You can listen to Andrea and I discuss our top songs and albums on the podcast.
Let me get this out of the way first: I don’t like ranking music. You might think that makes me a coward. You might think that part of being a critic is knowing what music is better than other music, and taking to Twitter or Instagram or — good forbid — a print publication to declare it known. You probably have things you hate about your job; I have this.
Was it a “good year for music”? Weird question, but I’ll bite: no, probably not. How could it have been? There’s been a pandemic, the climate crisis, live-music closures, widespread fatigue, political upheaval. The world is ending and we’re arguing about who made a better song about it.
Nonetheless, I loved a lot of music that came out this year, and as a listener, I can’t ask for much more than that. If you listen to myself and Niall on the podcast, you’ll already have heard me wax lyrical about these songs, but here are those thoughts in print form.
To all the musicians, especially the Irish ones, who provided a bit of hope and joy and comfort this year — you have my heartfelt thanks. I don’t know what any of us would have done without you.
Burial – Dark Gethsemane
This is a song in two parts, but I want to focus on the second half. There is such great sincerity to Burial that emerges from time to time (Rival Dealer’s Come Down To Us) that is present here, with that repetitive voice preaching about the power of love. Burial is a masterful producer, genuinely groundbreaking in what he does, but it’s when he moves into the realm of heartwrenching harmonies and messages of kindness that he breaks my heart.
Snail Mail – Valentine
I love the chorus on this track; the driving guitars; her pop-punk vocal delivery; the fuzzy, grungy textures. I love how the chorus is this kind of woozy soundscape before exploding into that huge chorus. I really liked the album too and came to it a bit late in the year to include it on my lists, but it’s a very strong one in the indie category.
Mitski – Working For The Knife
Mostly I’m just glad to have Mitski back, but this track is a great summation of her new direction: dark, sinister forces seem to inform how she navigates everyday life. Sounds familiar.
Arlo Parks – Hope
This was the first track I heard from Collapsed In Sunbeams on 6 Music and was blown away by her voice, the chorus, the lyrics — I love a song about hope in a minor mode. “I’ve often felt like I was born under a bad sign”; “Looking for light and finding a hole where there shouldn’t be one”. Between this track and Self Esteem’s I Do This All The Time, this really is the year of sharing pain in order to process it.
CMAT – No More Virgos
CMAT has yet to miss, and of the three tracks she released this year, this one if my favourite. It hits on that perfect blend of humour and sadness that she captures perfectly in her music. I can’t wait for her album next year.
Kynsy – Mr Nice Guy
One of Ireland’s most exciting artists right now. I love Kynsy’s sound, attitude and songwriting. This is a catchy, earworm of a track that should be played on every radio station.
Sharon Van Etten & Angel Olsen – Like I Used To
I hear this song like an ode to great duets. There’s a common ground of style and influence that is rendered perfectly between the two artists — a little bit country, a little bit classic rock, a little bit blues. Their vocals blend beautifully, especially in the last line of the chorus: “Avoiding the crowds like I used to”. Same.
Big Thief – Little Things
Adrienne Lenker and Buck Meek are probably my two favourite guitarists working together right now. This track sounds like a conversation between their two instruments that never lands on the topic; the instability of these guitars, the off-kilter metre, Lenker’s soft, sweet vocals, the tone of it all. Big Thief has released seven songs this year and any one of them could be argued as the best.
Self Esteem – I Do This All The Time
I’ve already gone on about how brilliant this song is in countless other places. I Do This All The Time is a rallying cry for pleasure activism. It made me feel less alone in a year when I couldn’t see my friends as often or in the way I wanted to. A revelation.
Torres – Don’t Go Putting Wishes In My Head
If you want proof that lists get it wrong, just look at how many have been fast asleep on Torres. This is indie music at its best; great lyrics, catchy melodies, gorgeous chord progressions, a real sense of vulnerability.
“Don’t spend your mornings and your evenings in my bed, if you don’t want me believing that you’re never gonna leave me, darling,” — every syllable fits like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. From the synthy opening, Mackenzie Scott’s deep, almost country vocal tone, the classic- rock drums, the melody, the mood, the guitars… There’s not a single thing about this song that isn’t perfect.
Niall Byrne is the founder of the most-influential Irish music site Nialler9, where he has been writing about music since 2005 . He is the cohost of the Nialler9 Podcast and has written for the Irish Times, Irish Independent, Cara Magazine, Sunday Times, Totally Dublin, Red Bull and more. Niall is a DJ, founder of Lumo Club, event curator and producer of gigs, parties & events.