It’s true that Van Morrison’s masterwork has a habit of dominating lists like this one. When The Ticket’s editor Hugh Linehan tasked us with drawing up a list of the 50 Best Irish Albums, however, we were in agreement on one thing: this list must reflect contemporary Irish music as much as it pays its respects to the past. In other words, we’re not quite slaughtering any sacred cows; think of it more as leading them into the shed for a bit of a rest.
Needless to say, it was a daunting task to narrow down the list to 50 albums. In fact, when our separate lists were combined, there were ninety albums in total. Limiting each act to a maximum of two entries, we then argued our cases for the albums that we felt should make the cut, and tinkered with the placement of those that deserved a more superior ranking.
Our choice for number one may come as a surprise, particularly given that it hasn’t even been 12 months since its release. Some of you may even be shocked. Some may be downright outraged. Nevertheless, there is nothing to say that it less worthy of the title than any other. The same could be said for every other entry: why Enya and not Horslips? Well, why not? There are no tokenistic inclusions here: everything was selected on merit alone.
And by the way, you’ll find Astral Weeks at number 11. Let the bun fight begin.
50. Thin Lizzy - Live and Dangerous (1978)
You could argue that Jailbreak is a better album, but there’s no denying the firepower behind Thin Lizzy’s live show - captured here at the height of their power in 1976/77. Essentially a greatest hits setlist, you don’t need visuals to recognise Phil Lynott’s magnetic stage presence or the band’s superb dynamism.
49. Rusangano Family - Let the Dead Bury the Dead (2016)
Two MCs and a DJ/producer originally hailing from Zimbabwe, Togo and Ennis, all stretching their fingertips to poke at the possibilities of what Irish hip-hop was capable of: Rusangano Family’s debut explored themes of identity and belonging, with some killer beats, captivating lyrics and a healthy helping of charisma.
48. Fight Like Apes - Fight Like Apes and the Mystery of the Golden Medallion (2008)
Fight Like Apes might never have quite recaptured the boorish, compelling, in-your-face energy of their debut - but still, what a debut. From the impertinent wallop of Lend Me Your Face to the doleful lament of Tie Me Up with Jackets, it was an irresistible slice of synth-addled pop-punk.
47. SOAK - Before We Forgot How to Dream (2015)?
Bridie Monds-Watson took the singer-plus-lifetime-of-heartache formula and spun it into songs as intimate as a whispered conversation, as breathtaking as a sky full of stars.
46: Fontaines DC - Dogrel (2019)
It wasn’t the perfect record it was received as on its release and it was frustrating to see the group celebrated in the international press as the guitar-toting reincarnation of WB Yeats. But at a time when so many Irish bands seemed to have been created in a vat to appeal to the Today FM drive-time playlist, Fontaines DC’s tumbling wordplay and yes, their pretentiousness, felt daring and revitalising.
45. Damien Rice - O (2002)
It was arguably the most overplayed Irish album of the early noughties; Cannonball even became an X Factor winner’s song almost a decade later. Nonetheless, time has been kind to Rice’s debut, which has managed to retain a sense of intimacy despite its ubiquity. Delicate remains featherlike, while Lisa Hannigan’s star turn on the tremulous I Remember still exhilarates.
44. Adrian Crowley - Long Distance Swimmer (2007)
Irish singer-songwriters are easily to stereotype as self-important moochers. Crowley was certainly downbeat on his Choice-nominated breakout. However, the melancholy was offset by an expressively rumbling voice and ballads that glimmered in the gloom.
43. David Holmes - Bow Down to the Exit Sign (2000)
Surely the Belfast producer and DJ’s definitive moment: a noir-ish techno triumph that acknowledged the then-ascendent “big beat” scene yet filtered its grooves through a prism of old movie soundtracks, gloomy funk and skittering dub.
42. Chequerboard - Penny Black (2008)
If you want to gauge the soul of a nation, look at its electronic music. Kraftwerk brought a German perspective on life, art and motorway construction, Daft Punk were as French as a tricolour waving from the Eiffel Tower, Prodigy the equivalent of lagered-up English football supporters chanting in a foreign beer-garden. Irish electronica for its part often feels like a soft day and a quiet chat captured in music - a sensibility gorgeously communicated by this low-key masterpiece from composer John Lambert.
41. Villagers - The Art of Pretending to Swim (2018)
If Villagers’ debut was a graceful exploration of folk, pop and indie music, their most recent release was the sound of a band asserting their aptitude and dexterity. Conor O’Brien’s gift for melody and lyrics converged in glorious fashion on these balletic songs, from the twitchy Again to the immersive Ada.
40. Ash - 1977 (1996)
Writing an album as good as 1977 is no mean feat - but when you consider Ash were teenagers at the time, it’s all the more impressive. The Downpatrick trio’s debut bristled with adolescent angst and lust, but they future-proofed it by entwining anthemic riffs between the power chords. Oh Yeah, indeed.
39. Andy Irvine & Paul Brady - Andy Irvine/Paul Brady (1976)
Has there ever been a more iconic duo in Irish music? (Pipe down, Jedward fans.) Following the demise of Planxty, Brady and Irvine decamped to the famous Rockfield Studios in Wales to record this stunning collection. The whole album is extraordinary, but Brady’s take on Arthur McBride remains the definitive modern version of the song.
38. Talos - Wild Alee (2017)
Huge ambient swathes of noise swept in as Eoin French, a sometime lecturer in architecture, constructed songs of remarkable lucidity and beauty. Bon Iver and Sigur Rós were some of the influences touted as the record was rolled out - but an unmistakably Irish sensibility coursed through an LP that had the quality of grey sunlight poking through the clouds after rain.
37. Republic of Loose - Aaagh! (2006)
With their second album, Republic of Loose added a newfound pop sensibility to their mix of funk, blues and hip-hop. Hits like Comeback Girl, Break and Shame didn’t compromise the Dublin band’s street cred, though; this was a deeply satisfying and seriously proficient record that set them apart from the majority of their peers.
36. The Frank & Walters - Grand Parade (1997)
One of Ireland’s greatest ever “difficult second records”. The Franks toiled for years on an album that pushed on courageously from the jaunty indie-pop of their biggest hit, After All. It’s an LP that captured the thrill but also the melancholy of everyday life. And yet that universality was rooted in the textures of Cork city (“Tony had come back from the strand/waiting for the Barrack Street band,” they sang on stand-out Tony Cochrane.)
35. Just Mustard - Wednesday (2018)
Just Mustard are named after a Sandra Bullock line in While You Were Sleeping, that weird mid-Nineties sitcom that blended sweet laughs with an unsettling premise (Bullock gaslights the family of a man in a coma by pretending to be his girlfriend). The same qualities infused the debut from the Dundalk five-piece, whose post-shoegaze pop throbs, aches and flutters gorgeously.
34. The Cranberries - Everybody Else is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? (1993)
Everyone has their favourite Cranberries album - but for our money, this is their best. Their debut captured a fragility and elegance to both the Limerick band’s sound and Dolores O’Riordan’s voice that has never been matched. And with timeless songs like Dreams and Linger on the tracklist, what’s not to love?
33. Therapy? - Troublegum (1994)
Therapy?’s second album brought the Northern Irish rock band international renown thanks to singles like Nowhere, but this was a blistering collection of tunes from the word go - from the visceral Screamager to the snarling stomp of Die Laughing. Even their cover of Joy Division’s Isolation was formidable.
32. Van Morrison - Moondance (1970)
Released just two years after Astral Weeks, Moondance exhibited both Van Morrison’s versatility and capability as a musician. A more accessible proposition than its predecessor, songs like And It Stoned Me, the title track and Crazy Love brought the Belfast man widespread success - and fifty years on, they’re still firm fan favourites.
31. The Frames - For the Birds (2001)
By 2001, The Frames had already proven themselves with three commendable albums and amassed a cult-like following in Ireland. Glen Hansard and co.’s fourth record showcased a more well-rounded band; tender songs like Headlong and Lay Me Down were wonderfully juxtaposed with the angsty climax of Santa Maria. It remains their definitive album.
30. Enya - Watermark (1988)
Enya has long been scorned in Ireland as the purveyor of the easy listening equivalent of scented candles. But further afield her music has been embraced on its own terms and without any cultural baggage, with artists such as Warpaint and Weyes Blood citing her as an influence. Fans will argue as to which is her finest album. One candidate, surely, has to be Watermark, which contained the mega-hit Orinoco Flow and the effervescent grimdark pop of Evening Falls.
29. Two Door Cinema Club - Tourist History (2010)
If The Undertones were the chief architects of snappy pop-punk songs, this Bangor trio were their millennial indie-pop counterparts. Every song on their 32-minute-long debut album could work as a single, from the anthemic This is the Life to the giddy Undercover Martyn. They’ve been chasing its magic ever since.
28. Rejjie Snow - Dear Annie (2018)
Hip-hop is merely a starting point for the Drumcondra artist. Snow’s official debut album bounced from rap and colour-saturated r’n’ b to groove-infused shoegaze and lissom pop. Dear Annie unfolded as a sprawling sonic mural, a charming surprise at every turn.
27. Lankum - The Livelong Day (2019)
If a band like Planxty raised the bar for Irish trad and folk in the 1970s, Lankum have taken up their baton several decades later. The Dublin band’s fourth album proved their best yet, paying respect to the tradition yet simultaneously laying waste to the rulebook with fierce, beautiful songs like The Young People.
26. Kojaque - Deli Daydreams (2018)
The hip-hop concept record about manning an inner-city deli counter we hadn’t realised we needed in our lives. Kojaque conjures with Joyce as he casts a cold eye on modern Dublin. He gets under the skin of the city as he chronicles a week in the life of a breakfast roll purveyor.
25. Clannad - Legend (1984)
A concept album about Robin Hood performed by an ethereal Donegal trad ensemble could have gone either way. Clannad pull it off, with Robin (the Hooded Man) the finest song ever written about a quasi-mythical English bandit who believed in collective redistribution and weather-appropriate head-gear. Mystical bangers such as Now Is Here and Lady Marian, meanwhile, were the equivalent of reading the entirety of the Lord of the Rings in three and a half minutes. ?
24. Planxty - Planxty (1973)
An album that helped to both revolutionise trad music and breathe a new vibrancy into the genre, it’s difficult to understate just how influential Planxty’s debut album really was. Four outstanding musicians converging as one, it redesigned the blueprint for Irish folk music and remains a classic - with good reason.
23. James Vincent McMorrow - True Care (2017)
The shaggy Irish troubadour, clear of eye and wavy of hair, is a trope that has long needed rescuing from its own, crippling sincerity. Enter sad disco kingpin McMorrow whose finest album locates the sweet point between the dance-floor and the open-veined ballad.
22. The Divine Comedy - Casanova (1996)
After baring his heart with Promenade, for the follow-up Neil Hannon donned an ironic smoking jacket and wagged his eyebrows mischievously. Casanova was another concept record - the concept this time being that Hannon had become a pop star and was starting to enjoy himself. It’s witty and whimsical and at times Hannon goes a little overboard cosplaying a Britpop Hugh Hefner. Yet its high-points are glorious and as full of emotion as anything he would do (Frog Princess). Plus it gave us Songs of Love, aka the theme from Father Ted.
21. Gemma Hayes - Night on My Side (2002)
The Tipperary native’s debut earned comparisons to Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, but it’s hard to imagine either navigating the sweeping grunge-tinged angst of Let a Good Thing Go or the giddy alt-rock of Hanging Around. In-between those big tunes, Hayes’s talent was evident on the quieter moments, like the delicate My God.
20. The Sultans of Ping FC - Casual Sex in the Cineplex (1993)
Cork bands have always existed apart from the rest of the Irish music , in part because they have recognised that, when making great pop, pretension is as important as earnestness. That was a lesson the Sultans took to heart on debut that delivered blistering cartoon punk whilst doubling as a love-letter to Leeside and its idiosyncrasies.
19. Jafaris - Stride (2019)
It’s a sign how far Irish hip-hop has come that we no longer speak of it as its own weird genre - rap music that we have to be kind about just because. There is just good and bad hip-hop and some of it happens to be Irish. One of the most exultant recent examples is the debut from Jafaris, aka sometime Newbridge, Co Kildare resident Percy Chamburuka. On Stride he deploys by turns witty and combustible rhymes over sparkling soundscapes. It isn’t “Irish rap” - it’s just Jafaris knocking it out of the park.
18. The Undertones - The Undertones (1979)
Debuts like this don’t come around very often. Clocking at just 29 minutes and 29 seconds, it’s surely one of the most accomplished half hours in Irish music history, from Jimmy Jimmy to Here Comes the Summer (Teenage Kicks was included on a later re-release). A rambunctious thrill ride through new wave and punk.
17. The Pogues - Rum, Sodomy & the Lash (1985)
Many have followed in The Pogues’ footsteps, but none had come before them with quite the same combination of fire-in-the-belly folk and snarling punk. Their second album presented Shane MacGowan at his sharpest, his lucid brand of storytelling evident on songs like The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn and A Pair of Brown Eyes.
16. Rollerskate Skinny - Horsedrawn Wishes (1996)
Speed To My Side is one of the most extraordinary Irish singles ever. In the Nineties it was fashionable to describe ambitious pop songs as “pocket symphonies”. That cliche absolutely applied here, as the track flowed from shoegaze to heavy rock via just-this-side-of-twee student disco pop. The rest of the album was almost as mind-blowing. The Dubliners chucked in every influence and idea they could set their mitts upon. From this grab-bag of ideas, were drawn fistfuls of stardust.
15. U2 - The Joshua Tree (1987)
This was Bono and co.’s ‘American’ album; a sweeping rock opus that plundered the personal and the political, where the musical bombast of Where the Streets Have No Name sat alongside the intimacy of Running to Stand Still and With or Without You. It made for a powerful, perfectly-crafted rock album.
14. The Divine Comedy - Promenade (1994)
Before he was an international pop swashbuckler, Neil Hannon was a shy young man from Fermanagh with a naff haircut and a knack for elaborate chamber-pop. He could do big ideas too, with his luxuriant and mischievous third record telling the story of a young couple spending a day at the seaside. When it reached for the big moments it was simply extraordinary. The Summerhouse, for instance, is a song about youthful nostalgia written by a precocious 23-year-old. What a vortex of feeling it plunged you into.
13. My Bloody Valentine - Isn’t Anything (1988)
Loveless tends to claim all the glory yet there is a case that Kevin Shields and company’s 1988 debut was their true masterpiece. It essentially invented the shoegaze genre and had a liminal quality that arguably set it ahead of Loveless - a record that in any event has been scrutinised to death. Isn’t Anything feels fresh and undiscovered by comparison.
12. Fatima Mansions - Viva Dead Ponies (1990)?
Angry, funny, surreal - with Fatima Mansions’s definitive album Cathal Coughlan laid to rest the ghosts of Microdisney. That band has taken up its place in the pantheon, their 1987 record Crooked Mile routinely praised as one of the greatest to ever come out of Ireland. But the Mansions were wilder and weirder, as underscored by transcendental onslaughts such as Chemical Cosh and Angel’s Delight.
11. Van Morrison - Astral Weeks (1968)
It’s okay, everyone, calm down: we didn’t forget it. Released when Morrison was just 23, his second album’s influence cannot be understated. From the brash strum of Sweet Thing to the sumptuous Madame George and the vibrant The Way Young Lovers Do, it remains a pleasure from start to finish.
Cathy Davey - Tales of Silversleeve (2007)
One of the most underrated Irish albums ever? Cathy Davey’s second album was the perfect storm of propulsive pop tunes (Moving, Reuben) and exquisite balladry (All of You, Sing for Your Supper). Wrapped up in Davey’s alluring voice - capable of both primal yowls and tender whispers - it remains her finest work.
Sinead O’Connor - I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (1990)
Women are still grievously under-represented in Irish music. Yet Irish rock has no better icon than O’Connor, whose second album, of course, contained her enduring cover of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U. It was a ferocious record, as uncompromising and heartfelt as O’Connor itself.
My Bloody Valentine - Loveless (1991)
It may have been a labour of love, but almost three decades after its release, MBV’s second album is as powerful, uncompromising and ballsy as ever before. Songs like Soon are testament to this record’s enduring influence and might, shifting the landscape for not just the shoegaze genre, but rock music in general.
Villagers - Becoming a Jackal (2010)
An incredibly accomplished folk-pop record that swung, strummed and swayed, Villagers’ debut album showcased Conor O’Brien as an evocative lyricist with a melodic wisdom beyond his years, from the elegiac The Meaning of the Ritual to the breezy pop bumble of The Pact and the blustery agitation of Ship of Promises.
The Immediate - In Towers and Clouds (2006)
In a parallel universe, The Immediate could have conquered the world. Instead, the eclectic art-rockers (featuring a pre-Villagers Conor O’Brien) broke up less than a year after this superb debut. Their beautiful, clever songs - from the jaunty angularity of Aspects to the swoonsome Big Sad Eyes - ticked every box.
Roisin Murphy - Overpowered (2007)
With her second solo album, Róisín Murphy shrugged off the ‘formerly of Moloko’ baggage in glorious fashion. The ambition, style and vision of this album is still awe-inspiring. From the steely title track to the shoulder-shimmying Let Me Know, Murphy set the bar for experimental disco-pop bangers.
Whipping Boy - Heartworm (1995)
A storm force of guitar-fuelled ennui from the Dubliners, capturing the frustrations of a generation coming of age in a Nineties Ireland that had not yet entirely sloughed off the old dogmas. We Don’t Need Nobody Else was obviously the touchstone, singer Fearghal McKee delivering the lines with something between a knowing snarl and a howl into the void.
A House - I Am the Greatest (1991)?
Being dropped by Warner Music was the making of A House. Dave Couse, Fergal Bunbury and bandmates poured their fear and loathing into a record that shouted its own praises from the rooftops, even as, in quieter moments, Couse’s lyrics trembled with self-doubt.
U2 - Achtung Baby (1991)
Ireland’s preachiest band went weird and experimental, with an assuredness that remains stunning years later. True, the old sanctimonious U2 surfaced on weepies such as One and Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses. But Achtung Baby, co-produced by Brian Eno and partly recorded in Hansa Studio in Berlin, also flirted with Bowie, shoegaze and indie pop. And it was shot through with something previously alien to U2: a delirious sense of adventure.
Girl Band - The Talkies (2019)
Yes, we have given top spot to a record less than a year old, made by musicians who seem actively hostile to such jaded concepts as melodies and decipherable lyrics. And yes, after the many recent conversations about lack of diversity in Irish music, we have plumbed for four pasty-faced boys with asymmetrical fringes.
Gender imbalance in Irish rock is, however and alas, a conversation beyond the scope of this piece. One thing that is impossible to deny is the wit, fearlessness and ferocity of The Talkies, a project that dismantles the idea of what pop should be and rebuilds it from the ground up. Drawing on a sojourn in a creepy house in County Laois and recorded in the shadow of singer Dara Kiely’s mental health experiences it is spellbindingly baroque - a brutal, mesmerising tour de force .
At our present fraught moment in history, moreover, Girl Band’s dystopian contours tap into the dread with which we are all wrestling. Besides, what is the point of making lists such as these if not to take risks? Which is why we’re proud to nail our reputations to the mast and stand behind Girl Band and The Talkies. It is a stormy, unnerving masterpiece.