The 10 best Irish albums of 2021 so far, including...

From compulsive debuts to assured collections from old hands, it’s been an impressive six months

Imbirum

Brian Crosby (self-released)

Once again, it's the quiet ones and their quiet music you have to look out for. After leaving BellX1 in 2008, Brian Crosby embarked on a career as a soundtrack composer. Between the drones and the tones, it has taken him many years to release his solo debut album, but Imbrium is worth not only the wait but also its weight in gold. Constructed with a view to mute last year's shrieks of anxiety, Crosby presents nine graceful, self-possessed pieces (played on a restored 1920's August Förster piano) that tease for more of the same sometime sooner rather than later. briancrosby.com

The Watchful Eye of the Stars

Adrian Crowley (Chemikal Underground)

Measured, considered, somewhat abstract yet very often as detailed as an architect's drawings, Adrian Crowley's ninth studio album takes time to get to grips with, but let it slip into your head and you'll have to get a barring order to remove it. It is Crowley's most textured work yet, his sonorous voice complemented with mellotron, viola, cello, violin, viola d'amore and a blue, blue, blue indigo mood. Gorgeous. adriancrowley.com

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Fire on the Roof of Eden

Maria Doyle Kennedy (Mermaid Records)

Very few albums made during 2020's lockdown periods sound as accomplished as this, the latest – a double album, no less – from singer/actor Maria Doyle Kennedy and her husband, Kieran. Working from their kitchen table amidst (as they note on the accompanying press release) a "battery of contradictory feelings that seemed to come in waves," the Kennedys have fashioned a batch of immensely smart and progressive pop songs (and a few instrumentals). The result is a sorely overlooked work of warmth, ability and force. mariadk.com

For Those I Love

For Those I Love (September Recordings)

If there is ever a winner for eloquent expressions of heartbreak through music, then Dubliner David Balfe will walk away with the gong. On his debut album, Balfe celebrates and remembers the life and friendship of his deceased bandmate, Paul Curran. Interlacing electronic music, voice notes and spoken word, Balfe gently places biography and memory in a shrine, steps back, and despairs about the loss. Part blissed-out rave, part meditation on growing up, part spiritual resilience, he says it best: "stories to tell never breed sadness, they treat it." forthosei.love

Town’s Dead

Kojaque (Soft Boy Records)

While Kojaque's 2018 themed debut mixtape, Deli Daydreams, was a calling card, the Dublin rapper's debut album sets him on a course to much wider recognition and success. In essence, it's another concept piece, but the focus is city-wide and deeply personal. Across 16 tracks of broadly varying styles (take your pick from hip-hop, jazz, soul and brilliantly metamorphosed variants thereof), Kojaque threads love and death, rebirth and art, change and conflict into a fabric that is realism writ large. kojaque.bandcamp.com

Brigids and Patricias

Edel Meade (self-released)

This album is here not because it's the most ear-friendly but because it's the most courageous. After a period of time performing in Havana, Cuba, Edel Meade returned to Ireland with one creative priority: to (in her words) "connect with traditional Irish music… to figure out what it means to be an Irish woman living in Ireland, informed by historical events, Irish folklore and contemporary society." The outcome is a collection of informed, sparse songs and righteous spoken word that suffers no fools. It's highly likely you won't hear any of this album on the radio, day or night, but you need to. edelmeade.com

Arrivals

Declan O’Rourke (Eastwest)

The mixture of Declan O'Rourke's sculpted songwriting and producer Paul Weller's empathetic sound settings place Arrivals into a category of its own. Often referred to, justifiably, as 'a songwriter's songwriter', O'Rourke's seventh studio album features a rare collection of tracks that play to his strengths. By contemporary standards, Arrivals might be viewed as conservative, but if sublime pop melodies, eloquent story-oriented lyrics and exemplary, subtle musicianship are some of the key features you look for in music, then you should start here. declanorourke.com

Where I Should End

Saint Sister (self-released)

The second album from Morgana MacIntyre and Gemma Doherty weaves a subtle and beautiful spell across its ten songs, with their signature sound of close-knit harmonies and the Irish balladic form remaining intact. There are, however, additional luxuries in the areas of instrumental layering and a broadening of creative reach to include – gasp! – pop music. The song narratives are also much weightier, in particular Manchester Air, which was inspired by Ireland's pro-choice movement. Harp and strings, synths and drum machines? Saints preserve us! saintsisterband.com

(…) And You Chose Not to Laugh

J Smith (self-released)

The debut solo album from former Gypsies on the Autobahn singer and songwriter James Smith is a compulsive, despairing and striking piece of work. Divulging personal details that many would rather keep to themselves forms the often profound narrative crux, while the music (on which Smith collaborates with his brother, Daniel, and members of Soda Blonde) is as textured, revitalizing and agile as it gets. facebook.com/jsmithmusicofficial

Awake You Lie

Wyvern Lingo (Rubyworks)

Feeling all shades of blue? Haven't had a good night's sleep in months? Think you're more of a shipwreck than a dreamboat? Caoimhe Barry, Karen Cowley and Saoirse Duane express such anxieties with their second album. Released in February and therefore prone to being overlooked, Awake You Lie basks in the sunny vibes of R&B, nu-soul, gospel and pop, a range of styles all the more welcome and pertinent considering the anxiety-laden undercurrent. wyvernlingo.com