There’s a light on the horizon that is 2021. The ship on the sea of misery that has been 2020 is getting closer to shore and the lighthouse is visible. We’re almost there but we must keep the ship steady.
The stress and struggle that artists have been under in 2020 cannot be stressed enough. It has been difficult enough for us not being able to consume music in the normal way but for the artists themselves it has been a nightmare.
Imagine releasing your debut album and not being able to gig it. Not being able to push it properly and as a result, your physical album sales, merch sales, and ticket sales suffer. If you can, please consider supporting an artist by buying their music. Download their album on Bandcamp or order a physical copy.
Hopefully, we’ll all be back watching these phenomenal acts in our favourite venues very soon. We’re getting closer to that lighthouse, best wishes for 2021.
Here’s numbers 15 – 1
15. The Scratch – Couldn’t Give a Rats (Self-release)
The Scratch first came to (inter)national attention a few years ago when a video of them busking in Donegal went viral. Their acoustic rock fusion has earned them a monumental following since and Couldn’t Give a Rats celebrates everything they are loved for. An explosion of fury and funny, the Dubliners’ debut is “go, go, go, from the first song they play lad!” as the voice note at the end of Session Song says. A finely crafted album that will leave you wanting to go outside and bate a stick off a tree.
14. Kean Kavanagh – Dog Person (Soft Boy Records)
This was one of the releases I was most looking forward to this year. Kean Kavanagh’s releases so far, as well as his collaborative efforts with Kojaque, have shown him to be one of the most relevant songwriters in the country, expertly reflecting session culture through his lyrics. From kick off, Dog Person continues to prove this. Roll Over!’s incantation of “Sorry there James, can I please have a rollie? // I’ve been drinking all day, I couldn’t drown out the old me” says more about a 4am session than has yet to be penned. Dog Person is filled with expert representation of our generation’s fluctuating state of existence.
13. Vernon Jane – The Ritual of Love Making (AMS Records)
You will struggle to find to find an album released this year with a more diverse range of genres mashed into the one record – nay, every single song on the record. Between its spoken word intro Cleanse, Sink and its screeching expression of pain, Otherside with its Amy Winehouse-esque jazz guitar and vocals, this album is one of the greatest concoctions of musicality I have heard. It is experimental at every turn and Emily Jane O’Connor’s lyrics are cuttingly honest, elevated by her vocals. Not an easy listen, but an expertly crafted body of work.
12. Seamus Fogarty – A Bag of Eyes (Domino)
Fogarty’s last album The Curious Hand was scandalously excluded from the Choice Prize shortlist in 2017, masterly weaving electronic music alongside traditional folk storytelling. A Bag of Eyes isn’t as heavily influenced by sampling and beats as its predecessor but the vibes are very much the same. Production is only a small element of Fogarty’s craft when you consider his amusing approach to songwriting. An experimental genius in the folk landscape, this record very much reflects Fogarty’s willingness to keep pushing sound boundaries.
11. FIELDS – The Silence of Staying In (Self-release)
I’m a sucker for Bruce Springsteen/War on Drugs-esque production – repetitive, reverby guitar riffs, charging drums, throw in a sax solo for good measure. Missing from the Irish musical landscape for quite some time has been Ireland’s answer to addictive rock – enter FIELDS. The prophetically named Silence of Staying In is Ireland in a rock album. It’s as gentle as it is loud. It sounds as much like the rural landscape of Monaghan on tracks like St. Andrew’s Parish and The Border Boys as it does the cityscape of Dublin on Death and the Early House and Lincoln. Stick this on in the car on a long drive and it will not disappoint.
10. Oliver Cole – Father, Brother, Son (Third Bar)
Oliver Cole is no stranger to releasing music, this being his third solo album after releasing three records with the iconic indie band Turn. Perhaps that is why this album feels like listening to experience. Reflecting on a decade of twists and turns in life Cole has put together a collection of songs that sound like a comforting hand on your shoulder. Creating a warm aural soundscape around every track, the production of Father, Brother, Son gives extra life to every lyric. The songs are strong, the production excellent and the final product an album you will return to again and again.
9. Ailbhe Reddy – Personal History (Street Mission)
The trademark of Ailbhe Reddy’s music so far has been her honesty. Every lyric and every strum of the guitar feels like Reddy is offering you her trust. With her sound evolving from fingerpicking folk to indie-rock bangers, her hallmark hasn’t suffered. Personal History is exactly what it says on the tin subject-wise, but her wit and good-humour shines through in the record’s production as well. Quiet intimacies are mixed with jangly guitar indie-pop bops – the bear hug we needed in these times. The album has received incredible praise throughout the year and amongst all the other positive aspects of the album, Reddy’s vocals have been overlooked. Her tone is full of magic vulnerability, bringing every lyric alive.
8. David Keenan – A Beginner’s Guide to Bravery (Rubyworks)
One of David Keenan’s favourite words is ‘flow’. Often you hear him speak about ‘flow’ and it is probably the word we can best use to describe the man himself. Ability flows from every pore in his body. The most natural of songwriters – you can hear it in the way he strums his guitar, the way melody jumps from his vocal chords. His lyrics are transportive. These are things we all knew about David Keenan and this album is an amalgamation of all his best qualities. Production-wise, Alter Wine and The Healing are a slight movement away from the sound we’re used to from Keenan but it is exciting to see him exploring; and masterfully at that. A Beginner’s Guide to Bravery is an aptly named title which will serve as a strong and worthy memory of Keenan’s bassist Gar Kane who died six months after its release.
7. Fontaines DC – A Hero’s Death (Partisan)
Were people starting to get a bit sick of Fontaines DC prior to the release of A Hero’s Death? Questions of exaggerated identity were asked of the band as they became internationally recognised. Their sophomore album was viewed by many as their chance to perhaps show a more vulnerable side of their character and Fontaines accepted that challenge with gusto. Production wise, the guitars sounded the same, the drums equally as impressive as on Dogrel, however it was the songwriting that proved this album such a critical success. Songs like Oh Such a Spring exposed the Fontaine’s character while the Whipping Boy-esque guitars on tracks like I Don’t Belong made this album a much more reflective release.
6. Alex Gough – Forever Classic (Self-release)
Alex Gough has had a fairly steep rise to international acclaim in such a short amount of time. Since putting out Breakfast in early 2019, Gough has gone from strength to strength with his performances at Other Voices in 2019 confirming him as a bit of a spectacle on the gigging scene. Without any scenes to gig this year, Gough’s debut mixtape was his moment of glory in 2020. The genre fusing, explosion of sounds acts as both a social commentary on young people and a piss take on clueless boomers. Despite Kojaque, Anderson Paak and Rejjie Snow influence present throughout (amongst others), Alex Gough makes a clear statement of individual class on Forever Classic. Featuring jazzy soul production elements alongside glorious Waterford accent-tinged bars and vocal effects, 90s vibes on Backseat and the more indie-jazz infused Plastic (DBS), the record is a truly unique listen.
5. Crome Yellow – No Friends or Mirrors (Self-release)
Crome Yellow’s No Friends or Mirrors is an album that received positive reviews pretty much everywhere upon its release but has been seriously overlooked in terms of its quality. Spread out across the world between Toronto, Australia and Waterford, the band haven’t had the opportunity to promote the album as much as they would have liked. The big C-19 didn’t help either. Their psychedelic 60s indie-rock has an addictive quality. Tracks like 2.0 and Don’t Really Want to Know Ya groove like a hippy in his boxers while Oh How It Feels to Be Down and Pocket Protector dive straight into a flowery bucket hat that’s time travelled to the 60s from Liam Gallagher’s wardrobe. An addictive listen that you just can’t sit still to.
4. Pillow Queens – In Waiting (Self-release)
Another album that was much anticipated this year, In Waiting did not disappoint fans or critics. Powerfully emotional, I challenge you to listen to this album without getting goosebumps or tears threatening to let loose. Each track is a carefully considered, perfectly structured piece of brilliance. Choral effects at the end of Holy Show will give you a lump in your throat before you even reach the second track. There is strength in every lyric with Handsome Wife and Gay Girls acting as anthems of queer power while HowDoILook is an ode to sexual vulnerability. Every second of the album from start to finish is an offering that confirm Pillow Queens as one of the best bands in the world right now.
3. Denise Chaila – GO Bravely (Narolane)
In 50 years’ time, our grandchildren will be studying Denise Chaila’s lyrics for their Leaving Cert. Her flow and turn of phrase is masterful. On Anseo, she refers to herself as “not a Queen, I’m a pharaoh” and name drops Centra, while Holy Grail features another fabulously braggadocious line; “Say you’ll pass over me? // See you from the stage at Glastonbury”. These tracks are expertly crafted with her wit and humour carefully splattered across every verse. Perhaps the most significant aspect of Denise Chaila’s songs are that they are so historically relevant. GO Bravely gives us a vital insight into the life and experience of a black woman in Ireland. In the year that Ireland’s racism issue was brought to the fore, Chaila’s record acts as a timestamp. Her elegance and eloquence won the heart of the nation in 2020 but her ability to articulate truth is what makes the nation beat.
2. Niamh Regan – Hemet (Black Gate)
Regan’s debut felt like an album I needed to hear this year. A dignified love story reflecting on past and present relationships, Hemet is an album to fall utterly in love with. Regan’s voice is reminiscent of a younger Joni Mitchell at times with a Nick Drake timbre thrown in. The delicacy of her voice painting every lyric with overwhelming emotion and quiet power. How About That Coffee? about a chance meeting with a past lover, has a softness about it that makes you want to contently sit alone with a mid-morning coffee. Another standout track is Ode to Youth, charging along to a beat in a similar manner to David Gray on his White Ladder album. The production of the album is a departure from Regan’s previous traditional folk arrangements, featuring synths, brass and strings. The assertion that a good song should sound just as good on just an acoustic guitar or a piano rings through on Hemet. While the production is like a fleece around the songs, you know as a listener they would sound just as magic stripped bare. Such is the power of Niamh Regan’s voice.
1. Nealo – All the Leaves Are Falling (DFL)
A law graduate, former frontman of a metal band, and one of Ireland’s most celebrated rappers – an entirely unconventional story. Nealo is the most authentic man in Ireland and that is reflected through his music. His switch from metal to rap makes more sense than you would think. The flow is quite similar however All the Leaves Are Falling is perhaps a much more reflective lyrical work than you would hear from a metal band. Having gathered a tribe around him, Adam Garrett, Uly, Molly Sterling, INNRSPACE and Jehnova make it a collaborative effort. All the Leaves Are Falling almost feels like a celebration of Nealo’s success while still managing to deal with all the issues that gave him his lyrics. His perspective of life is aided by his experience of it – his time in Vancouver, the birth of his son, his struggles with money. These are all thrown unapologetically into the record. A humble expression of frustration and hope. You can feel the pride put into this record.