Our music editor Tadhg Williams takes a look at the nominees and the judges ahead of the announcement of the 2020 Irish Album of the Year tomorrow and predicts an outcome.
The Choice Prize Album of the Year Award is the most coveted prize in Irish music. With a €10,000 prize the award aims to promote and reward the best up and coming artists in the country with previous winners including SOAK, Villagers and Delorentos.
The system draws together eleven experts in the industry chaired by Jim Carroll, one of the founders of the prize. Judges were asked to provide a list of their top ten albums of 2020 by December and from that list, a shortlist was decided upon.
While there are no real surprises in the shortlist, some artists would feel hard done by not to be included. David Keenan’s A Beginner’s Guide to Bravery was a very surprising exclusion while Oliver Cole, Brigid Mae Power, Aoife Nessa Frances and Bleeding Heart Pigeons all deserve honourable mentions and must have just missed out.
The judges themselves come from a wide spectrum of the industry – recognisable names include Lauren Murphy who has written for the Irish Times, Tracy Clifford from RTÉ 2fm and Gemma Bradley from BBC Radio One Introducing, also an exceptional artist in her own right.
Other names on the list who are well respected within the industry include Ray Wingnut from Spin Southwest who has worked in a number of different roles within the industry over the years; Louise Tighe whose Irish music programme on FM104 has gained a massive following since she took up the role a couple of years ago; and Pamela Blake who has been a producer in Today FM for a number of years.
The other judges are Trishauna Archer from Beat 102-103, Pavel Barter from the Sunday Times, Lisa Connell from GCN, Derek O’Connor from RTÉ Culture and Claire Regan from LMFM and Virgin Media.
The shortlist is as follows:
Bitch Falcon – Staring at Clocks (Small Pond)
Bitch Falcon are a band that represent the soul of music. Staring at Clocks floats somewhere between post-punk and something a bit heavier than shoegaze with Fitzpatrick’s vocals to the fore, constantly weaving a melody line that could be reproduced in a number of other genres. The passion that Bitch Falcon bring to their live shows shine through in the record making this album one of the most honest releases of the year.
Denise Chaila – GO Bravely (Narolane)
There was a slight bit of confusion over the inclusion of GO Bravely because it has been defined as the artist as a mixtape rather than an album. However, it qualifies because it passes all the eligibility conditions outlined by the Choice Prize. In saying this, our grandchildren will be studying Denise Chaila’s lyrics for their Leaving Cert. Her flow and turn of phrase is masterful. These tracks expertly crafted, with her wit and humour carefully splattered across every verse.
Fontaines DC – A Hero’s Death (Partisan)
Fontaines’ sophomore album was viewed by many as their chance to show a more vulnerable side of their character and the challenge was accepted with gusto. Production wise, the guitars sounded the same, the drums equally as impressive as on Dogrel, however it was the songwriting that proved this album such a critical success. Songs like Oh Such a Spring exposed the Fontaine’s character while the Whipping Boy-esque guitars on tracks like I Don’t Belong made this album a much more reflective release.
JyellowL – 2020 D|vision (Self-release)
The much-anticipated release from JyellowL is a long listen coming in at an hour and two minutes but its length is understandable – JyellowL is a man with a lot to say. He’s fiery and fearless in his lyrics and that is what makes 2020 D|vision such an important record. It feels like a duty to listen to this album, a duty you should be more than happy to fulfil.
Róisín Murphy – Róisín Machine (Skint)
Róisín Murphy is the Queen of bops and Róisín Machine is no different. She explores and navigates the dancefloor through tracks full of genre-fused honesty, going from house to disco and back again. Stimulation is the standout track while Something More charges onto the dancefloor, each track mixing into the next boldly, but carefully. The album listens as a DJ mix – you could throw it on at a good bopping prinks (remember them?) and everyone would be perfectly satisfied.
Nealo – All the Leaves Are Falling (DFL)
All the Leaves Are Falling is perhaps a much more reflective lyrical work than you would expect from the ex-frontman of a metal band. His perspective of life is aided by his experience of it – his time in Vancouver, the birth of his son, his struggles with money. These are all thrown unapologetically into the record. A humble expression of frustration and hope, you can feel Nealo’s pride come through throughout.
Pillow Queens – In Waiting (Self-release)
Powerfully emotional, each track is a carefully considered, perfectly structured piece of work. Choral effects at the end of Holy Show will give you a lump in your throat before you even reach the second track. There is strength in every lyric with Handsome Wife and Gay Girls acting as anthems of queer power while HowDoILook is an ode to sexual vulnerability. Every second of the album from start to finish is an offering that confirm Pillow Queens as one of the best bands in the world right now.
Ailbhe Reddy – Personal History (Street Mission)
Personal History is exactly what it says on the tin subject-wise, but Reddy’s wit and good-humour shines through in the record’s production. It is mixed with quiet intimacies and jangly guitar indie-pop bops – the bear hug we needed in these times. The album has received incredible praise throughout the year and amongst all the other positive aspects of the album, Reddy’s vocals have been overshadowed. Her tone is full of magic vulnerability, bringing every lyric alive.
Niamh Regan – Hemet (Black Gate)
A dignified love story reflecting on past and present relationships, Hemet is an album to fall utterly in love with. The delicacy of her voice painting every lyric with overwhelming emotion and quiet power. The production of the album is a departure from Regan’s previous traditional folk arrangements, featuring synths, brass and strings. While the production is like a fleece around the songs, you know as a listener they would sound just as magic stripped bare, such is the power of Niamh Regan’s voice.
Silverbacks – Fad (Central Tones)
Throw everything you think you knew about punk out the window and listen to Silverbacks. Beautifully giving the middle finger to over exaggerated reverb and distortion, Messiah-complex preachiness and 57-piece drum kits, Fad is the punk version of punk. The Dublin five-piece rely on tidy, jazz-like drumming, the cleanest electric guitar effects and the tightest bass riffs to sing about “politicians in denim” and how “the DJ won’t play The Boys Are Back in Town”. Silverback’s debut suggests a whole lifetime of ridiculously exciting tunes to come.
It has to be mentioned that of the ten albums on the shortlist, eight of them are debuts. And that’s only a snippet of the best up and coming acts that Ireland has to offer. It’s very promising to see artists releasing such quality material from the get-go.
Looking at that shortlist there are of course some major contenders – Pillow Queens’ In Waiting is one of the most discussed albums of the year while Nealo’s All The Leaves Are Falling was the College Tribune’s Irish Album of the Year. Niamh Regan’s album is adored by those who have listened to it while Ailbhe Reddy’s release is also going to be strongly considered.
Looking at the judges, there is a strong mix of those who favour rap and hip-hop versus those who might be a bit more indie. I reckon it will come down to Pillow Queens and Denise Chaila. Ultimately, the Album of the Year should be one you take down off the shelf in thirty years’ time and say “this album is magic”. One that defines a time period both musically and socially and one that stands the test of time.
Both of these albums do that: GO Bravely gives us a vital insight into the life and experience of a black woman in Ireland, released in the year that Ireland’s racism issue was called out and that conversation finally started to happen. Equally, In Waiting is an album that celebrates the vulnerabilities of life and gives power to the LGBTQI+ community. It’s a breakthrough in Irish social history, that this is a record highly acclaimed and celebrated.
I think Pillow Queens will edge it. I think it will be recognised that Denise Chaila defines GO Bravely as a mixtape and that, more so than anything else, only proves she has something much bigger and bolder in the bag for a conceptual work. In Waiting is as fierce as it is beautiful and as powerful as it is raw.
The winner of the 2020 Choice Album of the Year Award, as well as the 2020 Choice Song of the Year Award will be announced via a special edition of the Tracy Clifford Show which can be viewed live on the RTÉ Player here.