Una Mullally is one of the nation’s most revered journalistic voices. She is a columnist for the Irish Times as well as the co-host of the United Ireland Podcast.
Here are her top tracks of the year. Last year’s list from Una is here.
All of my top ten tracks this year are essentially “Irish music”. That wasn’t an intentional decision, it’s just what’s happening. Never before has there been such a diversity of music and people making it at such a high level in so many different genres. The scenes feel so rich and devoid of ego in a way that I haven’t encountered before. There is a genuine ecosystem forming away from the prying eyes of the industry. Perhaps we now have an opportunity to create an industry infrastructure that doesn’t mimic the toxic and frankly stupid legacy anti-artist music industry structures globally. The good stuff that’s going on also makes a lot of the more middle of the road radio pop stuff sound and look ridiculous. I think the main through-line of music being made in Ireland right now, or by Irish people elsewhere, is a sense of authenticity and a kind of artistic intention that isn’t about commodifying creativity. It speaks volumes that there’s easily ten more tunes made here that I could have added to this in a non-tokenistic way. Prediction: 2021 will be the best year for Irish music in a decade. See yiz down the front.
Bicep – Apricots
You know when a tune is so good, so evocative, so “in the place” it’s made for, that you almost feel placed elsewhere listening to it? Falling against the walls of a club corridor, losing your friends, trying to focus in the jacks. Amazing. I know everyone will laugh at me for saying this, but when a track even has a hint of Touch Me by Rui Da Silva, I am on board. There’s a touch of that schematic or tonality, whatever you want to call it, in this, a piece of music that somehow both evokes and represents that moment on a night out where you have tipped yourself over into another realm. I cannot wait to be on a dance floor when this comes on. I will cry.
God Knows & friends – Who’s Asking? (South West Allstars Remix)
What a tune. Has there been any better representation of the creative diversity in Irish hip hop this year than this? Absolute belter. So fun as well, utterly confident, weird, and a moment where everyone is doing their own thing so well, that the uniqueness collides to make something collectively unique – a total contradiction, but that’s how smart this tune is. Upping the levels again, for real.
Nealo – You Stole My Soul Like A Nine To Five
An amazing closing track on a beautiful album, I love how Nealo approaches emotion without skirting around the issue, he’s just so direct. I love the cadences here, those little inflections that burst through on occasion. Rhythmically his flow here has that great mix of being really quite dense and packed at times, but then just loping into this hazy, almost hungover atmosphere. Deep, honest, beautiful.
Pillow Queens – Liffey
I remember hearing this tune live at the Picnic one year, Salty Dog stage, and that hook “some day you’ll have my head on a silver plate” stuck in my head. When I heard the recorded version, my jaw kind of dropped. It has that fullness that Tommy McLaughlin brings production-wise, his shoegazey wall of scuzzy sound. Pillow Queens’ music has this mad temporality to it, probably relating mostly to queer time, just pulling you back through emotional memory dimensions that somehow always end up back in a formative space. Like the Liffey, it’s dirty, magical, strangely familiar, steadfast. What a record!
For Those I Love – Top Scheme
I’m finding it increasingly hard not to overstate the importance of Dave Balfe as an artist in, from and for this moment. His work is revolutionary. His ability to open up a channel within which he can articulate his own pain, while also having the empathy for the listener and audience to facilitate them being able to place their own pain, grief, sadness into that shared, abstract, space is incredible. Sometimes I even wonder if what he’s doing is strictly “music” at all. I was in the church in Dingle for his performance at Other Voices and it was completely overwhelming. I had to sit on the ground outside in the cold afterwards and just decompress in a way that has never happened to me. How many thousands of gigs have I been at? How is this happening now? This album is next level, as was the mixtape he put out, and Top Scheme is a vital, visceral, punk, roar. Protest songs have dominated this year, thematically, for me, and this is the finest contemporary example of that, in my opinion. It also has probably one of the most meaningful uses of “fuck off” in a song ever. Tear it all down!
Róisín Murphy – Something More
An anthem from the Queen of Wicklow on a record full of bangers. Murphy at her finest; so slick, louche, insane melodic prowess, just cool as fuck. It’s amazing that this album is coming from a person and a place, Murphy, who has already made so much good music, yet somehow (and this is absolutely not meant to sound unfair) Róisín Machine felt like she is now completely hit her stride. It makes you enjoy and anticipate her future development as an artist, someone who is really challenging herself, and making her best work as she progresses, instead of leaning back on former glories – as great as they are. A truly inspiring artist.
Fontaines D.C. – I Don’t Belong
I respect Fontaines for banging out their second record quickly so none of the jitters that often orientate around such pressure can properly surface. Smart. A Hero’s Death is a lot more unrooted, and I think it’s a brave thing to embrace that, instead of trying to mimic the state of mind that birthed the debut album. Anyway, I love this song as an opening statement to the album. It lays out the stall: downbeat and curmudgeonly, but also incredibly liberated.
Lethal Dialect feat. Eva Jane Gaffney – To Whom It May Concern
There are loads of tracks you could choose from LD’s truly excellent third record in this trilogy, but this is the year of the Irish protest song after all. This amazing performance and delivery by Eva Jane Gaffney envelopes a piece of masterful storytelling about addiction, bureaucracy, political power and callousness. Culture is the most potent political force in Ireland, which is something the political establishment don’t get because they are culturally static and work to hinder the conditions within which culture forms and art is made. If you haven’t listened to the album yet, do that right now.
CMAT – I Wanna Be A Cowboy, Baby!
I love CMAT’s wonderfulness as a performer, and her endlessly fun online banter, but it’s her songwriting talent that pulls me towards her the most. This is the kind of song a real expert writes. It’s pure country too, in that behind the almost cartoonish initial presentation is this incredible dark morose loneliness. Lyrically, the wolverine section of the song is astonishing, and how she manages to carry off a lightness throughout while also underpinning the lyrics and structure with a sense of hopelessness and mourning is really quite something.
Gemma Dunleavy – Up De Flats
I feel like this track did for the broader consciousness of Irish music what Ladbroke Grove did for UK music in 2019, it’s like this amazing deft touch, where what is nostalgic feels contemporary, and what is referential feels original. And all of that is imbued with a sense of place, purpose, history, and joy. It also speaks to the fact that you don’t have to be super literal to be making a sort of social commentary, and also that working class artists are automatically spoken about in political terms (as I’ve just done), because the very representation of a place and a people is in opposition to the forces that want to demonise, gentrify, silo, and slag off. Gemma is a true artist who adapts to form in a way that I think is riveting, and just so exciting because you genuinely don’t know where she’s going to go or come out with next. An absolute star.