Pillow Queens – ‘Gay Girls’
It’s not just about the song, though as a pop-inflected piece of DIY affirmation it certainly belongs at the top of this list, right down to the big aul’ key change at the end. The last decade of Irish independent music has seen the medium clearly and concisely reflect an unprecedented change in Irish society and culture, both in the diversity of talent that we have, and their artistic fearlessness.
‘Gay Girls’, an immensely personal song laden with poignant but ultimately triumphant imagery of self-realisation and ‘owning it’, exemplifies the very best of what independent Irish music is in 2018 and beyond – a place for honesty, emotion, and expression.
But its reverberations went far beyond any end of year lists, or the opinions of music scribes: it spoke both from and to peoples’ lived experiences, and the heartfelt response that it received from both music heads and casual listeners, upon both its single release and that of its beautiful promo video, spoke to the song’s immediacy, earnestness and power.
And that’s what most important about Pillow Queens, ultimately: the Dublin four-piece’s ability to reach and affect people, create art that makes people feel a little less alone in a cold, sometimes hostile world, and give people something to get into. One can only imagine the impact they’ll make in 2019.
Lisa O’Neill – ‘Violet Gibson’
This is an odd one for me as a writer: though ‘Heard a Long-Gone Song’ is a fine record and thoroughly deserves its accolades, including the Guardian’s Folk Album of the Year, there is a single track that I keep coming back to, more so than any other from an album that stands alongside other works of recent trad and folk in breathing new life into the genre.
The tale of Violet Gibson, a Dubliner who were it not for a quick head movement on the part of her quarry would have gone down in history as the assassin of Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini, has been documented and told over the years in many forms. The consequences of Gibson’s act were profound: the Italian right seized on Gibson as a figure of hate, and further lionised the self-styled strongman, who in turn emboldened Adolf Hitler and others across Europe. We all know where that went.
Where Cavan singer-songwriter O’Neill excels, and quite frankly devastates, is seizing upon Gibson’s perspective and the theories surrounding her mental state, framing a unique historical event that happened late in Gibson’s life as the starting point for a heartbreaking look at how she was handled by everyone from Italian media, to the institution in which she saw out her remaining days. She also quietly examines ‘madness’ through the eyes of her subject, as an apparent motivation for radical ideas, to humanising effect: “I saw a bad egg, and thought I’d take the bad egg out”.
Kojaque ft. Luka Palm – ‘Politicksis’ (prod. Jar Jar Jr.)
There’s not a whole bunch that I can say about Dublin rapper Kojaque and the crew of beatmakers, rappers and collaborators that comprises Soft Boy Records. They’re everywhere now, and they’ve gotten to the forefront of the Irish hip-hop conversation (yer Da’s comedy YouTube Dubs notwithstanding) completely on their own, with Kojaque alone racking up two million Spotify streams and his first sold-out tour.
There is much to be said, however, for lo-fi internet sensation Robert O’Halloran, aka Jar Jar Jr., who from his laptop in the Boole library in University College Cork, assembled musically-literate beats that attracted the attention of the burgeoning genre movement in its early, pre-study-music form, and quietly racked up millions of views on fan-made videos and became a force of nature in his own right.
‘Politicksis’ is the perfect distillation of both mens’ stories and abilities – Kojaque unleashes verses of incisive and painfully resonant political/cultural commentary, holding court on everything from Catholicism (“hope the red man gives you hell/how’d you outdo his biddings?”), to the grind of wage-slavery amid an austerity-legacy high in living costs. Working-class consciousness permeates his work, but Kojaque’s ambitions are summed up most concisely in a verse-closing gem: “While you’re enjoying the picture, I’m busy writing the credits”.
Post-Punk Podge x DJ Nervous – ‘Never Coming Home’
Post-Punk Podge came seemingly from nowhere this year, a tall lad with a Limerick accent and a John Lydon-esque sneer, clutching a distorted bass guitar, a violin and a handful of equally bold collaborators that helped the envelope-headed polymath dispense agitprop left, right and centre. Disarmingly honest in his experiences with mental health care in Ireland and austerity-fuelled political disaffection, Podge and his Technohippies proceeded to blaze a live trail around venues and festivals up and down the country.
It was hard to whittle down one track to choose from a body of work that this past year included his debut EP, fundraising singles to aid with local homelessness, and an Amen-break-referencing melter of a tune in ‘Revolution, Yeah!’. But there was one track, released later in the year, that couldn’t be argued with, not least because it proves that Podge’s post-punk snarl commutes well across genre lines and collaborators.
Written alongside David Noonan of Dundalk shoegazers Just Mustard, ‘Never Coming Home’ is the kind of raw and honest documentation of domestic abuse, and its impact on families from a first-person perspective, that ought to make us deeply uncomfortable as a society. It must surely have been an exorcism of demons for Podge, then, who can almost be heard physically throwing himself into his performance. Though it’s a very hard listen to say the very least, it’s an example of why an artist as vital and outspoken as Post-Punk Podge is so important.
All proceeds from downloads went to Adapt House, in Limerick, who work to help families suffering from domestic violence and abuse locally.
Villagers – ‘Trick of the Light’
I’ll admit to having not ‘gotten’ Villagers in the dim and distant past, at a time when my own perspective on music in general, much less Irish music, was wilfully incomplete, and my personal listening habits were, for various reasons (some of them ill-informed), somewhat inflexible. There’s something to be said for time and circumstance, however, and on the balmy, blissful night that Ireland as a country passed the Marriage Equality referendum in 2015, Conor O’Brien and crew lit up the Cork Opera House, gently but distinguishably. There was a lot of love in the air, and I sat rapt, as I was tasked as a live correspondent, as the jigsaw fell into place.
It was another balmy summer this year when O’Brien readied and released his fifth full-length, ‘The Art of Pretending to Swim’, and album highlight ‘Trick of the Light’ was a perfect piece of music for time and place. Gently dipped in reverb and loosely swaddled in strings, it speaks of personal resolve and faith in one’s self, seemingly speaking to the reserve of strength that many people had to dig into over the course of a year of further profound changes.
O’Brien’s music is accessible, reverberates with the influence of his past as a person and a creator, and has seen he and the Villagers project achieve mainstream success and column inches. Yet, for all of this, he and his music both retain their independence and agency, and make full use of the same.
Robocobra Quartet – ‘You’ll Wade’
Chris Ryan and his Robocobra Quartet have done some cool, criminally-ignored stuff over the years, taking spoken-word, post-hardcore and jazz in their hands and smashing them together like childhood playthings. Your writer, tasked with a catchy lede for a review of their first record for a UK blog, lumbered them with the ‘Fugazi meets Charles Mingus’ tag, and with second album ‘Plays Hard to Get’, they’ve both seemingly both paid heed, and worked to set said tag aside in favour of something entirely new.
‘You’ll Wade’ is an example of this, a cocky, palm-muted riffer that slowly chews over the problems and torture of existence with the help of a full brass section. Ryan’s characteristically sarky, spat-out words take on something of a sung quality, balancing the poetry of post-irony and adulthood with a loose but decidedly mathy groove from behind the kit: “the growing pains continue/after you grew… everything is old news”.
The piece finishes on a foreboding note, as distorted and reverby bass puts to a stop the menacing advancement of a string section that turns up elsewhere on the long-player. A meditation on ennui, a co-feeling of fear and dread in the shadow of expectations, and on a more visceral level, a genre-melting jam par excellence.
Dott ft. Sadie Depuis – Like a Girl
Dott are the kind of quiet success story that, as a music journalist, you live to hopefully help people uncover however you can. An unassuming fuzz-pop outfit built on Galwegians Tebs and Anna’s working dynamic, the band have moved from Ireland to Canada and back over the years, working with US label Graveface Records in releasing EPs and a pair of albums built on the band’s simple but utterly joyous lo-fi sound.
This past May saw the band release ‘Like a Girl’ in solidarity with Repeal the 8th campaigners, ahead of its inclusion on the band’s second album ‘Heart Swell’, and the song neatly encapsulates everything about the struggle faced by campaigners and activists, addressing everything from institutional misogyny to the well of energy and dissatisfaction the movement symbolised, serving as a gut check and a tonic for the troops.
‘Heart Swell’ itself is an ideal jumping-off point for those unacquainted with the band’s charms, dialling down the reverb-y tone of previous releases and ideally showcasing their sunny, noisy but concise pop songcraft, with vocal harmonies hopping right to the fore in tunes like singalong ‘Not Sorry’ and the restraint and sensitivity shown in ‘Self-Help’.
Just Mustard – ‘Tainted’
Your writer insists that there is nothing humanly possible to dislike about Just Mustard, the Dundalk five-piece that temper shoegaze’s reverbier excesses with post-punk restraint and trip-hop’s sense of plunging sonic and internal depths. At times reminiscent of genre forefathers like Cranes and Slowdive, the band’s music seemingly also echoes with the influence of their peers and contemporaries closer to home.
Perhaps it’s wishful music-journalistic thinking or that Corkonian brand of civic pride, but there’s elements of The Altered Hours’ more downcast moments to be found in ‘Tainted’, halfway through debut album ‘Wednesday’. Long, shimmering notes held over a Bonham-sized jamming drum break set the tone for an ideal jumping-off point for people that haven’t had the privilege, giving way to layers of distortion and fuzz held together by sheer tension.
While this description possibly betrays the array of influences and reference points the band has, from echoes of Frank Black’s manic yelling on ‘Deaf’ to ‘Pictures’ tip of the hat to bass music of various kinds, it’s also the best this writer can assemble in a short burst of words – you’re best to take the whole record in for yourself.
Gadget and the Cloud – ‘Continue’
Corkwoman Kelly Doherty’s idiosyncratic brand of ambient electronica has slowly garnered a bottom line of support over the past few years, braced by a fiercely DIY attitude that’s seen her go from playing college gigs over malfunctioning hotel PA systems to supporting Negative Gemini in Dublin this past autumn, in addition to her work as a selector for Dublin Digital Radio and a passionate, articulate social activist.
A concept album based on the loneliness felt by ‘people left behind after the party’, tackling the spectres of addiction, depression and anxiety that have always underpinned a lot of party culture was a brave choice, but in ‘Songs for Sad People to Dance To’, Doherty released in March 2018 a set of mutually complementary textural explorations and meditations on the condition.
‘Continue’ is strangely one of the ‘movers’ of the whole thing, moving from one wavy and distant pass of sound to the next, with a clicking, shifting, scraping percussion underneath all of it, creating an odd balance of retro-futurist comfort, post-punk coldness and minimalism that best summarises Doherty’s sonic explorations, although stammering, morse-code jam ‘This Year’ takes some beating in those regards.
God Alone – ‘Dagda’
Corkonian wunderkinder God Alone have been together for the bones of three years now, and have slowly meshed the world-weary wist of black metal and shoegaze’s harsher edges with the more propulsive aspects of math-rock and electronica, to intoxicating live effect. Gigging incessantly, including on a seemingly weekly basis in Cork, the five-piece are among a clutch of young artists to have generated goodwill and been taken to heart by a Leeside music scene that’s seen its fair share of heartbreak over the past decade, with venue closures and band breakups.
That hard work has paid off: 2018 saw the band take on its first tour, do its first lap of the festival circuit, record their debut album and take home ‘best-band’ honours from Brighton’s Mammothfest metal weekender, the prize being a 22-date UK tour in Q3 2019. All of this, mind you, while most of the band were in fifth and sixth year.
Though debut album “Poll na mBrón” sadly misses end-of-year lists by dint of a December release, leadoff single ‘Dagda’ set the tone for its concept and what people could expect from an album about the infamously abusive Our Lady’s Hospital, on Cork city’s northside. A stuttering, layered riff forms the basis of a sonic onslaught that sits and shifts uncomfortably between genres, while the execution of same leaves the listener in no doubt as to this outfit’s vast and frankly frightening potential.