Top 5 Best Icelandic Bands? Magical, Ethereal, Heartbreaking, Rocking

retro stefson

In the last couple of years, I have become a huge fan of Icelandic bands. To the point that, if I’m choosing to listen to any music nowadays for more than just a couple of songs it’s often an Icelandic band I pick.

Because what’s fascinating to me about Icelandic bands is, for one of the smallest countries on the planet (only 329,000 people), there certainly are a lot of them.

And I always wonder is it because it’s so darned cold in Iceland much of the year that everyone sits around making music rather than venture outside?

I do know, however, that Iceland has a big tradition of folk music, as well as songs that tell a story or a legend. And you’ll hear much of this even in Icelandic modern pop and rock music today — as songs are rich, complex and quietly epic.

When it comes to listening to Icelandic bands, however, which are the best? Or, in other words, which are the top five Icelandic bands everyone should listen to?

Of course, nobody can tell you that as the ‘best music’ is subjective. I can, however, tell you which five Icelandic bands are my current favorites, and the ones I recommend if anyone asks me who they should listen to.

Kaleo way down we go
Icelandic band Kaleo

Kaleo — If you like indie rock, you should definitely give Kaleo a listen. They are an Icelandic indie pop rock band that are currently based in Austin, Texas, but that doesn’t mean they have left their Icelandic roots behind. They’re a four-member band headed up by frontsman Jökull Júlíusson, who plays guitar and sings lead on most of their tracks. And his voice? Just listen to his voice.

They are known for their singles ‘All The Pretty Girls’ and ‘Way Down We Go’, but I love their song ‘I Can’t Go On Without You‘.

It’s an amazing blend of folk, rock and pop that starts with a melancholy whistle and Júlíusson’s voice sadly singing, but then blows up into one of those heart-wrenching songs you want to dance to alone in your room, clutching a glass of wine, eyes closed and thinking about the one that got away. You know the ones I mean.

Watch the live version below — filmed in a small desolate church in Iceland. Yep. They choose amazing locations to play their music as well.

You can get their debut album A/B on all major music platforms online.

Sigur Ros — If you want to listen to music that obviously comes from a background of tradition, story telling and history, then Sigur Ros is the band for you. (Although you may already have heard them, as they have appeared on the soundtrack for Game of Thrones).

They are ostensibly a post-rock band but, to me, they’re just a thing of beauty as their music is ethereal, lilting and magical. Like something you would hear in a dream.

Sigur Ros is fronted by Jónsi Birgisson, whose spine-tingling falsetto you will hear on most tracks. All of their tracks, which are breathtakingly beautiful, are sung in a language called Vonlenska. A language they created so that the listener can create their own lyrics from what they themselves feel about the music when they listen to it.

Sigur Ros has seven albums out, with the band recently saying another one should be on the way next year, and they’re all gorgeous. One of my favorite tracks, though, is ‘Olsen Olsen‘, as it is so mournful but so beautiful.

Their 2015 album Takk is a perfect example of how gorgeous their music is.

Of Monsters and Men — Of course, probably the biggest Icelandic band at the moment is Of Monsters and Men. And, even though they are getting a lot of attention, with the release of their second album, particularly in America, a Top 5 Icelandic bands list definitely wouldn’t be complete without them.

Of Monsters and Men are an indie folk/pop band that have had astounding success since their win at Músíktilraunir (Iceland’s Battle of the Bands), and with both their debut album My Head Is An Animal and their second studio album released this year — Beneath the Skin.

They have been particularly successful at festivals around Europe and the US, as well as had top 10 hits in a host of countries, including grabbing the number 1 spot in several.

Their latest album Beneath The Skin is a work of art, with every song on it one I listen to again and again. For a favorite, though, I’ll currently choose Crystals‘ for the stunning song and the equally incredible video.

Valdimar — Starting out as a duo, this now six-member indie pop rock band is one of the most incredible bands live you are ever likely to see, as their music starts out deceivingly gentle and quiet, but then builds to something that is so wild it grabs your soul.

Their second album, Um stund, was released in 2012 to critical acclaim, with many saying it was the best Icelandic album of the year. One of the most popular tracks from the album is ‘Yfir Borgina‘ (Over The City), and their live performance of it is a thing of beauty.

Retro Stefson — One of the most well-known Icelandic bands, at least in Europe, Retro Stefson deserve a spot on just about every top 5 Icelandic bands list.

An indie pop rock band and, with seven members, one of the bigger Icelandic bands, they create more mainstream pop than the previous bands, but it certainly doesn’t make them any less important.

Retro Stefson are known for their gorgeous melodies, their amazing drums, and the all around richness of their sound. They’re quite synth at the moment and dance oriented, so if you like music you can move to, you are going to love these guys.

Watch Retro Stefson’s ‘She Said‘ below. A fabulous mini-film where the boys release their inner drag queen, and what a cool song.

You can buy their self-titled album online and offline now.

About Michelle Topham

Brit-American journalist based in Austria, former radio DJ at 97X WOXY, and Founder/CEO of Leo Sigh. I've covered K-drama, K-pop, J-pop and music news for over a decade.