Top 10 Irish
Villagers: Fever Dreams
For Those I Love: For Those I Love
Soda Blonde: Small Talk
John Francis Flynn: I Would Not Live Always
Saint Sister: Where I Should End
Mick Flannery and Susan O'Neill: In the Game
Brian Crosby: Imbrium
Adrian Crowley: The Watchful Eye of the Stars
Houseplants: Dry Goods
Once again, that compact man Conor O’Brien does it – just about. It was a very close call between Villagers (now with a bona fide back catalogue of five albums to their name) and Dave Balfe’s titular debut concept album, For Those I Love, but O’Brien’s consistency as a terrifically smart, forward-thinking songwriter dragged him over the finish line.
Take a look at the rest of the list, however, and you’ll detect something quite interesting: there are six debut albums here, albeit from musicians who have previous history as recording artists, either in a solo capacity or in a group. What we learn from this is that careers develop, people change and circumstances alter over time, and just because one band you’re in doesn’t “make it” (Little Green Cars) doesn’t prevent you from changing lanes and going for broke again (Soda Blonde).
Another thought directly from pandemic central: when you have too much time on your hands, can’t play gigs or go anywhere, either team up for creative playschool with another musician (Mick Flannery and Susan O’Neill’s In the Game is an emotive fireball; Bell X1’s Paul Noonan and Daithi’s Houseplants project will surely not be left to wither in a corner) or work on music that has been filed away for too long (Brian Crosby’s graceful instrumental album Imbrium). Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and this year it’s obvious Irish musicians haven’t been lacking in commitment and application.
Let's see these artists play gigs in 2022. Pretty please? Tony Clayton-Lea
Top 10 International
Arlo Parks: Collapsed in Sunbeams
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra: Promises
The Weather Station: Ignorance
Dry Cleaning: New Long Leg
Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine: A Beginner's Mind
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss: Raise the Roof
Low: Hey What
Courtney Barnett: Things Take Time, Take Time
Damon Albarn: The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows
Olivia Rodrigo: Sour
If this year taught us anything it was to not just to expect the unexpected but to roll with the punches as best we could, to accept that not everything would turn out the way we wanted it to. This is a possible reason why some of the biggest-selling albums of the year haven’t made our critics’ Top 10: no Adele, no Billie Eilish, no Lana Del Rey (although at a surprisingly lowly number 10, the rather wonderful debut album by Olivia Rodrigo sneaks in).
What the list suggests is that throughout 2021, people were taking things very seriously, indeed. From Arlo Parks to Rodrigo, from The Weather Station to Damon Albarn, from Sufjan Stevens (and Angelo De Augustine) to Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, it seems that fun (remember how much of that we used to have?) was pretty much off the table. The pleasant surprise (and, in fairness, a hefty splash of fun) was the high voting for Floating Points and Pharoah Sanders's Promises, a continuous 40-odd minutes of high-concept fusion that blew away cobwebs and welcomed in urgent blasts of comfort. So, yes, it was the year that we took things seriously because we had to. Maybe in 2022 we'll get back to having fun and joy without being shrouded in mournfulness, misery and melancholy – but enough about Damon Albarn. Tony Clayton-Lea
Top 10 albums lists compiled by Joe Breen, Tony Clayton-Lea, Andrea Cleary, Siobhán Kane, Siobhán Long, Lauren Murphy, Ed Power and Eamon Sweeney