Sigur Rós’ ‘Ágætis Byrjun’ Turns 20

The Icelandic post-rockers’ magnum opus remains miles ahead of everything that preceded or followed.

Ask any post-rock fan what albums got them into the genre. You might hear mentions of Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock. Slint’s Spiderland. Millions Living or TNT by Tortoise. Maybe something from Mogwai, or Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

But nearly everyone you ask will, at some point, bring up Sigur Rós’ Ágætis Byrjun, still maybe the most important (if not greatest) post-rock record ever made.

Released solely in their native Iceland on June 12, 1999, the band’s second album represented a massive departure from the ambient suites of their debut, Von. While the band kept the ethereal falsetto of lead singer Jónsi firmly at the center, swirling around him was this grandiose orchestra, churning like a bioluminescent ocean.

The strings carry songs like the weepy, beautiful “Starálfur,” featuring Jónsi’s soon-to-be trademark bowed guitar. A more chaotic, noisy side of Sigur Rós envelops “Hjartað hamast (bamm bamm bamm),” which hides slightly jazzy drumming under the swaths of orchestral reverb. The vocals (spoken in the nonsensical language of Hopelandish) on “Olsen Olsen” layer like blankets over these stunning horns and strings, and that moment when the drums break free into an explosion of sound ranks as one of my favorite musical moments of all time.

Of course, who could forget the stunning “Svefn-G-Englar,” a 10-minute long drift through the cosmos that puts you in the window seat of a spaceship. Jónsi’s vocals are trance-like, and the song melds them into one with the pinging bells. It’s otherworldly, an alien transmission that sounds like nothing on this planet.

Ágætis Byrjun turns 20 today, and it’s still completely unlike anything I’ve ever heard before or after, a record light-years ahead of anything that came out with it. It’s a thing of unimaginable beauty; an unforgettable album that will hold as prophetic someday, if we can ever catch up.

A deluxe reissue of the album, Ágætis Byrjun – A Good Beginning, is out June 21.