With 2020 on the horizon, this year’s Best Of lists are a great marker for how this decade in music has evolved. In 2010, Lady Gaga was riding high with Bad Romance; now she’s an Oscar-winning songwriter. One Direction were glossy-haired, all-singing, all-dancing H&M mannequins; now they’ve all gone solo with Harry Styles vying for our attention the most. Ed Sheeran was singing at open-mic nights; now he’s inescapable. Kanye West was one of the most divisive figures in pop culture and... well, some things never change.
At the start of this decade, the mainstream charts with reserved for good time, Euro-pop flavoured songs and alternative charts were chockablock with indie men with indie guitars as LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy sat grumpily in the corner.
Thankfully, things have moved on from being so rigidly categorised. Between the best-selling artists of 2019 and the top picks from the Irish Times music reviewers, the lines between pop, rock and hip-hop are blurring, women are dominating the international categories and by weaving personal tales with the political, Irish artists are providing a crucial analysis of modern life.
In recent years, it felt as if the charts would never be clear of Sheeran and 2019 continued in that vein as he dabbled in grime and hip-hop on his No 6 Collaborations Project that features Khalid, Stormzy, Travis Scott and Eminem.
While he was marginally overshadowed by the always hilarious and utterly charming Lewis Capaldi, whose debut album Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent is essentially a hit factory of lovestruck ballads, their highly successful soft rock stylings have been usurped by rap from both sides of the Atlantic.
At home, Dublin lads Mango x Mathman struck nerves and pulled heartstrings with their debut album Casual Work, an album that shines a light on classism and capitalism in a new Éire, whereas the gas but always glic Dundalk trio TPM go straight for the jugular in songs like Fuck RTÉ and All the Boys on the Dole while Jafaris provides a healthy balance of realism and optimism on his debut album Stride, an energy that multiplies when he hits the stage.
London MC Stormzy performed one of the most important and politically-charged headlining Glastonbury sets this summer, only for him to pull a blinder at Longitude the following weekend, kitted out in an Irish football jersey. Psychodrama, the debut album from British rapper and singer Dave, took home the Mercury Prize for best album of the year and Lil Nas X got cowboys hot under the collar by being the first openly LGBTQ artist to win a Country Music Association Award with Old Town Road, the longest running number one single in American chart history.
Bubblegum pop as we know it is well and truly burst as 17-year-old Billie Eilish flooded the pop sphere with her delectably nightmarish bops all year long. Her debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? went straight to number one upon its release, making her the youngest female solo artist to have a number one album in the UK and Ireland. Her singles Bad Guy and Bury a Friend are game-changers when it comes to the construction of a commercial pop song.
Lizzo also made chart history with her single Truth Hurts. Originally released in 2017, in the build up to the release of the American rapper, flutist and singer’s third album Cuz I Love You, the song got a second lease of life and re-entered the charts across the world as her funk-anthem of positivity Juice set fire to dance floors and stole the hearts of all who heard it. She recently claimed the title of honorary Irish woman during her gig in Dublin’s Olympia Theatre by playing the tin-whistle and glamorously draping a tricolour around her. We do love it when artists pander to our nationalistic needs. Four olés for you, Lizzo.
With Lizzo creating enough joy to fuel Disneyland for a year, patriotic and general disillusionment creeps into; Lana Del Rey’s Grammy-nominated Norman Fucking Rockwell; Sharon Van Etten’s Remind Me Tomorrow; Lankum’s The Livelong Day; and Fontaines DC’s Dogrel. While Del Rey wears her heart on her sleeve as the American flag burns in the background on her career-defining song The Greatest, Van Etten’s song Seventeen pairs up the loss of youth with gentrification in New York City, and post-punk renegades Fontaines DC fire up some Dublin-centric fightin’ talk on Big and Television Screens.
However, as Siobhán Long says in her five-star review of Lankum’s third album, the contemporary Irish folk group reframe “familiar songs in a wickedly new context that forces the listener to re-evaluate the music from the ground floor up”. Borrowing from the old, they boldly conjure the hopelessness and the pain that consumes us on the worst of days. The same could be said for Galway singer-songwriter Maija Sofia, whose debut album Bath Time reframes the well-known stories of women throughout history and narrates their often dismissed perspective.
Cut from entirely different cloths, Ariana Grande and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds elaborate on the varying stages of grief on their respective albums Thank U, Next and Ghosteen. While Grande mixes in her struggles with anxiety, public heartbreak, questionable consumerism and the pressures of fame into trippy R&B pop songs, Cave conveys the fragility and the force that comes from the tragedy of losing a child. Touching on topics that are either dodged or gravely misunderstood, both artists put their mark on the all-consuming and ever-changing shape that grief takes in the world.
Similarly, Dublin group Girl Band’s second album The Talkies opens with a recording of a panic attack that vocalist Dara Kiely’s experienced in the studio. Having taken a break shortly after the release of their 2015 debut album, Holding Hands with Jamie, this album is a cleverly crafted cluster of emotional and musical noise that documents the inner turmoil that can derail us if left unaddressed. Darkness is a uniting theme that connects almost all of our top acts this year but it’s the survival tactics practiced by each artist that defines them.
Whether it’s the buoyantly joyous music of Lizzo who preaches self-love in a world that wants to tear strips out of you, or the poetic expression of Mango x Mathman - when everything feels hopeless, there’s something to connect to, something to lift you out of your reality. Escapism it is not but these songs, these stories, are evidence that in a decade that seemed to grow heavier with each passing year, things can turn around. Whether it’s in a song or an album that’s designed to make you dance or cry, these artists haven’t shied away from framing the personal and making it political and that’s something we certainly didn’t get enough of in 2010.
And here are the top picks of 2019 based on votes from the Irish Times reviewers Joe Breen, Louise Bruton, Niall Byrne, Tony Clayton-Lea, Zara Hedderman, Siobhán Kane, Siobhán Long, Una Mullally, Lauren Murphy, Dean Van Nguyen and Eamon Sweeney.
Best Irish album
1. Lankum – The Livelong Day
2. Dogrel – Fontaines DC
3. Casual Work – Mango x Mathman
4. The Talkies – Girl Band
5. Bath Time – Maija Sofia
Best Irish song
1. Deep Blue – Mango x Mathman
2. Big – Fontaines DC
3. Shoulderblades – Girl Band
4. The Wild Rover – Lankum
5. Love Tonight – Soulé
6. Did you Know? – Villagers
7. Television Screens – Fontaines DC
8. Dublin City Sky – Fontaines DC
9. Green & Blue – The Murder Capital
10. Said and Done – Mango x Mathman
11. Aruba – Royal Yellow
12. May Feign – The Bonk
13. Meáchan Rudaí (The Weight of Things) – The Glaoming
14. Salmon of Knowledge – The Bonk
15. Swimming Through the Night – Soda Blonde
16. Man Like Me – Sim Simma Soundsystem
17. Duel Citizenship – Denise Chaila
18. Submarines – Daithi
19 Bread & Butter – Mango x Mathman
20. Seven – Just Mustard
Best Irish act
1. Junior Brother
3. Róisín Murphy
4. Sorcha Richardson
Best Irish group
1. Fontaines DC
3. Mango x Mathman
4. Girl Band
5. The Bonk
Best international album
1. Norman Fucking Rockwell – Lana Del Rey
2. Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains
3. Remind Me Tomorrow – Sharon Van Etten
4. Reward – Cate Le Bon
5. Ghosteen – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
Best international song
1. Seventeen – Sharon Van Etten
2. Juice – Lizzo
3. Fixture Picture – Aldous Harding
4. The Greatest/Fuck It I Love You – Lana Del Rey
5. Bad Guy – Billie Eilish
6. Sad Nudes – Cate le Bon
7. Between Sleipnir’s Breaths – Sunn O)))
8. Home to You – Cate Le Bon
9. Soft To Be Strong – Marina
10. Slide Away – Miley Cyrus
11. People’s Faces – Kate Tempest
12. Dawn Chorus – Thom Yorke
13. Cattails – Big Thief
14. Quiet Amplifier – Wilco
15. Hey Ma – Bon Iver
16. Claustro – Burial
17. Truth Hurts – Lizzo
18. Gone – Charli XCX & Christine and the Queens
19. Darkness and Cold – Purple Mountains
20. Death Drop – Blanck Mass
Best international act
2. Billie Eilish
3. Lana Del Rey
4. Cate Le Bon
5. Weyes Blood
Best international group
1. Big Thief
4. Vampire Weekend
5. The National
1. Sharon Van Etten – Vicar Street, Dublin, March 23rd
2. Bill Callahan – Vicar Street, Dublin, September 30th
3. Spice Girls – Croke Park, Dublin, May 24th
4. Kate Tempest – Vicar Street, Dublin, November 15th
5. Sinéad O’Connor – Vicar Street, Dublin, October 27th
1. Another Love Story
2. It Takes a Village
3. All Together Now
4. Electric Picnic
5. Open Ear