On Sept. 11, tens of thousands of eager Gaelic football fans paraded into Croke Park for the All-Ireland final, a head-to-head match between counties Mayo and Tyrone. Beyond the 40,000 in the stands, many more still flocked to the surrounding streets, soaking in the atmosphere or attempting to purchase last-minute tickets from scalpers. Basically, there were a lot of people in Dublin on that Saturday, and there were a lot on the previous Saturdays, even when attendance was capped at 18,000 back in July.
The Irish music scene, on the other hand, has received little to no help from the government. The parties in power, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, know that their fiscally conservative policies are unlikely to make artists vote for them, which may have something to do with their longstanding lack of guidelines for the music industry. Artists have recently been given some clarity, but in the meantime there have been bills to pay, rents due and lives put on pause while so much else picks back up again. And once tourism picks back up again, the Irish government will doubtless be singing the praises of the country’s music scene in order to attract more bulging wallets.
Even now, the government has proposed an unprecedented artists’ living wage, but will limit the number of spots in the pilot run to about 2,000 for the entire country. It’s a step in the right direction, but still feels like a dangled carrot for people who’ve been left high and dry lately. On Oct. 19, the Irish government held a press conference, offering vague guidelines for the live music sector in light of climbing coronavirus cases. Bands and live music crews were left in the lurch because of the government’s last-minute, unclear changes that somehow permitted nightclubs, but not standing gigs, only for the decision to be reversed days later. These mercurial conditions just go to show how little regard the Irish government has for those who work in the music industry.
Regardless, Irish performers have been putting out amazing work throughout the pandemic, keeping spirits up both at home and the world over. Pillow Queens, who were covered on a previous iteration of this list, put out their emotional rollercoaster of a debut In Waiting, as did Soda Blonde with Small Talk; Fontaines D.C. received a Grammy nomination for their sophomore effort A Hero’s Death; Tebi Rex, Just Mustard and Aoife Nessa Frances (along with Pillow Queens) graced a socially distanced SXSW stage. These artists persevered, and in their determination they inspired others to do the same. It’s cheesy, but it’s true.
From the winding, hotel-crowded streets of Dublin to the rebel county of Cork, there’s no way we could cover every exciting act on the isle of Ireland right now. Nevertheless, here are 15 of our favorites.
Galway rapper and singer/songwriter Celaviedmai loves to keep her listeners guessing, defying any attempt to pigeonhole her talent. One moment she’s bold and swaggering on the trap-inflected “Known Better” and the brilliant, Dolby Digital sound-sampling “Reckless,” the next she’s pouring her heart out with abandon on “HEAL.” Celaviedmai can be both witty (“She got stretch marks on her arse / Make it bounce just like Tigger,” she raps on “Known Better”) and arrestingly poignant. This past May, she performed as a part of Extraterrestrial: A Black Irish Celebration of Identity, which showcased Black artists on the National Concert Hall stage. Ahead of the show, Celaviedmai told Irish music blog The Last Mixed Tape, “As a black woman I’m always expected to be ‘strong.’ I’m sorry but that’s just not real life, this performance is saying f that, hear my pain and listen to my experiences AND THEN enjoy my assertiveness and confidence in ‘Known Better.’”
The global pop-punk revival thankfully hasn’t missed Ireland. Composed of Hannah Richardson (vocals, guitar), Nyree Porter (bass) and Alannagh Doherty (drums), Cherym endear themselves quickly to listeners with their tongue-in-cheek lyrics and unabashed emotional delivery. The Derry (yes, as in Derry Girls) band’s latest EP Hey Tori packs in sugary vocals, chunky guitar riffs and a sense of euphoria that’ll have you daydreaming about your teenage years. “Listening to My Head” is a standout, sung from the perspective of murderer Betty Broderick, whose story is featured the true-crime series Dirty John. As you can see from the music video, Cherym are having a blast, and we’re just lucky to be along for the ride.
3. Aby Coulibaly
Even with only a handful of singles under her belt, Dubliner Aby Coulibaly has made a name for herself with her old-school hip-hop-inspired tracks. Her debut single “Taurus,” held together with melodic piano, is reminiscent of Brooklyn group Phony Ppl’s jazzy R&B, while her latest release “Chamomile Tea” is the soothing sound of an insomniac “chasing sleep.” One of her best songs to date is “Where u at,” a collaboration with rapper Monjola (whose music is also well worth a listen) that captures the anxious thoughts of someone who feels they’re growing apart from a friend. Despite the subject matter, the song is still a chill banger, the sort of casually catchy tune you’ll find yourself humming hours later.
4. Gemma Dunleavy
Gemma Dunleavy’s 2020 EP UP DE FLATS is more than a collection of songs—it is a rallying cry, a point of pride for Dubliners who have long been overlooked. The R&B artist hails from Sheriff Street (not far from fellow Dubliner and Olympian Kellie Harrington’s neighborhood of Portland Row), an area of the capital that was long disdained by outsiders because of its residents’ socioeconomic status. Dunleavy was having none of that, though. The title track’s lyrics speak beautifully of her home and community: “They said we had nothing but we had it all / Shouting up de flats from the rooftops.” Dunleavy’s languid voice, floating on angelic harp, is sure to soothe your soul.
Constance Keane, better known as Fears, is a fucking force to be reckoned with. She established the record label TULLE in 2020, released her debut album Oíche (Irish for “night,” pronounced “EE-huh”) in May 2021, has been creating magazine-featured ethereal gowns and is now putting out the EP Gender Studies with post-punk band Mhaol (in which she plays drums) on Friday, Oct. 29. All this aside, Fears’ solo work is an ambient dream, marrying delicate production and fiercely honest subject matter. Opener “h_always” was recorded in a psychiatric hospital and documents her stay there, while the hypnotic, hymn-like track “tonnta” (Irish for “waves”) follows her relationship with her late grandmother. Keane’s voice pierces through hazy clouds of synth and drum machine, ready to speak her truth.
6. For Those I Love
David Balfe released his debut album For Those I Love under the same name, and for a clear reason: It was dedicated to those dearest to him, most importantly his late friend Paul Curran, who died by suicide in 2018. Balfe’s album, a patchwork quilt of electronica and rap, has received wide acclaim, even earning him a mention in The New York Times. His work is so specific to his experiences growing up in Dublin’s northern suburbs—from the murder of an unhoused man on his street to Curran’s funeral—but his examination of his past reveals a universal message about holding those we love close.
7. Maria Kelly
On Oct. 15, alt-folk artist Maria Kelly released her debut album the sum of the in-between, which is woven together with voice notes and words of wisdom from her friends, but not preachy in the slightest. Instead, these snippets, bookended by Kelly’s hauntingly honeyed vocals, remind us of the comfort we find in each other in times of need. The album starts with “panic,” rattling with the sound of labored breathing and reminiscent of Fiona Apple’s 2020 album Fetch the Bolt Cutters, but later on, Kelly’s friend Martha assures us on the eponymous track that “It might be the end of the world, but like, it’s fine.” Throughout the LP, Kelly treats the listener like a close friend, both in her compassion and intense vulnerability. It’s as if her feather-light voice and the precise production are flipping through the pages of a journal, ready to lend an ear to your worries.
Ciara Lindsey, aka Kynsy, is Ireland’s indie-pop star on the rise. Expect to see her touring with Mitski or Angel Olsen within a couple years—such is the lightning-in-a-bottle quality of her talent. The Dublin artist released her debut EP Things That Don’t Exist in January 2021, bursting with warbling synth, buzzing guitar and her sardonic delivery. Kynsy’s latest single “Mr Nice Guy” is an unsettling jam reminiscent of early St. Vincent, with a creepy music video to match. Contrast that with the ebullience of brass band-backed “Dog Videos,” and you have an artist whose inventiveness will keep listeners coming back for more.
9. Tolü Makay
Tolü Makay has one of those voices that sparkles in a dimmed room until it illuminates every last corner. Her debut album Being, released in 2020, introduces bits of ’90s R&B and even the drama of classic Whitney Houston, but Makay’s rich voice is always the centerpiece. She proves herself a talented artist and storyteller throughout the record. This May, she released the uplifting single “Aye,” meaning “life” in Yoruba, which exudes joy in every beat. Her latest song, the call-out track “Behavin Like a Lil B**,” once again basks in her flawless vocals.
10. The Mary Wallopers
This entry might be cheating, since, technically, two of their members (brothers Charles and Andrew Hendy) were mentioned last year for their rap group TPM. But that would be a disservice to the third Mary Walloper, Sean McKenna, and the fact that the group deserve mention on their own merit. The Dundalk trio are keeping alive the wide range of traditional Irish music that made The Dubliners and The Chieftains before them famous. The band is funny and irreverent; their only Spotify release is a 2019 EP called A Mouthful of the Mary Wallopers and they used to sell a T-shirt on Bandcamp saying they were “wanted for killing landlords.” At the end of the day, though, The Mary Wallopers are just skilled trad musicians.
NewDad are sad, wistful and listless in a way that’s oddly beautiful. The Galway dream-pop outfit’s music washes over you more than anything else, wave after wave of silvery reverb and lead singer/guitarist Julie Dawson’s whisper-soft vocals. Dawson and bandmates Áindle O’Beirn (bass), Sean O’Dowd (guitar) and Fiachra Parslow (drums) released their debut EP Waves in March this year, a collection of songs that touch on mental health and that special kind of melancholy that hangs in the air in your early 20s. The band’s latest single, “Ladybird,” was just released on Oct. 26.
12. Pixie Cut Rhythm Orchestra
Indie-rock trio Pixie Cut Rhythm Orchestra may only have a handful of tunes to their name so far, but they’re songs that make you stop in your tracks and listen. “Metamorphosis” is a sharp-angled spectacle, threatening danger around every corner as singer and guitarist Sarah Deegan tells us, “She’s a woman now / Let’s set a price.” “I Didn’t Love You When I Said I Did and I Don’t Now” sinks its claws into you quickly, a morose, yet barbed indie banger exploring young adulthood through a distinctly Irish lens. “27 and / You’re still living in / Your mother’s house,” Deegan informs us, a normality for 20-somethings the world over, but particularly in Ireland. Deegan, Alice Grollero (bass) and Danni Nolan (drums) plunge the listener into a reverb-drenched haze in their latest shoegaze-influenced tune “Empty Envelope,” released via Anon Records.
13. Pretty Happy
Cork band Pretty Happy blow your ears off with punchy guitar, then set your head spinning with their darkly funny lyrics. “There’s a bag of pee in the corner. I can smell it, I’m gonna cry,” guitarist Abbey Blake interjects in their July single “Sudocream,” recalling a grim visit to the emergency room. Along with her brother Arann Blake (vocals, bass) and Andy Killian (drums), the trio bask in an off-the-wall sound and surreality reminiscent of post-punk outfit Suburban Lawns. The reputation of their energetic live shows precedes them, but even through headphones, songs like “Salami” thud into your core, feedback fuzzing and wending its way into your gray matter.
14. Smoothboi Ezra
Smoothboi Ezra is a testament to the success independent artists can find releasing their own music online, having garnered almost 8 million Spotify streams on their Moldy Peaches-esque 2018 single “A Shitty Gay Song About You” despite not being tied to a record label. They create the sort of intimate bedroom pop made for listening to under the duvet, a warm cup of tea waiting on the bedside table. Smoothboi Ezra hails from Greystones, a seaside town just south of Dublin. Their latest EP Stuck examines love and relationships from their singular perspective as a non-binary person who is also on the autism spectrum. “The worst year of your life started when you met me / You say I shouldn’t take it personally,” they sing, stinging words reminiscent of Phoebe Bridgers at her best. Smoothboi Ezra’s music is at once cozy and heartachingly sad.
Following in the tradition of beloved noise-rockers Girl Band, Dublin four-piece Sprints craft guitar-driven music that relentlessly bores its way into you. Despite only forming two years ago, the band have a natural chemistry that’s palpable, the kind of stirring, amped-up tension you can only have when members know how to play off each other. Singer/songwriter Karla Chubb, drummer Jack Callan, bassist Sam McCann and guitarist Colm O’Reilly recently released “Modern Job,” the title track from their forthcoming EP, due out on March 11, 2022, via Nice Swan Records. Chubb says the song is a “critique of modern existence but also an exploration of growing up queer,” where all of the expectations of 2.5 kids and a white picket fence feel like an ill-fitting T-shirt. Sprints dare us to leave behind the norms pressed upon us, instead losing ourselves in their sweaty, head-banging music.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast, hibernophile and contributing writer for Paste’s music and comedy sections. She also exercises her love for reality TV at HelloGiggles every now and then. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.