New Irish music: The 10 best albums of 2024 so far

There’s also fine-featured shoegaze from Galway’s NewDad, intimate songs from family affair Driven Snow, and no-nonsense pop from Pillow Queens

Kneecap: the duo gives listeners an insight into their spiky world in their second album

Chequerboard: Souvenir

You can’t hurry some people. John Lambert has taken more than 10 years to deliver his fourth album, but, like a virtuoso craftsperson patiently tending to his long-term work, he fusses over his delicate “miniature” music in a way that would give a Zen master the shivers. Centred around nimble-fingered acoustic guitar, Lambert’s music gathers together elements of postrock (the very tranquil parts of Sigur Rós spring to mind), minimalism (from Brian Eno to Max Richter) and postclassical (from Jóhann Jóhannsson to Stephan Moccio). Cultivated tracks (coproduced, mixed, engineered and mastered by Lambert’s fellow Dublin-based electronic musician Stephen Shannon) such as A Story of a Decorative Plate, The Art of Friendship, Imperial Finery, Red Admiral and Vermilion place Chequerboard at the forefront of Irish ambient music. Lambert is no commercial slouch, either, with more than 22 million Spotify streams testifying to his popularity (even though you’d probably fail to recognise him on the street).

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Driven Snow: A Kind of Dreaming

Partners in music and life, Kieran McGuinness (ex-Delorentos) and Emily Aylmer (ex-Republic of Loose) formed Driven Snow under the cloak of Covid – and under a duvet as their three children scurried around. There is, then, a level of truth attached to these songs that can come only from knowing your cowriter extremely well. On Tonight, They’ll Find Me Lost, Aylmer sings “I know every crack on the old main road, but tonight you’d find me lost ... so lost I need some help from you, not from anyone else…” McGuinness, meanwhile, on Trying, sings “My dreams get dark at 3am, and I’m not so zippy like I pretend, but I’m trying…” Let’s not dwell too long, however, on the confessional (but not necessarily autobiographical) words of self-doubt and anxiety: surrounding them are some of the most gorgeous acoustic-folk earworms you’ll hear this year.

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Kneecap: Fine Art

Welcome to the spiky world of Kneecap, the Belfast trio of Mo Chara, Móglaí Bap and DJ Próvaí. They live in a community pub called the Rutz, wherein “religious affiliations are irrelevant”, everybody talks in bilingual bursts of chatter, and trad music wafts in the background. Produced in a defiantly crunchy manner by Toddla T (aka Thomas Bell, husband of the Dublin-born radio presenter, DJ and writer Annie Macmanus), the album’s dozen tracks (and six contextual interludes) tell the trio’s story via knuckle-duster songs such as I’m Flush, Ibh Fiacha Linne, Better Way to Live (featuring vocals from Grian Chatten of Fontaines DC), Parful and Rhino Ket. Lankum’s Radie Peat lends her voice to the opening track, 3CAG, which, while mellower than the bangers, sets the tone perfectly for what comes next.

Fine Art: Read our original review ]

NewDad: Madra

Despite NewDad’s drummer, Fiachra Parslow, saying otherwise, there are no influences we can detect of “barefooted, hurdy-gurdy-playing buskers” on his Galway band’s debut album. There are instead indelible traces of the very best of shoegaze music – those steel-fist-in-a-velvet-glove rhythms that were presented to us in the 1990s by the likes of Curve, Slowdive, Ride, Mazzy Star and My Bloody Valentine. NewDad might take the music as their artistic model, but the success of Madra lies not in what’s familiar but in the way it’s delivered. A key component is Julie Dawson, the band’s singer and primary lyricist, who doles out equal measures of charisma and anxiety in dapper songs such as Nosebleed, In My Head, White Ribbons, Nightmares, Where I Go and Dream of Me. The band react accordingly, with sharply honed riffs and earworm melodies.


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New Jackson: Oops…! Pop

David Kitt has never been one to look at what’s happening outside his front door and wonder what it would be like to chase it down the street. His creative alter ego – New Jackson has been stalking him since 2011, so it’s hardly a side project – connects with this frame of mind, with a new album that’s as fresh as a daisy and as familiar as your face in the mirror. Reference points zip into your head (Pet Shops Boys, Wham!, Kraftwerk) while a vocoder-treated cover of Stone Roses’ I Wanna Be Adored takes you from perplexed to charmed across a sprightly five minutes. It’s all deft killer, no dim filler, with the added gift of a superb closing song (With the Night at Our Feet) that glides from ear to ear in a forever loop of throbs and pulses.

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Niamh Regan: Come As You Are

Niamh Regan’s 2020 debut, Hemet, slipped out during the pandemic, quietly introducing a voice that felt familiar and comforting but also agitated. A cagey customer of a songwriter, Regan layers her work with hints of her life without divulging too much, but Come As You Are is different: it’s littered with songs that confess all to music that has as much swoon as swagger. Blame and Belly are ice-crisp indie rock-pop, while silkier tracks such as Long Haul (“Give me a chance, I will make this right again”), Waves (“I’ve been nervous my whole damn life, careful with how I feel”), Paint a Picture (“Hear me out, I’m still sketching it out”), and Mortgage (“Leave me with strangers, I need their applause”) confront the complications of balancing needs and wants in creative and personal parts of life.

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Oisín Leech: Cold Sea

At just a few seconds over 27 minutes, you might think that Oisín Leech’s debut solo album would drift away before you had time to delve into it, but there is – no pun intended – more depth to Cold Sea than one could imagine. Taking an extended break from his role as singer-songwriter in the Americana-driven Lost Brothers, Leech delivers nine tracks that showcase his natural gifts for blending solitary sensibilities with welcoming affection. Three tracks are mood-enhancing instrumentals, while most of the album features textured work from the American guitarist Steve Gunn (who also produced). Of the instrumentals, Maritime Radio stands out as a Daniel Lanois-like reverie; the title track travels from head to toe in stress-free rubs of synthesiser. The songs, meanwhile, are of a kind: quiet, odd, attractive, altogether remote, and brimming with just the levels of light and shade.

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Pillow Queens: Name Your Sorrow

There is a lot to be said for pop-punk bands that just get on with writing infectious, novelty-free songs. Every track on Pillow Queens’ third album packs a punch, but there are a few vital calling cards here, with the likes of Like a Lesson (which deserves an earworm-of-the-year award), Blew Up the World (likewise for guitar solo of the year) and Notes on Worth (lyric of the year: “I could feel my body beating, hated it all my life ... but I think I’m worth the time”) sprinting to the finish line with control, self-assessment and flair.

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Sprints: Letter to Self

“There is no gleaming surface left untouched, no scorched-earth policy left unread,” we said in January, when the Dublin band Sprints released their debut album. Those words still stand, but after six months of repeated listening you know that comments perceived to be somewhat over the top are grounded in truth. Blame the songs. They jump out of the shadows, initially startled by bright lights but quickly settling into a hypnosis-induced reverie that is supported by gear-crashing guitars, inherent melody and the resonant vocals of Karla Chubb. As well as being the band’s primary lyricist, Chubb is front and centre here. “I swim the seas between paranoia and disbelief,” she says on Up and Comer. Similar high-anxiety motifs are explored in songs such as Literary Mind, Heavy, Adore Adore Adore and the title track, but the outcome is more relief than repression.

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Villagers: That Golden Time

Conor O’Brien’s previous album, Fever Dreams, from 2021, was aptly titled, with its insistent swirls of psychedelic soul and splintered lounge music. Fans of Villagers’ full band sound might be disappointed with That Golden Time’s retracing of footsteps, but the album is no less ambitious for that. You know matters have been taken down a notch or more from the first song: the title and music of Truly Alone set the pace, but what follows isn’t at all sluggish. Indeed, the leisurely tempos of You Lucky One, the title track, Brother Hen, No Drama, Behind the Curtain and I Want What I Don’t Need are never left to wither on the vine. Subtle sonic touches that hint at Pink Floyd, Sigur Rós, Radiohead and Bob Dylan weave their way from start to end, but the strength of the songs belongs solely to O’Brien, who is at his folk-pop best here.

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