What are the best Irish albums of 2020 – so far?

From hip hop and rap to noisy guitars and pop, here’s the 10 best albums you should not miss

Six months down and where are we? Healthy enough, thanks for asking. Despite the trauma generated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the associated locking down of virtually all of the “live” elements of the music industry, Irish artists have taken the hint and hunkered down in recording spaces and studios.

The fruits of such constrained labours will be seen in the second half of the year (see forthcoming releases below), but in the meantime here is our considered best of 2020 – so far.

It seems relevant to mention – particularly in the context of the recently published Gender Disparity Data Report, which number-crunched radio play for women across Irish stations in the past 12 months – that we had no trouble having an equal representation here.

Enough said – in no particular order, here you go. . .



No Future
Jonathon Ng's second album (his debut, Vertigo, was released in 2018) arrived a month before lockdown and like many other works, its reach probably suffered as a result. Don't allow this one to pass you by, though: it's a mellow aligning of gentle but deeply-felt hip-hop with smartly experimental electro-pop. Ng takes the modest road when it comes to lyrics, too, sidelining self-preening and sitting firmly on ego. A joy.
Read our review here

Aoife Nessa Frances

Lands of No Junction
Basin Rock
The debut solo album from Aoife Nessa Frances, a former member of garage-rock band Princess, is a radical about-face from her previous output. Co-produced by Cian Nugent and fashioned for the most part like a 1960s femme-pop record, Frances neatly links the styles of Twinkle, François Hardy and Vashti Bunyan with fluid lyrics that are by turn eloquent and enigmatic. It is an understated album, for sure, but its ambitious scope carries it triumphantly over the line.
Read our review here

Eileen Gogan and the Instructions

Under Moving Skies
Dimple Discs
Eileen Gogan has been part and parcel of the Irish indie music community for some time, contributing to various groups, including The Would Be's and The Revenants) over the years, but rarely delivering her own work. Under the radar she might be, but her latest solo album is proof positive that if you're ever on the lookout for sublime guitar-shaped indie-pop music with hints of ambient and Americana, then Gogan is your go-to.
Read our review here

David Keenan

A Beginner's Guide to Bravery
Much like the questions on Larry Gogan's Just a Minute quiz, David Keenan's music isn't for everyone. Those that search for (in Keenan's words) "a collaboration between chaos and calm in a world where the same laws do not apply" will, however, find much to admire and swoon along to. Several songs on his debut meander past seven minutes and ably evoke Van Morrison, Jeff Buckley and other music you have loved so much over the decades. Keenan, however, is no mere infiltrator – fusing a singular dynamic to streams of vivid lyrics, he is very much the architect of his own talent.
Read our review here

Lethal Dialect

LD50 Part 3
For the best part of 10 years, Paul Alwright has been using words not only as battering rams but also as persuasive arguments. Each method has its use, and on this album – the conclusion of a trilogy – the rapper/spoken word artist once again highlights the division of communities with dramatic precision. It's unfair to select a highlight out of so much value on show, but To Whom It May Concern (featuring Eva-Jane Gaffney sinuously rapping a help-me letter to a local politician) is quite likely the Irish hip-hop track of the year. 
Read our review here

Carole Nelson Trio

Blackstairs Records
The quietest and most elegant album here is from a musician that has taken a recent diversion from jazz/funk/pop (via zippy duo Zrazy) to compositional piano work. While still nominally jazz – in the Nordic style of graceful, improvisational melodies – Arboreal also allows ambient/electronica touches to inveigle their way into the music. The end result is quietly dramatic, serious, and tonally perfect.
Read our review here

The Scratch

Couldn't Give a Rats
An early success of the result of lockdown during Covid-19, The Scratch decided to bring forward the release of their debut album by several months and immediately reaped the dividends – and viral reach. What we have here is essentially the clever musical equivalent of the album title, in that The Scratch do whatever the hell they want within their framework of rock, metal and folk. Smartly arranged songs that teem with good humour and confidence? No wonder it struck a nerve during lockdown.
Read our review here

Sons of Southern Ulster

Sinners and Lost Souls
HT Records
The second album by Sons of Southern Ulster – a bunch of 50-something musicians who have chosen to rifle through their provincial Ireland memories for contextual commentary on life in the here and now – is a thorough blast of spoken-word post-punk. It is not too dissimilar to music acts way back when – think The Fall – and music acts around now – cue Fontaines D.C., who, we are shrewdly guessing, owe these oul' lads a pint or two. Influences and inspirations aside, this is a vital snapshot of how the provincial experience can be collectively applied.
Read our review here

Vernon Jane

The Ritual of Love Making
AMS Records
Staking their claim for unadulterated noise-makers, Vernon Jane aren't the squeamish types – there is more swearing on their debut album than you'd hear on a fleet of frigates. There's a furious punk rock sensibility, too, foisted upon us by a committed blend of razor-sharp musicianship and lead singer Emily Jane's themed lyrics of emotional anguish and reluctant but necessary resignation. The result? A sonic kick in the ribs. 
Read our review here

Hilary Woods

Sacred Bones
As themes for albums go, Birthmarks is as personal as it can get: it is informed by the gestation and development of a baby, and was recorded between Galway and Oslo in the winter of 2019, as Woods was in the final stages of pregnancy. Collaborating with Norwegian experimental producer/film-maker Lasse Marhaug, the work bears its soul as equal parts organic art project and – as a phrase in the album's accompanying press release has it – "visceral physicality". The outcome is exceptional, although not always "easy", music from an artist for whom mainstream acceptance matters very little. 
Read our review here


Highly anticipated releases to look forward to from July to December from:
The Coronas
Robert Crosbie
Cursed Murphy Versus the Resistance
Divine Comedy
Emperors of Ice Cream
Mick Flannery
Fontaines DC
Paddy Hanna
Emma Langford
My Sweet Beloved
Pillow Queens
Post-Punk Podge
Power of Dreams
Ailbhe Reddy
Niamh Regan
Saint Sister

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in popular culture