by Neil Strauss (November 2000)
Responding to Tuesday's article in The New York Times on the thriving and eclectic rock scene in Reykjavik, the teeny capital of Iceland, several readers wanted to know what Icelandic albums to buy beyond Björk.
Despite its small population, Reykjavik's musical output is prodigious. Each of the four record stores on the pedestrian street Austurstraeti has a section for local music that dwarfs the equivalent in cities 10 times its size. ''Two or three years ago, there wasn't anything like this,'' said Karl Henry Hakonarson, the singer in the slow-rock band Utopia. ''But now the music is changing so quickly, and there is so much new stuff going on.''
Here, then, are five albums to serve as a map for a journey through two decades of innovative Icelandic rock, from its late-blooming punk movement to its early-rising post-rock scene.
*Various Artists, Rokk i Reykjavik (Smekkleysa): Documenting the punk explosion of the early 80's, this two-CD companion to the movie of the same name features live three-chord stompers from Tappi Tikarrass (Björk's early band); Theyr and Purrkur Pillnikk (both featuring future Sugarcubes members); and Q4U, Ego and more than a dozen other lost legends. Picture the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Killing Joke, and X-Ray Spex singing in Icelandic.
*Sugarcubes, Illur Arfur (One Little Indian): In the late 80's, seemingly out of nowhere, the Sugarcubes (Sykurmolarnir in Icelandic) burst out of Reykjavik and helped alternative rock reach its creative crest with the woman-child vocals of Björk and a careening mix of drums, guitar, trumpet, and electronic effects. This album is the Icelandic-language version of the band's second album, Here Today, Tomorrow, Next Week though the band's first album, Life's Too Good (Elektra), is the superior English-language album.
*Various Artists, Popp i Reykjavik (Elf/Dennis): A soundtrack to a 1998 documentary of ''the world's most desperate night life'' (to quote from the film), this CD features 17 of Iceland's best new artists, including popular exports like Gus Gus, experimental electronic groove riders like Surefni and Aria; and high-quality original rock bands like Maus, Slow blow and Ensimi, whose Steve Albini-produced BMX is one of Iceland's best collisions of modern rock guitars and techno keyboards.
*Sigur Ros, Agaetis Byrjun (Smekkleysa): A masterpiece not just of contemporary Icelandic rock but of the entire international genre of post-rock, this entrancing CD-length journey is Radiohead's ''Kid A'' pushed one step further into beautiful abstraction.
*Mum, Yesterday Was Today -- Today Is Okay (TMT): The compilation Tilraunaeldhusith 1999 (Kitchen Motors) may provide a more complete glimpse into the Reykjavik equivalent of the Knitting Factory scene, featuring live experiments from the guitarist Hilmar Jensson; a collaboration between Mum and the electronic-instrument collector Musikvatur; and a 13-guitar orchestra featuring members of Sigur Ros. But this innovative electro-acoustic album by Mum is infinitely more listenable, standing out as an Icelandic equivalent of the Aphex Twin's ambient works.