With every year that has passed since the release of Rice's 2002 solo debut 'O', the sense of expectation has grown and so too has the doubt in some people's minds that he would spend the rest of his career trying to live down that album. 

But if the pressure was on, it never sounds like it here. And talk about heavier and noisier songs has, with two exceptions, proved to be just that: '9' picks up so seamlessly where 'O' left off that it could be the second half of a double album.

It's only on 'Rootless Tree' and 'Me, My Yoke and I' that the instruments take a pounding; elsewhere Rice and his bandmates do all the things that made people fall for them in the first place - the beautiful trade-off vocals and the gentle guitars put to lyrics that cut to the bone.

The sequencing of the songs sounds perfect, but then, every track is strong enough that you could probably re-arrange them any way you wanted and '9 Songs' would still sound as good.

As the year ends, two of the best singer-songwriter albums have come from Irish artists: Rice and Fionn Regan. Regan's debut explores more moods and that's something Rice should think about in the future.

During the best moments here he shrinks the space between artist and listener so that the songs become a kind of conversation between people who know each other very well. 

And like all the oldest friends, you hope he won't leave it so long to get in touch the next time.

Harry Guerin