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Every end-of-year list is going to open with some variation of “Well, this year was shite, but the tunes were great”, so it already feels trite to deliver that sentiment. However, that sentiment is unavoidably true. This year was shite, but the tunes were great. In the midst of upheaval, submerged in an industry fighting for its life without adequate supports, Irish musicians have delivered one of the strongest twelve-month spells in recent memory. Starved of live performances—even with a whole host of resourceful, innovative livestreams—we’ve had to make do with studio material. Thankfully, the output from Irish artists this year has been nothing short of stellar. Below are the 10 best Irish albums of 2020. Well, according to us anyway. They’re in alphabetical order and, if you scroll all the way down, you’ll find a Spotify playlist with a taster from each album.
Ailbhe Reddy | Personal History
Reddy lays it all bare on this, her fully realised debut full-length release. Through minimalist song arrangements, lush production and an emotive vocal performance, we get a rare kind of vulnerability and honesty. Personal History is a documentation of the artist’s journey with self-acceptance, relayed through radio-friendly guitar pop. From the folkish fingerpicking of ‘Loyal’ to the hushed yet revealing ‘Late Bloomer’, the album is not so much an emotional purge as it is a considered guide through the depths of the mind of its creator as she comes of age.
Highlights: ‘Between Your Teeth’/’Looking Happy’/’Time Difference’
Aoife Nessa Frances | Land of No Junction
Aoife Nessa Frances’s debut album, Land of No Junction, arrived roughly one hundred years ago in January 2020. Born of a misheard place name, the fact that such a sprawling, dense album blossomed from something so small is testament to Frances’s creative spark. Land of No Junction breezes between ‘60s psychedelia and ‘70s soft rock with consummate ease. Her deep, all-encompassing vocal style calls to mind Nico, guiding the listener through the record’s sonic experimentation, which conjures memories of Revolver-era Beatles. This really is an entrancing album, one that rewards the returning listener time and time again. Its swirling range of instrumentation throws up something new each time, with the steady tether of Frances’s commanding vocal threading familiarity through the almost ominous soundscapes. As the titular album closer wails to a conclusion, you’re ready to explore the whole thing again.
Highlights: ‘Libra’/’Heartbreak’/’Land of No Junction’
Bitch Falcon | Staring at Clocks
Fans have long been waiting for a full-length effort from Bitch Falcon and, thankfully, not a second of Staring at Clocks is wasted. An album that carves its own niche and explores every space of it, Bitch Falcon create an intoxicating sound where every pulsating beat, crashing chord and soaring vocal bewilders its listener. Maintaining a terse tension, steered by its relentless rhythms and frontwoman Lizzie Fitzpatrick’s impressionistic guitar playing and unfettered vocals, Staring at Clocks is a testament to good things taking time.
Highlights: ‘Turned To Gold’/’Damp Breath’/’Harvester’
Denise Chaila | GO Bravely
On the very short shortlist of people who have had a good 2020, Denise Chaila features prominently. The small matter of a global pandemic was no match for the incendiary talent of Chaila, whose debut mixtape GO Bravely establishes her as one of Ireland’s brightest young stars. Her breakout track ‘Chaila’, an earworm for the ages, launched her into the mainstream, with a stunning Other Voices performance from the National Gallery of Ireland cementing this newfound status as a trailblazing star of the Irish music scene.
GO Bravely offers much more beyond the ubiquitous hit, however. Chaila’s flow is smooth throughout, as she muses on issues of self-esteem, gender, race, and identity with trademark wit and a unique perspective. Chaila refers to the mixtape as “a series of sonic polaroids”. Thankfully each image is crystal clear, encompassing a wide range of influences and sounds without Chaila, or producer MuRli, missing a beat. Above all, GO Bravely is a strong opening statement from a sharp, focused artist unfazed by the well deserved hype.
Highlights: ‘Chaila’/’Rí Rá’/‘Anseo’
Fontaines D.C. | A Hero’s Death
Just over a year removed from their explosive debut Dogrel, Fontaines D.C. returned with a sophomore album designed to curb expectations and challenge the very idea of who Fontaines truly are. A Hero’s Death is a more distilled and concentrated effort than the band’s previous work, so while fans of the band’s original, more accessible dynamic may find it difficult to connect with A Hero’s Death straight away for the lack of singalong, festival-ready hooks in the vein of ‘Liberty Belle’ and ‘Boys in the Better Land’, this is an album that rewards repeated listens and patience.
On A Hero’s Death, Fontaines develop a better sense of cohesion and flesh out themes that tie their second album together as a concept rather than a collection of tracks. Into the bargain, they deliver an ultra-focused and mature record, one that displays a considerable evolution for the young Dubliners and further establishes them as pioneers in the Irish music landscape and potentially beyond.
Highlights: ‘I Don’t Belong’/’A Lucid Dream’/’No’
Kean Kavanagh | Dog Person
Kean Kavanagh’s mish-mash of indie rock, jazz, and hip-hop is a freewheeling trip of a record. Littered with charming, memorable vocal samples, Dog Person is musically inventive, lyrically delightful, and just thoroughly fun. ‘Intro’ begins proceedings with hilarious snippets of a young Dubliner before ‘Roll Over!’, a celebration of the session, kicks things into life. Bouncing across a palette of sounds and influences, the whole thing is so snappy, so engaging, that it’s over before you know it. The centrepiece of the record is ‘EMMA’, the closest we get to a straightforward pop song. It’s a love story in the image of Kean Kavanagh’s music—raucous, idiosyncratic, and completely captivating for it’s two-and-a-half minute runtime. Dog Person, a sampler of sounds and personality, comes in at a teasingly short twenty-seven minutes, whetting appetites for Kavanagh’s future musical endeavours.
Highlights: ‘EMMA’/’Street Lights’/’Wake Up’
Niamh Regan | Hemet
Niamh Regan’s debut album, Hemet, caught me completely off guard back in September, undoubtedly taking my award for ‘Pleasant Surprise of the Year’. Regan’s lyricism is sophisticated, her arrangements beautiful, and her vocals utterly captivating. Confronting the passage of time, diverging paths in life, and other such heavy topics, Regan delivers a record that is both heartfelt and deeply personal, while still universally applicable to the listener. She casts a sharp eye back over her life, drawing characters from the past into her present, examining milestones of adulthood with clear-eyed wit and, in many cases, painful nostalgia. Beyond the wonderful storytelling, Hemet is just expertly composed. The pacing throughout, both in the record’s tracklisting and within the tracks themselves, is clever and considered, and the creative instrumentation blends acoustic, folk sounds with the occasional synth interjection. Hemet is one of the strongest Irish debuts in recent memory.
Highlights: ‘Something so Good’/’Hallelujah Game’/’Sweetest Drop’
Pillow Queens | In Waiting
In Waiting isn’t just one of the best Irish albums of 2020, it’s one of the best albums of the year full stop. Pillow Queens have grown into their sound on this record, firmly establishing themselves as one of the best bands in the country with their distinctive brand of anthemic indie rock. The release of singles like ‘Gay Girls’ and ‘Handsome Wife’ in the lead up to the album built anticipation levels to fever pitch, and the quartet (Sarah Corcoran, Pamela Connolly, Rachel Lyons, Cathy McGuinness) have more than delivered on these high expectations. Pillow Queens take big ideas like lingering Catholic guilt, the value of chosen family, and queer identity in modern Ireland, and build festival-ready anthems around moments of real lyrical vulnerability. Not only do the group tackle these subjects, they spin them into their own ideas of acceptance and safety, finding internal resolve in confronting the difficulties of contemporary Ireland. By the time you reach the safe haven of closing track ‘Donaghmede’, you feel the warmth of that solace too.
A special mention for the exquisite production on the record, which captures the group’s tight-knit energy, handling stripped-back singalongs and shoegaze-y blasts with equal aplomb. It’s only a shame that we haven’t had more opportunities to see Pillow Queens perform these tracks live in 2020, but here’s to screaming along in a field in the near future.
Highlights: ‘Holy Show’/’HowDoILook’/’Liffey’
Postcard Versions | Remote Viewing
Postcard Versions brand of bedroom indie pop is quite literal in its approach. The Dublin duo of Ross Hamer and Paddy Ormond proudly recorded their self-titled debut, and this follow up, in a Temple Bar bedroom (attracting just the one noise complaint so far, which by their own admission isn’t ”very rock and roll”). It’s a process that perfectly suits the blissed out, super chilled vibes of Remote Viewing, but if you were expecting a lo-fi sound to match the duo’s laid back aesthetic, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. There’s an unmistakably clean, bright sheen to this mix, making for a delightfully breezy listen.
Perhaps the most telling comparison for Postcard Versions would be Belle & Sebastian, with the soft anecdotal beauty of the Glaswegian idols buried in Hamer and Ormond’s gift for subtly weaving in loftier lyrical themes than might be suggested by the sweet arrangements of these jaunty acoustic jams. With its low-key soul searching and charming instrumentation, Remote Viewing marks a definite step up for Postcard Versions following their pleasurable 2019 debut. This contemplative and endlessly catchy sequel suggests a bright future ahead for the bedroom-dwelling Dubliners.
Highlights: ‘Do You Consider’/’Learning to Talk’/’Relatively Safe Neighborhood’
The Scratch | Couldn’t Give a Rats
Rush released during lockdown to coincide with a series of living room livestream gigs, Couldn’t Give a Rats was a perfect antidote to the anxiety and isolation brought on by COVID-19. The aptly titled album gave us everything we have come to know and love the Perrystown lads for and more. A collection of cleverly arranged songs brimming with good humour and conviction, boasting massive riffs and rapid tempos, all wrapped up in exuberant Dublin colloquialisms and gorgeous acoustic instrumentation. The Scratch’s singular approach to Irish folk via metalcore leaves a long lasting effect.
Highlights: ‘Pull Your Jocks Up’/’Session Song’/‘Underworld’