Words: Dylan Murphy, Dean Van Nguyen, Tanis Smither, Kelly Doherty & Andrew Moore.
The past 12 months were characterised by a cocktail of conflicting emotions – rage, apathy, hope and despair. Unsurprisingly, the best music this year largely mirrored that.
In 2020, artists turned government mandated social exclusion into a time to hone in on their craft and finesse forthcoming records in the absense of shows. That meant the stage was set for 2021 to be the year that would showcase the fruits of their labours and predictably, artists delivered. We got together a crack team of music writers to give their assessments, thoughts and reflections in one of the most compelling years for music releases in Ireland for some time. With tapes, EPs and albums becoming increasingly ambiguous and interchangeable terms for one reason or another we’ve made all projects eligible.
On another note, it goes without saying that the music and wider creative industry has been absolutely decimated in the past couple of years and we want to give a quick reminder to support whatever way you can. Grab an album on Bandcamp, get tickets to shows and subscribe to newsletters and Patreons – every bit of support matters.
Now, on to the top ten Irish releases of 2021.
Orla Gartland has been a permanent fixture on the Irish music scene for some time now, however, her debut album Woman on the Internet saw the Dublin-born, London-based singer songwriter truly come into her own. Expanding upon the bedroom folk-pop we’ve all come to know from her, the record charts the rocky terrain of being a modern 20-something across a myriad of genres and an impressively expansive sound palette. Veering from the indie rush of ‘You’re Not Special, Babe‘ to the piano balladry of ‘Left Behind‘, Gartland moves fluidly, wrapping the variety of sounds up in her own recognisable, measured song-writing. Lyrically, Gartland is at the top of her game here – issuing self-assured advice whilst leaving herself open and refreshingly honest. In a year where we all needed that little bit more support, Woman on the Internet was like a best friend that knows exactly what to say when it all gets too much.
– Kelly Doherty
Rumoured label interference meant we had to wait three years for the follow up to 2018’s Dear Annie. It’s not quite Frank Ocean levels of frustration for fans, but the jazz-infused and breezy production made the press play sigh of relief that extra bit sweeter. Sitting at around 40 minutes, Baw Baw Black Sheep‘s cinematic qualities shine without compromising on fundamentals of rap. It’s the kind of record capable of soundtracking the art school kid side of TikTok whilst simultaneously satisfying the hip hop heads. Early on ‘Mirrors’ taps up Snoh Aalegra for what feels like the soulquarian era had been dipped in sugar, whereas ‘Cookie Chips’ with MF DOOM provides a full circle moment for the rapper who has the late MC inked on his skin. With Cam O’bi on executive production throughout it means you can throw in some scattered confessional bars, considered daydreaming on black history and imagery about expensive drug habits and it all sounds cohesive.
– Dylan Murphy
One of folk’s most exciting prospects, John Francis Flynn breathes new life into an eclectic assembly of sea shanties and traditional songs on I Would Not Live Always. As comfortable with experimental electronics as he is with a tin whistle, Flynn seems to understand how to direct the music, and when to surrender to it. On the title track, his husky vocal—warm and smooth as whiskey—is swept up in a maelstrom of instrumentals, but he maintains barking command over cuts like ‘My Son Tim’, and reigns in the frenzy on the minimalistic yet no less brilliant ‘Shallow Brown’. Like Lankum before him, he is steering the Irish folk resurgence into the mainstream.
– Tanis Smither
Reinventing yourself after seeing success with a tried-and-tested model is no small feat, but Soda Blonde’s debut makes it look effortless. After the hype surrounding their previous band, Little Green Cars, the four piece (which includes all but one member of the previous outfit) trade in gritty alt-rock for glittering, shiny pop on Small Talk. A towering breath of fresh air, the record also sees lead singer Faye O’Rourke step into the spotlight. And it’s about time, too. Devastating honesty (like the intimate ‘I Still Have Feelings For You’) takes turns with tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation (on ‘The Dark Trapeze’), and flashes of rage occasionally reveal themselves in a mature, self-assured album that chronicles the ups and downs—and there have been many—of O’Rourke’s twenties. Small Talk shows O’Rourke to be a formidable lyrical and vocal talent, and the rest of her band to be equally adept.
– Tanis Smither
Each song on Sal Dulu’s shifting, provocative debut album represents a different memory or dream as the producer invites us to ditch reality and escape into his subconscious. Xompulse is aching ambient music and machine soul created out of screwed vocal loops, soft piano keys, cascading synth arpeggios, mid-tempo hip-hop beats and, sometimes, rap verses: witness one-time MF DOOM collaborator staHHr appear on ‘Buzzcut‘. Sometimes there’s a vastness to Dulu’s compositions as the storms of saxophones, strings, and keys feel like Greek gods shifting oceans. Yet the album retains an intimacy, too. The subtle orchestral flourishes of sci-fi ballad ‘She Belongs To Roth‘ would play well in a tiny jazz club on Pluto. It adds up to a work of both depth and dexterity.
– Dean Van Nguyen
There’s a sticky chemistry between Jehnova’s words and lod’s instrumentals. The kind that has the heavenly soul samples and crunchy rhyming sounding like a living artefact found in nature rather than a synthesised product of two people’s efforts. What makes the synergy even more impressive is, the tape was crafted in its entirety remotely and the pair didn’t even meet until they got press photos taken. Though loops on tracks like ‘half’ certainly live in the same world as The Alchemist’s chops and the conscious lyricism shares DNA with the dusty revivalism of MAVI and MIKE, the Dublin pair have created a universe of their own typified by momentary thoughts and fleeting feelings.
– Dylan Murphy
The term ‘Irish hip-hop’ is a vague one, especially when examined within the contemporary soundscape. There was a time where things were new and secular, genres easily placed in boxes stacked upon one another, but that time is not now. In many ways, PX Music affiliated Strange Boy’s Unholy/Unholy is Irish hip-hop at its most culturally authentic – scores of banjo, flute and bodhrán soundtracking distinct Limerick lyricism exploring grief, self-hate and rural, culture-referenced traditionalism that make Strange Boy’s sound so distinct within a sea of the same. Produced and composed by fellow Irishman Enda Gallery, this is an Irish soundtrack for the ages.
– Andrew Moore
I had a fear that Conor O’Brien would begin to bore us with his greatness. Another phenomenal Villagers album to add to the pile, is it? Yawn. But hang on. There’s no sense of inertia here, just a vision for the grandiose. Fever Dreams is O’Brien inflating his ideas. ‘Circles In The Firing Line‘ is a little guitar pop song that manages to find room for a swooning string arrangement before peaking with a swaggering glam-rock workout. So the scale is larger, but not so large it obscures O’Brien’s gifts for emotive songwriting and performance. The understated but beautiful ‘Momentarily‘ is about the dull pain in his head caused by the dread of the rat race before thoughts of a loved one offers an escape. Like before, O’Brien shows his ability to isolate emotions and make them easy to identify with, and there’s nothing tired about it.
– Dean Van Nguyen
Taking a nightmarish screenshot of contemporary Dublin, Soft Boy Records bossman Kojaque’s stylistic blend of shocking truths, playful humour and sharp tongue have thrust him into the border of Ireland’s hip hop poster-boy, and it’s well deserved. On Town’s Dead the Dubliner links up with comedian Darren Conway for a series of hilarious interludes that when blended with Kojaque’s spoken-word and heartfelt lyricism exploring his father’s death, the current Dublin housing crisis, and the internal rot of society that is happening right before our very eyes, makes for a damning and sonically diverse trip. An informed screenshot of culture in Dublin that betrays the artist’s youth, this is a vivid guide through the city that inspired it.
– Andrew Moore
Undoubtedly Ireland’s breakout album of 2021, For Those I Love is a stunning debut that marries bittersweet emotions with nostalgic electronic production. Initially released in 2020 before receiving a September Recordings reboot this March, For Those I Love saw Dublin’s David Balfe channelling feelings of grief around the death of his friend, and musical peer Paul Curran, into a heartbreaking and inspiring ode to friendship. Despite the intensity of the themes throughout, For Those I Love never forces the listener to avert their gaze – these conversations, warmly recalled memories and intimate productions are always exhilarating and serve as a reminder to cherish the people and relationships who make each of us into the people we are.
– Kelly Doherty