- 30 Dec 20
The wait is over – it's time to reveal our Top 10 Albums of 2020!
As the debate about the state of rock continues to rage, Ireland has emerged as the centre of a major revitalisation of the form. Leading the way are the all-conquering Fontaines D.C., who this year consolidated the success of their acclaimed debut Dogrel with their magnificent second album A Hero’s Death.
Landing the coveted Hot Press Album Of The Year gong, the album was another compelling exploration of modern life. Illuminated once again by frontman Grian Chatten’s clever and poetic wordplay, the record added dreamy psych textures to the Fontaines’ patented post-punk format. Hitting number 2 in Ireland and the UK, A Hero’s Death was a substantial hit around Europe and also landed a Best Rock Album nomination at the Grammys.
Elsewhere, the landmark moments kept coming from the boys, as they received the nod of approval from everyone from Johnny Marr to Yungblud, and saw Aidan Gillen make a guest appearance in the video for the A Hero’s Death title-track. Not to mention that already-legendary appearance with Joe Duffy on Liveline! It all confirmed Fontaines’ place as one of the zeitgeist-defining bands of the moment.
As ever, the HP Top 50 provides ample evidence of the extraordinary depth and richness of the Irish music scene, with top 10 placings for maverick singer David Keenan; alt-rockers Pillow Queens; acoustic merchants The Scratch; and hip-hop sensation Denise Chaila, who also made one of the year’s defining musical appearances on The Late Late Show.
Meanwhile, veteran garage-rock supremos The Strokes land the number two slot with their return-to-form offering The New Normal, and there’s also a strong showing from LA indie star Phoebe Bridgers, who firmly maintained her upward trajectory with the stunning Punisher. Rounding out the top 10 are Taylor Swift’s atmospheric folklore, Bob Dylan’s typically epic Rough And Rowdy Ways and Fiona Apple’s extraordinary Fetch The Bolt Cutters, widely regarded as a career highlight for the US singer.
Of course, that’s just the tip of the Top 50 iceberg, which also boasts more homegrown goodness from acts as varied as JYellowL and Bitch Falcon; art-pop gems from Gorillaz, The 1975 and HMLTD; another barnstormer from Bruce Springsteen; phenomenal offerings from Run The Jewels, HAIM and Childish Gambino - and much, much more.
More than ever, it was a year when music provided us with comfort, solace, escape and joy. Here’s to more unforgettable music next year - and maybe, just maybe, a return to live action. To quote one of the 20th century’s most revered songwriters, wouldn’t it be nice...
1. Fontaines D.C., A Hero's Death (Partisan Records)
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. With the wax barely cooled on Dogrel, Grian Chatten had already penned the title-track on this boss sophomore effort. A Hero’s Death, it transpires, is a different beast to Fontaines D.C.’s critically acclaimed debut album Dogrel. That much we can say for sure.
It is an album that recklessly tears down the sheltering sky. It hacks the televised minds of a soul-sucked citizenry fed on a vomit of advertising platitudes. Reminiscent of The Clash, Fontaines D.C. have planted a defiant flag around which to rally. “I was not born into this world, to do another man’s bidding,” sings Chatten, nor does he “want to belong to anyone.”
Dan Carey’s production is outstanding: it makes you feel Chatten’s vocals exist even when no one is listening. On the evidence here, Fontaines D.C. have carved out their own world on this album. Conor Deegan’s bass and Tom Coll’s drums – extraordinary throughout – are reminiscent of beasts stalking the places through which Chatten drifts. Far now from the Dublin streets of Dogrel, he is more a post-Beat Virgil of Neverland. Conor Curley and Carlos O’Connell’s guitars – there’s scarce a better pairing around right now – are raw elements accompanying him on his perambulations, raging to us on ‘A Lucid Dream’, and howling at us on ‘Living In America’.
You sense that he’s as lost as you feel, but he’s favourite to find the correct direction – which he eventually does on ‘No’, the Lee Mavers-inflected closing track.
There is enough puzzle and enigma on this record to keep fans busy for years. Just for starters, it encompasses the dark side of Brian Wilson, the tortured beauty of Suicide, the Gretsch twang of Duane Eddy, and the cowboy psychedelia of Lee Hazelwood.
The fact that they executed album No.2 with such conviction, despite the mania surrounding them is remarkable. A masterclass.
Review by Will Russell.
2. The Strokes, The New Abnormal (RCA)
While Julian Casablancas might have laid on the New York cool a bit thick at last year’s Electric Picnic, The Strokes’ performance reminded all present of what a great rock n’ roll band they are. People might easily have forgotten this, given that their last recorded output was back in 2016, and that was a mere E.P. The band admitted as much themselves, with Casablancas recently saying, “The 2010s, or whatever the fuck they’re called, we took ‘em off”. When your debut album revitalised guitar music all on its own, perhaps it’s easy to feel you’ve done enough.
It’s been a while coming, then – the last album was 2013’s Comedown Machine - but has The New Abnormal been worth the wait? Well, kind of. When the first single arrived earlier this year - ‘At The Door’, all fat analogue keyboards and minor scale riffs – it was a bit disappointing. “Not trying to build a dynasty,” sang Casablancas, “I’ve lost this game so many times before” It seemed they might be about to lose again, but things improved immeasurably when the second release arrived a week later. Music fans of a certain age couldn’t help but hear a bit of The Billy Idol/Generation X “classic” ‘Dancing With Myself’ in ‘Bad Decisions’ and this was a good thing, as it made for a superior song. “Making better decisions”? Indeed they were. It should also be noted that Billy Idol and Tony James receive their deserved credit. The song itself is the sort of tight, angular rock/pop that we were hoping for.
‘Eternal Summer’ – another highlight – has you reaching for the credits again as ‘The Ghost In You’ by Psychedelic Furs is there in the verse melody, earning the Butler brothers an unexpected payday. When Casablancas sings “your silence is no longer needed” you can’t help but agree with him as these two songs recall what was so great about The Strokes in the first place.
‘The Adults Are Talking’ – open hi-hat, muted guitar, inventive solo – and ‘Selfless’ – nice line in falsetto from Casablancas – and the bright keyboards of ‘Brooklyn Bridge To Chorus’ are all worth hearing too, as is ‘Why Are Sundays So Depressing’. That song taking things at a slightly slower pace with guitarists Hammond and Valensi copping some of the slovenly chords of 70s Keef N’ Ron, albeit with Lou Reed subbing for an on-holiday Jagger.
Things end poorly though. ‘Not The Same Anymore’ goes nowhere, and takes a while to get there, and ‘Ode To The Mets’ is another dirge, despite the amusing request for “drums please, Fab”. Casablancas moans, “I was just bored, playing the guitar” which might be part of the problem.
Still though, there are more hits than misses overall. Is The New Abnormal anywhere near their first couple of records? No, of course it isn’t, but there’s enough here to justify their continuance as a going concern.
Review by Pat Carty.
3. Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher (Dead Oceans)
‘The voice of a generation’ is a term that gets bandied about too often – but there’s no denying Phoebe Bridgers’ remarkable ability to capture the intricacies of the millennial experience in 2020. Three years, and two supergroups, after the release of her ecstatically received solo debut Stranger In The Alps, the Californian singer-songwriter has returned with Punisher – an expectation-defying album that finds her exploring the grey areas between hope and despair, humour and gloom, love and heartbreak, and hedonism and regret.
In true millennial fashion, anxiety and nostalgia also come hand-in-hand on the new album – which is bookended by the dark instrumental opener ‘DVD Menu’ and a gloriously chaotic outro that merges the ambitious orchestration of Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois with apocalyptic heavy metal. Punisher’s final sound – a lingering, breathless scream – perfectly encapsulates Phoebe’s penchant for dark humour.
Although exploring familiar lyrical themes of personal struggles, standout single ‘Kyoto’ sees Phoebe making a deliberate effort to expand her sound from the intimate, introspective musings she showcased on Stranger In The Alps into something decidedly more upbeat – complete with triumphant horns.
A continued preoccupation with death colours tracks like ‘Garden Song’ and ‘Halloween’, though the weighty subject is handled as irreverently as ever. While Phoebe revels in the darkness, she doesn’t completely give into the doom. Instead, she continues to look for meaning in uncertainty – with stunning results.
Review by Lucy O'Toole.
4. David Keenan, A Beginner's Guide To Bravery (Rubyworks)
The best books, the best albums, the best works of art all welcome you into a world of their own. “A Beginner’s Guide begins…” Keenan whispers, to start ‘James Dean’, an acoustic recounting of a dream where the actor - the embodiment of youth and glamour - steps out of the spotlight into the world of the ordinary and the everyday. It is this world, an alternate Hibernia peopled with bowsies, poets, and lovers where the commonplace is elevated, that Keenan eulogises and mythologises throughout this brilliant record, this work of art.
The fiddle-driven swoop and swirl of ‘Unholy Ghosts’ celebrates those “who seems destined to get left behind” and we’ve all met – or been – the drunkard dripping with poetry manning the wooden piano on its last legs. ‘Love In A Snug’ is a bar-room odyssey; a short story worthy of Keenan’s literary heroes. It would wring a wry smile from anyone who’s ever known the joy of day drinking, hiding from the mundane while listening for the secrets of the world which seem only a whisper away. The song boasts a chorus that dances through heart and memory.
‘Altar Wine’ speaks to dark obsession, ‘Eastern Nights’ recalls a a run-in with a burlesque dancer, and the doomed, drunken professions of love made in the rush and the flush when everything seems possible, but ‘Origin Of The World’ uses Ovid’s Diana and Actaeon to remind us that love is the risk worth taking.
‘Tin Pan Alley’ is a piano ballad celebrating the timelessness of art as all else fades, while ‘Good Old Days’ is a rag-bag of memories that distances the narrator from times past with a “God bless”. ‘The Healing’ sees music and art in the same way that Van Morrison often has: as a pathway back to the true self, a salve for broken souls, the music being rent asunder as the wails rise, saying what can’t be said with words, going beyond language into feeling, and ‘Evidence Of Living’ is a call to arms, a cri de cœur imploring us all to live lives blessed and guided by love and art, prompting us to “move now to set an example.”
‘Subliminal Dublinia’ closes the record out with a worthy manifesto: “occupy the city with original ideas.” Keenan takes swipes at Dublinia, his own potential Arcadia is breaking his heart, but it’s not just the city around him, he is calling for a “revolution of the self, of the heart”. Let love in, let the music wash over you, “isn’t that a start?”
That’s his last word, but the end of his beginning is just his start. Keenan promised much, and has delivered more. His words hold poetry beyond his years, and the music, which ranges from soft folk to dark atmospherics to gloriously untethered, gospel-tinged testifying, is fired with passion, played by a crack band who know they’re involved in something very special. Reach and grasp are equal. The first great record of the year.
Review by Pat Carty.
5. Pillow Queens, In Waiting (Pillow Queens Records)
There has been a considerable level of cultish hype surrounding Pillow Queens since the Irish quartet debuted their Calm Girls EP in 2017. Three years later, they are finally ready to unveil their debut album.
In Waiting, it turns out, is a barefaced rejection of the various labels critics have attempted to pin on the group since their inception. It opens in surprisingly gentle fashion with ‘Holy Show’: Pillow Queens clearly aren’t interested in any sonic shock factor, instead relying on their own messaging to define themselves. How they sound is less important here than who they are, and what they’re saying.
The songs find the four-piece taking a microscope to life in Dublin. It is, by turn, critical and reverent. ‘A Dog’s Life’ serves as an allegory for the housing crisis; on raucous guitar workout 'Liffey', Pamela Connolly sings “spread me over the Liffey and send me off to sleep”.
The record is hallmarked by tough, bruising poetry, delivered impeccably as Pillow Queens restlessly bounce from genre to genre, refusing to settle. Lazy comparisons have been made to The Murder Capital and Fontaines D.C., with some early reviewers going as far as to call them a ‘female’ answer to those bands. Not so. Even a cursory listen through In Waiting will shatter those preconceptions. This, rather, is a distinctive, original and quietly brilliant debut.
Review by Tanis Smither.
6. Taylor Swift, folklore (Republic)
An artist with a track record in devastating break-up balladry but who has lately journeyed in directions that have amazed yet occasionally alienated veteran fans…. Yes, how fantastic to see Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon abandoning the Auto-Tune and returning to heart-on-sleeve first principles as he duets with Taylor Swift on her surprise new album, Folklore.
‘Exile’ – a 16-wheel rumination on heartache, betrayal, and roads not taken – is one of many sublime and esoteric moments on a record that sees Swift embracing the plaid-shirted indie rocker within. Alongside Vernon she has recruited the National’s Aaron Dessner, whose tip-toeing piano lines recall the majestic understatement of his band’s 2019 record, I Am Easy To Find.
It’s an indication of how topsy-turvy the world has gone that the idea of Swift working with the The National and Bon Iver doesn’t feel especially outrageous. A case can even be made that her Nashville background makes her and the Dessner natural collaborators (it’s often forgotten that The National started as an alt.country group). Whatever the provenance, the formula throws up sparks – though it feels safe to assume that some of the more overt pop flourishes are courtesy of Jack Antonoff, the Lorde/St Vincent producer who has worked with Swift since 1989.
A major pop star “going indie” always has the potential to be cute and grating. Folklore avoids such pitfalls. Swift wrote the record in isolation and it stands as evidence that when it comes to melancholic longing the lockdown is an equal opportunities threat to our emotional health.
She has also admitted that, in more conventional times, she might have tinkered to a fault with the material rather than simply putting them out into the world. “Before this year I probably would’ve overthought when to release this music at the ‘perfect’ time,” she said on Instagram. “But the times we’re living in keep reminding me that nothing is guaranteed.”
Vulnerability and self-doubt are recurring themes. “Vintage tee, brand new phone/ high heels on cobblestones,” she croons on ‘Cardigan’. “When you are young , they assume you know nothing.” It’s extraordinarily raw, especially when combined with Swift’s often uncanny ability to make a downbeat song feel like one of the most uplifting things you’ve heard.
A track fans have already seized upon as a future classic is ‘The Last Great American Dynasty’, a Gatsby-esque saga of star-crossed lovers unfolding against a backdrop of wealth, internecine feuds and destructive entitlement. It is dewy-eyed and epic – a stand-out on what is surely the first great album of the lockdown era.
Review by Ed Power.
7. Denise Chaila, Go Bravely (Narolane Records)
Denise Chaila knows exactly who she is – and that she is capable of greatness. On her debut full-length mixtape, she’s making sure the rest of the world knows it too. Intertwining delicate spoken word pieces with soulful melodies and aggressive beats, Chaila consistently bares her soul. Her sound mixes minimal instrumentation with intense bass as she traverses the modern hip-hop landscape with the gusto of a woman who wants to inspire her listeners to join her on a journey of self-acceptance – and beyond.
Opener ‘Chaila’ serves as a perfect introduction to both the album and the artist herself, poking fun at the various mispronunciations of her name with a light, almost comedic tone. Working hard at her craft, the Limerick artist makes one simple request: “Say my name.” The track catapulted her to success upon its release, yet it feels even more relevant in the context of her full-length introduction to music fans.
Go Bravely is defined by Chaila’s well-founded self-confidence. Still, there’s no sense of an over-inflated ego as she addresses her own flaws, having great fun with the wordplay throughout. ‘Move’ and ‘Can’t Stop Me Here’ also offer a sense of vulnerability as she addresses her own past mistakes. The latter, appearing toward the end of the record, finds Chaila battling against her insecurities with the poignant lyric, “If I refuse to stand in my own way, what makes you think you’re special?” Such quotable one-liners populate the record as Chaila embraces her own self-worth while simultaneously promoting positivity to her listeners.
Supplemented by hefty bass, the penultimate ‘Down’ serves as a cheeky, yet intensely assured track, leavened with a healthy dose of fantasy. Chaila’s pop culture references are plentiful, ranging from Star Wars to Lord Of The Rings to Avatar: the Last Airbender. It subverts expectations, offering comparisons to the whimsical rather than stock allusions to the world of money and fame.
Chaila wraps the record up with the title-track, an ode to bold self-love. Her strong spoken word cadence drips with power as she offers words of inspiration. Jazzy, minimal beats transition into twinkling, entrancing synths on an utterly stunning outro, wrapping up one of her strongest songs.
Go Bravely cements Denise Chaila’s status as one of the most talented young artists in Ireland today. Her flow is immaculate, her lyrics tight and nuanced, and she creates a unique sound that simultaneously adheres to the confident tropes of modern hip-hop while exploring the realm of poetic spoken word. Her desire for justice and social change is heavily apparent on Go Bravely, promoting transformation through inspiration. An Irish Album of the Year contender.
Review by Ingrid Angulo.
8. Bob Dylan, Rough And Rowdy Ways (Columbia)
Has Dylan still got it? Should anybody still care? Not only did the man behind the shades throw out three singles to the bunkered faithful in the last couple of months, but he also managed, just before his 79th birthday, to have his first Billboard No. 1 with a seventeen-minute rumination on the Kennedy assassination. Pick the bones outta that.
Those great American songbook records were pretty patchy, but perhaps by plugging back into tradition, like he did when Good As I’ve Been To You and World Gone Wrong allowed him to produce the masterpiece Time Out Of Mind, he has gone backwards to go forward. Let there be no bones made about it, Rough And Rowdy Ways is, in places, better than anything Dylan has done since that high-water mark.
The singles you should already know – repurposing Walt Whitman to sing of his own body electric with ‘I Contain Multitudes’, channelling Mark Anthony to call out the fall of American while ostensibly eulogising a slain Caesar in ‘Murder Most Foul’ and, best of all, giving it some Minnie The Moocher at Chess Records boogie on the “I’m Bob Dylan, and You Ain’t” ‘False Prophet’. As always, Dylan knew what he was doing, whetting the appetite of the most captive audience of all time. And he wasn’t even teasing us with the best tunes.
Over a descending four-note riff that could have sound tracked Orson Welles skulking in the shadows, Dylan starts ‘My Own Version Of You’ robbing body parts morgues and monasteries to combine Pacino and Brando into a robot commando. The rockin' and rollin' ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’ – “never pandered, never acted proud” - and even ‘I Crossed The Rubicon’ – “the bones beneath my skin are trembling with rage” - both hark, however faintly, back to that glorious thin, wild mercury sound of Blonde On Blonde, and ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You’ is his greatest love song since ‘Make You Feel My Love’. Step back from unpacking the meaning of it all and simply sit with Dylan on his terrace, under the stars, and listen to the sad guitars. It could be about a woman, it could be about the road, or it could be about America herself. It doesn’t really matter.
He’s on the road again in the majestic ‘Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’, driving South and “searching for love and inspiration on that pirate radio station” over a gentle accordion's lilt. The song’s near ten-minutes length passes too quickly. This record’s not quite perfect, ‘Black Rider’, ‘Mother Of Muses’ and ‘Murder Most Foul’ might, perhaps, be easier to admire than to love, but no matter. The artist that invented a new kind of poetry in ‘Gates Of Eden’ or crammed an entire movie into ‘Romance In Durango’ is still in there.
Academics who can’t dance will fill unread books dissecting the library of historical reference, and the cast of characters - Truman, Kerouac, Shakespeare, Freud, Marx, Elvis, the apostles and Bo Diddley - engrained in these grooves. The rest of us can just be thankful that the greatest song and dance man of them all is still rolling; the world will be an eternally greyer place when Bob Dylan is no longer in it.
Review by Pat Carty.
9. The Scratch, Couldn't Give A Rats (Right Up Ye)
Emerging as a raw, balls to the wall alternative to neatly packaged and polished acts with the release of their debut EP in 2018, The Scratch have consistently thrown predictability to the wind – embracing absurdity and anarchy in equal measure, as they garner legions of devotees off the back of their famously raucous live shows. Their latest trick has turned out to be their most brilliant move yet: releasing their aptly titled debut album, Couldn’t Give A Rats, three months early, in an effort to spread positivity during these anxiety-ridden times.
Blurring the boundaries between folk and heavy music in their own wildly unique way, the Dublin-based four-piece have resonated powerfully with a generation who are more than happy to pack their playlists with Lankum and Ye Vagabonds alongside Fontaines D.C. and Girl Band. With Couldn’t Give A Rats, The Scratch take this approach to bold new territories – with ‘Seanchaí’ leaning closer into trad than ever, while simultaneously abiding by metal principles. ‘Session Song’ is a slow-building ballad about “slaves to the weekend” and the inevitable come-down, with more than a few nods to Damien Dempsey; while the cello-assisted ‘Underworld’ exposes a surprisingly tender underbelly. The poignant ‘Birdie’, meanwhile, is one of the album’s most blindsiding moments – the finest ode to an Irish granny since Thin Lizzy’s original ‘Sarah’ from Shades of a Blue Orphanage.
Of course, that’s not to say that the brazenness has gone anywhere – the album opens with the line “Take a bow, you’re a top-class cunt”, after all. Like a conversation with an old, drunk stranger in the pub, The Scratch’s lyrics continue to sway between gems of battle-won wisdom and the ramblings of a madman. While producer Aidan Cunningham skilfully captures the raw spectacle, heavy rhythms and vicious energy of their live shows, there’s also plenty of room for their triumphant melodies and dazzling chops to shine.
With Couldn’t Give A Rats, the band have crafted one of the boldest Irish debuts of recent memory – expanding their sound and vision, while still holding onto the wild impulses that mark The Scratch as one of the country’s most spectacularly original talents.
Review by Lucy O'Toole.
10. Fiona Apple, Fetch The Bolt Cutters (Epic)
Fiona Apple’s fifth album arrives preceded by a gripping and sometimes hilarious cameo by the singer in the pages of the New Yorker. Among other revelations, she let slip that she’d decided to give up mind-altering refreshments after one too many nights forced to listen to then-boyfriend Paul ThomasAnderson yucking it up with a shiny-eyed Quentin Tarantino.
If that doesn’t put you off partying into the wee hours, she intimated, nothing will. Apple was stepping out with Anderson during a period in her career when she was still trying to slough off the perception that she was self-involved to a fault and destructively eccentric. This characterisation said as much about the sexism of the time this would have been the early 2000s – as about Apple as either artist or reluctant celebrity.
Fifteen or so years later, we are perhaps at a moment where an indomitable and fiercely individualistic artist can be listened to on their merits and not misogyniastically pigeon-holed (here’s hoping anyway). Which is to say Fetch the Bolt Cutters – named from a line Gillian Anderson utters in Belfast sicko killer thriller The Fall and recorded at Apple’s home in Venice Beach, LA– is angry, earnest wilful and, yes, at moments slightly baffling.
The high points are truly dazzling. On ‘I Want You To Love Me’, the opening track, she coos forcefully over rippling piano lines.
“I know that time is elastic,” she sings, as if she somehow had advance warning of the lockdown purgatory through which we are all suffering. “And I know…that none one this will matter in the long run.” It’s the malevolent power ballad we absolutely need right now.
More upbeat is ‘Shameka’, a stomper driven by keys and by lyrics that glitter like razor blades (“I never smiled / that just made the bullies worse”). Apple’s mastery of the smokey lounge ballad is meanwhile underscored with ‘Under The Table’ where she sounds like Norah Jones if Norah Jones woke each morning dreaming she fronted Nine Inch Nails. There are a few wobbles. The faux-jaunty ’Relay’ feels like a novelty song taken too far; ‘Ladies’ can’t decide whether it wants to be jazz odyssey spoken word or a slow burning torch song.
But these are ultimately endearing kinks rather than deal-breakers. “Kick me under the table all you want,” she sings on ‘Under The Table’. “I won’t shut, I won’t shut up.” After all these years, they never did manage to shut her up. And now she’s back and more thrillingly outspoken than ever.
Review by Ed Power.