Diarmuid and Brían Mac Gloinn are brothers in folk who make music under the name Ye Vagabonds. Their second album Nine Waves from 2022, continues to get regular rotation on my vinyl record player.
This year the band supported boygenius (and released a charity single with them), played Sounds From A Safe Harbour in Cork, toured the UK, Europe and released a visual accompaniment film to Nine Waves.
Here are are the brothers’ choices for this year.
As the old saying goes, you’d stand in the snow to hear Rachael sing, which is pretty much what happened at a festival earlier this year when we stood in a torrential downpour to catch her set. It’s a relief to finally be able to listen to her in the comfort of our homes.
This is an introspective, slightly romantic ballad with a beautiful tender melody. It has a poignancy but also a sense of humour. Her voice moves from dark maroon velvet to gliding through the upper ranges like a majestic falcon. The song could almost stray into sentimental territory if it didn’t have a satirical self help monologue delivered by none other than Doireann Ní Bhríain, the woman responsible for announcing the stops on the Luas line. Class.
Love Who We Are Meant To
Anyone who caught a show on Leslie Feist’s recent Multitudes tour got way more than they bargained for, witnessing a wholesale reimagining of what a live show could be, blending multi-media, theatrical wind ups, and a kabuki drop midway to blow everyone’s tiny, tiny minds. It was nearly too good. But Feist doesn’t need to fall back on gimmicks or elaborate stage craft to deliver a great performance and her songs still very much speak for themselves.
This song is a more or less just a simple guitar and vocal arrangement but she plucks, strums and drums on the body of the guitar and pulls and stretches the timing of phrases to follow the lyric creating a more sensitive backing than any straight rhythmic chordal accompaniment. Her voice is stunning. There’s great emotional range between the conversational low notes and the wavering, crystal clear upper register and it packs the lyric with so much feeling you just want to stamp your feet and cry.
The lyric delicately unpacks the confusion, regrets and doubts that can follow people into committed mature relationships, made no less difficult by lingering and idealised memories of former loves. Gesturally, the lyric is the kind of shrug “oh well” befitting so many of the emotional inner conflicts of adult life.
Daniel Rossen and Christopher Bear
Without doubt a favourite film of 2023, scored by some of our favourite musicians. This is the debut film score by Daniel Rossen and Christopher Bear, two members of the band Grizzly Bear.
We’ve loved Grizzly Bear, especially the albums Yellow House and Shields since our late teens/ early twenties and Daniel Rossen’s 2022 album You Belong There is currently a regular fixture on the turntable.
This track has many of the elements we love in Rossen’s and Bear’s compositions. Richly textured, spacious soundscapes comprising a mixture of electronic and acoustic instruments, Bear’s rhythmic and ambient sensibilities and Rossens unmistakably moody guitar playing. It’s an absolutely gorgeous accompaniment to a beautiful film. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should. The title of this track, In Yun, is a Buddhist term described in the film as the layers of connection that form between people who have known each other in past lives.
Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer and Shazad Ismaily
This track is almost trance inducing. Shazad Ismaily’s bassline is cyclical enough to be hypnotic but varied enough to keep you following along. He sets up a swaying rhythm over which Vijay Iyers piano seems to wander in and out of focus, sometimes rippling like fabric on a breeze but with occasional passages of brightness and clarity emerging like bars of golden sunlight. Through this space the voice of Arooj Aftab drifts like smoke, a timbre so timeless it transports the listener outside of time. Pure beauty from this trio of musical magicians.
There’s something about Jófríður Ákadottír, it feels like she’s from a distant future as imagined by people from the distant past, or a spiritual being from outer space. Her music feels like both fantasy and sci-fi. It’s a gift that certain pop musicians have, a combination of peculiarities that allow their music to feel like it belongs to a very fully realised other world. Who knows, maybe it’s just Iceland. Anyway she’s got a great voice and we love how the synths sound on this track and the motif they set up from the beginning.
This could be a traditional song from another dimension. It seems to be about an orchid being reincarnated. For some reason reincarnation is one of the themes of this list of ours.
The Bonk are a mind-altering band. Their lyrics aren’t necessarily about anything as much as they seem, like the other elements of the music, to be attempting to shift our perception of emphasis and meaning to create a pleasant affect in our consciousness. Fair play to them.
The title of this song is a piece of idiosyncratically Irish wordplay. For those who don’t get it: May Feign sounds like the Irish language phrase ‘mé féin’ meaning ‘myself’. It’s a wonder no one’s accused them of being Joycean. Even if musically they’re drawing on a lot of jazz, Sun Ra and maybe some Beefheart, the verbal content is usually drawn from the deep wells of Waterford slang and their own unique Bonkian turns of phrase.
The song could be about navel gazing introspection or about feigning interest or both but more importantly it’s a weirdly satisfyingly off kilter polyrhythmic groove which, in fairness, is what The Bonk are all about. We’re big fans.
The Trees They Do Grow High
Attending the launch of ØXN’s debut album, CYRM, which took place, very appropriately, on Halloween, you’d be struck immediately by two facts: that it’s a very fully realised sound they’re making and also that, for a very new band, they had easily sold out both nights. But, of course, the members of ØXN are no strangers to the scene. You could even say that Radie Peat, John ‘Spud’ Murphy, Ellie Myler and Katie Kim comprise Ireland’s first droney spooky-folk supergroup.
This is a very dark and beautiful interpretation by Katie of a weird old traditional song about a twenty four year old woman whose father marries her to a fourteen year old lord who subsequently, inexplicably dies at age sixteen. Katie is more than capable of handling the haunting traditional melody which is displayed in an open coffin of somber piano chords, around which Radie and Ellie draw black curtains of harmony which perfectly offset a lush dark purple carpet of mellotron and drone upon which stands a sparse silver candelabra of percussion burning four black candles.
This is the first track of Sufjan’s latest album, Javelin, which he has dedicated to his late partner and best friend Evans Richardson. The track, and therefore the album, begins with an audible intake of breath as though he’s bracing himself for a deep dive into the feelings of grief and loss that are explored and expressed here. He sounds heartbreakingly fragile as he confronts his grief at the loss of his loved one and also his own fears of disease and death.
The arrangement seems to have a number of distinct movements almost like the phases of grief, beginning with a simple sorrowful farewell, rising into a chaotic maelstrom of electronics, percussion and voices midway through which finally emerge into an almost joyful resolution of electronic flute sounds and upbeat percussion.
Throughout these three movements the song is tied together by the single repeated phrase “Goodbye Evergreen, you know I love you”. It’s a deeply moving, honest and cathartic journey. If you really want to prime yourself for a good cry, check out Sufjan’s IG post about Evans before listening.
Lord Abore and Mary Flynn
It would be remiss not to mention Lankum on this list even if it does mean giving Radie Peat a second mention. This track is unusual for Lankum in that we hear Cormac Dermody taking the lead vocal and arranging the guitar part too. This is a simple, beautifully executed arrangement and a gorgeous interpretation of a traditional song. It’s the pairing of Cormac and Radie’s senses of harmony in both the vocal and the guitar parts respectively that form the core of the arrangement. The story, of a son poisoned by his mother for loving the wrong woman and his lover dying of a broken heart, has plenty of room to breathe in this telling.
We’re In Love
What’s impressive about Boygenius is that they’re working within the pretty well tilled field of folk-pop songwriting but they’re all so good at what they do (singing, playing guitars and writing songs) they make you sit up and listen or, maybe more accurately, curl up under your duvet with headphones on and really listen. There’s a lot of originality in their song-writing that seems to stem from their peculiar personal fixations.
This song is a good example of that. It’s a love song that deals in talk of blood pacts, skinny dipping, sad karaoke, and baby scorpions. None of it feels affected and it’s all tied together by a narrative of past and future lives (I told you it was a theme) that culminates in the protagonist describing their future self so that they’ll recognise each other in their next lives – “I’ll be the boy with a pink carnation pinned to my lapel…”
In under five minutes, the song sets up a very personal mythology generated in the vivid imaginings or arcane insights of someone who’s in an intensely romantic relationship and then uses it to say something that feels universal about love in a way that’s completely devoid of cliché. The simple arrangement of Lucy Dacus’ voice, soft piano and gently strummed guitar allows the listener to pay full attention to the unique characters and story that are conjured in the text. So good.
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.