Since the late 1980s, especially since Björk's solo career took off, Iceland has enjoyed an outsized reputation as an incubator of alternative popular music. The Iceland Airwaves Festival attracts more visitors to Iceland than any other single event. Good music can be heard virtually every night, often in galleries, stores, and other unpredictable venues, so check listings in the free circular The Grapevine (www.grapevine.is). Reykjavík's two alternative music store/labels 12 Tonar and Smekkleysa are also prime places to tap into local happenings.
Why Iceland? Many look no further than Iceland's strong singing traditions. Others point to Reykjavík's ideal size: Big enough to constitute a "scene," yet small enough that -- with no real record industry or celebrity culture -- the scene stays down to earth. Everyone is influenced by everyone else, styles easily cross-fertilize, and no one raises an eyebrow at the most outlandishly clashing double bills. Every record is reviewed in the press, though ironically many bands have risen only after gaining foreign attention.
The alternative scene roughly divides into three camps: hard rock, indie rock, and electronica. But don't mistake the hippest, edgiest alternative bands like Sigur Rós, Múm, and Gus Gus for the entire popular music scene. Iceland's version of American Idol, Idol Stjörnuleit (Idol Starsearch) is watched by half the country and is as unabashedly "pop" as its American forebear.
Nasa, Austurvöllur Square (tel. 511-1313; www.nasa.is; daily 10pm-5:30am), Reykjavík's largest club venue, hosts every style imaginable. Another prestigious and diverse club venue, where you can usually catch two bands for less than the price of a movie ticket is Gaukur á Stöng (aka Gaukurinn), Tryggvagata 22, (tel. 551-1556; www.gaukurinn.is; Sun-Thurs 11:30am-1am, Fri-Sat 11:30am-5:30am).
A more intimate club than NASA, Grand Rokk, Smiðjustígur 6 (tel. 551-5522; www.grandrokk.is), feels very local and has "rokk" in the title for a reason. By contrast, the arena-size Laugardalshöll, Engjavegi 8 (tel. 553-8990; www.laugardalsholl.is), on a soccer ground in Laugardalur Park, hosts the biggest international acts. Cafe Amsterdam, Hafnarstræti 5 (tel. 551-3800), is a good place to catch up-and-coming bands each weekend.
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