It’s undeniable that 2019 has been a great year for Irish music. Many of the artists included below have found themselves on international end-of-year lists from huge publications. Others have delivered such promising debuts that they could find themselves there in the near future. Indeed, almost half the list is made up of debut records, signalling a bright future for Irish music in 2020 and beyond. For now, sit back and enjoy our picks for the best Irish albums of 2019. They’re listed alphabetically and you’ll find a Spotify playlist featuring all 12 artists at the end.
The Cranberries | In The End
This isn’t merely a poignant release. On, In The End, The Cranberries work as a unit, delivering a collection of songs which rank amongst their finest. Of course, the spectral force of Dolores O’Riordan soars with passion throughout. From the subtle, scene-setting whispers of lead single ‘All Over Now’, the album opens up fully with melodic guitar lines, and a hypnotic vocal line. Above all, the talent of Dolores O’Riordan is her way of making the simplest syllable a passionate plea. Here, it’s no different. This is a respectful tribute, sewn together by the remaining band members. A Grammy nomination for Best Rock Album shows that the popularity of The Cranberries music will never dissipate.
Fangclub | Vulture Culture
Often, Vulture Culture is the sound of a band challenging themselves, opening a Pandora’s box of imagination to flex their musical muscles. Above all, Fangclub present a well-balanced record, opening with an effervescent slice of power pop in ‘Last Time’. Vocalist/guitarist Steven King becomes more personal on this album, displaying more passionate emotion than before. Every syllable echoes with a distinctive grace, as the guitar lines stumble along in an atmospheric playground.
Fontaines D.C. | Dogrel
This Irish five-piece walk under the same flickering streetlights as The Radiators, The Blades, and even U2. But this is the 21st-century, where homegrown, intelligent angst fuels the creative passions of Fontaines D.C. Their highly-anticipated debut album Dogrel hit the streets last April. It’s a well-crafted record, sizzling from the Dublin alleyways to the speaker systems of the world. At times, Dogrel even transcends the urban feel. The band have a talent for stirring human emotions with every precise, distorted note. The powerful, authentic delivery of the inner-city accent, courtesy of the snarling Grian Chatten, keeps the sound rooted and sharp. Missing out on the Mercury Prize has not dampened spirits, and there’s already talk of a follow-up.
Girl Band | The Talkies
This year, one of Ireland’s most incendiary groups returned with a new album—the explosive Girl Band. Perhaps the most important band to emerge from the Emerald Isle since My Bloody Valentine. They have created a sound unlike anything else, stylish following up their 2015 debut Holding Hands With Jamie. With The Talkies, the four-piece released an unsettling attack of intensity, the noise rock ascending and descending upon itself with a bombastic groove. In their time away, their influence has shown up in the band of the moment, Fontaines D.C. But the original instigators of the sound returned with an act of brilliance, hungry to make their mark once more.
Hozier | Wasteland, Baby!
In 2019, Hozier proved that his debut was no fluke. On his sophomore record, Wasteland, Baby!, the troubadour’s booming voice is front and centre again, and he uses his new-found pulpit to pay homage to his influences. On the uplifting lead single, ‘Nina Cried Power’, he name-drops Billie Holiday, James Brown, John Lennon and, of course, Nina Simone. Overall, however, Hozier’s lyrics are darker than before, backed by heavier guitars which become menacing at times (‘No Plan’). This was a pivotal album this year and a US Billboard number-one.
Junior Brother | Pull The Right Rope
Junior Brother, aka Ronan Kealy, builds upon the promise of his 2016 EP Fuck Off I Love You with one of the most unique records of the year. Pull The Right Rope thrives in the colloquial nature of Kealy’s voice, proving, alongside the likes of Lankum, that Irish folk remains vital and fresh in 2019. It’d be easy to fall into familiar genre patterns, but Junior Brother’s rhythms are deceptively complex, his song structures keeping you on your toes. ‘Full of Wine’ is a joy, revelling in its frenzied delivery, it could be written yesterday or it could be centuries old. The final track on the album, ‘I Will Have To Keep An Eye On You…’ is a neat culmination of the whole thing, full of sincere lyricism and shifting tempos. Junior Brother is more than deserving of every bit of praise coming his way.
Lankum | The Livelong Day
Boldly opening with a rousing ten-minute rendition of ‘The Wild Rover’, Lankum set out their stall immediately on The Livelong Day. With only eight tracks stretched out across an hour, Lankum give no consideration to churning out radio-friendly hits—and they’re all the better for it. This is an album that leans into its Irish lilt, without ever giving itself over to the dull horror of cliche. The experimental influences here, taking cues from noise rock and shoegaze, ensure that The Livelong Day remains fresh throughout, setting itself apart from a long line of forebears. Lankum craft their songs with purpose, their lengthy running times justified by the textures steadily building in songs like ‘The Young People’, or the foot-stomping ascension of ‘Bear Creek’. This is contemporary Irish music at its best, tonally earthy and structurally adventurous.
Maija Sofia | Bath Time
On her debut LP, Bath Time, Maija Sofia flexes her songwriting muscles across cultures and centuries, examining the historical experience of women from varied perspectives. With well-honed craft and deep empathy, Sofia shifts between characters like Bridget Cleary and Edie Sedgwick over nine beautiful ballads. Lyrically, she injects contemporary urgency into these timeless tales, building a haunting atmosphere around her powerful voice and folky guitar. The broad span of Sofia’s subject matter allows Bath Time to exist outside any specific era, but the lens through which she examines her characters is a contemporary one—offering a musical redemption for these women. A redemption that might not have seemed possible in years gone by. ‘The Trees They Do Grow High’ is a personal favourite, as haunting a track as you’ll find on any release this year.
Mango X MathMan | Casual Work
Casual Work is a Dublin collaboration through and through from Mango (Karl Mangan) and MathMan (Adam Fogarty). The pair pull no punches in depicting our capital’s widening inequalities. In a year where the city throttled full speed ahead toward becoming one massive hotel, this is a vital record. Even putting timely social critiques aside for a minute, it’s just full of absolute bangers. The pair are aggressive and infectious on songs like ‘Estates’ and ‘Chest Out’. Elsewhere, ‘Deep Blue’, featuring the vocal accompaniment of Lisa Hannigan, isn’t just one of the best Irish tracks of the year—it’s one of the best tracks of the year full stop. Be sure to catch the boys at their live shows in the New Year (if they’re not already sold out that is).
SOAK | Grim Town
Bridie Monds-Watson returns with her second full-length release under the moniker SOAK, bringing a newfound maturity to her songwriting. The precocious Derry artist earned deserved plaudits for her debut record Before We Forgot How To Dream, but Grim Town is more fully-realised throughout, tackling the universal difficulties of that tricky transition into adulthood. ‘Life Trainee’ is my personal highlight, offering bright optimism in the face of a traditionally tumultuous time in our lives. Of course, SOAK’s knack for crafting catchy indie-pop tunes is on display throughout. The melancholy of her debut record still filters into her writing here (‘Fall Asleep/Backseat’), but it’s now accompanied by a lyrical self-awareness and a personal defiance—‘Knock Me Off My Feet’ being exemplary of this.
Tebi Rex | The Young Will Eat The Old
Like the aforementioned Mango X MathMan, Tebi Rex are an up-and-coming duo, comprised of Max Zanga and Matt O’Baoill, building a reputation in Ireland’s thriving hip-hop scene. Blending Greek mythology, poppy beats and slick vocal delivery, the pair have delivered an album that offers narrative depth without committing the fatal flaw of taking itself too seriously. Across its three-act structure, with intermittent narration from Dublin poet Natalya O’Flaherty, The Young Will Eat The Old takes us through the rise and fall of a fleeting star. Tracks like ‘Financial Controller’ and ‘I Never Got Off The Bus’ highlight the kind of smooth flow and expert production that mark Tebi Rex out as future stars themselves.
Wallis Bird | Woman
Wallis Bird passionately erupts on Woman. Her sixth record, socially conscious and emotionally charged, guides the listener through eleven tracks of raw, effervescent excellence. At times, Woman is an art installation projected through sound. It’s certainly a stark listen in places, but such honesty is to be applauded. Woman details a range of complex issues (‘Repeal’) with lyrical prowess beyond mere angst. The sound of Woman ventures between funk, gospel, and acoustic, soulful beauty.