The Choice Music Prize has announced its shortlist for the best album of 2020, and it features a host of great (and in some cases insanely underhyped) albums that came out during what’s unquestionably been one of the oddest years in recent music history.
If you’ll permit us to blow our own trumpets for a moment, six of the ten have featured in interviews in the Gazette in the past year or so.
It’ll be an unusual awards, of course, minus the live show, but nevertheless an important annual highlight of the Irish music scene.
Here’s a quick guide to the recently announced nominations; a tiny glimpse at who each one is, and why they might appeal:
Debut album ‘Staring at Clocks’ is a fuzzy, best-played-loud glance at a grunge-inspired, dingy but memorable rock band. Fronted by the abrasively brilliant Lizzie Fitzpatrick, this band are very much led by throbbing bass and pulsating, clashing undertones. Check out ‘Martyr’ for a real sense of their throbbing energy.
Chaila is arguably the stand-out Irish act of lockdown, in particular for her exceptionally memorable performance at the National Concert Hall, televised in those early days of corona in spring 2020. Formally her release ‘Go Bravely’ is only a mixtape, and not an album, but it’s unquestionably one of the best things the Irish urban music scene has ever produced. ‘Ri Ra’, her take on race in Ireland, is a clear stand out from the Limerick woman.
The Liberties’ pulsating, atmospheric and region-loving rockers went global with the debut album; their return ‘A Hero’s Death’ hasn’t garnered quite the same acclaim, but is broadly of a similar ilk, exploring society, and working class Dublin’s distinct charisma. It’s urgent and appetizing, with the title track leading the charge, but given A Hero’s Death is a clear second-best of their two albums, probably an unlikely winner.
Another debut album from the ever more-impressive Irish hip-hop scene, JYellowL’s ‘D|Vision’ has a clever blend of cutting social commentary laid over relatively sparkling and upbeat backing tracks. The result is a clever slow-burner of a record laden with lyrical emotion, deeply personal despite an obvious political backdrop to JYellowL’s music and his academic work at UCD. Think self exploration in a compelling form – ‘Tunnel Vision’ is a highlight.
Former Moloko vocalist and Irish icon Roisin Murphy has slipped under the radar a bit in recent years. Her return ‘Roisin Machine’ feels almost like a shrugging off of inhibitions as she delves into an unlikely world of vibrant disco. It’s a record that came together slowly and can feel bitty, but there are some absolute floor-filling bangers tucked away. See 70s-style anthem ‘Something More’, for example.
‘All The Leaves Are Falling’ is the culmination of former rocker turned hip-hop man Nealo’s early career in this guise, crammed with dissatisfaction, distinctly Irish references, and stabs at anything from healthcare provision to housing. Anthems of the disaffected turn personal here, too, and the album draws in plenty of collaborators along the way as its varied voice puts to words the feelings of the disillusioned in their 30s. Rap in a different style – see ‘You Stole My Soul Like a 9 to 5’
One of the absolute darlings of the Irish indie scene, Pillow Queens released debut ‘In Waiting’ last year, and it’s an album laden with emotion and crammed full of the perspectives of the frustrated yet self-assured navigay-ting a complex social environment. It’s a slightly muddled if assertive piece of leftfield pop, at times genius and at others quite surreal, and well worth anyone’s time. Check out ‘Brothers’ for a highlight.
At the risk of making it sound more cliched than it ever is, Ailbhe Reddy’s ‘Personal History’ is what it says on the tin: a musical exploration of a personal coming of age. Vocally distinct and unabashedly telling stories of the author’s experiences of anything from social media to travel, it’s a record that’s an ode to modern life written with charmingly engaging personality. Closer ‘Self Improvement’ is a good place to start.
Regan’s ‘Hemet’ is perhaps the outside pick of the ten albums to make this year’s Choice list, not because it’s anything less than compelling; it’s hype has simply been relatively modest. A more folk-led take on life in modern Ireland, it’s subtle, layered and carefully constructed, with a rawness occasionally coming through in more-indie rock style asides. A slow-building but effortlessly classy record, ‘Ode To Youth’ is a great glance.
From the same roughshod rock stable as heavily acclaimed scene mates Fontaines DC, Silverbacks ‘Fad’ pokes fun at itself in the album title, and maintains that knowing but powerful wink throughout its quick-fire highs and lows. Pulsating nods to punk and politics are the high points here, check out ‘Up The Nurses’ for a sense of it.
Our tips to win? Denise Chaila and Pillow Queens seem to have the critical momentum in a prize that tends to go to the act that most inspires it’s music-nerd judges.
The Choice Music Prize will be broadcast on RTÉ on March 4.
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