Sigur Rós Albums From Worst To Best
Back in 1999, the year Sigur Rós released their international breakthrough, Agaetis Byrjun, Jón Þór “Jónsi” Birgisson wrote the following mission statement on his band’s website: “We are not a band, we are music … We are simply gonna change music forever, and the way people think about music. And don’t think we can’t do it, we will.” As we all know, that kind of overblown arrogance isn’t unusual in the pop music mainstream. (Among other quotable tidbits, Kanye West recently told W Magazine, “I’m the No. 1 living and breathing rock star. I am Axl Rose; I am Jim Morrison; I am Jimi Hendrix.'”) Still, that sort of sentiment felt awfully strange coming from the mild-mannered frontman of an obscure Icelandic post-rock band.
During a recent Q+A — five studio albums and 14 years after the fact — Spin presented Birgisson with that quote. He responded with laughter, reflecting on his band’s formative years with a nostalgic glow. “You’re young and full of energy and have this cockiness,” he said. “I think it’s beautiful.”
And Agaetis Byrjun’s sprawling majesty warranted such cockiness. Arriving two years after the tentative ambient soundscapes of Von, Agaetis cemented the band’s sonic trademarks and signaled a jaw-dropping creative re-birth. Over lush orchestrations, Georg Hólm’s whale-moan bass, and Kjartan Sveinsson’s ornate keyboards, we meet Birgisson — singing in an ethereal falsetto, sawing at his electric guitar with a cello bow (a la Jimmy Page) to conjure black-magic drones. Dumbfounded, critics searched for an easy comparison — lumping the band with acts like Mogwai and Gospeed You! Black Emperor in the “post-rock” scene — even though this sound was clearly unlike anything they’d ever heard. When all else failed, they used Icelandic imagery as descriptors, comparing Birgisson’s guitar tone to a drifting, gargantuan glacier. And when coherent sentences failed, they simply gushed: “They sound like god weeping tears of gold in heaven,” wrote Melody Maker.
But most fans wouldn’t argue with that description. For many (myself included), the Sigur Rós live show is a transportive, communal experience, a sort of secular church service — instead of the Holy Spirit, we’re moved by the band’s intangible force, their delicate balancing act of violent aggression and hypnotic respite. It hardly matters whether Birgisson’s singing in gibberish (critics dubbed this approach “Hopelandic”) or his native Icelandic — at a Sigur Rós show, we’re all speaking in tongues.
The band’s recorded output is equally revered — most Sigur Rós diehards remember our “first time” with misty eyes and goosebumps. I described mine in this Boston Phoenix review of the live album Inni: “The first time I ever listened to Sigur Rós — I mean, really listened to Sigur Rós — I was on the toilet, strapped into my headphones, picking apart the liner notes to their landmark Agaetis Byrjun like I’d discovered a holy relic. I cried — on the toilet.”
Inevitably, the band’s exotic mystique has shrunk through time and exposure. On their subsequent five albums (from the moody, textural ( ) to their brighter, more eclectic commercial break-outs Takk… and Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust), they emerged as arguably the most visible and influential Icelandic band of all-time, selling hoards of albums and packing stadium gigs. These days, “Sigur Rós-y” is used as an adjective. Their influence is massive, almost daunting — you can trace their sound from post-metal to indie-rock, from Radiohead to fucking Coldplay. It’s hard to believe the same guy who co-wrote the spine-tingling “Svefn-g-englar” could feasibly write a song for the How To Tame Your Dragon soundtrack.
But Sigur Rós have evolved. This isn’t the same band who created Agaetis Byrjun — they’re no longer the earnestly cocky youngsters who wrote that breathless website mission statement all those years ago. They’ve evolved, matured, grown more accessible — discovered pop, electronica, English. And we Sigur Rós disciples have been along for every second of this unlikely ride through brilliance. To celebrate this month’s release of Kveikur, their seventh studio album, let’s explore the highs and lows (Let’s admit it: It’s mostly highs) of the band’s catalog, from worst to best.
7. Von (1997)
It feels awkward even calling 1997's Von a Sigur Rós album. The cover features a chiaroscuro image of Birgisson's baby sister, Inga; which is fitting — this is the band in its primitive infancy, testing the boundaries of the recording studio, often with little idea where they're headed. The context of the album is more intriguing than much of the music: The band, then a trio — Birgisson, Holm, and original drummer Ágúst Ævar Gunnarsson — labored on the album for a number of months, painting their recording space in exchange for studio time. The results are overlong (72 minutes that could easily have been trimmed to 30), sonically muddled, and slightly derivative of the '90s shoegaze scene. Still, there are striking moments of clarity: The 12-minute "Hafssól" remains one of the band's iconic moments, particularly on-stage, with Holm assaulting his bass strings with a drum stick.
6. Valtari (2012)
Absorbed chronologically, Sigur Rós' output forms a gradual, logical trajectory. From the murky ambience of 1997's Von to the gleeful, melodic expansiveness of 2008's Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, each Sigur Rós album builds on what came before it. The band's sixth LP, Valtari, is their awkward outlier, the stray album that feels oddly disconnected from their previous sonic development. With its glacial drones and repetitive instrumental textures, the music harkens back to ( ) or the moody second half of Takk.... Even the sleepiest moments (the endless title-track, the crystalline drift of closer "Fjögur píanó") are gorgeous in that reliable Sigur Rós way, and the highlights (the stormy climax of "Varúð," the tense climb of "Ég anda") rank among the band's finest work. Still — especially compared to the rest of the band's post-Von discography — Valtari is often too precious for its own good, teasing moments of ecstatic release that rarely arrive.
5. Takk... (2005)
From day one (OK, with the exception of Von), Sigur Rós had potential for mainstream appeal: Fewer voices are prettier than Birgisson's, and few rock bands are this purely cinematic (which Cameron Crowe proved in 2001, licensing several tracks for his trippy psych-drama Vanilla Sky). But Takk... is the band's first major blush with the pop world, replacing the brooding textures of ( ) with a glistening melodies and brisk, lively arrangements. String-coated anthem "Hoppípolla" became the band's breakthrough single, landing at #24 on the UK single charts. The problem with Takk... is its awkward sequencing: The radio-friendly highlights (the slow-building "Glósóli," the symphonic, piano-heavy "Sæglópur") are crammed on the album's exquisite first half, while Side B plods toward the finish line with sleepy Hopelandic placeholders ("Mílanó," "Andvari").
4. Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (2008)
Sigur Rós flirted with a bolder, more accessible sound on Takk..., but that album's plodding back-half suggested this sonic makeover was still a work-in-progress. The band's fifth LP, the Flood-produced Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, is a more confident and eclectic effort, a balancing act that blends frenzied acoustic sing-alongs ("Gobbledigook"), carnival-esque orchestral-pop ("Inní mér syngur vitleysingur"), crescendo-fueled epics ("Festival"), and choral dreaminess ("Ára bátur"). There's a sprawling messiness to this album, an "anything flies" approach that offers a glimpse of everything Sigur Rós do well.
3. ( ) (2002)
After the maximalist art-rock grandeur of Agaetis Byrjun, Sigur Rós pulled a startling about-face for their follow-up. The unpronounceable ( ) was in many ways the anti-Byjrun, downplaying orgiastic climaxes and traditional song structures in favor of spacey, drifting ambience and brooding textural melodrama. It's the most "difficult" Sigur Rós album in the literal sense — these songs demand patient, observant listening (especially on the darker, less melodic second half). But ( ) is home to some of the band's most emotionally devastating pieces, including the frosty, keyboard-driven "Untitled 1 (Vaka)" and "Untitled IV (Njósnavélin)," a lucid dream of bare tom-toms and cello-bow ecstasy.
2. Kveikur (2013)
For five studio albums, Sigur Rós operated as a democracy. The band's core quartet line-up — Birgisson, Sveinsson, Holm, and drummer Orri Páll Dýrason — wrote songs by tinkering silently in a room, sprouting melodies out of thin air. So when Sveinsson unceremoniously left the band in 2012, a crucial limb in the Sigur Rós sound was suddenly amputated. But the remaining trio rebounded brilliantly — crafting a heavier, more aggressive approach, emphasizing the seismic power of the rhythm section. "Brennisteinn" and "Kveikur" are stormy, metallic cauldrons of sound, ranking among the most visceral moments in the band's discography. But as they prove with "Isjaki" and the dubstep-inflected "Stormur," Sigur Rós haven't lost their focus (or their way with hooks).
1. Agaetis Byrjun (1999)
Agaetis Byrjun is 72 minutes of sonically rich, emotionally pulverizing perfection, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Kid A, The Moon & Antarctica, and every other rock-related critical behemoth of the past two decades. And the reason isn't tied to the band's early mystique — it's tied to the power of the songs themselves: the orchestral splendor of "Starálfur," the transcendent ache of "Ný batterí." "Svefn-g-englar" is the definitive post-rock epic, each decayed synth tone and cymbal splash conjuring a world of endless possibilities. The band knew they couldn't top Agaetis Byrjun — at least not in the same way. So they haven't tried to replicate its magic. Fourteen years later, it remains the signature Sigur Rós masterpiece.