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the best international, Irish and Cork records

Climate change anxiety and Tango In The Night-era Fleetwood Mac on the face of it make for unorthodox bedfellows. 

But this is the magic formula with which former actress Tamara Lindeman conjures on the extraordinary fifth album by her project The Weather Station. 

Drawing on her fear and frustration over the climate crisis the record takes a stark message – unless things change for the better they’re going to change for the worse – and grafts it to a classic songwriting chassis. And yet, if the music is sublime, the sense of dread, rising like the sea levels, carries a chill.

2: Park Hye Jin, Before I Die 

The era of the pandemic album is not quite over. Recorded through lockdown, the debut full length LP from Seoul-born, LA-based producer and DJ Park Hye Jin is suffused in anxiety but carried forward by waves of drowsy, metronome-like beats. 

It’s eerie and esoteric, with a restless energy that becomes contagious as Hye Jin skips between 21st century trip-hop and shoe-gaze-influenced electronica. 

And who could argue with the purity of the sentiments she expresses on songs such as Before I Die, where, an ocean removed from her family, she delivers the devastating lament of “I miss, my mum, I miss, my dad”.

Halsey
Halsey

3: Halsey, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power 

The artist born Ashley Nicolette Frangipane has swerved between mainstream r’n’b and moshpit emo across three previous records. 

However, Halsey’s fourth album emphatically shifts gear with help from producer Trent Reznor, who brings the guttural industrial throb that is a hallmark of his band, Nine Inch Nails.

“All of this is temporary,” sings Halsey on Bells In Santa Fe, a dour ballad of about love, loss and the impermanence of the things we hold dearest. 

It’s a bracing listen. And yet, challenging though it is, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power confirms Halsey has finally arrived as an artist.

4: Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee

Michael Zauner could write the book on grief and heartache. 

In fact, she did write the book on grief and heartache in the form her bestselling Crying In H Mart. 

Part memoir, part rumination on life after the death of her mother, it has become a bestseller. 

But Zauner was ready to move on and let a little light in on her third Japanese Breakfast LP, which is full of 1980s saxophone and zinging synths. 

It’s a record that will make you want to bounce out of bed and face the day with a spring in your step.

“I had written two albums about grief before, and now a book about grief,” she told me earlier this year. “I knew I wanted to tackle another topic. I had said, finally, everything I wanted to say about this life-changing experience. And I wanted to start a new chapter. I feel this album is the new chapter”.

5: Koreless, Agor

What is it about the British countryside and haunting techno? 

Boards of Canada hailed from deepest rural Scotland while the Aphex Twin’s Richard James – perhaps the most influential electronic artist since Kraftwerk – grew up in Cornwall. 

Now from out of the pastoral depths of North Wales comes producer and DJ Lewis Roberts, whose full length debut as Koreless draws on his fascination with folk horror (in particular the early 1970s Alan Clarke film, Penda’s Fen). 

The music has the ululating quality of Lord Summerisle’s band in The Wickerman, married to spectral trance grooves. 

To get a sense of what the project is about check out the song and video to Black Rainbow, in which figures in surgical foam fall in slow motion down a hill. It is mesmerising and unnerving.

6: Clairo, Sling

Claire Cottrell looked every centimetre in super-star in waiting when she played to a sold-out Dublin, Academy in December 2019. 

Yet she found her newly-acquired quasi-fame draining and so relocated to upstate New York to work with Lorde/Taylor Swift collaborator Jack Antonoff on her largely acoustic second full-length LP. 

Unplugged doesn’t mean disengaged, however, and Clairo’s songwriting is at its keenest on a project that positions her as a sort of Billie Eilish for the great outdoors set.

7: Lorde, Solar Power

Reviewers complained that the third album from Ella Yelich-O’Connor was too upbeat. 

It certainly made for a gentler listen than 2017’s Melodrama, where she found herself adrift in a tsunami of early 20s heartbreak. 

But closer listening reveals Solar Power to be something far eerier – a gothic-pop odyssey that tapped Yelich-O’Connor’s interest in folk horror and in the charismatic cults of the 1960s and 1970s. 

The sun is high in the sky – and yet the shadows cast by rhapsodic dirges such as Solar Power and Mood Ring are long and lingering.

 Wolf Alice 
 Wolf Alice 

8: Wolf Alice, Blue Weekend

The Londoners’ previous album won the Mercury Music Prize. 

Rather than be overawed by that achievement – or distracted by the baffling backlash that ensued – Wolf Alice ploughed on with Blue Weekend, an indie disco masterpiece that tackles subjects such as toxic masculinity, quarter-life crises and the importance of staying true to a friend in their most difficult moments.

Olivia Rodrigo 
Olivia Rodrigo 

9: Olivia Rodrigo, Sour 

The American high-school experience has been the universal vernacular for teenage heartbreak and the pain of growing up too quickly, and Rodrigo finds something new to say about the challenges of adolescence on a record that marries such universal themes as toxic break-ups and taking your driving test. 

There would be claims that Rodrigo’s fallen cheerleader look owed a lot to Courtney Love and to contemporary groups such as Pom Pom Squad. And yet, from her influences Rodrigo has created a singular debut.

10: Billie Eilish, Happier Than Ever 

With touring cancelled and the world otherwise occupied Eilish and her producer sibling Finneas had a blank slate and an opportunity to subvert the idea of the traumatic second album. 

They crafted an LP that somehow has something original to say about the downsides of overnight success and the impossible standards to which young women in the spotlight are subjected.

Irish Albums of the Year 

1: Bicep, Isles 

The Belfast duo of Andy Ferguson and Matt McBriar flexed their muscles on their second studio album with a collection of techno odysseys that paid tribute to the giants of the genre. 

“We never want to sound like the Prodigy. We never want to sound like the Chemical Bothers,” they told the Examiner in February. 

“It’s about making music that is for more than just clubs. With things like Spotify it’s easy to digest music all day now. People don’t just listen to electronic music in a club. They might listen to it as they’re out cycling.” 

2: Hannah Peel, Fir Wave 

Peel received a Mercury Music Prize nomination for Fir Wave, which shifts effortlessly between classical, electronica and movie soundtracks. 

Think the Doctor Who theme meets 1990s electronica – with Philip Glass playing in the adjoining room.

Orla Gartland
Orla Gartland

3: Orla Gartland, Woman on the Internet

Garland’s marriage of confessional songwriting and off-beat pop production resulted in a fresh and irresistible record, that blends addictive hooks with charmingly rickety recording techniques. 

It even became ever so slightly hyped, going top five in Ireland and top ten in the UK.

4: Strange Boy, Holy/Unholy

Limerick’s hip-hop scene is arguably the most vibrant in Ireland. 

And a searing and unforgettable urgency is woven through the music of Jordan Kelly, aka Strange Boy. 

Combining modern hip hop and Irish traditional music, Holy / Unholy digs into Kelly’s hardline Catholic upbringing – with unsettling and unforgettable results.

For Those I Love's David Balfe
For Those I Love’s David Balfe

5: For Those I Love, For Those I Love 

The trials of growing up and the loss of a friend to suicide are the fuel that burns into a thick tar of euphoria and angst on David Balfe’s For Those I Love project. 

With Balfe delivering shakey-cam reminiscing on his formative years in Coolock and Drimnagh while soul and techno samples flutter in the background, For Those I Love is a record about trauma sure to fill you with hope.

6: United Bible Studies, West Kennet Ascension

“Weird folk” collective United Bible Studies evoke Dead Can Dance and Gazelle Twin in a haunting collection of field recordings assembled at neolithic sites in Britain.

7 Sal Dulu, Xompulse 

A darkly-dreaming otherworldliness infuses the work of Dublin producer Sal Dulu. On Xompulse, Dulu shifts between genres as if in the grip of an out-of-body experience, jazz bleeding into ambient pop, hip-hop bars bristling alongside indie shoegaze.

 Rhiannon Giddens
Rhiannon Giddens

8: Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi, They’re Calling Me Home

Giddens is from North Carolina, Turrisi from Italy – but their lockdown album was recorded in their adopted home of Ireland and, steeped in loneliness and defiance, captures our pandemic experience.

9: Rejjie Snow, Baw Baw Black Sheep 

The Drumcondra rapper’s second official album is inspired by his favourite childhood movie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and crackles with a playful, disembodied energy.

10: James Vincent McMorrow, Grapefruit Season

The NME accused him of turning into Ed Sheeran. But McMorrow’s major label debut was, in truth, a sublime mash-up of soul-pop and campfire confessional.

Cork Albums Of The Year 

1: The Altered Hours, Convertible

From across Munster but based in Cork City through most of their career, The Altered Hours bring together psychedelic rock and a very Irish sense of the uncanny. 

And on their second album, the group plunges into a trippy whirlpool even as they channel the shoe-gaze spirit of My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive. 

A successful UK tour supporting Fontaines DC has set them up for a red-letter year in 2022.

Susan O'Neill and Mick Flannery
Susan O’Neill and Mick Flannery

2: Mick Flannery and Susan O’Neill, In The Game 

The iconic institution of this his ’n hers ballad is revived in winning form when Blarney bard Flannery collaborated with Co Clare songwriter O’Neill. 

Distantly acquainted and working largely over Zoom, the duo nonetheless developed a sparkling chemistry across a two-hander which dissects a fictional relationship teetering on the brink – and in so doing lays bare universal truths about falling in and out of love. 

Support dates in the United States with indie superstar Phoebe Bridgers crowned a winning year.

3: Fish Go Deep, This Bit of Earth

Another great record emerging from the darkest day of lockdown. 

Moving past the dance floor, house legends Greg Dowling and Shane Johnson tap their love dub, trip-hop and movie soundtracks – and their passion for Kevin Barry’s gothic urban fantasy City of Bohane. 

The result is a collection rooted in a universal sense of unease about the state of the planet but which also felt as quintessentially Cork as a ramble down Barrack Street. 

4: Jack O’Rourke, Wild Place 

The distance between the peace of the great outdoors and the tumultuousness of the human experience has been a recurring theme in music this year. 

And it is one again touched upon by Cork songwriter O’Rourke, whose piano-based second full length album glistens with a sense of wonder as he takes inspiration from his childhood growing up in Ovens.

Cathal Coughlan
Cathal Coughlan

5: Cathal Coughlan, Song of Co-Aklan 

Cathal Coughlan never stopped being a firebrand, even after he moved on from the apocalyptic art-pop of Fatima Mansions. 

But on his new album – arriving a decade after the underrated Rancho Tetrahedron – these flames burn fiercer than ever.

6: Brian Deady, The Healing 

The West Cork bluesman sets controls for the dance-floor on his impressive fifth album. 

The Healing moves beyond the retro touches of his recent, Memphis-recorded LPs, in favour of a rich palette of grooves, house pianos and multi-tracked vocals.

7: John Blek, On Ether and Air 

The final in a quartet of records by the Cork songwriter exploring themes of “the sea, the earth, the embers and the air”. 

It’s a collection of poignant ballads, and folky excursions that brim with wonder yet also channel some of the uncanniness of Paul Giovanni’s Wicker Man soundtrack.

Bess Cronin
Bess Cronin

8: Bess Cronin, The Songs of Bess Cronin

A compendium of around 200 of the songs in Irish and English which drew song-collectors from Ireland, Britain, and America to visit the mid-20th century sean-nós singer Bess Cronin – the “Muskerry Queen of Song” – at her home in Cill na Martra, outside Macroom, Co Cork.

9: John Spillane, 100 White Horses 

Recorded in lockdown, Spillane’s latest album delved deep into the urban textures of Cork City, with songs that name-check Bishopstown, Ballyphehane and UCC’s college gates.

10: Jimmy Crowley, Songs from the Beautiful City

Cork is an Eden, The Bells of Shandon, The Pride of Sweet Clogheen and The Ballad of Kathy Barry, are among the urban ballads performed by songwriting icon Crowley on what he says is his “last Cork album”.



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