Words: Dylan Murphy
Image: CMAT by Sarah Doyle.
March is dedicated to Triumph Over Adversity on District. We’re celebrating the people continuing to exceed expectations despite enduring the most difficult year of our lives. We’ve created a time capsule of the art that captured our imagination in the most mundane 12 months.
It’s going to be strange whenever the pandemic subsides (because it will, keep the faith) and we are left with loads of unintentional artefacts reflecting the bizarre times we find ourselves in. It’s become the norm to see news posts about music “crafted entirely in lockdown”, videos with socially-distanced disclaimers or archived emails with the dreaded “I hope this finds you well” openers.
They’ll be the reluctant reminders of a year where time simultaneously stood still and months disappeared in the blink of an eye.
Though there’s a lot we’d rather forget, it’s worth remembering that the difficult circumstances have evoked truly incredible pieces of art. Restrictions often drive creativity and while we’d prefer to be chatting the ear off someone in the smoking area between sets or wiping sweat off our foreheads between the breaks in the beats, artists in Ireland have not only rose to the challenge, but exceeded expectations.
Couple lockdown brain fog with this distorted perception of time and it can sometimes feel like we are at risk of losing memories of the last year to the abyss – Thank god for the internet. As a refresher to the best music that graced our shores and a thematic way to map our last 12 months, we’ve examined the moments that got us through this year, month by month.
For the purposes of this piece, we’re not restricting the inclusions to singles on streaming services. The most compelling releases often stretched beyond New Music Friday playlists for one reason or another and we’re hesitant to obstruct worthy entries to the list.
Whether that be live performances, lyrics responding to turbulent times and just straight-up anthems that brought a little respite from the grizzly reality of the day to day, we’ve charted our favourites below as a time capsule and reminder of the resilience and talent we have on our doorsteps.
While Lankum’s Tiny Desk Concert was released in May, it was recorded on March 6 just as they were crowned winners of the RTÉ Choice Prize Album of the Year.
However, in the lead up to the performance, it felt like everything that could get in their way to stop the recording did. They had to cancel February dates due to Visa problems, their van broke down between shows and then the world was on the verge of hysteria with the news of a deadly virus beginning to spread.
Their performance was surely one of the last on the Youtube series and while the mishaps in the lead up to the recording felt like an ominous warning of what was to come, the meditative rendition was just what the doctor ordered in the midst of chaos.
Why-Axis’ bittersweet visuals for ‘Bloodstain’ arrived in April and provided a window into a recent past that quickly felt alien. As we came to terms with our new reality, the Good Buzz trailblazer and his crew tore through the capital’s nightclubs in a video that became an accidental tear-jerker.
If there were ever an advertisement for missing hedonistic nights out then this was it.
This was it. This was the musical moment of lockdown. Denise Chaila hadn’t much solo music to her name by May. She’d given a short glimpse of her skill and charisma on her Dual Citizenship EP in 2019 and had featured briefly on Rusangano Family tracks, but she was yet to really introduce herself to the world on her own terms.
Then on the same day she dropped ‘Chaila‘, Denise announced herself as next up with a spellbinding performance in the National Gallery of Ireland. The imagination from the Other Voices crew to enlist a building dripping in history to announce Ireland’s next star was a stroke of genius. Moreover, it was a truly immersive experience when eyes were growing weary of livestreams set the wheels in motion for a breakout year from Denise where she’d later win the Choice Prize.
Dundalk rapper Reggie’s ‘My Accent’ is arguably the most overlooked Irish release of the past year.
In response to the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests and the ongoing soul-searching in America, reggie put a mirror up to Ireland and reminded us we have reflecting of our own to do.
Weaving compelling bars about the numerous layers to the evolving Irish identity with an aspiration tone, it struck the sweet spot between calling out the bullshit and having serious replay value.
Gemma Dunleavy has been on the music circuit for a minute, but the release of her Up De Flats EP was worth the wait.
Hitting back at the unfair demonisation of her local community, Up De Flats is a vibrant response to the misguided characterisations of the bubbling community that she emerged from and a love letter to its unmatched spirit.
In a time where we were encouraged to stay apart the EP and title track especially were a timely remainder about the endurance of the human spirit and the importance of community in difficult times.
The video for Up De Flats landed later in November, doubling down on the message and subsequently throwing her hat in the ring for RTÉ Choice Prize song of the year.
In August Dublin four-piece Pillow Queens released the video for their show-stopping ‘Holy Show’ ahead of their Choice Prize-nominated album.
It reclaimed the hypersexualised depictions of queer women often shown in the media and captured joyful and intimate moments often excluded by male directors.
Moreover, it landed in August at the peak of the calm in last year’s storm. It soundtracked sun-kissed cans in the park and will remain intertwined with a break from the harsh reality of 2020.
Bonus points for their killer performance of ‘Liffey‘ on James Corden.
Sometimes live versions of songs just hit different. Kojaque entered album mode and returned to the fore with SHMELLY as part of a pretty serious co-sign from the curation kitchen of the internet era – COLORS.
In the absence of live shows, the inclusion of Ryan Hardagen on sax and the searing delivery scratched a lockdown itch for striking live music and simultaneously confirmed to the world what Ireland already knew – that the Soft Boy Records co-founder is the real deal.
Drogheda drill outfit A92 shook the music industry when they independently broke the UK top 40 with their ‘Plugged In Freestyle’ in October.
Passing the mic like a hot potato the crew’s barring session is currently sitting at just over 18 million views on Youtube.
It comes after their poster boy Offica featured on Charlie Sloth’s Fire in the Booth and collaborated with the likes of KSI.
For anyone who has buried their head in the depths of TikTok whilst under Covid house arrest you’ll no doubt be familiar with the track, but it’s no coincidence. A92 are the prime example of independent acts bypassing the industry and throwing a middle finger up to traditional routes to the top during the pandemic. If anything they are developing a blueprint for Irish artists on loading up the hype train.
Bonus points for the best comments section of the year under the video, where hundreds of viewers dropped hilarious comments on Dbo’s ridiculously deep cadence.
Dave Balfe’s For Those I Love project has struck a chord with people across the world.
Comprising of intimate memories and grief-stricken lyrics about the loss of his friend Paul Curran, it’s a powerful piece that touches on universal feelings of guilt, loss and hopelessness.
In November, he provided a spine-chilling performance of ‘I Have A Love’ on Jools Holland raising a Shelbourne FC flag in dedication to Paul at the end. It’s a performance that will remain etched in the minds of viewers as one of the moments that cut through the cloud of lockdown and evoked the feelings that the uncertainty of the world has suppressed.
Usually, at Christmas there is a hesitancy to head home and share a table with that annoying uncle, to tell aunts yes, you “are still doing the music thing” or explain to your granny why you still haven’t got a partner.
For obvious reasons, we all felt a little more restless this Christmas and Ireland’s newest pop star CMAT swooped in to capture that angst with a little help from Junior Brother. It landed as part of ‘CMAT’s Very Nice Christmas’, which saw her team up with other acts from across Ireland and was a welcome breather from the fact the world was on fire.
Speaking about the collaboration at the time, Junior Brother said, “CMAT came to me with the idea of doing a festive duet in November, and the portion of said duet she presented revealed potential. So I threw in a few lines about turkeys dying for one’s sins and being nervous all the time – standard Christmas fare – and our sensibilities linked to create a melancholy banger for a melancholy banger of a year.”
“A melancholy banger for a melancholy banger of a year” – sums it up perfectly.
It’s a true travesty that God Knows and the South West All-Stars never got to perform the most explosive track to come out of Ireland last year to a packed crowd. The face-melting instrumental and rapid-fire bars were made to incite mosh pits and were the result of God Knows – Ireland’s most important musical connector bringing the region together.
He doubled down on his approach when he invited Mango, Nealo, Skripteh and Rebel Phoenix to the East Coast remix later in 2020. While there was no packed venue, G and co. found a way to make things interesting in their clash of the titans performance on Tommy Tiernan.
The way the rappers from two corners of the country rotated round the stage felt like Ireland’s hip hop overlords were loading a revolver full of incendiary one liners from the country’s most potent spitters.
The final words from God Knows came part of a verse to end all verses as he put a nail in the coffin of our least favourite rap duo when he said, “I’m so versatile, but I’m not a racist”.
Some artists have an indescribable ‘It’ factor, the spark that makes you pay attention and leaves you hitting F8 on ‘new song’ searches on Google more than you’d like to admit. Chamomile Records’ Aby Coulibaly skipped into ones to watch lists and end of year playlists with her first two singles ‘Maybe‘ and ‘Taurus‘, but it was her video for ‘Long Nights’ that cemented our belief in her as one of Ireland’s most exciting prospects.
When the mornings were frosty and the days shorter, the quality of this record brought a much-needed sense of optimism. We’ve no fluffy analysis of what the song means or its wider effect on proceedings, but what we do know that it’s only a taste of what’s to come from an act ready to take on the world.
Soft Boy Records production wizard Gaptoof brought together Ireland’s beat-making community in lockdown. His weekly Beat Battles saw upstarts from across the country rework new samples into fully realised instrumental that were judged by Gappy himself and the wider scene on Instagram live.
It steamrolled into a vibrant and supportive community on Discord and the winners from each week had their tracks placed in a compilation that raised money for MASI.
Dropping on the first Friday of March as part of Bandcamp’s ongoing programme which sees 100 per cent of profits go to the artists, it channeled the power of community into something overwhelmingly positive in difficult times. You can purchase the tape here.
Rejjie Snow’s ‘Cookie Chips‘ may well have featured the last official MF DOOM verse before his passing.
Nealo’s touching video for ‘You Can’t Go Home Again‘.
Shiv’s stunning debut EP Me 2 Me.
JyellowL’s ascendency from local rapper to bonified artist in the release of his debut album 2020 D|Vision.
Róisín Murphy’s reinvention in her disco pop colossus Róisín Machine.