Best Irish pop music of 2018: A year brimming with talent, confidence and swagger

Year in Culture Review: Talented acts keep emerging, and a new grass-roots industry infrastructure is also taking shape

The return of garage bands, a rap scene coming of age, increasingly sophisticated electronic music, burgeoning mainstream stars, precise pop. In the past, success in Irish music had a tendency to be concentrated in particular pools: singer-songwriter booms, a host of interesting indie bands, the rise of a few big-voiced solo artists. But the Irish music scene in 2018 is typified by talent, confidence and swagger brimming in every genre. It’s hard to think of a more bountiful time in Irish music in the past 20 years.

Talented acts keep emerging, and a new grass-roots industry infrastructure is also taking shape, even at a time when nightclubs in the capital are closing and traditional media formats plod towards extinction.

A new generation of multifaceted collectives that defy pigeonholing are emitting a certain energy. These include producers such as Diffusion Lab, whose roster of tunes features work by Soulé, Jafaris, Erica Cody and Hare Squead. As a media company, District continues to champion and cover home-grown talent both in print, online and through its parties. Promoter Hidden Agenda has come of age with its own vinyl bar on Parnell Street amid uncertainty about how Dublin can sustain itself as a destination for touring DJs as District 8 closes. The list of crews bringing a vibrancy to Irish music includes underground collectives such as Black Jam, broadcasters such as Dublin Digital Radio, labels such as Soft Boy Records, and DJ/producer crews such as Gash Collective.

A good deal of this energy fizzing in Irish music in 2018 is emanating from a hip-hop scene finally finding its feet. Local rappers are climbing up festival billings and packing rooms. In terms of live performance, Mango x Mathman were everywhere in 2018, from playing with an orchestra on Culture Night to manning their own one-night-only pirate radio knock-off No Surrender FM.

The year's finest Irish release was Kojaque's Deli Daydreams, eight flawless tracks across half an hour reaching a highlight with Eviction Notice and Kean Kavanagh's pure and louche vocal: "Cried about you this morning / On my break from the office / Susan made me a coffee / She was embarrassed and awkward." Young Kojaque has marked himself out as one of the best home-grown lyricists of his generation.

When Rejjie Snow's long-awaited debut Dear Annie landed, it smoothed away some of the skittishness of his approach to genre. But that pick'n'mix approach to genre is typical of Irish hip-hop, rap, r'n'b and soul, from the neo-soul of Biig Piig and the locker-slamming brooding rap of Luka Palm to the coming-of-age depth and introspection of Paul Alright's Hungry.

Of course, with the yin, there's always yang, and Irish hip-hop in 2018 also means the turgid raps of Versatile, who sell out venues all over, the assumed irony of their beginnings sailing over capacity audiences like a Harcourt Street drunk leapfrogging a street bollard. Oh well.

If hip-hop is very much forming a new establishment in Irish music, there's also a glance to the past with several bands doing excellent things in 2018. The brilliant Pillow Queens ended their year with a sold-out show in Whelan's in November. Fontaines DC, who seem destined to break out to further success next year, have been touring relentlessly and what's public of their live 2019 already stretches to the end of May, including a US tour with Idles. Meanwhile, Bitch Falcon signed with United Talent in 2018. Then there's Dermot Kennedy on Interscope, long primed for mainstream success whose songs are growing in stature.

It's funny to think Le Galaxie's Pleasure came out in 2018, given how familiar its tracks are to fans who have seen them play the Irish live circuit, which they have toured heavily. The band has been given a second wind with MayKay, and the title track of that record is probably the best the band has written.

Quality albums abound: Wyvern Lingo's self-titled debut, Saint Sister's Shape of Silence, Lisa O'Neill's Heard a Long Gone Song. Plenty of established acts stepped up a level, too. Hozier returned with what is probably the most realised song of his career, Nina Cried Power. The ever-interesting James Vincent McMorrow closed out the year by signing to Columbia Records and RCA. Villagers produced a gem of a record with some of the nicest cover art around in The Art of Pretending to Swim. J Colleran, formerly known as Mmoths, created Gardenia, the aural equivalent of an expanse of computer-generated wildflowers.

Some of the biggest moves in 2018 were reserved for dance floors. One of the tunes of the year was Krystal Klear's Neutron Dance, and the talented and driven producer has many more bangers in his arsenal. Or:la continues to conquer clubs around the world. Saoirse Ryan's festival diary for summer 2019 is already filling up, and DJs including Aoife O'Neill, Cáit and Ellll are very much on an upward trajectory.

As ever, it’s the enthusiasm of gig-goers, clubbers, festival punters and fans that gives this engine fuel. Right now it’s roaring, and what a great sound that is.

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