Whether you were stockpiling canned food in preparation for Y2K or dancing your ass off to Prince, 1999 was a hell of a year. Twenty years later, End Of The Century looks back at some of the most iconic albums to drop right before the new millennium…
That might be the best word to summarize Sigur Rós’ Ágætis byrjun, the landmark second album from the influential-yet-inimitable Icelandic four-piece. It’s an apt descriptor of the record’s bold vision and legacy. Sung entirely in the band’s self-invented language of Hopelandic, it remains as forward-thinking and emotionally resonant today as when it upended “post-rock” as a concept back in 1999—a genre tag the band themselves have never claimed, nor appear interested in. When their website boldly proclaimed, “We are simply gonna change music forever, and the way people think about music,” it would have been easy to dismiss them as delusional, another cog in a PR-driven hype machine bound to flame out and disappear.
However, the band would probably deflect that praise if they heard it coming from someone else. While confident in their belief that Ágætis byrjun would make an impact, they were also leery of the boom-and-bust nature of music press, understanding full well that critics could tear them down as quickly as they could build them up—particularly in the U.K., where buzz cycles rise and fall with merciless efficiency. They had been around since 1994 with one album already under their belt—1997’s Von, which eventually went platinum in Iceland—so it may be a credit to their own foresight that this would, in fact, be the record that launched them to global acclaim.
In a 2013 interview with Spin, frontman Jónsi Birgisson chalked up such bold proclamations to the arrogance of youth. However, given the longevity of the album—and, indeed, the band themselves—that statement may have been more prescient than he’s willing to give it credit for. As music critic Brent DiCrescenzo wrote in his review for Pitchfork, “To term this music ‘post-rock’ would be an insult; Sigur Rós are pre-whatever comes this century.” Given the pressure that comes with those sorts of expectations, especially for a group in their late teens and early 20s, their overt confidence may have been essential for their continued existence.
Indeed, Ágætis byrjun wasted no time following through on the promise of its creators. Despite, or maybe partially thanks to, being sung in a language literally no one outside of the band can understand—and, actually, one even they can’t understand, because it’s self-admitted nonsense—it speaks directly to the emotional core of its listener; you feel what you’re intended to feel without needing to consciously understand what you’re being told. It’s immediately clear this is something unique unto itself, built to last, sounding no less relevant or timeless now than when it was first released.
That staying power is only made more impressive considering what else came out around the same time in 1999. San Diego’s Tristeza put out their criminally underappreciated debut, Spine and Sensory, on June 15, just three days after Ágætis byrjun. It’s a record that found its niche over time but may have been overshadowed by founding guitarist Jimmy LaValle’s other project, The Album Leaf. Mogwai had dropped Come On Die Young in April, waving their finger in the face of Britpop while establishing a place for themselves in the post-rock pantheon, and likely unbeknownst to many folks outside the greater Austin, Texas, area, Explosions In The Sky played their first show that same month—if this YouTube video is to be believed—a few years before they’d take off themselves.
Even with post-rock enjoying a breakout year, Ágætis byrjun was something else. It didn’t expand the genre’s boundaries so much as it smashed them altogether, likely because Sigur Rós weren’t trying to do anything other than write a damn record. From the album’s opening notes on the plainly titled “Intro” and through its slow-burning follow-up, “Svefn-g-englar,” it was immediately apparent there was no place within the indie rock landscape for Sigur Rós to neatly fit. Restrained percussion lays a meditative backbeat below layers of subtle strings and mellifluous vocals that effortlessly drift over the rhythm section, establishing a striking yet unassuming introduction to a record with no interest in staying in one place from track to track.
“Starálfur” sees the album hit its most cinematic peak, opening with sparse strings and keys over a simple bass figure; if it sounds tailormade for a Wes Anderson film, it should be no surprise the director used it in 2004’s “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.” It’s near the end of “Ný batterí”—a track that later appeared on the TV shows “24” and “CSI”—that, once again driven by a looping bass riff and minimalist percussion that build seamlessly into a towering climax, the song collapses into itself. It segues to what could loosely be called jazz on “Hjartað hamast (bamm bamm bamm)” before “Viðrar vel til loftárása” goes a full 10 minutes without overstaying its welcome.
Once “Olsen Olsen” comes in to round out the last third of the record, the band are back to the dreary yet somehow uplifting vibe they started with, meticulously piecing repeating low tones and otherworldly vocal bits together to form something greater than the sum of its parts. If the band’s members have any sort of technical virtuosity hiding up their sleeves, it’s clear they’re keeping it safely in reserve; while Ágætis byrjun often feels maximalist in scope, a minimalist approach to each individual instrument and section ensures no one plays over anyone else.
By the time the album is over, you’re left wondering how exactly this could have been written, following seemingly no one’s muse but their own. If this record came out right now instead of 20 years ago, it’s likely no one would bat an eye or second-guess what they’d been told about its release date. The same cannot be said so easily for any number of nameless, faceless post-rock pretenders who might appear on any given “chill” or “instrumental” Spotify playlist.
Ágætis byrjun isn’t necessarily considered Sigur Rós’ ultimate fan-favorite album; that honor arguably may go to 2005’s Takk…, which followed up 2002’s ( ) by bringing their sound back to the territory first charted on Ágætis byrjun, though with a bit more polish. Subsequent albums like 2008’s Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust would continue to push the group in different creative directions as well, reflective of a band discontent to rest on their laurels. Yet, this remains the record that first captured the world’s attention, and it’s one that continues to hold up today.
And so, now is as good a time as any for a remastered rerelease, due out July 26 in North America via the band’s own KRUNK label as a seven-LP vinyl box set with two discs dedicated to the original album plus five more including demos, unreleased material, and other odds and ends, as well as an 84-page cloth-bound book. It’s a fitting excuse to return to an album that’s as enduring as it was innovative. It’s no secret that Sigur Rós are one of the most beloved avant-garde rock acts in recent history, but that also takes the creative trajectory that got them to where they are now for granted. This record marks their turning point from upstart kids into an international sensation. For some bands, it’s difficult to pin down why any single release becomes the one that launches them out of obscurity, but there are no such questions to be asked here.
Ágætis byrjun is a classic, regardless of time, language, or genre.
The remastered rerelease of Ágætis byrjun is available for pre-order now at SigurRós.com.
By Ben Sailer