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The Top 20 Irish Singles of 2021

Words: Dylan Murphy, Dean Van Nguyen, Kelly Doherty, Andrew Moore, Tanis Smither

From Irish crew cut classics and melancholic bedroom pop to punk-infused protest songs, we’ve tallied up the votes to deliver the 20 best Irish singles of the year.

Music creation has become more democratised than ever. In some cases, songs made in bedrooms land in the same playlists as major label artists and one 15 second horizontal video can push newcomers into uncharted territory. It’s never been easier to share tracks with potential audiences and while it’s certainly a positive for artists, it means it’s impossible for any one person to keep up with everything. That’s why we teamed up with the writers that spent the year with their ears to the ground to whittle down the best of the bunch. Below you’ll find music that spans a number of sounds and reflects the growing developments within scenes but more importantly, it showcases artist’s resilience in a year that did its best to knock them off their feet.

20

Alicia Raye – Nobody 2.0. Feat. Smilez, Larry Alabi, Reggie, A9Dbo Fundz

The first iteration of ‘Nobody‘ was a slick piece of drill-inspired R&B, but the remix fleshes it out into an Irish crew rap classic. Joining original stars Alicia Raye and Reggie are Smilez, Larry Alabi and A9Dbo Fundz (the latter of the A9 crew). There are no attempts to make the subject matter of their raps blend because that’s rarely the point of crew rap – your goal is to smash out your verse and leave in a timely fashion. Here, the cast deliver short, punchy, melodic bars, perfectly formed for the murky synths and a swamping bass. Then there’s Raye, who declares herself to be on the lookout for a deserving lover, even if maintaining silence about their rendezvous is a non-negotiable. Her region-neutral delivery pitches up somewhere between rapping and singing as she displays a level of vocal dexterity that rejects her relative inexperience. We’ve potentially got a star on our hands.

– Dean Van Nguyen

19

Monjola – Pain Don’t Die

Even with just a few releases under his belt, sun-kissed singles like ‘Smile’ and ‘Feels Right meant Monjola was quickly becoming synonymous with feel good pop-RnB. However, keen as ever to dodge expectations, the Chamomile Records newcomer flipped the script with his most poignant offering yet in ‘Pain Don’t Die’. Inviting listeners into the darkest recesses of his inner psyche, Monjola’s vivid and confessional songwriting coalesces with the simmering production in a way that makes his struggles feel like a spectral presence is in the room with you.

– Dylan Murphy

18

Hazey Haze – Empty Streets

It begins with the sound of a man staggering home from a drunken night – literally. ‘Empty Streets‘ uses a melody recorded by a blotto Hazey Haze after an evening on the town. (You can presumably hear it unedited in the song’s opening seconds). The vocal was taken by producer AKIA and transformed it into a gorgeous noir ballad featuring downbeat piano chords, a flat bassline, and a strings sample that conjure alcohol-induced stupors at 3am on rain-streaked Limerick streets – because being buzzed on booze can make everything feel beautiful. Hazey sounds like he’s staring into the abyss, while guest Dreddy ill-Regular infuses the track with some extra energy over its second half, like a friend seeing his drunken buddy home safe.  

– Dean Van Nguyen

17

Orla Gartland – You’re Not Special Babe

Flipping a negative into a positive to excellent effect, ‘You’re Not Special Babe’ is a battlecry for surviving the chaos of early adulthood. Serving as a reminder that we’re never truly alone, even in the most lonely emotions, ‘You’re Not Special Babe’ rattles through the cyclical nature of joy in a way that feels universal but personal. As she goes “from heartbreak to happy to heartbreak” against a backdrop of peppy, swelling indie rock, Gartland is at her songwriting best, writing the biggest choruses of her career and sounding truly confident in her own voice. 

– Kelly Doherty

16

For Those I Love – The Birthday / The Pain

For sure, For Those I Love’s self-titled debut album is littered with dark moments. Cries into the abyss, grief-induced paralysis and disillusionment frequent the record, but it’s not without flickers of hope. ‘The Birthday / The Pain‘ traverses through some of his most painful memories, with the Dublin artist riding the back of emotive and optimistic vocal sample like a dinghy during a Met Eireann weather warning before finding solace in unwavering love of his mates. On the one hand, there’s a recognition that the pain never leaves, but it’s the love that gets you through it and also makes life worth living.

“But I’ll hold on a little tighter / To the love of my mates / Forever and a day”.

– Dylan Murphy

15

Biig Piig – Lavender

A whispery vocal from Biig Piig (aka Jess Smyth) weaves its way through a dark, sensual narrative on this track from her sublime The Sky Is Bleeding EP. Brooding guitars and punchy, lo-fi production show Smyth exploring a different side of femininity, and the song marks the beginning of her foray into new styles and sounds. Balking at the notion of shame around female sexuality, she instead embraces hers in a wholly unabashed fashion. Of the video, which saw her orchestrating a sex party, she said it felt good to be a part of it, and that the song felt like “personal growth.”

– Tanis Smither

14

Ahmed, With Love. ft KhakiKid – Full Plate

Ahmed, With Love is your favourite rapper’s favourite rapper. The rising Dublin artist has had quite the year; a flurry of creative YouTube uploads and collaborations with S.E.M.I, and up-and-coming producers such as Rory Sweeney, had the Irish music scene take note, but it’s the KhakiKid collaboration – ‘Full Plate’ – that makes it into our top singles of the year.

A carefree attitude combined with vibey, laid-back beats band charismatic, intelligent wordplay about awkward, post-breakup nag stay true to the artist’s uncompromising, tongue-in-cheek attitude whilst shining a light on one of Ireland’s most exciting emergers and an artist who sure to have a very large 2022. Expect to hear a lot more from him soon.

– Andrew Moore

13

Nuxsense – Taste

Nuxsense have long been one of Ireland’s most promising hip-hop outfits and 2021 saw them return for not one but two releases. ‘Taste‘, a cut from May’s A sacred journey through the golden path is an intriguing encapsulation of everything the group does best. Against a backdrop of jazzy mellow boom-bap beats, Nuxsense showcase their lyrical finesse, with each member’s distinct tone building melodic dynamism throughout. ‘Taste‘ is rapidfire yet hazy, smooth yet isolated – like a late-night stroll through an episode of Cowboy Bebop set in Dublin city.

– Kelly Doherty

12

NewDad – Slowly

Galway’s newest export NewDad have had a major year, releasing their debut EP Waves and embarking upon their first tour across Ireland and the UK. Waves won the group a sudden and large following and with good reason. A swirling mix of modern bedroom pop and 90s drenched grunge, the EP showcased mature, controlled songwriting built for both quiet introspective moments and future stadium singalongs. ‘Slowly‘, one of the EP’s lead singles, showcased this skill with rumbling drums, nonchalant yet melodic vocals and a relentlessly memorable chorus. With another EP on the way, NewDad won’t be slowing down anytime soon. 

– Kelly Doherty

11

KNEECAP – Thart Agus Thart

Belfast’s KNEECAP have made a name for themselves as the unapologetic Irish-spitting collective representing the city’s working class. There has always been a satirical feeling to their work, but on ‘Thart Agus Thart’ it really feels like they have taken things to the next level. 

The trademark KNEECAP humour is still there – references to sweaty balls and taking drugs to laugh at the news – but there is a certain quality to the single that keeps us coming back. This is the sound of Belfast’s working class youth culture; loopish, groundhog day-esque re-runs of going to the shop for a packet of RAWs and hangover rituals of a few Capri Sun’s and a Mars Bar highlighting everyday moments that many in the city can relate to.

– Andrew Moore

10

John Francis Flynn – My Son Tim

With sparse production and sharp, no-frills vocals, John Francis Flynn takes this sea shanty/war protest track from the Frank Harte songbook to soaring new heights. Originally dating from the Napoleonic wars, when Irishmen became casualties of a war between the French and the British, the lyrics chart a mother’s revenge for her son’s injuries. As Flynn’s protagonist reaches her conclusion, the acoustic guitar is swallowed by heavy drones. The Dubliner does away with the mournful lilting of Harte’s version, growling “and I will make them rue the time that they took away the legs of a child of mine” with considerable anger. It’s an unpretentious, sincere addition to the traditional catalogue. 

– Tanis Smither

9

Elzzz x Travis – Vision

We’re still so surprised every time we watch this video and see it’s sitting at under 10K views. Gliders affiliate Elzzz has the type of distinctive voice and personality that, when combined with a forward-thinking drill beat, usually means viral fame. This makes ‘Vision’ one of Ireland’s best kept secrets.

Having now collaborated on ‘Vision’, ‘ICL’ and the Christmas-themed ‘Wishlist’, Dublin based Elzzz and Travis seem to be hinting towards a consistent stream of collaborations, and with their refreshing, creative and unmistakable take on drill we can’t wait to see what comes next. Two of the island’s most criminally underrated.

– Andrew Moore

8

CMAT – I Don’t Really Care For You

Blending pop-country with quick-witted, self-deprecating lyrics and Irish-specific references (“oh, the Marian Keyes of it all”), the pop artist—who self-proclaimed her stardom long ago—is steadily and rather rapidly rising to the occasion. With ‘I Don’t Really Care For You’, CMAT candidly admits that she was “the bigger dickhead” in a relationship—served up alongside a healthy dose of wry humour. (On the Charley Pride-meets-ABBA-inspired cut, she tries to “pinpoint where the bitch began”, concluding that it was “somewhere after the Passion of Christ, and before I had an Instagram”). She’s a refreshing and uproariously funny presence in Irish music, and this track is a must-listen. 

– Tanis Smither

7

Smoothboi Ezra – Stuck

Having built a steady online following over the last couple of years, Smoothboi Ezra came into their own this year with the release of the Stuck EP, a collection of openly personal, revelatory songs following closely in the steps of recent breakout stars Phoebe Bridgers and Snail Mail. Whilst the current global domination of sad songs can lead to new artists feeling like copycats, Smoothboi Ezra’s success comes from their unique perspective and distinctly warm vocals. Their EP’s title track is filled with resigned wisdom as Smoothboi Ezra begins to accept the inevitable end of a relationship with someone who’s struggling. It’s a highly specific scenario but the insight displayed in the lyricism buoys the track forward, capturing the loneliness of quiet acceptance with a clear heart and poetic approach.

– Kelly Doherty

6

KhakiKid & Bricknasty – Breakfast On Pluto

A Neptunes-esque beat with smooth cereal rhymes and self-depreciating humour? Being anxious has never been so danceable. Masking his insecurities behind a slew of one-liners, tangental tributes to MF DOOM and first date anecdotes, ‘Breakfast On Pluto’ is Khakikid i his element. Being able to flip some of life’s more difficult moments into something you can spin at a gaff party is a wholesome resolution and coupled a cooing hook from Bricknasty it’s been a necessary get-me-out-of-bed banger this year.

Dylan Murphy

5

Denise Chaila – 061

061‘ is about hometown pride – a ‘California Love‘ or ‘Welcome To Atlanta‘ for Limerick natives who want to boast about their roots, loud and proud. Over a merry little riff and booming drum beat (though the beat slowly shape shifts throughout, refusing to stay still) Denise Chaila delivers the kind of unforgettable hook that world-conquering rappers need, shouting out her area code and everyone that resides within who can teach the the country the tantalizingly vague skill of “how to get things done”. The rest of the song, though, is a dizzy explosion of bravado: “Your children’s children’s children will learn about me,” insists Chaila. She wants to go global, but will never forget the region that has helped empower her.

– Dean Van Nguyen

4

Kean Kavanagh – Summer Nights

A Kean Kavanagh song titled ‘Summer Nights‘ could not be more on the button. His 2020 album Dog Person is a minor masterwork about cigarettes, drink, burning away hours with friends, and more of life’s great pleasures that feel even better under late evening summer sun. Another pop-soul number with a certain rough and ready aesthetic, ‘Summer Nights’ could easily have slid onto that LP. Over a grubby bassline and warm horns, Kavanagh describes getting too stoned and too drunk. Such states can render a person emotional: “Glass on the road/Broke all me bones/Heaven come hold me.” It’s about that moment when it’s just starting to dawn on you and there’s nothing you can do to stop the spiral into melancholy. What a beautiful state. This is another Kavanagh mantra that captures why wasted time is the most valuable time.

– Dean Van Nguyen

3

Kojaque – Town’s Dead

The ultimate protest song for the tired and frustrated youth of Dublin city, Kojaque’s ‘Town’s Dead’ innovatively blends two genres with histories steeped in counter-culture: punk and hip-hop. Sampling Girl Band’s ‘Going Norway’, the third cut from Kojaque’s debut album of the same name landed in the middle of the pandemic, when the government was making it abundantly clear that Ireland’s artists were an afterthought while considering lifting the country-wide lockdown. Unsurprisingly, ‘Town’s Dead’ remains a biting commentary many months after its release. In turns sarcastic and raging, the Dublin MC critiques the housing crisis and the cultural wasteland he fears Dublin will become. The track is built around the idea that his friends and other creatives are being unceremoniously ousted from the city (and the country) by an unsympathetic, classist government.

– Tanis Smither

2

SELLÓ – Dublin

The unofficial Irish national anthem – ‘Dublin’ took the world by storm when it dropped back in March. It was the start of a run that saw SELLÓ make a name for himself through his unapologetically Irish approach.

The video matches this energy perfectly; hurling sticks and Irish flags provide a platform for community identity ownership alongside references to Damien Duff and lasting five minutes in Bawnogue. It’s the kind of native representation that, despite an influx in Irish-drill artists, has only existed in flashes and a track that, years from now, many will look back to as a defining moment within this sub-culture of Irish sound.

– Andrew Moore

1

Aby Coulibaly – Long Nights

Long Nights’ is all about that moment of clarity. Gliding over breezy production from label mate Moyo, Aby Coulibaly‘s third single is main character music for people who are fed up with the drama. Brushing off accusations, projection and tiresome trolling, the Chamomile Records singer captures the straw that broke the camel’s back moment and the cut is a deserving precursor to any post-relationship glow ups. Simple and to the point, the quietly authoritative chorus and laidback delivery on the verses makes for a featherweight firework.

– Dylan Murphy

For all the inclusions in one place, follow our playlist on Spotify:

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