The best 50 Irish music acts right now – in order

This is an exciting time for Irish music. the dreary male with Guitar is being replaced and a wave of multicultural and multifaceted performers are taking centre stage. Here’s our countdown of the finest

These are thrilling times for Irish music (the pesky matter of a once-in-a-century pandemic aside). Gone are the glum old days of blokey singer-songwriters and earnest indie bands as far as the eye could see. A new generation of rappers, free thinkers and pop stars-in-training has risen in their place. The industry here used to be 50 shades of glum. Now it’s multicoloured and multifaceted.

Such is the outpouring of talent that narrowing our selection of essential artists to just 50 was a huge challenge. There were blunt words, tears and slammed doors. And that was just the debate over whether Hozier’s ponytail merited its own separate entry.

The countdown that follows is also, and needless to say, subjective. You will have your own Top 50 and it is just as valid as ours (you can put Dermot Kennedy in first, second and third place if you wish). In other words, our list is best approached not as a definitive statement but as a conversation starter. Who have we scandalously omitted? What triumphs of hype-over-substance have we fallen for?

Feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments, please don’t take it too seriously, and promise us you won’t have a breakdown on Twitter.

50

Lisa O’Neill: “I lose concentration very easily; the page is boring for me to look at.” Photograph: Eric Luke
Lisa O’Neill: once-in-a-generation kind of artist. Photograph: Eric Luke

Lisa O’Neill
Her voice undoubtedly has a Marmite quality to it, but Lisa O’Neill simultaneously has the rare ability to stop you in your tracks. Cavan’s finest purveyor of contemporary folk songs is a once-in-a-generation kind of artist, as her four excellent albums have proven. – LM

49

Soda Blonde
Little Green Cars never quite fulfilled the early buzz. But from the ashes of that group has now risen the spiffing Soda Blonde, led by Faye O’Rourke, whose knack for heart-shredding pop has, if anything, grown even sharper. – EP

48

Bicep
Bloggers-turned-house sensations, this Belfast duo pack their music with references to Big Beat and EDM. As a bonus, they’re signed to the most credible label on the planet, Ninja Tune, and have been championed by Mixmag and Resident Advisor. – EP

47

Ailbhe Reddy
Momentum is building for the Dublin singer whose music blends the clear-eyed earnestness of folk with the bustle and hustle of electro-pop. A playlisting with BBC 6 Music comes ahead of a debut album, Personal History, this October. – EP

46

Richie Egan, Jape

Jape
Richie Egan could have become a footnote in Irish music history, best-known for one song: Floating. Instead, the Dubliner’s output has remained unpredictable yet always honest, encompassing a thrilling blend of pop, electronica and rock. Last year’s Sentinel mined a newly intimate musical and lyrical strand that exposed a fragile vulnerability to his music. – LM

45

Nealo
He began his journey in music as a hardcore rocker, but the west Dublin MC is now established as one of the country’s most articulate and heartfelt rappers. Whatever the subject, he displays a forensic eye for detail – a consequence, presumably, of all those years studying for a master’s in law. – EP

44

David Kitt
Whether it’s his singer-songwriter material or his electronic guise as New Jackson, Kitt has been an enduring and underrated force in Irish music for the past 20 years. The Big Romance (2001) still sounds as vital as his last album Yous; his contribution to the scene cannot not be underestimated. – LM

43

U2

U2
Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, U2 simply refuse to go away. The biggest rock band in the world could easily have slipped into pastiche by now (quiet at the back, there), yet their output has been largely consistent across the past decade. As a live band, theirs remain one of the most entertaining shows in the biz. – LM

42

Maria Somerville
Pop, trad and electronica are fused into gripping new contortions by the Connemara-born artist. On recent single Dreaming, her voice seems to come up from a deep dark place, mysterious and slightly ominous too. She recently featured on a single by Everything Is Recorded, a vehicle for XL Records’ Richard Russell. – EP

41

Van Morrison
Having just turned 75, Van Morrison is well past retirement age. He could easily hang up his saxophone and spend his days shaking his fist at various grievances. Instead, as last year’s Three Chords and the Truth proved, he remains a force to be reckoned with and just as pertinent as his old mucker, Bob Dylan. – LM

40

Hazey Haze
Most recently seen in God Knows’ South West Allstars video, the bearded rapper is carving out his own space in Limerick’s hip-hop scene. Debut album Is Mise brings together irreverence, poetry and a big bruised heart. There’s a dollop of surrealism, also, on the track N.W.A.D.D. (Nana), about the death of his drug-dealing grandmother. – EP

39

Rachael Lavelle. Photograph: Deborah Sheedy
Rachael Lavelle. Photograph: Deborah Sheedy

Rachael Lavelle
An aura of wonder and mystery hovers over Dubliner Lavelle, who exists in the same space-time continuum as Agnes Obel and Anohni. Her love of music was inherited from her composer grandfather and honed during touring stints with Saint Sister. – EP

38

R.S.A.G.
We thought we’d heard the last of this one-man band, but Kilkenny’s Jeremy Hickey made a sensational comeback with his third (and best) album Chroma this year. Rarely Seen Above Ground’s live AV show is a treat in itself, but his perfectly pitched recorded output is equally stimulating. – LM

37

Woven Skull
Pop from the margins is the specialty of this sometime Leitrim-based outfit. They blend Godspeed You! Black Emperor-style droning with folk instruments such as the mandola. This is outsider music happy to romp in a world of its own devising. Having put out 15 albums in under a decade, they’re prolific too. – EP

36

Lisa Hannigan
It’s been four years since Hannigan’s last studio album, but last year’s Live in Dublin release – a collaboration with contemporary classical orchestra Stargaze – illustrated the might of her songwriting prowess. Whether it’s an acoustic backdrop or an orchestral one, Hannigan’s songs sound potent in any setting. Damien who? – LM

35

Imelda May’s ferocious talent. Photograph: Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage
Imelda May. Photograph: Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage

Imelda May
Even Mystic Meg couldn’t have envisioned a native of Dublin’s Liberties as the person who would bring rockabilly to the mainstream masses. Imelda May has managed to avoid pastiche thanks to her astonishingly pliable voice and ferocious talent. Her excellent last record was another reinvention, sidestepping into soul and jazz-tinged soft rock with aplomb. – LM

34

Columbia Mills
Pedal-to-the-floor indie that betrays a passing affinity with Interpol and The National. But there’s real passion in the Dubliners’s music and, on second album CCTV, the sort of throbbing melancholy that can’t be faked. – EP

33

Paddy Hanna
At this point, Paddy Hanna is a veteran of Ireland’s indie music scene. He’s also one of the only acts from the (much missed) Popical Island DIY scene to have successfully carved a solo career, thanks to two fine albums (with a third on the way). If you’re after eccentric indie-pop delivered with a snarling croon, he’s your man. – LM

32

Aislinn Logan
Hazy guitars and dreamy beats swirl devastatingly around Belfast-born, London-based Logan’s expressive vocals. A whiff of The 1975 can be discerned in the way she tricks out downbeat pop with slightly cheesy adornments – as exhibited by her beautifully glitchy cover of Teenage Kicks. – EP

31

The Hozier effect: “Hozier's probably supporting 25 jobs or more with his activity worldwide from touring, management to the labels to the live band,” says Victor Finn, CEO of the Irish Music Rights Organisation.
Hozier

Hozier
He may be poised to take Bono’s title as “Irish Musician Most Likely to Rail Against Injustice (Maaaan)”, but there’s no denying Andrew Hozier-Byrne’s talent, nor the magic that happens when he sings, as heard on his recent poignant telling of The Parting Glass. As far as vocally conveying emotion goes, he’s one of our finest. – LM

30

Wyvern Lingo: Their best days are surely ahead of them 2017. Photograph: Ruth Medjber
Wyvern Lingo. Photograph: Ruth Medjber

Wyvern Lingo
Their early material was anchored in delicate folk and vocal harmonies, but Wyvern Lingo’s more recent output draws on their 1990s r’n’b influences for an intriguing hybrid that’s impossible to resist. Remarkable singers and players in their own right, the Bray trio are an underrated yet powerful force in Irish music. Their best days are surely ahead of them. – LM

29

Pat Lagoon
There are callbacks to Frank Ocean and Mac Miller in the free-floating grooves and rhymes of Waterford rapper Pat Lagoon. Another rising star from the southeast, he arrived in earnest with April’s stunning debut EP, Box Room. Depending on your perspective, the release can be read either as a cry of pain in an uncaring world or a lament for the decline in Waterford hurling. – EP

28

Cmat
She served her apprenticeship in ill-fated indie duo Bad Sea, but Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson – or Cmat to you and me – is a pop connoisseur, as her solo material shows. The Dubliner’s sense of humour has been evident in both of her thrilling singles to date: the ravishingly self-deprecating Another Day (KFC) and the finger-clicking soda fountain pop of Rodney. – LM

27

Anna Mieke
Anna-Mieke Bishop is a biochemistry graduate from Wicklow. Her haunting songs are informed by Brazilian and Appalachian folk and classical music. She came to wider attention when Warped Window closed the opening episode of Normal People. She has played with Cork improv group HEX and brings those same esoteric influences to her own compositions. – EP

26

The Murder Capital: “We’ve had people tell us they used to go to shows in the Hacienda and had seen bands like Joy Division, who say watching us felt like a light switch turning back on.”
The Murder Capital

The Murder Capital
The Murder Capital’s (deserved) reputation as a live tour de force preceded them; before they had even officially released a single, they were being hailed as saviours of guitar music. Thankfully, their tremendous 2019 debut lived up to expectations. Although dogged by comparisons to Joy Division (that’ll be frontman James McGovern’s brooding intensity), the Dublin-based quintet carved out their own gloomy niche. – LM

25

Rejjie Snow. Photograph: Will Robson-Scott
Rejjie Snow. Photograph: Will Robson-Scott

Rejjie Snow
Snow’s 2019 studio debut, Dear Annie, was the prog-pop hip-hop concept record Ireland hadn’t realised it needed. The Drumcondra native stepped it up further this year as he hooked up with masked maestro MF Doom, along with Cam O’bi, for psychedelic noir single Cookie Chips. Madcap and menacing, it’s Snow in a sugar-coated nutshell. – EP

24

A Lazarus Soul
They’re a band that consistently rank on “they coulda been contenders” lists, but that’s not to diminish A Lazarus Soul’s potency. Both live and on record, the Dubliners have a truthfulness, passion and authenticity that is often forsaken in the industry’s obsession with sales and streaming figures. Dismiss them and their punky, folky, soulful indie-rock treasures at your peril. – LM

23

Alex Gough
Waterford is an emerging hip-hop hotbed, with 21-year-old drummer-turned-rapper Gough among the scene’s stand-out talents. As with many of his generation, he isn’t afraid to get political: his 2018 track Afraidofmoney is a commentary on the problems caused by poverty: “homelessness, poverty, alcoholism, suicide in extreme cases”. – EP

22

Junior Brother. Photograph: Bob Gallagher
Junior Brother. Photograph: Bob Gallagher

Junior Brother
Irish folk’s renaissance continues apace, but few artists have juxtaposed tales of being hungover at mass with peculiar love songs framed in folk and prog styles. Twentysomething Kerryman Ronan Kealy’s remarkable debut Pull the Right Rope brought something new to the genre with his singular phrasing and his striking voice. It’s exciting to think where he could go next. – LM

21

Just Mustard
Shoegaze lives again thanks to this Gen Z reboot of the early 1990s aesthetic of gauzy guitars and low-hanging fringes. The Dundalk quintet’s debut album Wednesday was a peerless introduction, recently followed up with a storming live EP. – EP

20

Odd Morris
With a smidgen of Joy Division here and a sprinkling of My Bloody Valentine there, the influences are familiar (the Swords, Co Dublin group have clearly been listening to Shame and Goat Girl too). Yet what they forge from these touchstones is impressively ominous. Bonus points to frontman Daragh Griffin for singing in something approaching his real accent. – EP

19

Bleeding Heart Pigeons
Limerick’s hip-hop scene is thriving, but bands like this young trio are doing their bit for art-rock, too. On recent second album Stir, they shrugged off comparisons to Wild Beasts and came into their own in glorious fashion, gleefully cherrypicking from synthpop, indie-rock and soul. They deserve to be huge. – LM

18

Elll
Electronica and minimalism collide head-on in the drone soundscapes of Cork-born, Berlin-based composer Ellen King (a founder member of the Gash collective, advocating for female producers, DJs and composers). The effect is dark and ominous. But this is noise with a purpose and the experimental cracklings of the UCC graduate and occasional piano teacher’s 2016 Romance EP and the 2019 follow-up Polarbergs are irresistible. – EP

17

Róisín Murphy “This has been the happiest time of my life, and that’s all that matters”
Róisín Murphy

Roisin Murphy
Rarely have us Irish claimed a musician as vociferously as we’ve claimed Roisin Murphy. The Wicklow native more than proved her worth in Moloko. Her solo material, however, is on another level: zig-zagging synth-pop melodies and captivating emotive bangers are cornerstones of her cutting-edge contemporary pop sound. She continues to leave a generation of young wannabes nipping at her disco-dancing heels. – LM

16

Kojaque
Whether rapping about the destructive impact of Airbnb or chronicling the daily lot of service industry workers, Cabra rapper Kevin Smith captures the minutiae of life in modern Ireland. Recent single Shmelly pushed the envelope further with surprise saxophone flourishes. – EP

15

Mango X MathMan
A place on the Normal People soundtrack has helped spread the word about the alliance between MC Mango (Karl Mangan) and producer MathMan (Adam Fogarty). Tramping through the grit of contemporary Dublin, the duo nonetheless look to the stars with their beat-fuelled hip hop. – EP

14

Villagers
Over the past decade, Conor O’Brien has transformed from shy folky wunderkind to a musician with the smarts and songs to go toe-to-toe with any of his contemporaries, anywhere. Never anything less than satisfying live, 2018’s The Art of Pretending to Swim heralded a new era for O’Brien’s songwriting, adding exciting new sounds and textures to his palette. – LM

13

Maija Sofia. Photograph: Jilly McGrath
Maija Sofia. Photograph: Jilly McGrath

Maija Sofia
The ghosts of country rock past exist in uneasy dialogue with the restless spirits of modern Ireland in the music of this Co Galway artist. She cast a chilling spell on 2019 debut Bath Time with lyrics that paid homage to Andy Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick as well as Bridget Cleary, the Tipperary woman burned to death on suspicion of being a changeling in 1895. – EP

12

Brian Deady
How long can you keep plugging away, churning out quality albums without the world capitulating? The resilient Corkman with the deep soul sound is a hidden gem of the Irish music scene, having been chewed up and spat out by the major label machine. His last album Yellow Creek, recorded live to tape in Memphis, is classic Deady: as authentic as they come. – LM

11

Sinead O’Brien
Sonic Youth, Patti Smith and PJ Harvey are playfully conjured with by the Limerick-born, London-based songwriter and poet. O’Brien is signed to Chess Club Records, the UK label which counts Wolf Alice, Jungle and erm, Mumford & Sons, as alumni. And with songs such as Fall With Me and Roman Ruins ripping it up on YouTube, she is only getting started. – EP

10

Silverbacks. Photograph: Phil Smithies
Silverbacks. Photograph: Phil Smithies

Silverbacks
It’s rare that debut albums are so fully-formed and beautifully executed, but Fad came out of nowhere, bending new wave, post-punk and slacker-rock influences to suit the Dublin band’s chirpy indiepop sound. The five-piece are a thrilling prospect on the Irish scene, yet one in danger of being overlooked as the Fontaines juggernaut razes everything in sight. And that’d be a shame. – LM

9

God Knows – aka Munyaradzi Jonas
God Knows – aka Munyaradzi Jonas

God Knows
Even as the pandemic forces us apart, Limerick-based, Zimbabwe-born MC God Knows – aka Munyaradzi Jonas – has been bringing Irish hip hop together, with his single Who’s Asking? The South West Allstars Mix united the leading names in Shannonside rap while an east coast version gathered freestylers such as New Ross’s Skripteh and Nealo from Blanchardstown (as well as doing the necessary and calling out Versatile). God Knows had already earned his place in Irish rap as part of the Choice-winning Rusangano Family. But he forges new territory on the Who’s Asking? EP, in which he guides homegrown hip-hop towards a thrilling future. – EP

8

Lankum

Lankum
A National Disgrace, Lankum’s recent one-off live-streamed performance at the Abbey Theatre, perfectly exhibited their significance: the Dubliners are duteous to the past but, importantly, not bound to it. Progression is everything, as their last album The Livelong Day so pointedly emphasised. They have almost single-handedly redefined Irish trad for a new generation. – LM

7

Neil Hannon, The Divine Coimedy

The Divine Comedy
Not every musician improves with age, but 30 years into his career as the mainstay of The Divine Comedy, Neil Hannon remains one of Ireland’s finest songwriters. As consistent as his output has been over the years, he’s also still capable of surprising listeners, as last year’s superb Office Politics demonstrated. – LM

6

Sorcha Richardson
Sorcha Richardson

Sorcha Richardson
Ennui, grooves and raw-knuckle honesty are the building blocks of the Dalkey native’s sound. At school Richardson formed a band, 10 Past Two, with Bono’s daughter, Eve Hewson, before studying drama in Brooklyn. On debut album First Prize Bravery (2019), it’s the intensity of her ethereal bedroom pop that shines brightest. – EP

5

Aoife Nessa Frances
Aoife Nessa Frances

Aoife Nessa Frances
Frances grew up steeped in the arts, the daughter of a fiddle-player father and alt-health therapist mother (her aunt is singer and actress Flo McSweeney). Her own music beguilingly splices minimalism and alternative pop. Released in January, debut LP Land of No Junction is a beguiling, mysterious calling card steeped in Cian Nugent’s hazy guitars. No wonder Charlatans leader Tim Burgess was eager to sign the Dubliner to his label (alas, he was too late and she was already committed elsewhere). – EP

4

Girl Band
Girl Band

Girl Band
It doesn’t matter if you “get” Girl Band or not: these Dubliners don’t make music with the expectation of top 10 hits. Their gutsy, atonal post-punk sound has repelled as many listeners as it has drawn in, but both 2015’s Holding Hands with Jamie and last year’s The Talkies were lessons in how to make compelling, essential music on your own terms. – LM

3

Pillow Queens
Pillow Queens

Pillow Queens
Catchy and politically outspoken, Pillow Queens have been deservedly hailed as the future of Irish guitar music. The Dublin/Kildare/Wicklow four-piece blend punk fervour with lyrics addressing such hot-button topics as body image and millennial friendship. A debut album, In Waiting, is due September 25th while new single, Holy Show has just gone into the top 40 and showcases a surprising facility for FM-friendly pop. Astounding from every angle, Pillow Queens are a shin-kicking rock band, with just a whiff of 1990s indie disco. – EP

2

Fontaines DC’s Grian Chatten and Carlos O’Connell sing songs from their album A Hero’s Death while performing on Other Voices Courage, live music during lockdown, streaming to a worldwide audience from Kilmainham Gaol. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
Fontaines DC. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Fontaines DC
If you’d written them off as one-trick-ponies or a flukey confluence of timing and hip influences, their second album thumbed its nose at the naysayers in glorious fashion. Not only is A Hero’s Death one of the best albums of the year, but it positioned the Dublin five-piece as potentially one of the most important Irish bands of their generation. – LM

1

Denise Chaila’s Other Voices: Courage performance at the National Gallery was a defining moment of the lockdown. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times
Denise Chaila. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Denise Chaila
The fact that a Zambian-Irish rapper has landed at No 1 on this poll speaks volumes for just how unpredictable and exciting the Irish music scene is right now. Chaila left a powerful calling card on Rusangano Family’s Isn’t Dinner Nice back in 2016. Last year’s Duel Citizenship solo EP trampled all over the boys’ club hip-hop scene, putting cerebral, thought-provoking work into the world and confounding expectations of what a black African-Irish woman should sound like or rap about. Combative and challenging in all the right ways, her Other Voices: Courage performance at the National Gallery was a defining moment of the lockdown, while recent singles Chaila and Holy Grail were exceptional. Debut mixtape Go Bravely has yet to be released, but you can count on it elevating Irish hip-hop to the next level. No pressure. – LM