Ireland Now: the music that defines today’s Irish nation
In the run-up to St Patrick's Day, Irish Times writers select the acts that represent modern Irishness
Rusangano Family: a sound and a scene that has energised spaces up and down the land. Photograph: Eric Luke
It is indeed a long, long way from Clare to here. Some of the most exciting music going under the umbrella with its 40 shades of green is coming from an ongoing conversation between rappers God Knows and Murli and producer John Lillis aka MynameisjOhn, all of whom hail from that county. Over the past few years, the trio have created a sound and a scene that has energised spaces up and down the land. On record, they’ve turned that power into a narrative which covers many of the issues around identity, migration, diversity and equality that modern Ireland is still grappling with.
Their current Choice Music prize-winning album Let the Dead Bury the Dead is a cord connecting the universal to the personal where the songs size up what’s going on in both spheres with bite and snap. The best – and getting better.
Top track: Heathrow.
– Jim Carroll
In the same period that Ireland was seen as a tax haven, it was also a pop haven. So overrun were we that international groups took to renting out “the Irish one” (Nadine Coyle to Girls Aloud, Niall Horan to One Direction), but at the peak of the Irish pop mountain sit Westlife.
Sligo’s Shane Filan, Mark Feehily and Kian Egan fused with Dublin’s Nicky Byrne and Bryan McFadden and churned out 14 number ones over 14 years (1998-2012), making them Ireland’s leading boyband. While their careers may not be at the heights they once were – Byrne works in radio and TV, Filan is bankrupt but happy, Feehily runs a crepe van, Egan was King of the Jungle in 2013 and Bryan is now called Brian – whenever World of Our Own comes on at a wedding or in Coppers, no key change is left unturned and Ireland is pure once again.
Top track: When You’re Looking Like That.
– Louise Bruton
This Dublin four-piece make My Bloody Valentine sound like a radio-friendly pop act. Girl Band’s pummelling sonics have more in common with industrial techno; they throb, scratch, buzz and hum thrillingly, using a rock framework to re-imagine a genre beyond monochrome. Holding Hands With Jamie, the band’s debut album on Rough Trade, is anchored by Dara Kiely’s raving vocals, which always seem on the verge of collapse, and tell the story of a young man struggling through modern life, with bouts of hysteria. Live, it’s a joy to watch guitars make this alien noise, and Kiely, despite obvious discomfort, is a magnetic frontman. One of the best rock bands in the world, period.
Top track: Paul.
– Niall Byrne
A product of modern Ireland, Tony Konstone, Jessy Rose and E-Knock are Dublin musicians with an African background who were the first of a new generation to create pop music with the DNA of soul, R&B, rap and electronic production. From their 2014 Hard Working Class Heroes full live band debut to signing to UK major label Sony/Columbia Records in 2016, Hare Squead have been building their audience through a debut EP and support slots with Dua Lipa. There’s range too. If I Ask You is electronic pop, Loco has more in common with US rap and Long Way To Go has an R&B house feel. This trio are versatile and just getting started.
Top track: Long Way To Go.
– Niall Byrne
Vast horizons and clear blue skies describe the sound created by the contemporary traditional music collective that is Ensemble Ériú. Anchored by an unlikely pair – Jack Talty on concertina and Neil O’Loghlen on double bass, flute and tin whistle – this seven-piece takes as its starting point the rich traditional pickings of west and north Clare. The music of Micho Russell, Willie Clancy, Tony MacMahon and Bobby Casey is the catapult that propels the ensemble into a space all of their own making, where minimalist sensibilities seek out a groove in ways reminiscent of Brian Eno at his ambient best. This is music that seeps into your veins, slowly but surely – simply rinse and repeat.
Top Track: Cnocán an Teampaill.
– Siobhán Long
Having sold 75 million records, Eithne Ní Bhraonáin is one of Ireland’s biggest cultural exports. Best-known for smash hits such as the unhinged orchestra-stab mania of Orinoco Flow or the wistful, plinky-plonk march of Caribbean Blue, she’s released eight albums that range from astral chant to primordial trance.
For a long time, Enya was only considered cool by those on first-name terms with their scented-candle stockists. Now her trademark layering and foamy reverb can be heard everywhere from the fuzzy, ethereal sounds of Clams Casino to Saint Sister, and has earned her name-checks by Nicki Minaj, Panda Bear and Grimes. In 2017, Enya’s once-maligned back catalogue may just represent one of Irish music’s greatest, and strangest, gifts to the world.
Enya, her first release, was made when she was 25 as the score to the documentary The Celts, and features the standout track, Aldebaran, a trippy wash of utopian sci-fi, depicting a future time when the race of Celts will ascend from the bog and colonise the stars.
Top track: Aldebaran.
– Seamas O’Reilly
Pádraig Rynne, Notify’s concertina player, composer, and chief cook and bottle washer, knows a thing or two about filtering and filleting musical influences for their very essence. Anchoring his brainchild Notify in the lithe and limber sounds of the concertina, Rynne steers an unapologetically freewheeling course that embraces jazz and electronica influences, all in the service of traditional music. This is a music that’s sometimes challenging, often intriguing and mostly loose-limbed, producing sounds that tickle the cerebellum and the pelvis with equal intent. Those in search of the pure drop won’t find it here, but somehow Rynne manages to hold fast to the ties that bind the tradition while engaged in the musical equivalent of abseiling his way from cloudless sky to deep thicket, all the better to lure the curious listener ever closer.
Top Track: Lucidity Trap.
– Siobhán Long
What’s fascinating about The Gloaming, a choice collaboration between three Irish and two American musicians, is the embrace of the old and the new. The way they embellish Irish trad’s rich, melancholic tones with modern hues of jazz, contemporary classical, chamber and experimental music is something to experience.
The road that Martin Hayes, Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh, Iarla Ó Lionáird, Thomas Bartlett and Dennis Cahill have taken has been a brave, bold and bright one, and, along the way, they’ve created a truly distinctive sound. It’s where jigs and reels and sean-nós become giddy sweeps of sound, melancholic epics and dramatic, thunderous, pulsating, thumping grooves that are more akin to Berlin’s Berghain nightclub than the Burren. This is music that slices and dices to the heart of who we are.
Top track: Opening Set.
– Jim Carroll
O’Connor is one of the most important Irish artists of all time, and not just because her singing voice is stunning or her songwriting skills so brilliant. She is iconic for her opposition to the very thing Irish society holds so dearly: silence. O’Connor spoke out about the Catholic Church’s abuse of children and women, and she held her head up high when she was demonised for doing so. She has been vocal about her struggles with mental health. She has called out misogyny and conservatism, and remains a clear and righteous voice in a nation of obfuscators. The passion and beauty that resides in her music continues to astound.
Top track: Troy.
– Una Mullally
Every so often, an act that can stun you into silence comes along, pausing whatever else is going on in your head so you can fixate entirely on what they have to say. Since 2015, Saint Sister have stopped many people in their tracks, bewitching them with their coined genre of atmosfolk, a blend of electropop and that Celtic mysticism that gets us all a little misty-eyed.
This double-act consists of Morgan MacIntyre on vocals and keys and Gemma Doherty on vocals and electric harp, and while they’re often mistaken for sisters (they met at Trinity College Dublin), their harmonies indicate an unspoken bond – something akin to witchcraft – that adds to their celestial sound. Since the release of Madrid, their debut EP, in 2015, they’ve slowly teased out music, but, thankfully, they’re currently tucked away in a studio, creating more songs for us to lose ourselves in.
Top track: Madrid.
– Louise Bruton
Jape is the musical project of singer-songwriter Richie Egan, who got his start as bassist for Dublin instrumental rock institution The Redneck Manifesto. Wandering from folky noodling to down-your-neck rock via poppy electronica, Jape makes high-density music full of nooks and crannies and sideways paths.
If Jape’s appeal was just catchy genre-hopping pop, then there’d be much to recommend, but the band’s presence as one of Ireland’s most reliably unmissable live acts in the past decade pushed them into a higher strata of Irish music royalty. Though standards such as Floating or Phil Lynott might be better known, few Jape songs achieve the same levels of unadulterated Jape-ness as the wonderful Metamorphosis from 2015’s This Chemical Sea. Beautifully composed and immaculately produced, the heady synths, swooning vocals and wryly sarcastic lyrics get the heart and/or fist pumping. As for an LP, 2011’s Ocean of Frequency is an ecstatic, multicoloured gem and a great entry point for the uninitiated.
Top track: Metamorphosis.
– Seamas O’Reilly
Murphy personifies some of the best aspects of the Irish psyche: an emigrant, an outsider, and an avant-garde performer with artistic integrity. Her eclectic reach goes across trip hop, disco and experimental pop, and there’s a knowingly humorous sensibility to her work. With two solo albums in the mid-2000s and two more in the mid-2010s, Murphy is a live and festival favourite thanks to her compelling technicolour performances. If there’s one artist to delve into to figure out the Irish dancefloor, Murphy would be it.
Top track: Overpowered.
– Una Mullally