It's been a hell of a year for Irish music.
We know, we know – we say the same thing every year. But 2019 has proved especially diverse, as evidenced in our end-of-year list tallying. Rock music is thriving and throwing new curveballs at listeners, as you'll see from some of the inclusions below. The trad and folk renaissances continue apace. The Irish hip-hop scene is healthier than it has ever been before, and pop artists are finding new ways to innovate. We are heading into 2020 with a clutch of albums from this year that we know we'll be listening to for a long time.
Without further ado, here's our agonisingly-difficult-to-narrow-down list of the 10 best Irish albums of the year.
GIRL BAND - 'The Talkies'
There's no other band like Girl Band. If you've ever seen the Dublin four-piece live, you'll be aware of this. Their recorded output is equally ferocious and the follow-up to 2015's 'Holding Hands with Jamie' captured their post-punk/noise-rock/genre-defying experimental sound with a breathless wonder that left you reeling at times. On this record, frontman and lyricist Dara Kiely chose not to use pronouns and that decision stripped the songs of the egotism that is often rampant in rock music. On 'Aibophobia', a disconcerting backward-recording technique illustrated a song that is about a fear of palindromes (and which consisted entirely of palindromes, lyrically). 'Going Norway' and 'Salmon of Knowledge' are as challenging as they are blistering. They're a band that continue to defy expectations and push boundaries.
2. THE DIVINE COMEDY – 'Office Politics'
Dare you try to second-guess what Neil Hannon might do at this point in his career? The Divine Comedy mainstay made one of the best albums of his career in 2019, incorporating tongue-in-cheek electronica alongside sweeping orchestral numbers, rambunctious indiepop and sweet pop-rock ballads. The glue that binds them together is Hannon's innate gift for songwriting and melody; never before has that been as evident as it is on this collection of tunes. The end result was a varied but totally satisfying listening experience – simply a pleasure from start to finish.
FONTAINES DC - 'Dogrel'
There are some who credit Fontaines DC as being solely responsible for reviving Irish guitar music. If you're up on the Irish music scene, you'll be aware that it never needed reviving in the first place – but hyperbole aside, the Dublin band did make a seriously bloody good debut album this year. The self-confident strut of songs like 'Too Real', 'Big' and 'Chequeless Reckless' was simply impossible to resist. They've got the swagger, the tools and the frontman (Grian Chatten is a star) to go far... let's see what happens next. In the meantime, we'll continue to savour this album.
JUNIOR BROTHER - 'Pull the Right Rope'
A decade or so ago, if you'd asked the average Joe what Irish folk music was all about, they'd probably point to the likes of Christy Moore and mention something about their dad. These days, a new generation of Irish artists have reclaimed the genre and made it their own, staking their flag in the ground with their distinct voices. Kerry's Junior Brother did exactly that this year with his astonishing debut album that even had actor (and renowned muso) Cillian Murphy singing its praises. Beautiful songs that were simple yet intricate at the same time, and rife with an emotional authenticity that cannot be faked.
THE MURDER CAPITAL - 'When I Have Fears'
Inspired by the untimely death of his best friend, Murder Capital frontman James McGovern put pen to paper. Yes, there is an undoubted bleakness and intensity to this Dublin-based quintet's debut album - but it's tempered by the raw power of their frenetic, off-kilter indie-rock sound. The influence and experience of producer Flood (U2) is keenly felt on the surging 'Don't Cling to Life' and 'More is Less'; songs that you can easily imagine filling arenas. All in all, it was that rare beast in modern music: a remarkable record that is more than the sum of its parts, or just a few strong singles with a lot of padding.
MANGO X MATHMAN - 'Casual Work'
An album that has been in the works for several years as this Dublin duo continued to forge an impressive live reputation, 'Casual Work' didn't disappoint when it finally arrived in November. An album about Dublin, love, home, finding your place in the world and the shit that people have to deal with modern Irish society, guests included Loah and Lisa Hannigan – but Finglas rapper Mango firmly places himself front and centre on these engaging, sometimes funny, often moving songs.
JOIN ME IN THE PINES - 'Monomania'
David Geraghty has released several solo albums outside of his 9-5 in Bell X1, but the guitarist has never made a record like this one. The second Join Me in the Pines album threw caution to the wind by unleashing Geraghty's inner funk. Prince, Bowie and Talking Heads are all in the mix here, with the synth-dappled 'Jean Bean' and the celebratory 'Feels So Heavy'. It could have come off as a pastiche, but instead it highlighted what an underrated songwriter Geraghty really is. Sorely overlooked by most end of year lists, it deserves a place in any top 10.
JAFARIS - 'Stride'
One of the biggest success stories to emerge from the burgeoning Diffusion Lab production house in Dublin, 'Stride' is seriously slick modern Irish hip-hop at its finest, courtesy of Percy Chamburuka. The Dubliner cites Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole as influences, but he made this collection – with its soulful, playful soundtrack and some seriously impressive MC skills, as heard on 'Invisible' – very much his own. A really excellent and thoroughly enjoyable collection that really deserves to be heard further afield.
LANKUM - 'The Livelong Day'
The idea of a band like Lankum being signed to a label like Rough Trade – famous for signing indie and punk bands like The Smiths, The Strokes and Stiff Little Fingers – was a head-scratcher in 2017. This year, the Dublin trad band not only released what may be their magnum opus in 'The Livelong Day', but they're the biggest success on the label's roster. Experimenting with sounds, words and form, the four-piece pushed the genre forward and simultaneously created a haunting, visceral record that has drawn non-believers into their circle. An astounding album that will have reverberations on modern Irish trad for some time.
JAPE - 'Sentinel'
Richie Egan's musical journey has had its ups and downs. He was once known primarily for his song 'Floating', which was covered by The Raconteurs over a decade ago. Albums like 'Ritual' established him as a writer of smart, beat-driven electro-indie songs, while his recent releases saw him further immersed in the electronica world. 'Sentinel', on the other hand, stripped everything back for a contemplative, dreamy record that saw Egan ask questions of both himself and the world we live in. This gorgeous, succinct collection is his best work in years.
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