23 February 2011

My favourite Icelandic albums of 2010

10 - Jukk by Prinspóló
Prinspóló is the solo project of Skakkamanage frontman Svavar Pétur Eysteinsson. Jukk is his debut album and second release, following the 2009 EP Einn heima. His style is rather poppy, even behind all the lo-fi static, with the songs ambling about quite playfully as he sings about such things and candy, food, and grandfathers.

This album could be much higher on the list, but sometimes the lo-fi style overpowers what else is there and causes it to come up feeling a bit lacking. However, when it really gets rolling, it's a lot of fun. If the entire album was a bit more like "Mjaðmir," "Skærlitað gúmmilaði," and "Niðrá strönd," this could easily jump up to number 6 or 7.

Listen to a free stream here.

9 - Í annan heim by Rökkurró
Rökkurró is beautiful, delicate, and soft, and these can all be very good things. However, sometimes it feels a little too soft. It might remind one a bit of earlier Sigur Rós but without as much energy. It definitely demands a certain mood from it's listener in order to truly enjoy it. Try putting it on while you curl up under a warm blanket on a cold winter night, sipping tea and reading a book of poetry.

"Sólin mún skína" and "Augun opnast" remain my favourites.

Listen to a free stream here.

8 - Kimbabwe by Retro Stefson
I had heard some early stuff by Retro Stefson and never thought much of them, but as Emily and I were preparing for Iceland Airwaves last year by listening to as many of the bands that would be there as we could, we came across Retro Stefson's song "Kimba." We were grooving to it immediately. The album is pure pop, but it's just so damn catchy that you have to put it on again and again and again. I dare you to listen to "Velvakandasveinn," "Mama Angola," "Kimba," and "Karamba" and not find yourself tapping your feet and bopping your head along with the music.

As of writing, the album is not streaming anywhere, but here's where it will be when Gogoyoko finally puts it up.

7 - Puzzle by Amiina
Amiina is probably best known as the string quartet that plays with Sigur Rós. Their style is decidedly soft and feminine, not unlike Rökkurró. That said, they're a bit higher because I find their feel a bit more unique and interesting.

This album builds upon their previous work by developing their sound into more distinctive and complex compositions. Puzzle feels more consciously composed and orchestrated than their earlier works, which sometimes sounded less like songs in the traditional sense and more like musical tinkering. Perhaps this is because Puzzle features far more singing than previous works. It could also be the new addition of the boys, Magnús Trygvason Eliassen and Guðmundur Vignir Karlsson (a.k.a. Kippi Kaninus). In particular, Magnús provides the all important addition of drums, which gives the new songs a strong backbone to rest upon.

My favourites off this album are probably "Over and again," "What are we waiting for?" and "Thoka."

Listen to a free stream here.

6 - Theater island by Sóley
This EP from Seabear member Sóley might be easy for a lot of people to miss. It's just six songs, but they showcase a lot of talent, especially for such a humble beginning. I saw her open for Seabear in Chicago and again during Iceland Airwaves, and she's certainly new to the whole thing. Sure, she plays with Seabear and provides keyboards for Sin Fang, but then she's not the one doing all the talking. She's not the one with all the attention. But despite all her nervousness, she really does create some remarkably beautiful and haunting music.

Although the album features an array of musical instruments, at the forefront is almost always her voice and the piano. The lyrics are just the right amount of bizarre, grotesque, sad, and even at times a little humorous. Marvellous stuff, and I can't wait to hear what else she has to offer. Okay, so I already heard a bit of her new material at Airwaves, but still.

Listen to a free stream here.

5 - Easy music for difficult people by Kimono
Okay, so technically this came out in December 2009, but I'm counting it anyway.

I remember getting Kimono's debut album Mineur-aggresif way back in high school and having my mind blown. I would usually save up my money and order a lot of Icelandic CDs at once to save on shipping, but when their second album, Arctic Death Ship came out, I order it right away. My first visit to Iceland, we saw them play a concert in Hafnarfjörður and I told frontwoman Alison MacNeil that I was her twin. Ah, so many memories.

Anyways, Kimono is really a fantastic rock band. Their guitar work is great. The two guitars weaves melodies back and forth, building energy and power. I'm really happy that they've gained some popularity in America, because they definitely deserve it. I'm a little disappointed that we weren't able to see them live at Airwaves, but... c'est la vie!

It's hard for me to pick favourites, but "Vienna," "Black," "Karen," and "Kente" all seem to be crowd-pleasers. I'm also rather fond of "Animal."

Listen to a free stream here.

4 - Ljótu hálfvitarnir by Ljótu hálfvitarnir
This would be Ljótu hálfvitarnir's third album. I have to point that out because all three of them are eponymously titled Ljótu hálfvitarnir. Now let me point out that "Ljótu hálfvitarnir" literally means "The ugly halfwits" although the band says it's probably closer to say "Stupid bastards." Got an idea of what kind of band this is yet?

Yeah, they are fun as hell and funny to boot. The stuff has a definite folk feel with a lot of punk spirit. You'd be hard-pressed to find music more suitable for a bar full of rowdy drunks. To be honest, I don't really know what else to say about this album. If you like it, you're gonna like it. If not, then get bent! My favourites are probably "Gott kvöld," "464-pönk," "Eftirmæli," "Pörpúlókei," and "Hætt'essu væli," but to be honest, the whole album is amazing.

No stream, but you can download the tracks "Gott kvöld" and "Hætt'essu væli" for free here, along with some tracks from their other two albums.

3 - Go by Jónsi
The fact that Sigur Rós is my favourite band, it might actually be a little surprising that Jónsi's solo abum Go isn't higher on the list. And I can't really explain why that's the case. I like the album a lot. There's so much good to say about it. And when I saw him live in Milwaukee, it was amazing. The concert was so incredibly moving and powerful and beautiful. I can't even begin to tell you how well done the theatrics of the concert were. This might give you an idea of just how well-done it was:

Even watching that YouTube video, I start to get emotional. Imagine seeing that live, with all the waves and waves of emotion that come with live music. I'm not ashamed to say that I cried.

But maybe that's it. I had heard a few of the songs before the concert, but I hadn't really given it a good listen before seeing it live. And after that concert, the recorded album felt lifeless in comparison. It was like someone had tried to take all the beauty and emotion of that concert and put it onto a piece of plastic. Because Sigur Rós concerts have never ceased to completely outdo their records, but I've always gone in to it knowing all the songs by heart. The album had already had it's chance to make me love it on its own before seeing it live and being blown away.

At any rate, my favourite track is, hands down, "Kolniður," though I'm also quite fond of "Boy Lilikoi," "Hengilás," and basically the whole album.

Listen to a free stream here.

2 - Pólýfónía by Apparat Organ Quartet
Oh do I ever love this album. I liked Apparat Organ Quartet before, but this? This knocked them way up my list of favourite bands. They're right there along side Sigur Rós and Seabear now. Seeing them live certainly helped. They were my favourite show at Iceland Airwaves. Such energy and excitement! And although live music is almost always better than a recording, their new album certainly comes close, especially if you really crank up the volume.

This album is my hype album. It gets me pumped and going. If I put it on while I'm at work, I just zip through everything with a bounce in my step. Favourites? So hard to pick. I love every one of them, but some highlights are "Babbage," "Cargo frakt," "Konami," "Pentatróník," "Macht parat den Apparat," and "123 forever." If pressed to pick just one... "Konami"? At least at this moment.

Listen to a free stream here.

1 - We built a fire and While the fire dies by Seabear
While technically two albums, We built a fire and While the fire dies EP, I think the two are thematically and stylistically similar enough to consider them part of the same artistic work. And, in fact, they were bundled together for a while in the iTunes store and elsewhere.

Anyway, if you haven't noticed yet, Seabear ranks up there at the very top when it comes to my favourite music. My single favourite individual songwriter is Sin Fang, and I've been following him even since his first commercial release, Singing arc. That EP was released way back in 2004, when Seabear was just his solo project. I've watched Seabear grow into a band with seven steady members and a sizeable international fan base. When I saw them perform live in Chicago, it was surreal. Six years before, I had gotten the handmade Singing arc EP in the mail, consisting of a burned CD and case made of thick paper stitched together using red thread. I brought that album to the Chicago concert, and when I met up with Sindri after the show and asked him to sign it, all he could manage to say was, "Where do you find this? I haven't seen one of these in years." Perhaps the only CD I have that is more precious to me is the copy of the unreleased Elgar Sisters sessions that my friend Gulli burned for me. Neither look like much, but they are very rare commodities, and the greatest treasures stashed away in my music collection.

Now maybe you are reading that and thinking I am rather elitist. Perhaps you think I am implying, "Look how great I am! I liked them before anyone knew who they were!" I assure you, that's not my intention. Yes, I am proud that I have been a fan since the earliest days, but I do not think I am better than "newer" fans or anything like that. I welcome new fans. I want people to like Seabear, because I think they deserve it. If you are my friend and I have not tried to introduce you to them yet, then I have no idea how you managed to avoid it.

At any rate, We built a fire and While the fire dies may be my favourite works from them yet. There is such complexity of sound and style. You can feel all the influences combining and begetting new and interesting sounds. There is a lot of different emotions as well. Some are sadder, some happier. Sindri's lyrics are fantastically written. There is a lot of cleverness and wildness to it all. Yes, these are my favourite album of 2010, but it is also two of my favourite albums of all time.

I love all these songs, but if pressed for highlights, I'd say "Wooden teeth," "Softship," "We fell off the roof," "Warm blood," and "Wolfboy" off of We built a fire and "Pocket knife" and "Doctor" off of While the fire dies.

Listen to a free stream of We built a fire here.
Listen to a free stream of While the fire dies here.

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