As 2021 draws to a close and we reflect on another year filled with far more lows than highs for the creative industries, it is safe to say that our musicians didn’t let us down. It is clear our musicians used the various periods of lockdown and restrictions to focus on their recorded output and the quality of output was as high as ever.
Compiling these lists is always a challenging and frustrating process as there are so many to choose from & some gems inevitably fall through the cracks. That said, it’s a nice problem to have.
In our busy lives it can be hard to find time to enjoy a full listen through without interruption. We believe the twenty albums that make up our 2021 list, warrant a dedicated listen without any distractions. Pencil in some time over the Christmas and New Year break and enjoy our Top Ten Northern Irish Albums of the Year 2021.
You can catch up on more of favourite releases with. our Albums of the Year 2021 20-11.
Words by Aaron Cunningham, Addison Paterson Ben Magee & Robert Brown.
10 ►FRMR – Amelanchier
An album that hangs heavy with tales of Andrew Farmer’s great grandfather. A beautiful record from start to finish that softly treads through acoustics, poetry and often subtle instrumentation that all reflect the rural influence round Amelanchier, touches of the electronic come and go but fall in with the organic sound, carefully woven into the sonic textiles. Few Irish records can lay claim to the kind of fully realised vision that FRMR has laid upon his debut album.
9 ► Dark Tropics – Ink
Originally discovered and mentored by the late Lyndon Stephens, Rio and Gerard’s individual talents shine through to produce an album of dream pop that is both stylish and deep. The fact that many of the tracks wouldn’t feel out of place on a film or TV score speaks to their ability to craft atmospheric and emotional music. There is a range of emotions on display from anxiety & melancholy right through to some hopeful optimism and means there is always something suitable for whatever mood you find yourself in. On Ink, Dark Tropics deliver on that early promise with a confident debut.
8 ► This Ship Argo – Always The Bees: Never The Honey
A meditative work of uplifting, downtempo electronica ‘Always the Bees: Never the Honey’ takes you through the motions. On her second full length release, Aileen McKenna’s dichotomous toolkit comprises of part-natural, part-manipulated soundscapes that illuminate a whole worldview. Sampling the buzz of its namesake, birdsong, and almost-religious choral vocal samples, the album’s completeness is in its discordance, creating all-encompassing onomatopoeic capsule carried through McKenna’s jarring arpeggiation and soothing single-note organ hums.
7 ► Comrade Hat – Old Gods, Vol. 1
It’s rare that I can’t quantify a release, but Comrade Hat left me stumped this year. With Old Gods, Vol 1. there’s an almost constant meander to tracks. One verse might laze in melancholic psychedelia, whilst the next drifts upwards on a bed of spacey distorted acoustics. The first three tracks could be taken from Villagers, Gorillaz or Last Shadow Puppets discography – and not necessarily in that order. Such is the songwriting at play in this stellar album, a release that keeps listeners on constant tiptoes. Loose production allows each track and influence to breathe and shine, a brave move but one that has us richly rewarded. Never what you expect, but always what you deserve.
6 ► Hannah Peel – Fir Wave
Hugely talented artist and composer Hannah Peel takes a little of the legendary Delia Derbyshire and crafts a Mercury Prize nominated album that is engaging and, to borrow from the track listing, evocative. From the stuttering static and choral voices of the opener to the pulsating beats of the album’s end, Hannah Peel’s Fir Wave is a journey that ebbs and flows, distilling the rhythms and inspiration of the natural world into a complete record.
5 ► Dani Larkin – Notes For A Maiden Warrior
Whereas some artists blunder blindly into trends, Larkin fearlessly sticks to her guns. With roots in outlaw country, Irish traditional and folk singer-songwriters, Larkin’s debut is an ode to the forgotten and the ferocious. A natural storyteller that continues the bardic tradition of Irish folk, songs of battles, blood-thirst, mother and daughterhood, forlorn romance line the gnarled and dark hedgerows of Notes On A Maiden Warrior. Effortlessly veering between expansive coldness, dark intensity and anxious joy, at all times guided by a powerful vocal performance, Larkin is scratching at the surface of something huge.
4 ► Bicep – Isles
Belfast’s real giants’ debut self-titled LP was set up by the pair to be a tough, industrial act to follow. Almost as though made to fit the clublessness of the year it was released in, follow-up Isles is made of a sophisticated, intelligent melodic machinery that boasts as many references to its plethora of musical influences as it does danceable bleeps and beats. Euphoric trance takes precedence over the grittier techno sound often married on the duo’s previous release, but having now heard it muscled into a big room live set, it thinks and moves just as hard and fast.
3 ► New Pagans – The Seed, The Vessel, The Roots And All
New Pagans take us on a whirlwind of a journey on their debut album. Gritty, intense, unflinching and ultimately human, it is a record that gets its hooks in early and refuses to let go. Thematically it doesn’t disappoint as they explore societal injustice, religion, motherhood and accountability. Lyndsey McDougall’s insights are unflinching and pull no punches while her exemplary band mates give her words the amplification they need by delivering a sound filled with urgency, intensity and agitation. A tour de force if there ever was.
2 ► Sorbet – This Was Paradise
One word: Breath-taking. Some more words: The debut album from producer Chris Ryan is a stunning journey through the abstract, absurd and formless. Pulling from the natural and created world, Ryan weaves stories and landscapes that map the journey from Elysium fields to Tartarus. Through the LP, we examine disasters, rebirth, inevitability, endless cycles and the apocalypse. Told via a medium of buzzing, warped bass, bright neo-classical composition, hazy electronica and alternative pop, there weren’t many better, nor more idiosyncratic releases this year.
1 ►Saint Sister – Where I Should End
Saint Sister’s clinching of the top spot is so incontrovertible it seems almost moot to put words toward. Where I Should End recounts and collects moments – the harrowing, the huge, the subtle – into something glorious. From drunken craic-filled, blue-tinged nights out to platonic and romantic love lost and regained, the pair sway from melodic electronic production to pared-back trad ballads, balanced always on pure and measured harmonies. Coming to us at a time when we perhaps couldn’t live these out ourselves, Morgana and Gemma’s voicings resound. Talk of Nordy accents and nods to home are reflective, warm and welcomed. It’ll live with us a good, long while.
If you missed our first part which contained albums 20 through to 11, you can revisit it here: Northern Irish Albums Of The Year 2021: 20 – 11
Northern Irish Songs Of The Year 2021
Did you miss our fifty favourite singles from Northern Artist artists in 2021? If you did you should redeem yourself by revisiting a year of quality releases.