The best Irish and international albums of 2020

Best of 2020: top album-makers
The year of the pandemic produced outstanding, thoughtful music across all forms

Top 10 lists from the votes of Joe Breen, Louise Bruton, Tony Clayton-Lea, Siobhán Kane, Siobhán Long, Lauren Murphy, Éamon Sweene, Dean Van Nguyen, Michael Dervan and Cormac Larkin

Top 10 Irish Albums

1 Fontaines DC – A Hero’s Death
What we said: "The new material mostly takes stock of post-Dogrel success and the sluggish, oppressive nature of touring in the heat and glare of the stage lights."
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2 Denise Chaila – Go Bravely

What we said: "The Zambian-born, Irish-raised rapper has an eloquence, intelligence and ability to engage when it comes to the big issues troubling the world in 2020"
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3 Aoife Nessa Frances – Land of No Junction
What we said: "With a rich voice that comes in heavy like a mudslide, Frances draws you into her centre and moves you with her"
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4 Pillow Queens – In Waiting
What we said: "Wrapping hardship in tulle, the Dublin-based, all-queer indie-pop group give weight to the juvenile – but very real – feelings that shape who we are and how we navigate the world"
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5 Ailbhe Reddy – Personal History
What we said: "Reddy knows only too well the advantages of a decent guitar-pop song, and Personal History is full of them"
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6 Róisín Murphy – Róisín Machine

What we said: "By the time the jittery, elated funk of closing track Jealousy rolls around [on Róisín Machine], you’ll already be halfway out the door, dancing shoes in hand"
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7 Bleeding Heart Pigeons – Stir
What we said: "Suave indie-pop act Bleeding Heart Pigeons’s second album takes you down to a sullen low, only for the faint glimmers of hope to lift you back up again"
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8 Hilary Woods – Birthmarks
What we said: "Woods’s second solo album sees her venture further down the rabbit hole of experimentation, resulting in challenging but thought-provoking sonic soundscapes"
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9 Nealo – All the Leaves Are Falling
What we said: "It’s tough to bottle the frustration many Irish people in their mid-30s feel within the narrow margins of rap songs. Nealo isn’t afraid to give it a shot"
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10 Brigid Mae Power – Head Above the Water 
What we said: "Lyrically [Power] shows incredible caution in not just examining her own feelings but the feelings of others, too"
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We hear and experience everything amid the environment we live in, and so virtually (for the most part) everything we listened to this year, or at least from March onwards, was through a prism of knowing we weren’t going to see the music being performed in a live setting. In other words? No rucking at a Fontaines DC gig, no furious toe-tapping to tunes from Pillow Queens, no skirmishes under the lights of disco balls at a Róisín Murphy show, no eyes closed in reveries to either Denise Chaila or Nealo, no nodding thoughtfully, blissfully, to Aoife Nessa Frances, Brigid Mae Power, Bleeding Heart Pigeons, Hilary Woods or Ailbhe Reddy. It wasn’t that kind of year, was it? We were, for the most obvious of reasons, stuck in our own heads and our own homes trying to figure out the best way to maintain some kind of equilibrium. This may be why our critics’ Top 10 Albums of 2020 is largely a reflective collection, with temperament influencing the year much more than Ticketmaster. Never mind whether or not the music was written prior to the insidious arrival of Covid-19 – we just needed a massage, rough and tender, now and again. We got them, too. TCL

INTERNATIONAL TOP 10

1 Run the Jewels – RTJ4
What we said: "An alternately surreal and furious response to a world spinning bizarrely, horribly out of control"
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2 Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
What we said: "Controlled frustration allied with some of the best saw-toothed pop-folk tunes you’ll hear this year"
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3 Sault – Untitled (Black Is)

4 Taylor Swift – Folklore
What we said: "[Folklore] will reveal something that has always obvious to her fans, but long dismissed by detractors who deign her to be frivolous and shallow: no one writes a song with the emotional dexterity, self-awareness, and narrative richness like Ms Swift"
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5 Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
What we said: "Future Nostalgia is what would happen if St Vincent, Gloria Gaynor and Scissor Sisters broke the laws of science and teamed up to make a timeless pop record"
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6 Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You
What we said: "Letter to You, both the title track and the riveting album, is Springsteen’s meditation on a life lived in what he terms a '45-year conversation' with his audience
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7 Perfume Genius – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
What we said: "Perfume Genius is ultimately a pop star; a clever, singular, and considered one, in an over-saturated, under-stimulating landscape, his sensibility ignites"
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8 Hey Colossus – Dances/Curses

9 Matt Berninger – Serpentine Prison
What we said: "Berninger’s weary baritone is a great instrument that drifts and crashes around songs about desires and thwarted dreams"
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10 Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?
What we said: "Combining smoky disco and subtle house music, Jessie Ware takes us on a journey of aural pleasure on her fourth album"
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There was a clear-cut No 1 from our critics. Run the Jewels’ RTJ4 hit a potent political nerve, released as it was (in June) during demonstrations across the US at the manner of the death of George Floyd. In the UK, meanwhile, the truthfully enigmatic Sault funk-soul collective released Black Is, a card-marking missive of sociopolitical realism. If Taylor Swift’s Folklore was a pandemic panacea par excellence, and Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You a batch of reassuring old-school hugs (of which there was a severe shortage this year), then Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure? and Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia were uptempo dance-pop albums for indoor clubbers. Factor in Matt Berninger’s Serpentine Prison, Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher and Perfume Genius’s Set My Heart on Fire Immediately and you have the personal-political writ large. The noise-punk of Hey Colossus’s double album, Dance/Curses, only adds to 2020’s disparate displays of protest and party, solace and catharsis. There’s more to come, of course. Taylor Swift’s surprise eighth studio album may have landed the first authentic and (relatively) immediate instalment of quarantine-inspired emotional depth, but it won’t be the last. Anyone for 2021, the Year of the Lockdown Album? TCL

TOP FIVE JAZZ ALBUMS

1 Origin Story – Good Friday
What we said: "The trio make a sound that is artfully poised between the past and the future, a gutsy, gloriously organic confection of wayward melodies, ambiguous harmonies and densely funky rhythms"
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2 Thunderblender – Stillorgan
What we said: "Stillorgan is an intensely personal record, a clear-eyed meditation on memory and upbringing from a musician who artfully balances technique and authentic emotion"
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3 Mike Nielsen and Ellen Demos – Microtonal Sound Recipes
What we said: "This astonishing, disruptive, often unsettling album is the result of two days of fearless microtonal improvisation by the pair"
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4 Maria Schneider Orchestra – Data Lords

5 Pat Metheny – From This Place
What we said: "A sprawling cinematic epic of an album, with impeccable performances"
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For an art form that lives and evolves in the presence of an audience, a year without live performance has been particularly challenging, but jazz listeners stuck at home have been sustained at least by recordings, domestically and internationally, that would grace any year’s “Best of” list: Maria Schneider’s darkly prophetic Data Lords unleashed the inner beast of the most important big band composer of her generation. Guitarist Pat Metheny also came over all orchestral on his sprawling epic. On the domestic front, innovative guitarist Mike Nielsen revealed just how far he has travelled; saxophonist Sam Comerford’s Thunderblender trio produced a debut of depth and humanity; and leading Irish piano trio Origin Story finally captured their urgent, exciting sound in the studio. Cormac Larkin

TOP FIVE CLASSICAL ALBUMS

1 Chamber Choir Ireland, Irish Chamber Orchestra, Paul Hillier – Letters
What we said: "The recording is extremely vivid and the singing and orchestral playing under Paul Hillier are on fire"
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2 Ensemble Marsyas, Peter Whelan – Edinburgh 1742, Barsanti & Handel, Parte Seconda
What we said: "The overture to Handel’s Atalanta provides a purposefulness of musical stride to contrast with Barsanti’s less keenly focused style"
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3 Karen Power – Human Nature
(via bandcamp.com)
What we said: "The atmospheric vividness and rich spatialisation of the original recordings has a kind of magic carpet feel that carries a very special charge"
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4 Jennifer Walshe – A Late Anthology of Early Music Vol 1, Ancient to Renaissance
What we said: "Don’t, for even the slightest moment, think that Jennifer Walshe’s anthology of early music sounds at all like what the title would lead you to expect
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5 Sharon Carty, Jonathan Ware – Schubert’s Four Seasons
What we said: "The voice is always well-controlled, and expressed with a spareness of gesture that often carries a suggestion of some kind of underlying loss or regret"
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It’s a long time since recorded music pivoted out of CD players into computers, iPods (remember them?) and mobile phones. And, to state the obvious, the isolation, shielding and cocooning of this year’s lockdowns would have been altogether more challenging without the easy reach of the awesome variety of online content. And still CDs are being issued and new ones being recorded. In the six months of issues that I covered this year I concentrated mostly on issues of Irish origins and connections. It was a good harvest. As I write, the sonic splendour of Chamber Choir Ireland’s Letters is freshest in my ears, and the Barsanti resurrections of Peter Whelan’s latest offering and magic carpet journeys of Karen Power’s collaborative human nature beckon most strongly for revisiting. Michael Dervan

TOP FIVE TRAD ALBUMS

1 Steve Cooney – Ceol Ársa Cláirsí: Tunes of the Irish Harpers for Solo Guitar
What we said: "A glorious celebration of a heritage that stretches back a millennium, and a timely reimagining of tunes"
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2 John & James Carty – The Wavy Bow Collection

3 Maeve Gilchrist – The Harpweaver
What we said: "Buoyant, sprightly and utterly beguiling, this latest recording from Scottish harper Maeve Gilchrist is a fathoms-deep collection that sets the harp on a picaresque journey"
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4 The West Ocean String Quartet – Atlantic Edge
What we said: "This aptly named quartet make a long-overdue return with this cap-doffing to the music of our west coast, and the landscape that’s shaped it"
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5 Andy Irvine – Old Dog Long Road Vol 2

Releasing a body of work during a pandemic is a triumph. This year has yielded many fruits, though some struggle in a congested digital world. Steve Cooney’s revival of our exceptional harping tunes through pristine arrangements for guitar is the gift that keeps on giving, buoyed by his sweep of the RTÉ Radio 1 Folk Awards. John and James Carty quietly released their exquisite collection, The Wavy Bow, with consummate fiddle and banjo master, John revealing his equally delicate relationship with tenor guitar and mandolin. An endless treasure trove. Andy Irvine’s collection Old Dog Long Road (Vol 2) is full of gems, both minor and major. All glorious reminders of what really matters.
Siobhan Long

TOP FIVE ROOTS ALBUMS

1 Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways
What we said: "Dylan is on a roll, menacing, playful; woe betide those who get in his way"
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2 Lucinda Williams – Good Souls, Better Angels
What we said: "Twelve tracks that punch with a dark, almost biblical vengeance but also, importantly, balance vitriol with solace, hellfire with a hand in need"
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3 Baxter Dury – The Night Chancers
What we said: "There’s a lot to unravel in an album that’s only 31 minutes long but, crucially, you’ll want to return to try to figure it all out"
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4 The Lost Brothers – After the Fire After the Rain
What we said: "This is not about standout moments but rather the deeply satisfying whole. Headphones on, the world can wait"
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5 Christian Lee Hutson – Beginners

With Rough and Rowdy Ways, a resurgent Bob Dylan headed for the home straight, peerless, intriguing, indomitable. No quarter asked, none given. Lucinda Williams took no prisoners, either, with Good Souls, Better Angels. Baxter Dury’s Night Chancers helped pull us through the darkness. Our own Lost Brothers also provided balm with After the Fire, After the Rain, and Big Thief’s Adrienne Lenker sought solace in Songs and Instrumentals. There were also strong albums by Bill Callahan, Drive-by Truckers, Jason Isbell, Frazey Ford and Rose City Band; Neil Young finally delivered Homegrown, albeit 45 years late. Low-key gem: Beginners, Christian Lee Hutson’s unsparing examination of self and self-worth. 
Joe Breen