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Nialler9’s Top 30 albums of 2021

Nialler9’s Top 30 albums of 2021

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2021 Best of | Best albums | Best songs | Irish albums | Irish songs | Podcast episodes | Guest selections

10.

Kojaque

Town’s Dead

Three years on from Deli Daydreams, the mixtape that established Kevin Smith as one of Ireland’s finest rappers and storytellers, Town’s Dead was the debut album proper, a release that conceptualises itself around a single New Year’s eve night out.

Smith’s got ambition. One of the questions he asked himself was music would Kendrick Lamar make if he was from Dublin? Such is the level of scope that Kojaque strives for.

The vision in his head is realised. The Girl Band-sampling title track sets out the stall early and alludes to the current generational disillusionment of no gaffs, high rent and cultural loss, and is a call for change, set to one of the songs of the year.

The NYE narrative is weaved around songs which allude to the night out’s debauchery along with reflections on Smith’s own upbringing, (‘No Hands’ and ‘Casio’) and the crooked in charge get away with bringing a country to its knees, while low-level drug dealers are punished (‘Black Sheep Pt. 1’)

There are actually funny interludes (“why would Domino’s text you to say he loves you?” asks Betty’s fellah as played by Darren Conway) and this compelling album brandishes soft-burning rap, soul, jazzy hip-hop, boom bap dramatics, psychedelic jazz with assists from his Soft Boy counterpart Kean Kavanagh along with Maverick Sabre and Celia Tiab.

But it’s Kojaque rapping that drives it all forward – fully accented and multi-faceted, melodic and dynamic. He’s the centre of the record. In tackling a more ambitious narrative than the week of a Deli worker, Town’s Dead scope is larger taking in the root causes of preoccupations with sex, violence, drugs while destitution and the root causes of modern city malaise is addressed. Town’s not dead, it’s just dormant. This is a wake up call.


9.

Tirzah

Colourgrade

If you felt like you needed to occupy a liminal space far away from the P-word this year, Tirzah’s music on her second album Colourgrade offered that service. The English musician’s output feels like the result of someone who has not slept for 48 hours and is in a sleepy flow state about to drift off.

Its warped tracks were informed by the birth of her first child, and explores “recovery, gratitude and new beginnings”, things only tangentially felt on a sparsely elemental album.


8.

Saint Sister

Where I Should End

If the debut album from Belfast’s Morgana MacIntyre and Derry’s Gemma Doherty was coined “atmosfolk,” a useful term by the group to describe their harp and synthesizer folk music, their second album didn’t need a shorthand term to describe the band’s rich sound.

What it is – the sound of a band coming out of their shell. Recorded with Rían Trench in The Meadow, Co. Wicklow, the song-craft of Where I Should End was honed on and off the road, and the songs are intently shifted into a bolder template of sonics and directness.

The folk-driven harmonies of Doherty and MacIntyre are at the core of their appeal, their intertwined vocals ever magnetising, while musically, there’s more added with drum machines, electronic tones, swelling string arrangements at carefully chosen parts and bigger pop melodies on the big Tom Jones-referencing ‘Karaoke Song’ and the cathartic closer ‘Any Dreams?’ while the alchemy of their vocals is placed alongside Lisa Hannigan on ‘The Place That I Work’.

That song, like many others here, are rooted in places and time, a bookshop where an old friend greets the singer with something unresolved between them, a stairwell in Paris after receiving bad news (the stirring ‘Irish Hour’), the bicycle where a pregnancy is revealed (‘Manchester Air’), a social club in a US college town (‘Date Night’). These vignettes and spaces give the album a cinematic feel, revealing a life lived, and is expansive and expressive in a way that can’t be reduced to a simple tag.

Saint Sister appeared on the Nialler9 Podcast this summer.


7.

Tyler, The Creator

CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST

Tyler is back after the conceptual analogue-sealed IGOR and he’s having a lot of fun in a mixtape format. Call Me If You Get Lost is a trip, with DJ Drama as the bellowing host, and Tyler like a man reborn and enlightened. There is no teenage angst here, Tyler is living it up with his toes out in Geneva, but his pronouncements of gratitude are self-aware.

With richly-woven instrumentals and an air of a cool breeze, Call Me If You Get Lost feels as if Tyler is breaking off from the dancefloor at the party to pay you attention and share stories, as Lil Wayne, Pharrell and Lil Uzi Vert take the mic.


6.

John Francis Flynn

I Would Not Live Always

I Would Not Live Always is a progressive album for the Dublin musician John Francis Flynn to release as a his debut on Rough Trade’s River Lea imprint.

Far from being an introductory trad solo album to the Stoneybatter musician who plied his passion in The Cobblestone pub (the proposed hotel development was refused planning permission and was a Flynn was a notable figure in its protests), I Would Not Live Alway pushes these old songs learned from Ewan MacColl, settled Traveller Paddy Quilligan Shirley Collins, Frank Harte and more into bold sonic territory.

Flynn’s sonorous baritone is deep and cavernous, and his guitar and flute playing is aided by Slow Moving Clouds/Skipper’s Alley bandmate Ultan O’Brien and Ross Chaney who is responsible for the album’s Tascam tape loops that give the album an experimental edge.

Also playing on the record is Brendan Jenkinson who also produced, engineered and mixed it. Consuelo Breschi of the duo Varo, sean nós singer Saileog Ní Ceannabháin and Phil Christie (O Emperor / The Bonk) also contribute.

The album feels like a natural response to the sound of Lankum, an encouraging step out of the traditional breach without the sacrifice of a good tune, and the songs are expansive, meditative and filled with imagery and dynamism.

 I Would Not Live Always showcases a musician who is versed in tradition, but also interested in creating music of folk and electronic proportions that adds new textures to this rooted style of music.


5.

Dry Cleaning

New Long Leg

The debut album from London band Dry Cleaning is pitched like a post-punk spoken word performance art album, and while that sounds awful, the band make it work with creative aplomb.

While the players make art-rock guitar band music that references Sonic Youth, The Fall and Gang of Four, it’s Florence Shaw’s recitative dry wit “vocals” that sound like they were from taken from overheard conversations that are the big draw – endlessly quotable, fragments of trivial dialogue, narrative passages, and mundane monologues that all add up to a surprising effect like opening hidden cupboards in a house, and discovering illuminating diaries of modern life.


4.

Little Simz

Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

Simbiatu “Simbi” Abisola Abiola Ajikawo takes an explication of her nickname on her fourth album as Little Simz, that serves as an explosive and grand album produced by close collaborator Inflo (Sault, Adele) that brandishes confident versatile delivery and a throughline of soul music in all its forms throughout its pointed rap songs.

A 65-minute 19-track album it may be, but it flies by even with the grating posh English narrator interludes included. Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is a macroscopic release that jumps between the core of soul, rap, blues, gospel and funk with ease, with Simz sharing stories of empowerment, family, industry machinations, trauma and validation. Its length, in the end, was one of its enduring characteristics, that enabled repeat visits to the world of Simbi in 2021.


3.

Self Esteem

Prioritise Pleasure

You’ve heard us go at at length on the Nialler9 Podcast and on the site about Rebecca Lucy Taylor and the songcraft and lyrics on her second Self Esteem album Prioritise Pleasure this year.

And why not? A superb album from a shining songwriter and magnetic lyricist who as a “WOMAN-IN-HER-THIRTIES” has recalibrated herself from a member of an inoffensive indie-band to a frontwoman of a a big pop project with heart and smarts, conveying the quietly radical learnings of “doing the work” to become a more honest, true person to yourself and others.

There are many marquee moments from the song of the year ‘ I Do This All The Time’ to the smart pop of‘Fucking Wizardry’, or ‘Still Reigning’ to songs that strive for strength, self-care and admit fallibility.

And lyrically, Prioritise Pleasure has some of the year’s best one-liners (“Sexting you at the mental health talk seems counterproductive”).

In today’s pop ecosystem, music is often a vessel for stardom and charisma, but Taylor hasn’t sidelined the music, she is interesting and substantial as a both a personality and in her art, with big choral vocals, electronic breakthroughs, pop melodies galore and drum-beat catharsis.

Sidebar: It is an interesting coincidence that in this numbing time, both Self-Esteem and Dry Cleaning both sing of experiencing everything but feeling nothing.


2.

For Those I Love

For Those I Love

When Dubliner David Balfe first released For Those I Love in 2019, the album dedicated to his friends and particularly the passing of Paul Curran, it was never intended to be anything more than a Bandcamp release.

But the album’s fierce narrative of grief, pain and coping with loss and loss of hope in the wake of a friend’s death is so palpable, so real and so expressive, that the record is deservedly got a full wider release on UK label September Recordings and a fresh round of critical appraisal.

The sentiments written about the album in June 2019 before the album was pulled still stand, and since, its towering live performance at a hometown Dublin Olympia show have brought this complex and difficult album to a triumphant stage, in a new way.

Nialler9 Podcast: For Those I Love – David Balfe on finding hope in grief & friendship
For Those I Love – A deep dive into the samples featured on the record

1.

Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, The London Symphony Orchestra

Promises

In 2015, the 75-year-old saxophonist and jazz legend Pharoah Sanders became aware of the work of Sam Shepard aka Floating Points through his Elaenia album. A musical friendship was struck over lunch and the pair, 40 years apart, hatched a plan to make a collaborative album, that would be Sanders’ first in 10 years.

Promises plays like a live album, although it was recorded in two countries a year apart with the majority first captured at Sargent Recorders in Los Angeles in the summer of 2019 and the string recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra at AIR Studios in London in the summer of 2020.

Over nine movements, a recurring melodic motif of the album suggests suspense and wonder and provides a dialogue for a celestial event – a spiritual electronic jazz album that is filled with light and cosmic production touches.

It’s a journey of that repeating motif, refracted through Sanders’ tenor saxophone, LSO’s soaring strings, piano notes and silence woven between the passages.

It’s a transcendental experience, a slowly unfurling cascade of music with spacious beauty and soars like no other album this year.


2021 Best of | Best albums | Best songs | Irish albums | Irish songs | Podcast episodes | Guest selections

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