2019 was some year for Irish music so Thursday night's RTÉ Choice Music Prize should be one of the most interesting in the award’s 16-year history.
Of course, there’s already been the usual wailing and gnashing of tweets about who was NOT nominated - for the record, where were The Murder Capital, Tandem Felix, A Lazarus Soul, The Divine Comedy, and most glaringly, to me anyway, MANGO X MATHMAN’s debut album Casual Work?
In any case, this year’s shortlist is one of the best in years and bristles with all kinds of genres and a total of five debut albums. Regardless of whom takes home the €10,000 prize and, of course, the glory, Irish music right now is the best it’s been in many years.
Here are the runners and riders and who I think might be the favourites to take the prize.
Daithí - L.O.S.S.
This is the wonderfully immersive second album from Daithí Ó Dronai, who is, of course, the fiddle-playing dance musician from the trad and folk Mecca of Ballyvaughan but I don’t see it occupying the judges too much tomorrow night.
Following the more, shall we say, commercial dance floor oriented approach of his debut album, this is a far more ambient collection on which he collaborates with various vocalists like the ubiquitous Paul Noonan of Bell X1, Tandem Felix, and Ailbhe Reddy. It’s a meditation on love and loss that unfolds slowly but when it envelopes you in beautiful washes of sound, it really is rather lovely and thought-provoking. A fine album but probably not a contender for the prize.
Junior Brother - Pull the Right Rope
Impish Kerryman Ronan Kealy really delivered on his early promise with this intriguing debut album. It’s a collection that will chime with anyone who’s been dragged up in Ireland between the triangulation/strangulation points of church, school and da drink.
Even that album title seems like a dark combination of gallows humour and some kind of morbidly funny private joke. This is Irish trad music but unlike any Irish trad music you’ve heard before. Kealy has a stout, expressive voice and the sound is jumpy, reeling and jigging as he either sings or shouts these strange and ribald tales of rural Ireland.
Put it this way, if young master Kealy pulled out an acoustic guitar at a bedsit party, you wouldn’t call an Uber. He could be a strong leftfield contender with the judges on Thursday night.
Mick Flannery - Mick Flannery
A stone mason from Blarney turned singer songwriter sounds like something from central casting in a bad Oirish movie but Mick Flannery is the real deal and he just keeps getting better and better both as a singer and a songwriter.
And this, his sixth album, is his best yet.
It’s a kind of weary and wary concept album on which Flannery casts a cold eye on the music industry itself with songs about a successful musician grappling with the temptations and madness of fame but mostly the Corkman dwells in his usual haunts of disappointment and self-reproof if not self-laceration.
These songs are knotty and dark, too smart or damn ornery to get sucked into an easy chorus and become feel good hits of the summer. Flannery always takes the bleak and oblique view and his big, brooding voice will always belong in the Waitsian redoubts of late night bars and last chance salons.
Flannery has only been nominated for the Choice once before and it would be good to see him take the prize but this album may be considered perhaps too conventional and conservative for the judges. Still, none of that takes away from the power of his voice and his way with a bitter and twisted lyric.
Lankum - The Live Long Day
Dublin act Lankum have always been outliers. However, their third album gave them both an international breakthrough and uncovered a stark musical beauty that was almost terrible to behold. Never ones to cleave rigidly to folk orthodoxy, The Lifelong Day voyaged darkly with a strange, immersive quality that almost has the same properties of electronic and trance music
It’s three minutes short of an hour long and it’s seeped in history, songs of pain, joy, suffering, and liberation. Lankum don’t quite torch the Irish folk songbook - that would be far too disrespectful - but they certainly drag it out again for a close-up examination under a harsh new light. Given their breakthrough this year and that they’ve dared to be different with a music that is long ingrained in Irish history, this is very likely to walk off with the Choice Prize. in fact, they should win for The Young People alone.
Fontaines D.C. - Dogrel
The outright favourites and a winner that will annoy the begrudgers, purists and those who reckon they’re punker or indier than thou. That’s a reason alone for them to win. The five piece, who hail from all corners of Ireland, only released this debut album last April but they’ve had the kind of meteoric rise that just doesn’t happen anymore.
It was all about the gobby punk and the melodic urgency of the songs. It almost made you feel sorry for the new generation of careerist major label Irish bands.
This is a delightful little petrol bomb of an album and I’ll be surprised if this doesn’t win but the Choice does occasional throw up an upset (Super Extra Bonus Party, anyone?). If the row - sorry, noble considerations - between the jury rambles on too long on Thursday evening, this could be the album to unite opinion.
Sorcha Richardson - First Prize Bravery
Another album that deserved a bigger audience and another very, very impressive debut on a shortlist that features five debuts in total. Richardson has been bubbling away below the radar for several years and she really realised her vision on a cinematic set of songs that display real song writing craft.
First Prize Bravery brims over with excellent tracks like Don’t Talk About it and the truly heartbreaking Oh Oscillator. There’s also a wistful and playful quality to the album. Twisting The Knife is a more folky peregrination, which rolls along on this fantastic piano and synth riff with voices recorded in the street in the background. Maybe Aoife Nessa Frances’ recent album Lands of No Junction was better but Richardson would be a very welcome winner.
Girl Band - The Talkies
Avant garde industrial post rockers Girl Band stumbled back into view with their frankly deranged and blear-eyed second album in 2019.
Fiercely experimental, maybe even wilfully obscurantist, the Dublin four piece delivered another gleeful act of sonic vandalism, which channelled Rollerskate Skinny, industrial rock, and, in its more "conventional" moments, My Bloody Valentine. The Talkies can only be described as a hardening of contrary attitudes and a determination to build things up and tear them down again in the pursuit of their very own take on musique concrete.
It’s not an easy album to love and if this wins the Choice - and there is a good chance it might - it will confound a lot of people who might dismiss Girl Band as pure noise merchants or, far worse, muso hipster elitists. Nonsense. These lads are in a long tradition of Irish artists who believe that the urge for destruction is also a creative one.
Soak - Grim Town
This is the second album from Derry woman Bridie Monds-Watson and her second Choice nomination. She won for her debut, Before We Forgot How to Dream, in 2015. New songs like Knock Me off My Feet and Maybe are certainly far more sprightly and poppy then anything on her debut. Call it second album blues but I’m afraid I found this rather bland and unengaging when it came out last year and I still do now. Probably not a contender.
Jafaris - Stride
This is young Dublin MC Percy Chamburuka and boy is he good. I came to this late and it really is a wonderment of riches. It’s another sign of the rude health of Ireland’s burgeoning hip hop scene and the rapid and mostly positive changes Ireland has gone through socially, politically and culturally in the last decade. This is an album about love, loyalty and family and these short, hooky songs are a balm for the soul. A feel good album that is both foot and mind expanding.
It’s only 30 minutes long and has 13 songs but Jafaris stuffs so much in here. This didn’t quite break through to public consciousness like several of the other albums on the shortlist but the hip hop caucus on the judging panel will be fighting hard for this one to win. Also worth remembering that the Choice Prize has also nominated numerous hip-hop albums over the years, including Rejjie Snow and Kojaque and Limerick act Rusangano Family had a deserved win in 2016.
Maija Sofia - Bath Time
The Galway native will probably not be an capall dorcha this year but her album of spooky folk hit a raw nerve with many. It’s a real curio that underlines the variety of this year’s shortlist. These are sepia-toned songs of cello, synth and lap steel harp and barely there guitar, which kinda put me in mine of PJ Harvey’s 2007 album White Chalk.
Alan Corr @CorrAlan2
You can hear live coverage of the RTÉ Choice Music Prize on RTÉ 2fm on Thursday night from 7.00pm to midnight. A hour-long show on this year's event will be aired on RTÉ2 next week