Irish music punches well above its weight. U2, Thin Lizzy, Sinead O’Connor, Van Morrison, and Snow Patrol have topped global billboard charts for decades, putting Ireland well and truly on the map. But for every Hozier that takes the world by storm, there are dozens of artists who, for whatever reason, never get their big break.
But what about the artists you might not know? Here are 8 hidden gems of Irish music – I guarantee there’s one for you…
When it dropped, Bellx1’s 2005 album, Flock, looked like it had all the fuel to launch Ireland’s newest musical heroes, and in many ways, that’s exactly what happened. With singles “Bad Skin Day”, “Flame”, and “Rocky Took a Lover”, the band were dominating the Irish radio waves. Clever lyrics, tender melodies and sudden impact when you’d least expect it, the album was the total package.
Then, in 2009, came my favourite Irish album of all time: Blue Lights on the Runway. The album has everything; the hauntingly minimalist “Light Catches Your Face”; the beautifully bouncy “Amelia”, that is more a novel than song; the up-tempo “Breastfed”; some understated love-songs; and a true anthem in “The Great Defector”. The chocolate at the end of many a cornetto.
Republic of Loose
Republic of Loose are pioneers of the Irish hip-hop scene. Their 2006 album, Aaagh!, features some of the band’s best known tracks, “Comeback Girl”, “You Know It”, “Break”, and “Shame”, catapulting the band into the sphere of regular air-play in their home country.
They continued the upward trajectory with their follow-up album, 2008’s Johnny Pyro and the Dance of Evil. The album was embraced by radio DJs up and down the country, creating the band’s most popular track, “The Steady Song”. The album is about as funky as a group of Irish musicians could ever hope to be, exemplified by other singles “The Ritual”, “Awful Cold”, and “I Like Music”.
Other notable singles include “They Pay for Love”, and my personal favourite, the hard-hitting, high-tempo “Blah Bounce!”
The biggest compliment I can pay Damien Dempsey is that he makes me want to listen to Luke Kelly. Dempsey is the 21st century version of everything special about Irish music, with a back-catalogue that warrants an article all to itself. With ten studio albums since his debut in 2000, singling out any handful of songs is almost impossible.
Dempsey’s first four albums, They Don’t Teach This Shit in School, Seize the Day, Shots, and To Hell or Barbados, are an exquisite blend of folk, reggae and even rap. His fifth album, The Rocky Road, is a selection of traditional Irish classics, paying homage to all his musical heroes.
The albums are packed full of anthems, like “Seize The Day”, ballads, like “Sing All Our Cares Away”, history lessons, like “St Patrick’s Day”, and love songs, like his instant classic, “Your Pretty Smile”.
Often compared to Kate Bush, Cathy Davey is the vessel for one of the most spellbinding voices ever put on tape. Her masterpiece, second album, Tales of Silversleeve, transcends genre; it is the purest distillation of musical joy. If you listen carefully, you can almost hear Davey shake off the shackles of her debut record.
Tracks like “Reuben”, “Mr Kill”, and “Moving” helped her win “Best Irish Female” at the 2008 Meteor Awards. Her sound has an unreplicable impish charm, such as the wonderfully bewitching single, “Little Red”, from the 2010 album, The Nameless, which features other catchy songs such as “In He Comes” and “Bad Weather”.
Davey’s latest record, New Forest Songs, is an evolution. She transforms her acoustic melodies to more electric, fast-paced offerings such as “The Pattern”, before reigning back in with “Birdie” – a song of anticipation leaving you begging for a crescendo.
When they got their big break on RTÉ’S Republic of Telly, the Limerick duo portrayed the total antithesis of the artistic geniuses they have proven themselves to be. Mr Chrome and Blindboy Boatclub have gone on to create masterful TV shows, sketch comedy and podcasts; and because of this success, their musical prowess is often overlooked.
With their identities hidden behind plastic bags, the pair are free to express themselves with the kind of inhibition most artists can only dream of attaining. This freedom, however, all too often sees the RubberBandits dismissed as “comedy hip-hop.” Would Eminem be described as “comedy hip-hop?” Would Snoop Dogg or Ice Cube?
While many of the songs will make you laugh, they’ll also make you dance. The smooth, infectious rhythm of “Waiting, Rósín”, and “Hey Mister”, are the perfect marriage of satire, expert musicianship and genius lyricism. Nowhere is this more evident than their smash hit, “Horse Outside”.
But there is a darker side to the group. “Dad’s Best Friend”, which appears on the soundtrack of Trainspotting 2, is a hectic, balls-to-the-wall record; a primal cry for help from depressed, middle-class Ireland. Then there’s “Sonny”; a beautifully noir ode to suicide, or rather the suicide problem which plagues Irish society. RubberBandits are not just comedy, they are the living embodiment of art.
If you’ve never heard of Ham Sandwich, stop what you’re doing and listen to the song I’ve attached (“Illuminate”); it’s glorious. Fronted by the amazing Debbie Harry-esque Niamh Farrell, Ham Sandwich are the very essence of pop-rock.
2015’s Stories from the Surface album was the group’s first major success, even in Ireland, causing radio DJs and fans alike to retrospectively uncover the treasure trove of tracks nesting in the band’s past. Tracks like “Models”, “Click Click Boom”, and “Bodies”.
To say Versatile aren’t everyone’s cuppa tea would be a massive understatement. The young Dublin rap duo produce the kind of music I imagine NWA would if they went on a week-long Love/Hate binge. Their hit songs, “We Sell Brown”, “Scorching”, “Mad Scene” and others have led to a deluge of hysteria and press backlash. The pair have been labelled everything, from parent-frightening to misogynistic and even racist. Not the first time rappers have been hit with those badges of dishonour…
But despite the moral outrage, Versatile have collaborated with hip-hop legend Coolio; outshone Kendrick Lamar at the Electric Picnic main stage; and became the first Irish act to both headline and sell out the 3 Arena. The rise to fame is set to continue as they are due to support the iconic Snoop Dogg on his (scheduled) 2021 concerts in Dublin and Belfast. Clearly, controversy creates cash.
This one is bittersweet. The Strypes had all the tools to be Ireland’s answer to the Arctic Monkeys. ‘Had.’ Past tense. The Cavan quartet burned too brightly, too quickly. While they were the ultimate overnight sensation, we never got to savour their revolutionary rock, we never got to bask in their guitar glory.
From the Electric Picnic to Glastonbury, they conquered the world. Appearances on Jools Holland, David Letterman and Conan O’Brien opened the door to multiple sellouts from LA to New York, all across the UK and no less than 3 hugely successful tours of Japan where the band had a significant presence.
This explosion onto the world stage would be astoundingly difficult to deal with for well-adjusted, life-experienced adults. Pete O’Hanlon on bass, Evan Walsh on drums, Josh McClorey on guitar and Ross Farelly on vocals were just 15 and 16. Imagine being thrust into that kind of limelight at such a young age. The hecting touring schedules and crippling expectations will forever be remembered as the downfall of one of Ireland’s potentially greatest bands.
And yet the talented youngsters left a discography to be immensely proud of. Three albums – Snapshot, Little Victories, and Spitting Image – and several hit singles, including “Blue Collar Jane”, “What A Shame”, and “You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover”.
Let me know in the comments which of these bands is your favourite!