I've been saying it all year that the current crop of Irish artists have music lovers like myself spoiled rotten. The last few years have been the best I can recall by a long shot since I went to my first gig almost twenty years ago, from a time when there about 15-20 regular acts playing in Dublin to a point where we now have hundreds, music on every night of the week, always somewhere to go and great people to meet. From that perspective I feel it's a great privilege for me to be writing about Irish music right now, and I'm incredibly lucky to have witnessed live, and listened to, incredible acts and songs. To put it on the record, I salute our musicians, their creativity, their dedication to a craft which can be far more struggle than reward at times, and their sense of community and helpfulness among each other, and those who play important support roles in organising and promoting Irish music in general.
This was the most difficult list of the four I'll be putting together over the next few days, but each album was like an individual special moment for me during the last 12 months. I have distinct memories of listening to each for the first time, and the subsequent feeling of having spent enough time with the songs to try and understand what the artist(s) were attempting to create. Like all albums I've listened to and loved, each will reside in a special place in my head for good now, albums and songs I will revisit again and again. Below is a snippet if you like, of what good hands independent Irish music is in right now, the iron is hot, now is the time to listen, buy and go to live shows, I hope I'm wrong, but it might not come around for another good while!
Remy's Music & Film's Album of the Year 2015 - Naoise Roo - Lilith
Naoise Roo - 'For You'
The first time I went to see Naoise Roo live in The Workman's Club in March of this year I had only heard two songs, it was the single launch for 'For You' (above) and I'd also heard the track 'Oh Sun'. The gig that night was immense, helped by wonderful support acts I had also not listened to previously, the performance was so spot on it felt like hearing a recording rather than a live show. What really blew me away though was the slow dark build ups to the songs and the at times thunderous break outs of heavy rock, I came expecting a jazz vocal-inspired experience and was given so much more. From that point I was a fan of Roo's and when I got my hands on a copy of Lilith later on I felt like I already new each of the songs on the album despite having only heard most of them once at that show.
Naoise Roo, 'Stand In Black'
From the opening track 'Uh Oh' you know you're going to go on a trip into the underbelly of dark characters and themes, in my April review of the album I had written; 'Lilith itself spoils you as a listener, drifting between a tight selection of genres including alternative rock, blues and post-punk, Roo's vocals feel like black oil seeping slowly around an unsuspecting victim's head before getting inside and consuming you entirely', that final line summarising the album for me. Her voice is powerful and filled with a trembling and battering emotion, captured on 'Stand In Black' and the truly excellent 'Whore'. There's brevity and seriousness in Roo's lyrics, the cabaret-esque (and one of my favourites) 'Sheets' dealing with a flippant but passionate relationship between strangers, whilst the album's closing track, 'Tie Me Up - Tie Me Down' goes fully into a bare piano-led jazz number that stops you in your tracks.
Naoise Roo, Lilith Album Launch, The Workman's Club, Photo: Remy Connolly
The reasons I chose Lilith as my album of the year for 2015 are as follows; that this is a debut album is slightly beyond comprehension, if you compiled a list of requirements for what makes an album great, no matter how long it was, Lilith would tick every box. It moves between old and new sounds with such ease as to make them indiscernible, and then there's that sense, that Naoise Roo is operating on that plain that we all want to hear music from, one of knowing you are listening to an exceptionally gifted song-writer and artist, someone who innately is able to create something special because it is within them, rather than being learned over time, as a result, this album gave me the most satisfaction on many levels above any other Irish release I heard this year.
Favourite tracks: Stand In Black, Whore, For You, Sheets
Favourite tracks: Stand In Black, Whore, For You, Sheets
CFIT - 'Dust Silhouettes'
Dubliner Noël Duplaa's second album as CFIT, Throwaway Survival Machine, was an album I listened to for quite a long time after I had reviewed it. My introduction was the above 'Dust Silhouettes', a barnstorming single that gives you everything you want, but also only gave the slightest hint of what waited in store on the full album. For me this album was a little piece of magic, there was oodles of creativity put into it, when I think about it right now, it probably appealed to me so much because in some ways it represented a type and style of music I grew up with, but entirely contemporary so as not to feel like a trip down memory lane. The album that kept giving in 2015.
CFIT album launch, The Grand Social. Photo: Remy Connolly
Favourite tracks: Salvo, Dust Silhouettes, Don't Be Discouraged, All That Is Solid Melts Air
3) Kingdom of Crows - The Truth is the Trip
Kingdom of Crows - 'Dreamless Sleep'
Dublin psychedelic rock band Kingdom of Crows' album, The Truth is the Trip, was one of those first listens when you go 'woah', as I mentioned at the time of review, it was definitely one of the best Irish rock albums I'd heard in a number of years. Singles such as 'Dreamless Sleep' and the amazingly haunting and doom-laden track 'Elizabeth' got me every time, and there was a weird and wonderful Celtic pagan thing going on throughout the album, best exemplified by 'Call of the Void'. A must for rock fans.
Favourite tracks: See above!
4) Dr Duloc - Bowl Cuts
Dr Duloc - Lady Lou
Henry Earnest, aka Dr Duloc, aka one half of Dublin duo Mr Rosso, released a superb debut solo album during the summer in Bowl Cuts. It was a hard album for me to get my head around with a reviewers hat on, but in terms of enjoying the music, it was completely effortless and 'Lady Lou' was and is still one of my favourite tracks of 2015. Whacky, fun, intricate and unceremoniously pop-tastic in parts, inject yourself with pure high-grade happiness and give this album a listen as soon as you can.
Favourite tracks: Portland Oregon, The King, Eton Mess I-II, Lady Lou
5) Elephant - HyperGiant
Elephant - Little Ghost
There's no escaping that Dundalk's Shane Clarke, who performs under the moniker of Elephant, is one of the best song-writers knocking about at the moment. His debut album HyperGiant was awaited with heavy expectations after his release of the single / video for the powerfully emotive 'Little Ghost' (above). From sincere folk ballads to electro-tinged rock numbers, the album see-saws between contemplative and light-hearted (cap doff to 'Monster') moments. Elephant has quietly amassed sterling reviews across the board over the last few months and these are entirely deserved, his recent performance upstairs in Whelans was also another live highlight of the year.
Favourite tracks: Crows, Little Ghost, The Lightning & The Breeze, Boiling Water Bin
6) The River Fane - Takes Forever
The River Fane - 'NOW! That's What I Call Untitled 3'
I'm still enjoying Wexford band The River Fane's excellent, and sadly after 6 years, final album, Takes Forever. Nothing else was released this year that was remotely similar to this album to the best of my knowledge. Production-wise it sounds quite like an established international artist and while I don't know the circumstances surrounding the drawing down of the curtain on The River Fane, it's hard to escape the idea that they may have just been about to reach a creative high, our loss.
Favourite tracks: NOW! That's What I Call Untitled 3, Water, Way Home, Where The Heart Connects
Oliver Cole - Helium Heart
One of my biggest motivations in sharing Irish music here stems from my college days when I saw many quality bands such as The Frames, Future Kings of Spain, The Mary Janes and well, Turn! I was extremely frustrated as well, the naivety of youth perhaps, that these bands were not getting anywhere near the recognition they deserved, not just in Ireland, but abroad also. I was simultaneously delighted and curious when former Turn guitarist Oliver Cole released his second solo album, Year of the Bird. Not what I expected really, when I sat down to review the album in August and gave it my first listen I was struck by its beauty. Opening track 'Helium Heart' is such a gorgeous dirge, a lover-lorn lament that gets you a little choked before it takes off into headier heights at the half-way point, there's some lovely slide electric guitar playing here as well. One of my biggest emotional implosions of the year also occurred when I listened to Cole's take on Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince, without being hyperbolic it was a devastatingly happy-sad moment (to borrow his duet partner Gemma Hayes' song title).
Favourite tracks: Helium Heart, Golden Leaf, Ahh Ooh Ooh, The Happy Prince, Magnolia
8) Cry Monster Cry - Rhythm of the Dawn
Cry Monster Cry - 'Atlas'
I mentioned at the beginning of this post how I had memories of each of my first listens to these albums, one that is innocuous but sticks out in my mind is a Friday back at the start of the year when I popped into Tower Records and picked up Cry Monster Cry's Rhythm of the Dawn on vinyl, went home, possibly also with a nice bottle of red, and enjoyed every track fully. I loved how the album and songs by brothers Richie and Jamie Martin appealed to my interest in 60's & 70's folk music but also sailed so much higher than a lot of contemporary Irish folk music, of which there is a lot at the moment. This is one I've reached for a lot since it was released and I can easily see in some compilation book of Irish albums in the future.
Cry Monster Cry, Whelans. Photo: Remy Connolly
Favourite tracks: Atlas, Darkest Hour / Longest Day, Old At Heart, Gelert's Grave
9) Stephen Young & The Union - Eagle Fort Rumble
Stephen Young & The Union - 'Shadowman'
Stephen Young & The Union seem to be a mildly and unintentionally divisive band at home who have been embraced with open arms in the U.S., there's unanimous agreement that they are the best Irish band in their genre which we can loosely pigeon-hole as Americana (but also incorporates blues, country and rock). I don't know whether it's a lack of familiarity with their style of music in terms of where it's coming from historically, but thankfully for the band such views are in the minority.
Front man Stephen Young and his band are exceptional musicians, as witnessed recently at the album launch for their second album, Eagle Fort Rumble, at The Grand Social last month. From the driving opener 'Shiver', rocker 'Lately I've Loved A Rose' and the hazy Thin Lizzy-esque 'The Blind Leading The Blind' to the penultimate track, 'Someone You Dream Of', which was the most heart-wrenching song I heard this year (I may have cried just a little), this album is a big improvement on the already great debut Wilderness Machine.
Favourite tracks: Shiver, The Blind Leading The Blind, Land Leg Blues, Someone You Dream Of*****
SY&TU, Eagle For Rumble Album Launch, The Grand Social. Photo: Remy Connolly
10) Silverbacks - Hot Bath
Silverbacks - 'Fad 1995'
Since I first reviewed 'Fad 1995' (above) at the end of 2014 I've absolutely loved everything Dublin band Silverbacks have released, subsequent singles and finally Hot Bath when it came out in January. Like a lo-fi mash-up of American Analog Set, Pavement and Joy Division, the group have made an album that is unique amongst Irish bands this year, it has the grooves ('Mermaid Massacre'), psychedelic garage of 'I Kneeled Down' and 'Sloe Jam' (with the sweet line 'Don't question my life choices motherfucker, just walk in a straight line') to the tripped out summery indie of the Lou Reed sounding 'Sacramento', Hot Bath has a bit of everything, it's short and sweet and it's bloody brilliant.
Favourite tracks: Fad 1995, Sacramento, Mermaid Massacre, Sloe Jam