2020 has been a roller coaster of a year for all of us but we can always depend on music to see us through. Thankfully so many artists and bands within the music scene in Northern Ireland put out stellar releases despite the global pandemic. As usual we are doing our best to put a spotlight on our personal favourites and hopefully you will join us in reminiscing.
Importantly if you discover something you enjoy or rediscover a record you’ve forgotten, do your best to visit their bandcamp or own music store and support them with your hard earned cash so they can continue to produce great music.
Words from Aaron Cunningham, Addison Paterson, Benjamin Magee & Robert Brown.
15 ► A Northern Light – Kingdoms
It is a pleasant surprise to be able to include the debut album from A Northern Light on this list as we weren’t convinced it would ever see the light of day. The three piece recorded the album between 2014 and 2016 but only decided to share it in 2020. Combining soaring alt rock with pulsating synthesisers makes for an enthralling listen and one that is different from most other releases. Like several other releases this year, the record is built out of sharing some very raw personal moments. ‘Paranoia’ is the obvious banger on there but ‘4FT Higher’ is where the band really let loose on the electronic side or the self described shiver inducing ‘Bad Drunk’, there is plenty to keep you listening.
14 ► Rews – Warriors
The second full length from Rews is one of transition. Now a three piece after a line-up change, the only constant is NI native Shauna Tohill. Warriors doesn’t deviate far from the energetic pop rock of its predecessor Pyro and that should be taken as a positive rather than criticism. There is more of a rawness this time around and that allows Shauna’s powerhouse vocals to come to the fore. Dropping in at just over 35 minutes, the record is devoid of any filler and instead offers up a journey full of positivity that lifts the spirits in a trying year.
13 ► Peter J McCauley – Amnesty
Peter J McCauley’s first full length under his own name is a lot more focused and direct than what we’ve seen before. Whereas previously, we’d have seen a lot of experimentation and a diverse range in production styles, Amnesty goes in the opposite direction. This new directness is refreshing and if you delve in you’ll discover themes of forgiveness and importantly the opinion that you should give yourself the freedom to get it wrong. Sonically the focus is on McCauley’s substantial skills in front of the piano and his ability to craft a constantly evolving sound that is embedded in the foundations of pop. Regardless of the form his music takes, Peter J McCauley’s music should not be missed.
12 ► We Are Aerials – Maps
We Are Aerials wouldn’t necessarily be one of the more high profile artists in this list but that doesn’t mean his latest album isn’t special. Conor McAteer’s three release under the moniker and is by far his most personal effort to date. Maps is a deep and touching tribute to McAteer’s own father which often has a poetic feel dwelling in traditional folk storytelling. As a lyricist McAteer stands tall in the local scene and is clearly highly regarded as he counts on the help of some of North West natives Paul Casey, Paddy Nash and Eoin O’Callaghan to deliver it. To quote my colleague “McAteer’s voice, just on the verge of haunting, delivers an indie folk performance that is poetic, harmonious, and reposeful.”
11 ►CATALAN! – Veritas
An unbridled live force across many a project, Ewen Friers’ first full length as Catalan! is rooted in history, place and poetry. From there flourishes its extraordinary capturing of the immediacy of now. Its mostly-short, punchy tracks tackle the triteness and banality of modern living with ambition for existence that aspires further than simply going through the motions. Friers’ word-work bears the fruits of layman’s literature, laden with furious intention to narrate the sins of the current climate – politically, environmentally, and individually. Particularly so on spoken word tracks like ‘Gare’, which prove as accomplished and eloquent in breaking new ground as they are in nestling themselves in among the beloved written traditions from this fair Isle. An unassuming revelation, Catalan’s debut searches for and offers within it that all important veritas.
10 ►Matt McGinn – Lessons Of War
The majority of our thoughts on Matt McGinn’s stunningly underrated opus can be found succinctly made by our own Micheal Barbour here, but to recap: One of Belfast’s true troubadours reached his creative peak with an album that spans decades of history, features collaborations from Ciaran Lavery, Ciara O’Neil and Stevie Scullion, takes in stunning visual and auditory vistas and boasts a truly mesmerising tracklist. It’s hard not to be transported while McGinn takes in the legacy of the Northern Irish conflict, detailing how the past continues to inform the future via a series of expertly written POV/Character driven folk tracks. The acoustic ‘Bubblegum’ stands out, but McGinn’s talent as a songwriter shines through on an album that speaks uniquely and gently that only those submerged within the odyssey of the Troubles will truly understand.
9 ► Jealous of the Birds – Peninsula
For all that it took away, the one thing that 2020 provided was a much welcome return for Naomi Hamilton to the realm of new releases. And like much of her music, Hamilton’s approach was subtle. The first rumblings we heard were a few black and white snapshots taken in a secluded London studio. Next, teases and glimpses began to emerge across her various platforms. However, it was only with the arrival of the stomping ‘Young Neanderthal’ that our hopes were confirmed. Teamed up with the likes of David Wrench (The XX and David Byrne) and Marta Salogni (Björk, Anna Meredith, Georgia Ruth), Hamilton provided some of her largest and most ambitious work yet. While the folk roots and alternative purrs are more present than ever, new arrangements that emphasise Hamilton’s bohemian growl and underrated guitar-manship bring the album to greater heights. Melding Indie rock, folk song writing and alternative compositions into a gracious cacophony that mirrors the album artwork was no easy task. But as with most releases, Hamilton nailed it.
8 ► Malojian – Humm
Stevie Scullion’s affinity for masterful collaboration (this time with Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle) bore him a triumph in songwriter folk-rock this year. Partly reminiscent in sound and spirit – but by no means derivative – of Elliott Smith, Humm is a bittersweet tonic. Its sonic palette of whirling instrumentation veers in and out of earshot beneath warm guitars, speaking of stillness in the face of uncertainty. From its start, the earth stops spinning: “Feel’s like everything’s unravelling slowly… Is it okay if I just sit here?”. Scullion’s songwriting pries at the core of what it is to feel, with a wistfulness that stirs as it soothes.
7 ► Joel Harkin – Never Happy
Joel Harkin’s live shows are infamous. The Donegal ambient-indie artist has spent the last handful of years curating folk-tale performances that oscillate seamlessly across the emotional spectrum, thanks to his anecdotal wit and penchant for melancholia (yes, the two go hand in hand). Imbued with this in every way is his debut album Never Happy. Harkin’s gorgeously personal approach weaves a tapestry so intimate it becomes universal. First-person love songs marry the longing created by distance, felt in both romantic and familial love (always prefaced live with a caution to not confuse to two); album artwork features the musician and his partner Deirdre; contemporaries and their stomping grounds are mentioned by name – images so distinctly placed they cannot help but feel like home. The record hearkens back to the banter and solemnity of live music in this city, so dearly missed, quite like no other.
6 ► Arvo Party – Love Above All
Arvo Party’s Love Above All set the tone for the North Coast artist’s 2020, with six further albums following this March release. On Love Above All, Herb Magee covers a lot of ground, simultaneously building out and honing in on what he wants his music to do. It forms here into often 80s inspired electronica that can quickly fade into ambient meditations or pulsate into bigger beats, all utterly absorbing. A twisting journey that brought out the ambient side he’d explore further on his Devotions trilogy. As Magee pushes his own musical boundaries, and attracts new listeners to his varied soundscapes and electronica, there’s a sense that no matter what, he continues to make music for himself first and foremost. Love Above All is all the better for it.
5 ► Our Krypton Son – Modern Ruins
There’s always been an aspect of the sublime within the delicate songwriting of Chris McConaghy, the true name of Derry songwriting outfit Our Krypton Son. Three years removed from the release of his debut, McConaghy’s incorporation of award-winning producer Ryan Vail lent a primal swell to his already elemental arrangements on ‘Modern Ruins’. Electroacoustic melds with folkish rambles, ambient and found sounds and pop arrangements as McConaghy took stock of the tradition of music and the landscape of his native home. A cinematic writer, McConaghy wields scope and melancholy like a mace, but has moments of sincerity that are liable to stop you in your tracks. Examples of both can be found in ‘The Boy With The Cauliflower Ear’, but those willing to submerge into the bowels of Modern Ruins will find themselves neck-deep in rewarding, meaningful songcraft.
4 ►Arborist – A Northern View
An accomplished first album can be a sign of great things to come or a wonderful but short-lived culmination of many years of craft. Arborist’s Mark McCambridge has long since dispelled any fears of the latter, and his second full length proves it. On the darkly gorgeous and compelling A Northern View, McCambridge’s quietly emotive voice shines, nestled in the informed folk textures and melodies he and his band build around his stories, here offering stirring views of the troubled but beautiful Northern Ireland, via the strains of Brexit. An album that rises and falls but never drifts, every song has generous pools of earnest emotion. Blessed with some of his strongest work to date, A Northern View is a timely and beautiful album.
3 ►Ciaran Lavery – Plz Stay, bb
Mr Lavery’s latest full-length endeavour has been covered extensively on Chordblossom – see the full review and interview here. It’s not often that an artist can successfully challenge a previous body of work so entirely. The superb nature of ‘Plz Stay, Bb’ is then a testament to the ferocity of Lavery’s intent. A far cry from the smoky acoustic blues and folk that Lavery built his base on, the new electronic, soul and alternative arrangements and compositions displayed a fierce new perspective on the art that Lavery wishes to be known by. Adventurous, brave, bold and unflinching, Lavery held himself to account as he manoeuvred through both a heartfelt introspection that bordered on voyeurism (Count To Ten, October) and earnest, stomping declarations of intent (Can I Begin Again, Be Alone). Stylistically and arguably musically his strongest release to date.
2 ►Junk Drawer – Ready For the House
Overused this year is the sentiment that certain records lend themselves well to our woefully glum collective circumstance. But in the case of Ready for the House, the cosmic alignment is almost funny. Landing on our doorsteps at a time when we couldn’t go beyond them, the instrument-shifting band’s debut dives through the despair of illness, disconnect, and depression, coming up with moments of something like hope. The hard hitter is the unshakeable sense of ennui, the fight to feel, contained so acutely in Stevie and Jake Lennox’s shared/split lyricism. Spiralling breakdowns mesh psych-rock and post-punk, and seem almost always on the brink – of collapse, of genius. The allure is in the record’s satisfying discordance, both sentimental and instrumental. Consumed in full, its seven tracks at 6 minutes apiece are an unravelling of brilliance.
1 ►Joshua Burnside – Into the Depths of Hell
With the release of his sophomore album, Joshua Burnside has asserted his claim of unique and bold songwriting talents in no uncertain terms. Into The Depths of Hell is built of many layers and typically eclectic and wide-reaching scope, ill content with sitting stationary. An almost singlehanded undertaking, Burnside has created an album of great depth, at times shrouded, complex and dark and other times, stunning and clear. He covers death and youth, personal loss and demons, mythology and truth. How Burnside manages to channel all these contrasts into such an affecting and unwavering piece of work is a question that shows the album’s strength and ultimately its appeal. Between the album’s shuddering, droning beginning and its fireside folk ending are numerous tracks that are amongst this year’s best, collectively striking a chord in a difficult and complicated year. Joshua Burnside has already won a Northern Irish Music Prize for his first album. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone to deny him a second.