- 18 Dec 19
30. Dermot Kennedy - Without Fear (Riggins Recording Limited) by Lucy O'Toole 8/10
Few musicians embody the future course of music like Dermot Kennedy. Having achieved headliner status without the backing of an album, the Rathcoole singer-songwriter has carved out a fiery path of his own – propelled by deeply resonant singles, impressive live performances and the infinite reach of the internet.
But despite having demonstrated that album sales no longer equate to superstardom, Kennedy has made no secret of his desire to cement his legacy with a lasting, full-length work. Exposing his darkest vulnerabilities across 13 tracks, Kennedy has gone the extra mile, by presenting one of the finest debut albums of the year.
Of course, many of the songs on Without Fear will be familiar to fans. The electronic-influenced ‘Moments Passed’ and the bittersweet ‘All My Friends’ drag up as much raw emotion as ever, while the irresistible energy of ‘Power Over Me’ continues to prove why it’s a mainstay on the airwaves.
Deeply expressive, lovelorn anthems are Kennedy’s bread-and-butter, and while they’re still here in force, the album also captures a bold new direction in his sound. Pulling from hip-hop influences, he revisits early fan favourite ‘An Evening I Will Not Forget’ with a thrilling new remix – kitted out with added trap hi-hats and a vocoder. He applies a similar approach with the title track, bookending the album with these two highlights.
Lazy comparisons to Ed Sheeran have chased Kennedy since his early days, but on Without Fear, he has proved himself to be more than just another busker-turned-superstar with a powerhouse voice and an acoustic guitar. Making good on the promise of the title, Dermot Kennedy has fearlessly presented an album that boasts the kind of confidence rarely found on a debut. With some of the most viciously honest lyrics in modern pop, and a voice dug up from the deepest corners of the soul, Without Fear captures an artist on the cusp of greatness.
29. Picture This - MDRN LV (Island) by Edwin McFee 8/10
It’s fair to say there aren’t many – if any – Irish artists of the modern era, who’ve made such extraordinary strides so quickly as Picture This. Successfully battling the odds – and occasionally the musical snobs – since making their bow with the iPhone-filmed video for ‘Take My Hand’ in 2015, their remarkable rise can only be described as a fairytale for the social media age. Now, the Athy outfit’s vowel-shunning second LP, MDRN LV, sees them beginning an exciting new chapter.
On one level, change is in the air: Picture This now shape up for photos as a four-piece. This is a band. So, on MDRN LV, we get a bit more of that feeling of a collective working together to create a great noise. And yet, so sure has their rise been to date that the old adage might have been applied: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. So, while there are interesting new sounds and ideas in evidence, for the most part, this album smartly relies on what made Picture This a sensation to begin with – big catchy hooks wrapped around relatable lyrics and delivered with a great melodic instinct.
Co-produced by Jayson DeZuzio – who has twiddled knobs for the likes of Imagine Dragons – MDRN LV is a more confident and expansive beast than their triple-platinum debut. Clearly, the band have been emboldened by their ever-growing success. Featuring 12 tales of love, break-ups and parties, the record is a treasure chest of hits just waiting to happen.
Opener ‘Modern Love’ sets their stall out strongly, as it marries ’80s pop with bleeding edge, 21st century production. It’s swiftly followed by the crowd-pleasing big ballad ‘If You Wanna Be Loved’, which boasts a killer hook. If you want to get sentimental, this is the way to do it. ‘Nevada’, meanwhile, is a ready made anthem: it’s the kind of song Gary Lightbody would’ve written had he grown up listening to Justin Timberlake, rather than Sebadoh and the Super Furry Animals.
Elsewhere, Picture This flirt with country on ‘Someone To Hold’, a duet with Aussie songstress Cxloe that could help them crack the American market. A rallying cry against the often fake world of social media, with Owen Cardiff on lead and Cliff Deane on bass playing their part to the full, ‘Life Of The Party’ is perhaps the group’s best song to date. Fans are certainly given plenty to chew on with lines like, “I can’t be the life of the party/ Can’t carry on being heartless/ I’m better off being honest/ Or I get hurt.” The ‘Eye Of The Tiger’-style verse and the fuzzed-up guitar are the coup de grace. In conclusion: take that, difficult second album syndrome! This one’s a winner.
28. SOAK - Grim Town (Rough Trade Records) by Peter McGoran 9/10
If you’ve ever been to any of the train station stop-offs in Northern Ireland, you’ll have heard the dead-toned voice that blares from the speakers telling you “the 14.01 to Bangor is delayed” or “no smoking is permitted in carriages”.
One such voice opens the first track in SOAK’s second album Grim Town. Only in this world, the voice makes clear “This train is for the following passengers only: Recipients of universal credit or minimum wage. The lonely, the disenfranchised, the disillusioned, the grieving.” No one with pensions, no one with security, goes to Grim Town.
The last SOAK album had its own imaginative worlds. There, the singer turned her native Derry City inside-out with her ethereal dreamscapes. She took us wandering down corridors of the mind where love, uniqueness, difference resided – previously unseen and unspoken.
Grim Town is a bigger world. Here, people deal with the absurd notion of being normal human beings – not as easy as it sounds for the kid in ‘Get Set Go Kid’, who seems baffled by Sertraline, middle city apartments and awkward social situations, while a jingling happy-haunted sound works under the listener’s skin. “You did it, you’re alive!” is the refrain that comes as the song kicks up a gear three minutes in, and everything after sounds like something Thom Yorke might’ve written in the Radiohead glory days.
In Grim Town, desire can be jealousy – can be a curse – especially for the speaker in ‘Everybody loves you’. In Grim Town, house parties can be boring and soulless, but they can also have a weird, alluring sacredness to them, as in ‘I Was Blue, Technicolour Too’.
Here, people make do with the best parts they can, as in ‘Scrapyard’, but they can also contemplate the possibility of “mak[ing] another you”. In more on-the-nose instances, ‘Valentine Shmalentine’ exposes the corporate, image-obsessed heart behind modern love in Grim Town, with a simple yet spine-tingling chorus slicing through the Hallmark sentiments to say: “I need you/I just do.”
SOAK’s first album had her otherworldy voice pulling small moments from the ephemera and penning them before they flew away, all back by a sparse production. There’s a more involved, layered production element. ‘Falling Asleep, Backseat’ stands out because it has some spectacular jazz, piano and percussion strains running through it. The more involved sound – in turn – tests the strength and timbre and emotion of SOAK’s voice, and she rises to the occasion.
There’s so much to enjoy here and for so many different reasons. ‘Knock Me Off My Feet’ opens with the synth-pop of New Order, and goes on to contain one of SOAK’s catchiest hooks to date. ‘Maybe’ feels like an indie spin on a Bryan Adams riff. You could throw in Belinda Carlisle, Banarama, Death Cab For Cutie and Foals and you wouldn’t come close to guessing at what SOAK must’ve been listening to when thinking about this album. She’s outdone herself on multiple levels.
Final song ‘Nothing Looks The Same’ brings Grim Town to a sort of resolution. We’re on the same train as the first song, but now the singer has “changed the frame” – and maybe things aren’t so grim from a different perspective.
What a journey. A true triumph.
27. Lizzo - Cuz I Love You (Nice Life/Atlantic) by Brooke Weber 8/10
It’s impossible to listen to a Lizzo track and feel anything less than pure joy. With her third studio album, the Texas native has really found her groove. Though the record incorporates everything from indie-rock to rap and R&B, Cuz I Love You is even greater than the sum of its parts. The results are stunning – this is a playful, confident, radical endorsement of self-love and emotional vulnerability.
The title-track, a power ballad with a killer beat, puts Lizzo’s impressive belting skills on display. ‘Like A Girl’, a rap-pop tune sure to become a girl power playlist staple, spotlights the singer’s spirited personality and lyrical prowess. Here, Lizzo encourages women to follow their dreams, whilst paying homage to black female icons Chaka Khan, Lauryn Hill and Serena Williams.
This theme of positivity continues into hit single ‘Juice’ and rap song ‘Soulmate’, with a real sense of joy permeating the music. Missy Elliot features on ‘Tempo’, a body-positive rap-dance track emphasising Lizzo’s more sensual side. Cuz I Love You isn’t limited to endlessly optimistic tunes, though – in soulful bop ‘Jerome’, the narrator breaks up with an immature old flame, whilst unapologetic rock jam ‘Cry Baby’ sees the artist cast aside by her partner.
Though the album’s final three tunes, ‘Better In Color’, ‘Heaven Help Me’ and ‘Lingerie’, don’t push the envelope as much as the rest, they’re still irresistibly catchy. ‘Heaven Help Me’, in particular, deserves special mention for its slowed-down bridge and Lizzo’s famous flute playing.
Jump on the Lizzo train now if you somehow haven’t already – this woman is well on her way to the top.
26. Glen Hansard - This Wild Willing (EPITAPH) by John Walshe 8/10
For his fourth solo album, Glen Hansard has largely left behind the soulful troubadour who inhabited his last couple of records and re-embraced the noise. Much of This Wild Willing has more in common with the sonic storms he helped conjure up as The Frames’ frontman, as Hansard re-engages with his darker side.
Album opener and lead single, ‘I’ll Be You, Be Me’ is a superb introduction: it’s an exercise in restraint, Hansard’s vocal a controlled whisper while the music builds from slow throb to a swirling maelstrom of distorted noise. ‘Don’t Settle’ begins with tinkering piano, but it’s far from the gentle melody of ‘Falling Slowly’: these staccato scatterings of notes have far more dramatic intensity, as Hansard delivers a plea not to compromise your ideals, “When they turn your words against you, try to grind you to the ground.” Once again it builds in ferocity until the singer’s bellowing his words out over a beautiful menagerie of brass-led noise. Even the delicate, piano-driven ‘Fools Game’ bursts into glorious waves of My Bloody Valentine-esque distortion. As opening salvos go, it’s quite a statement.
Born in Paris and recorded in Black Box studios, with former Frames guitarist David Odlum at the control desk, this album features long-time cohorts Joe Doyle and Romy, as well as Dublin electronic musicians Deasy and Dunk Murphy, and classically trained Iranian musicians the Khoshravesh brothers, who add layers of eastern swirl to tracks like ‘The Closing Door’.
Elsewhere, ‘Race To The Bottom’ sounds like Calexico holed up in a Parisian drinking den; the southern twang of ‘Mary’ could be a Will Oldham out-take (“Love is a language you can speak so eloquently”); the jazz-inflected ‘Who’s Gonna Be Your Baby Now’ is a whispered confessional from the Leonoard Cohen songbook; and the folky ‘Brother’s Keeper’ has a beguiling lightness of touch.
This Wild Willing’s experimental edge has more in common with For The Birds than any of his previous solo outings – most of these 12 songs were born from improvisation. It’s a long album, weighing in at a concentration-sapping 64 minutes, but there’s so much here to love, from the distorted assault of the opening trio to the epic ‘Good Life Of Song’, a beautiful paean to the love of music and the musician’s life, or the closing ‘Leave A Light’, which sounds not unlike Luke Kelly covering Willie Nelson. A wonderful record.
25. Big Thief - Two Hands (4AD) by Joey Molloy 9/10
Big Thief’s second record of 2019, Two Hands, feels like a victory lap. Just six months ago, they released a contender for album of the year, U.F.O.F. Despite the proximity of the releases, Two Hands and U.F.O.F. are fundamentally different. The latter was a foray into the realm of celestial folk, recorded in the lush seclusion of pastoral Washington state. Conversely, Two Hands is the earth twin to its alien sister.
Recorded in El Paso, just a stone’s throw away from the Mexican border, the 105-degree heat melted away the atmospheric layers of U.F.O.F. in favour of hissing guitars and pained vocal takes. The Two Hands sessions were mostly recorded live and oftentimes crack like the desert with vulnerability. The music is less calculated, but Big Thief is still thriving. What emerges from the dust-storm is a collection of 10 brilliant vignettes of trauma, lingering love, and sometimes self-hatred.
The best part of Two Hands, and indeed every Big Thief record, is the combination of Adrianne Lenker’s otherworldly vocals and poetic lyrics. One standout is ‘Forgotten Eyes’, with the chorus line, “The wound has no direction/ Everybody deserves a home and protection.” Another highlight is ‘Shoulders’, a tune that can be traced back to live performances from two years ago. Lenker’s vocals soar and sometimes choke up, but never falter. Other songs are more subtle. The opening track ‘Rock And Sing’, for example, is soothing and comforting like a lullaby.
For most bands, recording a full LP live would result in sloppiness and retakes a go-go. However, take a look at footage of Big Thief in concert, and you’ll see they’re a band capable of making it work. Bassist Max Oleritch once described the group’s live show as a practice in “radical spiritualism”. That makes sense, as there’s certainly something transcendent within the spaces and changes of Two Hands.
Indeed, releasing another phenomenal entry hot on the heels of the band’s magnum opus reflects Big Thief’s philosophy: relying on music to survive. Superb stuff.
24. Leonard Cohen - Thanks For The Dance (Columbia) by Pat Carty 9/10
The appropriate response to any posthumous album should be wariness. How many demos did Jeff Buckley actually record? Remember Amy Winehouse’s Lioness? No? Good. This, however, is different. Cohen was a beloved artist because that’s exactly what he was, an artist, and one of the few figures you could actually point at in music and say “poet”. A man who worked for years on a song like ‘Hallelujah’, a song that seems impervious to tarnishing despite so many people’s best efforts.
The vocals here were recorded as Cohen worked on You Want It Darker, and this album can be taken as a continuation of that one although it is, if anything, a superior work. Cohen’s son Adam, using conversations with his father as a guide, directs the marvellously sympathetic arrangements with help from Daniel Lanois, Beck, Jennifer Warnes, Damien Rice and Feist, amongst others.
It’s the lyrics, and that voice, that are the real prizes though. There are sly digs at himself in ‘Happens To The Heart’ – as in, “I was always working steady, but I never called it art.” His everlasting adoration of women comes through on ‘Moving On’, the title track, even ‘It’s Torn’, and certainly in the explicit story ‘The Night Of Santiago’ (“I took off my necktie / And she took off her dress / My belt and pistol set aside/ We tore away the rest”). I would never presume to attempt to define the power Cohen has over women, but I do know that to talk about him to any female with blood pumping through her head and heart is to watch her instantly lose interest in anything to do with you. Competing with a poet is akin to dodging raindrops. “I wasn’t born a gypsy to make a woman sad.”
There’s a sad state of the world address in ‘Puppet’; meditations on his own frailty in ‘The Goal’ and ‘The Hills’; and an examination of the nature of beauty in ‘Listen To The Hummingbird’, which his beloved Federico García Lorca would have been proud to claim.
Show me another artist whose final work is every bit as good as their first? A near-perfect record, and a beautiful adieu.
23. Junior Brother - Pull The Right Rope (Strange Brew) by Stephen Porzio 8/10
With his unpolished Irish singing, Ronan Kealy – aka Junior Brother – sets himself apart from other young Irish artists. Though produced at Ailfionn Studios in Drumcondra, his debut LP Pull The Right Rope has a wonderfully rural and gothic feel.
His strength is in building immersive soundscapes out of small fragments. Most tracks find the singer accompanying himself on twangy acoustic guitar and foot tambourine; however, on tunes such as ‘Coping’ and ‘Full Of Wine’, he utilises all the different sounds a mouth can produce – experimenting with tempo, volume and even wails. When combined with his dynamic guitar playing, the results are often remarkable.
He’s also a skilled songwriter. Featuring extra instrumentation in the form of deep sorrowful fiddles, break-up ballad ‘The Back Of Her’ benefits from its idiosyncratic imagery, as he recalls “Watching the moon from a lake reflection ruined by swans…”. Meanwhile, album highlight ‘You Will Know My Name’ has a cinematic feel reminiscent of Nick Cave: “Your teeth grind and tremble at the stories of your shame/ Once you feel these twisting fingers you will know my name.”
Overall, Junior Brother’s debut is very much like rural Ireland: raw and stark – but very beautiful.
22. Michael Kiwanuka - Kiwanuka (Polydor) by Irina Dzhambazova 7/10
Whether or not you recall the name Michael Kiwanuka, chances are you have heard the opening song to the television show Big Little Lies. That tune, ‘Cold Little Heart’, was taken from the London singer’s 2016 sophomore album, Love & Hate. Given the acclaim afforded that record, this outing presents an interesting question: how does an artist withstand the pressure of severely heightened expectations?
On the partially eponymous Kiwanuka, the artist’s strategy is to challenge himself. On one level, the album might be perceived as an easy listen; it emerges through a winding, unhurried, dream-like haze. However, it is also home to a series of incidental skits and shape-shifting outros, which display a real desire for musical adventure. By the time we reach the heart-rending ‘Final Days’, the full extent of the album’s melancholy becomes apparent. Kiwanuka starts the tune by telling us he is “Lying on the ground, like a dying man/ No reality, fading memories.” He could have been a stronger man, we hear – but alas, in the final days, he’s “just going round and round.”
No longer does the singer conceal the existential crisis that dogged him during the two long years it took him to complete the record. ‘Final Days’ is a stunning high point. Elsewhere on the album, with a band of exquisite players in support, Kiwanuka successfully channels an assortment of late greats – Gil Scott-Heron, Bobby Womack and Otis Redding among them. The result is a thoughtful and highly rewarding album that could well be a grower.
21. Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow (Jagjaguwar) by Peter McGoran 8/10
According to the sleeve notes accompanying Sharon Van Etten's fifth album, she originally recorded lead single 'Comeback Kid' as a piano ballad. Subsequently, the singer ditched that version in favour of a menacing, bass-heavy approach. She "didn't want it to be pretty".
This is a running theme throughout Remind Me Tomorrow. The album as a whole is glorious, but sounds raw and gritty and off-the-cuff. Apart from opening track 'I Told You Everything' and closer 'Stay' - both piano ballads - this is a record awash with subterranean drones, dark reverb and brooding synths. Pretty, it ain't.
Van Etten makes a point of linking the album's content to her own personal story. The last four years have seen her give birth to her son; star in Netflix drama The OA; and write a score for the movie Strange Weather. These songs acutely register the pain she's been through, alongside the triumph. The lyrics are notably blunt and direct.
Her most recent single 'Seventeen' is the clear highlight. It starts off as a nostalgic, Rickie Lee Jones-tinged ballad, before racing towards a powerful finale. Throughout the tune, deep bass and drums purr away in the background, while a sharp, droning guitar riff provides additional atmosphere.
Easily Van Etten's most experimental and ambitious work to date, we can't help but wonder how Remind Me Tomorrow will sound live. Irish audiences will find out soon when the singer winds her way to Vicar Street in March.