At the end of another endless year, we can at least be thankful for the music. In spite of obstacles at every turn, Irish artists have delivered another batch of stellar releases over the last twelve months. From the visceral to the introspective, we’ve had fresh faces delivering striking debuts and industry stalwarts hitting new heights. Below you’ll find the 8 best Irish albums of 2021—well, according to us anyway. The list is in alphabetical order and if you scroll down to the end of this article you’ll find a Spotify playlist with a little taster from each record.
Elaine Mai | Home
Home, the long-awaited debut album of Elaine Mai, is a nine-track blast of celebratory escapism in a year where escapism was often in short supply. The Dublin-based producer, originally from Mayo, has been part of the Irish music industry for a long time now, with sporadic releases over the past ten years or so. This longevity is evident in the finely-tuned arrangements of Home, which offers vulnerability under the guise of club-ready bangers.
Like all great producers, Elaine Mai knows how to pick the right collaborators and, more importantly, employ them in the right ways. Guest spots from MayKay, Ailbhe Reddy, Loah, and Sinead White contribute hugely to the character of the album, as the ensemble of Irish women add lyrical flavour to Mai’s electronic instrumentation. Reddy delivers nostalgic longing on ‘Still Feel (Home Edit)’, while White flows across the blissful electro-pop of ‘Go Slow (Home Edit)’. Home offers pure dancefloor indulgence at times (‘Together Alone’), but there’s depth here too, a message about creating a home for yourself—be that in shared experiences with friends, or the formation of your own little community. After a refreshingly lean 30 minutes, the shimmering ‘Portnoo’ is a soft place to land, closing out the record in a place of comfort and reassurance.
Highlights: ‘Still Feel (Home Edit)’/’Together Alone’/’Go Slow (Home Edit)’
Fears | Oíche
Oíche, the debut solo record from Constance Keane under the moniker Fears, is a lyrically frank, strikingly vulnerable piece of work. Partially written and recorded during a spell in a psychiatric facility, the album is imbued with a lingering sense of trauma. The sparse instrumentation of the album, with its icy synths and programmed drums, serves to exacerbate this feeling of lingering trauma, casting Oíche as a stark, wintery record.
Lyrically, Keane is processing the recent chapters of her life, charting a difficult journey to self-acceptance with multi-layered vocals and minimalist electronic soundscapes. Such is the personal nature of the lyrics, you often feel as if you’ve stepped inside Keane’s head at the time of writing. The compositions may be restrained, but the lyrics are entirely open. On ‘h_always’, Keane reveals “I’m black and blue on the inside too” and later, on ‘dents’, she is apologetic, “I’m so sorry for the mess I made.” These snippets might suggest that the album is entirely shrouded in darkness, but that isn’t the case.
‘Brighid’ is a real spark of joy, a little moment of family intimacy, and Keane further establishes the importance of her family on ‘two’ with the lines “If not for my family/I’d never have healed.” Keane finds strength in this support from her family, while also cultivating an internal resilience. Oíche is, at times, a difficult listen, but ultimately it’s a healing listening experience, encouraging you to reflect on your own struggles and growth as Keane reflects on hers.
For Those I Love | For Those I Love
It’s getting harder and harder to return to the heart wrenching tale of love and loss that David Balfe spins on For Those I Love for the sheer emotional toll that it can take on any given listen. Yet every time I go back, I’m reminded that through the grief and tragedy Balfe examines as he tries to understand the death of his best friend Paul Curran, there is light at the end of the darkest of tunnels. It’s the kind of life-affirming perspective that only a work of enduring greatness can achieve, the kind of reward that you only feel after experiencing art of a complex and affecting nature almost too acute to verbalize. For Those I Love is all these things and more.
A songwriter so capable of capturing the human state is a powerful and lasting one, so expect Balfe to be celebrated by North Dublin, Ireland and (if there is any justice) the rest of the wider music world for years to come. If you had asked me on January 1st what the best album of the year would be, I might have had a hundred potential answers but I never would have imagined that the frontrunner was living within a five minute radius of where I’m writing to you from. This is no sentimental favourite though—if you haven’t heard it yet wherever you are, you are doing yourself a disservice. For Those I Love is not just my Irish album of the year, it’s my album of the year.
Highlights: ‘To Have You’/’Birthday/The Pain’/’You Live/No One Like You’
Maria Kelly | the sum of the in-between
Another debut album from a rising Irish artist, the sum of the in-between follows on from Maria Kelly’s impressive 2018 EP notes to self, with the Mayo singer-songwriter delivering more lo-fi alt folk musings. Making extensive use of voice notes from friends and family, the record tackles many of the common questions faced by those fumbling through existential crises in their twenties. This decade of one’s life is full of choice and change, leading to a seemingly endless stream of dilemmas and dives into the unknown. Kelly, like the rest of us, questions her decisions—“it’s really got me thinking/that I was better in Berlin” (‘Martha’)—worrying that she may have gotten it wrong. On the same track, she repeats, “I’m not where I thought I’d be now”, a neat summation of the twentysomething struggle.
The self-reflective nature of the album is immediately suggested in its cover art, which shows Kelly literally reflected in a mirror. It’s likely that many of us have undertaken this sort of self-examination during the pandemic, struggling through the familiar difficulties of early adulthood while being confined in terms of social outlets. Kelly finds her outlet in voice notes from friends and family, as she and her peers bounce big existential questions off one another in a distinctly modern way. Even if we are physically separated from those we care about, we can still find some kind of comfort in their reassurances that we’re not alone in the way we feel.
The album stresses the importance of these support networks in times of anxiety and self-doubt and, although the record is something of a self portrait, with Kelly sketching herself in every track, the questions posed throughout are open to all. the sum of the in-between is the sound of an artist finding her voice and carving out an introspective niche.
Highlights: ‘Martha’/’eight hours’/‘like i used to’
Orla Gartland | Woman on the Internet
Woman on the Internet builds from the warm and relatable narratives of Gartland’s earlier work to deliver the most cohesive statement of her young career, as the singer journeys every inch of her psyche across 11 tracks that range a veritable palette of emotions without losing the delightfully droll spark that peppers Gartland’s stories for a second.
Whether comically ripping into toxic masculinity on indie pop banger ‘Zombie!’ or casually tugging heartstrings with the delicate, raw piano balladry of ‘Left Behind’, Gartland’s undeniable character shines brightly and connects deeply throughout this open reflection on the self-described chaos of her twenties.
Highlights: ‘You’re Not Special, Babe’/’Codependency’/’Bloodline/Difficult Things’
Saint Sister | Where I Should End
Where I Should End is a real coming-of-age moment for Morgana MacIntyre and Gemma Doherty, as the duo fully realise the potential of their electronic folk sound. Saint Sister further embrace the electronic side of that sound on this album, making for a more polished set of songs and their most mature release to date. The scope of their songwriting has expanded too, with the marriage of traditional and modern instruments allowing for everything from the Americana-influenced ‘Date Night’ to the radio-ready pop banger that is ‘Karaoke Song’. Of course, the MacIntyre/Doherty harmonies are immaculate as ever, with the recruitment of Lisa Hannigan adding a third voice on the delightful ‘The Place That I Work’.
Lyrically, the duo find profundity in mundanity, selecting snapshots from across the globe to add a cinematic feel to the record. Perhaps the most striking track from a lyrical standpoint is ‘Manchester Air’, written in the lead-up to the aboriton referendum in 2018, which employs a capella vocals, harking back to earlier Saint Sister releases for one of the record’s starkest moments. The transition from ‘House 9’ to ‘Any Dreams?’ is a microcosm of the duo’s musical evolution, moving from an atmospheric harp-driven instrumental to the synth-heavy closer, where the duo let loose and veer towards something resembling euphoria. A joyous end to the album is apt—Where I Should End is a career highpoint so far, signalling an even brighter future for the immensely talented pair.
Highlights: ‘My Brilliant Friend’/’Karaoke Song’/’Oh My God Oh Canada’
Soda Blonde | Small Talk
The former Little Green Cars transformed themselves from tidy indie rock outfit into ’80s synthpop stars on the gloriously moody Small Talk. Frontwoman Faye O’Rourke effortlessly steals the show, channelling Kate Bush and Florence Welch with her enigmatic presence dominating each dark groove that the band line up time and time again throughout this stylish arrival.
Highlights: ‘Terrible Hands’/’Try’/’Holy Roses’
Villagers | Fever Dreams
As the old adage goes, there are three certainties in this life—death, taxes, and the relentless brilliance of Conor O’Brien. Fever Dreams, the fifth Villagers album, shows that O’Brien’s incomparable ear for melody and arrangement is growing even more finely-tuned with each new release. Blooming further outward from Villagers’ more folk-oriented beginnings, Fever Dreams is packed with lush instrumentation. O’Brien has managed to craft a full-bodied, sonically dense record that never becomes overly busy. It’s full of beautiful orchestral flourishes, rich harmonies, and silky backing vocals.
While many albums this year were concerned with processing our current existence, Fever Dreams offers an escape to somewhere else—somewhere unknown and tantalisingly out of reach. Sumptuous string and bursts of saxophone are deployed to create glittering atmospheres, while O’Brien’s voice offers delicacy and depth in equal measure. Album highpoint ‘So Simpatico’ is the best example of the record’s strengths—a lush, romantic trip to a sun-soaked daydream and, as we know at this stage, any trip helmed by O’Brien is worth taking. Fever Dreams strikes a strange balance between comforting and disorienting, with O’Brien taking a wide range of fragmented influences and melding them into a hazy slice of dreamlike psychedelic folk. A special mention too for the gorgeous cover art, in which oversized imagination lurks on the border of laidback reality—much like the record itself.
Highlights: ‘The First Day’/‘So Simpatico’/’Circles In The Firing Line’