With venues sadly shut up for most of the year, Irish musicians turned to the studio for their main avenue of expression and in what is a golden age for Irish music, 2021 was another bumper year for excellent albums from old hands and exciting new voices
For Those I Love - For Those I Love
Part requiem, part love letter to heady Dublin dancehall days, and part howl of defiance, the self-titled debut album from Dubliner David Balfe quickly became the most talked about Irish album in years. Soul-baring and articulate, For Those I Love is an unflinching testimonial to Balfe’s best friend and musical partner, spoken word artist and musician Paul Curran, who sadly died by suicide in 2018. A lot of great art has been inspired by grief and anger, but Balfe’s debut is much more than that - this is an album that also engages full-on with socio-political issues and if that sounds dry, musically, For Those I Love is a kaleidoscopic tapestry of moods with loops of fury followed by heart-breaking spoken-word confessionals. This blast of swagger and vulnerability has all the rush of a rave and all the fear of the comedown.
Arrivals - Declan O’Rourke
Ever the craftsman and the history boy, Galway singer O’Rourke journeyed ever deeper into his own past on an eighth album that was both a moving exploration of his family history and a warm embrace of the universal. These gorgeously minimalistic songs, which were recorded with old friend Paul Weller in just six days in Surrey, are in search of a deeper meaning and a musical purity. O’Rourke - who also found time to publish his debut novel this year - has a quiet wisdom and a virtuoso’s way with a guitar. It marks another point of arrival and departure on his endless pursuit of beauty.
Fever Dreams - Villagers
13 years and five albums in as Villagers, has Conor O'Brien made his masterpiece? Well, as the opening track had it, he was certainly aiming for something bigger. Fever Dreams unfurled into full technicolour life by stealth, and everything sounds like it’s been sprinkled with magic space dust, from the of jazzy seduction of Song in Seven to the twinkly delirium of Simpatico. Intricate and rich, this is O’Brien at his starry-eyed, cosmic best.
Woman on the Internet - Orla Gartland
The debut album from the self-confessed "music makin’ ginger nutcase" from Dublin, was a long time coming. 26-year-old Gartland, who claims influences such as Joni Mitchell and Regina Spektor, has been releasing EPs and singles for nearly a decade but Woman on the Internet was her first long-form venture. With songs filled with stories of growing up and grappling with the onset of adulthood and identity, her weird, wired, and wonderful songs skip across a myriad of styles, from punk rock to pained confessionals and modulated electronica. This is a very strong debut bristling with songs wracked by insecurities and hang-ups, but this is no pity party - Gartland has the self-awareness and smarts to be funny and witty too.
Song Of Co-Aklan - Cathal Coughlan
The sixth solo album by Cork maverick and former Microdisney and Fatima Mansions front man Cathal Coughlan had a title that served as a skittish mispronunciation of his name, an alter ego, if you will, for an artist who has long harboured Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde tendencies. It was recorded with his long-time Grand Necropolitan group, expanded by guests including old bandmate Sean O' Hagan, Luke Haines (Auteurs/Black Box Recorder), Rhodri Marsden (Scritti Politti), and Dublin singer-songwriter Eileen Gogan. The king of rock `n’ droll returned for another hell-bound waltz on a record full of mordant wit, urgent vocals and at times deranged theatricality. Drawing inspiration as ever from Scott Walker and Bertolt Brecht, Song Of Co-Aklan is an almost entirely unlovely affair and a lot of these songs seem to set in some Mitteleuropean Kafkaesque kakistocracy. Or maybe a Weimar burlesque staged in a motorway layby just outside London
Love in These Times - Brendan Tallon
Former Revelino front man Brendan Tallon stepped out of the shadows this year with a sparkling solo album frothing over with pop rock classicism. Love in These Times sees him crack open another cask of his beatific pop tunes, strange sounding musical interludes, and acoustic balladry that recall a wide range of influences, from Jimmy Webb (Time And A Place) to Elliot Smith (Last Of The Russian Dolls) and on The First Time I Saw You, the wounded vulnerability of Help! era Lennon. The title track takes a vampy doo wop Roxy Music/T-Rex detour, and American Strings goes vaguely psychedelic, like Love’s sixties touchstone Forever Changes crashing a Beach Boys recording session. These 11 tracks are the sound of a veteran but innocent pop poet making the very reasonable suggestion that love is all and all is love.
It Won’t Always Be Like This - Inhaler
You may have heard that Eli Hewson, lead singer, Jeff Buckley lookalike, and guitarist of Inhaler, has a rather famous rock star father. It’s a bloodline that’s seen the frighteningly young Dublin act feted and damned in equal measure. Naysayers bitched that well-oiled cogs were grinding in the background during their rapid rise, while yaysayers just dig Inhaler’s suss and nous for bright, melodic songs bristling with old-fashioned hooks, choruses, and quicksilver guitar riffs. So, damned if they do and damned if they don’t, Inhaler took the revolutionary step of letting the actual songs do the actual work. Hewson, who possesses one of the best new rock voices in an age (and yes, he does sound a lot like his old man), and his bandmates, bassist Robert Keating, guitarist Josh Jenkinson, and drummer Ryan McMahon sound like they’re playing out of their skins on their debut. Worth a lungful.
Town's Dead - Kojaque
Along with fellow Dubliner To Those I Love, twenty-something hip-hop star Kojaque emerged as one of the great chroniclers of modern life for a younger generation in our capital city. Town's Dead is a furious, funny, and scabrous portrait of a town being slowly destroyed by corporate greed and the fatal short termism of city "planners". Set on New Year’s Eve, it’s a concept album of sorts - a journey into a Nighttown teeming with sex, violence, depression, and claustrophobia. This is blistering stuff but as Kojaque declares as he emerges from the carnage, "town’s NOT dead it’s just Dormant."
John Francis Flynn - I Would Not Live Always
With Lankum having updated Irish trad and folk with their bold interpretations of ageless standards and their own haunting songs, their Rough Trade label mate John Francis Flynn arrived this year as another vital voice in Ireland’s booming Irish new folk scene. With a voice like a harmonium, his spooked and magical debut married four-track tape loops with filigrees of guitar and an expansive use of desolate atmospherics, with Flynn recalling everyone from John Martyn to Portishead to Gillian Welch. At year’s end, he deservedly picked up gongs for Best Folk Singer and Best Emerging Artist at the RTÉ Radio 1 Folk Awards and when we asked him to describe his music, he told us, "If Blade Runner was set in Ireland and Deckard kept turning up at the session in The Cobblestone". That’s probably the best invite we had all year.
Bicep - Isles
Anyone hankering for the days when Leftfield, Orbital, Chemical Brothers and Underworld were the big beasts of electronic music could do far worse than check out the second album from Belfast duo Bicep. Hell, anyone missing the dance floor should check out Isles immediately. Andrew Ferguson and Matthew McBriar earned their stripes as sonic boffins on their critically acclaimed 2017 debut and it seems they were already delivering mini masterpieces by album number two. Isles (perhaps a reference to this here Hiberno-Anglo archipelago) was a masterclass in euphoric dance music and ambient introspection with a real air of mystery. Window-rattling and floor-warping greatness. Play LOUD.
Alan Corr @CorrAlan2