hear. That I was in a room I wasn’t supposed to be in. That I was infringing on a party no one wanted me at. I felt uninvited. I felt rejected. I felt, I suppose, like the songwriters did, right? This was probably the goal of the music, yeah? I’m a longtime DSBM (depressive suicidal black metal) fan, but I really haven’t felt that way by a release in a long time. Perhaps I have been desensitised to the genre, but 0 woke me up and, at the same time, made me feel like literally everything else I had been listening to in the weeks prior was so remarkably trivial I may as well delete my Spotify subscription and listen to nothing instead. And I mean nothing, not even 0, because really, what’s the point?

Then I remembered a quote by Tómas I. (who is probably in 0, let’s be real) from an old Grapevine article on Icelandic black metal. There, he said, “If you go against the prominent values of society long enough then black metal is likely to appeal to you somewhere along the way.” I’m perhaps not at liberty to change Tómas’s quote, but I’ll do it anyway because 0 made me realise that the opposite sentiment might be even more true: “If the prominent values of society go against you long enough then black metal is likely to appeal to you somewhere along the way.” 0 is unapologetically the music of rejection; rejection that society created.

Anyway—enough with my grandiose thoughts—pretty much every song on ‘Entity’ is a masterpiece and I’d genuinely recommend just sitting down and taking it in from beginning to end. That said, the first chorus and clean vocals that come in around the three minute mark of “Reduced Beyond the Point of Renewal” are really jaw dropping as are the opening screams of “Grasping the Outer Hull of the Tangible”. I’ve said repeatedly over the years that S.S. is the best vocalist in Icelandic black metal and this album proved it. You really can’t do what he can.

That said, the last two minutes or so on “An Idiosyncratic Mirage” are just… fucking painful. It’s truly some of the best DSBM (can I call 0 DSBM? I hate labelling things) I have ever heard and I’d encourage anyone who isn’t aquatinted with the genre to check it out. Of course, this music isn’t for everyone but if you are looking for album that truly articulates the silent agony of depression, here you go.

Lastly, it’s been six years since we last had a release from 0, and to be honest, I had kind of forgot about them in this time. The Icelandic black metal community has moved so far in that time that 0, at least to me, felt like a “Hey, remember 0? They were totally great” moment. Now, after ‘Entity’, I’m very proud to say that if I ever commit suicide, I’ll play this before.

1. Víkingur Ólafsson – Debussy – Rameau

After Víkingur’s jump from Glass to Bach in 2018, I remember thinking, “Wow, he sure can’t get more unexpected than this!” Then he comes along two years later with what basically amounts to a classical concept album comparing two “bad boys of composition” Claude Debussy and Jean-Philippe Rameau and proves me wrong in the most magnificent way. Bravó. I certainly didn’t have that on my 2020 bingo card.

“Víkingur may play classical music, but he’s got the soul of a rock star.”

For those who don’t know much about Debussy and Rameau, the idea of putting them in dialogue with each other is quite bizarre. They are separated by hundreds of years and composed in vastly different styles. To make a modern reference, it might be like putting Leonard Bernstein and Eminem on the same album to show musical similarities and differences. It’s sort of like… wait what? What do they have to do with each other?

While we obviously don’t know what Rameau would think of “Clair de Lune”, we do know that Debussy was a big fan of Rameau. In fact, in 1918, as World War I raged on, Debussy was on his deathbed. While he lied in a fever-induced delirium, he had one regret: he wouldn’t be able to catch the new revival of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 18th century opera, ‘Castor et Pollux,’ at The Paris Opera. Only days before his passing, his friend Louis Laloy visited, and as per Louis’s account, as he left the room, Debussy had but a few dramatic words: “Say hello to Monsieur Castor!” An artist to the end, eh?

(No word on Eminem’s thoughts on ‘West Side Story’ yet though.)

In an interview with the Grapevine, Víkingur called both of these composers “enfants terribles”—musical outsiders who challenged the establishment. While it’s hard to call Víkingur a musical outsider—c’mon he works with Philip Glass—he’s no doubt a musical contrarian. He follows his heart and is constantly pushing the boundaries of what a pianist can be. Now, with this album, he absolutely expanded the notions of what a classical album could be.

See, normally, when one thinks of a classical album, they imagine a single individual’s interpretation of works by men long dead, but Víkingur’s ‘Debussy – Rameau’ almost feels like a play. Meandering in-between each composer, you’re pushed to see and create a relationship between the two. Víkingur expertly weaves a thread between Rameau and Debussy and ultimately makes a larger point about composition in general. It’s an opera, albeit one written by two composers and put together by another. And truly, what an artistic achievement it is.

Nowhere is this seen more than in the crowning jewel of the album “The Arts and The Hours”. The track is Víkingur’s re-imagining, re-transcription and re-written arrangement of a part of Rameau’s final opera. The idea of re-transcribing something by Rameau is… a bold choice to be blunt. You have to have a lot of chutzpah to be sure, but with his version, Víkingur showed how relevant Rameau’s compositions still are. It’s a gorgeous modern piece of piano music with an equally gorgeous video.

To distill my thoughts on this album into a few words: Víkingur may play classical music, but he’s got the soul of a rock star.
Available in Grapevine Shop and you can buy here.

Notable Mentions: ‘Without Listening’ by Magnús Jóhann, ‘Otito’ by snny, ‘Sprungur’ by Hekla, ‘I Turned Into a Familiar Shape’ by MSEA

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