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 and we feel that our list is diverse and full of quality.
Without further ado, lets dive into our top 25 Northern Irish Songs of the Year 2021. If you missed the songs that made up 26 – 50, you can revisit them here.
Words by Aaron Cunningham, Addison Paterson, Ben Magee & Robert Brown.
25 ► Big Daisy – Without Dreams
Possibly my favourite new band to emerge in the last year, Big Daisy combine big pop drama with a lo-fi, bedroom grunge sound. Fearlessly themselves on this track, an uptick in production helps them reach a higher level. Fuzzy, hazy and a bright spot that eliminates some of the staleness.
24 ► Amerik ft Gareth Dunlop – Olive
Amerik (Adam Booth) decided lockdown was the ideal opportunity to collaborate with longtime friend Gareth Dunlop. The resulting product showcases both artists at the top of their game. Booth manages to compose a slick electronic soundscape, melding beautiful piano with textured and almost flitting synths that play to his strengths. You’d not typically expect Dunlop to feature on an electronic track but vocally his range and soulful vocals feel like a perfect fit.
23 ► Gemma Bradley – Better
A collaboration between NI champion Gemma Bradley, MOBO nominee David Lyttle and Dublin rapper Jamel Franklin, ‘Better’ is a smooth ride. The understated jazz and RnB rhythm is a perfect pairing for Bradley’s honeyed vocals.
22 ► Hannah Peel – Emergence In Nature
The highlight from her mercury nominated LP ‘Fir Wave’, Peel puts all her cards on the table. There’s chilling electroacoustic, contemporary classical composition, experimental created sounds and a gorgeous blend of trance-infused garage. Her best from her seminal LP.
21 ► ROE & Ciaran Lavery – Destroyer
The first of two co-writes between ROE and Ciaran Lavery, ‘Destroyer’ puts the former front and centre on a track about an unhealthy relationship. Each songwriter adds a little of themselves in a simmering track with a great chorus, one that’s a sonic departure for ROE.
20 ► Bicep – Sundial
Titans of NI’s electronic scene Bicep live up to their hype, this time with less big room, more ethereal composition ‘Sundial’. The swooping melodies on second album ‘Isles’ show the softer, more subdued side of their always-smart dance music. As much for the work from home playlist as it is for the Telegraph, the track’s versatility holds up for all occasions. Big flex.
19 ► Invaderband – I Won’t Remember You
For a song about not remembering, we haven’t been able to stop thinking about this one. Ultimately grounded in a punk aesthetic, Invaderband set themselves apart by cramming in plenty of pop sensibility. Sharp, snappy and ultimately laced in self reflection, ‘I Won’t Remember You’ will have you reaching for the repeat button. Two minutes just isn’t enough.
18 ► Dark Tropics – Helen’s Bay
It is unusual for an album closer to be the standout track but nothing is as you’d expect when it comes to Dark Tropics. Helen’s Bay offers up introspective electro pop that is wrought with anxiety. Slowburning and laced with uneasiness, the anxiety is not only clear from the lyrics (“The Fear Is In Loving You”) but also in the melancholic delivery, hammered home by Rio’s vocals.
17 ► Smallmint – Liv
Cameron-Braithwaithe seems to grab our attention, no matter what project he’s working on. Although his new band Smallmint have their roots in Americana, they still have all his usual hallmarks. Introspective lyrics, check. Catchy chorus, check. Emotive vocals, check. Sometimes the good things in life have been right in front of us the whole time.
16 ► Girl For Sale – Like Me Like That
Dreamy indie meets bedroom pop on this pandemic project. With guest vocalists and players that stretch the width of the country and influences that soar to California and back, the lo-fi haze on GFS is intoxicating and inviting. As impressive as debut’s got this year.
15 ► Niall McDowell – Tennessee
Crooning and cutting, Niall McDowell’s second single of 2021 may be his most essential yet. ‘Tennessee’ rolls along as McDowell sings a call out to a past lover “back home in Tennessee”. McDowell’s pairing of country and sad boy indie comes together beautifully.
14 ► Lauren Ann – Lucy
Grunge is nay dead yet, not if Lauren Ann has anything to say about it. Tight pop melodies and belie the sharp edges on this track, but work in tandem with the rough, garagey riff work. One of the better hooks of the year, dripping with slack malice and barely contained contempt for the song’s target.
13 ► HY:LY – Secrets
Emerging producer HY:LY is without a doubt one of the most intriguing names to have cut their teeth in 2021. The first and only of her releases ‘Secrets’ is a delightfully dark and dirty experimental dnb endeavour, topped off with live instrumentation and lingering vocals. The mystery around the project may have gone, but took none of the buzz with it. If 2021 was just the start, 2022 is sure to be big.
12 ► Joshua Burnside – Never Was, Never Were
Burnside’s demo bank ‘Higher Places’ follows suit from the prior year’s ‘Into The Depths of Hell’ with many a similar thread. Tucked in among stripped-back tracks, full-band number ‘Never Was Never Were’ canonises the city and its history. The uplifting hum of strings and trumpets offers a comforting backdrop to existential musings on car park burials, dead pets, life and the thereafter, and all of the unanswerableness in between.
11 ► Gilmore – Here
One of the most talented young producers we have, Gilmore reaches deep into the bag of influences and samples on this one. What could easily be a deep pull from a Mura Masa EP or a Denis Sulta crowd-pleaser, Gilmore wears his homegrown and international influences on his sleeve. A fearless mix of house, jazz, drum and bass and garage.
10 ► Travi the Native – LDSAC
A second year of great new music from the refreshed Travi the Native. A softer effort on first EP God Only Calls the House Phone, LDSAC stands for the song’s great reprise. There’s a grandness here without losing the song’s heartfelt sincerity. Highly emotive, both the lyrics and the sense of space leave Travi’s question hanging in the air.
9 ► Conchúr White – Dreamers
With the latter releases delivering on promises of the former, White lays the foundation of his space-age roots-rock church. Dreamers is a stomping, unapologetic, a declaration of intent from the former Silences frontman and one of his best tracks yet.
8 ► Sarah Toner – You’re Not Thinking Of Me
The year of lockdown break-ups has its anthem. Poised with songwriting as charming as her stage patter, Sarah Toner’s words are from the heart (and mostly heart-broken), heaped with an emotional maturity far beyond her career’s early years. ‘When you’re looking at her, are you thinking of me?’. Youch. On repeat.
7 ► Lemonade Shoelace – Autopilot Paradise
As starting out goes, artists don’t usually see the likes of Lemonade Shoelace’s come-up. With feats that include flattering the attention of Rolling Stone, Kerrang!, Clash, and winning Vans Most Wanted within the project’s first year, all was won from a solitary release: Autopilot Paradise. A synth-driven intro to the weird and wonderful psych world of producer Ruari Richman. Pretty mighty.
6 ► Cherym – Listening To My Head
Bristling with pop punk attitude Cherym grabbed 2021 by the scruff of the neck and demanded we pay attention. This was the pick of their release although it was difficult to chose. As we’ve come to expect this release was another ear worm delivered at pace, full of wit, sing-along chorus and those hamonies we’ve come to love. Even if you don’t know who Betty Broderick is, the song still left its mark.
5 ► New Pagans – Harbour
Harbour marks Lyndsey McDougall’s attempt to grasp the realities of her pregnancy and her forthcoming motherhood. While there is undoubtedly some tiredness and frustration, the gritty overtones are overpowered by her strength and hopeful conviction for the future. There is still plenty of edge musically but tonally it is a lighter moment from the intensity of their album.
4 ► uladh – The Only Thing I Fear
Joshua Burnside’s introspective and brilliant The Only Thing I Fear hardly needed a second wind, but less than a year on from his first release as uladh, Joel Harkin gave the song a reimagining that brings out new depths. The lyrics stripped away, a lo-fi beat infused and the result is a track with the clarity and calm of a brisk morning.
3 ► Saint Sister – The Place That I Work
The most sonically bare and soul-bearing on Saint Sister’s year defining album ‘Where I Should End’ sets a warm scene: the reunion of two friends in a bookstore in Dublin. With the lended vocals of Lisa Hannigan, three-way harmonies flesh out a gorgeous microcosm of universally yearned-for ‘what ifs’, and their welcomed coming to fruition.
2 ► Joshua Burnside & Laura Quirke – Far Away The Hills Are Green
Written and recorded with the combined talents, voices and hands of Joshua Burnside and Lemoncello’s Laura Quirke, ‘Far Away the Hills Are Green’ is both stirring and purposeful. Burnside’s quiet contemplation to a reprise that seems to float into the aether, it’s just beautiful songwriting.
1 ► Sorbet; Maija Sofia – I Heard His Scythe
A musing on death, rebirth and the absurdity of it all, producer SORBET masterfully crafts a swirling world of electronica, pop, neo-classical fantasia. Assisted by the vocals of Maija Sofia on the hook, this bittersweet acknowledgement of the reapers inevitability, set to a world-ending vista, is the highlight of the composer’s debut album.
We recommend you set aside some time and listen to our full list of fifty tracks that make up our Northern Irish Songs of the Year 2021 on our beautifully complied Spotify Playlist.