“100 Bestu Plötur Íslandssögunnar” (“100 Best Icelandic Albums”)

I’ve written before about my borderline unhealthy love of lists.  I’m always a sucker for any kind of “Best Of,” “Worst Of,” or “Any Other Kind Of Of” lists, whether they be about music, movies, places to see, or ways to fold your laundry.  If you can make a list about it, I’ll probably look at it and think about it.  Which probably explains why I’m pretty good with spreadsheets.  Which happens to be a good thing, since I’m not good at a lot of other things (fixing things, building things, karate….) and our society values spreadsheet skills enough to allow me to pay my bills and go to Iceland at least once per year.

100bestuplotur

When we were in Reykjavik for Airwaves in 2012 I picked up a nice hardback book called 100 Bestu Plötur Íslandssögunnar, roughly translated to 100 Best Icelandic Albums despite the fact that Google Translate tried to tell me it meant 100 Best Albums Island Story Acid, though that sounds like it would be a pretty cool read too.  The book was published in 2009, so it’s relatively current, and it’s well laid out and has tons of pictures.  Unfortunately for me, the text is all in Icelandic, and given some of the translations Google has provided over the years it doesn’t seem worth the trouble to try to read it using the translator.

Turns out I have 35 of the Top 100 albums on this list.  A few thoughts that put this into perspective for me:

1.  I did this same exercise with Rolling Stone’s The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time back in August, and I only had or had heard 27 of its Top 100.
2.  I own exactly zero Sigur Rós albums, five of which are among the 100 Bestu Plötur, which is sort of ironic since there are certainly a number of Americans who if they looked at the book would only have those five albums.
3.  I found myself being somewhat critical of the book for some of the albums that I felt were deserving, but not included, like Icecross, Ghostigital‘s In Code We Trust, Gusgus‘ This Is Normal, and 
XXX Rottweiler Hundar (which, let’s be honest, should be included just for the name alone).  Criminal!  Sure, XXX Rottweiler Hundar came in at #102 in the abbreviated list of albums from 101-200 (of which I have 16!), but that’s no excuse!

This makes me think I may have crossed over from “fan” to “obsessive” when it comes to Icelandic music (except for Sigur Rós).  I mean, I can’t even read this book and I’m taking issue about bands I felt were slighted.  I may need help.  I may also need more shelving soon if I keep buying vinyl at this rate.

I don’t want to run afoul of any copyrights, and I certain don’t want to ruin it for you, but I will tell you that Sigur Rós’ Ágætis byrjun took the top spot (don’t have it!), and that Björk made the Top 10 twice, with Debut (#6) and Gling-Gló (#7) (have ’em both).  And as I previously mentioned, somehow XXX Rottweiler Hundar failed to crack the Top 100 (travesty!).  

All kidding aside, 100 Bestu Plötur Íslandssögunnar is a well-put-together book, which devotes two full pages to each album – one with a large image of the front jacket, a smaller image of the back jacket, a song list and credits, and the other with text and photos of the performer(s).  The one exception is the Rokk í Reykjavík at #32 (only 32???), which justifiably gets a four page spread.  It’s a pretty cool reference for the music junkie who has a (perhaps troubling) interest in the Icelandic scene, at least through 2009.

Book Review – “Waking Up In Iceland: Sights and Sounds from Europe’s Coolest Hotspot” by Paul Sullivan

I like to read about music and musicians.  A lot.  Probably more than I should, since arguably I’d learn more about music by listening to more of it, not reading about it.  But I enjoy reading, so there you go.  And, frankly, books on music have opened my eyes (and ears) to bands and genres I might not have explored otherwise.  Some of those new “discoveries” in 2013 included The KLF, Shonen Knife, Flower Travellin’ Band, and The Sonics.  When I read I take mental notes which serve me well when digging through used vinyl and CDs.

Last month I wrote a review of Dr. Gunni’s English language history of Icelandic pop music, Blue Eyed Pop.  In many ways this was the book I’d been looking for since I started getting into Icelandic music five years ago – something that gave a sometimes broad, sometimes detailed history of the scene and mentions lots of different bands, making it a perfect resource for someone like me looking to go back in time.  But Gunni’s book wasn’t the first one to tackle this topic in English.  While I’d be hesitant to make a definitive proclamation about the truly first one on the subject, my best guess is Paul Sullivan’s Waking Up In Iceland:  Sights and Sounds from Europe’s Coolest Hotspot which was released back in 2003 in the days when Airwaves was still relatively new and you (assuming you’re not from Iceland) probably needed no more than one hand to count off all the Icelandic musicians you could name – and that would be if I let you count Björk and the Sugarcubes separately.

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Sullivan’s book is very loosely centered around Airwaves, but only in that he was in Reykjavik for the festival and stayed for a while afterwards doing further research.  Part travelogue and part cultural history, most of Waking Up In Iceland focuses in some way on music, or at the very least the Icelandic poetry style of rimur, a sort of poetic chanting that has existed there, more or less in the same form and using the exact same language, for somewhere approaching a thousand years.  Rimur is such an important part of the culture that a performance of it was even included on the seminal Icelandic punk compilation, Rokk Í Reykjavík.  So even the parts of the book that don’t deal directly with “popular” music are still relevant to the discussion of the nation’s musical culture.

The book is wide ranging, with chapters devoted to rimur, rock ‘n’ roll, the punk movement, pop, and even sveitaball, which are dances held in many of the smaller towns that feature live bands who play primarily covers for the hammered locals.  There’s even an entire chapter that is more or less devoted to folk rocker and social critic Megas.  Sullivan interviews artists, musicians, record store owners, label owners, and just regular people.  Sure, Sigur Rós and Björk are here; but so is Sigríður Níelsdóttir, aka the Casio Lady, who started her musical career in her early 70s with just a Casio keyboard, a microphone, and a dual tape deck, making lo-fi pop and gospel tapes in her kitchen.  She put out almost 60 albums in the last years of her life, all straight to cassette and later copied to CD, all without a label to produce and distribute them.  You’ve got the whole gamut here.

Waking Up In Iceland is the perfect companion to Blue Eyed Pop.  It’s written from the perspective of a curious outsider, so it doesn’t take for granted that you know anything at all about Iceland or its music.  Sullivan provides depth where it is needed, not only so you can learn about some of the seminal artists, but also what it means to be a musician in Iceland with both the benefits and challenges that entails.  While it’s out of print, I had no trouble finding a used copy online, and it’s also available as a Kindle ebook, which is how I first read it (before later buying a print copy).  If you really want to know more about Icelandic music, I suggest starting with Waking Up In Iceland and then following it up with Blue Eyed Pop, which will fill in a lot of the blanks.

Book Review – “Blue Eyed Pop: The History of Popular Music in Iceland” by Dr. Gunni

Dr. Gunni, aka Gunnar Larus Hjalmarsson, is pretty much the de facto guru of Icelandic popular music history.  He’s been an “insider” in the scene for decades both as a fan and a musician, having played in his first ever concert in 1980 with the band Dordinglar at the ripe old age of 14, opening for established punk rockers Utangarðsmenn and Fræbbblarnir.  He’s been in a number of bands including Bless, Unun, and one of my favorites S. H. Draumur, almost became a member of HAM, and has been involved in projects with Björk.  Most recently he put out a children’s album called Alheiminn.  To say he knows the Icelandic music scene would be an understatement.

In 2012 Gunni released Stuð vors lands, a beautiful, massive coffee table book about the history of popular music in Iceland.  It’s a big hardback in a sturdy slipcover, 442 pages full of high quality photos that trace the development of the scene from about 1900 forward.  Stuð vors lands was released during Iceland Airwaves last year and Holly and I attended the book launch party at a Reykjavik book store, which included a who’s who of 1980s Icelandic music and featured live performances from a number of former greats.  Despite the price (this is a high quality, low print run product…) and the fact that it’s written entirely in Icelandic (which I don’t speak), I picked up a copy because if for no other reason the photos made it worth it.  Plus if I get really ambitious I can always type some text into Google Translate and see if I can make sense of what it gives me (not always easy).  I looked at it as a sort of “must have” for someone interested in Icelandic music.

When we were back in Reykjavik this April I heard Gunni was working on an English language version of Stuð vors lands so I sent him an email and offered to help if there was anything he needed.  He got back to me right away and while he didn’t need help with the project I ended up over at his place and bought a few items from his record collection that he was just about to start selling off.  Timing is everything!  It was also at that meeting that I found out the new project would be called Blue Eyed Pop and would hopefully be available for Airwaves 2013.  I was excited, to say the least.

Sure enough, the somewhat smaller (but still oversized) softback Blue Eyed Pop was all over Reykjavik at Airwaves this year and I made sure to pick up a copy.  As near as I can tell it’s more or less a condensed version of Stuð vors lands, about half the length at 220 pages but still covering the entirety of the country’s popular music history.  It’s heavily illustrated (most if not all the photos also appeared in Stuð vors lands) and provides a history that is both wide-ranging and concise.  The period of most interest to me, from the start of the punk movement circa 1980 to the present day, is roughly 60% of the book, so there are ample photos, anecdotes, and band histories to keep me both informed and entertained.  There are some cool added features as well, such as a music history map of Reykjavik and a number of various lists of the top rated and top selling Icelandic albums of all time, useful for someone looking to dip their toes into earlier material.

In reading Blue Eyed Pop a few common threads in Icelandic music seem to weave in and out.  Up until around the late 1970s bands tended to rely fairly heavily on covers, something I’ve noticed on the handful of older records I’ve tracked down over the years.  This makes some sense when you think about living in a very isolated place in the pre-internet days, when much if not most of the new music coming to the island came from American armed forces radio and Icelanders who traveled overseas and brought music home with them.  Their exposure was to the hits, which makes it harder to develop a broader scene.  The second part is the drive to leave Iceland and find wider international success, which often resulted in bands touring the smallest clubs in the UK or the US, playing in front of sparse crowds and surviving on near starvation diets.  Fortunately today it is simple both for Icelanders to access music from the rest of the world, and to share their amazing bands as well.

As to why there is so much incredible music coming out of Iceland these days, Gunni has some ideas about that:

It’s an isolated island on the top of the world.  We get everything, we hear
all the music we want (thanks to the internet), and maybe there isn’t so
much else to do than meet your friends and make some music (or at least
when you’ve gotten bored with the internet).

Musician Mugison thinks the island’s isolation also contributes to the uniqueness that each band seems to bring to the table.

Say somebody is copying me and they release a song.  I think the chances
are that, within one week of them releasing the song, they’ll run into me in
Reykjavik, or at some place, some venue, some street, and they’ll feel
awkward, because they know everybody, who’s saying, “Hey, you’ve got
the same sound as him; you’re just copying him.”  And that’s kind of nice,
because then you’re forced to at least try to make your own voice.

Blue Eyed Pop is the perfect resource for the English speaker who wants to learn more about the history of music in Iceland.  Gunni maintains a brisk pace, so even if you’re not interested in the band you’re reading about at the moment, give it a couple of pages and you’ll be learning about something new.  The only other English language book length treatment of the subject I know if is Paul Sullivan’s Waking Up In Iceland:  Sights and Sounds from Europe’s Coolest Hotspot (2003), though that takes a somewhat different approach (though I do recommend it as well) and is really a compliment to Blue Eyed Pop.  The one criticism I have of the book is the lack of an index (Stuð vors lands has one, as does Sullivan’s book), which would make it easier to find info on specific bands and albums as a given band might well appear in multiple chapters.  That being said, I highly recommend it for both the casual and serious fan.  Takk, Dr. Gunni!

Advanced or Overt? Jason Hartley’s “The Advanced Genius Theory”

A book review?  Seriously?

Yes.  But not a fuddy-duddy academic style review, or something you might find in the newspaper.  More of a discussion of Jason Hartley’s The Advanced Genius Theory:  Are They Out of Their Minds or Ahead of Their Times? (2010 – I have the Kindle edition), a book primarily directed at the music fan.

Hartley’s premise (or at least his Overt premise…) is pretty simple:  some artistic geniuses are so good at what they do that even when they appear to produce something seemingly terrible, that in fact in all likelihood they’re simply so far ahead of their time or the prevailing trends that its us as the audience that isn’t really ready to see how actually great it is.  There are some people who are so talented that sometimes they do things that seem to suck, but in fact don’t.  It’s our tastes and preferences that in fact suck.  These artists are said to be Advanced, as opposed to their lesser, though often very talented in their own right, peers, who are in fact Overt.

There’s certainly a bit more to it than that, and even an Advanced artist can do things that are in fact Overt (or at least appear Overt to us… when in fact it may very well be us who are not Advanced enough to see it for what it is).  But what Hartley is trying to do is identify those artists, primarily focusing on musicians, who are so far out ahead that we should look at (and listen to) everything they do with in the mindset that it is, in fact, probably brilliant.  Even if at the time we think it sounds like a pile of crap.

Hartley identifies five “musts” that an artist progresses through on the road to Advancement:

1.  They must produce their work over a period of 15 or more years.  In essence they need to have established themselves as artists for a period of time so we can properly evaluate them.  That excludes a lot of amazing performers, and though 15 years is somewhat arbitrary, I see Hartley’s point here.  Can a “flash in the pan,” or someone with only two albums, really be considered Advanced?  A brilliant artist, yes.  A genius, perhaps.  Just not an Advanced Genius.
2.  They must alienated their original fan base at least once.   Doing so shows that the artist advanced beyond the original work that attracted their fans in the first place, and generally did so knowing they’d be pissed.  And frankly didn’t care.
3.  They must be unironic.  Seeming to do something unexpected solely for the sake of doing something unexpected is Overt, not Advanced.  It kind of smacks of a superiority complex too.
4.  They must be unpredictable.
5.  They must “lose it” in spectacular fashion.

Hartley identifies a few other themes that often seem to appear in the Advanced.  They often have a look that involves long hair, black leather jackets, and sunglasses.  They tend to find or express their religion, often in very public ways, but the also frequently “sell out” to the dismay of their fans.  But are these really necessary, or just coincidences?  Either way, they spice up the discussion.

As an example, consider someone who Hartley did not discuss in his book:  Johnny Cash. Cash certainly met the 15 year requirement doing his first recording in 1955 and producing music for almost 50 years, and he certainly had plenty of hits under his belt and was wildly popular.  He also cultivated the Advanced look, wearing his slicked back hair somewhat long in the back, donning sunglasses, and wearing black so much he became know as “the man in black.”  He recorded two hit records inside prisons, which seems highly Advanced and unpredictable (at least the first time he did it).  He sort of sold out doing commercials for the oil and gas company Amoco in the middle of the gas crisis during the 1970s, and his drug abuse and philandering alienated a portion of his fan base and hurt his popularity and certainly qualify as losing it.  His joining with country stars Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson to form The Highwaymen was Overt, since it’s too easy to be successful with other super-talented musicians (though don’t tell that to the guys who formed Baby Face in the early 1970s), but Cash became unpredictable late in his life, taking on some projects out of left field such as an album of covers that included songs written by Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails (highly Advanced!), as well as doing a reading of the entire New King James Version of the New Testament, which is both Advanced and meets the religion requirement.  He sure seems to meet most of the criteria for Advancement.

The Advanced Genius Theory evaluates a number of musicians including Lou Reed, Sting, Bono, James Brown, and Billy Joel.  Hartley also considers artists in other fields including the fine arts, writers, actors, directors, and athletes, but the theory was designed with musicians in mind and that’s the most entertaining portion of the book to me.  It’s at the conclusion, though, where Hartley makes his own Advanced move and clarifies the real message behind Advancement.  The ultimate outcome of any discussion of the Advanced or Overt merit of an artist is that it forces you to think.  And not only think, but look for reasons to like an artists’ work, not for reasons not to like it.  Don’t assume just because your favorite musician put out an album you don’t like (today) means that he or she has lost it.  It may very well be that they’ve advanced well beyond you, and it will take you some time to catch up.  Have you ever re-visited an album you didn’t like originally, only to find that it’s absolutely amazing?  I know its happened to me.  Paul’s Boutique was a departure from the party album Licensed to Ill, and I felt like the Beastie’s had lost their minds.  But when I listened to it again maybe five years later… wow.